Music, Freedom, and Form

I read yesterday that Pharoah Sanders had died. By most accounts he was a kind and gentle man, though his music explored the limits of sonic tolerance. His work in the ‘60s with John Coltrane and Albert Ayler “helped pioneer a frenetic blend of spiritual jazz that, through shrieking horns and loose rhythmic structure, was meant to summon higher powers. The idea, it seemed, was to blow the sax so hard that the music reached God’s ears.”

So says Marcus J. Moore in The Nation, then going on to render an appreciation of Sanders’ development in later years, pointedly with Promises in 2021, an album I haven’t heard in which Moore finds greatness. I do have a couple of albums wherein Sanders and Coltrane are apparently searching for Karma or God on their horns. They are hard to listen to today.

When I was music critic for The New Leader in the late ‘60s I went on a couple of rants about free jazz—how screeching and emotive self-indulgence had taken over the music. Since I’ve become old and crotchety I haven’t much changed my opinion about free jazz though I’ve mellowed a bit. It’s not popular anymore for a lot of reasons, but Pharoah was one of the few to try keeping it relevant, and we salute him for that.

Free jazz proponents talked a lot about freedom. Yet when jazz tends to anarchy it can sink into expressionistic bedlam. John Coltrane’s music in the ‘50s and ‘60s was a revelation to me. When he later focused on his intense spiritual quest I simply couldn’t follow him.

For me, music must have some form or purpose or content its listeners can relate to. Free jazz leaves most musical norms behind, and “all notes are created equal!” It began as protest music and, in my opinion, evolved to self-indulgence. There’s more to it than this, of course. Below is a very good, somewhat complicated explanation of how free jazz takes different forms. I’ve never heard a better one.

When forms like serialism in classical music die out, as free jazz mostly has, what comes next? Ornette Coleman, a unique kind of free jazz musician, showed us one way. Hear “Lonely Woman” from The Shape of Jazz to Come, 1959:

The impulses—musical and social—that created free jazz were not always noble. Mingus and Miles used to say that these folks were jiving the public, trying to make money off black protest. Mingus was very vocal about this: “if the free-form guys could play the same tune twice, then I would say they were playing something . . . .”

When Mingus or his band “played free,” as they often did in his later music, they never got lost in their explorations. There was always a tonal center or a melody or chords to come back to. Mingus was also a master of the many modes and moods of jazz. These traditions and roots were his stock in trade. I’ve always felt that the free jazz people never cared much for these things.

Computer-Assisted Headaches

Yesterday, all of a sudden, MS Word wouldn’t start. Do you know what this means to someone who writes? It’s like your car won’t start when you’re going to an important meeting. Or running  out of gas at night on a country road. Your word processor is your life.

I got it fixed because I know the vagaries and twitches of my old computer, and it just required a restart. I have a ThinkPad which I still love though it’s now ten years old, long past the fail date for most laptops. Its twitches have become more frequent, though nothing major bad yet. These signs have not gone unnoticed.

A new ThinkPad is out of the question: too expensive. Other new laptops have a lot of features I don’t want or need—and too few ports for all the USB peripherals I run. The mess of wires and cables beneath my desk is the typical rat’s nest. So you have to plug all that stuff into a hub.

I have been fooling with computers since 1984-5 when I bought two British-made Apricots for my business. These were great machines for the time and, along with my accountant, they taught me how to use software like Lotus 1-2-3. After I got the hang of earlier word processors like WordPerfect, my writing habits were absolutely transformed.

Apricot

As time has passed, computing has gotten much more complicated while the machines have gotten much better. As they now perform hundreds more functions faster and more powerfully, who can keep up (unless you’re a techie)? And who can master all the proliferating software? My old brain is not equipped for this.

Worse still is trying to deal with all the functions on a smartphone. I’ve had three or four of these over time, and each gets more fussy and complicated. They contain so much crap you don’t want, and some phones still come loaded with bloatware. They also hide the stuff you need to set or change in impenetrable sub-menus.

Doing regular things like cleaning the cache is like learning a new language. Making the phone behave as you want requires patience and perseverance. I have friends who just turn off their phones when they are idle. Y’all know what I’m talking about?

For most users, progress in the art of computing ought to mean getting things done that you need to do in the simplest, most effective way. Often it means spending inordinate amounts of time and frustration to fight your way through outdated instructions from Google, incompatible software, inscrutable tech talk, and incompetent support staff.

Like so much in contemporary life, our devices give us what someone else thinks we want in a frequently user-unfriendly form. Now we have AI to look forward to.

DeSantis

The guy shows you what Harvard and Yale educations can produce. He’s always in that dumb navy blue suit, the one he ordered from Trump’s tailors.

The MAGA Mafia has no shame about its actions because their quest for power and control will not permit it. And the DeSantis pugnacity reflects this in his every action. His Martha’s Vineyard hijack promises more of the same.

Dexter Filkins said this about him:

He’s very, very angry at the élites, even though he went to Harvard and Yale. He’s very angry at Washington. He’s very angry at the politicians. He’s rallying basically the white working class of Florida, of which the numbers are still quite large. He’s angry.

He doesn’t like gays, Disney, Fauci, masks, Washington, critical race theory. At dinner Friday night with some friends and fortified by martinis and wine, I indulged in a short rant about how futile it was to just bitch and complain about the loathsomeness of the far right. “The Democrats need to understand what motivates these people. What causes them to be so pissed off? We should hear their complaints. Know thine enemy.”

I prattled on about how politics is simply about winning the most votes, not just vilifying the other side. My assumption was, I guess, that some of the hoi polloi could be won over. It was really a Platonic response to all the hate that pols like DeSantis promote. As the fog lifted today, I’m thinking how nobly unrealistic such an approach is.

In military terms, you must take out the front-line defenses, attack them head on. That will not be easy with smart operators like DeSantis. Charlie Crist seems too nice and gentlemanly for that task.

Rather, we should learn from the Ukranians how to be stealthy and smart. Booby trap their meetings with stunts; enlist the Florida lefties who have been far too quiet lately; make more public noise about the governor’s odious actions.

The best weapon will be humor. Jimmy Kimmel: “Ron DeSantis is that guy you went to high school with who desperately wanted to be prom king but didn’t have any charisma, so instead, he just pulled the fire alarm and ruined the dance for everybody.”

Really Bad Political Writing

‘Tis the season for such dreck, but of course it’s always the season. No one pays much attention to George Orwell anymore, but he did a great service to us all in his 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language.” Here, God bless him, is an excerpt:

In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing. Where it is not true, it will generally be found that the writer is some kind of rebel, expressing his private opinions and not a “party line”. Orthodoxy, of whatever colour, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style. . . . When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases—bestial, atrocities, iron heel, bloodstained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder—one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker’s spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them. . . .

The great enemy of clear language is insincerity.

Bad political writing and boring political speeches are so prevalent today that we have come to take them for granted. Below are some recent specimens. Disclosure: I used to write political speeches, which I’d never want to reread at this juncture.

Margaret Hartmann in NY Mag (her vapid opening sentence in a piece about Trump’s nuclear documents): “Normal people probably shouldn’t insist the government’s allegations against them are a complete fabrication if they know it’s highly likely that the Feds have evidence that proves them wrong.”

Matt McManus in Aereo (a liberal socialist writing about bad left-wing writing): “As Thomas Piketty points out, one of the motivators behind the recent surge in right wing populism—itself a distinctly postmodern phenomenon—was a sense that that the left has cut itself off from its humble working class roots and evolved in a Brahminesque direction, spouting impenetrable wisdom about vaguely radical change on behalf of marginalized people in prose that requires ten solid years at graduate school to understand.”

President Biden’s Remarks at the Pentagon 9/11 Memorial Ceremony, Sept. 11, 2022: “And to all our service members and their families, our veterans, our Gold Star families, all the survivors and caregivers and loved ones who have sacrificed so much for our nation: We owe you. We owe you an incredible—an incredible debt, a debt that can never be repaid but will never fail to meet the sacred obligation to you to properly prepare and equip those that we send into harm’s way and care for those and their families when they come home—and to never, ever, ever forget. . . . When future generations come here to sit in the shade of the Maple trees that shelter the memorial and grown tall and strong with passing years, they will find the names of patriots.”

The President’s speeches have gotten more feisty since he decided to go after the MAGA Mafia. Still, one wishes that he could stop the cliché responses to events and speak the language of the people directly. As Orwell put it, “one ought to recognise that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end.”

Vinyl Reincarnated

Record store in Oaxaca

The great viny comeback: is it a music, technology, or cultural story? Or a who-cares story? For me, a longtime vinyl lover, it’s always been just a better way to hear all the music that was recorded. Others find it satisfies different needs. Here’s a piece about vinyl’s psycho-social appeal.

I moved so many times before coming to Mexico—each time sorting and boxing some 1,500 records (classical and jazz mostly, some rock and blues)—that people used to think I was nuts. The process of keeping vinyl clean, the necessity and cost of a good hi-fi system to properly render it, the cumbersome ritual of playing it: for years now these have been impediments to vinyl’s widescale acceptance.

Before CDs and streaming audio captured the market, vinyl was always the default medium of choice for music lovers. Around 2005-2006 it began to stage a comeback. Today there’s a small but still rapidly growing market for “records,” mainly to younger buyers. London’s Financial Times, an unusual source, tells us that vinyl sales for 2021 went over a billion dollars, the highest level in 30 years.

I grew up with stacks of my father’s 78-rpm shellac recordings, then graduated to vinyl and later CD. I’ve talked about this here. Vinyl LPs became

the medium I depend on for my musical fix. It’s also, given the vagaries of my collection, one person’s version of the history of music and, certainly, a history of my taste.

As to the sound, CDs have gotten generally better in the last few years, but vinyl still has the edge in terms of warmth and fullness. It’s closer to the sound of live music, and that after all is the goal of musical reproduction. As to streaming and most online music, well, one writer put it this way: “Streaming is much like fast food, it’s not the greatest but the convenience is really nice. Records are more like cooking a really nice meal at home, you enjoy the whole experience.” I do cook a lot at home.

My father had a decent vinyl collection, and the two of us always enjoyed the musico-technical pleasures of hi-fi. But when the CD arrived, around 1982, he was captivated by the new technology and gave away all his records to the guy who serviced his stereo setup. His son was not pleased at this musical perfidy, which repeated his giveaway of all those stacks of 78s when the LP arrived (around 1948).

The way we listen to music has begun to change in the last few years. Particularly in the ‘90s people became addicted to hearing specific tunes, never a whole album. The convenience of Walkmans, downloads and cell phones made it so easy to hear one’s music that it began to function as background, almost like Muzak.

This didn’t happen for classical and jazz lovers. They never gave over the values of the concert hall—deep listening and abstracting oneself from the nonsense of the day. So, albums and LPs began to come back as preferred vehicles. I guess the moral is slow down your life and listen.

Thoughts on Media

One of the interesting media guys of our time is Ezra Klein. In his New York Times columns he will talk about old media luminaries like Marshall McLuhan (“the media is the message”) and Neil Postman. It’s the kind of stuff that only a truly dedicated communications freak would enjoy.

But Ezra also gets into issues that modern media constantly bring up: free speech vs. the internet, propaganda and honesty, cyber security and data privacy, and so on. He published a very long interview about a month ago with Sean Illing, a sharp writer who does interviews for Vox. Ezra’s starting point was that democracies seem shaped by what kind of “communicative culture” they have.

Sean agrees that “media technologies are disruptive,” sometimes toxic; and so the two have an extended discussion on how a communicative culture can influence democracy—for good or ill. “Our ideology is our technology.” But is it? Sounds like McLuhan again. People liked Reagan not so much for his policies but because he was good on TV. Sean says people “race for content, for clicks, for attention and we act like greyhounds chasing a slab of meat.”

But this gets to something we try to say in the book (The Paradox of Democracy, by Zac Gershberg and Sean Illing), which is that what the media thinks it’s doing is not really what it’s doing, certainly not anymore. A lot of the press is still wedded to this 20th century model of journalism where we conquer lies by exposing them or we deliver truth to a country desperate to hear it and people make informed decisions and yada, yada, yada.

But this just doesn’t seem to be what’s going on. There’s too much bullshit to debunk, too many conflicting narratives to untangle. The information space has been shattered into a zillion pieces thanks to the internet. And the audience is so fragmented and self-sorted [that] a huge chunk of the country doesn’t really trust public institutions or the mainstream media. And they’re not listening, and a lot of it feels like it’s just a political class talking to itself. And I know that’s kind of depressing, but that has been my experience . . . .

If we are being confronted by the anxieties and the outrages everywhere all the time, and we can’t do anything about it, and the algorithms are pushing all the terrible shit in front of our faces all the time, that breeds fatigue and cynicism and probably despair.”

No one can deny that, I submit. The other side of that coin is simply . . . it’s what the public wants. A writer on Quora, Christine Infanger, says “the media is screwed up because people have their priorities completely wrong.” I like her argument; she’s on a good rant:

Does the media deliver more banality now because it’s what society wants or does society settle for mediocrity because it’s what they’ve become accustomed to? Maybe both. Let’s remember, consumers and their money have a lot of power—if people didn’t eat up channels known for their ‘news reporters’ blatantly lying, those methods would change immediately. If magazines didn’t sell truckloads of issues dedicated to which stars have cellulite or have been captured sans makeup or post-weight gain, those magazines would find a new tack. If people didn’t pay or click to see (name of celebrity) caught getting into a car without undergarments, those photos would no longer be in demand. If people didn’t want to analyze which celebrity gained weight, has a cute child, and whom may be having an affair with whom, there would be no market for it. It’s worth noting that the average paparazzi earns between $66-100k per year with the really smarmy ones earning a salary exceeding $250k per year. The public complain about taxes being high with those funds going to pay teachers, who are grossly underpaid, fund schools, many of which are sorely in demand of updating and new materials, libraries, parks, and police and fire departments. Where is the outrage about how much paparazzi earn to stalk ‘celebrity’ children coming home from school? The public is largely funding those outrageous salaries, yet seem content with it.

You get what you pay for. And that, unfortunately, applies to democracies as well.

A Wizard of Jazz

Sy Johnson, Lois MIrviss, Dan Morgenstern

I wrote recently about my associations with Sy Johnson, jazz’s Renaissance man. Now, in a slightly overdue but well-crafted obit, the New York Times pays its respects. All jazz fans should take notice. Sy and I had many conversations about doing a possible book together, and I’ve transcribed a few excerpts below.

SJ: I was trying to be an avant-garde player, like Monk and Cecil Taylor, but I could play perfectly conventional piano too. But then I could not stop myself from being Monk or Cecil Taylor. There were also times when I couldn’t make a mistake. Which brings me to something we should talk about—it’s the zone, suddenly you surrender control of your mind and hands and they behave like they are somebody else’s. And you’re amazed at the music coming out. It’s a really, really profound thing. Playing with Gary Peacock, my onetime roommate, we would hit the first chord and immediately we’re playing things we never thought of, never heard before. . . .

First weekend I was in NY I resolved to go to the Museum of Modern Art, very important and high on my list, and I turned a corner and was confronted by Jackson Pollock’s Abstraction No. 5, or whatever, and it was a revelation. Because it confirmed that the things I was trying to do as a jazz musician entered into other abstract forms of art. I had lots of recording sessions, hanging out with Paul Bley, later with Ornette Coleman, and wanted to find my way into that kind of music. It was a confirmation that, yes, not only could I do that, but other people had gone there before.

Later, we were sitting in Sy’s apartment listening to some CDs I had brought for him to comment on. One was a 1954 Thelonious Monk version of the classic “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” 

SJ: Monk’s solo piano playing was very much out of the stride piano tradition. Secondly, his arrangements never vary far from the melody. Furthermore, once he made an arrangement it was the same in every rendition of the tune–like Art Tatum playing “Tea for Two.” You hear pretty much the same solo all through. Monk loved to play solos, and I would steal from them; I used to play with the same kind of attack he had, couldn’t stop myself. So I was playing pretty strange stuff in jam sessions. What becomes distinctive is the idiosyncratic parts of a Monk solo, that’s what’s interesting. It doesn’t sound like anybody else. You suspend your feelings about what a conventional romantic ballad might be, how it might be played because it’s Monk and he’s a genius and it’s inimitable and also a key to understanding Monk playing his own tunes. You hear tritones and flatted fifth kinds of fills he plays in the middle of things, whole tone runs. And he doesn’t do a lot of that in the standard songs. And when he has something more complex to play, he stops his left hand. Plays it in the right and then picks up the oom-pah thing in the left. He loved to play standards and played them all day long, 8 hours a day.

People would walk in and find him playing the piano at home and he’d talk while he was still playing. So what we just heard is a very conservative representation of the Jerome Kern classic song. Another thing I noticed is that he doesn’t really hit the bridge right. I mean the bridge changes key, what’s called a common-tone modulation, and it’s about the third bar here before you really do hear the modulation. Not a clean break into the new key, sort of muffed a bit. But this is a classic performance of a great American songbook song, and it’s inimitable.

JG: What can I say? . . . A couple of things: I love that record, think that for all the reasons you stated it’s a classic, conservative piece—and it represents the essence of Monk.

SG: Because it’s not a Monk composition you don’t have to figure out where the song is going next, you’re dealing with a song that you know. It’s part of your inheritance, you’ve heard it forever, and so you can begin to see Monk’s style in context. Because you’re looking at it as a known landscape, like the lake in Central Park. You also remember that Central Park was a very different place when they hung all those orange banners up; it was fascinating what Cristo did, both man and wife, the park was transformed. The landscape had its molecules changed in a way that you could see, transformed in winter. The banners weren’t significant in themselves, they were a means to an end, ingenious as an engineering problem, very well thought out.

But none of Monk’s tune here is really an improvisation—he never takes off from the chord changes or theme—you’re hearing an arrangement, decorated with Monkisms. No rhapsodic effects, no sentimental baggage. He takes it clinically, strips it of all the Broadway schmaltz. I see this as one of the bridging songs from the tradition of Sigmund Romberg, who was a brilliant melodist but part of the florid operetta tradition. Before Monk got his hands on it Jerome Kern had taken that tradition and made it into very characteristic compositions of his own. Kern was a different kind of composer, far more lyical, bordering on the ecstatic. His songs are romantic but modern in development.

We began to talk about “All the Things You Are,” perhaps Kern’s greatest creation. Sy sat down at the piano to illustrate its chord changes and then played a tune he wrote based on them. Maybe an audio clip of that soon.

Jiving about Race

You see a picture like this, and what comes to mind? Robert Colescott, who painted it, is gone but there’s a new show in New York featuring some of his most confrontational works. Says WaPo’s reviewer Philip Kennicott, work like Colescott’s “confounds almost every piety about race and gender in operation today, sometimes with humor, though not the kind of humor that makes you laugh.”

What I immediately flashed on was Charles Mingus’s great sendup “Eat That Chicken,” from his 1962 album Mingus/Oh Yeah. I still have the original vinyl that was instrumental in turning me on to Mingus. “Eat That Chicken” features another musical prankster, Roland Kirk, whose hokey, honkey-tonk solos perfectly complement Mingus’s vocal antics.

In the ‘60s and ’70s I was privileged to spend time with both of these gents and learned a lot about how black humor works. (I don’t have to capitalize “Black,” do I? Do we capitalize “White”?) Colescott brought another, more discomfiting aspect to it in his paintings. These include such gems as “George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware,” which portrays the great black scientist in a boat full of cast-offs and stereotypes—including “a mammie figure performing a sex act on the flag bearer standing just behind Carver.” This is heavy blackface satire executed by a black man.

It’s a bit like what Jewish comedians over the years have done with Jewish culture: they appreciate it and often make fun of it. But for a black man (he was half-black, actually) like Colescott to produce art like this was to categorically pierce the sanctity of black identity, at least as it’s vouchsafed to us in our prevalent cultural politics. We need more of that.

Mingus’s “Eat That Chicken” was supposedly done as a tribute to Fats Waller. I don’t know if that’s true. Fats wrote funny “novelty” tunes like “Your Feets Too Big,” which I heard on the radio as a kid and loved. But “Chicken” has more of a happy bite to it, if you’ll excuse the metaphor. It makes a nod to Jelly Roll Morton and some of his novelties, the Dixieland tradition, and the earthy gospel-ish stuff that Mingus grew up with.

Anyhow, we surely could stand a little less sanctity about race in America.

I’m Declassifying Everything I Ever Wrote

That includes everything on this blog, plus Mingus Speaks and the other books and occasional pieces I’ve written. Also, I formerly did a blog called jazzinsideandout.com in this space, which is now offline though I keep copies on my computer of all the junk I wrote for it. All that is now declassified, so you can now read it quite legally—if you can find it.

Trump told NBC News on Friday that he had declassified all the records now held in Mar-a-Lago. He waved his magic wand. No reason I can’t do the same.

Matt Bai wrote recently about how Trump never understood the transiency of the presidency, that a president is merely a temporary custodian of the office. “You’re just hired to manage the place for a while.” Trump instead thinks of himself as a sort of super-CEO, a Musk-like creature with extraordinary powers of command and control. He can wave the wand of declassification whether he’s president or not.

I also decided to take this step in clear violation of the copyright law, which gives me legal control over my writings but which also poses certain conditions I don’t like. People are supposed to come to me for permission to quote or reproduce my stuff. This is a completely out-of-date prohibition since the internet has made any and everything totally available.

Another thing I don’t like: “if employees create works that are within the scope of their jobs, the copyrights are owned by the employers as ‘works-for-hire.’” Wait a minute. Why should working for others take precedence over one’s own creativity? I’ve written a lot of good stuff for other people that they now own the rights to?

Writers are like children; they want to hold on to what they think rightfully belongs to them. Some seem to have never gotten properly toilet-trained. Well, it’s time for all that to stop. Matt, again, has a good take on this:

So, of course, Trump refused to leave the job until forced, and of course he held on to material that clearly belonged in public hands. When the presidency is an acquisition rather than an opportunity to serve, then everything that comes with it is rightfully yours to do with as you please.

Of course I don’t work for the government though I have done contract work for the Navy and government agencies in the past. I have no idea whether any of that stuff might be classified, but it’s  doubtful. So who really cares? I wave the wand of declassification anyway. Let ‘em come to Mexico and search my 58 bedrooms.

Rescuing the Trump Papers

The New Yorker

A big question nobody’s asking is: What was he going to do with all that stuff in the 15 (now 12) boxes? Another: are some of these classified documents still damp from the toilet? So many questions and so few answers yet. How quickly and thoroughly the DOJ has presumed Trump’s criminal behavior is a dead giveaway (getting the search warrant), all the more so given the rapid and rabid responses of the GOP.

Witnesses have told how he tore up, burned, shredded, flushed and pocketed many documents. It will be a treat to hear their testimony before the Jan. 6 Committee. Maybe there aren’t that many papers left. If only one box of papers is now considered classified, what will that do to the DOJ’s investigation? Who squealed to the FBI that the boxes were still there? More questions, of course.

What we do know is that the Houdini of Presidential Crime will now likely end up charged, if not convicted. He’ll shortly announce his 2024 presidential run, another way to blunt the inquiry and tear the country apart. Just like he shreds documents.

Will he escape from justice one more time? I wouldn’t bet on it.