Saturday, February 09, 2008

Music For America, Part I

I recently found Gary Giddins' National Book Critics Circle Award winning Visions of Jazz: The First Century. After perusing his column collected in Weather Bird, reading him in a far larger form has been refreshing, a bit like the difference between listening to an epic song by Yes - "Close to the Edge", say, or "Gates of Delirium" - after listening to their shorter pieces. You get the sense that the larger form is much more amenable to his style, his enthusiasm for his subject matter, and his desire to say pretty much everything he wants to say. While he has written in larger, book-length form before, there is just something explosive about this text. You get the sense he is not only setting forth his position vis-a-vis the history of jazz, but settling scores, as well as making clear and explicit what has long been implicit and murky.

In the introduction is a paragraph that sums up Giddins' belief about jazz. It isn't just his, though. I think it is, if such a word has meaning, the essence of jazz as a musical style.
The one truth about jazz of which I am certain is that it incarnates liberty,often with a perversely proud intransigence, merging with everything and borrowing anything, yet ultimately riding alone. Unlike pop, it doesn't measure success with sales charts. Unlike classical, it isn't, as yet, certified by a state-subsidized ladder of achievement. Jazz does what it wants when it wants and pays the price of commercial marginality. Not a bad thing, independence, which is what hooked many of us on art and jazz in the first place.

This little paragraph, tossed off without a whole lot of fanfare, was an epiphany of sorts for me. Lights went on in the dimness of my brain. Not just jazz - which I had identified as quintessentially American - but now hip-hop became far more clear to me. Unlike the music of rebellion, rock and roll, jazz is the music of freedom. It is the music that expresses what America could be, if ti lived up to what it says about itself.

When one considers, for even one moment, what Giddins says above concerning the propensity of jazz to borrow from wherever it needs to borrow while maintaining its own integrity, and compare it to the rigid formulas of rock, of heavy metal, of indie-rock, you realize that the latter "rebels" are purists, ideologues of music who demand conformity even as they preach revolution. "Doing your own thing" only goes so far as making sure your sound meshes with what others have done before. In the end, to rebel is to be forced to be free, a Rousseauian nightmare of totalitarian freedom.

In jazz, there is no need to force freedom. It's part of what you're doing. Sitting and listening to Benny Goodman's 1938 Carnegie Hall concert, or the Miles Davis quintet, or even Pat Metheny - you are already free because these musicians understand that they are free. Rules? You don't need no stinkin' rules! Just listen to Charlie Parker, and at one and the same time you hear the blues, and you also hear how the rigid, standard blues progression can sit there pole-axed by someone, yet still remain that same old, 12-bar, two or three chord change.

America is not in need of rebellion, because we already are free. That most American of musics, that which tells us who we are, and how we are, lets us know with every chorus, every melodic interval, every shift from chordal to scalar modalism. No matter how intricate or detailed the explanation, it's all about nothing more and nothing less than freedom.

Virtual Tin Cup

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