Tuesday, October 03, 2006

shaping ornette - a darius brubeck debate

In Darius Brubeck's "Shaping Jazz – an Ornette Coleman debate" (published on Jack Reilly's blog) the author perches uneasily on a fence that should long ago have been torn down. His tone is odd, especially coming from someone who's been hearing Coleman for almost 50 years, since he was 12. While I appreciate the research and primary accounts, it is unfortunate that rather than take advantage of Coleman's current high visibility to investigate his contributions, Brubeck prefers to tear him down and give ambivalent praise. This essay hasn't really been picked up by the jazzblogosphere (at least, not as far as I know), but I think that it's a serious piece that deserves a serious response.

It starts with an interesting story that shows how Coleman continued to be rejected and shut out by certain jazz musicians. Not a new occurrence for him, and Brubeck later recounts Coleman's struggles with some sympathy, but facing the rejection of one's peers on the White House lawn must have borne a particular sting. What is surprising, however, is that Brubeck turns this incident into a careerist, don't-rock-the-boat strategy:

I also think this story resonates for 21st century jazz educators who, like jazz musicians at the Whitehouse, must take a pragmatic approach to gaining and exploiting prestige – not selfishly - but on behalf of their programs, their students and institutions and, of course, on behalf of jazz as a legitimate academic discipline worth supporting with funds as well as acclaim. I suspect that playing 'avant-garde' on the Whitehouse lawn these days would be an audacious act of protest and still not the best tactic for increasing the level of NEA support for jazz.
I'm not sure if the last sentence is sarcastic or not. If not, it's rather sinister that Brubeck places pandering to the current US administration for the sake of government grants above creativity. The irony, of course, is that Jimmy Carter was a Cecil Taylor fan:
In the late seventies, Cecil played at the White House as part of a jazz program. Carter was so moved by Taylor’s solo recital that he ran after him and gave him a spontaneous hug. He practically shook Cecil’s shoulders and asked: "Does Horowitz know about you?"

Brubeck then asks:
Should students be told to play whatever they can and feel like playing? Most of us harbour suspicions about 'free jazz'. There are problems with anti-disciplinary artistic extremism despite the fact that avant-gardism keeps the music from stagnating.
This is clearly the same old red herring that's fished up again and again to maintain the misunderstanding of what avant-garde jazz is. In fact, Brubeck implicitly undermines the notion of free jazz as "anti-disciplinary artistic extremism" in the very next paragraph:
When [Coleman] practiced alone it sounded like nothing in particular was being worked on. When he practiced with Don Cherry, it was the opposite; the same phrases over and over again. I now realize they were searching for the precise, yet unnotatable phrasing and inflection that became such a striking feature of their ensemble playing.

The first sentence of the section entitled "Ornette Coleman vs. Modern Jazz" has to be one of the most depressing I've read in a while: "Ornette Coleman’s emergence and the eruption of 'free jazz' in the 1960's marks the beginning of the end of jazz modernism until it resurfaces in the academy under the aegis of jazz education." The implications of this sentence are drawn out later.

He then sets out a taxonomony of jazz circa 1959:
jazz... was an overarching style built on a core repertoire of blues and popular song with adherence to swing and improvisation, instrumental proficiency and consistent performance codes. Successful experiments with counterpoint, modes, time-signatures, orchestration and form were extrapolations from a set of 'givens'.
What is a "given" in the ultra-compressed history of jazz? The time span between Louis Armstrong and Ornette Coleman (the beginning and the "end" of modern jazz) is shorter than the Rolling Stones' career. The scope of jazz's possibilities had been constantly broadened and enriched by Armstrong's "invention" of the soloist, the work of Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus (how can you sideline what they did as "extrapolations"?), Tristano's early free-form experiments, The Birth Of The Cool, Coltrane's Blue Train and "Giant Steps" had just been recorded, etc., etc., etc.

I don't dispute the importance of the elements in Brubeck's list (though I'm not sure I fully understand what "consistent performance codes" are), but these are clearly arbitrarily-chosen, historical constructions. They cannot stand unproblematically as self-evident pillars that Coleman knocked down, because they were constantly being challenged anyway. For example, an important part of what Ellington, the MJQ and the beboppers did was to demand that jazz be considered as art, thereby challenging both performance and social codes.

Brubeck focuses very tightly on 1959-1960 and a 2005 interview (non-accidently coinciding with Coleman's new acoustic quartet). On a personal level, I can't take him to task on that, because I don't know Coleman's career well enough, but what about the other 44 years? The various trios and quartets, the symphonies and the electric bands? How can Coleman's relationship to jazz be understood without so much as an acknowledgement of all that?

Also, while in 1959 it was probably already well established that jazz was the Afro-American music form that most prized technique, that does not mean that technique summed up either jazz or African-American music. So a lack of it could not, by itself, reverse the music's historical march (towards where? hopefully not just Brubeck's academy). That Brubeck would conflate the two is perhaps unsurprising, given his point of view:
Since 1960 we’ve also heard plenty of music from other cultures using various tuning systems. Non-standard tuning is also a signifying sound used by jazz musicians laying claim to a non-western identity.
I've always felt that the "non-western" was already inherent in Afro-American music: take, for example, the foundational tale of W.C. Handy hearing a man play guitar with a knife. Or, quite simply, the existence of the blues scale and the new instrumental techniques jazz musicians invented - right from the start - to be able to play their music on European instruments.

It is clear from the quotes in Brubeck's piece that Coleman had made an imaginative leap that neither the younger musicians such as David Baker ("It never occurred to anybody that we would stop playing changes") or even the then-blossoming John Coltrane had been able to concieve of. And yet, Brubeck dismisses this as primitivism that served as a sort of high-falutin' black-face and "a public display of his ignorance of and disrespect for the musical achievements of modern jazz." It's ironic that Thelonious Monk is quoted saying "Man, that cat is nuts!" (approvingly or disapprovingly?), as 10 years earlier the same charges of lack of technique and primitivism had been aimed at him.

Brubeck leans on Mingus's famous comments to exclude Coleman from jazz modernism. Even on Brubeck's terms (instrumental proficiency and compatibility with the academy), Coleman's modernity has been ascertained: his music is studied and performed (even by the not-exactly-cutting-edge J@LC) and his style has inspired many traditionally virtuosic players. Charlie Haden, Billy Higgins and Ed Blackwell were certainly far from incompetent. Don Cherry's subsequent work, enabled by what he had done with Coleman, aimed for much more than a techno-bureaucratic vision of progressive modernism. Cherry's humanistic goals (along with, say, Ellington's) are disregarded in Brubeck's modernism (as it is displayed here). All this indicates that Coleman carried the music forwards, rather than backwards towards some primitive state. Indeed, Mingus says as much.

When the issue of imagination is brought up - extremely obliquely - it can only be in derogatory terms: "It seemed unfair that he gave himself authority to change the game to suit his needs, like playing tennis without the net." To say Ornette took an easy path, or even cheated his way to fame, while elsewhere evoking his suffering ("I was being beaten up, my horn thrown away") is unsettling, to say the least.

The substance of Coleman's innovations is further marginalised when Brubeck declares that his
long-standing attempt to systematize his musical universe appears as unrealized and irrelevant as it ever was... Since his music is not set within normal conventions anyway, why the obsession with certain technical terms (transpositions, pitches, notes, unisons and modulations)? None of this relates to what he plays and how he improvises.
So why not detail some of the new possibilities Coleman's work brought to jazz? After all, there's already been plenty of discussion, in this article, of what he wasn't doing in 1959.

This makes the conclusion ("Ornette Coleman’s career demonstrates that there are people who simply don’t follow 'the rules' and have more to give as a result.") ring hollow, at very best. Once more, Coleman's career is framed in confrontational terms as an attack on "formal training and historical grounding," when it's actually a gift, a contribution. Isn't a non-confrontational approach what Coleman himself suggests?
That's why music is so free for people to cherish and so open – because it's how the idea is affecting you, and how you express what it means to you, regardless of what the style is.