Controversies: Woody Allen, David Byrne, Herbie + Wayne
(Reprinted from the former DTM. All were from early 2010 during the last days of the old blog.)
The following was written in white heat immediately after reading Stacy Anderson's article. I concede that not enough facts were at hand for me to go off quite like I did. Still, I'd love someone else to take up the challenge of carefully looking at Allen's trad jazz career and movie music from a race angle. It would tell us a lot about America, I think!
After the post, I had two interesting emails from black correspondents, one con, one pro. The con (who prefers to remain anonymous) said, "I do not think that race needs to have been a part of the article." Hyland Harris gave me a thumbs up and related an interesting story."Vernel Fournier did Woody Allen's gig for years. Vernel was a Creole and he was convinced that Woody assumed he was white. Vernel said that he was slated to appear in a film in a background scene. He thought he was gonna be the first black man in a Woody Allen film. On the set Vernel and Woody got in an argument and Vernel walked off of the set. Woody wanted to put a piece of cardboard infront of Vernel's bass drum. His bass drum was calfskin from an unborn calf and it was fuzzy. This is the same head that is on the Ahmad Jamal video. Woody thought it was too distracting and Vernel was not having it."
Appropriation without reparations? The major piece on Woody Allen's jazz evangelism in the Village Voice today raises some questions. I'm sure neither Allen nor the writer, Stacey Anderson, is racist, but this article could have been improved by embracing the challenge of race rather than resolutely ignoring it (it's not brought up once).
How many black musicians has Woody Allen played with?
How many black musicians has he hired for the soundtracks to his movies?
How many black actors has he employed? In 1979, in response to Manhattan, Stanley Crouch wrote in the Village Voice, "I have never seen an intelligent black character in a Woody Allen film." That's changed a bit since. The first black role in an Allen film was in Deconstructing Harry, where the prostitute Cookie (played by Hazelle Goodman) gets this bit of dialogue:
Harry Block: You know that the universe is coming apart? You know what a black hole is?
Cookie: Yeah. That's how l make my living.
More specifically, I eye the following quotes from today's piece with suspicion. Anderson just doesn't command the whole context to my satisfaction.
At 17, he persuaded Fats Waller's clarinetist, Gene Sedric, to give him private lessons for $2 an hour (this including the toll for Sedric's arduous subway journey from the Bronx to outer Flatbush, according to Eric Lax's 2001 book, Woody Allen: A Biography).
Why isn't the novice traveling to the African-American master instead of the other way around? (Not to mention paying them well, and cooking them dinner besides!) I'm sure there was a reason, but... why is Anderson telling us this?
The music he has performed devotedly for the past 37 years actually predates those artists by several decades—it's a joyous, disciplined strain from the 1910s–'30s called traditional New Orleans jazz, "traditional jazz," the truncated "trad jazz," or the somewhat contentious "Dixieland jazz."
Why is the word "Dixieland" contentious? Is it just a corny term? Or is it what Wynton Marsalis says in Moving to Higher Ground: "There were less obvious, cruelly humorous assaults on it [jazz], too, like calling New Orleans music 'Dixieland,' which managed to identify it with the Confederacy's battle hymn: 'You play about freedom, but we'll make it an homage to your enslavement.'"
Dramatically different from the brass-heavy front-line style of modern New Orleans, it's the earliest form of jazz, the fundamental foundation for all splintered subgenres known today, from bebop to free to swing. Compared to those mutations, traditional jazz is an affable, communal conversation, favoring polyphony (different instruments weaving independent lines together) and structured for shared expression within an ensemble. Derived from regional ragtime and blues (bred specifically in the prostitution quarters known as Storyville), it flourished via such eminent players as trumpeter Buddy Bolden, clarinetist Sidney Bechet, cornetist King Oliver, and pianist Jelly Roll Morton. The first jazz ever recorded was in this style: the raucous and comedic "Dixieland Jazz Band 1 Step," cut by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band in 1917.
Uh, is it really comfortable listing Bolden, Bechet, Oliver, Morton and the ODJB in the same paragraph without some sensitive qualifiers included? They were all equal geniuses, huh? No issues of appropriation here whatsoever?
In the 1930s, 52nd Street in Midtown was dubbed "Swing Street USA" for all the jazz clubs within its radius, including legendary halls such as Club Carousel and Eddie Condon's, along with the first incarnation of the Blue Note. But today, among the low-double-digit number of jazz clubs remaining, most are concentrated in the West Village and Harlem, with a more scattered scene in Brooklyn. (Larger, uptown institutions, such as Carnegie Hall and the Wynton Marsalis–led Jazz at Lincoln Center, are often criticized for institutionalizing jazz, but remain active in educational programs.)
Is the $100 plate at the Carlyle less of an institution than Marsalis? Who's the major role model for young black musicians getting into jazz? Are more black people watching Allen play clarinet or going to JALC? (I don't recognize this topographical map of NYC jazz clubs, either.)
Trad-leaning clubs have fared especially poorly; Eddy Davis has wanted to open a club for years, but finds the finances too daunting. And while contemporary and brass-band jazz have enjoyed a modest resurgence lately, thanks to mass-media outlets such as the HBO show Treme, this hasn't affected traditional New Orleans jazz at all.
In my opinion, the collected work of David Simon has done more for jazz than the collected work of Allen -- even though there is little jazz in Simon and it's everywhere in Allen -- simply because Simon's work consistently empowers the black community and Allen's doesn't.
Same as it Ever Was
After I posted the following, several people told me that Byrne seemed "anti-intellectual," a word that I should have used myself in the first place. I have pared the essay down considerably -- there was a long opening salvo about the price of opera, where I was out of my depth.
David Byrne criticizes the state funding of a 32 million dollar production of Wagner’s Ring cycle here.
My favorite passage from Daniel Pinkwater’s The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death:
Everybody ate in silence until the Bullfrog Root Beer was served. Then the conversation at the table got started. Aunt Terwilliger began making a sort of speech about grand opera. She was against it. Later, Rat told us that her aunt had just about every opera recording ever made. Her aunt spent hours in her bedroom listening to them, but all the rest of her time was spent arguing that people shouldn't listen to operas, and, above all, they shouldn't go to see them performed. Rat said that Aunt Terwilliger makes regular appearances in Blueberry Park, where she tries to convince people to live their lives opera-free. She feels that operas take up too much time. Also, she has an idea that people who like opera will become unrealistic, and not take their everyday lives seriously. Most of all, she believes that operas are habit-forming, and once a person starts listening to them, it's hard to stop, and one tends to listen to more and more operas until one's life is ruined.
Aunt Terwilliger has pamphlets printed up that she hands out. Her most popular one is called "Grand Opera: an Invention of the Devil."
At first I assumed 32 million dollars was a fair price for a Ring cycle, but I’ve consulted insiders who say it is actually really high. Recent professional Ring cycles in America have been done for about 10 million. (The whole budget for the next season of the Washington National Opera is 32 mil — and in recession desperation, they are only saving 5-6 mil by cancelling their Ring cycle.)
What I’m here to blog about, though, is not the issue of funding, but to rebut the active dislike and suspicion of classical music that seems to run through Byrne’s piece:
There are some classical musical works that I can groove with — but, for example, Bach, Mozart and Beethoven I never could get, and I don’t feel any the worse for it.
I do admire Byrne’s honesty:
This whole rant, I guess, derives a little from the fact that I resent the implication, and sometime-feeling, that I’m less of a musician and even a person for not appreciating those works. It's not true!
Hey, everyone should dig whatever they want. I’m not playing tough teacher or Harold Bloom here. You don’t need Bach? He’s not culturally relevant or whatever? Fine, stay away.
But Byrne’s comparison of two print ads is catty indeed, and I also think we should teach the basics of classical music in the schools. And surely everyone can agree that live performance is essential for opera.
First, this weird dyad: Thomas Hoving was the Met mogul who, in Byrne's words, “Created the blockbuster museum show — which famously brought Tut to the masses, and made the Met and other like-minded museums into temples for all.” Byrne then illustrates with this LIFE magazine ad from the early 60’s:
“It seems almost humorous — as if postcards of certified works of art had some mystical power to educate — or, more accurately, to indoctrinate.”
Somehow Byrne thinks “Music is the same” when looking at this 2009 NY Times ad:
“This isn’t about learning to play for enjoyment, creation, expression or fun — it’s purely about valuing the classics more than anything you and your pathetic friends can make.”
Wow! You just cannot claim that this NY Times ad represents “The world of classical music” or “How people feel about classical music” or “How people start to enjoy classical music” in 2009. Pick up any Metropolitan Opera, Carnegie Hall, or Deutsche Grammophon brochure and compare it to the above. Classical music is most often sold successfully by appearing serious, and to be fair, often a little snobbish.
But even go back to the Van Gogh: does Byrne really think that Hoving had anything to do with selling postcards of the masters in bulk? Maybe Hoving did, I don’t know. But I’m pretty sure that the Book-of-the-Month Club and The Teaching Company are irrelevant to any of the arts they occasionally piggyback on. Both of these ads merely exhibit the same old-fashioned barker approach that has sold fundamentally worthless objects to fairly sedentary Americans for a long time now. The king is probably Franklin Mint:
Byrne is actually onto something about the selling of art and classical music to American masses at mid-century. He just doesn’t have the right exhibits. What Byrne should have posted instead is a LIFE magazine ad for the Hoving or J. Carter Brown’s actual museum or museum exhibit (not the postcards) and compared it to this:
Toscanini is a controversial figure today -- some love him, some think he was wildly overrated -- partly because he was the “King Tut” or "Van Gogh" wedge used by massive corporations to open the Average American's wallet. He was a great conductor, though, and his set of Beethoven symphonies is objectively worth something (as compared to the Book-of-the-Month, The Teaching Company, and Franklin Mint items above, which are probably worth nothing).
My parents were sedentary Americans, and frankly I grew up with a fair amount of “Franklin Mint”-style bullshit cluttering our house. One of those mail-order wonders, though, was the “only $7.99!” edition of the nine Beethoven symphonies conducted by Karl Böhm -- a kind of second or third generation echo of the Toscanini sets that every American household had twenty and thirty years earlier. Those recordings became really important to me. I still know all of the Beethoven symphonies instantly by ear.
The argument of what arts we should teach our kids is just as tricky as how we fund our opera houses. For myself, though, that Böhm set -- which was the only classical recording in my house, which my mom ordered out of a magazine, hoping to give her kid culture -- is one reason I have never had much of a problem politically with forcing some canonical European classical music on American children.
Byrne doesn’t say that he has that problem, either, but weirdly he seems to be saying that you can’t learn from Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven without competing with them. His proposed educational program is:
Show someone three chords on the guitar, show them how to program or play beats, or play a keyboard (something I can’t really do), but don’t expect virtuosity right away. Everyone knows you can make a song with almost nothing, with really limited skills, so be satisfied and enjoy that, and don’t feel inadequate because you’re not Mozart.
That sounds like fun, and if the great songwriter David Byrne were teaching this course, I wouldn’t just send my kid, I’d go down and take that course myself!
But there is no good reason to reject Mozart even if he seems imposing or not culturally relevant. Perhaps the name is the problem. In place of the overly-specific and awe-inspiring “Mozart,” I’m going to use the phrase “The major-minor system of common practice classical music.” That’s the twelve notes of the piano keyboard moving in vocal-based counterpoint. Understanding that may sound hard, but it isn’t. It’s certainly not harder than making a good groove on a beat machine. For about 400 years, every Western musician used it, whether they were naturally talented or not.
But in our American culture, knowing “The major-minor system of common practice classical music” seems to get awfully short shrift these days. It certainly gets short shrift in our current popular, culturally relevant music.
If you charted the course of harmonic progressions in the biggest radio hits from, say, Elvis to now, you’d perceive a steady shrinking of tonal movement. There are good musical reasons for this! I hasten to add. But at this point, we can’t take any more harmonic information away. Harmony that moves through keys is nonexistent in most current indie rock, radio pop, and hip-hop.
What I’m talking about is quite obvious in Byrne’s 2004 solo disc, Grown Backwards. The pleasantly surreal versions of two 19th-century opera arias use the 12 notes of the chromatic scale. His original pieces mostly use the 8 notes of the diatonic scale, except when there’s a few blue notes borrowed from funk.
Indeed, as far as I know, all of Byrne’s songs from any period of his career stay in one key. They work -- and the best of them are, of course, immortal -- because he is a master of lyrics, beats, and juxtaposition, and was born with one of the great singing voices.
But there’s no reason for Byrne or anyone else involved in music, from beginners to professionals, to automatically dismiss “The major-minor system of common practice classical music” as uncool, forbidden, or even very difficult.
I think “The major-minor system of common practice classical music” is about to come back, actually. I’m so intrigued by the 12-tone Bach quote that frames the Lady Gaga video “Bad Romance.” And for years that the kind of hip hop that favors menacing suspensions in minor keys has seemed poised to explode into Wagnerian harmony. When "No More Drama” by Mary J. Bilge was everywhere, I thought, “Here we go” -- but it hasn’t happened yet. (Anybody reading this looking for where to take their prized homegrown beat collection into outer space? Put some progressions from Götterdämmerung in there and see what happens. I’m not guaranteeing it will work, but if does, it could be big.)
And that’s also why I think we should teach “The major-minor system of common practice classical music” in the schools alongside three-chord guitar and beats. I want to hear the new music!
(In case anyone thinks I’m down on purely diatonic music, let me give three examples which I think are mind-boggling masterpieces: “Let Down” by Radiohead, “Flim,” by Aphex Twin, which I play most nights with The Bad Plus, and “Once In a Lifetime,” by the Talking Heads. I also called for modern jazz musicians to play more diatonically and less chromatically at the conclusion of my Lester Young celebration. Many times, diatonicism is simply the best choice. I just don't want it to be the only choice.)
Lastly, there’s Bryne’s comment:
There are plenty of CDs and DVDs of the dead guys out there already, should one be curious.
...which is a ludicrous statement coming from someone who has given so much pleasure to so many on the stages of the world. Does he really think his records are as good as his gigs? Maybe he does, I don’t know. But most performers respect the gig as having something extra -- perhaps having something even mystical and sacred -- that the simulacrum doesn’t have.
OK. Maybe there are plenty of Beethoven symphonies on CD, and if Byrne had attacked the high-ticket orchestral gala I wouldn’t have written this rebuttal. Indeed, I might prefer the 19th-century symphony on record than live, because of how bored the orchestra often looks at Carnegie Hall.
But opera? If you take away the live performances the art form will cease to exist, whether the composer is dead, living, or waiting to be born. Opera is story plus music in real time, in acoustic conditions. You must keep in mind this is acoustic music! Those bizarre, vast singers project over a full-force orchestra for several hours at a stretch. You just can’t get this at home. Byrne’s comparisons to the Ring cycle -- a Broadway show or a U2 concert -- are infinitely easier to replicate with a high-end stereo since those genres are powered by electricity to begin with.
I’m not the world’s biggest opera lover, but several of the comparatively few ones I have seen (like Carmen, Otello, Salome, Capriccio, and Moses Und Aron) rank among my great aesthetic experiences.
I don’t listen to any of that music at home or on my iPod. But live, I was electrified.
In Otello, I remember fervently hoping that the lead wasn’t going to murder Desdemona. I knew that he was, of course. But the intensity of my feeling - which pushed me almost to the point of tears - helped me remember why we strive and care about anything. I was taught something about what it means to be human. Shakespeare didn’t give that lesson when I saw the play, but Verdi did when I saw the opera.
Admittedly, since Byrne has covered traditional opera (His version of Verdi’s “Un di Felice, Eterea” with Rufus Wainwright is lovely), then he must have something good to say about it.
But this is Wagner he’s taking down, and Wagner is its own category. As we all know, a lot of the best musicians and artists can agree on disapproving of Wagner. He’s so long and so boring. He was also an anti-Semitic douchebag.
Since I’ve never seen it live, I don’t know the Ring. And I’m in no hurry to do so, because I’m afraid I’ll then become an Aunt Terwiliger-type who stays inside listening to Wagner except when I travel the globe to judge the latest Wotan.
Because it must be true. I personally know two converts who always used to hate Wagner and now travel to see the Ring. Even the most politically-correct souls -- the ones who support multiculturalism in all its forms, and would never otherwise want to be associated with a real proto-Nazi in any way -- take on a hushed, angelic glow when discussing the Ring, if they are Wagnerites. For them, the Ring is the finest work in Western history, bar none.
I can’t believe that Byrne, with all the people he’s interacted with in the course of his long and far-reaching career, has never met someone who didn’t have a special kind of gleam in their eye when they talked about Wagner. Surely he knows that gleam is why any of us in the arts keep going despite all manner of social and economic obstacles.
32 million dollars is probably too much, but authentic transcendence is worth paying for. The day we quit subsidizing performances of the Ring is the day we lose a significant part of the shared human heritage.
Just In Time
The following post took on the question, "Are we allowed to criticize Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock?" I walked into that quagmire via a public apology to Matthew Shipp, who I had previously taken to task for his dismissive comments about Shorter (he called the David Ware quartet "infinitely greater" than the current Shorter quartet).
After posting and dealing with a hurricane of comments, I realized that this piece could have been better if I had realized what I was really writing about. My lead was a blindfold test (which I admitted was "tendentious") consisting of two tiny pieces of Wayne post-Weather Report electric music and the question, "What does this music sound like?" As I had hoped, 25 people called the following clips "Smooth Jazz."
Download Blindfold_1 ("Virgo Rising” from High Life)
Download Blindfold_2 (“Cathay” from Joy Ryder)
But I didn't realize that that genre was my true topic here, and got bogged down in playing fanboy to Wayne and Herbie's early acoustic music. I plan to say more about all of this at some point, maybe after I get up the courage to listen to The Imagine Project. For now, here are the best parts of the old piece.
1. Bad Judgment
In David Adler’s fascinating article on Matthew Shipp in a recent JazzTimes, I’m quoted as placing Shipp’s dismissal of the Wayne Shorter quartet “In the fool’s corner with the worst of Wynton, Branford, and Crouch.”
I was taken aback when someone showed me this quote and regret having used such strong language. My intention was not to single out Shipp, but rather to point out how three generations of avant-garde jazz listeners (Amiri Baraka, Thurston Moore, and Shipp) have all been dismissive of Wayne Shorter. I worry that this seeming lack of curiosity about a major centrist figure has the potential to harm the music by keeping it from cross-pollinating as it should. But I could have easily made my point without the phrase “fool’s corner.” I sometimes disagree with Shipp, Wynton, Branford, and Crouch, but none of them are ever fools. It is I who look foolish here.
Fortunately, Shipp was fairly gracious in his response to my comment, and I definitely owe him this public apology. I have enjoyed listening to Shipp’s music and reading his opinions, too.
Shorter is one of my very favorite musicians. It's hardly controversial to say this, for he is one of the most famous living jazz players. Yet, for all his fame, I don’t think his unique artistry is well understood. If I want to make a case for my contemporaries checking out Wayne Shorter, rather than calling names, I should just write about Wayne Shorter.
2. Flagships and Anthems
Adler's article goes on to give more extensive quotes by Shipp that I'm more sympathetic to:
"I’ve heard the band a couple of times where Wayne was really questionable. People like him and Herbie Hancock, their careers were made from their early 20s on, and they’ve had all the accoutrements that the jazz industry can give. You can’t give them the benefit of the doubt.
“Writers have often gotten me on a day when I’m in a bad mood over the fact that somebody like Ware or myself has to go out and prove ourselves every time, whereas people like this can go out there and bullshit and get away with it. And whenever they play a festival they’re getting like 90 percent of the money the festival has. At times I feel someone like Herbie Hancock is taking up space. I feel his work doesn’t warrant it. I feel everything he’s done in the last 20 or 30 years is crap."
I don’t think everything that Herbie’s done lately is crap!
But when you’ve been around the block a few times, you begin to notice how acclaimed figures like Shorter and Hancock do seem to get a free pass. I admit to being occasionally a bit disappointed by their live shows, like their duo in Carnegie Hall, which had great moments but was pretty unfocused. But at least that was a concept with real merit. There are numerous recorded documents of various jazz legends -- including, regrettably, Shorter and Hancock -- playing bloated, shapeless gigs that are obviously just thrown-together affairs with no rehearsal or oversight, and undoubtedly got a disproportionate part of the festival budget.
No one seems to tell these legends, “Why didn’t you rehearse?” or “That was boring.” Instead, they get told, “Your concert was the highlight of the festival!” and get hired again immediately. It is just like how some other legends (not Shorter or Hancock in this case) played for years with unworthy sidemen. Their imprimatur was gold so they got the gigs whether the band was good or not. I do think that consistently giving big names money and respect for inferior music has harmed jazz. At least, it seems vaguely corporate: “Our flagship product sells the rest of the line.” (One of my admittedly novice theories is that you just can’t really get corporate with jazz in either how you make it or how you sell it: Instead of the hoped-for expansion into serious commercial profit, the music just wilts and everybody loses money. Maybe I’ll expound on this idea in another post.)
However, the current Shorter quartet is not the band to blame. It's fine not to like it - not everybody does - but they are all serious musicians and have developed a unique language together. It’s not a casual money gig for anybody. It’s not just “taking up space.” Indeed, it is really quite weird music that seems to pride itself on not having a conventional foreground and background. Somehow, I’ve never managed to see them live, but several serious people have told me that Wayne’s quartet was, indeed, “The highlight of the festival,” and they said it like they meant it.
But more power to Shipp for calling out an indisputable imbalance between props and product often found in jazz. If I had realized that this was where he was coming from, I wouldn’t have been so eager to pull his quote for my own purposes.
3. “Tendentious,” indeed
I don’t think I’ve ever read a major jazz critic addressing this topic in a serious way, and I can understand why. Before Shipp, the famous example of a Shorter takedown (although not on this topic) was Peter Watrous’s old essay in the New York Times, and Watrous was crucified for it. People are still furious about what he wrote! I linked to it last year with the comment that Watrous was “prescient” and received a flurry of appalled emails from major musicians and those connected to the jazz industry.
I have too much respect for Wayne, Miles Davis, and the best fusion in general to have written from Watrous’s angle or to have complete sympathy for his piece. But Watrous did indeed predict the future in his closing argument: Wayne does command higher fees with the acoustic quartet than with the post-Weather Report electric bands. I’ve checked with insiders, and that’s just a fact.
And while I can’t know this for sure, my firm impression is that most fans of Wayne Shorter prefer the quartet to the electric records. Watrous called that one correctly, too.
OK, time to do penance for the “Tendentious” blindfold test. I admit that the post-Weather Report electric Wayne happens to be my least favorite period of Shorter. Once I had WBGO on in the rental car while not paying too much attention, and suddenly was rather appalled. “Has WBGO started programming smooth jazz?” I asked my friend. Of course, it wasn’t smooth jazz; it was something from High Life or Joy Ryder or Atlantis or Phantom Navigator. This “down the elevator shaft” moment is how I rationalized pulling the most smooth clips I could find for my blindfold test.
None of Wayne’s albums are actually smooth jazz! The complete tracks of “Virgo Rising” and “Cathay” have great saxophone playing on them. Juxtaposition is a major tactic on all these albums, and in context, those clips mean something different than in solitary confinement. Please, those scratching your heads in bewilderment: go check out these records, go check out the complete tracks. It’s WAYNE SHORTER, after all. By default, this is important music.
My point -- besides that listening to music without knowing who made it is really interesting -- is that I sympathize with Watrous’s view of these albums as smooth jazz enough to want want more articles like his, not less. I’m bummed at how the one piece of serious, and seriously critical, dialogue with Wayne’s solo electric music has been dismissed as ludicrous. Is Wayne automatically above criticism just because he is Wayne? Watch the videos of the Manhattan Project on YouTube, especially “Summertime.” Of course Shorter, Petrucciani, Clarke and White are all great musicians, but is their collective sound not simply competent smooth jazz? Is this really the version of “Nefertiti” you want to hear?
Leaving aside Wayne for a moment, surely the equivalent of some of the big marquee gigs and records wildly applauded in jazz music would be pummeled if they were in rock or classical music. Those are both genres where you have to come to play or else.
In my opinion, Jazz is good and powerful enough to hang tough in the face of powerful criticism. It’s cheerful indifference that will kill us off.
As far as I can tell, Shorter could take it -- just like Matthew Shipp and I have both had to take it at times. We’re all still standing, though.
4. A week later...
A reader suggested that I amplify my comment, “More power to Shipp for calling out an indisputable imbalance between props and product often found in jazz.” This person thought that the solo electric Shorter is not particularly critically praised or best-selling, and therefore doesn’t have so much “props.” Indeed, perhaps it is “cult music,” where a few rabid fans defend records most people don’t interact with much.
Fair enough. How about the record that won album of the year at the Grammys, not in the jazz category but in the overall, “This is the best album of 2007” category?
I’ve been listening to that album, Herbie Hancock’s River: The Joni Letters this past week. Hey, if you want to hear an F minor 11 chord played with the most luscious tone imaginable, Herbie’s your man. I once read a review that talked about Artur Rubinstein’s “lifelong fingertip magic,” and Herbie has that same thing. It’s displayed on River: The Joni Letters in spades.
However, the best part of the album is the singing. I wrote above that rock musicians have to produce or die. All the popular singers on this disc bring their A-game. They were probably terrified at the thought of singing one icon’s music with another icon on piano. That’s awesome!
And the presence of Vinnie Colaiuta is intriguing. I’ve been a follower since seeing him live with Jeff Beck a few years ago -- the only appropriate response was, “Holy shit” -- but most of the music I’ve heard him play wasn’t that flexible or improvisatory. (Watch the “Zildjian day” video from 1984. BTW, if you aren’t at least partially into this video, get off this blog now.) But on River: The Joni Letters Vinnie is playing in a quiet acoustic jazz setting, a style in which most fusion/rock drummers sound uncomfortable. Unsurprisingly, given what a badass he is, he sounds great. Indeed, his luminous ride cymbal beat on “Nefertiti” kind of makes that cut work for me. I can’t imagine another drummer primarily associated with rock and fusion showing as much casual undulation as Vinnie does here.
Unfortunately, with the exception of “Nefertiti,” Vinnie doesn’t get to do much on River besides play innocuous quiet grooves with great feel. That’s because River is an album of mood music.
I like mood music a lot; I have a collection of it. But those “tendentious” clips of Wayne are nothing compared to the “wine and candlelit dinner accompaniment” samples I could have pulled from River. I’ll follow Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s lead and call this album “smooth sailing.”
Smooth. That word. Why don’t I like it when conjoined with “jazz?” I think it must mean that it’s not music that you would really get excited about or study. You almost put it on in order not to listen to it. It’s just there in the background, sounding pretty. Young people are not going to quit what they are doing and change the world inspired by anything “smooth,” or, for sure, “smooth jazz.”
Anyway, an album of smooth sailing in the acoustic jazz style won Album of the Year. Although Ben Ratliff discussed this Grammy win with a raised eyebrow, he didn’t come out against the win or the album -- maybe because doing so would be like saying you want to drown kittens or something -- and I’m also fairly certain that this album was extensively lauded in the jazz press.
I don’t want to be known for drowning kittens, either, but I’ll just say what I think: The fact that this album was selected as the corporate flagship product for jazz is bad for our art form. The message is, “Jazz is the music you should have respect for, but you don’t need listen to it too carefully, or get excited about it.”
When respect is all you have left, not love or passion, that’s bad news.
Terry Teachout wrote a provocative piece last year called “Can Jazz Be Saved?” that had a lot of people upset. Teachout wasn’t attacking jazz, though. Terry is merely harshly reminding us that jazz used to be popular music, and it isn’t anymore. To me, that seems supremely uncontroversial.
Terry and I have different feelings about this music, and I would not have written that piece from his angle. It would be impossible for me to leave race out of it, for one thing. If jazz rises again as popular music, I predict the black community being responsible, just as they were the first time around. It will be some kind of new music with brilliant instrumental players that know hip-hop, soul, and R&B as well as what Wynton Marsalis rightfully wants them to know about jazz history -- but without too much respect for anything. That’ll be it: jazz will be popular again, people will dance to it, etc.
I’m about to publish an interview with Gerald Early where we talk about smooth jazz in the black community a bit. That’s an interesting topic! Stay tuned for that, but for now I am going to be bold and say that albums like River: The Joni Letters are an impediment to the creation of the new populist jazz music of my dreams. For such albums to be so uniformly lauded gives them that much more power to undercut fresh expression.
There are two things I can pull from pop culture to make my point. First, there’s this truly hilarious post at Stuff White People Like:
Every few a months, a white person will put on some Jazz and pour themselves a glass of wine or scotch and tell themselves how nice it is. Then they will get bored and watch television or write emails to other white people about how nice it was to listen to Jazz at home. “Last night, I poured myself a glass of Shiraz and put Charlie Parker on the Bose. It was so relaxing, I wish I had a fireplace.” Listing this activity as one of your favorites is a sure fire way to make progress towards a romantic relationship with a white person.
The problem with this otherwise deeply embarrassing paragraph is the use of “Charlie Parker” as its subject. Charlie Parker is not something the bourgeoisie listens to. He’s too raw and uncompromising, and his music will always be avant-garde. Not even Charlie Parker with Strings goes with Shiraz. But River: The Joni Letters could fit perfectly. (In fact, my wife and I once went to a dinner date at the home of an archetypal bougie couple where we drank wine and made small talk, and they put Herbie’s Gershwin’s World on the stereo as soon as we came in.)
Secondly, there’s the use of jazz on The Wire, a TV series I recommend to anyone interested in race relations in America.
I haven’t watched the fifth season yet, but so far I’ve noticed jazz in only two places: Lester Freamon listening to Duke, Mingus and Max’s “Fleurette Africaine” in his office, and Bunny Colvin having Billie Holiday on his car stereo. Obviously, these super-intelligent black men -- one the greatest homicide detective on the team, the other supremely dedicated to changing the world for the better -- were encoded with what the producers thought was the “highest and smartest form of black art.” Well, I couldn’t agree more with the producers here. Duke, Mingus, Max, Billie -- and I’ll borrow Bird from Christian Lander -- this is the smartest, best, most revolutionary and rawly truthful music produced, not just by black musicians, but by any musicians, anywhere, ever. It still has the power to inspire us today to try to do better.
Can you imagine the producers encoding Freamon or Colvin with River: The Joni Letters instead? They would immediately seem less heroic for sure.
(Just to be clear, I’m talking about the characters of Freamon and Colvin. I have no idea what music the marvelous actors Clarke Peters and Robert Wisdom are fans of. Stereotypes are always inherently demeaning. It’s only in their roles as iconic figures that these men’s listening habits in music take on sociological meaning.)
And I’ll go a step further: is there any jazz being made today that would be a good choice for encoding the revolutionary characters of Freamon and Colvin? Sure, I predict your outraged response, and if you forced me, I guess I could come up with a few selections myself, especially from the more avant-garde styles. But they wouldn’t have the same symbolic clarity as the Duke and Billie tracks from over half a century ago -- and that, far more than any WSJ article, is a deeply sobering commentary on the state of jazz now.
5. Think of the '60s
While I’m taking on River: The Joni Letters, I’d like to digress on the jazz tradition of covering Joni Mitchell, which stretches back at least to Keith Jarrett’s 1971 album The Mourning of A Star.
There are three trio albums with Keith, Charlie Haden, and Paul Motian: Life Between the Exit Signs (1967), Somewhere Before (1968), and The Mourning of a Star (1971). The last album is my least favorite of the three, and I doubt anyone considers it Keith’s best record. During the same sessions for Mourning of a Star the band added Dewey Redman for the companion album Birth, which instantly transformed their music from merely brilliant to immortal, and that quartet went on to become one of the greatest jazz groups. But the final trio disc is an honest concept album attempting a bold transgression -- the melding of hardcore free jazz with the Woodstock generation’s folk/rock.
There’s a Bob Dylan track on Somewhere Before, but in that case the folk/rock piece feels like one of many panels of musical history, along with ragtime, standards, swing, and the free jazz burn. On Mourning of a Star, though, almost every track is either free jazz, post-hippie groove, or a combination of both. The slight version of “All I Want” is played fairly straight without improvising. (The overdubbed flute is the kind of endearingly bad choice that all the best artists make at some point.) This Joni cover frames the other music: it’s a cue to hear the perspective of the rest of the record.
Herbie, Wayne, and Co. do a negative image of the same thing on River: The Joni Letters. Their exploratory version of that famous original, “Nefertiti,” is done in the same style as all the Joni covers. It’s a genuinely helpful piece of context, just as “All I Want” is on The Mourning of a Star.
I’m only bringing up this really old Keith track because the practice of instrumental musicians influenced by jazz improvising on rock and pop pieces is finally really gaining ground. To me, the approach of Herbie and Keith on this kind of music demonstrates two opposing tactics: Herbie adds a lot of impressionistic added-note chords that he and Bill Evans made fairly standard in jazz, and Keith plays the harmony in bright primary colors like triads and simple dominants. Herbie transforms the basic changes into hip jazz, and Keith is more connected to the original genre.
Obviously, I’m not a dispassionate observer! But it would help all of us who are involved in this process -- or reviewing it -- to realize that there are these diverse traditions. I’m more in Keith’s camp, of course, and one of the reasons is that there’s no danger of ever sounding like “smooth sailing” if you never get "Bill Evans-ey" with non-II/V material.
(I’m wildly oversimplifying here, and -- like any other professional -- have nothing but the deepest respect for Herbie Hancock’s harmonic imagination.)