A European Proposal

a column by
Francesco Martinelli

Julius Hemphill
Julius Hemphill, d.c. space 1978  Michael Wilderman©2007

“I have noticed,” said Mr. K., “that we put many people off our teaching because we have an answer to everything. Could we not, in the interests of propaganda, draw up a list of questions that appear to us completely unsolved?”
– Bertolt Brecht; Stories of Mr. Keuner

While discussing my History of Jazz course with PoD publisher Bill Shoemaker after his Siena Jazz visit I mentioned that in my experience we rarely can go beyond the first course. In other words, we manage to give an introduction to the history of the music in the form of a linear narrative, but cannot discuss more complex or detailed issues that imply a shared knowledge of the basic points; these underlying issues are in my opinion and experience the motives that brought so many musicians from all over the world to jazz, transforming it in the sort of global forum for personal expression that it is today. In fact, a narrative of jazz history is now needed more than ever. The technologies of mass distribution of recordings seem to have a geometrically reducing life span: the LP era was shorter than the 78 era (contrary to a common perception of us baby boomers) and the demise of the CD is happening so quickly that it will be barely remembered soon. Nowadays most of the kids coming to my University or to Siena lessons do not associate recorded music with a physical object, but with a file – mp3 by default; many do not even know other formats – that can reside in any digital storage device.

This is having a devastating impact on the quality of information for each “song” they download: the title is often wrong; performer identification is minimal; contextual information is muddled or absent. Getting an historical perspective is difficult enough without these obstacles: at least previous generations had at least a window into the history of jazz through a vast jazz literature and the information contained on the record or CD itself -- liner notes, graphics, and images that not only convey basic historical information but a contemporary sense of style. This window opened with Delaunay's Hot Jazz Discography, and many dedicated scholars and critics have kept it open. There was also a social center in record shops where one could meet similarly minded music lovers and get information and help from knowledgeable clerks. Music that hasn't been reissued in digital formats – and there's a lot of that – has all but disappeared; CDs go out of print in a ridiculously short time either as a marketing ploy or for lack of resources. This has resulted in an amazing quantity of music published in the last 20 years being for all intents and purposes impossible to find (the pun on the Bill Dixon work is intended).

So we're left with a generation of listeners who has a much reduced awareness of what are termed the “classics” of jazz. Anything before Kind of Blue is located in the haze of old times as far as recordings are concerned; that many of these kids actually know Ellington or Monk pieces from studying them on a score is a mixed blessing, if listening for the first time to an actual recording of “Take the A Train” and “Straight, No Chaser” leaves them speechless. Most likely, they haven’t a clue about “Black Bottom Stomp” or “Weatherbird;” they may have dutifully downloaded “West End Blues” or “Saeta” but haven't devoted the time or concentration to listen to them – as opposed to having them play in a jumble of other things on tinny computer loudspeakers while they browse, chat, play and text. I recently listened to a number of classic albums like The Clown and Blue Train in the most commonly available form – mind you, with “good quality” mp3 encoding and ear buds – and was appalled by the flat, screechy, congested sound of those loved voices. No wonder that my demonstrations in class with 78 records and a crank-up HMV portable have such success – Bechet, Bigard and Dodds are much more lifelike!

Students need a chance to perceive how new, fresh, exciting and inspiring this music was when it was first created; my Italian and Turkish students – and perhaps Americans – also need a crash course in history of slave trade, civil rights and the historical significance of jazz in the African-American experience. Names, dates, places need to be at least mentioned, and I found that a work of fiction like Invisible Man is just as useful as a jazz history primer as a text like John Szwed’s stimulating, short and sweet Jazz 101, my favorite of that genre.

So there's precious little time left in the courses to discuss post-1970 jazz; open issues of current research have to be kept in the background, giving the dreaded impression that the subject is cut and dried; and there's an accepted, conventional wisdom ready to absorb and regurgitate it on demand, instead of considering these topics to be a fascinating open territory for exploration, or at least for curiosity – that's the reason of the Brecht quote. I try to counter this impression in my current courses by discussing musicians that even students who have graduated from jazz programs, believe or not, have never heard – like Herbie Nichols and Jimmy Giuffre – but I have to stick to the general plan, in order to cover the syllabus.

What would I do if I could finally do a second course for advanced students, Jazz 201 as it were? I would not do more of the same, just going over the same areas but with more details. Nor do I think that a more in-depth analysis of musicians forcibly overlooked in Jazz 101 – Adrian Rollini or Makanda Ken McIntyre – would be necessarily be a good thing if limitations in time do not allow me to even complete a narrative about the music.

To structure this course, I automatically think along the number of twelve lectures, the usual usually allotment for such a program: what I sketch here is not a list of all the desirable subjects but an outline suggested by practical considerations, including the need to emphasize stylistic variety to overcome what I call the listening idleness of the younger people, who are often very conservative in their tastes by virtue of their inability to perceive what is happening in a piece of music when it is devoid of a very clear groove and is based instead on subtle variations in, say, timbre.

I would discuss many areas of jazz development that I have to leave out of a Jazz 101 chronology, which is admittedly heavy on early jazz exactly because students usually do not have anything close to a proper perception of its importance and impact. My courses usually end with a discussion of the 70's including the emergence of the first World Jazz band – Weather Report – and Don Cherry's post-Ornette experiments in blending music from various cultures to suggest parallel developments. Weather Report is a major starting point to discuss jazz history in both Europe (its continent-wide impact during the 20s and 30s, its suppression by the Axis and its utility as propaganda during the Cold War) as well as Brazil (from Pixinguinha and the choro, all the way to Bossa and Hermeto). Specific tracks by Zawinul – like “The Moors” – will lead to discussing the Near Eastern influence, and the ongoing fascination in jazz with the music of Islamic cultures. Don Cherry also provides a neat connection here with his trio with Okay Temiz and John Dyani.

Dyani also provides a connection to discussing the impact of South African and West Indian musicians on European jazz communities, particularly London’s, beginning in the 1960s, and how that is part of a profound, largely unnoticed tradition that begins with the archetypal European jazz musician – Django Reinhardt. Reinhardt, after all, had a Gypsy heritage, which seeped into the music that remains a standard for European identity. Another musician who achieved something similar was saxophonist Joe Harriott, a Jamaican of African descent. His stature in British jazz history is intriguing, as he provides a potent counter to the hegemonic American avant-garde narrative personified by Ornette Coleman. Still, both Reinhardt and Harriott exemplify European jazz in profound ways. All of this would make for a provocative lecture.

The theme of mixing cultures and genres could also organize discussions of various musical movements from around the world. It is certainly germane to a discussion of early European free improvisers, with their complicated relationship with jazz, their early encounters with their American counterparts at events like the Baden-Baden Free Jazz Meeting, and the politics of their respective national scenes. There are many comparisons that can be made with the introduction of jazz into the Caribbean and Latin America, where improvisation was already being practiced. This would a discussion that would ask questions like: How much jazz is there in Cuban Descarga? Jazz in Japan is another area that deserves discussion; not only are there are innovative musicians working in every sub-genre, but the Japanese also place great value on connoisseurship, which is relevant to understanding jazz aesthetics.

Hopefully, the time spent on the global scale of jazz developments since 1960 will leave adequate time to discuss American music in detail. Some of the most important developments had roots in communities, and not just through organizations like the AACM in Chcago, the BAG in St. Louis, and UGMAA in Los Angeles, but also what is loosely called the Downtown scene once associated with the Knitting Factory and now more widely identified with the Vision Festival. There would also be an examination of how the search for and the glorification of the “young lions” in the ‘80s obscured the work of great composers and improvisers like John Carter, Julius Hemphill, Horace Tapscorr and Randy Weston.

There are many themes I would extrapolate from my chronological presentations, issues that vitalize the whole history of the music: the age-old problem of how to structure improvisation in solo, small group, and large ensemble contexts; the often overlooked gender issue; the processes of self-determination by musicians in the areas of concert promotion and record production, with the different paths actually followed by musicians' organizations in USA and European countries, and the current situation with an overview of their artistic results; the interesting differences in hierarchy among the instruments between jazz and western classical music; the histories of polemics about different eras and areas of jazz; the use of various tuning systems and untempered pitches in jazz; attitudes about virtuosity; the use of prerecorded and synthetic sounds; and how the availability of cheap computing power and digital storage changes our perception of jazz.

In an ideal situation – meaning, with enough time for each lecture and being sure of the awareness by the students of a bigger chronological picture – I'd be able to tie each one of the discussions about these general issues with a specific track, musician, period or geographical determination.

Now that I have written this, it will be somehow harder to begin my Jazz 101s again, even though I know very well the emotion I will feel finding the story, the record or the musician that will finally flip the light switch of each particular student, being as surprised as they are by that moment of mutual recognition or enlightenment that comes unexpectedly, transforming what is after all just another boring day in class into a life-changing experience, pieces of a puzzle falling in place. Then any preconceived rational concepts of “history of jazz” crumble into that feeling of urgent, personal relevance that brought so many of us to this music to begin with. There's no greater satisfaction in this job.

Francesco Martinelli©2007

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