NOTES: OF STAFF & CANVAS Note1 – Back, To A Future-Leaning Past:
Jazz and the visual arts have become fast friends during the past half-century or so. For a genre that’s been represented, for the greater part of its existence, by stark B&W portraits with lots of cigarette smoke and a bluish tint, the range and scope of album covers has grown tenfold since the splintering of the fusion era. Perhaps the immediacy and spontaneity of the music simply demanded a bigger picture, a better way to depict its existential reality? Either way, lo-fi photography, paintings in the style of Cubism, Constructivism, Futurism, Optical art… these wide-ranging choices of visual representation betray the infinite possibilities of improvised music in our age. Possibilities that, sadly, are being quite under-utilized by many of its exponents.
The change in artwork mirrors the postmodern dilemma that jazz partly helped to create; how to stay relevant in a style of music that in itself was based off of other music? Early bebop was simply Tin Pan Alley pop changes, played at blistering tempos so as to weed out the weak from the herd on the bandstand, leaving the last ones standing to weave their individual strands of melody until the original tune was all but forgotten. These young black musicians were the virtuosi of their day; Charlie Parker hunted down Edgar Varese on the streets of New York to ask for composition lessons, and a young Miles Davis bragged about being able to hear a door creak and name its exact pitch. Although the term and all the ideas that come with it hadn’t been coined yet, jazz at this stage was very much “black classical music”. Its sophistication came from its concept, its internal logic; the idea of taking the skeletons of popular songs and using them as a springboard for a sort of sustained group dialectic.
This is an aesthetic that is alarmingly on the wane – it seems to have been dropped by the wayside in favor of more easily summarized ideas. Jazz is assuming part of the Pop mantle; that is, finding the weak points in our endlessly flawed society and gnawing at them. A respectable mission, no doubt, but one that often fits the music like a bad rented tuxedo. Pop music is perfect for social commentary, because of its formula and audience. A pop musician can reach more people with a message, whether it’s simple and direct or winding and intense. The music, by nature, is something that’s meant to move precisely with the times (the Rolling Stones being a shining exception), feeding it and feeding off of it, part of the ever-changing face of the ‘contemporary’. Pop lives existentially, moment to moment, and is therefore able to communicate structured ideas more effectively than other musical forms.
Now, considering the terms ‘structural’ and ‘existential’ as two philosophical poles, jazz could be the exact opposite of pop. In Robert Palmer’s liner notes to Charles Mingus’ 1960 album Mingus at Antibes, he states “…Mingus and his musicians…were proposing a brand of freedom built on black folk forms… This album captures their freedom-with-order, which was to become a principal influence on Anthony Braxton, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and the other structuralists of the Midwestern avant-garde almost ten years later, at a peak of interactive intensity.” We see here that in music, unlike most philosophy, structuralism and existentialism can in fact peacefully co-exist. In digging into the structural ideas of African-American folk forms and combining them with the combative existential reality of everyday life (in the form of the aforementioned ‘group dialectic’ approach), jazz was and is able to tackle other, perhaps more ineffable regions of human experience and rationalize them, voice them as pop may voice the looming darkness underneath the daily news. Coltrane’s A Love Supreme and CSN&Y’s “Ohio” can thus share the stage without a shred of redundancy.
This is the dynamic that’s missed more and more today. As the sheer amount of music grows, the closer different styles move – not only toward each other, but toward an obsession with the existential ‘moment’ and the ability of the artist to inform it through structure. It seems like a perfect time to re-evaluate what we consider to be the “essence” of our favorite artists – what makes/made them tick, and why does their music persist and continue to find new meaning in a world that demands art tailored to its headlines.
by Dhani Muniz