Sunday, August 06, 2006

Both sides of the station

The now contentious era of jazz history, post-1967, is one that fascinates and eludes me. As my cameo on the Greenleaf blog has made clear, my knowledge of that period is quite limited. What I do know of it comes at the hands of my experience at CKUT, my time at the Banff Centre, subsequent discussions with my piano teacher, Jeff Johnston, and the unexpected finding of Gary Giddins' Rhythm-a-Ning: Jazz Tradition and Innovation in the '80s (discovered used in Key West on the Cruise Ship X run). Giddins' book is revelatory not only for the reasons I mention in the Greenleaf e-mail, but also because its columns end in 1984 - the year before I was born.

My relationship with the avant-garde has been a slowly developing one. I had cultivated the idea somehow (probably through my young interpretations of DownBeat articles) that avant-garde = free = anarchy. This conclusion was mightily shattered over the course of high school and university. When the high school band trip invaded Symphony Center in Chicago for Medeski Martin & Wood, nobody knew who the opening act was - a Chicago group called 8 Bold Souls. In their bio, I saw the letters "AACM" - an acronym I had seen in the magazines, but never fully explained, and always used in conjunction with those dreaded "free" groups. But Ed Wilkerson and company lured me into their music, a blend I'd never heard before, and with instrumentation that perfectly suited the quirkiness of the compositions. It may have been avant-garde, but there was certainly a lot of structure to it. MMW were more chaotic - and sailed over my early adolescent ears. Of course now, their acoustic album Tonic has high standing with me, after a rather epiphanic listen in my first year of university; I wish I had a tape of that concert to go back to.

Maturity is relative; and with my ears and self having been developed over the intervening years (and having actually listened to the music), I no longer fear the avant-garde. However, the old adage comes into play here: we fear what we do not know. In my high school music classes, the "classical history" section of the course treated 20th-century music - twice. Ravel's Chansons madécasses, Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire, Berg's Wözzeck, George Crumb's Ancient Voices of Children - not light fare, by any means. Our jazz history went from ragtime to Blakey, and maybe a little bit of fusion. University was not much better: two semesters of classical history, from Gregorian chant through Joan Tower. Jazz history was crammed into one, and much like the Ken Burns' series, we ran out of time to properly address the various factions of the music that sprout after 1960. And as much as I detested being subjected to Sprechstimme at 9 am, I appreciate the sentiment of the classical history and analysis classes I took: you may not like Berio or Boulez or Messiaen, but they are important, and this is why. To our jazz history professor's credit, he put on a lot of earlier jazz that gets written off as well, and is as equally important as the post-1960s music, and it legitimately was a time factor that prevented our treatment of modern subject matter. Yet even still, the post-60's stuff was the standard scenario: Ornette goes free; Miles, Wayne and Herbie go electric. My arranging and composition classes were open forums, and we were allowed and encouraged to do whatever we liked; but the models we looked at were, again, the usual suspects: Brookmeyer, Kenny Wheeler, Thad Jones, Maria Schneider, Wayne, Sammy Nestico. Not to disparage the contributions of the above, nor to disparage my education entirely, but it's obvious that there's a large section of the history missing here.

Then again, it seems like many music schools are divided, in both classical and jazz - you either have to be forward-looking at the expense of acknowledging the past; or learn the tradition without jumping into new water. Some of my classical composition colleagues report that it's anathema to even so much as hint at tonality. Bebop, swing, and the blues are either the Holy Trinity, or dusty relics that are relegated to their time in history. I prefer to subscribe to the cliche that you have to know where you've been to know where you're going. It's one thing to willingly choose not to swing, or to be atonal, or (insert artistic aesthetic here); it's entirely another to shut out those worlds completely. I was fortunate enough to have Jeff as a teacher and mentor, and we often talked about avant-garde/free music; I got a balanced education that way.

Luckily, I got involved with CKUT my second year of university, and their library houses a whole world of improvised music not much discussed in the faculty: Ken Vandermark, Anthony Braxton, David Murray, William Parker, Tim Berne, Wadada Leo Smith. (To be fair, the music library holds gems such as the out-of-print '70s Braxton quartet sessions on Arista, and other like-minded albums from the period, most of Jimmy Giuffre's catalog, as well as a good amount of modern jazz based on student and faculty requests.) Through CKUT, I had (and have) the opportunity to hear music I otherwise wouldn't find, either because of availability issues or personal taste. Jazz Euphorium is a collective show, and the hosts' tastes run the gamut of the jazz & improvised music spectrum. By co-hosting with my colleagues, I've been hipped to music to which I normally wouldn't give the time of day. And I'm grateful for that.

And this treasure trove at CKUT has led me to identify with the "European attitude" I mentioned here: "'s all music, and as musicians we should be able to play tunes (both originals and standards) and to improvise freely with equal conviction, if not capacity." The more we know about music - any music, all music, all manners of creation and performance - the more compelling our own work will be.

1 comment:

Ali said...

Hey Dave, nice writing. I wish I knew half of what you do (but definitely gives me something to look forward to in my listening!). Working a radio station must have its' benefits!