Author: George Grella Jr

When Jazz Was Cool

He stands, primarily illuminated by the light from the screen reflecting off his trumpet. Cigarette smoke curls. It’s almost a cliché, but it’s real, and at the center is an artist who himself famously stood at a diffident point from the mainstream of society. He’s creating music on the spot that, as John Szwed wrote, “helped define the sound of film noir. It made viewers think the genre’s films had always sounded just so, with slow-walking bass beats and muted, slithering horn lines miming the characters on the screen–and underlining their emotions.”

In December 1957, Miles Davis went into Le Post Parisien Studio with film director Louis Malle and, accompanied by the rhythm section (pianist René Urtreger, bassist Pierre Michelot, and drummer Kenny Clarke) from his contemporaneous booking at a Paris nightclub—along with tenor player Barney Wilen—improvised the immaculate score for Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (Elevator to the Gallows). The result is some of the coolest music ever made.

Cool in ways that define and surpass the term. Yes, Miles was there at the start of the style called cool jazz, with the Birth of the Cool sessions, but Miles never played cool jazz in the manner of Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, Paul Desmond, or even the proto-cool of Lester Young. Miles was cool himself beyond all music, and this moment, captured on film, is the ideal portal into this story; it’s the story of how jazz was the embodiment of the cultural idea of cool, and how that all went away.

Cool—you know it when you see it. Although it turns out to be easier to define, or at least encircle, than many other cultural concepts, not least because cool doesn’t seem to exist anymore. Like sonata form, we have the advantage of hindsight with which to analyze the past and the self-consciousness that undermines contemporary attempts at being cool.

Cool turns out to be easier to define, or at least encircle, than many other cultural concepts, not least because it doesn’t seem to exist anymore.

What was cool? Miles, Steve McQueen, Marlene Dietrich, and Humphrey Bogart all both expressed and helped create the modern idea—a combination of social stance, state of mind, and aesthetic. Cool was Hemingway’s grace under pressure, insolence toward authority and conventional wisdom, the confidence and internal equipoise to present oneself as in but not a part of society, to exploit the Man without the Man ever getting his hands on you. Cool was action rather than words, the ability to do something that people, especially men, admired, and to make it seem both easy and alluring to the opposite sex. Cool was looking good without being fancy or fussy, cool was the ultimate response to existentialism.


Cool is an American thing. Its meaning comes out of African-American culture, and it is integrated with the enduring American cultural myth of the outsider. Thematically, that myth is most prominent in the figure of the cowboy, bringing social order and justice (through violence, albeit often reluctantly) to the chaotic frontier. The cowboy was essential to the story of the spread of American civilization, but always stood outside of it—he wanted to be left alone, like Cincinnatus, or else was half chaos himself, like John Wayne in The Searchers.

Cool is an American thing.

The era of the cowboy ended in 1869, when the first transcontinental railroad was completed. The myth has never gone away, however, and it was gradually vulgarized by economics and politics into lotteries and supply-side tax cutting magical thinking. There was a time when the myth was prominently transferred from the legendary white, pastoral countryside to the multi-racial, polyglot urban setting of immigration and striving—hipsters, detectives, criminals, jazz musicians. This was the great era of cool.

The private detective became the new cowboy, Raymond Chandler’s man who walked the mean streets, disdaining authority while valuing honesty, morality, and justice, those positive qualities depending on the same sense of natural law that steered the cowboy. The private detective came out of his office, set some small disorder to right, cleaned up a mess, then retired to his sanctum.

The detective’s foe is the criminal, also an outsider, and while a vehicle for vicarious thrills, the criminal is too extreme for most to emulate, especially the urban, bourgeois movie-goer and consumer. Occupying an enticing, ambiguous, and tenuous middle ground, flirting with criminality while seeking to carve his own community out of society, was the hipster. Norman Mailer, in his 1957 essay “The White Negro,” called him “the American existentialist […] the man who knows that if our collective condition is to live with instant death by atomic war … or with a slow death by conformity with every creative and rebellious instinct stifled […] the only life-giving answer is to accept the terms of death, to live with death as immediate danger, to divorce oneself from society, to exist without roots, to set out on that uncharted journey into the rebellious imperatives of the self. […] One is Hip or one is Square […] one is a frontiersman in the Wild West of American night life, or else a Square cell … doomed willy-nilly to conform if one is to succeed.”

As easy as it is to mock Mailer’s mysticism and his generalizations about and privileged romanticization of race relations in America, he does get at some key perceptions regarding the idea of cool in the overall culture: “In such places as Greenwich Village … the bohemian and the juvenile delinquent came face-to-face with the Negro, and the hipster was a fact in American life. If marijuana was the wedding ring, the child was the language of Hip […] in this wedding of the white and the black it was the Negro who brought the cultural dowry. Any Negro who wishes to live must live with danger from his first day, and no experience can ever be casual to him, no Negro can saunter down a street with any real certainty that violence will not visit him on his walk. The cameos of security for the average white: mother and the home, job and the family, are not even a mockery to millions of Negroes; they are impossible. […] jazz … spoke across a nation, it had the communication of art even where it was watered, perverted, corrupted, and almost killed, it spoke in no matter what laundered popular way of instantaneous existential states to which some whites could respond, it was indeed a communication by art because it said, ‘I feel this, and now you do too.’”

Braid that all with the purifying and regenerative power of violence in the American cultural narrative, and what Mailer identified as the hipster’s self-conscious aspiration to the concept of criminality—the romance of the outlaw without actually being Jean Genet, the idea of making one’s own rules and laws, the vicarious thrill of the criminal or anarchist in narratives. Peter Gunn, now remembered mainly for Henry Mancini’s swaggering, driving big band score, was a private detective, a figure we can also see as an embodiment of American hipster as existential hero, operating at the edge of, if not outside, the law while forming his own, if temporary, concept of order and justice.

The hipster aspired to the state of the black jazz musician, who could easily be beaten up by white cops outside the very club he was headlining, as happened to Miles Davis. The jazz musician was the soloist, creating, responding to, and communicating mood and idea in the moment, the improvisation itself—especially in bebop and after—an existential art.


TV is now enjoying a vogue of being cool, but the great era of TV cool was the 1950s. You could catch Miles and John Coltrane on TV, and jazz was all over its soundtracks. That and the movies were the mediums with the broadest and deepest reach in popular culture, and they brought jazz to millions in America and around the world. It wasn’t that they had to convert audiences into thinking jazz was cool, it was that jazz was inherently cool and hip, and movies and television used that to signify their own place on a spectrum of style, and even rebellion.

Jazz movies had jazz soundtracks, of course, and ones like The Benny Goodman Story and The Gene Krupa Story were Hollywood productions around popular figures. But other movies, important movies with lasting appeal and meaning, had jazz soundtracks, because the filmmakers needed the music to underline that the characters, elements, and themes were cutting edge.

Here is a partial list of movies with jazz soundtracks. Many of them are easy to find on all-time great lists, and certain of them remain not only satisfying but also at the forefront of aesthetic possibility: Breathless, Black Orpheus, Knife in the Water, The Hustler, La Notte, Sweet Smell of Success, Touch of Evil, On the Waterfront. Leonard Rosenman’s score for Rebel Without a Cause wasn’t jazz, but the soundtrack to the documentary The James Dean Story definitely is jazz. (It was composed by Leith Stevens, who wrote the soundtrack for The Wild One with Marlon Brando. More on him below. Some of the music was arranged by Johnny Mandel and Bill Holman, and featured trumpet solos by Chet Baker.) On television, there was Peter Gunn, 77 Sunset Strip, M Squad, The Untouchables, Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer, and The Naked City.

Watching these movies and shows, viewers caught:

The NBC series Johnny Staccato (it ran 27 episodes from 1959 to 1960), which starred John Cassavetes as the title character, a jazz pianist who worked on the side as a private detective to make ends meet. Episodes featured the likes of Shelly Manne, Red Norvo, and Barney Kessel (all, interestingly, cool jazz players). The hip, swinging soundtrack came from Elmer Bernstein.

Before the Johnny Staccato gig, Cassevetes made his film Shadows. The story involves three siblings, two of whom are jazz musicians, all of whom are part of the Beat Generation. Charles Mingus provided the soundtrack.

Godard’s Breathless features Martial Solal’s jazz score, which alternates between swaggering big band passages and Solal, on piano, playing the insinuating theme. The protagonist Michel, played by Jean-Paul Belmondo, wants to be like Humphrey Bogart, an archetype of American cool. The movie itself, and the French New Wave movement in general, stands on the shoulders of American film noir and the cool stance.

Something of a one-man planet of cool, David Amram played jazz on the French horn and was not only a pioneer of the Third Stream movement, but one of the few who successfully integrated jazz and world music into composed forms and structures. He was either a friend and/or colleague of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Davis, Mingus, Aaron Copland, Dimtri Mitropoulos, Leonard Bernstein, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Langston Hughes (a partial list). His film scores include Splendor in the Grass, The Manchurian Candidate, and Pull My Daisy (a Beat film narrated by Kerouac).

Marlon Brando, there at the dawn of cool in The Wild One, and later starring in A Streetcar Named Desire with Alex North’s score, was the lead in Last Tango in Paris (1972). Last Tango has a great, burning jazz score from Gato Barbieri. Brando is at the center of the picture below, sandwiched between Stevie Wonder and Dick Gregory. This was taken in 1978 at the end of The Longest Walk, a 3,800 mile protest March from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. Muhammed Ali sits at far left, and at the far right is David Amram, perhaps catching a glimpse of cool disappearing over the cultural horizon.

A group photo from 1978 at the end of The Longest Walk, a 3,800 mile protest March from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. Muhammed Ali sits at far left, and at the far right is David Amram. Marlon Brando is at the center, sandwiched between Stevie Wonder and Dick Gregory.

A group photo from 1978 at the end of The Longest Walk, a 3,800 mile protest March from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. Muhammed Ali sits at far left, and at the far right is David Amram. Marlon Brando is at the center, sandwiched between Stevie Wonder and Dick Gregory.


This was pop culture with mass dissemination and appeal. More people watched John Cassevetes play the piano and solve crimes to a jazz soundtrack than ever buy a jazz record nowadays. Overseas, the French New Wave was consciously trying to create a new idea of cinema, and for that they turned to jazz. Just Roger Vadim alone used jazz for And God Created Woman, Dangerous Liaisons (that one was Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers), and No Sun in Venice, with the Modern Jazz Quartet. In Poland, director Jerzy Skolimowski (who once said about movies, “There must be boxing, there must be jazz, there must be a cool guy who has a scooter and meets pretty girls, and from time to time has some reflections”) hired Krzysztof Komeda to make the jazz score for Innocent Sorcerers. Komeda, possibly the most important European jazz musician, went on to score important Polish movies in the late 1950s to mid-1960s. More than just the style of the music, it was an existential political statement, a vote for intellectual and aesthetic conscience in a totalitarian society. Jazz was not just cool, it was the sound of freedom.

Jazz is no longer popular which ensures a niche in the landscape tiny enough to be inherently cool.

Jazz still is cool, almost by default. It’s no longer popular, which ensures a niche in the landscape tiny enough to be inherently cool. Hip things are happening in the music, but it’s so under the radar that painfully un-hip squares like John Blake at CNN turn out sesquiannual complaints about how jazz lost its audience, how you can’t hum along with the tunes anymore, how jazz should be more like the smooth R&B I hear when I’m driving in my Lexus—now that’s cool!

This has been going on for some time. There’s a story about Miles being approached by a fan during the ‘60s, when his music was loping ahead of every genre and convention. “Man, I could get with you back in the ’50s, but I can’t get with what you’re doing now,” the fan said to Miles, who responded, “Well, you want me to wait for you?” This may be apocryphal, and the historical truth of it matters not compared to the thematic truth, which is that the cutting-edge proceeds to cut, trailblazers continue to show us their backs as they move forward into the unknown, and for an important period of time, the movies sought to be at the edge, and so they sought out jazz.

Jazz didn’t let down listeners or the culture, the culture let down jazz; the culture got square. Look around for something cool, there’s almost nothing left. There are certain things that are considered cool, like industrial and graphic design, but those are inextricable from materialism and consumerism, the predominant -isms of our culture, the very type of thing from which cool in the past had deliberately separated itself. There are figures in pop culture who at times impress cool upon the world at large, like George Clooney and Walt Frazier, but they move in and out with seasons and events, and are far from constant presences in our minds and in the culture as a whole. President Obama is perhaps the only true cool person left, certainly showing that quality through the years of the most frenzied racist response to his very existence.

Jazz didn’t let down listeners or the culture, the culture let down jazz; the culture got square.

Perhaps cool is turning out to be a historical curiosity. It came out of African-American culture, which has always been at the leading edge (as well as heart) of American culture, and it specifically came out of jazz, which—even when it was popular—was counterculture before there was even a mainstream popular culture, with nice vines and reefer a part of the scene for musicians and music lovers alike.

Then came WWII and a host of social changes: continued African-American migration from the South, women in the workplace (and armed forces), the GI Bill. There was money, ideas, a sense of independence, and a massive number of Americans who had been under the authoritarian command of the military and left wanting to be “free fucking agents,” in the words of Beat poet Jack Spicer. Add to that the contemporaneous rise of consumer culture and the mass culture of television to amplify it, and a handful of giant figures bestride the pop culture landscape in the form of musicians and movie stars, and you had cool as a thing to emulate and aspire to, a thing that seemed almost within reach. But with the corrosive power of water, capitalism eventually subsumes everything. A reaction to the last, decadent stages of the tail end of cool, punk was commodified immediately. “You say you want a revolution,” was used to sell Nikes, and, largely because of Steve Jobs, making money through technology became the cool thing to do. Everyone has a hoody because rich man Mark Zuckerberg has a hoody, but Mark Zuckerberg isn’t cool; wearing a hoody doesn’t make you cool. James Dean is long dead, and James Deen is a pornstar. Humphrey Bogart weeps, while Mr. and Ms. Businessperson drive down the highway in their leased luxury coupe, searching for music that rewards their own success.

In an uncool world, where does a mass audience find jazz? We don’t go to the movies anymore, the movies come to us, on demand, more and more frequently pre-packaged for an audience that seeks the comfort of their anesthetic pleasure of choice. Contemporary hipster soundtracks reflect what has happened to that social group—no longer outsiders, their lifestyle of exacting consumer choice is as conformist as it comes. Exceptions cannot help but stir a feeling of nostalgia for what has been left in the past. In the great tradition of jazz soundtracks and the brilliant political paranoia of The Manchurian Candidate and The Parallax View comes Darcy James Argue’s Real Enemies. Made to be experienced live in a theater, accompanied by a film that is a fascinating exercise in propaganda by innuendo, assertion, and insinuation, the music runs with smooth intelligence through vignettes about government mind-control experiments, the Kennedy assassination, the faked moon landing … oh, it wasn’t faked? Are you sure? Ensembles and solos make meaning out of action, trying to make sense of the bewildering flow of information. It’s not meant to please; it’s meant to seduce, exactly what coolness is supposed to do. It’s enough to warm an old hipster’s heart.

Sounds of Futures’ Past

I am afraid of the future.

Not for myself—I likely only have a few decades left, and there’s only so much that time can bring. But I have a daughter, a little girl, and it’s quite possible she will see the turn of the next century. There is no manifestation of our ongoing, 250-year process of terraforming that I will be able to protect her from, and that terrifies me.

What will she see—that is, if there is anyone left? More than a question of what the Earth will look like, I wonder what will be left of us, what we will leave behind. The Earth will abide; civilization is the open question.

Older, lost civilizations come down to us through objects that have managed to endure and that bear information: writing, images, symbols. Our own printed paper, painted images, and sculptures are also likely to last to some extent. I’m doubtful about the lifespan of these words that I’m writing. You are able to read them because of how fundamentally cheap digital media is, but that same cheapness means they are eminently disposable—they barely even exist. They’re just ordered bits on a storage device that can be erased, destroyed, or that will eventually, simply, de-cohere.

As much as for words, this is the contemporary and burgeoning state of music. Unlike older, lost civilizations that had no means to record and preserve audio, nor a method for notating musical instruction, we have been preserving sound for 150 years, and digital audio has been accumulating like an avalanche at easily the same speed as digital words.

Then there is all the physical media: vinyl, tape, CDs. Of these, tape is the most unstable, vinyl is fairly hardy if handled delicately, and CDs are predicted to last up to, or beyond, 200 years. And there are so many other places to find recorded audio: celluloid film, video game cartridges, Speak and Spell and other toys, the Mellotron.

But these are all based on technology and need a means with which to reproduce the sound, from a cylinder player to a set of AA batteries. As the massive, and especially plastic-based, manufactured detritus of consumer society accumulates, we are likely to leave behind stores, warehouses, veritable foot hills of this stuff. Will there be a means to play recordings, and will anyone be around to hear them? Just as recordings are ghostly hauntings from the past, so too will our sounds haunt the future. But which ones? What will be the sounds of the future’s past?

Not music, but sounds. Through the thousands of years of civilization, we have developed a large-scale, consistent, and constantly developing consensus on the nature of music, and we have made music, with deliberate intention, as a basic element of human society. While all sound recordings are a document of the past, all older music, from Haydn to Hendrix, is a document to some extent, a time capsule into the epochal currents and values that were the context for that melody, that rhythm, that set of chords.

Will music, in that sense, survive, and will it be recognized as such? Between a Bach CD and a bicycle bell found in a pile of garbage by some future scavenger, which is likely to be heard? For that future human, the bell will be the music of the ancients.

Walter M. Miller Jr. thought this through in his extraordinary 1959 novel A Canticle for Leibowitz. His context was different—the apocalyptic threat in the mid-20th century was nuclear war, not environmental catastrophe—but his fundamental question was the same: what of civilization would endure in the aftermath.

His answer was that the Catholic Church would survive in some way, with a new Vatican located somewhere in North America. Within the church, a new monastic order arises, dedicated to Saint Leibowitz. Before the war, the Saint was Isidore Leibowitz, an electrical engineer working in some capacity for the government. After, he was martyred during the Great Simplification, when the survivors destroyed any bit of learning and knowledge, burning books and people alike.

The original cover for Walter M. Miller, Jr.'s novel A Canticle for Leibowitz published in 1960.

The original cover for Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s novel A Canticle for Leibowitz published in 1960.

The Order of St. Leibowitz exists to preserve as much of the past as they can find, via the medieval method of copying by hand—it is the sacred Memorabilia. Everything matters, even if it is incomprehensible:

The monks waited. It mattered not at all to them that the knowledge they saved was useless, that much of it was not really knowledge now, was as inscrutable to the monks in some instances as it would be to an illiterate wild-boy from the hills; this knowledge was empty of content, its subject matter long since gone. Still, such knowledge had a symbolic structure that was peculiar to itself, and at least the symbol-interplay could be observed. To observe the way a knowledge-system is knit together is to learn at least a minimum knowledge-of-knowledge, until someday—someday, or some century—an Integrator would come, and things would be fitted together again. So time mattered not at all. The Memorabilia was there, and it was given to them by duty to preserve, and preserve it they would if the darkness in the world last ten more centuries, or even ten thousand years.

One monk, Brother Francis, finds sacred relics, including a shopping list: “Pound pastrami, can kraut, six bagels—bring home for Emma.” One item is a circuit diagram, which he painstakingly copies, then illuminates, as a gift to the current Pope. He has no idea what it means, nor do any of his peers, the shapes nothing but “thingamabobs,” but to Francis it is both beautiful and marvelous and it is to be maintained and carried forward into the future, a fragment of old knowledge that might yet become integrated into a new civilization.

(In the end, civilization does arise again, in great part due to the efforts of the Order. In the conclusion, which is both horrific and poignantly hopeful, the monks continue their mission, just not on this planet.)

These visions of how the past views the post-apocalyptic future have likely been with us since man first imagined what the next day might bring. Their cultural legacy has survived primarily through writing and the visual arts, and in a mis-en-abime of the medium is the message, they focus on what the painter envisions, what stories the writer thinks will be told, and what surrounds us in the present day. And so J.G. Ballard, whose first novels chillingly (and perhaps presciently) predicted civilization’s destruction coming at the hands of wind, drought, melting ice caps, and scientific disaster, saw the gnostic literature of the present and future in billboards and news magazines.

This haunting, wrenching, agonizingly complex concept of a post-apocalyptic cultural legacy has certainly existed in music for thousands of years. Fragments of Medieval music concerned with the End of Days have come down to us, and apocalyptic thought began neither in Europe nor with Christianity. But the context of that music is the Second Coming, a redemptive and transformative event. And with no means to preserve the sounds of what was the present in the 10th century, nor that advantage of a post-Cageian concept of what constitutes music, there was no thought toward what the past might sound like to those who might come after.

In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, those thoughts are rapidly, if inchoately, encroaching. There is more to the exponential rise in drone music than just the prevalence of technology, there is a vision floating around in the zeitgeist of a world emptied of people. As Joanna Demers writes in her book Drone and Apocalypse (Zero Books, 2015), “Apocalypse as a cataclysm draws a line between the present and the future, presence and absence. It is an emptiness, a threat or a hope of a revelation … but it is unthinkable insofar as we cannot claim to have already lived it.”

But drone music and field recordings make it easy to think about the apocalypse. There is the music of corrosion and desolation made by William Basinksi, Herbst9, Lost Trail, Patrick Emm, and Howard Stelzer. Beyond the dolorous calm of drones and the strangely comforting sounds of emptiness, the subliminal aura of vast machinery functioning without human supervision, there is in particular cases (especially Basinski) the use of decaying technology and media.

Philosophically and aesthetically, this music is a companion to the final movement of Ralph Vaughan Williams Symphony No. 6, a narrative that contemplates nuclear annihilation and a landscape emptied of humanity. Our specific, contemporary anxieties make that movement, and the long line of Mahler’s Symphony No. 9, sound like explorations of entropy.

This music is post-apocalyptic in the sense that it is music for a transformed and empty future. For what a future Brother Francis might hear, and might believe (not incorrectly) that we heard—for just what might appear to the future as the music of the past—listen to Fossil Aerosol Mining Project. Without intending, this long-standing and quasi-anonymous collective is an Order of St. Leibowitz of sound, making audio “symbolic structures” out of literal shards and fragments of civilization.

Fossil Aerosol Mining Project's earliest public release was the 1987 cassette-only Simulated Mutation.

Fossil Aerosol Mining Project’s earliest public release was the 1987 cassette-only Simulated Mutation.

The Project rose during another era with apocalyptic overtones, the Reagan-era ‘80s, the last great hurrah (one hopes) for the idea of nuclear annihilation. Robert, who founded FAMP, describes their start as just a bunch of friends exploring suburban ruins in their home state of Illinois, digging through the debris of abandoned houses, shopping malls, and movie theaters. The stuff they found—objects, images, audio-visual equipment, “fragments of open reel 1/4’ tape and 35mm film recovered from burnt out warehouses and abandoned drive-in theaters”—they assembled into visual art, video, and tape loops. They knit together symbols of the cultural past into scrapbooks of preserved knowledge, without context or critical argument.

Initially short-lived, and with only two limited edition cassettes released in the late 1980s, Robert and various new members have revisited the project through the years. Since 2004, FAMP has been remixing and reissuing old recordings and creating new ones, including re-recording previous recordings via their old found equipment in sites they previously visited, and a new CD, Revisionist History, that celebrates the 30th anniversary of their first cassette and that recontextualizes older recordings with new material. (There is also a 1988 recording of a live performance in the basement studios of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago that streams at Mixcloud.)

What they collected and made at times had a conscious expression of anxieties about the present and possible future—what their official history describes as “inadvertent examples of the post-industrial, post-apocalyptic landscapes so commonly imagined in Cold War-era media. Places and desires that fostered views of modern pop mummified, and contemporary provisions made artifact. Zombie pepsis (sic) and fossil aerosols.” There are recognizable fragments, deliberately placed in some of the recordings, of audio from George Romero’s seminal zombie movie Dawn of the Dead.

Listening to their recordings is immersive, haunting, troubling—a mix of beauty, fear, and hope. There are the gauzy, warm drones, the reliable and grounding loop points, but there are also the voices.

Yes, the voices. There is the report that “Communications with Detroit have been knocked out, along with Atlanta” from Day of the Dead. There is the spoken introduction to the TV series In Search Of (“This series presents information based in part on theory and conjecture …”). There are culturally familiar but unidentifiable fragments of news reports and televangelists and half-remembered movies. And then there are moments where you hear a phone ring, someone picks it up, and a man asks, “Yeah, can I listen to tape 60?” Is that an accidental archival recording from a business or a training center?

All the voices are revivified through the recordings, and the ones like the last strike deep. There is something assuringly unreal about hearing film and TV dialogue—spoken as a performance, it comes from characters who are fundamentally features of the imagination. But the men on the phone were real, and sound real. What happened to them? Are they still alive?

From their past, they speak to us. Through the sound of corrosion and decay, they speak to us. This is upsetting, because we are their future; preserved and reproduced by FAMP, they need a reintegration with broader knowledge to be understood, and we don’t have the tools, only these fragments. Like ghosts, they haunt us but we can’t understand them. (And with mass-surveillance, mass-dissemination via social media, and mass digitization, will any of our voices, accidentally archived, haunt the future?)

These are transmissions, speaking to us from the past, in what might be the mundane routines of personal and professional life. Much of what you hear on FAMP recordings was never music, but in an audio collage, it takes on the inherent qualities of music: timbre, pitch, rhythm, a developing structure through time.

This is listening in the post-apocalypse. This is a music of the future, heard in the present, and because it is made with real materials, it is as frightening as the terrifying messages from the future sent to warn the characters in John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness. FAMP’s recordings are broadcasts from the interior planet of cultural memory, excavations of the bunker, the sacred shopping list and circuit diagram as music. They force us to contemplate the future and the end of civilization.

Human music will survive, but who will hear it? Like emissaries from the Order of Leibowitz, the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft each carry a “Golden Record,” an aluminum-jacketed, gold-plated copper disc analog recording (thoughtfully packaged with a cartridge and needle). The Golden Records contain greetings in fifty-five languages, recordings of space, human, industrial, environmental, and animal sounds, and ninety-minutes of actual music: including Bach, Mozart, Stravinsky, Beethoven, Pygmy and Aboriginal songs, Azerbaijani music, a honkyoku piece from Japan, Louis Armstrong, Chuck Berry, and Blind Willie Johnson singing “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground.” If there are any creatures in the depths of the universe who can discern this essential human activity known as music, perhaps they will hear that as a fitting epitaph to the human race. But is also quite possible they will think our world sounded like Beethoven, and that the sound of factories is our music. Like the fallout shelter signs at my daughter’s elementary school (a drill I—and Robert—went through for years but that she will never experience), the inherent meaning and purpose of the materials won’t survive.

The hopeful part of the sounds of futures’ past is that while there may only be fragments of our shattered civilization 100 years from now, Fossil Aerosol Mining Project know that there will be sounds, “songs of enhanced decay and faked resurrection,” and trusts there will be someone there to listen to them.

The cover of FOMP's album The Day 1982 Contaminated 1971

One of the FOMP’s most provocatively titled recordings is The Day 1982 Contaminated 1971 which was released in 2015.


George Grella is a composer, critic, and independent scholar. He is the music editor of the Brooklyn Rail, a freelance critic for the New York Classical Review, and the author of Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew.

The Forgotten Man: Teo Macero and Bitches Brew

Miles Davis and Teo Macero standing together each wearing a white shirt and a tie; Miles is also playing trumpet
The gatefold LP cover for Bitches Brew which attempts to create a visual analog to the music on the album.

The complete LP gatefold for Bitches Brew featuring the art work of German painter Mati Klarwein which attempts to create a visual analog to the music on the album.

There is so much to hear in this music, Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew album.

Each side comes to an end, but the music never seems to conclude. There’s only so much information that a physical recording medium can hold. But the durational restrictions of a vinyl LP were less important for Bitches Brew than the design and intention of Miles’s music making. The music on the album doesn’t conclude because it doesn’t formally resolve, and Miles didn’t want it to resolve.

That’s how Miles was playing with his quintet at the time, with saxophonist Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea at the electric piano, Dave Holland on bass, and drummer Jack DeJohnette. That band’s live sets were one continuous stream of music. They would start with a recognizable theme—often it was “Directions”—and follow with solos. But instead of returning to the head and reaching a final cadence, Miles would play a musical cue that would turn the band immediately to the next tune. The constant, roiling group interplay was as vital as the soloing, which itself was more a part of the texture than a showcase for one individual. Pace, pulse, and mood were always flowing and always malleable, and the music stopped only when the set came to an end.

Bitches Brew captures that experience. But the music that is closest to the live sets makes up less than half of the album: three of the four tracks on the second disk—“Spanish Key,” “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down,” and “Sanctuary”—were central to the band’s repertoire. The rest of the music was new, played for the first time at the recording session and made with a concept new to not only jazz but to music across all genres.

The first disk is similar in sound but entirely different in method and teleology. In fact, it is music entirely without teleology. And Miles didn’t make it by himself; it was the product of a unique compositional collaboration between the trumpeter and his longtime, essential producer at Columbia Records, Teo Macero. That disk, with “Pharoah’s Dance” on the A side and “Bitches Brew” on the obverse, was played by Miles and the musicians in the studio, and then composed by Macero in a manner that was unprecedented and still, forty-five years later, has been barely explored by others.

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Macero (October 30, 1925 – February 19, 2008) was by background a musician and a composer, but by training he was an audio engineer; at Columbia Records, he was an in-house composer, arranger, and producer. He worked with some of the great musicians of the 20th century, and shaped and directed essential jazz and pop albums by Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus (both of whom he signed to the label), Dave Brubeck (the Time Out album), Johnny Mathis, and Tony Bennett. He also produced an album of music by Alan Hovhaness, as well as the soundtrack to The Graduate and original cast recordings for many Broadway shows. As an independent producer in the 1970s and ’80s he worked with Herbie Hancock, Michel Legrand, Vernon Reid, The Lounge Lizards, Robert Palmer, and many other musicians.

As a musician and composer, he co-founded the Jazz Composer’s Workshop with Mingus and had a friendship with Edgard Varèse—there’s even a rumor that Macero helped Varèse prepare the tape for Poème électronique. While there’s no documentary evidence to confirm that, Macero paid his way through Juilliard by working as an engineer in the school’s recording studio, he had the skill and experience to make that a tantalizing possibility, and he did visit the composer and at least observe some of Varèse’s work on the piece.

Miles Davis and Teo Macero standing together each wearing a white shirt and a tie; Miles is also playing trumpet

A Columbia Records promotional photo of Miles Davis with Teo Macero

Macero’s most important work was with Miles Davis, with whom he worked intimately as a producer from 1959 (beginning perhaps with part of the Kind of Blue session, though that is unclear) through Davis’s retirement in 1975, and then with the first few comeback albums for Columbia. There’s no direct line connecting Macero’s own music and the realization of Bitches Brew and other albums. Macero was a professional but with little lasting distinction as a composer or performer. He played the saxophone in the manner of Warne Marsh, though nowhere near as well, and experimented with composition in the Third Stream style. (Miles called some of those efforts “sad,” and judging by the album Explorations, with Macero, Mingus, and accordionist Wally Cirillo, he was right.) There are also some solid but unremarkable film scores, and the exploratory One-Three Quarters for chamber group and two pianos, recorded on the New Music in Quarter-Tones album, part of David Behrman’s “Music in Our Time” series for Columbia. (And a passing thought for the downside of the end of the big labels: during the 1960s, Columbia issued albums by Davis, Mingus, Monk, Bob Dylan, Glenn Gould, Stravinsky, Simon and Garfunkel, The Byrds, Leonard Bernstein, Behrman’s series, etc., et al. There won’t be anything like that again.)

Even before Macero started work as Miles’s producer, his critical ear and skill with the razor blade, splicing block, and tape were already established in jazz history. He produced Mingus’s Mingus Ah Um album, one of the greatest recordings in the history of the music, by editing the original tapes. The full master take of the opening track, “Better Git It in Your Soul,” has an extra chorus for Booker Ervin’s tenor sax solo. Ervin wanders around for the chorus, warming up, tossing out discontinuous ideas that never amount to anything interesting. Once the second chorus comes around, Ervin is in full swing and launches what is, at least on the LP release, a cooking solo, made hard-hitting by its concision. Macero lopped off the first chorus—and over a minute total—and is responsible for how tight and effective that track is.

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The cover for George Grella's book about Bitches Brew which shows the LP cover in the top right corner.

Read more about Bitches Brew in George Grella’s book about the album for the 33 1/3 series.

At the Bitches Brew session, Miles had music for the band to play. Along with the music the core quintet had been playing, keyboardist Joe Zawinul brought in “Pharaoh’s Dance,” and Miles had some sort of sketch for “Bitches Brew.” That’s how he liked to work when he was experimenting. Beneath the public style, popular superstardom, and communicative playing, Miles was essentially an avant-garde/experimental musician. The musicians on the Kind of Blue album didn’t see what they were going to play until they arrived at the recording studio. By August 1969, the date of the Bitches Brew recordings, Miles was using the minimum of notated materials. He even cut out harmonies from Zawinul’s piece, leaving what he felt were the essentials: there is one chord, which at times is no more than a B pedal tone, and one spare, syncopated, repetitive theme that doesn’t first appear until almost 17 minutes into the 20-minute track.

But there’s no way to know when Miles first played that theme in the studio, in real time. The entire first disk of the album is a non-real time tape composition by Macero, and the material he had to work with was the recording session tapes. Miles and Macero kept the decks rolling while Miles had the band play various short passages, lay down different versions of the groove, and come together for extended stretches of ensemble playing that featured his own soloing, that of Shorter, and numerous conversations between bass clarinet player Bennie Maupin, guitarist John McLaughlin, and the keyboardists Corea, Zawinul, and Larry Young. The same is true for the 27-minute title track on the second side. The piece is even more substantial when you take into account that the track “John McLaughlin” on the first side of the second disk is a straight edit that came out of the recording of “Bitches Brew.” Miles and Macero had gone into the studio thinking that “Bitches Brew” (at the time not the title track, the initial intention was to call the album Listen to This) would be something of a four-part suite—e.g. they were thinking in terms of form. But the form in the studio, as played by the musicians, was nothing like the form that Macero gave the music in the editing process. The results were so far separated from the experience of the sessions that neither Maupin nor Zawinul realized what the record was when they first heard it after its release.

That Bitches Brew is so impressive is a testament not only to Miles’s great playing, his under-appreciated leadership and musical direction, but also to Macero’s compositional thinking. This was a new kind of music, using tools and idioms of musique concrète, aleatory, improvisation, jazz, rock, and funk, and creating new forms and structures around contemporary ideas about tonal harmony. Macero had all this material at hand in the form of feet of recording tape with instrumental passages. But how did those get spliced together into complete wholes?

Macero gave “Bitches Brew” a clear, simple form, guided by the original structural idea: a malevolently atmospheric fanfare leads into a bass vamp that continues for almost the duration of the side, interrupted only by returns of the fanfare. One of those repeats is a direct tape copy of the music heard at the start of the track; the other is a different, real-time stretch of the musicians playing the phrase. The track ends with another copy of the opening fanfare, which dissipates to nothing. The musicians didn’t play anything that created a sense of an ending, that wasn’t in the cards, so Macero’s edit brings the music to a place past which it doesn’t continue. Neither he nor Miles cared about any kind of formal conclusion.

But Macero did more than just put the tapes into some kind of shape. At about ten and a half minutes in, Miles, soloing, spits out a strong, short, rhythmic phrase, and Macero used a series of edits to repeat and extended the phrase, using a fragment of it recursively, making Miles sound like he is obsessively circling a musical idea, turning it in space, before he dismisses it and moves on. It’s quite a moment, musically rich and conceptually mysterious, one musician turning another musician’s improvisation, after the fact, into a composition. With the goal of creating an album that sounds like the band playing live, but which also displays deliberate, ex post facto compositional decisions, what kind of terms exist for this type of music making? Alchemy is the word.

Although “Pharaoh’s Dance” is the most heavily edited track on the entire album, a tour de force of critical listening and tape composition. “Pharaoh’s” opening is a sequence of edits, all short, that build an ABCBCABC structure. This was done entirely with the razor blade—in real time, the band was playing a vamp, punctuated by Holland playing a rising, arpeggiated B chord. The circularity of the playing, after Macero took it apart and reassembled it, produces music that has the unique, uncanny combination of a repetitive drone set inside a linear timeline. The intro leads into the meat of the performance, group interplay and solos, and the bulk of the track maintains the complexity of music made without the conception of linear time—without a structural or formal need to move from one bar or chord to the next—arranged into the linear sequence that tape splicing physically demands.

The track is both free form and concrete, improvised and composed, and there are brilliant edits that anchor musical events and create the unequalled and mysterious force of the record. At about eight minutes in, an edit cuts out a vamp that is losing energy and returns the opening material. Or something like it, but hauntingly different—the band is continuing the phrases from the start of the track, but they are somewhere farther along, in real time, though not in the album/listening time. The close listener remembers the music, yet the sensation of the music is extracted directly from the past and inserted into the present, dislocating the listener from the stream of time. If sonata form returns music transmuted by the experience of intervening time, the changes that time wrings on Bitches Brew do not come from the musicians, they take place entirely inside the listener’s mind. (The editing on the second disk is much lighter and directed towards getting the best out of the performances. “Voodoo” is a straight take. The edit on “Sanctuary” splices together two different takes to make an extended reverie on Wayne Shorter’s harmonically and emotionally ambivalent tune.)

This short stretch of music manages to both extend the duration of the piece while also seeming to go back to a moment in time that has long passed. Macero’s technical skill means the music keeps flowing, and his compositional thinking produces an effect that is unlike anything else in music, recorded or live. It also challenges, again, how we think about and describe the compositional process and its results. Macero wasn’t making a tape piece, any kind of pastiche or collage, he was producing an album by another musician. But Miles wanted to make part of the album in this manner, to play raw material and have his musical partner turn it into something that never existed in the studio. It’s a record of a band playing music that was never heard in real time. It’s a concept that, through praxis, plays with time in deeply mysterious ways. And it’s a complete artistic statement that, through its process, discards form, while managing to sound organic and logical. There is no one answer to what Bitches Brew is, but one truth about the album is that it is Teo Macero’s greatest composition.

Teo and Miles standing in front of the Columbia Records recording at night

Teo and Miles in front of the Columbia Records recording studios in 1971. (Creative Commons)

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George Grella, Jr. is the author of Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew for the 33 1/3 Series of books. He is the Music Editor at the Brooklyn Rail, publishes the Big City Blog, and writes for the New York Classical Review, the American Record Guide, and Music & Literature.

“This is My Design”

“This is my design” is what grabbed my attention.

Early in the pilot episode of the NBC series Hannibal, Will Graham visualizes a murder. Through his freakish empathy, Graham puts himself in the place of the killer, narrates the violence as he performs it in his imagination, then concludes by saying, with cold malice, “This is my design.”

Hannibal, based on Thomas Harris’s novel Red Dragon and produced by Bryan Fuller, is about the relationship between Graham (Hugh Dancy)—who teaches at the FBI and helps Special Agent Jack Crawford (Laurence J. Fishburne III) catch psychopaths—and psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen), who is familiar through most of pop culture as Hannibal the Cannibal, played by Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs movie and various sequels and prequels.

In Harris’s novel, Lecter is already in the Baltimore State Hospital of the Criminally Insane, having been apprehended by Graham. The TV show (which is now filming its third season with an expected return this spring) takes place prior, and cleverly includes and reworks important characters from that book and later ones. The show is many things: scary, beautifully filmed, “a love story,” in Fuller’s words, between Graham and Lecter.

It is also, underneath but hiding in plain sight, a show about creativity. What is powerful about Hannibal is how it presents murderous psychopathology as a creative act. The murders are shown in stunningly beautiful tableau nature morte: bodies mutilated to look like angels, others used as parts of an enormous graphic design, one held erect by the tree growing through it, flowers filling the chest cavity. Lecter is not just a cannibal but a formidable gourmet chef, and the beauty of the meals he presents, and the descriptions he gives (without mentioning the key ingredient), constantly inspires both my appetite and desire to cook. If America had a large-scale aesthetic culture, the combination of murder and beauty would be subversive and controversial.

Or, perhaps not. American pop culture has been obsessed with serial killers, their violence and psychopathology, for decades. Americans also are ravenous for music and movies and more, creative works. We admire and promote creativity. And the creative act, the design, is a one step-remove abstraction of Hannibal’s creative psychopathy, nowhere more so than in classical music.

Classical music, early to contemporary, is a composer’s genre, the pieces are their design. In Hannibal, human bodies, dead and at times alive, are the raw materials, arranged and manipulated to fulfill their killers’ vision. Composers’ raw materials are symbols on a page that lay out the design as instructions for musicians to obey and execute. (Of course Lecter is a composer and is even shown working on a fugue at his harpsichord while his parallel design, manipulating the people around him, falls into place with equal elegance and precision.)

Composers need to control their materials and, to an extent, their musicians. This is true for the murderer Gesualdo and the gentle John Cage, more so for the latter. Most composers are autocrats; Cage was totalitarian. He demanded of himself and others not only proper execution but proper thinking. And autocracy and totalitarianism, in their view of and relationship to human beings, are the political equivalents of malevolent psychopathology.

Music making, the live playing of a composition, is a social activity. It is also the point of action where individual wills collide—there is as much struggle as cooperation, and something has to give. Composer Noah Creshevsky sits at that border. Gregarious, interested in other people, generous with his time and his spirit, he found that working with musicians in preparing for concerts wasn’t to his liking. Instead, he composes music using samples, mainly of musicians playing their instruments (often custom made for him by the players), and uses those as the raw materials for his pieces. As he says, smiling and at ease, “electronic music is a way of life, it suits me.”

Creshevsky can manipulate the samples in any way he wishes without doing damage to anyone, an enormous difference between manipulating and damaging people, but that difference is the single step. Working more closely with musicians at both ends of the relationship is Matt Marks, a composer and horn player in Alarm Will Sound. It was Marks’s ravings over Hannibal on Facebook that got me watching the show, and when I mentioned this to him, he was eager to talk about how the he also thought the show “is about art, about creativity.”

We talked about where we found hints of psychopathology in music, especially the high-romantic works of Strauss, Mahler and Puccini. Mahler psychologically manipulated the musicians who played his music, a step beyond the musician as a tool to realize the composer’s design. The opening trumpet fanfare of Symphony No. 5, and the bass solo that starts the third movement of Symphony No. 1, were orchestrated in such a way to make the players feel anxiety, because Mahler wanted them to express his anxieties.

Mahler’s symphonies, which I love, are great because of their egocentricity, the seductive charisma, which psychopaths have, of one man’s thoughts about himself demanding your attention over everything else in the universe. (The most prominent current example is the My Struggle series of novels by Karl Ove Knausgaard, dense, compelling examinations of the minutiae of his internal life.) Strauss and Puccini, Marks pointed out, have this same charismatic effect on their listeners. Taken to the logical end, and you have not just Wagner but the cult of Wagnerism, followers eagerly enslaved to the charismatic seductions of a composer who cared nothing for them. And Wagner’s most prominent operatic characters—Wotan and Siegfried among them—are unbalanced and dangerous.

Marks has been thinking about these qualities, in his own music, for many years. “I’ve done settings of two letters from Albert Fish [a 1930s cannibalistic serial killer],” he elaborated. “That’s something I think about quite a lot, psychopathology and creativity.” For The Adventures of Albert Fish, Marks had to set the thoughts, values and desire of this man to music to music. How does a composer accomplish that?

“It’s so easy to have the music make moral judgments about the characters,” the same way we would be personally compelled to, Marks acknowledges. “I decided to have the music support Fish in the way he thinks about himself. That makes it unsettling enough. I had to create a fictionalized psychology, I can’t just assume he’s evil, his own thoughts and feelings are real to him.” That’s the same kind of empathy Will Graham has in the show, where he can imagine not only the actions but the rationales of psychopaths.

Marks plays other people’s music, follows their design. His experience performing is that empathy hurts the music. “As a performer, the more empathy I have for the audience, the worse I play. The less respect I have for them, the better I serve them. By ignoring the need to please them, concentrate on the music and assume their satisfaction,” he gives them a more successful performance. In everyday social settings, this disdain for other people would be pathological; in the concert hall, it’s appropriate.

Can a musician sense psychopathology in a composition? Is there room to exert a counterforce to the design of the composer? I worked backwards to pianist Kathleen Supové, also a fan of Hannibal. (She’s actually the person who turned Marks onto it.) The underlying theme of creativity in the show is clear to her: “the killing is a means to subvert the original being of the victims, to transform them into some other use.”

As a pianist, she has a fascinating, parallel idea, that “there is a violation in a piece, when the interpretation starts to get really good,” a counterdesign. “There is some sort of through line that you get with a piece that becomes yours; you take it away from the composer.”

Unsurprisingly, there is a musician in the show, the first season character Tobias. He plays and teaches stringed instruments, and makes his own gut strings out of … well, you can guess. He also commits a murder, motivated it seems by some poor trombone playing, and transforms the victim into a musical instrument.

This, and the show in general, are not as shocking to see as one would think. The murders are fascinating and attractive, and the imagination that goes into creating them is admirable. Again, this is no surprise—the show is an exact example of Edmund Burke’s concept of the sublime. In A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, he writes:

The passions which belong to self-preservation, turn on pain and danger; they are simply painful when their causes immediately affect us; they are delightful when we have an idea of pain and danger, without being actually in such circumstances; this delight I have not called pleasure, because it turns on pain, and because it is different enough from any idea of positive pleasure. Whatever excites this delight, I call sublime.

This was echoed powerfully by Stockhausen, in his remarks at a press conference on September 16, 2001:

Well, what happened there is, of course—now all of you must adjust your brains—the biggest work of art there has ever been. The fact that spirits achieve with one act something which we in music could never dream of, that people practice ten years madly, fanatically for a concert. And then die. And that is the greatest work of art that exists for the whole Cosmos. Just imagine what happened there. There are people who are so concentrated on this single performance, and then five thousand people are driven to Resurrection. In one moment. I couldn’t do that. Compared to that, we are nothing, as composers. It is a crime, you know of course, because the people did not agree to it. They did not come to the ‘concert’. That is obvious. And nobody had told them: ‘You could be killed in the process.’

He was widely censured for this comment, for pointing out how compelling the worst moral failings and crimes are to us at a time when the only accepted discourse was a grandstanding fulmination against a metaphysical evil. In music, we find this sublime balance between beauty and terror in range from Schubert to Mahler to exciting and terrifying forms of heavy metal. In society, it turns out the psychopathology of the sublime is alive and well and now entrenched in our politics and de facto American values. Torture, a great evil and a heinous psychopathology, is not an aberration, it is now design. Torturers not only will suffer no sanction but have been paid for their pleasure, such as it was. Mainstream political leaders with substantial followings and public platforms embrace torture and thirst, it seems, for more.

Stockhausen understood the sublime, that the impulse to create means caressing pain and danger, and that a composer relishing the horrors of his imagination from a safe place was as nothing compared to the atrocity of mass murderer, and that along with the moral gap between imagining danger and killing people, there was a hint of moral slumming in expressing the sublime.

Human beings have always been attracted to the sublime, and since the Romantic era we have found a source of beauty that is made more profound and enduring because it allows us to be enthralled, to safely caress that dark, human, and thrillingly beautiful sense of amoral power within us, the thing that we gladly depend on civilization to keep in check for us. We go through our days being caring, thoughtful, loving citizens, partners and parents, and at night we sit down to watch Hannibal.

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George Grella Jr. is a composer, critic and independent scholar. He is Music Editor at The Brooklyn Rail, publishes The Big City blog, and writes for the New York Classical Review, Jazziz, The American Record Guide, and Sequenza21.

The Know-Nothings of Jazz

photo of woman covering eyes, ears and mouth

Photo by Rob Gallop (via Flickr)

Before there was hipster culture, there was hip culture. Dedicated to creative thinking and an insolent attitude towards the Establishment—The Man—hip culture came out of jazz and the music’s fans, especially once bebop hit the scene and pushed jazz fully into the aesthetics of art music.

Hip culture used to matter to The Establishment. Literate people used to have at least a few contemporary jazz LPs in their collection. It’s no fantasy that Don Draper is constantly chasing hip young ideas on Mad Men: Steve Allen used to host a TV show on NBC, Thelonious Monk appeared on the cover of Time Magazine, Miles Davis was a paragon of intellectual and sartorial fashion, and Whitney Balliett started writing about jazz for The New Yorker in 1954.

Now we have hipster culture, where money is the aesthetic and coolness is signified by what one buys and sells, and collecting objects has been aestheticized as curating. The Man has commodified and co-opted hipness, and in the 21st century there has been little more than a handful of critical pieces on jazz published in The New Yorker. But they do have regular articles on shopping!

The most recent bit of writing on jazz in the magazine (other than limited, unsurprising listings in the “Goings on About Town” section), was this smug, infantile boorishness on Sonny Rollins, from Django Gold.

It was harmless in and of itself; too many fans and critics allowed it to hurt their feelings. Like raised voices in a bar, their remonstrations brought forth the loud and meaningless opinions of Justin Moyer in The Washington Post. While Gold was trying to be funny (it needed explanation, never a good thing in comedy), Moyer, apparently sober, was full of explanations for what is wrong with jazz. It came off like backseat driving from a blind man.

Moyer’s piece is so breathtakingly wrong that many readers thought it was some kind of hoax. Amazingly, John Halle, who should know better, came to Moyer’s defense and added his own condemnation of jazz in Jacobin magazine.

How is it that ignorant, incompetent drivel like this gets published? Contrary to Halle’s sniffing, jazz is indeed an enduring counter-cultural art form, because it’s so deep underground that editors somehow imagine that these writers have something interesting and worthwhile to say about the music. They do not.

Editors in the cultural pages of general interest publications (or even specialty ones), are the gatekeepers, letting in what they feel is valuable and sharing it with the public. These editors are sharing nothing but their obtuseness.

The New Yorker is particularly puzzling, even shameful. With Alex Ross and Sasha Frere-Jones at the back of the book, they regularly seek what’s relevant in classical and pop music. Nothing for jazz. Yet the jazz scene is full of musicians working with the entire context of contemporary music and pushing jazz into new territory. This is vital in terms of contemporary classical music, the post-minimal fascination with groove-based forms and structures, but there’s no one at the magazine who is qualified to point out that those elements date back to jazz from the late 1960s.

At The New York Review of Books, there has been one blog post by Seth Colter Walls that comes anywhere near to the state of the music in the 21st century. (Its subject was the Sun Ra Arkestra’s debut at Jazz at Lincoln Center in 2013.) There are occasional pieces, written by Christopher Carroll, retrospectives on Charles Mingus, Clifford Brown, and Rollins, that are symptoms of the disease.

Jazz fans are hip; editors and writers at these publications are revanchist, in love with a non-existent, prelapsarian golden age that is different for each. Moyer seems to think jazz stopped “evolving” in 1959, with Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come; Halle is tendentiously ego-centric, pegging the decline of jazz to when it stopped reflecting his political preferences, which, strangely, is when Joe Henderson released a series of albums in the late-’60s/early-’70s; for Carroll, jazz seemed to have stopped with hardbop; and at The New Yorker, it was when Balliett died in 2001.

Of course, jazz has continued to evolve from each of those arbitrary dates (and was never pure to begin with). There is archeological evidence for this, physical artifacts that satisfy every element of proof, things that we aficionados refer to, in our hip argot, as “recordings,” “video,” “ticket stubs.” This century alone has produced path-breaking jazz from Henry Threadgill, Steve Lehman, Darcy James Argue, Tyshawn Sorey, Vijay Iyer, Wadada Leo Smith, John Zorn, and so many more.

But few, if any, of these musicians teach and play recitals at colleges and universities, or appear at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Moyer and Halle are specifically revealing of how they think that is where all jazz is happening, which is a sad testament to how each of them has been co-opted by their own institutions, The Washington Post and Bard College respectively. Each is The Man, and each can only see what The Man does. Armchair guides to the jazz world haven’t even made it into the main tourist attractions themselves, much less the indigenous byways.

And The Man is unhip, and has always been. Hipsters blind to what’s hip, they, incredibly, believe that institutional and grant money has made jazz musicians fat and happy, insulated from the creative possibilities of failure—I don’t imagine they would be able to survive on what a jazz musician makes from playing their music.

Instead, it is The Man who preserves failed ideas—like Marxism, and “you kids get off my lawn” editorializing—in his institutions, his publications, colleges, and universities. Institutionalized jazz is safe, museum-piece jazz, but the music still happens in basements and lofts and living room performance spaces. These are the alternative venues and institutions for a music that, by definition, is outsider music, counter-culture music. In the current hegemonic commodification of culture, anything that doesn’t sell is outsider. And music that walks the fine and exceedingly difficult line between pop and art, as jazz has since before the bebop era, is counter-cultural.

This is epistemic closure as most commonly seen in politics, the absolute rightness of one’s views, impervious to facts and thinking. It takes a heroic level of ignorance to be a jazz fan unaware of Woody Shaw, Miles Davis from 1965 onward, Weather Report, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Joe Maneri, and The Tony Williams Lifetime. It takes an astounding level of patronizing self-regard to lecture the music for its political failings, as Halle does, while being so deaf to the music as it’s actually being made. His article is the perfect affirmation to Miles Davis’s explanation to why he didn’t talk about jazz anymore: “It’s a white folks’ word.”

One not need love the music, but the music exists regardless of how much, or little, one loves it or even knows it. The profound meaning of its continued existence comes with the closing of this circle: Rollins, at 84, is still playing and released the third volume of his live Road Shows records this year. His playing is as grand, charming, and witty as always. But jazz has moved on even from him, and there are a dozen or more other new records this year that, by pushing the music into the future, are more important.

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Grella
George Grella Jr. is a composer, critic, and independent scholar. He is music editor at The Brooklyn Rail, publishes the Big City blog, and writes for the New York Classical Review, Jazziz, The American Record Guide, and Sequenza21.