Tag: jazz

2015 Doris Duke Impact Awards Announced

A screen shot from the Doris Duke website showcase photos of all the 2015 award recipients.

The 2015 Doris Duke Impact Award Winners

The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation has announced the second round of recipients of the Doris Duke Impact Awards, which are part of the foundation’s special, ten-year initiative to empower, invest in, and celebrate artists by offering flexible, multi-year funding in response to financial challenges that are specific to the performing arts. Doris Duke Impact Award recipients receive $80,000.

These 2015 awards are in addition to the annual Doris Duke Artist Awards, which were already announced in April. (Three of the recipients of those $275K awards—Muhal Richard Abrams, Ambrose Akinmusire, and Steve Coleman—had previously received Impact Awards in 2014.)

Additionally, composer/performers Dohee Lee and Pamela Z both received 2015 Duke Impact Awards in the theatre category.

2015 Doris Duke Impact Awards in Jazz

The $80,000 Impact Award consists of an unrestricted, cash grant of $60,000, plus as much as $10,000 more in targeted support for audience development and as much as $10,000 more for personal reserves or creative exploration during what are usually retirement years for most Americans. Impact Award-winning artists will be able to access their awards over a period of two to three years under a schedule set by each recipient. Like the Doris Duke Artists, Doris Duke Impact Award recipients have the opportunity to participate in professional development activities, financial and legal counseling, and regional gatherings through Creative Capital, DDCF’s primary partner in the Doris Duke Performing Artist Awards. By the end of the ten-year awarding cycle, 100 artists will have received Doris Duke Impact Awards.

The Doris Duke Impact Award recipients were nominated by previous Doris Duke Artist Award recipients. Nominators were required to identify multiple artists who have influenced and are helping to move forward the fields of dance, jazz, and/or theatre—but may or may not be artists in one of these particular fields. In addition to these criteria, they were encouraged to consider artists, including dancers, actors, and non-composing musicians, who are not eligible for the Doris Duke Artist Awards. A separate anonymous panel of artists then selected artists from this larger nomination pool.

More information about the awards and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation is available here.

(from the press release)

2015 Class of Doris Duke Artists Announced

Doris Duke Artists 2015

The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation has announced the 2015 class of Doris Duke Artists. Twenty performing artists will each receive $275,000 in flexible, multi-year funding as an investment in and celebration of their ongoing contributions to the fields of contemporary dance, theater, and jazz. With this year’s class, the foundation will have awarded $22 million among 80 Doris Duke Artists since the awards program’s inception.

The 2015 Doris Duke Artists are as follows.

In jazz:

Muhal Richard Abrams
Ambrose Akinmusire
Darcy James Argue
Steve Coleman
Okkyung Lee
Yosvany Terry

In dance:

Camille A. Brown
Ronald K. Brown
Ann Carlson
Nora Chipaumire
Alonzo King
Stephen Petronio
Doug Varone

In theater:

Paul S. Flores
Cynthia Hopkins
Daniel Alexander Jones
Linda Parris-Bailey
Mildred Ruiz-Sapp
Steven Sapp
Shawn Sides

Muhal Richard Abrams, a recipient in the jazz category, commented, “This award will give me additional time and facility for expanding and exposing my work to a wide audience. It’s energizing when something like this award happens, and it encourages me to keep working hard. The variety of challenges that are inherent in the music are quite stimulating. I’m accessing a world of raw material that’s infinite, and the inexhaustibility of it is the challenge.”

The program is one of two awards offered through the Doris Duke Performing Artist Awards, which is part of a larger $50 million, 10-year commitment of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation to empower, invest in and celebrate artists by offering flexible, multi-year funding in response to financial challenges that are specific to the performing arts and to each artist.

To learn more about the 2015 Doris Duke Artists and to view samples of each artist’s work, visit

(–from the press release)

Jazz Remixes

Jazz Remix

Photo by Jimmy Baikovicius, via Flickr

I don’t place a lot of value on originality in music. My tastes lie mostly in blues, jazz, R&B, and hip-hop. While there’s plenty of creativity in all of these forms, it’s built around shared musical materials: stock licks and phrases, standard song structures and schemas, frequently borrowed beats and samples. Hearing a familiar blues riff or funk break is like encountering an old friend, and the intertextuality created by all of the shared musical DNA enriches the listening experience.

The title of this post could be read a couple of different ways. You could take it to mean “people who electronically rework jazz recordings.” Jazz has certainly been a bottomless source of inspiration for hip-hop producers. A significant portion of my own creative output is based on samples of my favorite jazz recordings.

By the way, if you’re looking for a good break, let me recommend the drumming of Sam Woodyard in the late-period Duke Ellington Orchestra; he’s a gold mine.

Really, though, the title of this post refers to jazz musicians themselves. Jazz is all about repurposing pop and folk material for new expressive ends, and the greats were remix artists before the term existed. Even the most prolific and brilliant jazz composers, such as Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk, devoted album after album to arrangements of standards. Nobody arranged standards more radically and personally than John Coltrane.

Some of Coltrane’s most compelling statements of musical truth are renditions of extremely corny pop songs. The best known one is “My Favorite Things,” from his 1961 album of the same name.

Coltrane’s arrangement of this tune bears the same relationship to The Sound Of Music as “Hard Knock Life” by Jay-Z bears to Annie. Jazz uses different technology than hip-hop, but it makes the same musical statement: putting a stamp of personal ownership on a piece of public musical property. The lawyers among you will probably now want to jump in and point out that neither The Sound Of Music nor Annie are public property. Even though both function the way that folk songs do, they’re both very much under copyright. Music has always consisted of endlessly reinterpreted and recombined folk memes, but now most of the really good memes are privately owned. It makes for some legal and cultural awkwardness.

I bought My Favorite Things when I was eighteen or nineteen after reading a Jerry Garcia interview in which he raved about it. (I have never been steered wrong on a music recommendation by Jerry Garcia.) On my first listen, I wasn’t impressed. A show tune I sang in middle school chorus played on soprano sax, whee! Now I experience Coltrane’s version of “My Favorite Things” as the mind-expanding flight of imagination I was promised, but I had to grow up a little to appreciate it. And appreciate it I did, to a point of near-obsession. When I had a jazz band, I insisted that we perform it regularly, and that we include it on our one album.

Coltrane had a way of anticipating what music would sound like in the future. He was particularly prescient about the importance of looped bass lines. Jazz bass is usually a complex semi-improvised stream of quarter notes. But Coltrane liked to have his bassists play strictly unvarying two-bar loops. On “My Favorite Things,” Jimmy Garrison plays a few simple octave patterns on the root and fifth of the key with no variation for the entire duration of the song. This kind of bass line anticipated the looped, sequenced, and sampled bass parts in hip-hop and other electronic music.

Coltrane was also prescient in his liking for open-ended loops on a single chord, or a few repeating chords from a single scale. This is the basic structure of nearly all forms of electronic music, and most contemporary pop too, but in 1961 it was a radical departure from most of the music in the air. Like James Brown and the hip-hop artists he inspired, Coltrane relied a lot on the “repeat until cue” instruction. In between the phrases of the “Favorite Things” melody, he inserts open-ended grooves, first on E minor, then on E major. He and McCoy Tyner play each groove as long as they want, signaling the band that it’s time to continue to the next section by playing the “raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens” melody. Coltrane was a great admirer of Ravi Shankar, so much so that he named his son after him, and you can hear the influence of Indian classical music on this recording.

The album My Favorite Things is most famous for its title track, but it also includes three other startling reinterpretations of standards. “Every Time We Say Goodbye” is played double-time at an extremely slow baseline tempo, stretching the melody like Silly Putty. “Summertime” is played fast, with an angry feel and crunchy, dissonant chords built from the melodic minor scale. Finally, “But Not For Me” is transformed almost as radically as the title track. Here’s a conventional version of the tune by Judy Garland:

And here’s Coltrane’s version:

The most obvious change is the first four bars. In the Gershwin tune, the line “They’re writing songs of love but not for me” runs over a simple ii-V-I progression in E♭. Coltrane’s first four bars are a sprint through the keys of E♭, B, and G via those keys’ respective dominant chords. The bass line spells out the descending E♭ whole-tone scale: E♭, F♯7/C♯, B, D7/A, G, B♭7/F, E♭. Coltrane rewrites the melody completely to fit this new chord progression. Coltrane also inserts some new structural elements of his own. He adds a long tag section where he lifts unexpectedly up to several distant minor keys for eight bars each. There’s also the extremely extended open-ended tag on the ii-V-iii-VI turnaround. Should we consider Coltrane’s arrangement to be the same piece of music as the Gershwin original? Certainly, if you want to play the Coltrane version at a jam session or a gig, you’d better come prepared with charts and a lot of explanation.

Radical jazz adaptations of standards raise the same questions about authorship and ownership that sample-based compositions and remixes do. Where do you draw the line between an arrangement, a new melody written to existing chord changes, and an improvised solo? Bandleaders like Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman routinely used improvised phrases by their band members as the basis for new tunes (and were not overly concerned with crediting those band members). The borders between arrangement, interpretation, improvisation, and composition are blurry at best. Should we consider “Whispering” and “Groovin’ High” to be the same song? How about “I’m In The Mood For Love” and “Moody’s Mood For Love”? Or “I Got Rhythm” and the uncountable bebop heads it inspired?

Jazz was largely built on a scaffolding of show tunes and other pop songs. The ones that have emerged as standards share certain musical characteristics that make them more amenable to jazz adaptation. They have singable melodies with rhyming lyrics accompanied by a simple chord progression (or sometimes not so simple, but always intelligible to the ordinary person’s ear). They’re repetitive and predictable. They follow a small set of conventions in their structure: four-, eight-, and sixteen-bar phrases, repeated two or three or four times, with the larger grouping of phrases repeating more or less intact for the entire duration of the tune. There are some recurrent harmonic tropes involving counter-clockwise trips around the circle of fifths. The modular structure of standards makes them amenable to disassembly and reassembly. These jazz compositions and improvisations are constructed from a giant box of shared musical Legos, rearrangeable at will on paper or in the improviser’s head.

As with harmony and form, there’s a finite toolbox of riffs, patterns, and scale runs you can use to build your jazz melodies and solos. Blues is particularly reliant on Lego-like modular riffs. Jazz and blues intros and endings are few, highly standardized, and easily interchangeable. One much-recycled ending is the one Count Basie uses in his performance of “Fly Me To The Moon” with Frank Sinatra.

Another basic Lego is the Duke Ellington ending, as in “Take The A Train.”

Miles Davis turned this ending into an entire bebop head called “The Theme.”

You can hear a stretched-out but still recognizable rendition of “The Theme” at the end of each set on Miles’s Fillmore East performances from March 7, 1970.

The distance between a jazz module like the Duke Ellington ending and a sample like the Funky Drummer break is short. In my own experience, the creative process of writing a jazz tune based on licks and progressions from existing songs feels much the same as building tracks from samples. It can’t be an accident that the most creative jazz musicians are the ones who borrow the most heavily from one another, from pop culture, and from themselves. Coltrane’s tune “Impressions” is a mashup of “Pavanne” by Morton Gould and “So What” by Miles Davis (which is itself partially inspired by “Pavanne.”) The 6/8 single-chord grooves in “My Favorite Things” also appear in Coltrane’s versions of “Greensleeves,” “Spiritual,” and “Afro Blue.” And why not? That groove never gets old. If the most creative artist in the history of jazz is doing so much sampling, I think everyone should feel emboldened to do the same.

Bobby Previte Awarded 2015 Greenfield Prize

Bobby Previte

Bobby Previte
Photo by Michael DiDonna

The Hermitage Artist Retreat and its partner, the Philadelphia-based Greenfield Foundation, have announced that the 2015 Greenfield Prize will be awarded this year in music to composer Bobby Previte. This award includes a $30,000 commission for a new work to be realized within two years. In addition, the winner is given residency time at the Hermitage Artist Retreat, a performance by a professional arts organization on the two-year anniversary of the award, and assistance with future performances for the work.

“Winning a prize is always good,” remarked Previte. “Winning a prize to create music for great musicians is better. Winning a prize and writing that music on a beach will be…heaven!”

Semi-finalists, who will each receive $1000 along with a Hermitage residency, are composers Don Byron, Tyshawn Sorey, and Julia Wolfe.

The mission of the commission is to bring into the world a work of art that will have a significant impact on the broader or artistic culture. A small group of semi-finalists, selected by a jury, is asked to submit a proposal for their project based on this guideline. Serving on the jury that selected Previte were Linda Golding, former president of Boosey & Hawkes Music publishers, Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang, and Anne Ewers, president and CEO of Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center.

The Greenfield Prize is awarded in three rotating arts disciplines every spring. In addition to music, the award is also given in drama and visual art. Previous winners in music include composers Eve Beglarian and Vijay Iyer.

(—from the press release)

Bobby Previte is also a New Music USA project grant recipient! Learn more about his work here.

2015 ASCAP Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composer Awards Announced

ASCAP Logo which is a frame containing blue eighth-note in front of red and white stripes.

ASCAP Foundation President Paul Williams has announced the recipients of the 2015 Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composer Awards. Established by The ASCAP Foundation in 2002 to encourage gifted jazz composers up to the age of 30, in 2012 the program was named in honor of composer, arranger and record producer Herb Alpert in recognition of The Herb Alpert Foundation’s multi-year financial commitment to support this unique program. The 26 recipients, who receive cash awards, range in age from 16 to 30, and are selected through a juried national competition. An additional three recipients received an honorable mention. The Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composer Award Winners will be honored during ASCAP’s Jazz Wall of Fame event at ASCAP at a date to be announced.

The 2015 Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composer Award recipients are listed with their age, current residence and place of origin:

Caio Afiune, 25 of Boston, MA (São Paulo. Brazil)
Quentin Angus, age 27 of New York, NY (Mount Pleasant, Australia)
Bryson Barnes, age 29 of New York, NY (Fairbanks, AK)
Bryn Bliska, age 22 of Cambridge, MA (Greenbrae, CA)
Lorenzo Carrano, age 27 of South Miami, FL (Naples, Italy)
Mike Conrad, age 26 of Waterloo, IA (Arlington Heights, IL)
Rafael Piccolotto de Lima, age 29 of Miami, FL (São Paulo. Brazil)
Nick Finzer, age 26 of New York, NY (Rochester, NY)
Jon Hatamiya, age 23 of Los Angeles, CA (Davis, CA)
Josh Johnson, age 25 of Los Angeles, CA (Takoma Park, MD)
Gene Knific, age 22 of Kalamazoo, MI
Pascal Le Boeuf, age 28 of New York, NY (Santa Cruz, CA)
Guy Mintus, age 23 of New York, NY (Hod Hasharon, Israel)
Adam Neely, age 26 of Brooklyn, NY (Silver Spring, MD)
Mark Ninmer, age 16 of Taylorville, IL
Scott Ninmer, age 26 of Alexandria, VA (Taylorville, IL)
Christopher Ott, age 27 of Brooklyn, NY (Kettering, OH)
Josh Plotner, age 22 of Boston, MA (Park Ridge, IL)
John Raymond, age 29 of Brooklyn, NY (Minneapolis, MN)
Michael Schreier, age 23 of Greeley, CO (Omaha, NE)
Erica Seguine, age 27 of Bloomfield, NJ (Albany, NY)
Jeremy Siskind, age 28 of Kalamazoo, MI (Santa Ana, CA)
David von Kampen, age 28 of Lincoln, NE (Farmington Hills, MI)
Marcus Wilcher, age 30 of Austin, TX (Los Angeles, CA)
Zac Zinger, age 26 of Woodside, NY (Pittsburgh, PA)
Christopher Zuar, age 27 of New York, NY

Composers receiving Honorable Mention this year are: Colleen Clark, age 26 of New York, NY (Norwich, CT); ArcoIris Sandoval, age 27 of New York, NY (Tucson, AZ); Drew Zaremba, age 23 of Denton, TX (Little Rock, AR). The ASCAP composer/judges for the 2015 competition were: Chuck Iwanusa, Ted Piltzecker, and Sachal Vasandani. Additional funding for this program is provided by The ASCAP Foundation Bart Howard Fund.

(—from the press release)


THINGS HAVE GOT TO CHANGE!–Writing Political Music in Today’s World

I began studying composition with Fred Ho without knowing quite what I was getting myself into. I was 25 with a fresh graduate degree in composition under my belt, lost in that special way only millennial twenty-somethings get to be. I knew I wanted to write political works and, having met Fred twice before, I knew that he was the one who could help me do it.

The ensuing four years were a study in what it really means to fuse arts and politics: truly understanding the history of struggle and the historical power behind political music. Fred was the great champion of Cal Massey, a composer, bandleader, and Black Panther who was blacklisted from recording studios because of his politics. Fred’s band was the first to ever record and release Cal Massey’s Black Liberation Movement Suite, a nine-movement magnum opus that was commissioned by Eldridge Cleaver and tributes different figures in the black liberation movement. Cal used his music and his big band to hold many successful fundraisers for the Black Panther Party; it was for this reason that record labels saw him as enough of a threat to warrant blacklisting. Fred made sure that I studied Cal Massey’s music like it was the holy grail: his unforgettable Hey Goddamnit, Things Have Got To Change! never fails to infuse electricity into the room whenever it’s performed, tripling as protest fight song, audience sing-along, and underrated cornerstone of the big band canon.

It’s now 2015: Fred is dead, his life abbreviated by an eight-year battle with metastatic cancer. His political and musical vision transcended his time on this earth, however, and the implications of his music and lessons are more poignant than ever. As the daily news cycle goes from bad to worse and the non-indictments for cops killing young, unarmed black men pile up, I hear in my head the voice of my beloved and late mentor: WRITE. Fred didn’t believe in separating the arts from politics. Virtually all of his music—even the kitschy arrangements of superhero themes and his blazingly groovy interpretations of Jimi Hendrix tunes—had some political impetus at the basis of it. Fred’s works might have been political slogans, scrawled across a piece of cardboard and carried through a protest: there’s Yes Means Yes, No Means No, Whatever She Wears, Wherever She Goes!, written for the Brooklyn Women’s Anti-Rape Exchange; Paper Tigers are Real Scaredy Cats, his reimagining of the Pink Panther Theme for big band; We Refuse to Be Used And Abused!, a suite for his Afro-Asian Music Ensemble.

It’s all too easy for us as a society to forget that jazz has its roots in revolution: slaves used their African rhythms and tonalities to communicate on the plantation. As time passed, jazz became both a method of survival for black musicians and a profession that chewed you up and spit you out (see: the hard lives and early deaths of Charlie Parker, Cal Massey, John Coltrane, and a great many others). The jazz musician became a novelty and a stereotype: poor, sick, often drug-addicted, but genius; the music became appropriated, sanitized, and commodified.

I am lucky enough to have been taught all of these things by Fred; they were part of his requirements for me to study with him. As a young, queer woman in jazz, I take the implications of my craft and calling very seriously. When Fred became too sick, he handed over the baton to his Eco-Music Big Band to me, and I learned that he hired musicians with a serious caveat: at least 51% of his band had to be oppressed peoples. His musicians were his army, effecting change right alongside him.

As Fred’s successor, it is an honor to work with musicians who are moved to do the same. I hear the music that my colleagues are writing and understand the depth with which Fred’s legacy of political music reaches. It goes beyond the instinct to pay tribute to the greats of the civil rights movement and deals with the here and now. The MSO Trio—Albert Marques, Walter Stinson, and Zack O’Farrill (all of whom work within the Eco-Music Big Band)—has two new works that come to mind, both composed by Marques. The first, You’re Under Arrest, is a jazz-meets-heavy metal work about police brutality in the United States; the second, Jazz is Working Class, is a blues with Latin groove about the commodification of jazz for the affluent and its roots in poverty, slavery, and oppression.

If Fred were alive now, there’s no question in my mind that he would be writing works for Eric Garner and Mike Brown. He would want us to soundtrack the protests and then go out and shut the city down. He would demand that our works be virtuosic, loud, and groovy enough to lift the spirits of the masses and reach the families of these young black men.

We as musicians have a responsibility to respond to the world around us, to give the people a song to raise their spirits and fuel the fight in their hearts.

So, in light of the political climate we live in—for Eric Garner, for Mike Brown, for Palestine—I pick up my pencil and write. A melody. An ostinato bassline. It’s got to groove, Fred would say. You aren’t going to move people if it doesn’t.

Marie Incontrera

Marie Incontrera is a composer, conductor, and band leader whose work spans queer opera, political big band, and music-for-the-oppressed. Marie is the conductor and band-leader of the Green Monster Big Band (Fred Ho’s premiere big band) and the Eco-Music Band (a smaller, variable ensemble), both ensembles for which she also composes and arranges. She was Fred Ho’s last composition and conducting protege.

Ken Thomson: Energized Complexities

Mention composer and sax/clarinet player Ken Thomson in conversation or seek out his work online, and you’ll pretty quickly get to some description of the intense physicality of his playing (he has been known to jump around some on stage) or his impressive work ethic (he’s involved in more than a few projects, including Slow/Fast, Gutbucket, Asphalt Orchestra, and Bang on a Can All-Stars).

Yet while he’s too easygoing and good natured to actually roll his eyes at me when I open our conversation with a question about this slightly manic characterization, it’s understandable that the pigeonholing is starting to wear thin. “It’s sort of the first thing that people say—’Oh, usually he’s the guy jumping up and down, blah, blah, blah’—even when I’m not!”
Still, he doesn’t deny that he likes to use his body in performance, both for musically expressive purposes and to deal with the more practical aspects of leading a group in often high-decibel environments without the use of his arms. A first violinist’s standard sniff cue will just not cut it.

“I like being physical when I’m playing, and I think that’s really important actually to show that you’re in it,” Thomson explains. But while his onstage persona might—at least sometimes—communicate a high-energy, in-your-face kind of guy, he actually feels much more reserved when away from the stage lights. A consideration of his scores deepens this view—his often-complex work is carefully designed and communicates powerfully in live performance without exhausting the audience. During a recent tour stop promoting his ensemble Slow/Fast’s release Settle, crowd attention never seemed to waver.

It’s a live consumption situation Thomson is careful to facilitate. “I obviously like music that’s exciting, that kind of keeps you on the edge of your seat in a lot of ways,” he points out, and during performance, he’s continuously monitoring the room to make sure the audience is still with him. “I’m really good at seeing yawns,” he admits, “or if I start feeling like we’re losing some kind of touch, it’s a very palpable feeling for me.”

He carries those concerns about attention back to his desk when first crafting music, a process that he has learned to be patient with. Sometimes pieces simmer along slowly for a while, and at other times they must rest entirely some months before completion. “I used to write too quickly, I think, and then I would come back the next day and think, ‘God, this is terrible!’ I’m a better editor maybe than a writer, and sort of give myself time to have fresh ideas along the way.”

Photo by Naomi White Connect with Ken:On TwitterOn FacebookOn YouTubeOn SoundCloud

Photo by Naomi White
Connect with Ken:
On Twitter
On Facebook
On YouTube
On SoundCloud

Thomson’s compositional output, showcased by the scores and media presented on his website, now spans a broad range of contexts. One thing that his online reputation is light on, however, is the typical list of schools attended and commissions fulfilled, something he suggests he doesn’t find “super relevant.” When asked, the Columbia grad doesn’t diminish his educational experience, but credits the opportunities it allowed him to learn and perform outside the classroom—both on stage and at his campus radio station, WKCR, where he was jazz director for two and a half years.

Columbia was also where he met and began playing with guitarist Ty Citerman, with whom he works in the collaborative, genre-mashing quartet Gutbucket to this day. When the group was first getting off the ground and exploring their sound, they had a weekly gig at the Knitting Factory where they would try out material. “We started getting better when we started getting beyond adding this plus this plus this,” Thompson recalls, noting that this more complete fusion is still something he’s always looking to do. “I never want to have something sound like, ‘Oh, this is the moment that’s the rock moment, or this is the jazz moment, or this is the contemporary classical moment’—ugh. To me, everything has to make sense.”
But for all the vital diversity his various project lineups and genre influences provide him, Thomson says that in many ways he feels a bit out of touch with the current zeitgeist. “I’m writing music for human beings without electronics. I haven’t done multimedia; I’m not using Max. I feel like I’m totally losing every grant!” he jokes, bursting into laughter.
“It’s really so much about the sound of the instruments and what they do together, and that’s what I love about music. So in that way I think I’m really hopelessly old school, and I don’t know how to fix that. Maybe I shouldn’t.”

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.


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.

Swinging the Machine

feature 58-38Bandleader and crimefighter Swing Sisson encounters a critic in Feature Comics #58 (July 1942).

Deems Taylor—composer, critic, narrator of Fantasia, well-known classical music personality of the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s—didn’t much care for jazz, a dislike he took pains to present as airy unconcern. In his book The Well-Tempered Listener, Taylor examined the practice of “swinging the classics,” making jazz band versions of classical chestnuts. This sort of thing had apparently exercised enough indignation that the president of the Bach Society of New Jersey, Taylor reported, sent a letter to the FCC proposing penalties for radio stations that broadcast such numbers. Taylor gave that suggestion a sympathetic shrug:

If you’re going to suspend the license of a broadcasting station for permitting Bach to be played in swing time, what are you going to do to a station for permitting swing music to be played at all? (You might offer the owner of the station his choice of either listening to nothing but swing for, say, twelve hours, or else spending a month in jail.) You can’t legislate against bad taste.

Taylor’s solution was musical rope-a-dope, completely certain that the unaltered classical repertoire would win out. “I believe in letting people hear these swing monstrosities because I believe that it’s the best method of getting rid of them,” he concluded. “A real work of art is a good deal tougher than we assume that it is.”

Jazz has been taking it on the chin lately, prompted by some questionable bits of “satire” that seemed to give tacit permission for a lot of people to assert insecurity as vindication. Jazz is boring. It’s insular. Nobody really likes it. People only listen to it so other people will think they’re cool. And so forth. As someone whose purview is mainly classical and modernist music, I can only say: pull up a chair and have a drink, we’ve already got a tab going.

The only slice of this commentary worth engaging with was John Halle’s broadside against the current state of jazz vis-à-vis progressive politics, mainly because it replaced the shallow context of a consumerist apologia with the rather more interesting context of a radical critique. (Halle’s thesis: “It’s been years since jazz had any claim to a counter-cultural, outsider, adversarial status, or communicated a revolutionary or even mildly reformist mindset.”) But at the core of the article was an assumption about score and performance that is a cousin of Taylor’s. Here’s the crucial passage:

A nadir of obliviousness was reached by the legendary tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson through the inclusion of the standard “Without a Song” in a sequence of classic recordings paying tribute to the then-dominant Black Power movement. Some of the titles of the albums are “Power to the People,” “In Pursuit of Blackness,” “If You’re not Part of the Solution, You’re Part of the Problem,” and “Black is the Color.” So it is more than a little disturbing, in this context, to encounter [in the lyrics of “Without a Song”] the vile Jim Crow racism of the second phrase: “A darky’s born/ but he’s no good no how / without a song.”

As many have pointed out, there’s some slippery cause-and-effect in this paragraph. The album on which Henderson recorded “Without a Song”—1967’s The Kicker—actually predates the more politically centered albums Halle mentions by a couple of years. And Henderson probably knew the song from versions where the lyrics were changed (most notably Billy Eckstine’s suave 1945 recording) or not even there (as with Sonny Rollins’s version on his 1962 album The Bridge).

But the passage also argues a kind of one-way street between intent and performance. The implication is that, no matter Henderson’s intention, the performance is politically regressive because of the original lyrics. The assumption is that the composer’s (or lyricist’s) intent remains paramount, that even a thoroughly transformative performance is still just a reiteration of that intent. To echo Taylor, even a poor work of art, it seems, is a good deal tougher than we assume that it is. There is another possibility, though: the possibility that, no matter Henderson’s intention (or Eckstine’s, or Rollins’s), the performance can offset the lyrics, simply by virtue of who is doing the performing—and how.

* * *

Here’s an interesting thing. Take two weights, connect them with a string, then run the string over a pulley, like this—
You can intuitively guess what will happen: if both weights have the same mass, they’ll just hang there, but if one has more mass, it’ll pull the other through the pulley. This seems trivial, but it’s not, not entirely—which is why the Rev. George Atwood, a tutor at Cambridge’s Trinity College, invented this apparatus in the late 1700s, the better to teach principles of classical mechanics. Playing around with Atwood’s machine, students could measure and learn about rates of acceleration, string tension, inertial forces, and the like. One thing that you can determine with Atwood’s machine is that, in the case of unequal masses (and assuming the pulleys are frictionless), the acceleration on both weights is constant and uniform. In other words, if the masses are equal, the system is at equilibrium, but if the masses are unequal, it’s a runaway system, the weights flying through the pulley, ever faster, until they run out of string or vertical space.

But if you take the two weights, run the string over two pulleys, and start the smaller weight swinging back and forth, like this—
—some unexpected things start to happen. The swinging weight, via centrifugal force—more pedantically, via the apparent force that results from interpreting a rotating reference frame as an inertial frame (somebody would have left a comment)—counteracts some of the gravitational pull on the larger mass. Which means that the Swinging Atwood’s Machine (as it was dubbed by Nicholas Tufillaro, the physicist who first started playing around with such systems back in the 1980s) can end up doing some very counterintuitive things. Even if the masses are unequal, the system can still reach an equilibrium, the smaller mass locking into periodic and sometimes seriously funky orbits:

TufillaroFig4(From Nicholas B. Tufillaro, Tyler A. Abbott, and David J. Griffiths, “Swinging Atwood’s Machine,” Am. J. Phys. 52 (10), October 1984)

To summarize: if you have two unequal masses that are inextricably bound to each other, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the larger mass always dominates the system. The smaller can still counterbalance the larger. It just needs to swing.

* * *

LennysMahler6Leonard Bernstein’s score of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, from the New York Philharmonic’s digital archives.

It’s only a metaphor, of course. Then again, most writing and talking about music ends up, before too long, at metaphors. “Swing” itself, musically speaking, is a pretty vague concept. It has to do with rhythm, but it has to do with so much more than rhythm: it considers the flow of musical experience through the lenses of momentum and vitality. In its most poetic sense, the metaphor is ecumenical. Those old “Mahler Grooves” bumper stickers could be at once a cheeky incongruity and a recognition that, in its own way, and in a good performance, Mahler could indeed groove, that the symphonies could swing in the grandest sense. But even in the term’s more technical sense—that calibration of the ratio between stressed and unstressed notes—“swing” hearkens all the way back to the old Baroque inégale: a variance, a perturbation, a dance of emphasis and de-emphasis that pulls the music forward.

All performance is a matter of emphasis and de-emphasis; it is, on one level, about choice. And, thanks to music’s singular strangeness—grammar and eloquence forever in search of content and meaning—that choice can extend far beyond technical choices on the part of the musicians. Take the case of classical music’s great Beleth, Richard Wagner, who embodied the human possibilities of greatness and ugliness to an exceptionally intense degree. Because his medium was music, performing and listening to Wagner’s work is an opportunity to choose the greatness over the ugliness. When Rollins and Henderson perform “Without a Song,” it is an opportunity to choose the charm and potential of the melody over the reflexive stereotyping of the lyrics. From an optimistic vantage, this ongoing process of choice might be thought of as practice, training players and audience to imagine a better world, the better to achieve it. A pessimist could point out (quite rightly) that such training is taking an awfully long time to translate into concrete change.

We live in a machine. Its gears are money and power. Inequality—greed, racism, misogyny, discrimination—remain institutionalized and persistent. The music this article has been talking about is, culturally speaking, on the margins, however luxurious; maybe to expect these musics, old or new, to alter the fabric of society, however incrementally, is excessively idealistic. (Confession: in that regard, I am an idealist.) But just in their performance, in jazz’s constant reinvention and classical’s constant re-creation, they mount a defense. In swinging, they swing the machine. They mitigate their lesser mass. They, perhaps, prevent the whole system from running away to a catastrophic end. Or, at least, they keep us from being pulled helplessly through the machine.
In a letter published in the February 1941 issue of the Music Educators Journal, a woman named Rosamond Tanner took Deems Taylor to task over his disdain for swing. On the contrary, Tanner insisted, swing versions of the classics were a great way to introduce children to the repertoire: “When the classics are expressed in a form that is understandable and typical of our present day trends and interests, then they are loved and understood, and their themes are not forgotten.” Actually, this is not really that far from Taylor’s position; the end goal is still to eventually encounter the classics in their original form. But Tanner at least emphasized experiencing the classics in performance as much as simply knowing them, instilling in a hypothetical listener the desire “to go to a concert because he knows that concert holds something personal for him—a bond of understanding between him and the music.”

A few years later, Rosamond Tanner, an Eastman-educated organist and a veteran provider of background music for New York City cocktail lounges, was hired for an unusual gig: she became the house organist for the 86th Street branch of the Manhattan Savings Bank, performing for a few hours every day from a balcony overlooking the banking floor. With most banks—including the other branches of the Manhattan Savings Bank—having already adopted piped-in Muzak, Tanner’s job was quirky enough to gain her a mention in “The Talk of the Town” section of the April 24, 1948, issue of The New Yorker. Tanner was hardly a subversive. She was pleased to report how many more accounts the branch had brought in since she had started playing. But give her credit: she could see the machine, and she could see the effect performance could have on it. “I’m a lot more than an entertainer,” she told the magazine. “I’m supposed most of all to offset all the cold-blooded marble and iron bars downstairs.”
*Homepage featured image courtesy Petras Gagilas via Flickr