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Jazz Workshop: Out of Context

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This week I was speaking to a friend who is in the music production business, and the conversation turned to some cover bands he had worked with. That, in turn, led to a discussion of cover bands in general. One of the points I made was that I distinguish carefully between cover band and tribute band: a tribute band is an impersonation act, one that not only plays a particular artist's music but tries to mimic the experience of seeing the band live. A cover band is, or at least should be, an act that tries to put its own interpretation on another artist's music.

You'd think the latter would be the more prevalent in jazz, wouldn't you?

The single most radical, imaginative, and subsequently fascinating jazz-repertory recording of the past 15 years was the 1992 album, Hal Willner presents Weird Nightmare: Meditations on Mingus. Willner, working with Sue Mingus (Charles's widow), put together performances of my favorite composer's work featuring unconventional superstar ensembles: players as diverse and brilliant as Bill Frisell, Henry Threadgill, Robbie Robertson, Elvis Costello, Geri Allen, Don Byron, Vernon Reid, Henry Rollins, Chuck D, Leonard Cohen, Dr. John, Charlie Watts, and Keith Richards. But because Willner can't sit still with just a bizarre lineup of musicians, he also throws in a bizarre lineup of instruments: each of his 19 arrangements features at least one of the unique instruments designed by composer/eccentric/visionary Harry Partch.

Frankly, such a daring, experimental, and out-there approach to music is exactly the kind of shot in the arm that jazz needs. (This has nothing to do with a particular era, current or otherwise; jazz always needs this kind of shot in the arm.) And the result is intriguing, from head to toe. But for at least one observer, that's not enough…and for all the wrong reasons.

Gary Giddins, of all people, loathes Weird Nightmare. The foremost authority on jazz in American letters, and the 30-year jazz columnist for The Village Voice, one naturally expects Giddins to have the most open-minded and all-encompassing opinion around, on this subject at least. But when he gets around to Weird Nightmare, he makes a comment that pains me to the core:

"In one of five often defensive liner essays, Frannie Thumm, who introduced percussion instruments built by Harry Partch into the project, defends it against objections from the 'fanatical following[s]' of Partch and Mingus by quoting Stravinsky, 'You respect, but I love.' Yet it is precisely respect bordering on fake reverence that makes this music so stupefying. I should think that loving Mingus means embracing his vitality. It might even mean honoring the context in which his music was produced."

Perhaps I, a mere student rather than a scholar, am missing the point–but it sounds to me like Giddins is suggesting that Mingus's music cannot viably exist independently of the composer's persona. Nor can it exist independent of some codified, trapped-in-time definition of the jazz tradition. I find that perspective offensive; so, I suspect, would Mingus. The notion that anyone who takes on Mingus' music is beholden to his biography and his contemporary jazz world is surely meant as an homage to the composer, but in fact it denigrates his body of work and his abilities beyond belief.

I don't lightly write this kind of strong dissent from Gary Giddins. He is the writer who made me want to write about jazz; his book Visions of Jazz is, in a sense, my Bible. (Or my Book of Common Prayer, anyway.) In September, I will for the first time be published in JazzTimes, in which Giddins' current column is published. To share a masthead with him is far, far more than an honor.

Obviously I hold him in high regard. And it's bewildering to me that someone I hold in such high regard could be so terrifically wrong.

When, for example, was the first time you heard Beethoven's Fifth Symphony? Did you already know who Beethoven was and about his character? If not, did that lack of knowledge on your part make the work less viable? Granted, knowing Beethoven's life story would certainly add a new dimension to your appreciation of the music. But can you honestly suggest that the music was meaningless before you knew about Beethoven?

What would it say about Beethoven if you suggested that a person who was playing his music was doing it wrong if they didn't assert Beethoven's personality into their interpretation? It would say that Beethoven's music had neither the depth nor the quality to stand on its own merits–it would say that Beethoven was incapable of writing music that could stand on its own merits. And suggesting that Mingus's music has the same shortcoming says the same about Mingus: that he was an inferior composer.

As for the jazz tradition? For this I'm going to turn to one of the great literary critics. Joseph Addison, who with Richard Steele published The Spectator (a journal of literary thought and criticism), did a series in 1711 about the notion of wit: what counted as "true" wit, and what did not? Puns, he asserted, did not, as they counted too heavily on the treacherously vernacular castings of a particular dialect or language. His suggestion:

The only way therefore to try a Piece of Wit, is to translate it into a different Language: If it bears the Test, you may pronounce it true; but if it vanishes in the Experiment, you may conclude it to have been a Punn. In short, one may say of a Punn, as the Countryman described his Nightingale, that it is vox et praeterea nihil, a Sound, and nothing but a Sound. On the contrary, one may represent true Wit by the Description which Aristinetus makes of a fine Woman; when she is dressed she is Beautiful, when she is undressed she is Beautiful[.] (emphasis mine)

Consider, for a moment, how true that is – and how completely it applies to other forms of literature. If you were presented with a novel, for example, and told that it was a work of art, but only in English, what would you think of that? Would it strike you as worth the trouble of reading? (Folks, even Finnegans Wake, that most specialized and hypernuanced work of the English language, has been translated into at least 10 other languages.)

It only makes sense that the same would be true for music: that the test of a truly viable and durable piece of music is whether it can be translated into a different musical language than its source. (If you doubt that principle, I have three words for you: Switched On Bach.) A great work can survive all the exaggeration, distortion, or subversion of its by-the-book composition. Even though he wrote for specific musicians in a specific idiom, Duke Ellington's work is still viable when it's arranged for the Boston Pops orchestra, or by Phillip Glass.

Giddins, however, suggests that this is not true of Mingus: he means to suggest that Willner's arrangements disrespect Mingus, but what he really says is that  Mingus's work can't survive being reshaped by Hal Willner. How depressing.

But overall, this isn't about Giddins, or about Mingus, or even about Hal Willner. It's a question of whether jazz music is really viable music. If you suppose that jazz composition is only viable when it's performed by a jazz band, well, then, you're saying that jazz is fairly one-dimensional. As is any other music that's unsuccessful outside of its home base.

If that's true, why bother listening to it? Such music really isn't terribly good, is it?

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About Michael J. West

  • great stuff michael. i really love this record. it comes at the material from such an odd angle that it’s almost possible to forget it’s Mingus…somehow, that doesn’t seem like a bad thing to me.

    and hey! congrats on the Jazztimes gig. fantastic news there for sure!

  • Whoa, I wasn’t aware of this Willner project, that sounds fascinating to say the least. Imagine all the trivia quesetions that baby could spin off! I will soon remedy this gaping hole in my jazz collection.

    And a thoughtful essay on the whole idea of interpreting other people’s works in a different musical language; I couldn’t agree more.

    Big props on the Jazztimes stint. You are amply prepared for that.