Archive for September, 2013

Branford Marsalis Speaks, I Agree

Thursday, September 26th, 2013

JON-ERIK KELLSO is a very good jazz trumpet player in New York. A couple of days ago he posted excerpts from a Seattle Weekly interview with Branford Marsalis. Branford had noticed the music in old records “always sounds better” than that in new ones because, as with classical music, it has strong melodic content.

Branford may have overlooked some relatively recent albums but his overall opinion is accurate. Melody, today, is out of style; virtually all contemporary music is about rhythm, technique, “intellectual” content, and (unbelievably) the performer’s appearance. In that sweeping indictment I include the popular genres, jazz, and even orchestral music.

But how can that be? As my former clarinet teacher, John Neufeld, once explained, “There is no more music business. A few people still may earn a living with music but, as an industry, it is gone.” What do we have instead? An entertainment business, something very different from the music business.

Back to Marsalis: He says jazz aficionados spend a lot of time talking about harmony, as though they are members of “a private club with a secret handshake”. He considers that a mistake. He goes on to say critics might claim a jazz album to be “the most important music since such and such.” But then he asks how we can really apply the word “important” to something most people have never heard.

Let me go a step further and say such critics and aficionados are fools and nincompoops. That group also includes many music educators.

By now some if not all of you must think I’m a real jerk for daring to state such an outrageous opinion. Who the hell am I to write such a thing? We all know aficionados and critics are experts, right? How could they possibly be wrong? After all, nobody should appreciate or accept anything unless a “big name” expert validates it, should he? Well, if you really believe that then maybe critics and aficionados are not the only fools and nincompoops.

Marsalis then points out how “normal” people always react to music’s emotional content. He warns musicians, “If the value of the [tune] is based on intense analysis of music, you’re doomed.”

Let’s see, Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Jack Teagarden, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and most other Swing era jazz musicians appealed to emotion rather than intense music analysis and they were very popular. Then along came Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and the bebop guys (all remarkable musicians, by the way); then such later prodigies and technical whizzes as John Coltrane. Their music invites intense analysis but, as clever, intellectual, technical, and perfect as it might be, often de-emphasizes melody.

So what happened? Jazz quickly lost popularity until it all but disappeared. Today, melody and (dare I use the word?) beauty in jazz are out of style.

Why do you suppose that is? Let’s go back to the fools and nincompoops comprising the majority of the jazz writers, critics, and educators. Branford Marsalis summarizes their thinking much more succinctly and poignantly than I ever have: “Everything you read about jazz is: ‘Is it new? Is it innovative?’ I mean, man, there’s 12 fucking notes. What’s going to be new?”

But when nincompoops lead, fools follow. The “jazz world” bought into that nonsense decades ago and still sits around saying, “That guy must be good. Did ya catch that run of sixty-fourth notes? How about the way he played a sharp nine in measure thirteen? Genius, man!” Meanwhile the rest of us were bored to tears and took refuge in something more pleasant and emotionally satisfying.

Branford goes on, “So much of jazz — it doesn’t even have an audience other than the music students or the jazz musicians themselves and they’re completely in love with virtuosic aspects of the music, so everything is about how fast a guy plays. It’s not about the musical content [or] whether the music is emotionally moving or has passion.”

Wait a minute. Didn’t I just write that?

But the emphasis on virtuosity has a reason: Fools and nincompoops are unable to judge music as art but easily may quantify it. It’s like sports. The fastest guy to the finish line is the best and nothing else counts. Of course, music isn’t a sport but fools and nincompoops somehow overlook the distinction. Incidentally, it also isn’t a math problem.

Okay, great. Branford Marsalis and I agree. Music should appeal to emotion rather than intellect and, although it’s in the ear of the beholder, I suspect he would include the concept of beauty in music’s appeal. The irony, however, is that American culture (and that of much of the rest of the “civilized” world) has degenerated to such an extent that maybe none of that matters. For most of us, music is something in the background to banish silence and all popular music is vocal.

Branford concludes, “…If [music has] emotional meaning, [it] will translate to a larger audience [with] the capacity to appreciate instrumental music … ’cause a lot of people don’t.”

Actually, most people now lack the capacity to appreciate instrumental music. And that is why the business of music is gone, why the melodic and popular jazz we once knew is dead, and why fools and nincompoops celebrate whatever it is they celebrate.

Louis Armstrong

Monday, September 23rd, 2013

LOUIS ARMSTRONG AND his All Stars performed at UCLA’s Royce Hall in November 1965. It was the most important musical event I could imagine at the time and perhaps still holds that honor.

I was a freshman at UCLA so, as I recall, I paid no admission. I watched the show from the left hand side of the center section, in an aisle seat, about two-thirds back. I remember every musician in the band: Tyree Glenn played trombone, Joe Darensbourg clarinet, Billy Kyle piano, Arvell Shaw bass, and Danny Barcelona drums.

It was a decent show; not great. I remember feeling a little disappointed with the musicians’ performances. It was evident they had played the same tunes in the same way a hundred times before and the gig was just a way to earn a living. Even Louie was off his game.

That often happens when a band plays a long string of one-nighters on the road. The schedule can be hectic especially when, as often happens, a plane or bus runs late. Uncomfortable travel conditions and hotel rooms merely aggravate things, especially when the musicians have to sleep on a bus.

I badly wanted to meet Louie; he had always been my hero and I admire him to this day. Whenever I am unhappy with the way I play a tune I ask myself how Louie might have played it. That helps to simplify my approach and focus my concentration to bring out as much emotion as possible.

After the show I walked around the side of Royce Hall, found an open door, looked inside, and saw the band in a big, industrial green room. It was anything but elegant, even more utilitarian than a classroom. The musicians were taking off their ties and tuxedo jackets, relaxing, and starting to pack up.

A long, narrow platform a few feet to the right of the stage door extended along most of the front wall (directly opposite from where I walked in). It was no more than four feet deep and less than a foot above the linoleum floor. A little to the left of center was a wood box big enough to support a big wooden chair. A tall wooden table, about eighteen inches square, stood just to the right of the chair. Louie sat on the chair. At least a dozen pill bottles and related paraphernalia adorned the table. Nobody else was on the platform although I think, for a few moments, somebody sat on the edge to take off his shoes.

Louie slouched in the chair as though it were a throne and he an exhausted king. He wore his tuxedo pants and the ubiquitous white shirt, but neither a jacket nor a tie and he had undone the first two buttons of the shirt.

I walked up to him and introduced myself and told him I had grown up listening to his records, almost from the time I was born, and later watched him whenever he was on TV. He asked if I played an instrument and I told him I played jazz on the clarinet.

Louie obviously was tired but he smiled and listened and we spoke a little. I no longer remember what we talked about; it was inconsequential. What could a 17 year old say to a legend? I just remember he was very kind and it was as though I were talking to my grandfather. After a couple of minutes I ran out of words and Louie took a sip from a flask and I thanked him for talking to me and, as I left, he said, “Keep playing that licorice stick.”

That was one of the most memorable meetings of my life, including interviews with all kinds of politicians and celebrities when I was a television news reporter. Louie was as down to earth as anyone I’ve met.

The musicians I have known who came up in the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s were from a different world. Few people impress me but so many of the generation of Louis Armstrong and Artie Shaw do. Each was a gentleman. Every one I met or performed with understood the role emotion should play in music and exhibited an elegance, even an erudition, I rarely encounter in my own generation and someday hope to find in those younger. I am certain some people still have those qualities and look forward to meeting them.