Monday, January 01, 2007

Communication, Dilemmas & Barbarians, Keeping It Alive


I was recently watching a rerun of one of my favorite episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the episode titled Darmok, the one where an alien captain strands himself and Picard on a planet with a dangerous creature so that shared adversity might help their two peoples learn to communicate with each other. The alien captain’s people communicate entirely in metaphor, with imagery derived from their mythology. The problem for Picard was, without a shared referent of experience to lend meaning to their grammar of imagery, the aliens could not be understood. I kept thinking as I watched the show, I wonder what the alien culture's music is like? (And, I bet these folks are masters of haiku!) Would their music be equally metaphoric, filled with quotations and references from their past musical history? Would they have room for inventing new forms and styles? Could such as people have art forms that would be anything but historical and conservative?

Are we like this? Do we revere our past masters too much? Sometimes you can feel stifled under the weight of a tradition, even as you respect it and develop it. The neoconservative movement in modern jazz is a regular target for these kinds of critical questions. Many forward-thinking jazz musicians seem to be disturbed by the conservatism of much contemporary jazz. Now that jazz has been more or less accepted into many music conservatories and schools as part of the normal curriculum, what are the implications for its future development? Innovation, as many honest academics will tell you, rarely comes from within the halls of academe. Usually it comes from the fringes, is barely tolerated, then catches on, becomes mainstream, and finally gets “preserved” in university settings. Well, most mavericks will always be mavericks. Ornette Coleman, for instance, continues to develop and innovate and explore. Yet can even progressive art forms survive hardening into museum pieces when they’re accepted and adopted by academic institutions? It can be a battle at times.

But even conservative-minded thinkers are capable of change, if there’s need. The alien captain on Trek was an imaginative enough figure to step beyond the world-view of his grammar and use his myths as a model for new action in the moment: by recreating a scene from a myth wherein two strangers joined forces against a common enemy to make a new bond between them, he created the same between the players that had been rold of between the marooned hunters in the myth. Museums don’t have to be only storehouses only of dead cultures, even though they are prone to taking snapshots of things in motion. Jazz doesn’t have to presented as “Afro-American Classical Music” to be respectable. Or even enjoyed, for that matter. Many early jazz figures (the ones the neocons are trying to put on pedestals) didn’t bother with questions of respectiability and classicism, because they were too busy trying to make a living from gig to gig. (Duke Ellington strikes me as being one of the earliest jazz composers—in itself a loaded term—with the conscious goal of making a classical music out of jazz.) The quest for respectability, and mainstream acceptance, has often generated mixed feelings in jazz folk. How many of us have felt torn by the dilemma of having to play well-paying gigs that bore, while the stuff we really want to play, seemingly no one will come listen to?

Dilemmas & Barbarians:

So, how do we reconcile making a living and playing what we want to play? Do they have to be mutually exclusive? Why? Sometimes I think we’re most guilty of oppressing ourselves: by believing no one would pay to hear our more adventuresome music (or any kind of music we most want to play), and so not programming it on our gigs, then no one does hear it, so they haven’t gotten used to hearing it, so when we do program it, they still hear it as strange. You see the vicious circle here? The only way to convince your audience that what you’re doing is worth listening to, is to do it anyway. Bring them along with you. Educate them. Inoculate them, if you will. There are ways to bring your audience along with you, rather than alienating them—and that doesn’t mean having to play to the lowest common denominator.

My point is that jazz is supposed to be a living tradition, music that is alive, growing and changing all the time. Jazz should still be an oral tradition, at least partially. Putting jazz in a museum frankly scares me. Too many of the jazz neocons, in their search for respectability, suck all the lifeblood out of the music, leaving it “palatable to the masses” and somewhat dull. I think one of the biggest mistakes the jazz neocons make is to try to make their idiom respectable by cloaking it in the fabric and symbols of the existing mainstream—forgetting that the mainstream was an oppressor of jazz not too long ago. Wear the insignia of the existing elites and you will join them? Well, no, not unless they allow you to. Not unless you’re no real threat to them. I urge us all to keep jazz a living tradition.

Keeping It Alive:

The best way to keep jazz alive is to participate in its creation, as musician and listener, audience and player. Participation means helping to create and maintain (re-create daily) a jazz scene, both on the local and national levels. Go to lots of live gigs; show the club owners that jazz is not only a popular artform, it’s also a money-maker for them. Go to special concerts—go to festivals—show the promoters and organizers that you do care about live jazz. Listen to jazz; educate yourself using the radio, and your home and car stereos. Support Local Music by buying albums featuring local jazz musicians.

Participation also means educating our audience—players and listeners alike—to be aware of both the traditions of jazz, and the openness of jazz to innovation and personal exploration. I don’t really believe audiences only want to hear us play standards; I think they can learn to follow and appreciate even the most wildly experimental stuff. Players and audience can still teach each other. And only we can make it happen.


The Jazz Poetry Anthology. Edited by Sascha Feinstein and Yusef Komunyakaa. Indiana University Press. 1991.

The Western Lands. William S. Burroughs. Penguin. 1987.

Gilgamesh. A Verse Narrative by Herbert Mason. New American Library/Mentor. 1970.

Woods, Shore, Desert. Thomas Merton. Museum of New Mexico Press. 1982.

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