Principled Uncertainty

I know from reading him and especially greeting him at so many concerts we mutually attend that I’m deeply sympathetic to Seth Colter Walls’ taste and values in music, and so I am on his side of this argument about jazz musicians as composers and their underrepresentation in the classical concert halls. But I also think that this is completely the wrong argument. There is a fight to be waged, but it is not this one, and it’s not at these venues.

This is America, so there is an enduring and embarrassing problem with how established cultural institutions relate to African-American artists of all kinds and in all mediums. There are African-American composers who have written excellent and important music in the Western classical tradition, and since they are in the main twentieth century and, especially, post-World War II figures, their music, like the entire compositional output of the past 100 years, is disproportionally underrepresented in classical concert halls. While there may be a racial component to the fact that it is extremely hard to find performances of pieces from Julius Eastman, Anthony Davis, Alvin Singleton, Donal Fox and others, it’s primarily because they are not Beethoven, Brahms and Chopin, or even Steve Reich, John Adams or Philip Glass (you don’t get to hear much Nancarrow, Scelsi or even Charles Ives, either).

Jazz, you are my first and enduring love as a music, the music that after the years of playing Bach, Telemann and others on the flute, the piccolo solo in “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” playing professionally in pit orchestras for great American musicals, the music that I picked up the baritone saxophone for and fell in love with physically. I can’t remember losing my virginity, but I can remember the feeling of that horn vibrating under my hands and in my chest cavity when I played my first solo in public, on Gershwin’s “Love Walked In.” You are the music that put an end to my career as a gigging musician, as the gap between what I wanted to play (more Monk, more Lacy, more free) and what I was being paid to play at events and parties (standards with good musicians, nothing inherently wrong with that) became too depressing. But jazz, you are also the music that I learned through self-conscious failures not to incorporate as anything other than a flavor into the classical tradition. The two of you are faithful and amicable companions, but you both blanche, understandably, when addressed in each other’s terms.

This is an argument that is fundamentally about composition, and composition is, in all genres of music, the act of recording musical information and instructions so that they can be transmitted to other musicians. While that has predominately been via paper for the past 500 years or so, it is just as much composition to play a musician his part from the piano and have him play it back as it is to put a piece of paper in front of him (and that is how I learned to play jazz, while I learned to compose straight to paper, without a keyboard in sight). When a jazz musician comes up with a tune or a set of chord changes for playing and improvising, it is just as much composing as when Mozart wrote a piano sonata, but with a vastly different intellectual, aesthetic, social and expressive goal, and therefore a vastly different set of criteria with which to evaluate the result. Just as in classical music, there have been a huge number of poor or indifferent jazz compositions, as well as great geniuses like Duke Ellington, Monk and Mingus.

Ellington is one of the great American artists, as important to creating an idea of what this country is culturally as the Founding Fathers, Walt Whitman, Charles Ives, Henry James, Martha Graham, John Cage, Humphrey Bogart, Buster Keaton and Ralph Ellison. There should be more Ellington in the concert halls, but that lack of Ellington is not a failing of classical music because he never wrote any classical music. Ellington is his own idiom, connected to jazz and popular music of the Depression. He wrote brilliant short pieces and brilliant long ones and sought to integrate traditionally classical instruments into his work, but a french horn, a bassoon and a half-hour duration do not classical music make, nor do the promiscuous use of the terms ‘suite’ or ‘symphony’ for any collection of pieces that are connected thematically or temporally. To put it another way, if the New York Philharmonic played Ellington next week, it would not be a classical concert, any more than when they play Symphonic Dances from West Side Story or Carousel.

I don’t think I could bear to hear them play the music. Ellington is sui generis. While composers through history have found instrumental champions for whom they write specific pieces, the classical idiom is abstract in the sense that Brahms’ Violin Concerto and Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand had the aim of becoming part of the overall literature musicians could choose from, while Ellington used the musical personalties of his personnel (who he kept on payroll as his personal orchestra) as part of the music: where Brahms wrote a set of notes for Joseph Joachim to play, Ellington created works because Harry Carney and Cootie Williams played in a specific way (a way that honestly was limited, but deeply expressive and beautiful in niches and marvelous when combined with other specific musical personalities). Black and Tan Fanstasy is a nice tune when other people play it, but it’s just a simulation of what the real thing is, and the real thing needs the Ellington band that played it.

The classical tradition is written, the jazz tradition is oral/aural, and while neither one is inherently superior to the other, that difference matters. Classical music is the music of composers, jazz the music of performers. Gershwin’s sound is identified with jazz, but he is fully part of the classical tradition, as is Scott Joplin. The colors, ideas and wit of their music are deeply American, but that does not make them jazz. Nor is William Grant Still a jazz composer, he is an American classical composer, and the lack of frequency of his music on concert programs is mainly due to it not being very good. Like George Whitfield Chadwick and his peers (including the young Ives), it is weak imitation early European Romanticism. Listening to Still, Chadwick et. al. gives you a good idea of the aesthetics of the period and that has a certain charm but your musical life is not left wanting by a lack of either.
The compositional status of jazz suffers from a strange insecurity, the genre itself has an inferiority complex vis-a-vis the written tradition that I dearly wish would suffer a quick and excruciatingly painful death, because after too many years of trying to ‘appreciate’ the compositional methods of jazz, I can no longer endure the excruciating discomfort they produce. Case in point is a track on the new Wayne Shorter album, Without a Net, one that was heard recently in concert at Carnegie Hall. Without a Net is a collection of strong live performances of Shorter and his band, the great saxophonist full of power and ideas at eighty, his rhythm section of Danilo Perez, John Pattituci and Brian Blade one of the best. Shorter is also one of the most important composers in jazz, one of the few who took seriously the possibilities of the genre as a codified, coherent art music with a visceral, popular appeal, a set of seemingly contradictory aesthetics that makes the music not just beautiful but brilliant. The album opens with a perfect example of Shorter’s greatness, the piece “Orbits,” first heard on Miles Smiles.

Like a piece of self-respecting classical music, “Orbits” is important because of the context of history. Jazz began as a popular music, then made the remarkable shift into art music with the rise of Be-Bop, but was slow to abandon its compositional roots in song form. Shorter, as a solo artist and a member of the Miles Davis Quintet, took the necessary step of writing music that was completely jazz and completely upended song form. The theme is not a melody but a riff, one that is tied to a series of chords that hint at harmonic resolution but have a purposeful ambiguity that keeps them circling back to a point just before a cadence without ever reaching it. Perez’s opening ostinato of C-F-C-B could easily spell out a simple I-IV-I-V progression that would lead forcefully back to the tonic, but with Shorter the B is not part of an inverted dominant chord (V) but instead the root of a diminished chord, completely part of the tonal center but also ambiguous in terms of the resolution might be. This is principled uncertainty, structuring the terms of the music while allowing tremendous expressive freedom. It is profoundly amazing, in classical music terms, and is only possible with jazz and the jazz idea of composition.

The album also has another piece that has the classically-conscious critics raving, “Pegasus,” featuring the Imani Winds, and it’s a compositional mess in that special way of awful, self-consciously composed jazz. It opens with an arbitrary, wandering introduction and then seques into some truly terrible contrapuntal writing. The rhythms are stiff and dull. There are some Barber-ish voicings, some life in the middle, but that’s because that part of the music is a typical Shorter vehicle for smart, structured improvisation, and sounds like an orchestrated version of some of the best things he did in Weather Report. At Carnegie, the orchestration was fleshed out by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, but that’s an inconsequential change to a work that fails as a composition. And if the problem is that classical music is not taking the ‘classical’ pieces of jazz composers seriously, then to praise such a bad work does not help, it’s culturally patronizing — the utter nonsense of Corinna de Fonseca-Wolheim comparing Shorter’s harmonies to Ives’ tells me she either has no idea how to think about this music or can’t hear the difference between ambiguity and dissonance. To argue for the classical bona fides for music like this is to put it in the tradition of Bach, Haydn, Verdi and Stravinsky, and you better come big if you’re going to play with the titans.

Shorter came of age before the rise of collegiate jazz programs, and I do wonder what they would have done to kill his creative drive. The idea of composition I hear coming out of them is just terrible, terrible jazz and terrible classical music, stuck in the sad notion that Schoenberg is still important in contemporary music. The last straw for me was a new CD from Sean Moran and his Small Elephant Band, Tusk, which has a set of atonal compositions that are at the beginning student level and should not have been professionally released. Perhaps in the world of atonal jazz they are an achievement, but composition has to be judged as composition. This is not impossible, and on Jeff Lederer’s recent record, Sunwatcher (and apologies to Jeff for not getting to this disc sooner, because it as fantastic, one of the best jazz recordings I’ve head in years), his piece “Arnold Schoenberg’s Son” is truly atonal jazz that is extremely well-crafted, smart, witty and a driving bit of … jazz. It works as jazz, and it works as an atonal composition, satisfying both traditions.

There’s no point in arguing for the cultural importance of jazz vis-a-vis classical music, only a Republican-type cultural revanchiste would argue it, and someone like that should either be ignored or mocked. But the need to promote jazz, critically and culturally, on classical terms is revanchism, though mostly unintentional. A jazz musician should be aware of atonality, as should any musician, but when it comes to composing, I hope musicians (and the academies) are looking deeply at “Orbits” and “Footprints,” and at Charles Mingus’ idiomatic composed jazz masterpieces, pieces that are full of great melodies, complex harmonies and schematic structures that vitiate song form. Mingus is still the only true compositional heir to the possibilities that Ellington opened up, and I hope musicians, and critics, are digging ECM’s repackaged collection of CDs from Jack DeJohnette’s Special Edition band. The records are full of compositional brilliance, ideas taken from the very beginnings of jazz and fit into a modernist puzzle. And of course they should be deeply studying Henry Threadgill’s method for organizing ensemble interplay, music that is some of the most sophisticated of any contemporary genre and is physically exciting. Mingus’ music, and that of DeJohnette and Threadgill, deserve to be onstage at Carnegie Hall because it deserves a substantial audience, but please let’s not call it classical music, and please let’s not present the bad compositions of jazz musicians as some sort of argument for the importance of jazz, or African-American musicians and composers, because not only does their best work speak for itself, but in the agonizing, shameful racial history of this country it does no one any good to promote inferior work, or pass off something as what it’s not, because of the skin color of its maker.


Author: gtra1n

I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.