copyright © 2006 Lyn Horton
Within the sultry days of summer, I have been contemplating the question: when I write about "free jazz," what exactly am I doing?
The answer is complicated. Some background for my thought process comes from the visual arts. Jackson Pollock was a painter of the mid-20th century who changed the way painting would be viewed and executed in the future. He broke the rules of a tradition of formulating and made painting a means to improvise with the materials. Kirk Varnedoe had some startling observations in his text for the catalog accompanying the Pollock exhibit at MoMA in 1999 (p.77). His words speak to a large emotional/sociological/cultural viewpoint. In regards to Pollock's inventiveness, Varnedoe wrote:
"The consequences of Pollock's art are now global, but they still rest, as they always have, on a sum of individual experiences. The paintings live on as art (as opposed to interesting historical documents) principally through unrecorded, nonverbal, subjective responses. This needs emphasizing again. There was a time when it seemed very important that these be pictures without words. . . . By now, these are pictures amply wrapped with words. . . . Yet no matter how daunting the store of verbiage on art, there is always — if the subject is indeed art — a great deal (sometimes the core) left over, and only learnable firsthand."
Furthermore, he goes onto say ". . . a lot that has been and continues to be written about [Pollock's] pictures embodies just the common cultural clutter of the time. The paintings do not. To be reminded of this, look at them."
The same kinds of statements are applicable to vanguard jazz. The vastly low exposure this music receives is certainly not a result of the efforts of the musicians. It has to do with the audience's inability to key into what is incredibly unfamiliar. The language for understanding it is simply not spoken on a large scale. The music is played constantly, albeit, to small audiences, but nonetheless played. The music lives on, to quote Varnedoe's visual art related words, "principally through unrecorded, nonverbal, subjective responses."
As a writer about this music, I am, Varnedoe might have believed, adding to the "common cultural clutter of the time." But, on the contrary, I think that I have taken on the job of translating this seemingly foreign musical language to a non-heuristic verbal language that brings attention to it. Upon listening to musicians performing or in a recording, first of all, I have to be moved and I have to be true to what I have heard. I have no interest in demonstrating what I think needs changing in the music to render it more palatable to . . . well . . . of course . . . me, because I am the person doing the listening and the writing. I have no interest in comparing what I hear with any other music I already know. I always search for something new.
Creative music improvisation lives in the world of spontaneity, evolution and resolve within a certain frame of time determined through the very act of performance. Therefore, to listen to a session is to yield to the musicians and to trust them to guide you through stretches of storytelling based on their experiences in life and music.
I bring to the scrivener's palette all of my experience in this music also. (I do listen to other music — mainstream, world, experimental, classical, rock and sometimes, opera.) My description of the music will exclude explanations of how chords are constructed in triads or how phrases go through a series of key changes, or what the time signatures are. I approach listening from a non-theoretical non-technique basis. Does this fact take away from how I absorb the music? No. Being able to recognize a performer's technique is fine. But making his technique outweigh the music is leaping beyond the entry point for shaping the writing. Analyzing the way in which the players play the music confuses how the music releases one's spirit. I write as if I were one of the musicians, not some one prone to scientific formula. After all, improvisers break the rules of tradition and make new rules, which they themselves will break later on. They do this all the time. Their compositions become the record of how they have created the music. The very idea that the music changes so rapidly from performance to performance is a revolution that actually has a history.
It makes more sense to me to incorporate into the writing the same type of associations and spiritual bliss that the music has evoked. Describing such a mind-bending and spiritual release can take many forms. I can begin by talking about how many choruses were repeated or comment on the broadness or narrowness of any player's musical line or about any of the multitude of variations that a musician lays out. But I can also tell you where I went in my own imagination through hearing the music. I can tell you what meaning the music has brought to my life and how the music has made me aware. I can tell you about how the musicians respond to one another or how the audience responds to the band. I can also attempt to verbalize the evanescent, conceptual, emotional, visceral and nearly inaccessible sound communication that has transpired.
Musicians share their musical conversation with the audience. Dedicated to their purpose, the musicians I choose to hear have offered themselves to the universal hum. They want to carry the message of peace and a sense of commonality to this mess of a world. They are the standard bearers for humanity and, of course, themselves. I am talking about musicians with African roots. I am talking about White musicians. I am talking about how African-Americans mix with White Americans and European influence. I am talking about everyone I forgot to mention. The well of musicians is fuller than it used to be. Somehow, the minority of creative persons has stuck together.
This music originated in ceremonies for the rallying of community in the face of the never-ending struggle to be whole. The music reflects reverence, rupture, healing, tempests and calm, and owns a specific pulse. The pulse is its core and the heartbeat for the music's survival because the pulse closely aligns with basic human instinct.
Appreciation of this music is an intimate, singular event. Hopefully, the effect of the music will carry you onto the next performance or the next recording and widens your experience, takes you to church, offers you a new lease on life, fills the emptiness in your heart, strengthens you when you are weak, bathes you in light and gives you new skin.
Bob Dylan once said to rocker Tom Petty: There is a difference between what is popular and what is good. I think Bob Dylan is right.
In conclusion, to answer my initial question, when I write about "free jazz," what is it that I am doing? I am believing, I am perceiving, I am responding emotionally and combining all that with words. That is my answer. I know no other.
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October 06, 06
Well said, well said.