Charles Ives, George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein, and John Corigliano have all used music to promote social commentary, but these are all individuals who use their talents to create great music and see it performed. To the Great American Culture Machine, music is still mainly seen as a pastime marketed primarily to sexually frustrated adolescents with enough money to buy new product.
I generally feel a sense of self-righteous satisfaction when scientific research (the kind with reproducible results) once again reveals evidence supporting my personal non-peer-reviewed theories and beliefs about music functioning as a fabric to weave and tailor the wardrobes of our lives with. So, I was happy to read about the research from Finland that proves that we are able to respond to music before we are born. Although the idea has been tossed around for quite a while, the study echoes one conducted in France nearly three years earlier that, while using different methods, came to the same conclusion: human beings are capable of apprehending and remembering music while in the womb. The concept that memories of our watery symbiotic prenatal sonic environment are transported into the world of air-breathing individuation lends support to a theory I have about the practice of regulating the temporal experience by dividing it into a series of motoric units. These units, be they global (hours, minutes, seconds) or local (whole note, half note, quarter note), are as arbitrary a way to measure time as equal temperament is to measure an octave.
Given that our gestational sonic environment is unarguably rich, the predominant sound heard is the uneven rhythm of our mother’s heartbeat with a ratio that approximates the Golden Mean. (The ratio varies, though, depending on one’s general health, state of mind, and level of physical activity.) The tempo of a heartbeat for an adult at rest ranges between 60 and 100 beats per minute and, moreover, the volume levels of the two beats making up the rhythmic pattern are different. The heartbeat that an unborn human hears when its mother is healthy, relaxed, and in a good frame of mind sounds very similar to the drumming patterns that accompany Native American round or “friendship” dances. In Native American music, evenly spaced drum pulses are mostly used in competitive or “fancy” dances. They sound similar to the heartbeat of someone engaged in intense physical activity.
My theory goes that we unconsciously equate irregular rhythms with security, safety, and community, especially rhythms that resemble the human heartbeat, such as the Charleston rhythm of jazz or the bombo – ponche bass line heard in the tresillo-style tumbao of Latin music. These rhythms, I believe, were in common use in America before the arrival of European colonists. Modern American music, though, is primarily the result of Eurocentric philosophy, technology, and pedagogy, and its largely tacit hegemonic foundation of super-cultural fathers currently supports the idea that these rhythmic elements were imported to the New World as part of the African Diaspora. This would suggest that jazz, which is officially America’s indigenous art form and born out of a push for inclusion of African Americans in mainstream American culture, is non-inclusive of the indigenous New World cultures that predate by millennia the trans-Atlantic colonization of the Western Hemisphere. But the push has been an obvious success, despite the inability of so many melanin-challenged brothers and sisters to accept that white supremacy is very near the root of our nation’s woes, and there are many who believe that African-American inclusion will lead to an egalitarian culture recognizing a broader base of diversity. So hope stays alive while artists like Vijay Iyer, Fred Ho, Jennifer Leitham, Fred Hersch, Cynthia Hilts, Joris Teepe, Cecil Taylor, Bobby Sanabria, Joanne Brackeen, Arturo O’Farrill, and Wayne Wallace exemplify how, no matter how one negotiates the Great American Culture Machine, diversity is key.
As a side note, I would like to think that the Kaheri Quartet, who celebrated the release of their first CD last month, is part of this trend, especially since—along with guitarist Omar Tamez, pianist Angelica Sanchez, and drummer Satoshi Takeishi—I’m a member of it and we plan to record our second CD in a few weeks. Kaheri’s music is about improvisation, both structured and not. While it’s not a new concept, what is unique to the group is the addition of non-African elements to the mix. While it is truthfully said that all human experience can be traced to Africa, its musicological influence in Kaheri is filtered through several layers of diasporic timelines that include the pre-European indigenous elements that inform Tamez’s playing. Sanchez is well-known on the new music scene, especially for her collaborations with saxophonist Tony Malaby and drummer Tom Rainey. Takeishi is from Mito, Japan, but spent years working in Columbia, South America, on projects that combined elements of folk, jazz, and classical music.
The international aspect of Kaheri is one that mirrors how jazz studies has become international as well, and the publicly funded Jazzinstitut Darmstadt offers a service that scans through the headlines of leading newspapers for jazz-related news items. One story that caught my eye was an interview with saxophonist Dave Rempis. A native of Boston, Massachusetts, Rempis has made Chicago, Illinois, his home for the last 15 years. Like Tamez, Rempis is an organizer as well as a performer and improviser. He performs as part of a group, The Vandermark 5, that takes a unique approach to alternative groove-based jazz. Rempis’s playing is high energy and steeped in the aesthetic of post-Albert Ayler avant-garde and free-jazz movements. In his interview, he is asked the question that I feel is at the heart of this post: “Do you ever think of social progress and playing music in the same breath?” His answer, although coming from the right place, reflects a problem with how jazz as an American art form is perceived and/or taught in America:
The history of jazz and social progress are deeply intertwined on every level, from the first racially mixed groups that Benny Goodman led and made no compromises with, to Max Roach’s groundbreaking Freedom Now Suite, and up through current times, whether it be in regards to the various wars this country has undertaken in recent years, or to social movements such as gay rights. On a less explicit level, jazz is inherently a music that allows for meaningful personal expression without necessarily sacrificing group integrity, and the balance of those things between the musicians offers a model for possibilities within the society at large.
As was mentioned in a previous post, the racially diverse groups led by Benny Goodman were formed at the behest of his agent, John Hammond; Goodman’s participation was a compromise. Besides, the push to include subaltern musicians in “mainstream” society went back at least to James Reese Europe’s Clef Club Orchestra playing at Carnegie Hall in 1912, twenty-six years before Goodman. (Notice that his first name is abbreviated to “Jas.” on the poster.) If one wants to suggest a “great white hope” for integration in the jazz age, probably credit should be given to Vernon and Irene Castle, the ballroom dancing stars who popularized the fox trot and employed Europe’s “Society Orchestra” to accompany them in the same year. Another problem is to use the We Insist! (subtitled Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite) (Candid Records, 1960) as an endpoint for jazz as a force for social change. John Coltrane recorded “Alabama,” dedicated to the victims of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Selma, Alabama, in 1963 and New Thing At Newport (Impulse!, 1965) mostly featured the politically outspoken music of Archie Shepp. Saxophonist Joe Henderson’s Milestone release, If You’re Not Part of the Solution, You’re Part of the Problem, was recorded at the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach in 1970. Jim Pepper’s first recording as a leader, Pepper’s Pow Wow (Embryo, 1971), includes two Peter La Farge tunes, “Senecas (As Long as the Grass Shall Grow)” and “Drums,” both about the mistreatment of Native Americans, as well as the traditional, “Nommie Nommie (When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder),” a tongue-in-cheek version of the Methodist spiritual. Mingus alumni and trumpet virtuoso Jack Walrath recorded his A Plea For Sanity in 1983 for Stash Records, and the work of Fred Ho (Deadly She-Wolf Assassin At Armageddon!, Innova Records, 2010) has never been disassociated with his political activism. In short, jazz is still very much part of the push for social change.
The music/social commentary connection isn’t limited to contemporary African-American musical forms either. Part of the Mozart effect could be the inclusion of the political views suggested in The Magic Flute or Zaide. Of course Dimitri Shostakovich is another figure from European art music who managed to include social commentary in his music. In America, Charles Ives, George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein, and John Corigliano have all used music to promote social commentary, but these are and were individuals whose vision was tp use their talents to create great music and see it performed. To the Great American Culture Machine, music is still mainly seen as a pastime marketed primarily to sexually frustrated adolescents with enough money to buy new releases. My concern is that the new research mentioned earlier won’t lead to the creation of a consumer class via pre-natal indoctrination. While this suggestion might be nothing more than the result of a fatalistic imagination working overtime, there are social issues that need to be addressed with louder voices more now than ever.
To be continued…