Music In Context

Artistic communication seems to work best when the performer/creators are operating in a context which is well understood by the audience.  There have been many historical examples when, for one reason or another,  a fortuitous alignment of purpose existed between the creative musician and the listener.  Although there is no guarantee that the best work will always be the most deeply appreciated, it is safe to assume that there is a more reliable chance for understanding when the audience is “in on the rules” of the artist’s “game”. 

One could imagine such a circumstance existing in Bach’s congregation as his cantatas were performed or that perhaps the members of the Esterhazy court were well attuned to the subtleties of the latest Haydn Symphony.  Under the best of these circumstances, beautifully executed conventional expression can be appreciated along with refreshing changes and expansions of the expected palette.  (In the absence of such a common understanding of the forms and purpose of artistic expression, creator and receiver alike end up in frenzied groping for each other or retreat into postures which abandon the effort at real communication.)

Those musicians who grew up playing jazz in the U.S. in the nineteen forties and fifties had every reason to believe that they were pursuing their artistic activities in an atmosphere of common understanding with the members of their audience.  Jazz improvisations and compositions were based on the popular songs of the time; songs everyone knew form radio broadcasts, Broadway shows, and Hollywood films.  Many parlors had pianos piled with sheet music versions of these songs and quite a few people had enough musical education to read and perform them.  The composers of these songs were well known and admired.  Most musicians felt they were following or perhaps creating together, a common esthetic.  In other words, the feeling was that all but a few were trying to do more or less the same thing; to express common material in a common language.

Curiously, while this situation might suggest a uniformity of expression, the actual result was a vital variety of individual voices communicating with the audience and each other in highly personal fashion.  Miles Davis and Clifford Brown different as they were, did not seem worlds apart.  

It would be an exaggeration to say that this jazz art form was commercially competitive with the mainstream of popular music, but it certainly held its own to a degree which allowed many musicians to pursue this activity with a sense of useful purpose and the chance of making a reasonable living.  Little by little as pressures mounted for jazz musicians to compete with the success of popular artists, things began to change.

The first break in this channel of communication was created by the musicians themselves, in collaboration with record company executives.  When Charlie Parker walked in to the studio ready to record Cherokee ( a well known song written by Ray Noble and sung in the movies by Nelson Eddy and Jeannette MacDonald)  it was suggested that by leaving out Ray Noble’s melody and basing the improvisations on only the chord changes of the song, the musicians could remain on what was familiar ground to them while retaining composer’s royalties and allowing publishing royalties to accrue to the record companies.  

This presented no great obstacle to the community of musicians. We were accustomed to hearing the forms of songs “from the bottom up” as the original melody receded from consciousness, replaced by the developing improvisations of the jazz soloists,  but most of the listening public hadn’t the same firm grip on the underpinnings of the songs.  Listeners could keep track of the form of a highly developed improvisation if they had just heard the familiar melody of the piece.  In the absence of that melody, many were at least one order of magnitude removed from intimate communication.  It’s an interesting question in “revisionist history” to wonder whether or not enough more records might have been sold if the original familiar melodies had been retained.

In any case, the game of stripping melodies from standards and replacing them with new “heads” soon took on intriguing aspects for the musicians involved and many fine new “compositions” resulted from the practice.

Even though this practice, started by musicians, increased the distance between performer and listener and diminished the ease of communication, it was far from the most important element of the eventual near dissolution of the connection.  For that to happen, the entire context had to change.

Sometime in the early sixties a seminal event occurred.  The baby boom generation reached adolescence and for the first time in history, there were millions of teenagers with money in their pockets.  The cultural revolution that that event created in a market economy had to be experienced to be believed.  Seemingly overnight, popular culture became adolescent culture.  (The popularity of the talented Beatles was simply  a logical result of the highly charged atmosphere.)  Suddenly record companies were diverting most, if not all of their funds into the production of records created by and for people with undeveloped sensibilities.  Of course there had been adolescent music before that time and there remains music for people of more developed sensibilities today, but the proportions have been markedly changed.

The reactions of jazz musicians to this situation were varied.  Some of us felt the rift quickly and were nonplussed to feel our audience receding from us at such a rate.  (I remember writing an article on the “Death of Jazz As We Know It” and showing it to Gunther Schuller who discouraged me from pursuing the thought.  From the perspective of this time it seems that I was experiencing something subjectively, form the inside of the situation, that would later prove to have been objectively quite real.)  Without any evident solution, we just kept on doing what we had been to the best of our ability and watched the listeners slip away.  

Others struggled to maintain their audience connection by adopting superficial elements of teenage hippie fashion.  40 year old jazz musicians appeared with greying pony tails as soon as they could grow them.  Some musicians began to speak of Philly Joe Jones and commercial rock drummers in the same breath and others played lame jazz versions of music that had at least a genuine youthful vitality in its original version but which was largely unsuitable for the kind of development that was usually applied to the works of Gershwin, Porter, Arlen, et al.  Another group retreated from the problem by designing music for a select audience of avant gardists that were content to pretend a depth of communication for which there is little concrete evidence.  All in all, it was the beginning of a long period of fragmentation and slippery rationale defending frantic grasping for an audience that had lost its frame of reference.

The esthetic mistake was the belief that by changing the jazz musician’s working context to that to which the audience had defected, both contact and integrity could be maintained.  In fact the contact was reduced to the superficial musical level to which the audience had descended.  Certainly the communication was broadened in numbers, resulting in financial success for some musicians who used jazz techniques to make  pop music, but arguments for the depth of that communication remain unconvincing.  (Where are the jazz fusion records of yesteryear?)

Of course the power of the overwhelming success that can accrue to those who satisfy the cravings of people with under-developed musical sensibilities and unearned money in their pockets is enormous and it has attracted the efforts of some extraordinary musicians.  All of that being true, it remains doubtful that the fusion of a developed art with the superficial fashions of an under-developed one could result in much of a durable amalgam and the jazz musicians search for the old lost connection to the audience or a new one that seems competitive with that of the pop artist has resulted in some unfortunate distortions in the work of otherwise gifted players.  Some of those “defectors” have been able to maintain their ability to converse in the more sophisticated language that preceded  the “devolution” and others have had to focus so much energy on dealing with a diminished vocabulary that they’ve lost understanding and control of the language that attracted them to jazz in the first place.

Many gifted younger players have grown up in the “pop jazz” context and have polished skills in that area without recognizing the impoverishment of the musical world in which they are working.  In many cases it doesn’t matter.  The audience doesn’t recognize it either.  The differences between the work of Charlie Parker and the young lions of limited artistic breadth go unnoticed.  

Aside from the diminished formal properties of the music that could be described as the cerebral side of the art, the most remarkable property of this new context whose boundaries are defined by the superficial response of an underdeveloped audience, is the imbalance of emotional expression.  From the skilled but often vacuous studio players to the maudlin whiners and frenzied screamers, something is out of whack.  The picture of emotion is pasted on -  anytime, anywhere, without regard for a normal human condition in which real feeling could naturally grow.  Actors call this “indicating”. 

The search for response cannot succeed without a language of commonly understood artistic abstraction so the performer, fueled by understandable (but artistically inexcusable) desperation, resorts to pre-language communication.  Scream, cry, whine, wail, yell - anything for attention. Never mind appropriate logic.  This is as ultimately wearing on a mature audience as the incessant nagging of a “terrible two year old” would be.  We learn not to continue to respond to the two year old and the child eventually abandons the behavior for more effective means of communication.  Would that an audience might anticipate a higher level of communication and, in its own interest, learn to demand more from performers.

Some promising new growth has sprouted in this near vacuum of incomplete communication.  A window of appreciation for a richer vocabulary has re-opened and some musicians are reaching through it.  It had to happen.  No matter the socio-cultural conditions, the human spirit will not be long denied and when we take our eyes off MTV there are recordings to remind us of what we had (and of the musicians who are still around and have never stopped pursuing the same goals).  Young, serious practitioners are building on their legacy with some remarkable results, but they are forced to do it in a context which is no longer as integrated and natural as was the case when the music was first developed.

Much of the physical context has changed.  Clubs where musicians could play night after night while developing their skills are no longer.  The few remaining clubs require mind boggling amounts of money to sustain their operations and can only afford to employ groups which are already commercially successful.  Musicians must develop in the unbalanced atmosphere of schools where only those elements of art which fit conveniently into a curriculum are included.  Students are woefully misguided in this situation, dutifully following distorted instructions in an attempt to arrive at a successful result by the same methods they apply to some of their other classes.  There are many useful things which are best learned outside of the educational ghetto.

Of course we need to be grateful that an art which might have perished altogether is now maintained in educational institutions, even in its present form.  There are some fine schools that supply an atmosphere in which a lot of good jazz can be learned but all of them face two important obstacles.  The first is that the cultural context in which the students and the school itself exist is the same one that created the communication gap in the first place.  The other is that learning is inefficient in a “ghetto” of age and experience.  In any normal “non-school” activity people learn best by pursuing that activity while surrounded by others with greater experience, rather than by those who are constrained by inexperience to make the same mistakes as everyone else in the group.  Jazz is best learned in an atmosphere in which young musicians strive to achieve enough maturity and skill to hear an older and more developed musician say “c’mon kid and play with us”.  The absence of that likelihood in most schools is something that needs to be corrected to whatever extent possible.

Chuck Israels

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