All Good Music

I was reading through the Wiki entry for Frank Zappa, can’t remember why, and came across this quote from his autobiography, “The Real Frank Zappa Book”:

Since I didn’t have any kind of formal training, it didn’t make any difference to me if I was listening to Lightnin’ Slim, or a vocal group called the Jewels …, or Webern, or Varèse, or Stravinsky. To me it was all good music.

— Frank Zappa, 1989[1]: 34 

Zappa, Frank; Occhiogrosso, Peter (1989). Real Frank Zappa Book. Simon and Schuster. ISBN 978-0-671-70572-5.

The title of the Zappa book might contain a reference to the musical fake and real books, collections of a kind of shorthand lead sheets used by players as sketch or blueprints to cover pieces. These music books usually fit any song on one page, and show melody notes and chord symbols. The original fake/real books differed from songbooks in that they did not include lyrics and were mostly used by jazz players who only needed guidelines, not strict written scores that might have gone on for pages and still only approximated what one had heard or wanted to hear.

The many versions of fake and real books published over the years complicates a description; suffice to say they provide a recipe for the song, but the musician still needs to do the mixing and cooking. They don’t work like player pianos. That reading above of the title is layered below the obvious one, that so much had been said and written about Frank that he decided to sort the wheat from the chaff and clarify what the real Frank Zappa was all about. I’ve not read it, but I’ve put a copy on hold.

Meantime, what about the part of that quote that says, “all good music.” What is good? What is music?

Fake and Real Books

Starbucks (sung to the tune of “Skylark”)

Starbucks, have you any coffee for me,
can’t you see I am very sleepy,
won’t you tell me where a barista might be,
is there a cappuccino and a table,
an umbrella, and a seat?

Starbucks, can I sit outside your door,
on the sidewalk with a napkin and pen,
writing my poem that no one will read,
doodling my time away
to an ambiguous ending.

And when the barista comes out,
asking me if I’d like some frothy whipped cream,
wonderful cream like the fall of moonlight,
the garden lanterns are lit,
while a gypsy jazz trio plays
dans les nuages.

Starbucks, I don’t know if you have what I need,
a lonely table under a carob tree,
where I’ll sit and sip a cold coffee,
my heart squeezed through a napkin ring,
wishing for skylark wings to fly away and sing.

(“Skylark” is a 1942 jazz standard song, lyrics by Johnny Mercer, music by Hoagy Carmichael.)

Jazz on a Summer’s Day

Jazz on a summer’s day
sleepy jazz on a rainy evening
jazz on the night of a full blue moon.
Jazz on a transistor radio in the next room.

Jazz in a whiteout blizzard
jazz on a foggy morning in the surf
jazz on a summer’s day
jazz when the falling leaves fall.

Jazz in a coffee house with wifi
jazz in a clean well-lighted place
jazz high up in the trees
jazz on a yacht in the tranquil bay.

Jazz trio at the wine bar
jazz aboard a tugboat
on the Mississippi jazz live at five
jazz out a picture window.

Jazz on a crosstown bus
jazz at a sock hop
jazz in the cold grotto
jazz in an empty church.

Jazz from a food cart
jazz in a classroom
jazz in Healdsburg
jazz in Drytown.

Jazz in a confessional
jazz working on the railroad
jazz in a sweatshirt
jazz in jail.

Jazz it kind of got away from you
jazz on steamboats fixing everything
jazz at The Coming of the Toads
jazz in and jazz out of a blue collar.

Jazz on a jukebox
jazz at Terre Rouge
jazz in a red convertible
jazz on a Martian moon.

Jazz in the slow lane
jazzy walk around the block
jazz down on Stark Street
jazz at low tide.

Jazz rumbles across the trestle
jazz if you go out in the woods today
jazz between Scylla and Charybdis
jazz on the air.

Jazz in Seattle in a coal car
jazz at a concert in the park caldera
jazz in the near light like a candle
jazz in the faraway dark quiet.

Jazz alone and jazz together
jazz out there and jazz in here
just jazz at a rent party cleaning
up after they’ve all gone home.

Jazz about this and jazz about that
jazz when flat and jazz while sharp
streaming jazz in a steamy heat
jazz on a fine summer’s day.

Nothing but the Oldies

“nothing but the music” (2020, Blank Forms Editions, Brooklyn) is a kind of compilation, a box set, of pieces composed by Thulani Davis over the years 1974 to 1992, lines written while listening to live music or reflecting on the experience of an avant garde art form as it’s happening, and before it might be neutered by mainstream commercialization too influenced by those with control of the means of production. Most of the Davis pieces appeared in poetic form in alternative press issues over the years and some were set to music. The scores are informed, and may be read with reference to, performance and theatre, jazz and punk, R&B, and mixed forms or art form synesthesia, the courage and risks found in the places music is born, but the rewards too of achievement, however much that success may appear to some as failure. The music’s codification (its reliability, approvals, its aesthetic argument) might be seen in the cost for a ticket to get in: $20 – for a 63 page paperback, made possible in part by support from the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.

Is the music now artifact? The oral argument, written or recorded, becomes a document. What the music feels like, in words, what it stands for, and stands against. The importance of the work, these pieces, these entries, is found in the subtitle: “Documentaries from nightclubs, dance halls & a tailor’s shop in Dakar.” Or, in the words of the book’s epigraph:

“to the artists
& dharma guides
who coax us
minute by minute
from retold pasts
& possible futures
ever
to the present
moment”

Each piece is sourced at its end with a date and location and often the names of the musicians. For example: “1982, CBGB, New York”; “April 27, 1977, The Rogue & Jar, Washington, DC. The players: David Murray, Hamiet Bluiett, Charles “Bobo” Shaw, Fred Hopkins. The poet: Ntozake Shange”; “April 15, 1975. Five Spot, New York. The Cecil Taylor Unit: Cecil Taylor, Jimmy Lyons, Andrew Cyrille.” That last piece just cited, “C. T. At The Five Spot,” begins:

“this is not about romance & dream
it’s about a terrible command performance of the facts
of time & space & air”

…and moves on:

“ripple stamp & beat/ripple peddlin’
stomps taps of feet slick poundin’ out
tonal distinctions between/keys & sticks”

…and ends:

“I have heard this music
ever since I can remember/I have heard this music”

(22-23)

If music is a cultural argument, an aesthetic fight, it must come complete with a thesis statement about which some will disagree, backed with claims with examples, illustrations, supported with evidence and sources. It’s not enough to dress the part and go punk for an evening; one must want to be hardcore punk, and harder still. The wall does not give way so easily. It’s not enough to listen to the radio or buy the recording; one must enter the mosh pit. Who can survive it?

“the punks jumped on the stage
and dove into their friends
let their chains beat their thighs
the crowd thought death
in two-minute intervals
heavy metal duos and creaming murder

the band of twelve year-old rockers
wished they could do it
come like that on the refuse
of somebody else’s youth”

from “Bad Brains: A Band”: 1982, CBGB, New York

We find, in “nothing but the music,” in addition to the music itself, criticism, analysis, reaction, conclusions, as well as questions for further research. What happens when the avant garde becomes tradition?

“Not just history not just Trane
No not what we heard about
What we heard
Just what we hear
It always being night
We’ll still be there
Dancing the dissonant logic
The loneness
Just playing music
He speaking to himself
Really paying us no rabbitass mind
Digging what himself was doing
T-monius and ‘al-reet'”

from “T-Monius”: February 17, 1982, 122nd Street, New York (50-51).

In a life of disenfranchisement, art may be the only place to find certain freedoms: of expression and voice, enjoyment and creativity, play and work coming together in a spirit of desire and interests, not of servitude or boredom, and where one may object to a status quo in a statement with examples of new possibilities. And beauty, where beauty may come to rest, looking tired and worn out, where she can mix with the crowd and feel at home and dig the music. And truth hangs out in the rhythm section. Some hep young cat might ask, “What was it like?” And the answer is important, how we answer, what we say, what we hold back. We are old now, and passing, older than we ever imagined. You can’t breakdance at 70 like you could at 17, Cornel West said in his ten minute section of Astra Taylor’s Examined Life: “Time is real.” Yes, and you can find it in the music:

“giving a spring to the dance
of who we are/unexpected beauty
beauty we have known ourselves to be
like reaching old age & infancy in a breath
of this is the music
knowing we can’t be us
& be afraid of who we are”

X-75-Vol. 1, Henry Threadgill “Side B (Air Song/Fe Fi Fo Fum)” (31-32).

Motti, Lazzaro, and Django

The Awakening of Motti Wolkenbruch (Swiss, 2018) is a coming of age story, Motti’s single marital status of existential concern to his mother, who tries to set him up with any number of, for Motti, unsuitable but available girls whose mothers are equally concerned about the marriage status of their daughters. But Motti has his own ideas about attractions and family values, even as his young and tender heart is yanked from his body by the carefree girl he falls off a cliff for, and a parental sponsored trip to Israel banking on his finding a girl the family can approve of only makes matters worse. Expect much laughter, and crying, out loud, with actors speaking German, Yiddish, and Hebrew. The Awakening of Motti Wolkenbruch is about the surprise of life.

Happy as Lazzaro (Italian, 2018) is another coming of age story. Lazzaro does, literally, fall off a cliff, but not for love, and his heart remains surreally whole, inviolate, even as his body is bruised and abused. He’s a static character, the same at the end as at the beginning, even as life around him changes dramatically. The dwelling settings, country and city, are brutal but beautiful. The lives of the sharecroppers, under imprisonment and later emancipated but just as poor, still captives of poverty, illustrate that poverty is protean, affecting both the poor and the wealthy.

Django (French, 2017). A dramatization of the life of the guitarist Django Reinhardt and his family during World War II. The Nazis persecuted the Gypsies, many of whom tried to flee to relatively safe zones, joined the resistance, or were caught, killed on the spot, or transported via train to the Nazi concentration camps. The film focuses on Django’s one attempt to escape France, and while he did try to escape to Switzerland, according to the book Django: The Life and Music of a Gypsy Legend (2004, Michael Dregni, Oxford University Press), Django spent most of the war in Paris, where he was allowed to continue playing his music because by then he and his music had become so popular. But he had to play for the occupiers as well as for the locals, his safe treatment thus coming at the cost of a kind of debt bondage. From the book:

“Hitler bore a deep hatred for Gypsies…From 1933, German Gypsies were doomed. The Nazis barred Romanies from cities, shuttling them into settlement camps. Nazi doctors began sterilizing Romanies as early as 1933. And German Gypsies were required to wear a brown triangle sewn on their chest marked with the letter “Z” for zigemer, German for “Gypsy” – a precursor of the yellow Stars of David pinned to Jews (168)….Yet in Paris, Django was flourishing. Never did he have so much work or live in such sumptuous surroundings. Just as the Germans permitted jazz in Paris, they allowed Romany musicians to continue to play – and paid to come hear them every night” (169).

Still, Django worried for his family and for his own life, and if some considered him a hero, others thought of him as a conspirator: “Being in the spotlight saved him from the fate awaiting other Gypsies, but Django began to sweat under the glare” (182). Django takes off with his pregnant wife and his mother. They get caught and are imprisoned, but then, in the absurd way these things seem to happen, Dregni says, “A miracle arrived in the unlikely form of the German kommandant. He was a jazz fan, and when he came to question his new prisoner, he was astonished. ‘My good Reinhardt,’ he said, ‘whatever are you doing in this fix?’ Django promised not to try to escape again, and was freed” (184).

Django the film is must see for anyone interested in Gypsy jazz. But it’s also just a classic film – the acting, the setting, the timing, the war, the family and country drama and suspense. It features much magnificent music, including the organ “Mass” piece Django created. Django the book by Dregni should also be read. Django never learned to read or write, save at a most rudimentary level, and that late in his life (he died age 43). The book reveals a deep history of jazz music in Europe, particularly Paris, including stories of the many Black American musicians who traveled through Europe, most stopping in Paris, many playing with Django, following both World Wars. It covers the business of music and recording and performance management, popular success and failure, the changing style of jazz as musicians work to assimilate new music experienced from new exposures.

We Are Sorry For The Delay

I had answered my ringing house phone to a recording. I put the phone on speaker, set it down on the counter, and waited for the caller to come on live. The recording continued, as if with indefinite intent. I opened Garage Band on my laptop and recorded the message, later adding the other tracks with instruments and vocals.