Jazz Before And After

March 15th, 2011

I FINALLY REALIZED how I could demonstrate the difference between the kind jazz (and orchestral music) I usually prefer and the other kinds. I chose a random photo I had taken and modified it.

Here is the original photo.


Here is the modified photo.


They are identical except for one thing: The color balance. The original photo shows the colors as we see them in nature. The modified photo exaggerates certain colors in the orginal photo much as a musician might modify the chords of a tune to stress extended harmonies.

I like both photos but prefer the original because it is what I saw when I was at the waterfall. The second photo conveys an impression of the scene some might consider more interesting. Even though I like it, I perceive the second photo’s exaggerated coloration as sophomoric: It is as though a photographer learned some new tricks and insists on showing them off.

If the photos were jazz, a vast majority of musicians and listeners might think the modified photo’s “artistry”, and the education necessary to create it, would set it far above the original photo. They might dismiss the original photo as uninteresting, lacking in creativity, and even primitive.

So “natural” becomes primitive while “unnatural” and surreal become “art”.

Taste, or lack of it, is very subjective and personal. One man’s treasure might be another’s garbage. But the inability to appreciate substance over form demonstrates intolerance and even stupidity. Good music is good music regardless of style. And a child remains a child no matter how elegantly you dress him.

The point of my visual analogy, then, is to encourage the cliquish, political, exclusive, snobbish, and pretentious among us to recognize and appreciate substance regardless of its form. But, of course, that is impossible because nobody can be all those things and also open minded.

We can stop the entropy affecting culture by taking a stand. Folks, it’s time to get jazz back on track. Don’t just sit there; do something.

John Neufeld

December 12th, 2010

AS A PHOENIX rises from ashes, sometimes it takes a tragedy to reveal one’s greatest talent. If that is true, my clarinet teacher, John Neufeld, would be a good example. He began his career as a young clarinet prodigy. At 25 he was the victim of a devastating automobile accident and, as a consequence, in his mid 40s had to begin a new career as a largely self-taught composer whose superb arrangements and orchestrations actually eclipsed his instrumental superiority.

John taught me for about two and a half years, when I was in high school. He must have found me a frustrating student. My parents rigidly forbade me to be a professional musician. That limited my practice time, my exposure to music, and John’s ability to bring out whatever potential I had. I graduated from high school at the age of 16, already had taken a class at UCLA and, as I faced another four years of rigorous undergraduate classes and was expecting a few more years in graduate school, John explained he could be of no further help to me. I lost touch with him for almost fifteen years. I spent those years trying to find my place in the world and realizing I was a poor fit. At the age of thirty I became a professional jazz clarinetist and was able to earn a meager and inconsistent living.

So one day in 1983 I was at the clarinet repair shop and ran into John, the first time we had seen one another since he’d given me my final lesson. We both had some time to kill so he suggested we get a lemonade at a restaurant up the street. When I asked him what he had been doing John answered in his usual evasive fashion, “Oh, you know. The usual.” What that meant was he had been playing clarinet and other woodwind instruments for countless television shows and movies and performing at the occasional high level concert. When I told him I had turned pro, he showed mild surprise and asked me some tough questions, the most important “music lesson” of my life.

I followed him to his house and we continued our visit. That is when he dropped the bomb: He had been having trouble with his left hand. Some kind of nerve damage. He was going to have to give up his career as an instrumentalist and try to compose, arrange, or orchestrate.

Some months after that my own work as a clarinetist all but ended; I had to move to another state and earn a living as a TV reporter. I returned to Los Angeles a few years later and ran into John during the holiday season at a model train store. We had little time to talk. He was working as a composer and arranger; I had started a publishing company.

A couple of months ago I was practicing the clarinet and watching a movie, Seven Years in Tibet. As the credits rolled I noticed two familiar names: Score by John Williams; orchestration by John Neufeld. Two days later I picked up the phone and called John. We talked a long time. A couple of weeks later I went to visit him and we continued our conversation for another six hours. That is when I learned how the phoenix rose from the ashes.

The injuries John had sustained in that car accident gradually had destroyed his ability to play an instrument at a professional level. He said his hands were never the same after the accident; things he once had done easily had become difficult. He lived with a chronic fear that he might be unable to play the music in front of him. By the time he was about 44 it became necessary to find another way to earn a living.

John asked everybody he knew to give him a chance to compose, arrange, or orchestrate and one after another dismissed him as nothing more than a washed up clarinetist. As he developed his writing skills and exhausted his savings a succession of fools refused to consider him. Finally a few composers gave him a little work but far less than he needed to earn a living.

One day, a few years later, a colleague and prominent studio pianist, Artie Kane, hired John. Artie had moved from playing to composing music for movies and network television. Artie and John had compatible personalities and, as Artie listened to John’s approach to music, everything fell into place. John began to earn a living as Artie’s assistant and co-composer. Time passed. Synthesizers began to limit the use of acoustic instruments in television orchestras. Artie found himself with fewer assignments, each with fewer minutes of music, and no longer able to employ John as a composer. John continued to work as an orchestrator in television but that provided too little income for a living. Fortunately Artie’s wife, Jo Ann, was very influential in the music industry and recommended John to the very successful movie composer, John Williams. Williams liked what John showed him and offered him some work.

John Neufeld ultimately orchestrated every movie John Williams worked on between 1988 and Neufeld’s retirement in 2005. At first John spent countless hours working against the clock because he was still learning. Raw talent and good taste produced top results and an increasing flow of work. Word spread. Others hired John and, over the next twenty years, he became one of Hollywood’s top orchestrators. John Neufeld himself may never have thought so but he had evolved into something of a bigshot.

After John retired he remained active in music. He plays flute and composes. In the middle of 2009 he collaborated with a friend to produce an album of movie and television themes. Its title is Silver Screen in Blue and that friend, and clarinetist, is another former Neufeld student, Marty Kristal. John arranged and conducted the entire album. He gave me a copy.

Although he began with other composers’ basic melodies John expanded and developed them into something unique, almost as though they were original compositions. The way he extrapolates a theme and weaves it into an instrumental tapestry seems to advance the original concept into a new dimension.

My reaction? I think John Neufeld is a genius.

“Genius” is a term I rarely use and nobody else I know has earned that status. The substance of John’s music transcends its form with the help of a superior string section and Marty Kristal’s virtuosity.

So that is the story of John Neufeld, musician, teacher, intellectual, philosopher, composer, arranger, orchestrator, occasional lunatic, genius, and an inspiration to us all.

But wait. By coincidence John called just as I was ready to post this story so it may require another chapter: He casually mentioned an interest in creating an album of his original compositions.

October 23rd, 2010

Schools, Teachers, and Bop Snobs

A FRIEND TOLD me a horror story about when he was a student at USC. He was a music major and had put together a vintage Swing sextet for a jazz concert. The concert director was a jazz teacher from USC’s music department. Prior to the actual performance each group went on stage to run through its tunes and, when it was time, my friend’s group began by playing All The Things You Are. About eight measures into the tune the director became very agitated. He impatiently ordered them to stop playing and to go home.

My friend was bewildered and asked what was wrong. The director sputtered, “You forgot the intro! What about the intro?”

My friend asked, “What intro?”

The director barked, “What do you mean, ‘what intro?’ The intro. Da-DA-da. Da-DA-da, da-DA-da, da-DA-da….”

My friend replied, “I don’t know that intro.”

The director yelled, “How can you not know Charlie Parker’s intro? Nobody plays All The Things You Are without that intro. And don’t ever get on a stage again until you know something about jazz!”

Stop and think about that little drama:

My friend was playing Jerome Kern’s 1939 tune in an authentic 1939 Swing style. Charlie Parker had yet to conceive his intro at that time and, when he finally did (in 1947), he never played the melody of All The Things You Are. Instead, he fashioned his own tune, Bird Of Paradise, around the same chord changes.

The intent of my friend’s group was to play Swing, not Bebop. Parker’s intro would have been completely out of place both historically and stylistically.

The music director was aware of neither the facts nor the chronology. He was unable to judge my friend’s music for what it was; he could see it only in the context of what he thought it should be. And, even had he been correct, he had no right to throw a student ensemble off the stage. The man is an idiot and, instead of berating well intentioned music students, should be collecting garbage.

Such scenarios and behavior are characteristic of Bop snobs. Bop snobs are pseudo intellectual nitwits who judge music mainly on its form and rarely on its substance. To them, any musical style prior to the emergence of Bebop in the mid 1940s is primitive and unworthy of serious listening; it was merely a stepping stone to the Great Epiphany of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. In fact, most Bop snobs consider any form of music failing to make use of Bebop’s arcane artificiality to be beneath them. The same kind of thinking is rife among orchestral music snobs.

More than once I have devoted space on this blog to revealing the damage that attitude has caused. But when I heard my friend’s story it really enraged me. That music director is an ignorant, prejudiced tyrant, yet continues to bully young musicians and stifle creativity.

We can stop the entropy affecting culture by taking a stand against such self-important nincompoops and I have just taken mine. Folks, it’s time to get jazz back on track. Don’t just sit there; do something!

July 17th, 2010

Two New Jazz Albums Available:


(A Rather Vitriolic Tirade)

EVERYDAY I CHECK the statistics of this website to see what visitors do when they come here. The vast majority simply listens to our free podcasts. A few bother to visit the New Releases page. And a few of you read my ramblings.

What do you suppose pays for those free podcasts? Album sales.

What percent of visitors buys an album? Fewer than one-percent.

Is that because you folks in the vast majority dislike the music? Of course not or you wouldn’t be here. No, the reason is that you are thoughtless and cheap. You apparently are happy to take something for free but are unwilling to support those of us who produce it by purchasing a $15.00 CD every few years. That is something to be proud of, isn’t it?

You see, we have tried the “catch more bees with honey” approach since 2007 and that has failed dismally. Those reading this now suffer the “vinegar” approach where we simply tell the unadorned truth. (If the customer is always right, then logic dictates the non-customer always must be wrong!)

So listen up: Not only do we need you to buy albums but we also need you to urge your friends to buy them.

The musicians drive an hour or two to the studio and record for free. Nobody earns a penny to engineer, record, edit, mix, and master the shows you have enjoyed for the past three years at no charge. We all donate our time and energy in the hope that most of you will buy an album or, if you are in a position to do so, hire us to perform at an event.

Why not return the favor and support us?

We can stop the entropy affecting culture by taking a stand and I have just taken mine. Folks, it’s time to get jazz back on track. Don’t just sit there; do something!

Flavored Cardboard

May 11th, 2010

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LAST WEEK I saw a want ad for jazz by a motion picture company. The last sentence caught my attention: “NO INSTRUMENTALS — please!” That’s analagous to saying, “WANTED: Doctor of internal medicine. No physicians — please!”

When did jazz transition from instrumental to vocals only? While vocals always have been part of jazz, the entire basis for the genre is instrumental improvisation. What has happened to our culture?

Wait. Don’t tell me. Remember when I wrote about the death of instrumental music? Looks as though I was right.

So, on a somewhat related subject, I was visiting the website of a very good computerized “music minus one” program called Band-In-A-Box. They have a new development, RealTracks, where they record phrases by actual jazz musicians and the program stitches them together coherently. Let me tell you how good it is: The online samples are nearly indistinguishable from recordings by everyday professional jazz musicians. That includes the solos.

The playing naturally lacks personality but that is no drawback because many of today’s jazz musicians perform with just as little personality. After all, that is how they learn to play in school. Other problems exist with the computerized performances but, in a few years, the company probably will have solved them. Yes, within my lifetime jazz has disintegrated from a vital, personal, and popular form of music to a computer generated replica.

No wonder the want ad said “no instrumentals”!

And now for the question you have been dying to ask: “Doesn’t quality count anymore? Isn’t musical emotion important?”

Does your question really need an answer? Music, just as most things we see, hear, and use today, has become a disposable commodity. Why bother to repair a pair of shoes (or anything else) when it is less expensive to buy a new pair? Why bother to buy good music when you can download other music online for free? Even if the fidelity is worse, even if the musicians are third rate, even if it is a pale facsimile of real music, it’s close enough and its FREE. Or it costs 99-cents.

Why bother to hire real musicians when a computer program costs less and sounds close enough?

Why bother to buy steak when flavored cardboard tastes nearly as good?

The problem, you see, starts with the consumer — with you and me. Business simply provides the lowest quality the majority will accept. Of course, if you refuse to accept it, they provide it anyway and remove the alternative.

So where do YOU draw the line? Or does flavored cardboard really hit the spot?

We can stop the entropy affecting culture by taking a stand. Folks, it’s time to get jazz back on track. Don’t just sit there; do something!

The Glamorous Life Of A Jazz Musician

March 19th, 2010

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THE PHONE RINGS on Monday afternoon. The bandleader I often work with, Jonathan Stout, is in trouble. His small group has a weekend job in Houston and the tenor sax player has just canceled. Will I do him a big favor and take the gig? I need to fly out on Friday. I cancel a family dinner and a recording session to say yes.

Jonathan calls back. The festival people in Houston are handling the travel and hotel arrangements and will send a flight schedule. On Wednesday morning I discover I have a 6 a.m. flight from Los Angeles to Phoenix, a 90 minute layover, and a two-and-a-half hour flight into Houston. That means I must leave my house at 3 o’clock in the morning and, if I’m lucky, will get an hour or two of sleep.

Then I come down with the flu. Fever, chills, aches, nausea. It lasts until early Friday morning.

I drag myself to the airport and the TSA Nazi seizes my toothpaste. I am so thankful; I never realized that, for the past month, I had been brushing my teeth with a bomb. I am semi-comatose as I wait to board the plane, find myself in a center seat between a couple of big guys on a full flight, manage to stay awake at the Phoenix airport until we board a rickety old jet for the flight into Houston, and then lose consciousness for the next couple of hours.

Nobody has provided transportation between the airport and the hotel so I find a shuttle for the “bargain” price of $25.00 one way. When I arrive at the hotel, the clerk refuses to check me in because the musicians’ rooms are in somebody else’s name. She does give me some toothpaste.

But remember the four word law: Ain’t no free lunch. The hotel gets more than even. Dinner for one (frozen fish and a small green salad, no dessert, and nothing to drink but tap water) costs nearly $50.00. They get away with that because the nearest mini-mart or any other place where you could buy food is beyond walking distance and, of course, we have no transportation. Did I mention there is no compensation at all for meals or any other incidental expense?

The gig itself is really rather pleasant. The musicians are excellent and the crowd is young and appreciative and appears to enjoy the music. We play two nights but the second night we start very late and work straight through the change to Daylight Time so we lose an hour. By the time we get to sleep it is 4:45 a.m. and checkout is at noon sharp.

Everybody has an evening flight out of Houston and all flights are oversold. A rather pretty friend of the bandleader drives us to a place downtown for brunch and after that it is every man for himself for the hour long trip to the airport. Somebody has provided me with a shuttle ride because mine is the earliest flight out and I arrive on time. But, because the airline has oversold the flight and the plane is old and small, there is insufficient room for carry-on luggage. We must check our bags. I remove my clarinet and hope my suitcase will arrive at Los Angeles when I do.

And then the passengers enjoy a flight from hell. Folks, if you have a choice, avoid flying on U.S. Airways. They cram as many seats as possible into their planes. You have no leg room; the distance from the front of your seat to the rear of the seat in front of you is about eleven inches. Even someone with no leg beyond the knee would feel cramped. Hip room is similarly limited. I am in a row with two big guys; it is very uncomfortable for all of us. Nobody can even doze let alone sleep.

I arrive home Monday morning sometime after midnight. I have caught a cold in Houston.

Things certainly were different in the 1980s when Cadillac limousines used to pick us up from the airport and whisk us to premium rooms in deluxe hotels, when our meals at top restaurants were part of the travel arrangements, when our flight schedules were humane, and when the paranoid airport Gestapo was still a quarter-century in the future. I have learned my lesson about what out-of-town gigs to accept. And perhaps you have gained new insight into the glamorous life of the itinerant jazz musician.



When Change Is Unnecessary

December 28th, 2009

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A FRIEND GAVE me a lot of albums documenting small jazz bands from 1940 to the late ’50s. Even though all were Dixieland groups, as the recordings moved forward in time I could hear the style regress from its original intent. And it made me wonder why.

When jazz was new, musicians played a style we now call Dixieland. I guess the name came about because early jazz moved north from New Orleans and other cities south of the Mason-Dixon Line. It is a classic and enduring style. When good musicians perform it, the results can be impressive. Among the musicians on the albums were Jack Teagarden, Bobby Hackett, Dick Cary, Matty Matlock, Dick Cathcart, Abe Lincoln, Moe Schneider, Wild Bill Davison, Billy Butterfield, Nick Fatool, George Van Epps, Eddie Condon, Max Kaminsky, Jimmy Dorsey, Dave Tough, Cliff Leman, Peanuts Hucko, Jerry Fuller, Eddie Miller, Joe Rushton, Cutty Cuttshall, and Lou McGarrity.

The big bands of the late 1920s through the mid 1940s commercially eclipsed their smaller counterparts and formalized jazz. But, as bebop emerged in the 1940s, so did a “traditional” jazz revival. Dixieland may never have set any sales records but was popular enough to generate major label albums into the 1960s.

If you listen to bands from the early 1930s to the early ’50s, the common denominator is energy. The playing is hot and the music enthusiastic. It is fun to listen to. It makes you want to get out of your chair and move around. Remember, early jazz was analogous to today’s rock.

Bebop began as a hot form of jazz, too, and Dizzy Gillespie wanted people to dance to it. But few did.

The next phase of jazz, emerging in the early ’50s, seemed to develop on the west coast as a style many called “Cool”. It refined the harmonic sophistication of bop and tamed bop’s chaotic nature by slowing things down and applying an almost classical elegance. That supposedly gave jazz a degree of “legitimacy” its critics demanded.

And what do you suppose I heard as I listened to a couple of dozen Columbia, Capitol, CBS, and Roulette albums? The same evolution. Jazz from the the ’40s was unabashedly hot, commanding, exuberant, danceable, and fun.

Some recordings from ’50s are overly arranged and unbearably “cute”. Some fool masquerading as a producer seems to be trying to apologize for the genre by making it “more interesting”. Frankly, I find the arrangements pretentious at best; sometimes even obnoxious.

The recordings from the late ’50s into the early ’60s sound more mature and the playing is excellent but the original energy has transformed into an easy going, laid back approach. Urgency has given way to introspection; the music no longer commands attention.

Dixie had lost its way. I wondered whose brilliant idea it had been to take something that worked so well and change it into a caricature with a contemporary veneer.

Remember the assinine Hooked on Mozart and Hooked on Beethoven recordings from late night television commercials of the ’80s? Some nincompoop decided to make classical orchestral music more contemporary by overlaying an obnoxious 8/8 disco beat. They were all the rage for a few weeks and then, mercifully, succumbed to an ignominious death.

History never teaches idiots a lesson. You can’t improve anything by distorting its original intent. And you are what you are; a dog wearing fake antlers will never convince anyone he’s a deer.

And that brings up a most important question: Why must those who dictate commercial fashion eradicate something good to make room for something new, especially when newer may not be better? Why not keep both? Why eliminate choice?

Some people call that “progress”. I call it entropy: the gradual decay resulting from energy turning inward, the inevitable descent into disorder. It is manifest in the decline of our culture, the arrogance and corruption of government and big business and, sadly, even the ravages of old age.

We can stop the entropy affecting culture by taking a stand. Folks, it’s time to get jazz back on track. Don’t just sit there; do something.


December 19th, 2009

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THE JAZZ SCENE? What jazz scene? You mean that small group of musicians who play for each other and their friends and almost nobody else?

If you live in a very big city and really search, you might find as many as a couple of dozen places where somebody performs some kind of improvisational music for an hour or more per week. Sometimes it’s real jazz. On the other hand, how about a city the size of Tulsa, Oklahoma? How many jazz clubs do you suppose you’d find?

Of course discovering or creating a venue is only part of the problem. Getting paid is another. Most musicians today would consider themselves lucky to earn about sixty dollars for playing three hours of jazz in a bar or restaurant. Earning a hundred dollars is rare. More than a hundred? You’re joking, right?

Well, suppose you find a place to play and actually can convince a decent rhythm section to perform with you for such an insulting pittance. What are you going to do for an audience? Every jazz musician with enough of a name to attract people off the street already is dead. Club owners take no responsibility for bringing in patrons; they think that’s the musicians’ job.

Sure it is. If a musician could sell, he’d already be making infinitely more money as a salesmen. Yet he must send flyers, faxes, e-mails, and tweets to every relative, friend, and friend of a friend he knows to avoid playing to an empty house. At that, the group probably will play for about seven people. After one such turnout the club owner probably will never hire the group again. (On the other hand I have seen local jazz “celebrities” play for seven or eight people and the club owner seemed to think nothing of it. But that’s because they were part of the right clique and we all know how important that is in jazz.)

Back in my wild and misspent youth I badgered the owner of a well known and highly regarded jazz club to book my quintet for a night. That was when Howard Alden was my guitarist. Of course few people knew of Howard back then, or of any other star in my group. And nobody knew my name either. But my parents had a lot of friends who liked jazz, liked me, and liked the musicians in my group.

After six months the jerk who owned the club finally succumbed to my harangues and graciously allowed us a Monday, late at night. Could he have done anything more to ensure our failure?

Well, my parents’ friends packed the joint and spent money there. A lot. When we finished the last set the greedy club owner ran up to ask if he could book us for another night the following month. (We had earned the standard union rate of thirty-five dollars each.)

I thought for a second or two and answered, “No.”

Why? Because it seemed presumptuous to send invitations to the same people month after month; I long ago had learned to avoid overstaying my welcome. Besides, I was in the middle of a series of performances on the Tonight Show and was playing concerts at beautiful auditoriums around the west and was about to perform in New York at Carnegie Hall, all for hundreds of dollars per night.

None of that had mattered to the club owner. But it somehow seemed relevant to me.

Bars and restaurants completely lost their appeal after that night. I never again wanted to rely on friends and relatives for an audience. I never again wanted to beg anyone for a chance to perform. And I never again wanted anybody to evaluate my musical talent on the basis of how many big spenders I could attract.

No wonder I now work as a sideman.

Copping Out

November 16th, 2009

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MUSICAL SHOWS HAVE exploited pretty girls for centuries but does that kind of exploitation belong in jazz?

Recently an otherwise top-notch ensemble of middle age men appeared with a cute young woman in the front line. She could play but, in contrast to the others, fell far short. Of course she was decidedly appealing to look at and that alone commanded the audience’s favorable attention. They were unconcerned with (or unable to discern) how well she played; the shock that she could even appear in such an ensemble made her the star of the show.

Any musician could recognize her artistic shortcomings and realize the band suffered musically because of her.

Traditionally jazz bands have hired pretty girls to sing. For every Ella Fitzgerald bandleaders have hired a thousand adequate (or worse) female singers to the point where, today, by far the most important quality in a female performer is her appearance.

Do we now want to encourage the replacement of excellent jazz instrumentalists with vapid cuties? Is that what jazz is about? Has the apathy toward music taken us to a level where we need to sell a band on looks instead of sound? Is the bottom line of jazz, as with most everything else, now about the money?

Frankly, I’m disgusted with the degeneration and corruption of what once was a magnificent form of music. We have replaced creativity with caricature, talent with looks, emotion with intellect, and quality with pretense. Much of jazz consists of a bunch of self-absorbed idiots trying to pass themselves off as geniuses by extrapolating the ideas of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker into nonsense while wearing African robes and odd beards and bizarre hairstyles. Or by using an accountant’s skills try to cobble together a “killer” chart. Or by hiring a cute girl.

Folks, it’s time to get jazz back on track. Save the cute girls for the chorus line. Write some melodic and memorable tunes, look into yourself to improvise on them with meaning and feeling, and knock out the audience with talent and enthusiasm.

What? You think that’s too difficult? Then get a real job.

And if you’re not a musician yourself, then learn to recognize the good ones.

Jazz, Esperanto, And The King’s New Clothes

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.