“Music as discourse (jazz) doesn’t work,” John Cage said. “If you’re going to have a discussion, have it, and use words.”[i]
Cage’s claim might have met with some disagreement last Wednesday evening, when around 100 jazz and book festive fans filled Classic Piano’s small recital room for the launch of Lynn Darroch’s new book, “Rhythm in the Rain: Jazz in the Pacific Northwest.”[ii]
The recital room filled with folding chairs sloped downward, a small theatre, to a raised stage. In the back of the room, a table laden with cheeses and crackers and wine and such was bookended with a chair on which sat a stack of Lynn’s book, fresh from Ooligan Press, ready for selling, signing, and reading.
On the stage, Lynn stood behind a podium and read aloud in his distinctive forte-piano voice passages from his book, accompanied by jazz pianist Tom Grant, improvising in a range from pp to ff , in focused conversation with Lynn. (Visions of Rexroth and Ferlinghetti and “Jazz in the Cellar,” but missing Kerouac and company buzzing around existentially obnoxious.)
The discourse worked. “The musicians seem to trade remarks, and sometimes talk along with one another, as if each were reciting a text – a poem or a scripture – which they then consider” (28). “Iyer said: ‘It’s not that we just hear sounds. We hear the sources of the sound, and we’ve evolved to identify them’” (28).[iii]
But do we hear the sources of the sound when we listen to music through electronic speakers? Or when we listen in retrospect? Is the source of the sound the speaker, and not the instrument, the source of sound the instrument makes having been converted from wood and string, brass and breath, hand and beat, and which substitutes or confuses audio signals with true source sound?
Lynn backed away from the podium, and Tom Grant segued into an intricate rendition of Thelonius Monk’s “Blue Monk.” Grant sat at a grand piano, his feet never tiring on the pedals, his focus on Lynn’s discussion.
There came a break during which Lynn sold and signed copies of his book. He gave away a free CD containing some his readings, accompanied by jazz, to fans buying the book at the launch. Tom sat on the edge of the stage chatting with the vocalist Shirley Nanette, who had been sitting in the front row in the audience. In the back of the room, several students associated with PSU’s Ooligan Press chatted about book design, jazz, blogs and other forces of the moment, contributing to a new chapter of jazz in the northwest.
Outside, the evening was dark and wet and not many people were out and about. A few smokers occupied the tables and chairs on the sidewalk next door at the Aladdin Theatre.
In “The Elvic Oracle: Did anyone invent rock and roll?,” in an aside on Sam Phillips’s Sun Studio experience, Louis Menand relates an anecdote on the studio sound as follows: “The band had damaged an amplifier on the way to the studio, so it buzzed when music was played. Phillips considered this a delicious imperfection, and he kept it. That is the sound that makes the record, and many people have called ‘Rocket 88’ the first rock-and-roll song.”[iv]
Many of today’s music listeners value the most expensive and exotic, delicate and accurate sound systems, in order to reproduce the sound of a broken amplifier. The recording and reproduction of music and sound typically, if not always, can only cover the original. “All history is retrospective,” Menand concludes: “…a legend is just one of the forms that history takes” (87).
[i] “Music as discourse (jazz) doesn’t work,” John Cage said, in his “DIARY: HOW TO IMPROVE THE WORLD (YOU WILL ONLY MAKE MATTERS WORSE) 1965,” the first text in his collection “A Year From Monday.” “If you’re going to have a discussion, have it and use words” (p. 12).
[iii] “Time is a Ghost,” by Alec Wilkinson, Feb. 1, 2016, The New Yorker, on the physicist turned jazz musician Vijay Iyer.
[iv] “The Elvic Oracle: Did anyone invent rock and roll?,” by Louis Menand, November 16, 2015, The New Yorker, on the random, fortuitous, indifferent forces that have helped influence what listeners hear and who they hear it by, and how those forces get encoded in legend in retrospect.