Nothing Succeeds Like Excess

 

Oscar Wilde said this. To which he added, “Moderation is a fatal thing.” I’ve always been a big fan of Oscar’s and once used that quote to justify inordinate drinking and recklessness in college, which in turn led to a year’s suspension and a subsequent turnaround in my life. Oscar’s life ended badly; mine is happily still in progress.

Born in Dublin, he came from a fortunate family and evolved into the major spokesperson for the aesthetic movement in late Victorian England. The aesthetes were a noisy but watered-down offshoot of the French Symbolists, whom I wrote about in a doctoral thesis. Through his pen and his wit, Oscar became known throughout the educated world.

I’ve never made any claim to wit or been part of a movement. I did come from a fortunate family and have written about that elsewhere. Part of growing up in the 1950s as I did was, however, to be seen as educated and clever, and I attempted to fill that bill through love of music and art. As Oscar did, this was an effort to move out of the pedestrian world of business and the common culture that grated on such elegant souls.

But it was important to make this move without much pretension or hype. The last thing you wanted was to be looked at as a pansy or, god forbid, a homo. Since my social tendencies lay in the other direction, I generally fitted in, had lots of friends, male and female, and made the arts the focal part of my “other life.”

Wilde, on the other hand, went out of his way to promote and display his otherness, disdaining convention, writing well, and paradoxically pleasing and even capturing society. His popularity even extended beyond the smart set. Excess does sometimes win out.

The phrase, “nothing succeeds like success” is still current and still accepted. But it’s part of the old culture, particularly the moneyed culture. The common culture today makes it a virtue to have come up the hard way. If you are a politician or an entertainer, the last thing you want to do is admit you came from wealth. Being successful typically means working your way up from being poor or middle class. The classic example is Joe Biden. John Kerry is still mocked.

I smell a lot of hypocrisy in this. Coming up the hard way means you likely had to spend a lot of energy on learning accepted behaviors, on pleasing the powerful, on survival skills. The more fortunate, on the other hand, can (theoretically) earn their success more easily. Yet privilege and success are publicly disdained because our culture continues to value the familiar, the commonplace and the old work ethic.

Oscar knew better. He also said, “Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.”

Music When All Else Fails

I’m lucky enough to have collected and enjoyed some 1,500 records (vinyl LPs) and kept them with me all these years, plus about 1,000 CDs. Most are classical and jazz. Hearing them played back over a good sound system gets you emotionally in tune again. It completes who you are.

I have been living intimately with music all my life. Some of that history is recounted here, but the true story is that I can’t do without it. As a means to counter the fog and depression of war, for me music is unmatched. Everyone needs a break from the violence.

So much TV coverage of the Ukraine war becomes an assault on one’s capability to absorb violence. In our desire to learn more about the war we are surfeited with pictures and accounts that deny the reality of being human. Yet maybe you saw this video of the delightful German guy who came to Ukraine with his piano to play for the refugees.

Or the young girl who sang a song from Disney to refugees in a bomb shelter. It’s a commonplace that music de-stresses people but it is often judged in a political context. In the classical world, think of what Shostakovich went through under Stalin, from popularity to persecution. Or Prokofiev before him. Music under the Nazis was a travesty of art and a triumph of propaganda and kitsch. An estimated 1,500 musicians fled to England and the United States, among them Rudolf Serkin and Arnold Schönberg.

I have a great preponderance of German and Russian music in my collection. Should I give up listening to that as a protest to what Putin is doing in Ukraine (or what the Nazis did)? Of course not. Artworks should always be exempt from politics, even though their authors and practitioners unfortunately are not. Renouncing music, painting and literature for political concerns would be like renouncing our human connection.

In the world of commerce, we have reports of Stolichnaya vodka being poured down the sink. The company is now changing its name to “Stoli,” as if that will fool anybody. Protests only bite when there is a human connection involved.

Culturally, we are now seeing famous Russian conductors under pressure to renounce their homeland or quit music. Tugan Sokhiev “said on Sunday that he would resign from his positions with two orchestras—at the storied Bolshoi Theater in Moscow and in Toulouse, France—after facing intense pressure to condemn President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. . . . ‘I am being asked to choose one cultural tradition over another,’ Mr. Sokhiev said in the statement.”

Artists have often faced dilemmas of this kind: think of Beethoven and his benefactors, or Béla Bártok, the Hungarian genius who fled the Nazis for poverty and exile in the U.S. And there were so many others.

Music is and has always been the highest expression of our common humanity. We need that refuge now more than ever.

Coltrane the Cultural Icon

I’m moved to write about the Great Jazz Messiah after reading what Ben Ratliff wrote in the Washington Post the other day. Ben, a good critic now somewhat retired from journalism, pokes and probes around the cultural goings-on of the early ‘60s to explain Coltrane’s evolution, from 1961 to be exact.

It’s a kind of “rambling, unfocused piece,” as one commenter put it. And it makes the usual generalizations about the era that can ring false to those who lived through it, as I did. His piece also testifies to why I don’t write jazz criticism anymore.

Ratliff focuses on 1961 because it was the time of Coltrane’s pathbreaking Live at the Village Vanguard recordings. Here’s part of his negative take on the culture of that time:

From my standpoint—I wasn’t born until seven years later—the culture of that period seems marked by tension, diffusion, doubt, repetition, foreboding, lengthiness, savviness, taut aggression, wary knowledge, inspired dread, disciplined joy. The music sounds post-heroic and pre-cynical; interestingly free from grandiosity; full of room for the listener to find a place within it and make up their own mind. I want to live in it—not necessarily in its material evidence (I am looking forward to the next Playboi Carti record, just like you), but in its sensitivity, its skepticism and refusals. I think I can.

(Whew! Some tortured language here. Just like you, I had to Google “Playboi Carti.”) Ben finds all this as a cornerstone to Coltrane’s music of the period. I heard it rather differently. As a college kid I had spent an evening hearing Coltrane live with the first Miles Davis Quintet, as recounted in Jive-Colored Glasses. In 1956-57 that marked a whole new sound from the hard bop noises we were used to.

When I came to New York in 1965 to teach at NYU I also found a quasi-career as a jazz writer. Coltrane’s music by then had moved on to its final phase, a sound of total feeling—formless, powerful, and to a degree ineffable. Ben Ratliff, it turns out, wrote one of the best critical books about this development—in Coltrane: The Story of a Sound).

If you came at the later Coltrane from a more analytical (and less cultural) point of view as I did, you’d find the music hard to get into, hard to move you musically. After A Love Supreme he just lost me. Ben’s book quotes trumpeter Don Ellis’s criticisms (p. 163). Here are a couple of things Ellis points up that also bothered me. One is Coltrane’s sense of time:

That is, he never really gets “inside” the pulse, but rather plays over it. He now has his whole group playing with this same feeling! This is a good device, but it would be even more effective if balanced by strong “inside time” sections. In fact contrast in general is one of the weaknesses of this group.

 . . . In the great bulk of Coltrane’s work we get a good deal of filigree or decoration (in the form of continuous scales and arpeggios performed at a rapid velocity) but very little “meat” or positive strong statements or ideas. It is like he is playing chorus after chorus, solo after solo on only one idea—that of continually varying scale patterns and arpeggios.

That is valid technical criticism, but it really got under the skin of all those who wanted to find echoes of Africa in all that Coltrane did, to the exclusion of other influences. A kind of reverse racism, it seemed to me, and I wrote a piece about it that generated some commentary.

There has been so much written about the ‘60s, the white-black polarizations, the push for new Black Art, the musical cries of cultural pain. Coltrane’s late music, especially in Meditations and after, values feeling over form and rapidly became part of how American culture came to view jazz as a whole.

In that sense Saint John was certainly a revolutionary. But, like so much in our cultural life, his late music was not really open to replication. For all its angry devotional power, I think its closed, hermetic appeal was one reason why jazz lost its way and became a music only for the committed few.

Old Jazz Posts Never Die

Some of you will remember jazzinsideandout.com, my old blogging hangout and the ancestor of Goodmanspeaks.com. I’m now reposting several of JI&O’s better pieces on All About Jazz, one of the longest lasting and most comprehensive jazz websites. This, courtesy of AAJ founder/publisher Michael Ricci.

The posts cover everything from a Louis Armstrong party to Miguel Zenón and can be read here. I hope you jazz lovers will check them out and, if the spirit moves you, leave a comment or two.