Far Cry

a column by
Brian Morton

It was William Makepeace Thackeray, born exactly two hundred years ago, in 1811, who popularized the modern usage of “snob” as “He who meanly admires mean things.” There’s never been a better definition. For most of us, snobbery sits somewhere along a spectrum which runs from natural and unapologetic superiority to out-and-out prejudice and intolerance. It’s a word with a very complicated history. Like so many terms, it used to mean the opposite of what it does now. Originally, it meant someone in a lowly job, a day-laborer or hired man. From there, it took on implications of scabbing or blacklegging, or anyone who worked through a strike or stoppage. In Cambridge (and it was Thackeray who also popularized the portmanteau term “Oxbridge,”  which is how the “Great Unwashed,” another of his popularizations, snobbishly referred to an education they could never aspire to), it meant simply a non-gownsman, a townsperson rather than a don or undergraduate. It only takes on its present meaning in the early Victorian era, and largely thanks to the author of Vanity Fair.

I quote Thackeray here with some impunity, not least because he was a great improviser, who having whiled away his youth in idleness and pleasure, thereafter “wrote for his life,” riffing endless comic variations on his own life story and that of a society that was coming to terms with new social and economic hierarchies. He doesn’t seem exactly relevant to a column on contemporary jazz and improvised music, but Thackeray – who I reread every couple of years, and with particular attention on this, his bicentenary – is the perfect bellwether for study of any social process. Besides, anyone who has even the remotest interest in jazz knows something about snobbery.
Our admiration is meanest when it is directed at secondary characteristics, when we find ourselves admiring a musician according to some checklist of fashionable ticks rather than according to the quality, sincerity and commitment of what (s)he actually plays. And it’s clear that we’re all of us prone to being led by the nose. British trad (Dixieland) fans used to react to a saxophone on stage, the way Milord Steyne might have reacted to a chimney sweep at his soiree. Later, the very sight of an electric instrument could inspire similar Batemanish fury and shock. I knew a man in London who noisily walked out of a Sonny Rollins gig (and this guy would have lain down in a puddle in order for Sonny to walk dry-shod over the street) because Bob Cranshaw walked on stage holding an electric bass. The fact that Bob Cranshaw plays bass guitar better and more individually than the average bull fiddler plays the authentic instrument never seems to have occurred to him, but Jim was a strict constructionist and Auld Licht believer of the deepest dye. He didn’t need to listen. He only needed to observe, in order to know whether music was going to be comme il faut or strictly non-U.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the phenomenon of inverted snobbery in jazz and new music. Jim was also a man who seemed to think that scruffiness was a sign of moral and creative probity. He would as soon have put a noose around his throat as a necktie. Anyone smartly attired was, by definition, not of musical interest. He would have thrived in Regency London. Jim’s ideal gig was a tiny improv event in an obscure pub, located in a dangerous part of town, patronized by no more than ten other listeners. If the toilets were malfunctioning and olfactorily evident, so much the better. If there were an irritating ambient noise – jukebox, power drill, irritating high-pitched female laugh – so much the better. This is what those on the left used to describe as the-worse-the-betterism, a strange version of the notion that things have to get really shitty before there is any prospect of change. I suspect this is a curiously British phenomenon, an example of our national nostalgie de la boue (and there is no clearer sign of British snobbery than a constant reversion to French terms, though you will understand that I use them with deepest irony), that desire to wallow in unpleasantness, bad luck, negativity and lack as confirmations of credibility.

There has been an interesting, though mostly wrong-headed, debate here of late about whether improvised music, far from merely lacking balls, quite simply fails to get its dick out. I would have thought that despite a very welcome resurgence of female names on the British improvising scene, it remained quite phallocratic enough for anyone’s taste. I sense that what lay behind the complaint, which was made by a journalist of notoriously puckish disregard for fact or consensus, was that same lurking fear that an underground or marginal culture was in danger of growing up, sweeping up, screwing in some 100 watt bulbs and putting on a tie. British culture still disturbingly smacks of the nursery, and nothing sustains its odious class markings more than a distinct form of infantilism and arrested development. There is, underneath that famous British stuffiness and reserve, a terrible fear of growing up. Just as slumming is a possible luxury in an economic and political culture that has never really known the wants and conflicts even of neighboring cultures (France’s revolutions, Germany’s implosions and fractures, the Spanish Civil War, which confirmed Iberia as a favorite holiday destination for the middle class), so too is an essentially childish outlook a function of a history which has only rarely (and last in 1914) imposed sudden maturity on young males; the problem with 1914 is that few of those young men came back from France and Belgium to apply the lessons on the home front.
For me, and not just from the vantage of middle age or indeed from a snobbish viewpoint, British improvisation has always had serious presentational problems. I remember being very moved hearing Percy Heath describing how carefully the Modern Jazz Quartet practiced their stage routines, even to the extent of rehearsing how they might walk on to the platform and accept the audience’s welcome. It’s tempting to say that it wasn’t hard for a group of the MJQ’s eminence to assume a certain level of adoration and to pay it back in urbanity. Not so easy, when you were setting up yourself on a stained carpet, in front of ten truculent men clutching pint glasses. Back in the 80s, when London shrugged off the last of its Carnaby Street chic and tried to go all crisp and modern, there were only two kinds of fashion statement at a jazz gig. There was the sharp Tommy Nutter suit (which proclaimed you a no-nonsense “face”) or there was the full-on ethnic uniform, which implied without ever clearly stating a political standpoint. Or rather there were three. The excluded middle was always decked in Scruffy. Accessories: model’s own. Grown men thought nothing of going out to play unshaven, in stained clothes and battered shoes. If the intended message was, we’re artists, and therefore much too serious to be distracted by mere appearance, then unfortunately the message that came across was: we’re contemptuous of you; we’d much rather just be doing this in someone’s back room, for our own entertainment – so don’t get in the way; clap when we want you to clap and then piss off home at the end. What a difference there was between those distinguished London improvisers “cut” (another great Thackeray word, implying a refusal to “know” or recognized someone you might pass in the street) their fans, and the members of the Chris Barber band, those shrewd and dogged traditionalists, who after every gig turned up in the foyer to meet their public. They sold some CDs, too, to be sure, and a cynic would say it was a good marketing strategy, but there was something rather fine, and not at all grand, about being able to go up and shake Pat Halo by the hand and say “That was a good ‘un.” I don’t remember too many times when that was possible at an improv gig. I did on occasion help present in-conversation events at those things. Frankly, they had the same outcome and resonance: we’re not going to explain how this music is made; it’s beyond you, frankly; so just listen quietly, drink your beer, and piss off home. There were, and are, of course, notable and noble exceptions to this rule, but they were and still are few and far between.
Nothing indicates maturity more reliably than sense of humor. It is the absolute giveaway of the snob that he lacks one. I have a slightly strange one. I was recently asked to nominate my favorite comic characters in films. They were: number three – Wayne Campbell (whose infantilism, gloriously observed by Mike Myers, is ironic and always on the cusp of something else); number two – Monsieur Helot (who’s French, which appeals to the film snob in me!); and number one – Hannibal Lecter. I got a call back to confirm that I surely wasn’t serious, which was an odd question in the circumstances. “Okey dokey, ‘I myself cannot,” “People will say we’re in love,” “Guts in or out . . .  Out, I think,” eating Paul Krendler’s living brain . . . what’s not funny about that? When the recent debate about improv needing to be sexier, or more aggressively sexual (I think was the point) broke in the magazines, I remember thinking that what improvised needed was actually more jokes. I am the Bateman character who once (Edinburgh, 1974) laughed aloud at a Derek Bailey gig, believing that he was intending to be funny by playing “Land of Hope and Glory” backwards. I didn’t then know that laughing wasn’t allowed at an improv gig. So who was the laughing-stock? Me? The guitarist? Or the (small) crowd that didn’t seem to notice that a joke had been played on them? And in Edinburgh, already, where “Land of Hope and Glory” isn’t something you hear being whistled in the street.
It’s worth pointing out that some of Britain’s leading improvisers of the older generation got their start in the last years of music hall, where it was just as important to make banana-skin glisses as it was to play “Stella By Starlight.”. Bailey came up in that environment, and so too did his sometime colleague in Joseph Holbrooke, bassist Gavin Bryars, who has frequently regaled me with stories of those years. The other member of the trio, Tony Oxley, set up his kit very much like that of a pit effects man, and it makes little sense of Oxley’s art to ignore that detail and assume that his approach to jazz drumming (and he’s the best time drummer on the planet) comes out of Max Roach and Sunny Murray, and without equal parts of Zutty Singleton, Baby Dodds, Dave Tough (who was a great musical satirist as well as a fine swinger), and all those anonymous men in northern theatres. And yet it was Oxley who apparently rudely started to set up his kit in the midst of an act by another improvising group, just one of those famous toys-out-of-the-pram moments that fans of British improvised music collect so avidly. It’s a squabbly playground and the sandpit is dotted with tears and snot from famous tiffs. Was Oxley odiously inconsiderate? Was he making a satirical point? Was it a Situationist gesture? Who the fuck knows? I rather took it in a different light on that occasion. When my sister and I bickered, my father would come into the room and very deliberately and slowly do something “important,” whether it was reading the paper, or adjusting the radio, or rearranging books on a shelf. It was a way of saying “Grow up.”

As an academic, I used to wonder, seriously, what it meant when female students walked into my office carrying fluffy pencil cases and wearing badges taken off birthday cards that read “I AM 6.”. What is the appropriate response? “I’m going to put you across my knee, young lady?” Hardly. What then does one think and do when an improviser, not unrelated to the anecdote above, squeals “Look at me, look at me, look at me” during a major music event. Is he satirizing the self-importance and soul-bearing of “expressive” jazz, or is he simply being silly. I think we should be told. Because it isn’t always obvious, and irony – which Americans understand very much better than the Brits, despite everything you might be told – is a very unstable commodity.

I know my comfort zone, but I also like to make an effort. So I put a jacket on, and more rarely a tie, when it seems appropriate. There’s nothing quite so unsettling, though, as turning up at a restaurant to find that all the other males are wearing rugby shirts and trainers. It’s the same with improvised music. There’s no harm in a little reciprocal effort, and no harm in a measure of grown-up comfort and fittingness. Most of the musicians I admire in this field manage to look as well as sound the part and that seems increasingly important, part of the compact between musician and audience, part of the coding that has been lost or deliberately mislaid. Or am I just a snob?

Brian Morton©2011

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