Far Cry
a column by
Brian Morton

Ornette Coleman
Ornette Coleman, 1973                           Michael Wildermann©2006

Ornette Coleman with a new album, Thomas Pynchon with a new novel, and both in the same year. Who would have opened book on that? To be fair, it’s Ornette who’s the sticky one these days. Sound Grammar is his first new release for almost a decade. By contrast, Pynchon seems to be galloping away. The seventeen year gap between Gravity’s Rainbow in 1973 and Vineland in 1990 led to a certain superstition – fuelled by sophomoric obsession with the novelist’s “reclusiveness” – that Pynchon novels were cometary events, with an obscure periodicity. The publication of Against The Day in 2006, just a decade after the encyclopaedic Mason & Dixon, almost seemed like unseemly haste.

And to be equally fair, it’s Ornette who still seems the oddball. When I met Tom Pynchon . . . and how I love saying that to American fiction buffs, especially the casually dropped “Tom” . . . when I met Tom Pynchon at a party in London in the 80s, he seemed a remarkably average chap, who’d have passed for an associate professor at a small Eastern campus. He was properly and politely dismissive of anyone who wanted cribs on “the work” – this at a time when every second graduate student in UK humanities departments seemed to be doing a thesis on Gravity’s Rainbow – but he wasn’t exactly shrinking from the light either.

The myth of Pynchon’s reclusiveness is exactly that. He’s a man who has managed to avoid the more egregious aspects of the book trade, before, after and during the fact. No jacket photos, no literary festival appearances, no in-depth interviews: but behind it all a fairly ordinary writing life, albeit in an extraordinary register. The guy ain’t J. D. Salinger or B. Traven.

Ornette, on the other hand . . . He will – and has – set you down to explain what he’s about. He’ll roll out with the latest rail of shiny jackets. He’ll tour. He’ll give interviews and if you’re lucky a smiling photograph, but still nobody gets it. Harmolodics? It’s either the Grand Unified Theory of modern jazz, or it’s emperor’s new clothes, woven out of something far less substantial than Ornette’s onstage wardrobe.

Well, so far, so not very jazz. Why this harping on what might seem a chance association and comparison between two admittedly maverick American artists? The short answer is that they do seem strangely conjoined in our mental maps of post-war American culture? They also remain for me the ideal representatives of a revisionist view that suggests it was the 1950s, routinely downcried as chastened, conformist, politically conservative, and not the overhyped 60s which saw the boldest creative and social liberations of recent history. I’m with W. T. Lhamon, Jr. on this. His 1990 book Deliberate Speed: The Origins of a Cultural Style in the American 1950s is solid enough for me to hide myself and my sextophobia behind. Lhamon’s “disagreement with those sixties chauvinists who believe countercultures, radical artistic experimentation, and the civil rights movement all began under President Kennedy, with Woodstock, or because of some cosmic consciousness which the moon walk evoked. Not true – in the sixties and after, people ratified the insights of fifties cultural life, popularising them into mass movements”.

It could hardly be better put, though it doesn’t entirely dispel the criticism that it makes very little sense talking in terms of arbitrary decades and it is arguably so inspired by its own revisionist onslaught that it fails to take account of some striking counter-arguments and refuting examples.

All of which takes us closer to Ornette and Pynchon than might be supposed. Lhamon properly takes a strong interest in jazz and, because he isn’t a musicologist, its interactions with print culture and the visual arts. Most people have a vague notion that Ornette’s Free Jazz has something to do with Jackson Pollock’s Abstract Expressionism (which of course was no such thing), though that association was largely dreamed up in the design department at Atlantic Records. They’re probably less aware of how important a figure Ornette (or at least an Ornette hybrid) was to Pynchon’s imagination and, reciprocally, what we might learn about the social and cultural profile of jazz from one of the novelist’s most persistent theological obsessions.

Lhamon and others have noticed the connection between the “muted post horn” symbol which tags the mysterious communications network W.A.S.T.E. in The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) and the plangent, held-back but often unexpectedly angry sound of Miles Davis’s Harmon-muted horn. Visually, aurally, it seems the symbol of a particular moment in American culture: under restraints, again chastened, but defiant as well. It’s equally well known that Pynchon’s jazz musician character McClintic Sphere in V. (1963) is a cadavre exquis of Ornette Coleman and Thelonious Monk (some would say Charlie Parker, too, and you might have to add Slim Gaillard or Babs Gonzales to take account of Sphere’s poetic jive). Sphere operates in a relatively familiar jazz milieu. The V-Note club is an obvious relative of the Half Note and Five Spot. His music favours sixths and major fourths and sounds like a knife fight or tug of war.

He is the embodiment of what (and Lhamon again touches on this) the philosopher Michel de Certeau called “antidiscipline”, in which artists who are trapped by the “discipline” of a particular discourse, and that could be conventional Western harmony, the blues, or orthodox bebop develop clandestine and makeshift ways of working within that discipline as well as against it. Hence, Monk and much of the previous history of piano jazz; hence, Ornette and both bebop and the blues.

Pynchon has his own term for this, in Gravity’s Rainbow, but it’s one of that baggy book’s least successful constructions. More interesting is a distinction Pynchon borrowed from his (apparently devout) Catholic college years at Cornell. That it comes from Calvinist doctrine is no more than a sign of his eclectic sourcing of ideas. One of the main points of Calvinist doctrine is the distinction between reprobation and preterition. Essentially, this draws a further line, not between the damned and elect, but between those damned to Hell by God, and those simply overlooked for salvation. Pynchon has always been profoundly interested in the preterite. The concept appears again and again in his work and while he makes no explicit association between the two in V., it’s hard not to read into it the suggestion – simple, devastating, devastatingly simple – that jazz is the music of the preterite, and thus a music that is fated always to be overlooked in the great cultural reckonings that assign canons, great traditions, the critically elect and the critically damned.

Pynchon’s own musical understandings are obviously quite catholic (in the other sense). There is the all-electronic-music jukebox in The Crying of Lot 49, and that book’s neurotic refinements of musical perception and judgement; imagine, drop a nickel in the machine and you get Karlheinz Stockhausen. There is also Pynchon’s well-attested enthusiasm for the rock band Lotion, for whom he wrote liner notes, and, more plausibly, for Roky Erickson. But the paradigm remains jazz and specifically the jazz – cool, modal, rawly experimental, extreme, and consistently under-the-cultural-radar – that he heard in the 1950s, before experiment formed a craft union and became a mass movement.

Compare Pynchon’s portrayal of the 50s music scene with his parallel portrayal of the visual arts and it is clear the proportion of nostalgia to satire is higher. It is as if he is saying: yes, some of it was hokey and up itself, but nothing like as up itself as the painters and sculptors and anti-art mountebanks of the time. It’s hard to imagine any other soundtrack to a film version of V. – ghastly though that prospect is – than a compilation of late 50s Ornette and Monk. The original Thelonious Sphere played like a man who knew he was among the preterite and thus doomed – Time cover or no – to exist in the curious side-world, not heaven or hell or even purgatory, just a Beckett-like “not quite there”. Listen again to what he was doing in those years with the understanding (even if just for the sake of argument) that here was a man who knew profoundly that It Didn’t Matter What He Played because the only people who really understood were in exactly the same boat, and the nature of the experience changes rather radically. The whole idea of performance – or that 60s shibboleth “the performing self” – evaporates.

After the brickbats and the abuse and the downright sneers from critics and some fellow-musicians alike, Ornette turned from that philosophically radical position into a man who Insisted on Being Heard and a corner of the establishment was startled enough to grant his wish in a small way. He started to describe his theories and to promote them among younger players. He kept shy of the business as much as he dared, but he didn’t absent himself from it, and is still there.

As I write, another magazine poll has come in hailing Sound Grammar as one of the key records of 2006. When he toured last year, critics (in England at least) hailed him as a man “at the height of his powers”. This is nonsense. Ornette was at the height of his powers in the late 50s, when Tom Pynchon was drafting V. He has merely persisted and by doing so has brokered an extraordinary position in the culture whereby his supporters dare not abandon their position even in face of every evidence of decline, while it seems pointlessly churlish for his detractors to continue directing their polemics at a man of 70-plus who has stuck to his improbable guns, outlived several generations of fashion, and who seems to give a lot of pleasure to a lot of people. Even, again, if some of them are secretly lukewarm.

Scott Fitzgerald said – and probably only said it because he liked the sound of the words – that there were no second acts in American lives. Grand-sounding, pseudo-tragic nonsense, since the whole myth of America is based on the ability – evinced by everyone from Richard M. Nixon to Prince – to come back from the dead and make oneself over again. It’s a myth that applies to all; except, of course, the preterite. The kind of fame that comes to the reprobate demands nothing less than destruction, preferably of the rock star variety (Don DeLillo’s Great Jones Street is the key text here). The invisibility and cultural . . . not irrelevance, overlookedness that is the lot of the creative jazz musician is a harder one to call, and a more amorphous fate, lived out in those “Low-lands” that Pynchon evoked in one of his early stories.

It is not necessarily a bad place to be. As the general culture continues to resemble some vast Calvinistic reckoning, with a glittering Elect self-determined, self-justifying and ultimately self-destructive enough to join the Damned, there is a curious power – too subtle and subliminal to define as “power” – in the anti-discipline, the clandestine gestures and makeshift operations of jazz as a creative activity that by its very nature exists out of sight of foundations, arts bodies, academic institutions, governments and the critical establishment. Its wider invisibility, its distorted auditions are the confirmation of its fragile but persistent vital signs.

Brian Morton©2006

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