Far Cry

a column by
Brian Morton

I have been taken to task. Or perhaps that should be “we,” since the whole scribbling tribe was included on the charge sheet. A distinguished British musician railed at the “paucity of jazz journalism” and seemed to be holding me momentarily responsible. I grabbed him firmly by the lapels. “I think you’ll find that should be ‘dearth,’ pal, but why don’t you concentrate on playing the bull fiddle and leave the English language to me.” Actually, I did and said no such thing, because the exchange happened entirely by e-mail and was markedly friendly and polite.

He also had a point to make. In the case of one recently profiled drummer – a very distinguished modernist – why had the single most obvious question never been asked: why do you speed up and slow down so much? If your immediate reaction to that was, “Oh, this is about Sunny Murray!” Then you’ve probably proved my questioner’s point. If you’ve read the answer in print, then you’ve possibly proved him wrong. If you’ve always wondered, but never had the opportunity to ask, then I appreciate your frustration.

The other substance of this friendly e-mail exchange was directed at my recent suggestion that Murray’s two-beat pulse was an echo of the walking and running rhythms that pop up in Native American music. This, my interlocutor declared, was an “assumption,” rather than a nailed-down observation. The lack of specificity certainly points that way. “Native American” as a qualifier is about as useful as “African” or “European,” and there is a sclerotic imprecision in the use of such broad-brush terminology in a critical context. It poses as a smart observation but delivers very little.

Guilty as charged, except, as I pointed out, it’s pretty difficult in a 500 word piece to finesse the exact specificities and cultural underpinnings of a musical style. Put in practical terms, we don’t usually get the column inches necessary for detail like that. I’m happy to say that, for a white, middle-aged Scot, I have a respectable understanding of Native American music and writing. I know my Jim Peppers from my Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tates, my M. Scott Momadays from my William Least Heat-Moons, and I once spent a strange but delightful afternoon stumping round an echoing studio with Moondog, as he demonstrated some of the Navajo (as I recall) walking rhythms he had heard as a young man.

This isn’t intended to be a flash of credentials. For good or ill, critics are rarely required to establish their bona fides by any other means than the copy they produce and the proportion of it that actually gets into print. If a reader assumes that all a reviewer knows about a particular artist or record is enshrined in the boxed-off review he happens to be reading, then there is already a failure in the implicit contract between writer and reader. You may voluntarily read me because you believe I know what I’m talking about. I tell you what I honestly believe to be the case and what I think you might like to know. Or: you read me because I’m always good for a wind-up; you read me because you find it entertaining to disagree on principle. And so it goes on, this curious dance of misprision and awkward faith.

Not in any way to suggest that the jazz journalist’s lot is a thankless one, all unremunerated graft and public neglect, it is sometimes valuable to look at some of the components of the contract, not least in terms of those specific complaints mentioned above. I met Sunny Murray twice in Paris, and interviewed him, once for an abortive book project on the “rhythm section” in jazz, once for a specific newspaper piece. In the course of it, I did ask Murray whether he was aware of accelerating and decelerating in the course of a solo, and whether he was in conscious control of that. In return, I got an anecdote, and one which didn’t very obviously address the question, though was more than good enough for print. I asked other questions of what might be considered a technical nature, and received non-technical answers.

This is one example, but it’s an experience that has been repeated many times over the years. I veer between wondering whether musicians simply don’t like to talk about the craft-and-guild mechanics of their work – in much the way member of the Magic Circle won’t reveal the tricks of their trade – or whether simply they don’t like talking about it to me. Or you, or the next journalist that comes along. There is curious reversal of emphasis at work whenever anyone complains about the quality of jazz journalism – and my instinct is that it has undergone a fresh pasting recently, certainly on my side of the Atlantic – whereby the questioner and his questions are considered inadequate by definition rather than the answers.

Many years ago, that dogged student of modern jazz Graham Lock came away from an interview with Anthony Braxton – Graham was the saxophonist’s Boswell for a time – marveling that they had spoken for more than two hours and he had come away without a single anecdote, but with a lot of insight into how Braxton’s music functioned and how it squared with his sense of cultural history, mythography and cosmology. After years of transcribing stories about Bunny Berigan’s drinking, Phil Seamen’s doping or Harry Edison’s liking for the ladies, we all reflected that, indeed, it was very unusual to find a musician who was happy to talk shop. I’ve never, ever met a musician who has responded to a question about his own or a colleague’s personal hinterland with the high-minded rebuff ‘Well, actually, I’d rather talk about some of the new harmonic and rhythmic ideas I have been exploring’. The personalization of music writing – and to a degree its depoliticization – has been enjoined by players, not hacks.

Needless to say, there are exceptions and when they have arisen, they are exhilarating. I once presented a BBC World Service series that attempted to deliver a historical primer to jazz by reference to five of its most easily demarcated style-periods: classic, swing, bop, fusion and free, with an archstone program on the role of the blues within jazz. The deal was that the interviewees should not only talk about the construction of a style but also demonstrate what they meant. It was immediately clear that some musicians were very much better at this than others, some willing, some resistant, and that there was a clear demarcation between those who also taught formally and those who did not. This, it should be said, at a time when there were far fewer academic posts with a jazz component. It was revelatory, of course. No amount of critical exegesis could have matched up to five minutes of John Dankworth showing how a bop chorus differed from what had been happening a decade before, but how strong the evolutionary continuity actually was. What was doubly interesting, though, was how many distinguished musicians the production team had to get through in order to find the few who were both able and willing to deliver an entry-level discussion on their music.

The media operate a double standard when it comes to levels of technicality in arts reviewing. In a single edition of The Times recently, I found a detailed account of a winning ice-dance routine that was stuffed with technicality – salchows, and the like – a few pages away from a book review that referenced “metalanguage,” “metonymy” and “synecdoche” (which isn’t a town in New York state), which in turn was on the opposite page from a long music review that consisted entirely of subjective and associative prose, an expression of how the music had affected the reviewer, not what it was in itself. This, of course, squares very much with David Stubbs’ recent consideration of why we embrace advanced or experimental art and literature more readily than we enjoy modestly ambitious modern music.

On a similar tack, and one that brings me back to the original spur to these thoughts, it should be clear to anyone who has ever worked on Grub Street that the only qualification required for the job is an ability to force a quart into a pint pot. “Go along to the Milton Babbitt retrospective and let me have 250 words on it by Tuesday;” “Oh, just something short. The readers won’t know who Cecil Taylor is . . . and keep it light and funny;” “Nice piece, but I’ve had to trim it down to 400 words. I took out all the musicky stuff and left that nice story about his brother the boxer;” und so weiter.

We say what we can in the space we’re allotted. The internet has, of course, changed this, possibly forever. I come to it too late to appreciate the potential for simply writing on as long as I please – though I’m making a fair stab at it here – but just in time to recognize the pure, Sisyphean horror of being able to finesse a point indefinitely, pushing my argument all the way up the hill toward a conclusion, in order to see it roll down the other side of some grand unexamined assumption that will require another 1000 words to sort out. At my stage in the game, 1000 words in total is still quite an exciting prospect, long enough for context, long enough for an anecdote and some musicology, but short enough not to sound like Paul Gonsalves negotiating the “and between “Crescendo” and “Diminuendo.” But bear with us through all those occasions when either the subject only wanted to talk about the night Chet lost his gear and they had to drive to Siena to meet a guy in a fedora called Giuseppe, who turned out to be armed, or when the 1,000 words was delivered thoughtfully and on time, only for the “musicky bits” to be replaced with an ad or a picture, or the overmatter from the latest Killers tour.

Brian Morton©2010

Michael Wilderman Jazz Visions Photography

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