Archive for September, 2009

Jazz, Esperanto, And The King’s New Clothes

Tuesday, September 1st, 2009

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ESPERANTO, FOR THOSE unfamiliar with it, is an artificial language dating from the 1880s. Its developers hoped it would bridge language barriers between intellectuals and statesmen around the world. It is a tongue without a country and today its speakers consist primarily of members of Mensa and others who would separate themselves intellectually from the rest of us.
What does Esperanto have to do with jazz? Contemporary jazz also is an artificial, largely intellectual musical language, an acquired taste requiring years for a musician to master. And once some people learn to play it they tend separate themselves from much of the rest of music.
The King’s New Clothes is an old fairytale you probably recall: A couple of con men convince the king to buy their “beautiful robe” — except it doesn’t exist. They claim to see it, but of course the king can’t. He is too insecure to challenge them so he goes along with the con, pays them a lot of money, and wears the imaginary robe in a parade. Everyone in the kingdom sees the king walking down the street in his underwear but is afraid to admit the truth. Then one little boy, too young to understand peer pressure, asks, “Why is the king wearing only his underwear?” and the whole sham breaks down.
The two come together in our story of Jazz, Esperanto, and the King’s New Clothes:
Once upon a time there was a tiny hamlet called Bopdoowah in the middle of a vast English speaking land. And it came to pass that two cunning strangers mixed up all the letters of the alphabet to create a new tongue. They called it Esperanto and proclaimed it the hippest and coolest in all the land. They went to the royal tower and sang a song in Esperanto for the king.
The king found their words and songs complex, incomprehensible, often unpleasant and chaotic, devoid of emotion, yet for those same reasons impressive. He could not understand a word but had no desire to appear a fool. So he pronounced the song a work of genius.
“We will teach you our tongue…for a price,” said the strangers. “Its cleverness shall render primitive the harmony and emotion of other tongues. By singing in it you shall become a king among kings.”
The king acquired the exclusive rights to Esperanto, studied hard, and learned it. Then he taught it to all the nobles in his court and declared only their songs to be real music. They ridiculed other songs. The court jesters and sycophants extolled the brilliance of Esperanto. Nobody else in the hamlet understood a word although some pretended to.
Every other musician in Bopdoowah was banished to New Orleans where they still sang in English. Even in Bopdoowah, the people sang in English at home.
For many years public singing in the hamlet of Bopdoowah continued in Esperanto. The songs became almost unrecognizable and popular only with the most exclusive nobility.
One day it came to pass that an English speaking stranger came to town. He knew nothing of the ways of Bopdoowah and chanced to visit a tavern where some nobles performed their songs. As it happened, the visitor was a talented singer himself. When the show ended the stranger asked, “What manner of gibberish do you sing? Indeed, while your notes tend to disguise it, I recognize the melody as something the rest of the world calls ‘the blues’. Allow me to sing your song with a melody and words people sing in all other lands.” And so he did.
Whereupon all the common people in the hamlet cried, “The stranger sings in English, our native tongue. His song is simple yet elegant, its words heartfelt, and the melody harmonious whereas the ponderous songs of the nobles may be clever but their words weave a facade of complexity that comes not from the heart. Let us go to where others sing as does the stranger that we may enjoy their music.” So one and all followed the stranger out of Bopdoowah and into the rest of the world.
Only the king and his court remained in the hamlet. From their lofty tower they looked down upon the deserted streets and ridiculed the departed commoners. For the king’s court, jesters, and sycophants thought their tongue of Esperanto and its songs to be superior. In time most of their children abandoned them, and their children’s children, and though the king and his court grew older and ever fewer in number, they buttressed one another with a belief in their tongue. Years passed until, one day, but a single nobleman remained in the village to sing in the clever but artificial language nobody else in the world understood or cared to learn.
And then another stranger chanced upon the hamlet of Bopdoowah, a bespectacled, middle aged man wearing a corduroy sportcoat with leather patches on the elbows. As he passed below the royal tower he heard a man singing an odd melody in an unknown tongue. It aroused the stranger’s curiosity for he was schooled in the languages of music yet never had heard such sounds. He hailed the aged nobleman and learned of the glorious days of Esperanto.
“Holy halfnotes!” exclaimed the stranger. “I am a professor from a great university and the tongue of your songs bears a striking resemblance to the written language of academia we call ‘Pretentious’. My colleagues and I live in a tower much like your own but crafted of ivory. Perhaps you would come with me to our tower and teach the arcane tongue of Esperanto to our music students.”
And so the last disciple of Esperanto left the village of Bopdoowah to introduce his language to the callow youth of a great university. And he taught them words from the heart have no place in Esperanto while those of the mind are its sustenance. And they learned to sing his songs. And they graduated. And they found almost nobody outside the university’s music department enjoyed their songs. And they were unable to pay for bread.
Then one day, lo and behold, they found teaching positions at other ivory towers in other villages. And they sang their songs to each other, for nobody else would listen. And they lived happily ever after.