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Schopenhauer’s Blues; or, On Jazz & Folk Music, from Hoedown to Hootenanny: A Happening Post

Over at JazzWax, jazz journalist Marc Meyers pulls out an old discussion, with Stan Kenton trying to explain a depressed jazz market. Marc focuses on Kenton’s suggestion that the emergence of folk helps explain the jazz recession, but finds Kenton’s explanation historically inaccurate: “I find this entire folk-as-jazz-killer thing a hoot,” Marc says.

Hoot of course is the folk mating call, suggesting hootenanny, a down-home “happening.” Yet the etymologies of both hootenanny and its precursor, the hoedown, suggest that folk and jazz have common ancestral roots in Blues People.

A flat note of interest in the Kenton comments transcribed by Marc suggests an adulteration of jazz through the commercialization processes: “The jazz we have known, explained Kenton, from 1890 to the late 1950s, has spent itself and has become absorbed by American music in general.” But, by definition, we might argue that jazz is that music which absorbs every other musical form without losing its own identity. Jazz is, at its roots, a folk music, and to suggest that folk music isn’t now or wasn’t ever popular is a self-contradictory proposition.

In any case, foraging through the OED this morning, researching the etymology of hootenanny, hoedown, and happening, I culled the following hoots, displayed below:

1963 Daily Mail 11 Sept. 8/4 Hootenanny. …is to the folk singer what a jam session is to the jazzman. 1964 Mrs. L. B. Johnson White House Diary 13 Jan. (1970) 44, I love folk music, but the name ‘Hootenanny’ rather repels me. 1967 ‘J. Munro’ Money that Money can’t Buy ix. 114   Two more cowboys appeared. …They played hoe-down music. 1969 Guardian 2 Sept. 8/2 The atmosphere was that of…a hoedown in—well, perhaps in Hibbing, Minn. 1970 Daily Tel. 29 Dec. 10 Tomorrow the 1,600 delegates will see a ‘happening’ called ‘Thank God We’re Normal’ performed by 70 boys and girls from…comprehensive schools in London.

Music is a language of feeling (as opposed to a language of thinking), though it might sound illogical to think of music as a language, since music not being a language is what gives it its universal character. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “with respect to the theme of achieving more peaceful and transcendent states of mind, Schopenhauer believes that music achieves this by embodying the abstract forms of feelings, or feelings abstracted from their particular everyday circumstances. This allows us to perceive the quintessence of emotional life — ‘sadness itself,’ ‘joy itself,’ etc. — without the contingent contents that would typically cause suffering. By expressing emotion in this detached or disinterested way, music allows us to apprehend the nature of the world without the frustration involved in daily life, and hence, in a mode of aesthetic awareness that is akin to the tranquil philosophical contemplation of the world.”

As good a definition of the blues as I’ve ever heard.

Private Music, Public Music: Vandals Trash Kumbaya – Is Music Making Us Stupid?

I’m shocked to find the lovely, spiritual folk song Kumbaya trashed by pundits and politicos alike in a bipartisan effort to discredit one of the solid gold traditions my generation sought to carry on – the healing power of music. Yet it should come as no surprise, for music, like politics, suffers from an infection of the big, the bad, and the rowdy. Perhaps it was always so; one’s affections are often awakened by market reality, but we must get to the bottom of this Kumbaya business.

First, to the phrase Kumbaya (“Come by here” [Lord]) has been added the increasingly popular “ing,” so we now find ourselves Kumbayaing, though hopefully not in public. Kumbayaing is pundit-lingo for working together in teams for the mutual benefit of community members – and what could be sillier than trying to work together? The neologism distorts the song, ignores the music, and mocks the efforts of those who would organize peacefully, all in one cynical, dismissive, and cranky attitude – to Kumbaya is to waste time; holding hands betrays weakness.

It seems that what we today call Christian Music isn’t liturgical music, or music to gather by, as much as a music market. The religious experience is marketed through music. This isn’t the same thing as music creating a religious experience. Do we not want the Lord coming by here anymore? For “The spirit will not descend without song,” as LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) explains in his study Blues People (1963). Jones explains that the first Christian music in the US was black music born of the slave experience and developed as communal, healing, and organizational. Of course, time and distance also distort, and, as Gary Snyder explains, when ritual is moved from its source it loses some of its power. But the beauty of the music that Jones describes is its very resourcefulness.

Richard Rodriguez’s influential essay “Private Language, Public Language” went against the grain of the bilingual education movement by insisting that we shouldn’t publicize our private language, the language of our family. Just so, perhaps we shouldn’t market something called Christian Music, for the idea adulterates the tradition and allows the pundits to infiltrate the community without understanding or respecting the values of the community. Consider the following example, where the word spiritual becomes so watered down that it loses all its color and power: Elizabeth A. Brown writes a short review, published in the April 5, 2010 Christian Science Monitor, of The Best Spiritual Writing of 2010 (edited by Philip Zaleski), and what do we find as an example of not just spiritual writing but the best spiritual writing? Nicholas Carr’s “Is Google Making Us Stupid?

Someone’s sighing, Lord. Come by here.

Where Listening Gives Rise to Silence and Fizzles

There lived in our neighborhood some time ago a locally famous pianist who enjoyed great demand for piano lessons from parents for their children. The demand was such that a prospective student had to interview with the teacher. One of the interview “questions” involved listening to chords: the child identified a chord as “happy” or “sad.” Children unable to pass this interview question eliminated themselves from consideration. It’s been some time since I’ve talked to the pianist, but I’ve wondered from time to time what emotion a Bm7b5 (B minor 7 flat 5) might equate to, or an Eb7b9 (E flat 7 flat 9, as an inside chord, without the 5th, on the guitar).

How one distinguishes sounds, as in the experiment discussed over at Language Log, might explain musical preferences. Listeners who prefer a country western song, such as Hank Williams’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” (and its many covers), over a short piece by John Cage, might not hear sounds the same way the Cage fan distinguishes sounds, for “A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees” (Blake, “Proverbs of Hell”) – as both Williams and Cage would probably agree.

The Language Log listening experiment might also explain reading preferences, why some readers, for example, prefer Charles Dickens to Samuel Beckett (Dickens writes in minor keys, invoking pathos and bathos and every other kind of oath, Beckett in jovial major modes with flurries of flats falling like ash in downward spiraling scales).

Emergence might be at work here, too (the entire piece can’t be predicted by any one of its chords), or simply that our ears sometimes grow tired or lazy, as do our tongues and our eyes. This is what Cage explored in Silence, and what Beckett meant by Fizzles.

Christmas Platterful

Dickens’s A Christmas Carol has been filmed again and again, but one must read it to savor the chef’s cloves of exclamation points that spice the prose of the platterful Cratchit Christmas table: 

“Hallo! A great deal of steam! The pudding was out of the copper. A smell like a washing day! That was the cloth. A smell like an eating-house and a pastrycook’s next door to each other, with a laundress’s next door to that! That was the pudding! In half a minute Mrs. Cratchit entered – flushed, but smiling proudly – with the pudding, like a speckled cannon-ball, so hard and firm, blazing in half of half-a-quartern of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top.” 

Yet this is nothing compared to Joyce’s engorging in “The Dead,” the last story in Dubliners. Here he sets the stage for a food fight good and large: 

“A fat brown goose lay at one end of the table and at the other end, on a bed of creased paper strewn with sprigs of parsley, lay a great ham, stripped of its outer skin and peppered over with crust crumbs, a neat paper frill round its shin and beside this was a round of spiced beef. Between these rival ends ran parallel lines of side-dishes: two little minsters of jelly, red and yellow; a shallow dish full of blocks of blancmange and red jam, a large green leaf-shaped dish with a stalk-shaped handle, on which lay bunches of purple raisins and peeled almonds, a companion dish on which lay a solid rectangle of Smyrna figs, a dish of custard topped with grated nutmeg, a small bowl full of chocolates and sweets wrapped in gold and silver papers and a glass vase in which stood some tall celery stalks. In the centre of the table there stood, as sentries to a fruit-stand which upheld a pyramid of oranges and American apples, two squat old-fashioned decanters of cut glass, one containing port and the other dark sherry. On the closed square piano a pudding in a huge yellow dish lay in waiting and behind it were three squads of bottles of stout and ale and minerals, drawn up according to the colours of their uniforms, the first two black, with brown and red labels, the third and smallest squad white, with transverse green sashes.” 

Hemingway, reporting from Switzerland for The Toronto Star Weekly, in a piece entitled “Christmas on the Roof of the World” (December 22, 1923), tells how, after a day of skiing, they 

“…hiked up the hill towards the lights of the chalet. The lights looked very cheerful against the dark pines of the hill, and inside was a big Christmas tree and a real Christmas turkey dinner, the table shiny with silver, the glasses tall and thin stemmed, the bottles narrow-necked, the turkey large and brown and beautiful, the side dishes all present, and Ida serving in a new crisp apron. It was the kind of a Christmas you can only get on top of the world.” 

Meantime, at the bottom of the world, Faulkner’s people eat a Christmas dinner of “possum with yams, more gray ash cake, the dead and tasteless liquid in the coffee pot; a dozen bananas and jagged shards of cocoanut, the children crawling about his [Bayard Sartoris’s] feet like animals, scenting the food.” 

We are neither at the top nor the bottom of the world this Christmas eve morning, but we are where we have chosen to be, with the smell of a fresh cut tree mixing with coffee and the sound of jazz and family filling the air – our platter is full.

APA Caution: Metaphor Crossing

We don’t find E. B. White adhering to APA guidelines. It’s more palatable monkeying with rats if one denies them human characteristics.

One rule that hasn’t changed in the new 6th edition APA manual concerns a warning against the use of metaphor, specifically anthropomorphic connotations (p. 69). One may not use metaphor; the question is, can one not.

Camus avoided metaphor in The Stranger, creating an anti-man. For McLuhan, technology is metaphor, extensions of the senses. For Norman O. Brown, in Love’s Body, language is metaphor; to avoid metaphor is to avoid language: “Metaphor is mistake or impropriety; a faux pas, or slip of the tongue; a little madness; petit mal; a little seizure or inspiration” (p. 244). It’s easy to see why the APA wants to avoid it. On the other hand, “Freedom is poetry, taking liberties with words, breaking the rules of normal speech, violating common sense” (p. 244), in short, jazz. But metaphor is ambiguous, and that’s what we must avoid: “Psychoanalysis, symbolic consciousness, leads from disguised to patent nonsense – Wittgenstein, surrealism, Finnegans Wake” (p. 245). In “VII” of Love’s Body, titled “Head,” Brown lights out for the territory, ahead of all the rest: “Psychoanalysis shows the sexual organization of the body physical to be a political organization; the body is a body politic…a political arrangement arrived at after stormy upheavals in the house of Oedipus…a well-organized tyranny” (pp. 126-127). And if one wants to avoid sex, of course, one may go in for the corporate body, where the head sits at the top, and gets dibs on the first parking space.

Metaphor begins with sound, and poetry begins with being tricked by sound: “…cuckoo(‘s)fool, maid(en, mate, the Wryneck, which arrives at or about the same time as the cuckoo” (OED, mate).

So, in the 6th edition of the APA manual, we find this: “Correct: Pairs of rats (cage mates) were allowed to forage together. Incorrect: Rat couples (cage mates) were allowed to forage together” (p. 69). But, first, pair is no better than couple. Since the 13th Century, at least, the OED gives us, pair has been used to describe a married couple; indeed, the denotative meaning of pair is couple. Second, the offensive word in the passage (taking the APA view of metaphor as something to be avoided), is not pairs or couples, but mates, for a mate is one of a pair, a partner in marriage, a lover. The denotative meaning of mate, from the OED, is “A companion, fellow, comrade, friend; a fellow worker or business partner,” and only an E. B. White can handle a rat as all of these.

The poor rats, coupled in their cage, denied by the APA their very coupling, for, again, as the OED gives us, couple means “That which unites two. 1. a. A brace or leash for holding two hounds together.” Alone, together; together, but separate: like humans, a condition that can only exist in some cage, in cagey logic.

And what of cage? From the OED: “I. Generally and non-technically. 1. A box or place of confinement for birds and other animals (or, in barbarous times, for human beings), made wholly or partly of wire, or with bars of metal or wood, so as to admit air and light, while preventing the creature’s escape.”

Note “in barbarous times” suggests time past, but no longer: we wish, for language is our cage, a pair of gloves with a missing mate, a decoupling of experience.

If we want to avoid metaphor in the APA example given on page 69, we suggest: Rats were allowed to forage together, in cages, separated two by two. Lovely, isn’t it? Then again, were the rats allowed out of their cages to forage? Can one forage in a cage? Perhaps rats can, but still, an even greater problem than pair, couple, or cage is found with the word forage, for a forager is a messenger, though one may forage for oneself. Do rats “plunder, pillage, ravage” (OED, for forage)? No, only humans forage, as we have done here, within the cage of our blog.

Where jazz and literature get encaged

The 2009 Believer music issue (July/August 09) arrived yesterday, and there’s a perceptive interview with jazz guitarist Pat Martino:

“BLVR: What do you think jazz’s place in American culture is today?”

“PM: The only thing I can be definitive with is an example. Take the students of jazz in our conservatories and universities. They’re studying harmony and theory, which is not jazz, that’s music. Number two, they’re studying and transcribing artists of the past – past cultures, or stages of our culture, and that is not the reality of today. So it [jazz] is not alive the way it used to be. And they’re studying something that is encaged, and they’re analyzing it to participate in something that no longer exists” (p. 73).

I was reminded of Louis Menand’s recent piece in the New Yorker (June 8 & 15, 2009), on creative writing programs: “Academic creative-writing programs are, as McGurl puts it, examples of ‘the institutionalization of anti-institutionality.’ That’s why institutions love them. They are the outside contained on the inside” (p. 108).

And John Cage: “A newspaperman wrote asking me to send’im my philosophy in a nutshell. Get out of whatever cage you happen to be in” (M, Writings ’67 – ’72, p. 212).

Jesus and the Jazz of Being Existential

Existentialism 1There is no place to hide in the existentialism of Sartre and Beauvoir, but one does not go there to hide, but to realize. Jesus was the first existentialist (as Kierkegaard showed), and the early Christians lived by choice, reborn in an existential rejection of a status quo existence, rejecting their birth rights (and wrongs), if they had any, their birth situation, for a choice that gave meaning to their lives. The early Christians chose choice; they chose freedom, and the choice was all encompassing.

 

Beauvoir is far more devastating than Sartre in criticizing roles, lifestyle as identity, faces prepared to meet faces. She obliterates the sub-man, the serious man, the nihilist, the adventurer, the passionate man.

 

Jazz is the music of the existentialist. The jazz musician takes up his instrument, develops a musical attitude. His tone reveals his attitude toward the piece, an attitude that must change with each playing. The music is constantly being reborn, the jazz musician improvising, every measure a rebirth, every performance one of doubt – otherwise, why play it yet again, yet again differently?

 

Where is the religion that might do for Christianity what jazz has done for music?  “To will oneself free is also to will others free” (Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity).

John Cage, Cowboy Surf Shop, and Garage Jazz

John Cage was the first garage musician, freeing music at once from the academy, from high culture, from ubiquitous radios, from naturalism – from preconceived notions of what sounds should sound like. Cage valued sounds; he desired sounds, required sounds. Cage captured sounds he found in his environment and remixed them in his garage, creating a philosophy of music that encouraged listeners to experiment, restoring sound to primeval element. Cage’s music is not devoid of sentimentality, and heralds both warnings and callings – electronic blasts to the chest, bees dancing in the labyrinths of our ears.

 

We are anxious to hear the sounds we make, our own voice, which we hear in unison, subverting our self-consciousness. The echo, reverb, was the first natural recording. Garage Band allows us to extend the range of our voice, format, and get loopy – all Cageian values. We’ve been listening for a long, long time; how much training do we require?

 

Cowboy Surf ShopJohn Linker’s Cowboy Surf Shop employs his various interests – folk, alternative, literature, surfing, and playing guitar as something to do with your hands. In one piece, “Rock ‘n Roll Eden,” a Lou Reed cover, we hear a voice reading from Jack London (Jack’s ranch, in the Valley of the Moon, is not too far from John’s place). A diversion from teaching duties, John’s project is a demo, a rough draft, experimenting with loops, voice-overs, a variety of instruments (sans drums – bass picks up both rhythm and percussion), and improvisation on covers and originals.

 

When in the Army in the late 60’s we used to hang around the motor pool after hours playing guitar. Spec. 4 Martin, who had worked at Fender, offered this criticism: “You never play the same thing the same way.” As we’ve discussed, Cage was not a jazz fan, but what we require now is garage jazz, inviting thought: what is garage; what is jazz.

 

Cage bop Monk lit

John Cage, as we’ve mentioned, seemed to have little tolerance for jazz, suggesting that if musicians want to have a conversation they should use words, and we’ve always found this attitude surprising coming from an otherwise tolerant and peaceful composer – but who named one of his own books Silence, which contains, among many innovative works, our favorite, his “Lecture on Nothing.”

“I have nothing to say, and I am saying it, and that is poetry,” Cage said, as he is often quoted, but incompletely, for the third column (measure) in that line is “as I need it.” Two lines up we find three empty measures. The fourth measure of that line starts the sentence “I have nothing to say.” The first measure of the next line is empty. The second measure reads “and I am saying it.” The third measure is empty. The fourth measure says “and that is.” The first measure of the next line contains “poetry,” the next measure is empty, the next contains “as I need it,” and the final measure contains the period to the sentence. You begin to see why we have always liked John Cage, and find ourselves coming back to him again and again, to read and to listen. 

To round out the discussion, it’s worth mentioning, perhaps, that Silence also contains Cage’s “Lecture on Something,” suggesting a compare and contrast essay just itching to be written.

For some reason we’ve always paired John Cage with Thelonius Monk, thinking, for one thing, maybe Monk did for jazz what Cage did for classical, which is to say, in short, put some fresh wax on the board, unafraid to paddle out solo. Then again, we’ve always thought much of Cage’s music closer to jazz than to classical, for he admitted random access to sounds, in notation and performance. What bothered him about words was probably the many connotations, too many to contain, to orchestrate, or that words distract from sound with meaning. For Cage, the tree falling in the forest with no one listening certainly makes noise; the question is, what sounds does it make, the sounds no one hears?

Monk’s song titles provide clues to his intentions, “Rhythm-a-ning,” for example. Monk’s titles often convey what he has to say, his audience and purpose, if not his strategy. Monk had something to say, and said it, but, with the exception of the song titles, without words, and that is jazz, as he needed it.

In response to a request for a statement on music, Cage wrote “…nothing is accomplished by writing a piece of music…” Or, Cage continued, “…by hearing…playing a piece of music} our ears are now in excellent condition.” What’s more, in the opening of this statement, he writes “instantaneous and unpredictable.” That seems to describe Monk, and isn’t that jazz, as we all need it?

Cold frame for improvisation

Jazz musicians have long made handy use of so-called fake books. The best fake books condense a musical piece to one page. Full of popular songs and jazz standards, the fake books (and their now legitimate progeny, The Real Book series and other versions) allow the musician to gather the key, chords, melody, and lyrics at a glance to cover the piece close enough for recognition and loose enough to improvise and produce something new – new each time, for the cover sheets are cold frames for improvisation. Don’t be fooled by the word fake in the title; musical knowledge and familiarity with an instrument are prerequisites to successful fake book playing. But regular fake book playing improves a musician’s comprehension and capabilities.

Kenneth Koch might have had fake books in mind when he came up with the idea that eventually became his books Wishes, Lies, and Dreams and Rose, where did you get that red?: Teaching Great Poetry to Children. In the introduction to Rose, Koch said he “taught reading poetry and writing poetry as one subject. I brought them together by means of ‘poetry ideas,’ which were suggestions I would give to the children for writing poems of their own in some way like the poems they were studying” (pp. 3-4). So we get the question for the rose from close readings of William Blake’s “The Tyger” and “The Sick Rose.”

 

There are no fake books for writers. Still, writing is learned while writing, and a good writer is a good reader. Reading and writing brought together as one subject form frames for improvisation.