Tag: hip hop

INDEXED: What we’re reading when we read about Lamar’s Pulitzer Win

Ever since Pulitzer Prize Administrator Dana Canedy announced Kendrick Lamar’s win in the music category a bit after 3 p.m. on Monday, news outlets and social media have been alight with hot takes and existential reflections. As the first artist working outside the classical-ish field (with a couple more recent nods to jazz) to snag the prize, the selection of Lamar’s album DAMN. seems to have signaled a lot, both in terms of the parameters of the Pulitzer itself going forward and regarding some larger cultural shifts when it comes to art and gatekeeping.

For those looking for drama, the anxiety and the undercutting were quickly found in the expected Facebook feeds and comments sections. The background on how DAMN. came to be considered among the submitted entries came to light before the day was done.

Nearly 48 hours later, it remains a hot topic in newsrooms across the country, despite being crowded into the chaos that is the daily political news cycle in 2018. We’ve indexed some highlights below.

Kendrick Lamar and the Shell Game of ‘Respect’ (The Atlantic)
The first non-classical, non-jazz winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Music needs the accolade less than the accolade needs him.

With Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer Win, The World May Finally Be Catching Up to Rap (Pitchfork)
Rappers usually speak of the Pulitzer facetiously…boys from the hood are never Pulitzer winners. Well, until [Monday].

What Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer Means for Hip-Hop (The New Yorker)
Doreen St. Félix considers how Lamar’s historic milestone—becoming the first hip-hop artist to win a Pulitzer Prize for music—figures in the grander, affected consecration of blackness within élite spaces.

What the classical-music world can learn from Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer Prize (The Washington Post)
Alyssa Rosenberg chats with composer, writer, and performer Alex Temple.

This Year’s Other Two Pulitzer Finalists on Losing to Kendrick Lamar (Slate)
Some classical fans are furious that the rapper won. The guys he beat are thrilled.

Kendrick Lamar Shakes Up the Pulitzer Game: Let’s Discuss (The New York Times)
Zachary Woolfe, the classical music editor of The New York Times, and Jon Pareles, the chief pop music critic, discuss the choice.

Personally, while assembling this index I got the biggest boost out of just spinning the album again—in reverse this time. David Lang, can you tell us which version jurors were listening to?

Did we miss a good take? Drop a link below.

Andy Milne: Putting the Theory Into Practice


video presentation by Molly Sheridan

For pianist/composer/bandleader Andy Milne, making music that navigates seamlessly between musical genres is not just the by-product of a personal theory of what the music of today could and should be. Being an astute listener to the world around him and playing in a wide array of styles throughout his career has enabled him to operate fluently in all of them. When we met up with him in a practice room in the jazz department of New York University, which is located far away from the central campus in a freshman dormitory, Milne spoke in great detail about how he has come to his polyglot musical vocabulary, opining that being open to a variety of influences and finding your own identity within them are ongoing processes.

“To the best of my abilities I try to operate in a post-genre mind set,” says Milne. “But I can’t escape certain tendencies I think I have based on the various experiences that have contributed to how I think and how I play and how I can understand and process music. Of course I’m always hoping that can continue to evolve and expand and grow and enrich me. You get to a certain point where it’s really up to your own tenacity and discipline to ensure that that exists with any kind of weight.”

According to Milne, collaborations between hip-hop and R&B artists he was hearing in the late ‘90s are what initially inspired him to form his group Dapp Theory in which he has incorporated elements of that blending into a jazz context. A decade and a half later, it is territory he continues to mine. The group’s performance at the Chamber Music America conference back in January was the first time a rapper appeared on one of CMA’s showcases, although the person doing the rapping, John Moon, was billed as a “percussive poet.” It was an extremely effective presentation, which also went further than most in challenging definitions and comfort zones.

“I think [hip-hop] is maybe a different world in the sense that there isn’t as formalized a pedagogy that has existed for a longer period of time within jazz and classical music,” Milne acknowledges. “That separates musical traditions and musical cultural communities by virtue of the fact that they don’t have these same types of institutions. I think there’s still learning, but it gets conducted in a different way. So there’s a blind spot there, but maybe it will get filled in at some point in time—everything changes. It’s taken a long time, I think, even within the scope of various emerging opportunities that continue to exist where jazz and classical music speak together.”

Yet for all of Milne’s embrace of everything from hip-hop and R&B to reggae and folk rock (he has recorded fabulous solo piano version of Bob Marley’s “I Shot The Sherriff” and Stephen Stills’s “Love The One Your With”), he is perfectly fine calling the music he makes jazz. Not only does he not find jazz aesthetically limiting, he is extremely suspicious of musicians who reject the term:

I identify with jazz because it’s the music that I feel the most affinity with in terms of where I came from as a young person listening to music. I wouldn’t want to present myself as someone who listened with the same level of depth to hip-hop even; I didn’t grow up listening to hip-hop. So I would never feel comfortable saying “I come out of the hip-hop experience” in terms of my music.

[…]

In recent history there’ve been a few attempts to debunk the significance of jazz. Some people have agendas frankly to just further their careers by trying to call attention to themselves by being very dogmatic about some sort of political position on jazz. If you think about jazz in a very general sense, it’s incorporating improvisation—you don’t even have to get into whether you say it’s got to swing or not. It embraces music from all over the world and it always has, and a big part of it is improvisation.

[…]

Would you say that rock music is jazz? I don’t know if there’s the same degree of improvisation. But then again it gets so subjective, because then you can get into what do you consider improvisation. If something is sort of going to be the exact same way every night then it’s not necessarily improvised. There are certain things I want to be the same every night but there are huge sections where I want to have that give and take and that flow that I know the musicians I’ve brought to this can deliver.

Milne, however, concedes that not everything he has done fits comfortably within jazz. One of his most fascinating musical projects thus far has been Strings & Serpents, a collaboration with another jazz pianist Benoît Delbecq, animator Saki Murotani, and two Japanese koto players, Ai Kajigano and Tsugumi Yamamoto. While he and Delbecq improvise throughout, the koto players adhere much more closely to the score Milne composed for them.

Over the past few years, Milne has also begun composing film soundtracks as a result of his friendship with actor Avery Brooks, who is also an accomplished jazz singer and pianist though he is probably most widely known for his seven-year television stint as Captain Benjamin Sisko on the Star Trek sequel Deep Space Nine. When the actor who played Star Trek’s original captain, William Shatner, decided to make a documentary about all the actors who had served as captains in the various Trek incarnations, he queried the musical Brooks about who should do the soundtrack. Brooks immediately recommended Milne. In addition to being hired to score that film (The Captains), this has led to another whole side career for Milne performing at Star Trek conventions.

But Milne’s most recent project, The Seasons of Being, which premieres later this month in Lancaster (Pennsylvania), Baltimore, and New York City, is once again very firmly rooted in his polystylistic jazz sensibilities, albeit with an unusual twist. An hour-long work scored for a greatly expanded Dapp Theory (a total of ten players), it is a by-product of his deep interest in homeopathy:

We all have some form of dis-ease in our existence; often we treat it and often we don’t, but most of us can cope. You can say the word disease, but I think there’s another way of thinking about it by having the accent on it be dis-ease; there’s an uneasiness about something we maybe don’t ever get to or maybe don’t want to get to.

[…]

The precursor to even thinking about the idea was my own experience of going to see a homeopath and often he would make these analogies using music. He and I would have these conversations after our sessions and I wondered how I could incorporate that musically.

[…]

I began to actively start researching and developing models, figuring out how I would understand a musician from an emotional place and extract information from various people to come up with a model that would help me identify a pathology, as they refer to it in homeopathics. Primarily I’m trying to gear it toward the featured soloist during any given movement. A specific piece might be for the drummer to solo in, so I look at the results of having an assessment of all the intake information I have on the drummer and proceed to think, “What is the musical remedy?”

Giving Voice: Creating An Invisible Presence

Creswell, wearing headphones, sitting in front of a mixing console.

Mixing a Camper’s Track.

It wasn’t until I joined the teaching artist organization, Music Ascension that I first encountered the phrase “giving voice.” Like all good phrases, it has stuck with me and I’ve continued to refine my understanding of its meaning. Over the course of the past year working as a teaching artist, I’ve encountered a myriad of young artists and assisted in the development of their creative voices. The challenge is to help them develop as artists and individuals without imparting personal aesthetic and creative preferences. This is what giving voice has come to mean to me.

Learning how to become present in a young person’s work was initially a challenge for me. Like most artists, I’ve often felt insecure about myself and my work. My guitar playing wasn’t fast enough. I was a bad singer. My compositions weren’t that good. I’ve suffered from “impostor syndrome” and have questioned whether or not I should even be an artist. All usually before lunch.

It turns out that none of this matters when working with young artists.

In a typical songwriting course at Lake of the Woods and Greenwoods camps, I began the first class with a creativity exercise. I had students list their five favorite things about being at camp. After that, I had them write a series of couplets about three of those things. Then I asked them to take their favorite couplet and add a second couplet that related. “Voila!” I would say. “We’ve just written our first verse.” Campers would be amazed and excited that they had started to write their first song. Once they had established their lyrical ideas, they would begin to sing little melodies for their lyrics. I would bring my guitar over and help the camper find chords that fit their nascent melody. In this moment I was no longer able to worry about my guitar playing or knowledge of songwriting. Instead, it was my job to nurture this seedling of a musical idea and help the camper grow it to a full song. As I began to remove any sense of ego from this work, I began to remove ego from my own creative process. I was faking confidence in the beginning, but as this process continued I began to gain confidence myself. (This growth mirrored the confidence that the campers were feeling in themselves). I started to apply this assuredness to my own work, pursuing ideas even if they lead me down an artistic rabbit hole.

The second challenge was learning to create an invisible presence. Like all artists, I have aesthetic preferences and opinions that guide my own creative work and processes. Although these preferences are fluid and ever-changing, they are always present. When working with campers, I had to learn to move beyond my own personal choices in order to honor the individuality of the campers’ creative and musical interests.

Prior to showing up to camp last year, I had never encountered dubstep. I knew it was a popular musical genre and that one of the most popular acts was Skrillex. (However, the only time I had ever encountered Skrillex was while on a Syracuse University alumni panel, where I promptly asked if Skrillex was the name of a cookware company.) On my first day at camp, I met a young camper who was enamored with dubstep and who wanted to spend the summer working on his first dubstep track. Rather than dismissing the camper or attempting to steer him in a different direction, I researched dubstep, the techniques involved in creating it, and listened to a handful of the most popular tracks. While to my ears, the entire genre seems to be derived from Julia Wolfe’s Tell Me Everything, it was a quality learning experience for me and helped the camper develop a dubstep track that he was proud of.

The final part of creating an invisible presence is learning when to push and when to pullback in the teaching process. This is the second year we’ve run the program at Lake of the Woods and Greenwoods. Many of the songwriting students from last year have returned to the program. With the more experienced students, I’ve been able to challenge them, expanding their understanding of lyrical and musical ideas. In order to do this in a fulfilling way for both parties, I’ve had to increase my own knowledge of pop, hip-hop, and other genres I’m less familiar with. In the past few weeks, I’ve challenged young aspiring rappers with the slam poetry of Saul Williams and Alix Olson, attempting to expand their social consciousness.

Creating an invisible presence is about eliminating ego, sharing in your students’ creative goals, and working to best further their voice, regardless of personal aesthetics. In my final post next week, I will talk about how expanding my openness to all forms of creativity has had a positive impact on my own work and creative process.

Man with cap sitting in front of a drum kit in a large room.

Recording a drum track.

Biting Breaks: Sampling and Ownership

sample break

This is my first post on NewMusicBox, and I’m delighted to be here. Over the next four weeks, I’m going to be looking at music composition through the lens of electronic music production, specifically the kind based on sampling. This music raises some tough and intriguing philosophical questions: Who is the composer of a sample-based track? Are tracks and notated works equivalent? Are producers “composers”? What even is a composer?

All of these questions are brought into stark relief by “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)” by Pete Rock and CL Smooth, a classic of ’90s hip-hop.

The track was inspired by the life and early death of Pete Rock’s cousin and friend “Trouble” T Roy of Heavy D & the Boyz. In a 2007 Village Voice interview, Pete Rock gave the backstory:

I had a friend of mine that passed away, and it was a shock to the community. I was kind of depressed when I made it. And to this day, I can’t believe I made it through, the way I was feeling. I guess it was for my boy. When I found the record by Tom Scott, basically I just heard something incredible that touched me and made me cry. It had such a beautiful bassline, and I started with that first. I found some other sounds and then heard some sax in there and used that. Next thing you know, I have a beautiful beat made. When I mixed the song down, I had Charlie Brown from Leaders of the New School in the session with me, and we all just started crying.

The Tom Scott record in question is his rendition of “Today” by Jefferson Airplane. The great sax riff comes at 1:37.

Here’s a transcription:

“They Reminisce Over You" sax riff

“They Reminisce Over You” sax riff

And here’s the original Jefferson Airplane song at the head of this memetic family tree:

The chain of musical inheritance doesn’t end with Pete Rock and CL Smooth. Their song has been sampled and quoted many times. Hear my mashup of some of them here:

I’ve debated the musical merits of sampling endlessly with my friends and students, musicians and non-musicians alike. “T.R.O.Y.” is a perfect example of why sampling is so valuable. There would have been no other way for Pete Rock to have arrived at his sound, not even if he had hired Tom Scott to come in and play his sax riff live in the studio. They could, in theory, have painstakingly recreated the instrumentation and ambiance from Scott’s original recording, but the result would still not have had the effortless, tossed-off feel of the samples. Playing a riff from a chart sounds very different from discovering it in the heat of the moment. Pete Rock’s looping transformed unprominent pieces of Tom Scott’s shaggy improvisation into laser-beam-focused funk.

In hip-hop terms, a “break” is a short segment of recorded music that can be sampled and looped. The term originally referred to drums and percussion, but it was later generalized to mean any kind of sound. In his book Making Beats: The Art of Sample-Based Hip-Hop, Joseph Schloss argues that Pete Rock created the Tom Scott sax break by sampling it:

On a conceptual level, this means that the break in the original jazz record was brought into existence retroactively by Pete Rock’s use of it. In other words, for the twenty-four years between its release and the day Pete Rock sampled it, the original song contained no break. From that day on, it contained the break from “They Reminisce Over You.” Producers deal with this apparent breaching of the time-space continuum with typically philosophical detachment. Conventionally, they take the position that the break had always been there, it just took a great producer to hear and exploit it. Record collecting is approached as if potential breaks have been unlooped and hidden randomly throughout the world’s music. It is the producer’s job to find them.

For a hip-hop fan, listening to ’60s and ’70s soul albums means regularly encountering familiar breaks. When I first heard “Are You My Woman (Tell Me So)” by the Chi-Lites, I immediately recognized the horns and drums from Beyoncé’s “Crazy In Love.” While I understand that, logically, the breaks in the Beyoncé song are really from the Chi-Lites, I still hear them as “belonging” to Beyoncé’s producer Rich Harrison.

Among sampling musicians, discovery has the same creative status as invention. DJs always want to play something that listeners don’t already know but that they will immediately like, and hip-hop producers have inherited this attitude. In a world saturated with recordings, creating more music ex nihilo is not the valuable service to humanity that it once was. I make sample-based music because I feel like it’s more worthwhile to identify existing sounds that have been overlooked, to bring them to fresh ears, and to give them fresh meaning in new contexts.

Theft is frowned upon in the hip-hop community, but the concept means something different from its traditional sense. If I were to use the Tom Scott break in a new track, without intending it as an homage or reference to Pete Rock, I would be “biting” his idea. However I would not be biting Tom Scott, or Jefferson Airplane for that matter. Copyright law disagrees on this matter completely, but sampling artists have never been overly concerned with copyright law, unless they’re forced to be.

Pete Rock’s moral ownership of the Tom Scott break is complicated by the fact that he wasn’t the first hip-hop producer to have noticed it. Slick Rick used it a year earlier on “It’s A Boy.”

Did Pete Rock bite Slick Rick? Is it a case of convergent discovery? Or is Pete Rock’s track just so much better that his ownership overrides Slick Rick’s? I don’t know the answer, but I suspect it’s the latter.

Even after 30-plus years of hip-hop, a lot of people continue to feel moral discomfort about sampling, especially when it happens without permission. Samplers themselves wryly acknowledge the moral ambiguities—see the Beastie Boys’ “Rhymin’ and Stealin’” or Ice Cube’s “Jackin’ for Beats.” Why does sampling need so much defending, when everyone long ago made peace with collage in other media? Maybe it’s because sampling amplifies the unreal qualities that all recorded music shares. Simon Reynolds observes:

Recording is pretty freaky, then, if you think about it. But sampling doubles its inherent supernaturalism. Woven out of looped moments that are like portals to far-flung times and places, the sample collage creates a musical event that never happened; a mixture of time-travel and séance.

Maybe our anxiety about sampling isn’t about ownership at all. Maybe we just don’t like being confronted so directly with the uncanniness of recorded music. While we might like to pretend that recordings are essentially documents of a performance that actually took place, sample-based music reminds us that this is totally untrue. Our discomfort with sampling is probably also the basis for the often-repeated statement that producers aren’t “real” musicians, that sampling is “just pushing buttons.” Having created music both with instruments and software, I can tell you that making good music is not any easier with the latter than with the former.

In the past, it made sense to conflate musicality with technique, because instruments are hard, and music is hard, and by the time you’ve learned to play, you’ve probably spent a ton of time learning the other. Music editing software is comparatively easy to learn, but you still have to master the music. Consider Microsoft Word: any reasonably bright person can quickly learn how it works, but learning how to write well is another ball of wax entirely. So it is with digital audio production. I can take any motivated student and have them chopping up samples in an hour. But are the results going to sound good? That’s where the musicianship comes in, and it takes as many dedicated hours of practice to attain it as with traditional instruments. Hip-hop has made any attentive listener into a potential composer. Now it’s up to us to use our ears.

***

Ethan Hein

Ethan Hein

Ethan Hein is an adjunct professor of music technology at NYU and Montclair State University. As a founding member of the NYU Music Experience Design Lab, he researches and designs beginner-accessible interfaces for music learning and creation. He maintains an active and widely followed music blog at ethanhein.com.

The Banjo Faces Its Shadow

banjo

Image cc by Nic McPhee via Flickr

Is there an instrument that comes with more cultural baggage than the banjo? For many, it evokes a stereotyped image of the rural white Southerner, as in the scary hillbillies of Deliverance and many a comedy sketch. In the 19th century, by contrast, the banjo served as a caricature of enslaved Africans, gaining wide popularity through blackface minstrel shows. The instrument’s deeper story moves around and between the stereotypes. This is a timbre that cuts to some of the deepest seams of America’s past. To a number of contemporary banjo players and composers, the well of history and associations surrounding the banjo becomes a musical parameter to be bent, subverted, or used to evoke a particular landscape or time.

The Birth of the Banjo

The banjo has its roots in West African instruments such as the ngoni, and possibly some Near Eastern stringed instruments which also feature a stretched membrane over a gourd resonator. African slaves on plantations in southern Maryland were documented playing gourd banjos as far back as the 17th century. Later on, white musicians learned the banjo from freed blacks and slaves and incorporated it into minstrel shows in the 19th century, resulting in the first uniquely American popular music.
The popularity of the minstrel show, coinciding with the start of the Industrial Revolution, led to the mass production of banjos using wooden hoops and metal brackets—materials more easily sourced than the traditional gourds. Minstrel Joel Walker Sweeney, the first white person known to play a banjo on stage, has been credited with adding a fifth string to the instrument. While many believe that Sweeney introduced the characteristic drone string, tuned above the other strings with its tuning peg jutting up from the neck, historical evidence appears to contradict this claim. Sweeney’s more likely contribution is the addition of a lower string, as well as the shift from gourds to drum-like resonating chambers. Beginning in 1848, 5-string banjos made by William Boucher in Baltimore were sold through mail order catalogs. Other companies soon followed, as the banjo was “refined” through ornate decorations and promoted as a parlor instrument for the upper class (accompanied by a de-Africanized repertoire and technique, referred to as “classical” style). Eventually these instruments made their way into the mountains and were quickly embraced by the predominantly English, Scottish, and Irish settlers.

Minstrel songs, incorporating rhythms and melodic tropes from transplanted African music, took their place alongside the old English fiddle tunes, old ballads, and new ballads composed by Appalachian settlers to express the social and economic realities of their environment. This hybrid music came to be known as old-time. More directly transmitted influences from African-American music, particularly spirituals and the blues, continued to enter this repertoire into the 20th century.


The Folk Revival
The popularity of old-time music in its native environment had faded somewhat by the 1940s due to a population shift to factory jobs in cities, along with the widespread distribution of commercial music by radio. Yet even while old-time music was becoming an endangered tradition in its birthplace, it began to be rediscovered by folklorists outside of Appalachia. These scholars, including the Seeger family (composers Charles and Ruth Crawford Seeger, their son Mike Seeger and his half-brother Pete Seeger) along with John and Alan Lomax, sought out and recorded folk musicians, learning and transcribing their songs.


Seeing the Appalachian ballad tradition as expressing the voices of the downtrodden, Alan Lomax and Pete Seeger adopted this music as a rallying cry for social justice. Lomax organized concerts that brought together many of the folk musicians that he discovered through his travels while field recording, and sang the old ballads himself in union halls as well as ethnomusicological conferences. New songs in the older styles were written by Seeger, Woody Guthrie and others, and thus old-time music began to reach a wider audience. Pete Seeger’s banjo became a symbol of the 1950s and ’60s folk music revival, a new political awakening of the union movement, the civil rights struggle, and later of protest against the war in Vietnam.

A Path Through the Bluegrass

In the midst of this folk revival centered in New York City, an independent revival of the banjo occurred around Nashville, Tennessee. In the 1920s and ’30s, the Grand Old Opry established itself as a weekly live stage and radio show devoted to country music, an urban transplant of old-time traditions to serve the many people who had moved to Nashville from the hills. The radio broadcasts also reached those still living in the country, and served to inspire many younger people to play this music. In the mid-1940s, the musical acts featured on this show began to increase the tempo of old songs to match the energy of the urban environment, most notably mandolinist and singer Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys. In 1948 a young banjo player named Earl Scruggs stepped into Monroe’s band and proceeded to redefine everyone’s conception of what the banjo could do. Scruggs developed a three-finger technique of picking, which allowed for a more agile rhythm in the execution of melody than the older downstroke style known as clawhammer. The instrument grew in prominence on the stage from anachronistic musical prop to a lead voice in the new style that emerged as bluegrass. In the early 1960s, the Scruggs technique of bluegrass playing reached a national audience through his recording of the theme for the TV show Beverly Hillbillies.

The fast, energetic finger picking established by Scruggs has become the banjo’s dominant sound image for most people. Depending on the geography and cultural environment in which this sound is received, the bluegrass banjo is often associated with a particular vision of America—either associated positively with the rural landscape, pride, and connection to cultural roots, or negatively to social conservatism or ethnic exclusivity. It is a strong sonic flavor, whichever mix of associations it has for the listener.


Bluegrass technique, defined by crisp rolls (arpeggiation and melodic embellishment across multiple strings) using metal finger picks, became the foundation for many innovative banjo players. In the 1970s, Tony Trischka developed the “melodic style” of bluegrass banjo playing. This style shifts focus away from arpeggiation to full attention on the lead melody, with chromatic embellishments. As a teacher, Trischka has been widely influential, releasing many instruction books and videos, as well as having some prominent players study under him.


One of Trischka’s students was a young Béla Fleck. Toward the end of the ’70s, Fleck adapted the bluegrass technique to harmonic and contrapuntal models from jazz and classical music, leading to a style that has become known as progressive bluegrass or new grass. Fleck is highly regarded as a master of banjo technique on the level of a classical musician, which he has applied to transcriptions of Bach partitas as well as his own compositions, exhibiting a wide stylistic palette. His collaborative exploration of the African origins of the banjo, traveling to West Africa to perform and record with master musicians there, may be experienced in the 2008 documentary Throw Down Your Heart.


Clawhammer Griots
Connections to the musical traditions of Africa may be traced more easily from the pre-bluegrass clawhammer style, which is the dominant tradition of old-time banjo playing. Maintaining a strong rhythmic groove through downstrokes with the back of a fingernail, interspersed with syncopated drone notes on the shorter fifth string (released by the thumb in between downstrokes), creates a strong rhythmic foundation for dance tunes traditionally played by the fiddle. Similar playing techniques with plucked string instruments may be found among griots of the Wasulu people. This connection may be plausibly traced through the little known history of black string bands in the late 19th and early 20th century.


Few if any recordings exist, but we have photographs, letters, and sheet music collections from black banjo players and fiddlers. One example is the Snowden Family Band of Knox County, Ohio—the group that may have taught the song “Dixie” to their white neighbor Dan Emmett, a minstrel singer. The meaning of the song’s lyrics change dramatically when viewed through the lens of this possible history, connected to Ellen Snowden’s childhood experience as a slave in Nanjemoy, Maryland. At a young age she was transplanted with one of the slave master’s relatives to Ohio, while her father remained behind. The black string band legacy has been reclaimed in the past decade through events such as the Black Banjo Gathering in Boone, North Carolina. This conference gave rise to the most famous group of black musicians playing old-time music, the Carolina Chocolate Drops.


Modern Perspectives on Old-Time Music

After the initial folk revival of the 1950s and ’60s, old-time banjo went underground. Mike Seeger played an important role in maintaining the fire by finding and promoting master musicians from the hills, revitalizing forgotten performance traditions such as gourd banjo and minstrel banjo through his own recordings, and passing on the craft to younger musicians. The record label Folkways, founded by Moses Asch in the late 1940s and acquired by the Smithsonian Institution in 1987, has released many recordings of outstanding artists in this musical lineage who had been discovered and recorded by the folklorists. Meanwhile, the mantle of old-time music has been taken on by a small but strong community that resembles in many ways the dedication and DIY ethos of the new music community.


As a composer and a self-taught banjo player, I have been drawn to the old-time music tradition for a number of reasons. I appreciate the wide expressive palette and range of tempo between dance tunes and murder ballads. I enjoy the ways that a tune can take on a very different sound and feel in the hands of different players, and appreciate that the tradition encourages this kind of personalization. I am also attracted to the variety of tunings used in old-time banjo playing beyond the standard G tuning (gDGBD, the small letter indicating the higher pitched fifth string) that bluegrass players tend to stick to.

Particular songs have given rise to tunings named after them, such as “Cumberland Gap” (gEADE), “Willie Moore” (gDGAD), and “Last Chance” (fDFCD). My own playing and composing for banjo has gravitated toward the relatively more common “Sawmill” or “Mountain Minor” tuning (gDGCD) and the “Double C” tuning (gCGCD, often transposed up a whole step to “Double D” for playing along with a fiddle tune). These tunings in old-time banjo serve to reinforce open-string drones and maximize the sympathetic vibrations within the instrument. Sometimes these drones result in interesting dissonances that are exploited for expressive effect and do not conform to traditional tonal harmony. I enjoy lowering the fifth string to an F# to produce a tritone relationship with the fourth string (bass), following the practice of the old master Dock Boggs. Old-time banjo players sometimes refer to these different tunings as “atmospheres.”

 


On a more fundamental level, I am drawn to the banjo as a means of grounding creative experimentation within a deep history that is relevant to connections that I am trying to make in my music. The legacy of slavery in the United States is one which is pushed fairly far back in our collective consciousness. The trauma of that institution still reverberates today in our economic structure, systems of social control, and self-segregation within our population. The banjo came into its own as an American instrument in the midst of that experience of slavery. It was brought into the white mainstream consciousness through the blackface minstrel show, a format which also continues to reverberate in mainstream American entertainment. In the process of this African instrument being adopted by popular society in America, it also took on the musical heritage of the English, Scottish, and Irish immigrants. It was embraced as an instrument of the Everyman, especially in the hollers and mining towns of Appalachia, where the banjo became a main outlet for expressing life’s troubles as well as a way of laying them aside through homespun entertainment. For the banjo to carry so many stories within it, charged with painful legacies and conflicting identities, makes it a potentially powerful medium for new music that creatively bends the associations with it.

This understanding of the banjo as an encapsulation of social history is one that makes sense to me when I think about my neighborhood of Hampden, Baltimore. The great bluegrass/country singer Hazel Dickens lived on one of these streets when she first moved to Baltimore from West Virginia, in search of factory work in the 1950s. While living here she met Mike Seeger at a rowhouse basement jam session, and was encouraged to become a songwriter. She remained in Baltimore and Washington DC for most of her life, and yet her songs express a constant sense of longing for the landscape of her childhood home. This tension of country identity and the urban environment is still palpable in the neighborhood today. When I play banjo out on my front stoop I often imagine Hazel’s experience, almost as an immigrant from another country, trying to navigate a new social structure in the crowded city. Hampden was built around textile mills that hired exclusively white workers from the Appalachian/Piedmont region during the 19th century. For many years this community has attempted to maintain an insular sense of itself, built upon its cultural background, as distinct from the city of Baltimore, which annexed it in the late 19th century. After the mills and then the factories pulled out, Hampden went into decline for a few decades. Some of the social tension that followed was translated into racism and suspicion of outsiders. Ku Klux Klan representation in community parades is noted as late as the 1970s. Today, underneath the economic regeneration of the neighborhood’s main street thanks to gourmet restaurants and boutique shopping, there remains a sense of racial tension in relation to the rest of the (predominantly black) city. One of my goals while living here is to start a pirate radio station and live show that will bring together old-time music and hip hop, among other hybridized folk music that mixes identities. It is my hope that through this medium I can make music that dissolves prejudice.

Hill Hop Fusion

The fusion of old-time music with hip hop is a concept that I first encountered through a radio program from the Appalshop organization in Whitesburg, Kentucky, called “From the Holler to the Hood.” This program arose from a perceived need to reach out to the population housed in the numerous prisons that have sprung up in the wake of the declining coal economy in Eastern Kentucky. The prisoners are predominantly African Americans transferred from outside of the region. Appalshop began programming a show called “Calls from Home” during which family members could call in and dedicate songs to loved ones in prison. As the requested songs were mostly hip hop, programmers at Appalshop became interested in the idea of setting up collaborations between hip hop artists and traditional Appalachian musicians. In 2003, a friend of mine from Kentucky played me a tape of one of these collaborations, between old-time musician Dirk Powell and hip hop producer Danjamouf. Since then, the hip hop subgenre known as “hill hop” has been carried forward by the group Gangstagrass, among a few others.


Signifier

Sometimes the use of the banjo is as simple as the desire to evoke a landscape. Since the 1990s the banjo has made occasional appearances in indie rock as a signifier of a different age, or to cast a rustic or countrified hue over a song. “Chocolate Jesus” (1999) by Tom Waits is a prime example, where the banjo is incorporated as an element of a sound that Waits described as “sur-rural.” Other examples may be found in the work of The Magnetic Fields, Feist, and The Books. In these instances, the raw sound of the banjo stands as an alternative to the technology and pacing of the modern urban environment and to invoke a common folk language.


Cultural Migration

Because of the banjo’s sonic links to ancient instruments from Africa and even further East, the banjo can take on the role of a shape-shifter in its cultural associations. Multi-instrumentalist Jody Stecher brought the banjo into the field of “world music” in 1982 with his album Rasa, which features Indian sitarist Krishna Bhatt, along with vocals by Stecher’s wife Kate Brislin. Through this album, Stecher, Brislin and Bhatt reveal a natural affinity between old-time/early country tunes and the melodic ornamentation of Indian classical music. Béla Fleck made his own contribution to cross-cultural banjo fusion with his 1996 album Tabula Rasa, a collaboration with Chinese erhu player Jie-Bing Chen and Indian mohan veena player Vishwa Mohan Bhatt. On this album, musical sources from each of the cultures have a turn at center stage while the other instruments provide tightly composed reinforcement and counterpoint. Through the tight interaction of these three players, we can hear a hybrid of complimentary sounds, transcending the specific associations of any culture individually. The erhu, as a bowed string instrument, may remind us of the fiddle that is so often paired with banjo in traditional Appalachian music. The mohan veena is a stand-in for the guitar, another frequent banjo partner. Fleck’s banjo playing defines a well-balanced meeting point and assimilation of different influences.

Played with a bow, the nasal tone and sympathetic vibrations can sound a bit like a sarangi from India or the Iranian rabab. Played with a pick to produce single-string rhythms and tremolos, it can sound like a Berber gimbri. In Morocco, the banjo has effortlessly found its place in the traditional music of that country. A fine example of this cross-cultural assimilation of the banjo may be heard in the music of the Moroccan group Imanaren, with banjoist Hassan Wargui. In the context of Imanaren’s music, the banjo doesn’t appear to reference its American legacy at all. Instead it seems to be a native timbre to their Berber melodies.


Banjo Experimentalists

In experimental and modern classical music, the banjo’s historical weight is treated with a variety of approaches. Eugene Chadbourne has used the banjo in a way that naturally and seamlessly spans country music, punk rock, and free jazz, with a somewhat antagonistic stance toward the white rural culture commonly associated with the instrument. Equally at home within the structure of blues-based chord changes and uptempo drum beats as within irregular rhythms and spasmodic gestures, Chadbourne’s performances convey an intentionally skewed but well-defined aesthetic that he has pieced together for himself. On another side of the spectrum, the music of Paul Elwood moves between old-time/bluegrass sources and modernistic chamber ensemble sonorities. These two worlds are not always reconciled with each other, occasionally treated as juxtaposed blocks of music (original passages vs. quotation/arrangement), and sometimes heard as superimposed, warring influences over the direction of a long-form composition. When the banjo moves beyond familiar bluegrass riffs and explores a greater sense of rhythmic space and pitch direction, Elwood’s music reaches some passages of incredible transcendence. As a listener, I feel that I have been on a journey of clashing cultures and eventually discover a unified sonic field that moves beyond the past.
On occasion the banjo seems to be treated as a stand-in for a mandolin, which has a longer history in the context of classical concert music. In this approach, the instrument is treated purely as an interesting timbre without any overt inference of folk music or traditional playing techniques. George Crumb’s 1969 song cycle, Night of the Four Moons, is one example of this ahistorical use of the banjo. In this work, it is one distinctive tone color among many in a mixed ensemble, supporting poetic images from the selected texts by Federico García Lorca. Through this set of four songs, the banjo explores a variety of textural relationships with the alto voice, alto flute, electric cello, and percussion. Avoiding the rhythmic propulsion of traditional banjo playing, Crumb creates a new identity for the instrument through isolated gestures, and textures based on call-and-response between the banjo and the other instruments in the ensemble. At times the banjo is made to sound vaguely Eastern, though a particular set of intervals used as a mode. Elsewhere, it fulfills an accompaniment role that suggests an older idiom of Western classical music, but nothing tied to the history of the banjo itself.


The kinship with sonorities from the Middle East and beyond may be easily recognized in the playing of Paul Metzger. This Minnesota-based artist focuses on improvisation and composition with a self-modified banjo which has been expanded to include 23 strings. His playing techniques span classical guitar finger style to orchestral bowed textures, touching on many different sound worlds. Within a single piece there seem to be hints of a number of different cultural heritages, woven together to produce a unified landscape. To hear the full range of Metzger’s banjo palette, take a listen to his 2013 album Tombeaux on the label Nero’s Neptune.

Another improviser, Woody Sullender is a multi-media artist, electronic composer, and banjo player based in Brooklyn, New York. While his most recent work at the time of writing focuses more on installations and electronics, he is one of the most adept improvisers in the somewhat specialized field of experimental banjo. His approach is particularly aware of the instrument’s past associations and seeks to both evoke and counter them. Mountain music is suggested in some of the hammer-ons and other musical gestures, which gravitate to open fifths and minor modes. Yet rhythmically and dynamically, listeners are being guided in another direction. His album with harmonica player Seamus Carter, When We Get to Meeting, is available as a free download.
Baltimore-based musician Nathan Bell states that he uses the banjo “as a shapeshifting tool,” describing a fluidity between stylistic associations along with a range of timbres that he draws from the instrument. Bell shifts easily between different styles of playing: old-time clawhammer technique, finger picks, and bowed banjo all occupy a place in his personal soundscape. Auxiliary percussion, such as antique cymbals suspended from the neck of his banjo, are also frequent companions to the sounds drawn from his main instrument. His 2011 album COLORS is an excellent example of Bell’s use of the banjo as a vehicle for defining a landscape that draws on memory and nostalgia connected with the instrument, while coloring our experience of it with effects processing, noise elements, and slowly moving background voices. Bell’s recorded projects may be heard and purchased from his Bandcamp page.

Renegade banjoist Brandon Seabrook of Brooklyn, New York, also comes to the instrument from a guitar background. He claims not to listen to other banjo players and explains his choice of instrument as a way to bring another level of challenge and difficulty into his music, due to the banjo’s shorter sustain time relative to guitar tones. Above all, his playing is defined by dissonance, intensity, and speed. Repetitive chromatic patterns cut quickly to measured tremolos and dynamic builds, always maintaining a sense of urgency. Seabrook brings an aggressive, punk-meets-free-jazz type of energy to his playing, like a prolongation of the most intense passages in Eugene Chadbourne’s music, sounding nothing like the bluegrass type of banjo virtuosity.
In the realm of notated music, Washington DC-based banjoist and composer Mark Sylvester is deeply committed to promoting the banjo in the concert hall. Sylvester comes to the banjo from a classical guitar background, and while he teaches and is proficient in bluegrass and clawhammer styles of banjo, his own compositions place the instrument squarely in a classical chamber music context. Sylvester’s Trio #1 and Trio #2 occasionally employ finger picking patterns familiar to bluegrass audiences, such as ostinati featuring hammer-ons and pull-offs, but largely gravitate toward a style of writing that could easily be conceived for guitar. Progressions of chromatic harmony predominate over more familiar banjo harmonies derived from the open strings.

Continuing the development of notated compositions for banjo as chamber music, a new album by the Boulder, CO-based Jake Schepps Quintet, Entwined, features long-form classical compositions for the traditional bluegrass string band instrumentation of banjo, mandolin, violin, guitar, and double-bass. The featured composers—Marc Mellits, Matt McBane, Mark Flinner (the group’s mandolinist), and Gyan Riley—explore tight ostinato grooves, expansive melodies, and extended techniques, applied within a comfortable blend of styles. Multi-movement works such as Marc Mellits’s Flatiron provide room to range from ballad-like sections featuring a nostalgic harmonic vocabulary to more contemporary-sounding minimalist syncopated rhythmic layers. While enriching the soil of bluegrass/classical fusion, first tilled by Béla Fleck as well as Marc O’Connor and Edgar Meyer, the Jake Schepps Quintet articulates a wider sound palette without anything sounding self-conscious in its merging of musical cultures. The sound of these instruments together is already well-defined in most listeners’ ears, so that modern classical approaches to form can take advantage of expectations of particular roles within the ensemble while exposing alternate timbres from the instruments. This instrumentation may yet become as enduring for composers as the classical string quartet.
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The banjo is suggestive of many different things to different people. It clear that it has had a lasting power beyond just one cultural place and time, and that musicians continue to develop new ways of conceiving its sound. Whether it is overtly addressed or not, classically trained composers creating new music with the banjo enter into dialogue with a folk tradition, a history, and a set of expectations on the part of the listener. To use the instrument in a vastly different way from these expectations is a potential tool for shaking up old ideas about its stylistic limitations or caricatured image. To embrace certain musical aspects of the folk lineage and place them in new contexts may be seen as part of a general shift away from an exclusive view of the classical tradition as purveyor of innovation. Today musical experimentation, complexity, and the development of a personal style can be founded on many sounds that are not connected to the concert hall tradition. While the adoption of instruments from other cultural contexts into classical music has been occurring for centuries, this has only recently taken on some characteristics of a two-way communication between musical cultures. Experimental hybrids are continually being created by musicians coming from folk, rock, hip hop, and many other backgrounds. Composers and new music performers are collaborating with musicians from these other backgrounds, often participating in non-classical performance traditions, and collectively shaping new ways of listening to and participating in the music. Examples may be heard in collaborations between Brian Harnetty and Bonnie “Prince” Billy (Silent City, 2009), or Nico Muhly and Sam Amidon (The Only Tune, 2008).

Where classical instruments and musical structures have been founded on an aristocratic legacy, supported by royal courts or the church, the banjo’s historical evolution has grown out of struggle and conflicting cultures. It can be painful to look back on the history of slavery or the ongoing situations of injustice faced by the people of Appalachia. The banjo may be a reminder of these things, and personal reactions to such a reminder may also bring up prejudices towards one group of people or another. Yet the hybrid cultural heritage of the banjo, kept alive by traditional players and continually reinterpreted by musicians from many different backgrounds, may be uniquely equipped to break through the divisions that separate people. It is an instrument that was originally embedded in the lives of enslaved Africans as well as the rural white settlers later on, and it has assimilated musical elements from both cultures. The tangled thread of minstrelsy that endures in popular media to this day is one that needs to be examined and understood in all of its complexity. Artists and musicians should attempt to examine that shadow and address it in a conscious way in contemporary art. The banjo stands squarely at the intersection of Anglo and African cultures at a formative period in American history, spanning different conceptions of heritage. Perhaps it can also be a tool to help to unravel the pain or prejudice and uplift us to better way of coexisting and collaborating in this world.

#Yeezus: Lessons in Contemporary Performance from the Stadium Set

Late one recent mid-October evening, Kanye West walked out on stage in Seattle to kick off his Yeezus tour in a jewel-encrusted Maison Martin Margiela mask reminiscent of artist Damien Hirst’s diamond-encrusted skulls. Death-obsessed Hirst says he created those glittery skulls because he was making art from what was around him, and perhaps one could be pushed towards similar conclusions here: that money is Kanye’s medium. However, the nearly three-hour-long show was not a referendum on narcissistic bedazzled-navel navel-gazing. Instead it was a massive interdisciplinary art, music, and sound event produced on a scale large enough to successfully fill an arena.

Kanye’s elusive and shadowy creative agency DONDA designed the elaborate set—a 50-foot, multi-tiered mountain with an even bigger rotating projection screen behind it, a runway with extensive futuristic laser possibilities, and a moving triangular mountain-extension stage in the middle of the arena. If you look through the hashtag #yeezus or #yeezustour right now on Instagram, you might think to yourself, “Dude, this is hella Wagner,” and you’d be right—the main set designer for Kanye’s tours and concerts is Es Devlin, who has designed sets for dozens of operas, mainly in Europe, including a production of Wagner’s Parsifal. At the time of this writing, I have been unable to confirm that Ms. Devlin worked with DONDA on the Yeezus tour, but her influence and direction is surely present given her extensive history with Kanye in the past. Beyond the physical set itself, the massive projection screen was its own lively being. At times it became the moving and occasionally apocalyptic sky behind the mountain, at other times there was live video processing going on that was projected onto the screen—two different videographers capturing Kanye’s face enshrouded in another of the jeweled masks, then someone manipulating the image and projecting it onto the screen above. And still other times there were video works pointing to themes of racism, institutionalized violence, and the oppression of minorities via imagery such as the human back in a vulnerable position or vicious barking dogs. And, often enough these images and events were peppered with feedback-inflected, noisy drones, recordings of “Indian pow-wows” from old films re-appropriated to make a beat-driven commentary on racism, spoken word interludes over resounding choruses, or sounds of electronically manipulated orchestral instruments that bring to mind Olivia Block’s latest project. Signature Kanye West beats seamlessly strung it all together.


Most reviews of this opening Yeezus show in Seattle, like this one in Rolling Stone, note the cadre of women wearing bodysuits and imply that this is surely an example of just how narcissistic this rich black rapper is. In fact, the body suits seemed not to be designed with hyper-sexuality in mind, but highlighted the human figure, often in zombie-like gray tones. West has collaborated with performance artist Vanessa Beecroft a number of times over the last few years—at listening parties in L.A. and also for his epic 35-minute video for Runaway. And, indeed, Beecroft was not only the choreographer, but also the artistic director for the show. Throughout the performance, the dancers interacted with both the mountain and Kanye, created a series of shifting shapes and textures, and at one point mimed a Catholic-inspired priestly procession. They also appeared to act out other scenes seemingly drawn from the history of performance art such as Carolee Schneemann’s Meat Joy.

As the show progressed, Kanye moved through a series of other masks and a number of costume changes, and a slightly abstract storyline slowly unfolded. Kanye as a black Jesus (a.k.a. Yeezus), the rise and fall and struggle of this character as he moves through a shamanistic vision-quest and eventually, in a bizarre and hilarious Christian passion play-like event, confronts Jesus, who emerges from the giant mountain in a stream of light and smoke. While there had been costume changes leading up to this moment, the intentionality seemed to shift at this point. There was a huge robe and white face mask that made Kanye appear alternately like a scarecrow and like a depiction of a dying Jesus or disciple in a Raphael painting. When meeting “White Jesus,” Yeezus wore an elaborate, Arab-inspired blue tunic echoing the Nation of Islam’s Tribe of Shabazz and Black Power—a leader with a new vision splitting with the past and pointing to a new way forward.

All in all, this was a massive undertaking, and to imagine the manpower and money that will be required in order for Kanye and DONDA to take this show on tour is mind-boggling. So it would be easy to write this off as being something unattainable for anyone outside of pop royalty. Yet, this is clearly an excellent example of what is possible when it comes to art and the general public. There I was in an arena filled with 15,000 people—people on their feet in awe of experimental performance art, music and highly sophisticated video pieces.

The internet has produced a seemingly endless supply of blog posts heralding the “death” of classical music, while others have suggested that shoveling heaps of violinists into bars to perform might redeem a too-formal concert music in the eyes of the public. There have even been curiously racist musings suggesting that the color of one’s skin dictates how we perceive time, and that this could be the key to getting Mozart and communities of color together in the same room. However, this post is not meant to suggest a new way forward with the same old ideas, but to suggest that the way forward is a full-on bear hug with interesting and challenging new ideas, and that people of all races and ages yearn for this, whether or not they say it in the same way we do.
Perhaps we just need to admit to ourselves that people like to be challenged, that people want to dive into wild and contemporary imagery and messages, but that our success in that mission may not come from our own backyard. I was fortunate enough to experience something intense, interesting, challenging, interdisciplinary, and yet totally accessible. Part of what is so striking about the Yeezus tour is that this is supposedly low art, but it’s woven seamlessly into so-called high art on a massive scale, and it’s actually really difficult to tease apart where one discipline ends and another begins. Things are getting messy, and that’s ok! All different aspects the show are free of their respective dogmas through new combinations with different disciplines and a well-balanced group of collaborators. And, all these collaborations are celebrated and are made interactive because, as Laurie Anderson notes and the 300,000-strong #yeezus hashtag demonstrates, we are the media now, and so even the audience is incorporated into the performance as an analytical and reflective machine—the performance continuing on as people see it from different angles and perspectives in videos and photographs and sharing of content. Success like this is possible for new music, too, but doing that may have to start with us putting down our instruments and seeing what’s happening in the rest of the world.

Listen!

First off, my apologies for the title of this week’s post are offered in all due respect to the great saxophonist-educator-composer Mel Martin, who led a band of that name in the Bay Area during the 1970s.

Last week, I attempted to open a line of discussion about how we filter what we hear according to the music we create (I’m assuming, correctly or not, that everyone reading this creates, or has created, music as a part of their daily activities). The question was inspired by a rather lengthy argument I was having with one of my Facebook “friends” (and I hope we still are) about the socio-political messaging of rap music. After more than thirty years, the music still finds detractors who look at it as devoid of significance and/or, believe it or not, social commentary. The post received no comments, but I did get a lot of emails sent to me privately. The most scathing of them stated that “hip hop fits into American music roughly where MacDonald’s fits into American cuisine,” comparing it favorably to “only elevator music and Muzak Xmas carols.” While I think that elevator music (at least the stuff that’s piped into elevators, not the actual sounds that elevators themselves make) is Muzak, I was heartened to read that the person found General George Owen Squire’s invention less palatable than the street beat from the Bronx (actually the most scathing emailer called me all sorts of things, but I’m not goin’ there!).

The only comment (again, privately transmitted) that addressed the “listening with a personal filter” issue was from a singer who mentioned that the way she listened to music changed after she decided to make a go of singing in public. She found that her experience performing to an audience made her start to listen to individual instruments and their synergistic relationships to each other. This is probably the same for all of us who read NewMusicBox.org; I know it was for me when I began working on performing seriously. But two articles from this week investigated aspects of the subject. While I’m not sure if I agree that an ability to reproduce what someone else plays directly relates to how one filters what is heard (though I do agree wholeheartedly that originality stems from an inability to be satisfied with recreating what others have already done), the concept of aesthetic neutrality alerted me to an important facet of my listening that bears directly on rap music.

I have yet to master listening through an aesthetically neutral filter. I still get pretty bored when listening to certain artists (mostly pop artists from the past, such as Paul Whiteman, Annunzio Mantovani, and Lawrence Welk) and Muzak rarely interests me, although I do listen to it when confronted with it. I can remember walking home from work with my bass in one arm and amplifier in the other, hurrying because I had a melodic fragment in my head that I wanted to write down as soon as I got into my apartment on the 14th floor. When I got into the building’s Muzak-equipped elevator, there was a lush string arrangement of Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight” being piped in that, by the time I reached the 14th floor, had wiped the melody I was hoping to compose right out of the picture! (I pieced it back together a few years later and had the honor of recording it when I was on tour in Italy in 2004.) But I find that, for the most part, there is not much music I “don’t like.” There might be some (actually, a lot, and mostly my own) that doesn’t make me want to listen to it again and again, but very little that I reject aesthetically.

What I do find, though, is that there is quite a bit of ideological filtering that goes on in my listening now. When I realized that Glenn Miller had little interest in music as an expressive act, I lost my interest. To be sure, I find his music fairly boring anyway, but the socio-political apathy I understood to be part of his message really turned me off for good. So, when I hear jazz, I hear a music that’s about socio-political issues; e.g. Billie Holiday singing about lynched bodies in “Strange Fruit” or about drug addiction in “Goodmorning Heartache.”
I also admire the messaging of Sly Stone’s “Running Away” or “Family Affair,” although they’re not strictly jazz. These songs discuss aspects of our culture that the American Culture Machine would rather we not pay too much attention to, much like they’d rather we don’t understand just who Machiavelli was writing about in The Prince.

While I was reading through the articles from last week, I stumbled upon a link in the “You might also enjoy…” portion of one of them that took me to an article I resonate with on two specific levels. One is ideological—that is, it discussed the kind of political messaging in music performance/composition that informs my aesthetic filtering. The author, Laura Kaminsky, wrote about performing the first live music concert in Croatia after the cessation of hostilities in 1997 as “an offering of hope.” She invoked the names of Olivier Messiaen (Quartet for the End of Time), Luciano Berio (O King), Igor Stravinsky (Elegy for JFK), George Crumb (Black Angels), and John Corigliano (Symphony No. 1), as well as many others, as examples of composers who include socio-political messaging in their music. The other level of resonance is personal—in 1998, I had the experience of being in what might have been the first jazz group to tour in Bosnia and Croatia after the fighting had stopped. We drove through towns that included the same sights described by Kaminsky. I can still see “the worn faces of the people … the huge craters and pockmarks from bombs and bullets scarring the walls … the homes without rooftops” as if it were yesterday. I also remember the bombed-out bridge that forced us to take a wooden raft as a ferry across a river, and then having to purchase “travel insurance” from a man with a machine gun at the largest open-air black market I’ll probably ever see in my life.

When I read that Kaminsky had dedicated the score of her piano trio “to the victims of ethnic cleansing,” I began to see, in my mind’s eyes, the bodies of African Americans from “Strange Fruit,” hanging from trees by their necks while large groups of white Southerners posed for photographers who would produce postcards of the carnage’s aftermath. I also saw Asian Americans being interred in concentration camps in the Western states. I imagined the Trail of Tears. And then I heard “When Thugs Cry,” by Tupac Shakur, and “[email protected] Da Police,” by N.W.A, and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Also “Fables of Faubus” (Charles Mingus), “Song for Che” (Charlie Haden), “Free New Afrika! Boogaloo” (Fred Ho), and even “Witchi Tai To” (Jim Pepper).* These are all examples of American music that address the theme of Kaminsky’s dedication. The musical elements of these examples have a drive and intensity that I find lacking in Miller, Mantovani, Whiteman, and Welk. It’s music that is meant to open one’s eyes to what is going on every day in America, not to lull one to sleep!

I’ve said before that jazz is America’s music. It’s the case whether anyone likes it or not because in 1998 it was legislated by an act of Congress! I’ve also said that in a little less than five years jazz will be officially a century old. What jazz—musicologically, sociologically, aesthetically, or commercially—is, and always has been, up for grabs. Certainly there is a core music that is “undeniably jazz,” like most of the works of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, or John Coltrane (all of whom recorded politically themed music), but quite a bit of the music that modern jazz players consider essential to learning the music is ignored in the “real world.” Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, Sun Ra, Lennie Tristano, and Bob Brookmeyer are all important to this music and all had distinct socio-political messaging attached to what they played (or play, in the case of Coleman). There are established artists who are successful, but relatively unknown: Joanne Brackeen, Mulgrew Miller, Kenny Werner, Tim Berne, Steve Coleman, Carla Bley, Arturo O’Farrill, Roseanna Vitro, and so many more. They point to directions in their music that aren’t well understood or explored, but are “undeniable” and include philosophical and socio-political messaging that is subtle, but clear. The new breed(s) include many artists who have been working at their craft for years but are still just getting off the ground. Fay Victor, Judy Silvano, Bruce Arnold, Melissa Hamilton, Hilly Greene, Andrea Wolper, Jamie Affoumado, Eric Lewis, Tom Rainey, and Victor Jones, as well as real new faces like Stacy Dillard, Spencer Murphy, Carlos Abadie, Kris Davis, Mary Halvorson, and Josh Evans (again, that’s just a very, very few).

Some of these artists may not even be considered jazz musicians, now or in the future, by the American Culture Machine—but that’s what they’re playing. The controversy seems to center around how much their music is diluted by non-jazz influences, such as classical (Vijay Iyer, Fred Hersch, Mark Dresser), non-European (Iyer, Hafez Modirzadeh, Toshiko Akiyoshi), Latin American (Jay Rodriguez, Chucho Valdez, Claudio Roditi), or even country music (Mark Feldman, Charlie Haden, Les Paul).** But the non-jazz influence is just that, an influence, not a separate style. Many new and established jazz performers, especially African American performers, have grown up with hip hop and rap, an influence that informs their music making. It also informs musicians who work and listen to them as well as audiences who attend their performances, but who were not raised listening to hip hop or rap. The messaging of rap is not lost on any of them and, in my not-so-humble opinion, should be listened to by all of us—closely and thoughtfully.

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* All of these titles can be heard on YouTube.

** I know some of these names belong to very established musicians and at least one non-living one (Les Paul at the time of this writing), but all of them have been labeled as both authentic and not authentic jazz musicians at some point in their careers, even though they consider themselves to be jazz players.