All of the above is written as a way of approaching my new musical project, in which once more I flail against the growing depths of my own anonymity (because for what other reason would I have to keep writing and recording music?).
In the early stages of this (essentially American Song) project and in its rationales, I toyed, as I often do, with the racial questions invariably raised by the sources of the music I find most interesting – jazz, gospel music, ragtime, 1920s and 1930s pop standards, the blues, black and white hillbilly song, and what I will call, for want of a better term, Minstrel Pop (early song forms characterized, in some cases, by certain ideas of vernacular lyrics as crossed with minstrel conventions and by relatively simple folk-derived harmonic schemes, with diatonic or even near-modal melodies). I also toyed for some time – and am still toying – with a theme related to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a novel for which I was especially enthused after reading the actual text and then the praises heaped upon it by blackintellectuals like W.E.B. Dubois. Imagine my liberal surprise when some of the African American musicians I contacted to perform on the recording were, shall we say, less than enthused by the idea of participating in something named for this servile-by-image token of American literary history.
I quickly found out that my original project title, Visions of Uncle Tom (which I did indeed intend with multiple cultural and racial and political associations and ironies) was fraught with sociological and political dangers. I though at the time that it was a good title (and still do, along with the original subtitles which were: “In the Time of Abolitionist Minstrels or: The Condescension of the Abolitionists.” The latter was taken from the novelist and poet Paul Beatty’s cynical take on the ways in which whites have always told blacks how and what they should be feeling from a personal and sociological viewpoint). So, though I did not reject the title outright (and am still internally debating ways in which I might make use of it) I found myself re-thinking, not the project itself but the basic way in which it will be presented.
I soon realized several things. Unlike with, say, Julius Hemphill, who wrote a piece for the dancer Bill T. Jones called Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin, my options were potentially limited in racially defined ways – obviously, it is much different for a white guy to throw the name Uncle Tom around than it is for an African American. No big surprise there, as with other forms of either negative or what is perceived as negative terminology. As I contemplated how to proceed, and started gathering a large cast of musicians to record the music, several important things occurred to me.
1) For white people, racism is like original sin; no, it’s not LIKE original sin, it IS original sin. Just as the theological concept of same says that you are born with the sin of the ancients, so are all white people brought into the world with the history of American racism as something to be borne, not so much as burden but as reality, asa constant that involves privilege, actions, assumptions and language. Is this atruly post-racial society? It is not now and will not, I am convinced, be so in my lifetime (I am 58 years old). Whites still regularly do and say things which carry the assumption of privilege and superiority, and I am making no exceptions here, though of course there are, as Don Byron once said to me “different degrees of racism.” It is something a lot of people struggle with, but the key world is struggle. Things have gotten a lot better, but in a truly post-racial world, there would be no NEED to struggle, and Newt Gingrich would not be seen, on television, contrasting English as “the language of prosperity” with Spanish as “the language of the ghetto.”
2) One of the reasons (or really a prime motivation) for the rise of various Black Arts Movements of the last 50 years or so is a sense that African Americans have spent too much time allowingthemselves to be defined by whites, and in white terms. This has happened socially (concepts of looks and beauty, for example) and behaviorally (part of the mystification of black culture, from the 1600s on, is related to white wonderment at the apparent lack of expressive inhibition in the practices of black music, dance and language), the freedom therein being constantly measured against certain Western (read: white) standards of sound, form, and decorum. But the key term here is Western – because much critical theory, or at the least critical response to black art, is couched in terms that are inevitably related to the background of the writer who, in probably the majority of cases (though thankfully this has changed significantly over the years) has been white. So although one might argue that we don’t really need to pick between Western and Non-Western theory (an area in which, anyway, I am way out my depth) and that the important thing is simply strong and educated critical standards, the result is the same: self-determination, as a cultural response to either poor or non-comprehension, has animated the creation of African American improvised music for many years, from the AACM to the St. Louis collectives to the Loft Movement of the 1970s to the mushrooming of independent labels in the 1970s and 1980s. The best (and even many lesser) white critics have come to understand and adapt to this, to realize that they need a deeper and broader intellectual range in order to properly deal with the full scope of the music, both black and white, of the post-modernist 20th and 21st century (though certainly, and this is related to where I am going with all of this, some African American performers of a more nationalist bent might argue thatjust as someone on trial is entitled to a jury of his peers, the African American artist requires an African American critic to accurately understand the sources of his or her art. Though I don’t think this is really a prevalent or dominant opinion).
So basically one important and relevant problem is and was a frustration, on the part of African American artists in all forms, at having their lives mediated through the experiences of white people. And I certain agree that, while this is a hugely complicated subject, it is also a legitimate concern, born out by the millions and millions of words of poorly composed criticism that have poured out of various on and off-line publications through the years (and though I would argue that under-qualification is not exclusively a racial problem, I do recall reading some of the older record reviews in Downbeat, from the 1950s in particular, and cringing at certain almost bizarrely self-righteous white critics who seemed regularly to be saying in essence, in response to new music:”why didn’t these guys ask me first? I know where the future of jazz is and how to get there!”)
And yet….and yet, this form of mediation, of lives as seen through the eyes of others, contains more than the germ of something potentially more interesting, of a possible basis for something, maybe, a little bit new. So I got to thinking, one day – well, if this (black life as mediated through white experience) has been prevalent, to the point of being racially oppressive and of provoking hostility, is there a way I turn the concept around and use it in a more creative and constructive (and personal) way? And then I realized, that, in my life, at least, such a thing has been happening for many years. While I can honestly say that I have never fetishized blackness in the sense in which the term has commonly been used, I have, from the age of 14, at the very least, idolized hundreds, maybe thousands ofblack musicians – but not for their blackness, or by reason of racial or sexual envy, or even from a sense of white-suburban alienation, as the theorists of fetishization might posit. I admired them for the most innocent of reasons, for the ideas they expressed, the sounds they were able to produce through physical performance and composition. I mean, give me break. Bird wasn’t a junkie stud to me when I was 14 and just beginning to listening to him, Sonny Rollins was no stereotypical, omniscient, all-powerful black man, Bud Powell was, and always has been for me, much, much more than a symbol of racial torment, Monk was no racialized carnival freak, and Louis Armstrong was anything but a shell/minstrel man. These people were to me (as with many others I wouldmeet and listen to over the years) simply the great artists of our time, the people I admired and then, as I got into music more deeply, analyzed.
But there was something else I suddenly realized, and which speaks ironically to some of the things I have felt the need to worry about with my new project and its Uncle Tom implications – if black musicians fretted at having their lives seen through white eyes, as having their ways mediated through white experience, what was there to say for the prime cultural influences on my own life? Who were James Reese Europe? Lester Young? Son House? Duke Ellington? Sonny Rollins? Charlie Parker? Jelly Roll Morton? Dickey Wells? Rosetta Tharpe? Sister Mamie Forehand? Arizona Dranes? Jimi Hendrix? Bessie Johnson? Bud Powell? Lil Green? Anthony Braxton? Mamie Smith? Sonny Clay? Utah Smith? Julius Hemphill? Ironically or not, these were black men and women through whom my life was mediated, great artists who not only changed my entire outlook but governed a great deal of my personal actions and attitudes, who effected my work, altered my whole personal orientation, and who refocused my entire life in ways that were not only personally demanding but technically and intellectually unforgiving. All of which attracted, no, consumed me, not, once more, by reason of their so-called “blackness” but by way ofthe things they were able to create, by their monumental personal achievements. Which was, however and of course, paradoxically, as we so well know, closely and maybe irretrievablerelated to their blackness, depending on how we define the term (and if this were an internet post, here I would place one of those little smiley symbols).
What, I thought, if I tried organizing a musical project in which I reversed the charges? What if I tried to show how my life has and would and will look as seen through the mediation of African American musicians and other African American cultural figures (with maybe a stray white person dropped here and there, as long as it was thematically consistent)? The result is what you may soon hear, compositions that are essentially my own re-working of other texts, in the best (I hope) Brechtian sense. They are re-creations, but not like those kind you see on cheap documentaries. They are more like new paintings done over the originals, not tributes, and not merely references, but attempts to re-do things in my own image, to manage my own life as it has emerged in the shadow (shade?) of American and, more specifically, African American music.
(Though of course I retain the right to detach my personal self from the results as necessary, to create myself, to paraphrase Rimbaud, as the other, to define a new persona for myself that might be called, after the trends of certain kinds of literature, from Handke to Robbe Grillet to Beckett, “the impersonal I.” But that is another matter).
So herein we see all that is me, through minstrelsy’s complicated contradictions; through the “corruption” (all of my own doing) of ragtime; through the unpredictable flow of Sun Ra, the stop-start melodicism of Anthony Braxton, the blinking harmony of Duke Ellington, the melodic density of Charlie Parker, the folk sophistication of Blind Boone, the constantly resolving and then re-built tensions in the music of Bud Powell; the determined if somewhat indeterminate modernism of Paul Whiteman (who, not-so-incidentally, employed and paid well the African Americans William Grant Still and Don Redman and who, anyway, had a great and lasting orchestra); through Varese (who encountered Charlie Parker in Greenwich Village in Bird’s last days and whose composition Ionisation debuted the same night as works by William Russell, who was the man who re-discovered Bunk Johnson), Bix and Trumbauer (who both followed and effected the great black jazz players of their day), the cultural night vision of Ma Rainey and her travelling shows, the showbiz soul/subtlety of Joe Jordan, the tents and circuses of early black music, the flailing delta blues of Son House and Charley Patton, the hillbilly songs of the great white/black Diaspora of the South, through Jelly Roll Morton as filtered through Julius Hemphill’s conscious extension of certain Southwestern sonic and melodic traditions; by way of the great black minstrel Ernest Hogan, through the ides of storefront gospel as heard through the shrill moans of Bessie Johnson and Arizona Dranes – and then a few odds and ends of less determinate (if sometimes paler) origin, the gently zig zagging songs of Arthur Russell, Yoko Ono’s accidental artistry, Iggy and the Stooges’ post-blue and neo-punk, pseudo-artsy narcissism, Paul Goodman’s delicately oppositional poetry, and, of course, my constant, my hoodoo/voudon gal and zombie hunter, Zora Neale Hurston.
I was re-reading Norman Mailer’s The White Negro recently, and then a few essays in the Greg Tate-edited book Everything but the Burden. Tate’s book is a very interesting collection of pieces on what whites have absorbed and taken (stolen?) from black culture. In a way weirdly complimentary to many of the ideas in Everything but the Burden, Mailer’s seminal essay posits the whitehipster as a cross-racial personification of black existential being. White hipsterism, in Mailers essential description, represents a white way of adapting to black mores, and is driven by, among other things, a desire to challenge white (suburban?) sexual and cultural denial. Beyond this, as he gets into specific detail, Mailer theorizes that white hipsters are, in essence, consciously challenging their own imprisonment in the white race, in the process going for a thrill ride on that mystical yet viscerally effecting roller coaster we might, after the French, call Negritude.
I remember distinctly that I found Mailer’s logic suspect even when I first read the essay in high school, at the suggestion of a classmate who thought Mailer’s depiction of hipsterism was complimentary to we suburban white boys. After all, we were just starting to understand jazz, the blues, and other African American forms and take them to heart, both directly (through the recordings and the occasional concert in nearby New York City) and indirectly (through the emerging roots-consciousness of then-contemporary folk music and rock and roll ). Though I could not articulate it fully, even at that tender age (16) and in that year (1970) I thought Mailer’s ideas were false, that his particular theory of white shadowing of black form was a misguided and even racist (particularly by way of its sexual stereotyping) recognition of what was an important fact: that African American culture is American culture, and part of a birthright for which one need not necessarily qualify by virtue of race but also by care and understanding: with respect, recognition, and even, to some extent, reparations of a social and intellectual nature.
I was thinking back on this recently in light of various controversies that have raged of late in the jazz world, prompted by some of trumpeter Nicholas Payton’s proclamations and then another contemporary jazz musician’sverbal essay on YouTube. That musician tells us in this that, for whites, learning jazz is like him attempting Mariachi music; it can be learned by rote, but never really felt (and thus played) in a fundamentally authentic way, due to cultural limitations, a lack of initiation into “the life” (my phrase, not his, but clearly his meaning) and the kind of intellectual self-deception that leads we white folks to repeat, like a sad and desperate mantra, that it’s all American music and it’s all one music, part of the broader spectrum of good and bad art (as in that by-now old and tired saw, “there are only two kinds of music….”) and that we are all just people, after all….(shades of Miss America).
Aside from this musician’s general problem of self deception (if he is talking about cultural limitations, well, than, the most culturally specific music I hear these days is hip hop, for which he and almost all African American jazz musicians are as culturally disadvantaged and under-qualified as I and my fellow white musicians), I feel he is dead wrong in most respects, especially as regards jazz and the cultural furies. The truth, as it has been for some time, is that jazz today operates on a cultural plane that is far different than that which it occupied in some of its older days. By now it is a cultural common denominator much more than it is a folk form, and has been so for a very long time (and of course I am far from the first person to say so). But the deeper truth is that that musician and Payton are wrong for reasons that have a more complicated intellectual and emotional scope. Certainly American culture, with its constant tension of African American innovation and technical development succeeded by white response, has informed my work as much as it has informed his. But there is a lot more to it than that. Because as with some of the attitudes expressed in that book edited by Greg Tate, there are inherent contradictions embodied by various direct and peripheral expressions of what is, by any other name, just a new form of Afro-Centricism.
One of the prevailing theories regarding white love of African American culture is related to the alleged Caucasian glorification, eroticization, and exotification of all things black, an essential fetishization of what might have been called, years ago (and see above) Negritude. I have seen these allegations made in a thousand essays on the relationship of white and black culture and cultural practices. And there is a certain logic to this point of view, especially as reflected in traditional white racial ambivalence: a fascination with, yet fear of, black bodies, as expressed, among other ways, through the lineage of politically and socially-motivated atrocities committed against African Americans: think, just for starters, of slavery, lynchings, Jim Crow, and myriad other forms of domestic terrorism. Not to mention the condescending arc of Euro-critical images (particular during the jazz age) of the inherent, born-to-dance grace of early African American stage performers.
And yet…there are problems with this basic theory. The first is one of basic inner logic: while I have read more than one cultural critique by black writers of such white fetishization of black essences, the literature of African American cultural writing is filled which just such forms of mystification, with African American literary attempts to downgrade white efforts at American cultural expression by reason of physical, cultural, and racial distance (or, really, inferiority). The same forms of eroticization, and exotification which have been vilified as attitudes of degradation when in the hands of whites are useful clubs with which to beat white people over the head, to re-enforce certain cultural boundaries and distances (remember that Richard Prior routine in which, as a parody of Sixties political expression, he read a poem in which the only word was “Black” repeated over and over again with increasing intensity?).
Certainly there is a deep sense of cultural mystery (and mystique) in all of this white recognition(going back at least 300 years) of black accomplishment, a constant feeling of wonder, expressed by whites, at certain paradoxically and indigenously brilliant neo-Africanretentions. There is an understanding inherent in such critical response of the genius of the musical and language systems devised by African Americans in the New World. There is a recognition, as well, of the constant invention and reinvention of new forms in this essentially (but not solely) musically modernist, African American system of expression. But white recognition and high praise for such is not necessarily the same thing as fetishization and eroticization of the intellectual object. Certainly the whites whom I know and respect and who either admire or write about or perform these art forms (or who do anycombination thereof) are aware that creativity is as much a matter of instinct as direct consciousness. But conflating emotion and intellect is far different than confusing mystical gobbledygook with the concrete and core intellectual requirements of creation and performance. And truth be told, a lot of African American writing, in trying to create a poetic dimension to fill that same gap between thought and creation, dances the dance of racial exclusivity. Argue for this if you will; but then, don’t complain about whites who see this as an exotic, deeply spiritual, and therefore mystical cultural leap.
Certainly Mailer was, of course, also, guilty, of such mystification. In a way he was ahead of his time: right for the wrong reasons? Or wrong for the right reasons?
The real truth is that I have known thousands of great musicians, black and white – and that NONE fit the cultural conditions set by so many black AND white writers. Not a one of them is or was, by any stretch of the imagination, a hipster(though most were “hip” by any standard) – they were serious, studious, deeply intellectual men and women, for whom jazz and its performance was as much an intellectual as emotional exercise. Which is not to say that they had little or no understanding of the weighty racial and cultural issues involved. I had, for example, a few long talks with the black bassist Jamil Nasser, who worked with and had a deep personal attachment to the great white bebop pianist Al Haig, in which Jamil said he felt that Haig had very profoundly committed himself to what has been called by others ‘the jazz life,’ a way of life which, to Jamil’s way of thinking, came at no little personal expense. To him Haig had, indeed, paid the kind of dues, both life and otherwise, that jazz required. Jamil felt that Haig could have taken certain kinds of cultural and financial advantage of his whiteness, but that he had neither the temperament or desire to do so (and of course, Bud Powell, the epitome of great African American jazz pianism, called Haig “a perfect pianist”).
Take a roll call of all of the musicians I’ve known especially well, from Haig to Barry Harris, Joe Albany, Bob Neloms, Tommy Potter, Bill Triglia, Jaki Byard, Curley Russell, Dick Katz, Dickey Meyers, Dave Schildkraut. All were truly working musicians, and each had his own deep knowledge and understanding of jazz. I won’t tell you which were black and which were white, though of course it would not be difficult to find out who was what. But Dizzy Gillespie (certainly the hippest of the hip and essentially a teacher, as each told me, to both Haig and Katz) said to me that the greatest alto saxophonist he heard after Charlie Parker was Schildkraut – and Schildkraut was a white Jew who told me he’d flown in alien space ships and who became, in his last years, more and more Orthodox in his studious and obsessive application of his native Judaism. And it was the African American Jaki Byard who told me one night, in a confiding if near-off handed manner that was meant to mask the deep seriousness of his remark, that the reason the trumpeter Don Ellis was not more widely recognized by the jazz press was “because he was white.” I was a very impressionable 22 or 23 at the time, and it took me some time to truly understand the complexity of Jaki’s belief in this particular fact. But he meant exactly what he said, and he said it in the way he said it because he was not only deeply pained by his friend’s lack of acceptance, but because he knew that acknowledging the reason for such went very much against the grain of certain and very accepted social and political tenets.
Ironically or not, I write all of the above on the same day that an article in the New York Times, on the neurological importance of reading fiction, tells us that “the brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life.” Might the same apply to the learning of music by listening to it on records as so many of we white (and, truth be told, black) folks did, at least initially? And if so, what does this tell us about certain claims of racial exclusivity? Because if the brain converts things on the written page from observation to experience, what does listening to thousands of hours of music, particularly that made by long-dead (and usually African American) musicians in the years before World War II, do? On a personal level this has made me wonder about the potential skewing of various cultural theories of both micro and macro determinism, from the big-picture questions of “realness” and authenticity of Zora Neale Hurston, to the more localized and indigenous habits of language and inflection as described by Alan Lomax. Is simply listening another form of socialization and acculturation, a means of psychological accumulation that is intellectually, emotionally, and anthropologically correct?
In all of this, by the way, I was reminded of some of the criticisms that have been leveled against the old white blues advocates who promoted and essentially instigated the 1960s blues revival. I’ve gotten to know a few of these people, who have been subjected to these same general charges, of over-romanticizing the African American music and musicians that they helped to bring into the mainstream by, as the allegation goes, pushing artificial, racialist, romantic ideas of historicity and authenticity. I think these claims are nonsense, because once again they ignore the real and less sensational reasons these men and women admired and advocated for this music: as with my own emerging love of jazz as a teenager, the real truth is less interesting: they did not like the music because they thought it was authentic – they thought it was authentic because they liked it. A common (and very) human response. Also, I would say, a crucial and major distinction, and one which points in the opposite direction of racialized, condescending praise.
Here’s something truly earth-shaking – finally some real documentation of one of the greatest African American entertainers in history, Frank Half Pint Jaxon.
the most astounding thing in that, aside from the discovery that he lived 10 years longer than previously thought, and at one time may have worked for the Pentagon, is that he is in the film Hallelujah, in a short clip doing a terrific and graceful dance. Check out that link; he was a great and hilariously salacious singer
and thanks, btw, to Brian Berger for doing all this incredible research.
just to add an annoying observation, I do feel that a performer like Jaxon helps us to understand the complexity of the history of African American music – that it ain’t all blues, and that the minstrel thing is ever-present (see also Louis and Jabbo) whether we like it or not. But it’s different here – as I told Wynton Marsalis a few years back, this is a classic example of the victimized taking control of the materials previously used to victimize them – and then making something very different out of them.
I’ve been working on a way of expressing my feelings about an issue which has come up through a lot of my recent reading – the relative influence of African Caribbean music on American music. The following, subject to change without notice, will get me started:
One particular thing that has got me going in the last few months has been my own personal research into the ‘roots of roots’ music, so to speak, relative to the pointed emphasis in some academic writing on the African and African-Caribbean sources of American song. While I generally concur on the importance of these lineages, more and more I have come to the conclusion that the academic obsession with such is a form of avoidance of the more complexly layered (and extremely disreputable) sources of the American vernacular. Meaning: if one looks at the direct autobiographical testimony of those who witnessed American song at early and crucial stages of its development- (like: Lafcadio Hearn, Kid Ory, Mance Lipscomb, the Kansas City oral histories, Louis Armstrong, Willie the Lion Smith, Baby Dodds, Cousin Joe, Jelly Roll Morton) one realizes that at a key time of the music’s early development and documentation – the late 19th and early 20thcentury – cultural forces of great power (and of both bluntly religious virtue and deeply personal vice) are in play which, essentially, bury the African and African Caribbean influence under other not only methods of survival and pleasure, but also new ideas of rhythm and swing – not so much as to make those influences unrecognizable (the clave is a peripheral aspect of New Orleans’ first jazz stirrings, and central to the rise of rock and roll; and the African-Caribbean triplet is central to jazz swing); but so as to change them into something very specifically American and radically different from the song forms we see in other parts of the post-African Diaspora.
American music exists in the 19th century as a series of interlocking hybrid forms related most directly to Southern music but also to the rise of a class of professional songwriters and the marketing of sheet music. Also essential to our understanding of the spread of new American music is early African American migration North and West, the rise of music education, and the resultant training of musicians(both black and white) for public brass bands in the North and South. In the late 19th through early 20th century various strains of American music come together and then separate through vehicles of public entertainments: minstrel, circus and tent shows, brass band concerts, vaudeville and other mobile/travelling forms. As recording technology develops, these styles divide themselves into distinctly different forms of indigenous popular music – into ragtime and professional pop song (which overlap and include things like “coon” and ragtime songs a la Ernest Hogan, Al Bernard, Irving Berlin, George M. Cohan, Sophie Tucker, Arthur Collins, Bert Williams, Chris Smith, Shelton Brooks), the blues, jazz, and even pop/gospel. Into the 20th century the music continues to change, and divide itself racially and stylistically. So we get hillbilly music (and there were black hillbillies) more generalized country forms (think breakdowns, shouts, early African American pre-bluegrass and then bluegrass; and then essentially white forms like Western swing, country and western, honky tonk, et al); and African American songster forms that are closely related to both minstrel composition and folk sources, as well as to professionally published sheet music (as in the work of African American songwriters like Alec Rogers).
Jazz and the blues transform themselves from country forms into urban music, though of course their players co-exist with their country brethren, some of whom work hard (particularly in blues and songster forms) to maintain certain musical and social traditions (see John and Alan Lomax’s incredible body of field recordings). White country music, indebted to its own religious and mountain aesthetic, absorbs, in its early years, both the blues and minstrel song traditions and splits itself into its own versions of sinner and saint.
In all of this and in these years of incredible musical ferment the African and African-Caribbean element is not so much discarded as it is buried under a tidal wave of American culture. What some see as a “watering down” of black music I see as a natural progression, the development of a pop aesthetic that is truly multicultural in the American way, and which leads to a complicated layering of black and white influences and performance practices. All of which is informed, in its rhythms, tonality, social applications, and textual meaning (and in a way that is both close to yet psychologically distant from its African roots), by an essentially and pervasively African American aesthetic.
I will add what I believe is the reason academics and others tend to hammer home the message of the Caribbean influence, to such an exaggerated extent – simply put, they tend to be uncomfortable with the disreputable origins of American song, the venues – like whorehouses, violent jukes, minstrel stages – that helped to incubate this incredible Diaspora of sound. But like it or not American pop is the offspring of whores and their accompanists, blackfaced whites AND blackfaced blacks, and other assorted lower-life characters and hillbillies. It is easier – let us say more historically “dignified” – to point in other directions. It is also less accurate, in my opinion. If you don’t believe me, start by reading Jelly Roll Morton’s Library of Congress interview; just be sure you get the unexpurgated version (“if you don’t shake you don’t get no cake….”)…..
I think that one “mistake” John Cage and many others have made and continue to make is in the way in which they focus on finding what they consider to be, in the manner of Zen teaching, a path toward the simplification of sound-composition and production. As I understand it they see such simplification as a new movement of directness, as a means of fighting the obfuscating chaos of standard harmonic systems. And as I interpret it (primarily, but not only, by way Kay Larson’s recent and excellent book, Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists), Cage rejected harmony as a distraction from real life, as the method by which typical musical composition had pulled away from human centers of being, meaning and natural consciousness. Cage, from what I have read, disliked even jazz improvisation as being too predictably predicated on tonal schemes and systems of scales and triads; he thought pure sound, stripped of harmonic encumbrance, brought music closer to life (something with which I would conditionally agree), particularly when the creation of such was organized as a series of questions rather than as finalized answers.
Yes, music (and all art) should ask new questions; but the problem I see with Cage (and with a number of non-vernacular composers from his generation who seemed to continually be seeking new, neo- American, forms) was his near complete blindness to the African American grain of American sound, and to the musical accomplishments of thousands of obscure yet very visible folk. Those things which he found to be too densely domineering in classical music as well as in vernacular and popular song and jazz -triadic harmonic clusters, the near-irresistible force of post-African tonal and rhythmic gravity, the clashing blue tones of the Americanized African Diaspora, the bursts of ad hoc polytonality and internalized dissonance in such diverse improvisers as Charlie Parker, Lennie Tristano, Thelonius Monk Bud Powell – all effectively contradict his sense that harmony was something imposed from outside of nature, as a restrictive intellectual covenant coercively organized to deny natural and ego-less sound and tonal resolution. Not to mention Cage’s deluded sense that he was, by, initially, emphasizing spontaneously-composed percussion works, acting in some kind of revolutionary manner. African American performers had been spontaneously composing (it’s called improvisation, see above), using both drums and tempered-scale instruments in percussive ways, for hundreds of years before he came up with the idea.
And why must one accept nature as being, in its most profound and Zen-like state, orderly and focused in the way that quiet and solitude are orderly and focused? The sound of, for only one example, African American storefront gospel singing, is a richly creative, liberating chaos of scale and chord, a paradoxically triadic expression of modal gravity, I would say – as is much of the blues, hillbilly music, folk and classic ragtime, quartet singing, jazz, rhythm and blues, and rock and roll (to name only a few of American pop’s aural artifacts ). Such things are as chaotic as life, as disorderly yet self-preserving as the unconscious, as conflicting as not only the mind but the American system of race, politics, and economics. There is no way, for many of us who play and compose, around those things. Not to mention that the African-American grain that I mentioned previously so perfectly, in its Progressive Age flourish, predicted the modernist ideal of new levels of post-rational consciousness – especially as reflected in the infernal racial conflicts of the 19th and 20th centuries, the battle between white supremacy and black form, the legal, racial, social and psychological battles that fused master and slave in ways that have bound them together, inextricably, ever since. African American expression is nothing if not a canny fusion of the practical and the impenetrable, of the black and of the black as understood by the white. Something which Cage should and could have recognized.
The problem with Cage and with occasional-generations of musicians who have followed him is that music for many of them has become a form of rhetoric – an ironic turn of events, in which deeply intellectual explanation of method and meaning replaces action and development. Talk has become more important than creative activity (otherwise why would I be writing this?); which is not altogether foreign to Cage’s intent, as he was , more than anything else, a great and effective teacher. So was that really his point? To abandon the old ways of so-called personal artistic development as being outmoded and self-destructively and egotistically elitist, in favor of constant and un-ending query? If so, and given my own propensity for questioning everything and anything, than maybe any criticism I make vis a ve his methods and results is completely and ironically irrelevant. And if that’s so, than John Cage has succeeded in doing that which not just every artist but nearly every human being has always wanted to do, which is to make themselves immune from critics and criticism. In which case, you may disregard all of the above.
I have long argued that for many of us oldsters the decline in contemporary musical interest is related in part, at least, to radical changes in recording technologies in the multi-(and multi-multi) track era. In other words, the problem isn’t digital or the talent or even musical/intellectual intentions – but, rather, basically technical, in our response to the sound created by the isolation of instruments in contemporary recording situations, to, whether we understand it technically or not, the use of “tracking,” as they like to call it these days (in which musicians basically construct a performance through overdubbing; eg, first the rhythm then vocals, then solos, etc etc). From the ashes of this new world, constructed primarily for the convenience of recording engineers and record labels (after all, how else would we assemble a media-perfect performance?) has risen the phenomena of the airless recording, in which the assembled instruments create only the illusion of performing together – and a poorly-maintained illusion it is, because it is so easy to hear how badly the parts relate to each other. No longer the result of musicians, in real time, reacting and responding to each other, such recordings are not only airless but soulless, at least to my ears, lacking as they do any true exhibition of musical reflexes or complex interactions.
And it’s not the same thing as, for example, Brian Wilson’s artful studio constructions, or the work of various audio and musical artists past and present, whose intentions in studio manipulation were and are artistic and aesthetic, through the use of layering, pure noise, and sonic interaction. In those instances, the studio art was and is transformed by vision and design. In the other instances that I am talking about (and which seem endemic in the new folkie movement; try listening to the folk music shows on Maine Public Radio – where I live – or on NPR, or on any number of NPR music blog sites) it is primarily a function of convenience and sonic expectation (though, of course, the problem is not exclusive to folk music or rock and roll; even the jazz world has allowed itself to be denatured by the use of these techniques). This is not to say that there will never be exceptions, examples of good and satisfying recordings which employ these techniques. It is only to complain that the national decline in musical feeling is, I believe, directly related to a sonic decline of our own making. (Not to mention the existence of too many audio and recording magazines, too much emphasis on technique and manipulation, too much power wielded by a hardware and software industry which works too hard to constantly reinvent itself by selling new ways of doing the same thing ).
I say this by way of introducing both myself and the first recorded examples on my blog, Everything Else is Post Modernism, which take us back to a time in which life was neither simpler nor easier, but really just the opposite: more sonically complex, at least the way I hear it. As Peter Stampfel (of the old Holy Modal Rounders) pointed out to me in a conversation last year, the thing that has been lost, sonically, in the isolation of musicians referred to above, is that which formerly occurred naturally in the studio: upper and lower harmonics, those things produced in sound waves by the clashing of tones, timbres, shadings, vocalisms and other such sound events. So I tend, in my own listening, to go back to those things which satisfy my own aural desires, which give me that familiar yet uncertain feeling, a feeling which harkens back to my earliest musical experiences of hearing musicians (both live and on records) relate to other in both consonant and dissonant ways. It’s like a good boxing match – an artful battle in which there is lots of dissonant interaction but in which no one is permanently harmed (well, almost like a good boxing match, though maybe I was spoiled by growing up in the era of Mohammed Ali).
If, as Henry Miller has claimed, all pleasure is based on the way in which the pleasurable experience reminds one of one’s earliest parallel encounter, then consider my own tastes as some sort of philosophical and sensual confirmation of Miller’s decree. My earliest musical exposure was not only to recorded music – I was lucky enough to hear Thad Jones and Mel Lewis’ estimable band around 1967 or 1968, Michael Bloomfield around 1969 or 1970, Mingus, Miles, Monk, Ornette at various places around New York City in those years; most significantly Muddy Waters at Newport in 1969 and Buddy Guy and Paul Butterfield in Central Park at around the same time; and the Mothers of Invention at Columbia University in 1968, plus even a John Cage concert, probably at Carnegie Hall. And it is true, I believe, that not only did musicians sound different in those days both live and on record – because of different mouthpieces, different reeds, different horns, different dominant methods of amplification and re-enforcement of sound; different sized venues, different approaches to technique, different prior experiences but also, and probably most significantly, because modernism was then at the end of its initial and perhaps most enlightening rewarding arc of the dissembling and then (sometimes) reconstruction of form .
Everything else may just be post-modernism, though please don’t mistake me for an artistic Luddite. I still crave newness and novelty for its own sake, I just tend to look at such things as essentially (with many happy exceptions) reformations. Paul Bley has said that he believes the most interesting “free” playing has come from musicians who have a grasp of older forms. I tend to agree; look at not only “outside” players but those who have worked at the edge of form and tonality: Jaki Byard, Bley, Lennie Tristano, Warne Marsh, Albert Ayler, Eric Dolphy, Bud Powell, Julius Hemphill, Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles (well, a little out of place in this list, but I love that White album), a thousand crazy early gospel singers like Arizona Dranes and Bessie Johnson, or even Charlie Parker and Lester Young in their later days. All were wrestling with form, and feeling not only the restrictions of such but the liberating qualities of harmony (as in chords) and chromatics and, of course, pure sound (listen to Bird, on some of his later live shots, possibly high as a kite, try to break the sonic barrier, to obliterate notes as he seeks out uncharted – altissimo – territory). Though of course, let me add here that I am very likely completely wrong in all of this, prisoner that I am to a hopelessly bourgeoisie conception of art and its practice, a slave of very outmoded concepts of form and meaning. These days, feeling overwhelmed as I do, and, yes, strangely victimized, by the gargantuan shadow of human activity, I just do not know.
However, let me digress to make a little editorial point, about certain precepts and concepts of newness and modernism and the avant garde. If we complain that the use of chord changes, as part of standard form, restricts us, than why don’t we say the same thing about the use of modes, or the open yet paradoxically finite range of free jazz playing or the strictures of montuno or the repetitions of ethnic musics? It does not matter if you are Harry Partch or Albert Ayler; at some point in your musical life you will hit a tonal and creative wall. You will (think you have) run out of ideas, you will become blocked, you will feel helpless and hopeless – until you chance upon that sound, that series of sounds, those notes, that scale, the gravitational pull of a certain melody, or that chord, or those chords that suddenly take you in a direction you’ve never been before. That, essentially, is music to me. Plus that thing that Phillip Larkin, poet and jazz critic (and definite cultural Luddite) said: “the past refuses to be over.” Larkin, who disliked almost everything that came out of the modernist era of jazz (meaning: after 1945), at least knew not only why he disliked it but why it was, like it or not, inevitable. In this way, I,too, have learned that the things I dislike are also inevitable, as is my own growing irrelevance and anonymity and inability, to my deep and great regret, to keep up with the increasingly voluminous shavings of American culture .
But old as I am I still recognize that years of intellectual demand still stretch out in front of me, hanging in view like a nagging and (at least to me) frightening reminder of the need for change and growth; though there are many different ways to get to the future, to the next thing, or that thing which, as Richard Gilman has told us, predicts the next thing you and I will be thinking and saying and doing, that tells us, in advance of the event, what the event will mean. Think Beckett and Waiting for Godot, or Bird in Kansas City circa 1942; both of these geniuses knew, probably without even knowing they knew, what we would be thinking and saying (and playing and feeling) next. Same thing with the great Wizard Lennie Tristano in 1945, or Jimi Hendrix in the 1960s. These artists are, to me, the very definition of modernity: prophetic, shocking, yet inevitable.
Let me also try to explain how I got here, to this particular page at this particular time. My personal history is outlined on my web site, www.allenlowe.com; I play music and I write music and I write about music. I prefer, as the poet Frederick Seidel has said, to take form and then dismantle it, though with varying degrees of destructive glee. I like finding musicians who hear things similarly to the way in which I hear things, but not necessarily in the way in which other musicians hear them, and then putting them together into little units and resolving, through composition, arrangement, organization, direction, and solo form, these conflicts in musically satisfying ways. I am a person of limited natural technique with some significant, if masked, learning disabilities, and I have struggled, musically, all my life to find alternative ways with which to illustrate and then execute the ideas I find hidden away in my own psyche. I have compensated for my deficits by not only hiring musicians of superior technique but also working, ceaselessly, to develop my own cultural taste buds in what I, after the fact, consider to be unusual and cultivated ways. Such is the path, for me, to survival in what I consider to be something of a hostile, if occasionally accommodating, world. The resulting isolation, which sometimes (but not always) feels completely and utterly permanent, is, I have concluded, a price that has had to be paid.
My way to that future I mentioned above is through the past, but not necessarily in the conventional sense; I have tried to make a virtue of my own technical deficits, to turn the second hand way in which I am able to reproduce certain older ideas into a virtue of vision and originality. Living, as I have, for the past 15 years, in a place in which I have been somewhat abused psychologically (by insults, blacklists, nasty little rumors, and, yes, I kid you not, threats of legal action) has put me at the mercy of my own somewhat limited and distorted resources. Which I now sense is a good thing. For better or for worse, I simply do, by chance or necessity, what I do differently than other people do what they do.
Which brings us back to this blog, in which I hope to illuminate for you some of the things I have discovered in my personal wanderings, during the last 40 years or so, among the (usually but not always older) sounds of American music. And which also reminds me that, initially in this essay, I was trying to make a point about how those sounds developed, why they have a visceral appeal, and why they seem, in many ways, more “real” than a lot of which passes for sound and music these days. And why they seem – and yes, I will use that loaded word – “authentic.” Though I may have a much different idea of authenticity than some others do.
In the common image, the Americana/Roots Music world of collectors and teachers and writers and artists and students is obsessed with authenticity, with a definition of such based on sociological determinism and little else. But my own experience with people in this world reflects a much more complex reality, much less of a tendency to self-delusion than is commonly assumed. In other words, from my own experience and from my association with many others who like older music, I have come to the overwhelming conclusion that such people tend not to like something because they think it is authentic – but to think something is authentic because they like it. Which is a crucial and world-view-changing distinction, and one that must be made.
Such authenticity has to be earned, and is found, perhaps, in a realization of the performer’s deepest and most honest sense of self, real or imagined, as expressed in the music. This can be the work of a deep blues musician, a gospel shouter, a teen garage band, an alt. folkie, or a sound artist working in a third sonic dimension. And though it begs the question of quality, that question is easily answered – for something to be authentic it has to be good, and not merely socially correct or “relevant.”
Beyond those stipulations I will remain intentionally vague here, because there are many sides to this argument, many straw men and woman to be held up as examples, good and bad.