What’s New? is an email roundtable that draws together persons of diverse backgrounds to discuss the issues shaping jazz and constituent experimental musics in the early 21st Century.
The panelists for this roundtable include:
Russ Gershon is a saxophonist and composer. He is both the founder of Either/Orchestra and of Accurate Records, E/O's primary label. E/O first recorded Ethiopian music for its 2000 Accurate CD, More Beautiful Than Death. The E/O's 2004 trip to Addis is documented on Ethiopiques Volume 20 Live in Addis (Buda Musique) and its 2006 E/O performance at the Banlieues Bleues Festival with singers Mahmoud Ahmed and Tsédénia Gébré-Marqos is available on the Buda Musique DVD, Ethiogroove (the DVD is discussed in this issue's Page One). For more information about Russ Gershon and Either/Orchestra, consult: http://either-orchestra.org. (Photo by Phil Stiles)
Jason Kao Hwang is a composer, violinist and educator, whose works span compositions for jazz quartet and chamber opera. From 1990 until 2004, Hwang led The Far East Side Band, a pioneering quartet with Joe Daley, Sang-Won Park and Yukio Tsuji. Hwang currently leads Edge, a quartet with trumpeter Taylor Ho Bynum, bassist Ken Filiano and percussionist Andrew Drury (their eponymous debut CD on AsianImprov was reviewed in Issue 6). His most recent recording is Local Lingo (Euonyus), an album of duets with Park. For more information about Jason Kao Hwang, visit: www.jasonkaohwang.com.
JD Parran is a multi-instrumentalist and composer. A member of the St. Louis-based Black Artists Group while studying for his Masters in Music Education from Washington University, Parran has appeared on more than 50 recordings over the last three decades, including collaborations with The Band, Anthony Braxton, Don Byron, Anthony Davis, Julius Hemphill, New Winds, Yoko Ono, Alan Silva and Stevie Wonder. His latest releases as a leader, JD Parran & Spirit Stage featuring the poetry of Shirley LeFlore and Omegathorp: Living City (co-led with Mark Deutsch) are both available on Y'All Recordings. Parran is also a veteran educator who lectures at City University of New York (CUNY) and teaches clarinet and saxophone at Harlem School for the Arts.
Bill Shoemaker: What are the motivations and practices of the musicians you have worked with from other cultures that make their music “non-Western?”
JD Parran: The question of “western” or not has caused me to grapple with a few issues about my musical influences. I do search for more understanding as a performer and teacher while our culture and concerns become more and more global.
On September 29 I participated in Technodiaspora: An Internet Master Class and Teleperformance hosted by George E. Lewis utilizing video and audio streaming via the MARCEL telecollaboration network. I performed in a trio with Warren Smith led by Douglas Ewart at Harlem School of the Arts, New York City in virtual reality with a trio of South African musicians in South Africa. We could see and hear each other as we performed together for a live audience at HSA.
Only after the live sound from South Africa was in the room for a few minutes during shuffling of positions, musical instruments and technical gear did I “listen up” to realize that “Hey, you folks are here playing with us and we sound like you.”
Some of their instruments were intrinsically African: several varieties of the Zulu berimbau, handmade wooden flutes and percussion but what sounded so very African was the vocal delivery. Here sometimes accompanied by the South African guitarist there they perform African vocal renditions with or without western chords. The chords are few without key modulation.
The western ideal sound is pure tone without constrictions or add-ons. Non-western instruments tend to opt for sympathetic vibrations (sitar) or multiple sound generators (balaphone, djembe). Some styles of Chinese and African singing include throat sounds as part of the voice, techniques that refer to functional traditions hundreds or thousands of years old. Also non-western cultures developed music much less involved with progressive chordal harmony, intricate textural polyphony and complex orchestration than in European folk and classical practice.
This vocal delivery carried the unmistakable mark that I experienced as the opening hymn in Baptist Church services as a child in St. Louis. The style or rendition of “Old Dr. Watts” hymns placed me and my congregation inside the slave experience and transported us to a spiritual place. Intensely functional, this is the direct legacy of African musical practice adapted, under duress, here in America.
The deacon with the gravelly voice would send out the “call” and the congregation responded. We had now entered the safety net of the ancestors. The minister would then take the pulpit and service proper would start, including music in the gospel and spiritual musical styles commonly associated with black Christian music.
I have experienced plurality in musical experience all my life and although I can’t accurately speak for them I believe musicians from other cultures do too.
Life in the west tends to be separated into components: work vs. play, church vs. school vs. workplace, my room vs. your room etc. Music in the west is functional but still separate to the extent that a choice to have it or not is on the table.
This is clear particularly in comparison to West African culture where dance, music and visual arts are integral to acts of everyday living as well as the ceremonial acts.
I gave a call to the son of this Afro-cantor and sadly but predictably this element, a non-western fragment has disappeared from the church service. His father is deceased along with the other men who were capable of leading it. There are purists who perform ancient arts locally or internationally. Others pursue preservation of arts that may disappear. But it seems more fruitful right now to talk in terms of shared materials and practices.
Jazz music has juxtaposed western and non-western elements from its beginnings to the now as a diasporan manifestation of survival and an improvisation on opportunity. We continue to reach as we recreate. Freely improvised, no time, no tonic, at least as a starting point, has acquired an annual NYC festival to accommodate that “Vision”. Individuality of voice and the possession of ones own signature music is the mark of artistry in any culture, specific or non.
Russ Gershon: There are the obvious things: different sense of pitch, rhythm and harmony; different instruments different repertoire (both in the music they play and in the music they know), different (spoken) language, different terminology for musical devices, different procedures for learning music, i.e., non-literate (although that describes many Western musicians I've worked with too).
There are more subtle, cultural things, such as degrees of punctuality (both in the negative sense of showing up "late" and in the positive sense of working on music until it's "right," even if this runs longer than scheduled); degrees of expressiveness in rehearsal conversation (people from some cultures are less inclined to directly disagree or state dissatisfaction than others; this also goes for individuals regardless of cultural background).
There are philosophical/social notions at play, such as whether a musician is an artist, an entertainer, a functionary. Of course, even within the West all of these roles can be part of a musician's program – I am all of these things in varying degrees, depending on the nature of the gig. I personally enjoy the shifting proportions, as each hat brings out a different part of the art and the craft of music for me. In non-Western cultures I've worked with (I'm thinking primarily of Ethiopian and Latino cultures), the role of artist seems less emphasized, sought after and treasured by musicians. There is more of a feeling of the musician as social functionary and entertainer. Of course, most cultures outside of the West emphasize social connectedness among people to greater degree than we do here. Our individualistic, wealthy society pushes people away from each other in many ways, and venerates the triumph of the person who can generate wealth and accumulate power. Musicians and artists feel the pull of this, even ones who profess to criticize the status quo and do art for arts sake. This is the sea we swim in, and the game we have to play to try to make a living. I don't want to romanticize poorer, less materialistic societies, because there is ego and power everywhere. However, in non-Western societies a greater proportion of people don't even have enough access to buy into the myth of making it big and becoming materially isolated from their surroundings, so their energy focuses more on social interactions. This necessarily affects the role of the musician, his philosophical stance.
I would also like to emphasize the degree to which I have found common ground with non-Western musicians, once again, primarily Ethiopian and Latino.
Although I have had some formal education in European classical music (violin and piano lessons, masters degree in composition at the advanced age of 44) and jazz/modern music (Berklee), I came into playing jazz and other American music forms (rock, blues, soul, funk) in a practical way. I listened to a ton of music and then I picked up a saxophone and starting blowing into one end until sound came out. Then I started jamming with friends as we tried to imitate the music we liked (fortunately, they were a lot more advanced than me!), which was Ornette Coleman, Sam Rivers, John Coltrane. Later I took some lessons and began working on technique, and also began playing blues, rock and so on – more basic forms where technique is perhaps less important than expression. The rock bands I played in were essentially non-literate.
So, my music education was kind of folk-style, with the formal and theoretical stuff coming later. I have no problem relating to musicians who learn by ear, who have no theory as a separate body of knowledge from practice, who need endless repetitions to remember things because they can't rely on paper.
In addition, my years of playing American styles have equipped me for playing African music for the obvious historical reason that so much of American music is descended from African music. The rhythms of jazz, funk and Afro-Cuban music are all found in African music, and vice versa. The notion of non-tempered pitch is all over the blues and other African-American originated singing styles, which are the basis for jazz melodicism It's all part of the same big story. (I daresay that non-tempered pitch is found in European folk singing too, which has also had a huge influence on American music and therefore the "training" of the American musician.) This is not to downplay the regional differences between African and American music (or within these continents); there is a dazzling and fantastic variety of musics with very particular defining characteristics. To participate in any particular tradition requires learning what these particularities are, and equally important, to learn what is the social and cultural context of the music.
Jason Kao Hwang: When I work with musicians from “other” countries, speaking “other” languages, trained in “other” traditions, playing “other” instruments, I strive to feel no difference. Jazz has trained me to find a space where no dichotomies exist, only sound. I feel their music, our music, makes complete sense. In fact, their music is a gift, awakening my own like qualities, which to various degrees, had been dormant. We “speak” in different dialects of the same human experience. We affect each other, our vibrations creolized. We are our instruments. As with new friends, our dialogue grows through continued interaction.
Shoemaker: Who has had the steeper learning curve in your experiences of cross-cultural exchanges, the Americans or the other musicians?
Hwang: The learning curves were different but equal.
Gershon: It is difficult for me to make this comparison for many reasons, and here are a few:
–I have worked with many more Americans than other musicians, so I have very different sample group sizes.
–Within the group of Americans, I have worked with musicians who learn at lightning speed and others for whom almost no amount of repetition is enough – they'll still be unable to play the same things they couldn't play before rehearsing. They are caught between their desire to stretch and learn, and their training, experience and ability.
–As a composer/music organizer/bandleader, part of my job is to put players in a position to sound good, so I make different demands on different individuals. I would never put "Giant Steps" chord changes in front of a traditional musician from Ethiopia (or any chord changes on a piece of paper) because his training and experience have not prepared him for these. And this musician might handle music in his own culture of equivalent difficulty without any problem. There are some kinds of challenges that I have not attempted because we are always working toward preparing a strong presentation, rather that engaging in a purely educational process.
–Related to the previous reasoning, I tend to challenge the Americans (i.e., "my" musicians) more specifically, because I know them well, understand their capabilities, and because the "jazz" aesthetic (as I interpret it, anyway), involves being open to dealing with playing under any conceivable set of parameters. Also, in Western "professional" music culture there is a premium on being able to learn almost instantly, if not always with incredible depth.
–On the other hand, some of the non-Western musicians I've worked with have such extraordinary ears and hands, and are so unencumbered by theoretical constructs, that their music instincts get them to a high level in any sound situation very quickly. Some of this surety comes from how connected they are to a specific musical tradition. They have such a strong basis for approaching music that they can apply it easily, rather than feeling around for an approach, as Western musicians may have to do in our culture of multiple perspectives. I have been wonderfully surprised on many occasions when non-Western musicians are put into a freer context and thrived. (Some of this returns to putting players in setting where their instincts will serve them well.)
This situation reminds me that most of the best "free" players are those who have worked their way through one or more very rigid traditions: it gives them vocabulary, a powerful understanding of ways in which music can be structured and the ability to handle their instruments. The trick is to both utilize one's training and the discipline developed within particular forms and yet remain open to new possibilities. The best jazz players have this, and I'm finding that some (certainly not all) of the best non-Western players have it too. For some non-Western musicians, their music is so enmeshed in a broader social context that they don't have the desire, the resources nor the feeling of empowerment to alter it or mix it with other forms. (This can be said of many "purists" within American music, too.)
So, the answer to you question is: the jazz/professional/music education aesthetic generally prepares people better for fast learning, but the abilities and desires of talented individuals transcend all generalities.