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The PoD Roundtable
moderated by Bill Shoemaker

(continued)

Shoemaker: Influence is a double-edged sword in jazz. On the one hand, composers are compelled to demonstrate expert knowledge of jazz compositional traditions. On the other hand, the threshold a composer has to clear to establish the integrity of his or her own voice is increasingly high. How do you accommodate these priorities that seem at odds with each other?

Collier: I’m not sure that jazz composers are ‘compelled to demonstrate expert knowledge of jazz compositional traditions’. There’s little sign of it in some pieces I hear! And what are these traditions? The blues, AABA song form, call and response, four part voicing techniques and so on? Possibly useful, but they are traditions and I would change ‘compelled to demonstrate’ to ‘they ought to know them, but not necessarily use them’.

I have always said that it’s the composer‘s voice that is important whatever the medium he chooses (or is chosen for him) to express it in. My norm is working with groups, preferably large, of improvising musicians, but where possible I avoid a traditional big band set up, and certainly avoid the clichés of the normal big band writing. My own groups use a mixed brass and reed seating arrangement, and where possible I do the same with a conventional big band. I use techniques that allow the musicians to create the backgrounds, or phrase a melody or melodic fragment in their own way. This has perplexed – even annoyed – some critics who seeing the size of the group expect a conventional big band sound. In some ways I would think that Duke Ellington may have had the same problem!

(And speaking of Ellington I’m afraid I can’t confirm – or deny – whether, as Kevin asks, it was Ellington who said, “I keep re-writing the same piece”? It doesn’t seem like him, and it’s not something I would subscribe to myself.)

With other genres I have worked in – the saxophone quartet and the orchestra for example – I avoid the clichés and write my kind of music. It’s usually easier to read than the musicians are used to, and may require some movement outside the musicians’ comfort zones. But the results have always proved to be interesting to play and appreciated by audiences. And, in a delicious phrase the late Charles Fox used about an early piece of mine, ‘they still have the owner’s name on the collar’.

The ‘threshold a composer has to clear to establish the integrity of his or her own voice’ may be increasingly high, but that’s the game we are in, and if I can use one phrase to sum up what’s wrong with the bulk of today’s jazz scene it’s the lack of serious intent (which shouldn’t prevent lightness in the music!). Here are two quotes I use to head a chapter in my jazz composer book called Deepening the Game. The first is from painter Francis Bacon, the second from author and critic William Gass:
‘What is fascinating now is that it’s going to be much more difficult for the artist, because he must really deepen the game to be any good at all.’

‘The stuff I’m complaining about is cheap. It’s not doing anything . . . When I read the first page of [Walter Abish’s novel] How German Is ItI said: Wait a minute, this is doing something. Here’s a house that is lived in!’

Interestingly, I was working on a new blog piece this morning (my blogs tend to be mini-essays!) where I discussed how several Italian jazz composers I have been exposed to are using a wide range of what might be called different ingredients in their music: spoken word, classically trained voices, Gregorian chants etc etc. The end result may not be jazz as some know it, but it’s a sign that jazz can be part of a different kind of composed music. And Gil Evans’ “Saeta” came to mind. More jazz than the Italian examples, but showing an outside influence that overrides any of the compositional traditions of jazz. These thoughts are a work in progress, but the next blog on jazzcontinuum.com will start to explore them.

Baum: I have a few answers for that question. For one thing, when I first started to compose, I would generally write within the confines of the obvious jazz forms whether it be Blues, 32-bar AABA, 4/4 swing feel, waltz, etc. using symmetrical 2, 4 or 8 bar phrasing and meters. As I started to branch away from that, letting my ear follow the phrases I was hearing...letting them develop more naturally, I was able to let the music 

Evolve in a way that would dictate the form more organically instead of forcing it to fit within a traditional structure. So, I think one way that you can naturally develop your own voice is by allowing other musical influences to expand your concept of form. I had the good fortune to study with a wonderful composer and influential teacher, Ludmilla Ulehla, who really turned my head around about form and melody.

Also, being someone who began their studies in the Third Stream program (before switching to the Jazz Program) at New England Conservatory, started by Gunther Schuller and led by Ran Blake, the concept of melding (or juxtaposing) various influences was impressed upon me with both a respect and irreverence for form and tradition.

From another perspective, "context is everything" as they say. It also becomes a question of for whom and what you are writing for, literally and figuratively. Obviously if you want to be hired to write for a specific instrumentation and in a specific style, you have to have the knowledge of that style as well as the instruments you are writing for.  And of course, the more you know and understand about orchestration, harmony, etc. the better you can communicate to the musicians what you want both in the spoken and written form. But as with playing/improvising, it seems to me anyway, to come down to a choice between spending more time transcribing another solo or composition of someone else  or spending the time writing your own music or ideas... There is always more to learn.

Another thing...for myself, each time I write something new, I try to deal with something I haven't done before...to push myself in another direction out of my comfort zone or away from something I've found myself repeating. 

I have to say that I've never consciously sat down to try to "establish the integrity of my own voice.” I've just tried to follow what I hear, like and think would be fun, challenging and interesting to play over with other musicians, hoping they will feel the same way about it

Norton: I’m going to bypass the word “Influence” and go directly to the word “Tradition”. When I think of “tradition” I think of how I met Milt Hinton (1910-2000) in my early college days and I began to play jazz in the “professional” realm. We’ve all seen it happen: somebody takes an “elder statesman” in the music and puts him up as a “symbol” of the tradition. However, when I asked Milt (30 plus years ago), “of all the records you play bass on, what is your favorite?” – I expected him to mention a Louis Armstrong record. He surprised me (at the time) saying that his favorites were the records he made with George Russell. Why? To paraphrase, because his compositions were based in older forms of jazz, yet moved forward, beyond always being in 4/4 (or occasionally in ¾) time, beyond “I’ve Got Rhythm” chord changes, beyond standard orchestration, etc. Just look at one of Russell’s pieces, “All About Rosie” (1957- on CD The Birth of the Third Stream on Columbia). It’s based on an African-American children’s game song called “Rosie Little Rosie” or “Rosie Darling Rosie” (one can hear a “field recording” of this song on Negro Folk Music of Alabama, from the Smithsonian/Folkways collection) and takes that theme and organically morphs it through changing meters, through 10 measure phrases utilizing asymmetrical ostinatos and phrase lengths into a three movement suite that’s about 11 minutes in duration. The jazz improvisation, including a jaw-dropping piano solo from Bill Evans, only enters in the third movement.  It is tradition AND innovation at the same time! When I hear “arguments” (or “pronouncements”) about how the tradition must be destroyed to move forward, or the opposite – “innovation” is just a smokescreen for those who haven’t mastered the tradition, I want to get out of there and listen to Milt play with George Russell. This is why one of my (shorter) compositions is called, “Milt’s Forward Looking Tradition”. The tradition “entered me” from playing all those “old tunes” with Milt (and before and currently) and innovation became a part of me at the same time when Milt encouraged me to bring in any kind of composition to his jazz workshop. It’s incorrect to present Milt (as probably with hundreds of “the founding fathers”) as only a “conservative”. The root of the word conservative is conservation. To conserve something (like water or like great music) is a good thing. Yet, one can be creative and conservative at the same time. I can hear Milt’s voice now (as he would speak in the jazz workshop), “… you couldn’t be Charlie Parker if you wanted to be! We want to hear YOUR story.” 

I love the tradition. Some of my favorite records that I play on are the Braxton records (on CIMP, Barking Hoop and especially Leo where we play tunes like “All the Things You Are.” Until I made those records, I felt like part of me was not being heard. Yet, when I composed “For Guy Debord” I didn’t feel as if I was breaking the tradition. It’s definitely more difficult to describe what I did concisely, however, to work with the people in my ensemble at the time, to work with Braxton, to be true to myself and to be inspired by the writings and life of Guy Debord, it’s certainly not going to wind up sounding like “All the Things You Are.” I think Jamie’s statement, “But as with playing/improvising, it seems to me anyway, to come down to a choice between spending more time transcribing another solo or composition of someone else or spending the time writing your own music or ideas... There is always more to learn.” (Emphasis mine) gets to core issues. As a teacher, “there is always more to learn” is the “prime directive”, however going back to the original question, one wonders, WHO is compelling the demonstration of “expert knowledge of jazz compositional traditions”? WHO is determining the “threshold a composer has to clear to establish the integrity of his or her own voice is increasingly high”? That could be the next question in the Roundtable. However, for the artist, Jamie is right; it comes down to a choice. I can understand why an “elder statesman of jazz” (sorry to use an archetype, especially after talking about Milt Hinton who was truly special) might get bugged and say something like, “these young kids, what do they know? I played in Charlie Parker’s band, but these kids don’t know the tradition, they haven’t spent the time …” etc) and that guy (or gal) may have sincerely been a part of musical history and doesn’t have medical insurance, doesn’t have a teaching position, etc. He might “betrayed” by a Madison Avenue Flavor of the Month style of shallow analysis that sends him to the margins and “awards” musicians that he feels (rightly or wrongly) haven’t paid the same dues he has. However, the “innovator archetype” could feel exactly the same way. We all make choices. One would hope that the art of “the traditionalist” and that the art of “the innovator” could be heard (it’s important that they be heard) and, in a Perfect World, that those of us that don’t take the easy (emotional?) way out and “pick a side” between those “priorities” can also be heard as expressing ourselves, as sincere artists.

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