Sunday, February 24, 2008

A Fanatic's Love

I'm currently deep in to Gary Giddins' Visions of Jazz: Its First Century, a most unusual history of this most American of art forms. Had Ken Burns eschewed traditional chronological/personal/formal history, and created his documentary Jazz along similar lines, it would have been far better than it was. Giddins' book is, in essence, a written box set, a series of relatively short overviews of the lives, the music, the songs, and the settings of jazz throughout its improbable run as, first, a racially divided source of inspiration; the sound that gave a generation its name; the revolt of the post-modernists who insisted that jazz live up to its intellectual potential; the fear of and acquiescence to rock, including amplification; and its final resting place as a plethora of styles rooted in a rhythmic style and harmonic and melodic openness to just about everything. Nothing exemplifies the contemporary state of jazz to me more than the Grammy-award-winning CD in which free jazz bassist Charlie Haden and jazz guitarist Pat Metheny (known for his lush orchestrations using either keyboardist Lyle Mays or a real orchestra) play together, Beyond the Missouri Skyline.

Giddins knows the linear, traditional history of the music. He has listened to, and absorbed, every phrase, every solo, every harmony, every variation on "Body and Soul" and "Old Rocking Chair" that exists. He knew, either well or in passing, some of the best musicians to play, from elder statesman Roy Eldridge through the titan Sonny Rollins and Ornette Coleman. His work is singular in that he manages to present in words on paper, an impression of what this music he loves so well and knows so thoroughly, does to listeners. It is a soloist's art, uniquely American in that it celebrates the power of the individual to be heroic, even as that hero is supported by a motley crew without whom that heroic individualism would be impossible.

He also celebrates some interesting, forgotten people. Who in the world was Bobby Hackett? Why, he was a Muzak performer who also played some amazing solos. Frank Sinatra? Giddins admits he was of jazz without being in jazz; yet his interpretation of pop songs, his ersatz recordings with arrangers Nelson Riddle and Johnny Mercer would have been impossible without Louis Armstrong or Billie Holliday. Giddins celebrates the power and artistry of Roy Eldridge who, had Louis Armstrong never existed, would be celebrated today as the singular genius of the trumpet. Giddins reminds readers that without Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young, Charlie Parker and Sonny Rollins would not have understood the breadth of possibilities of both song and instrument.

I wish that someone would do something similar to rock music. The standard history of rock has been told so many times, and always with the same emphases - the rise of r&b and a new wave of country music in the early 1950's, given a synthesis in the guitar of Chuck Berry (a country musician at heart) and the swagger of Elvis Presley (who speeded up "Kentucky Moon" in one of his first releases). Only lately has Ike Turner's "Rocket 88", an early '50's r&b classic relegated to the fringes of the mainstream, been recognized as the first true rock and roll song.

How much better to move beyond a celebration of these earliest, primitive forays, through the overtaking by the major labels (if I have to read about the Brill Building again I might throw up), and even the Beatles, and remember the Kinks. How much better to recall that the biggest selling concert act in the years 1965 through 1967 was not the Beatles or the Rolling Stones, but Herman's Hermits (Jimi Hendrix opened for the Hermits on his first, and their last, tour of the United States). How much better to take the Beach Boys off the beach and leave them in the studio where they belong?

One of the greatest crimes of the standard history of rock music (I encountered it in the standard, The Rolling Stone History of Rock and Roll, written in three separate sections, denoting the early years up to the Beatles; the period from their ascendance through their demise; and the post-Beatles shattering of consensus) has been the puling and whining that, after John, Paul, George, and Ringo went their separate ways, "the music" no longer had an anchor, as it were. This is wrong for several reasons, not the least of which is that it places far too much on the four young men from Liverpool to imagine that they were the anchor of rock in the 1960's. What of Bob Dylan, the Rascals, the Doors, Motown, the Yardbirds, the Buffalo Springfield? What of the relationship between the Everly Brother's countrified rock and roll and Richie Furay's Poco, which did much the same thing, only to be watered down and over-produced (and sell a lot more records) in The Eagles? Why do standard histories of rock and roll include long reviews of James Taylor or Paul Simon, who were more or less crooners with guitars (Simon was briefly a toiler in the Brill Building factory; some of Taylor's songs were arrangements of Carole King songs, and King, too, had spent years at Brill)? Why is prog denigrated as a dilution of rock, and heavy metal lampooned as noise for neanderthals, rather than as serious attempts to take the music to places - emotionally and artistically - that were accessible to millions of fans?

It would be nice to read a history of rock the celebrated the song-writing of Ray Davies as much as Lennon/McCartney; the studio technique of Brian Wilson, rather than just his song-writing; the way the Rascals' "Good Lovin'" provided a template for both music and lyrics as the sixties moved from its mid- to its late- period? It might even be nice to discount the late Lester Bangs' love-affair with the Stooges and MC5, and later British punk, and celebrate a more mature, post-revolt attempt to take the pieces and put them back together (PiL, and Joe Strummer's post-Clash bands are far better and more effective than either the Sex Pistols or the Clash).

So, maybe like Giddins, it would be nice to read a fan's history of rock, written the way rock is supposed to be - loud, boisterous, upsetting our conceits and traditions and sense of complacency. It should be gritty and sexy, carnal and angry. It should also be by turns short and to the point, and perhaps a bit longer and more thoughtful. It should synthesize what has been done, but also overturn our comfortable assumptions about what this music is, what it has done, what it means, and whether or not it has a future (here, I have some doubts, because for the past twenty years or so, we have been recycling styles; hip-hop is the real music factory today, although that, too, is already getting a bit old).

Who knows, maybe I'll do it.

As if I had time.

Virtual Tin Cup

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