Tag: listening experiences

Concerts in the Park and Modes of Listening to New Music

An outdoor audience listening to Andy Akiho performing on steel pans along with double bass, harp, piano, mallet percussion, and drums in Bryant Park (Photo by Ryan Muir, courtesy Bryant Park Corporation)

[Ed. Note: Through the summer, composer/arranger/saxophonist Patrick Zimmerli has curated a series of free outdoor concerts in New York City’s Bryant Park. “Breaking Boundaries,” the final concert of the 2016 series which takes place on Friday, August 26, 2016, from 5 to 10 p.m., will feature cellist Inbal Segev, harpist Bridget Kibbey with violinist Kristen Lee and percussionist John Hadfield, the Kenari Saxophone Quartet, the Dan Tepfer Trio with SEVEN)SUNS, and Zimmerli’s own quartet. We asked Zimmerli to share his thoughts on why outdoor concerts are the ideal entry point for people curious about adventurous music.–FJO]

As a composer, I’ve had occasion to think a lot about how to listen to all kinds of music. I’ve pondered ways of hearing Bach fugues and Mozart sonatas and Schoenberg rows and Babbitt superarrays. As a teenager, I also transcribed lots of jazz solos— Bird, Coltrane, Miles, et al.— straining to hear the most fleeting nuances in their improvisations.

I taught ear training and musicianship courses at Columbia University for several years, watching students whose natural aural abilities—as well as their means of taking in and understanding organized sound—were about as singular as their fingerprints. And I’ve seen and heard audiences in concert halls of every shape and size react to all kinds of music, familiar and unfamiliar. Through all this experience, I’ve developed a sensitivity to the problems of listening to music in the 21st century.


Problems of Listening

Some problems of listening to contemporary music were poignantly outlined by Maia Jasper White in her soulful piece on NewMusicBox. Maia touched on the central problem of simultaneously satisfying people with wildly disparate levels of listening experience.

This is something that many composers really don’t sufficiently take into account. The divide between the new music connoisseur and the average person is larger than ever, and the vast majority of people just have no context or experience to be able to deal with music that’s on the knife-edge of contemporary composition. (I kid you not—there are music lovers out there who are so far from the fine distinctions in which we traffic as to not know what a piano is!) While those listeners may seem so far from our target audience as to be irrelevant—especially in this world of narrowcasting—it’s worth taking stock of the great distance contemporary music has travelled from the mainstream.

The split began gradually, as what we now think of as “classical” music grew away from its traditional base, took on the weight of a “tradition,” and ultimately became an academic discipline. Sonatas, rondos, and scherzos, originally organic outgrowths of popular dances, are now forms to be learned in school. With classical music’s increasing departure from its roots in popular culture came modernism. Twentieth-century composers, building on the past, wanted to transcend their predecessors, they wanted their increasingly complex notes and sounds to be heard and absorbed, their winding narratives taken in and comprehended in their entirety. In their search for purity, they wanted their pieces subjected to contemplation rather than applause—to the point that the practice was even entirely banned in Arnold Schoenberg’s Society for Private Musical Performances.

A similar trajectory has been followed in jazz, where what was once a dance/entertainment genre has ascended to the realms of high art. Simple forms like the rhythm changes and blues have come to be played in such an abstract way that even listeners with a very sophisticated understanding of classical music often have no idea of their underlying repetitive structures.  At the same time places like the Village Vanguard, once smoke-filled venues where music was played over a constant thrum of background chatter, have become churchlike spaces, where listeners take in the music in reverent silence.

More recently there’s been a backlash against the imposed silence of the art-listening experience. With the opening of spaces such as (Le) Poisson Rouge nearly a decade ago, venues began to be created where classical music could be re-positioned and re-connected to its past in an informal setting, where people could applaud freely and even chat, much as at a vintage jazz concert (though at the performances I’ve been at, they mostly don’t).

Instead of one view prevailing or holding sway, we now have a situation where a small number of incredibly knowledgeable experts coexist with a sprawling field of listeners whose level of commitment and knowledge is in inverse proportion to their numbers. How on earth can all these people be satisfied simultaneously?

Endsley and tenor saxophonist Ben Wendel during an outdoor concert in Bryant Park

Trumpeter Shane Endsley (left) and tenor saxophonist Ben Wendel (right) of the Ben Wendel Group during their performance at Bryant Park on June 8, 2015 (Photo courtesy Bryant Park Corporation.)

An Outdoor Solution

These thoughts were occasioned by the first concert I curated for New York’s Bryant Park this summer, as part of the IN/TERSECT festival. The idea for the series is to bring together new music from the jazz and classical domains. Each concert in the festival features five ensembles, either jazz or classical based or related, each playing new music, including for each evening one ensemble that had recently been granted a Chamber Music America New Works grant in either the jazz or classical categories.

I was quite enthusiastic when Ethan Lercher, the visionary behind IN/TERSECT, contacted me to curate the series, as I’d always loved Bryant Park. It’s so centrally located in Manhattan that I felt the concerts couldn’t help but attract attention, and indeed they have been exceptionally well-attended for new music events, drawing crowds of up to 2500.

The park is directly behind the New York Public Library, between 5th and 6th avenues and 40th and 42nd streets, and the stage faces a large lawn. There are chairs set up on the part of the lawn nearest the music, and the rest is free for blankets or for people just to lie down or play. The greenery, while manicured, manages to be totally welcoming—the low trees surrounding the lawn give the feeling of shelter from the urban streets. And the park is encircled by the most awe-inspiring urban architecture—look to the west and you see such storied 21st-century skyscrapers as the Bank of America building and the newly completed 7 Bryant Park, with its fabulous conical cutouts; the Grace building to the north, with its seductive outward curve, is a late-20th century precursor; to the south is the magnificent Radiator Building, designed by Raymond Hood, futurist architect of the ‘20s and ‘30s; and of course the New York Public Library, designed and completed over the first decade of the 20th century, sits in Beaux-Arts grandeur to the east. The buildings form a veritable compendium of aesthetic ideas of the last century, and thus provide an interesting context for hearing new music. It’s certainly an auspicious mélange for a festival that looks to bridge styles.

A Rich Sonic Experience

The concerts are necessarily amplified, which might dampen the enjoyment of those who think of classical music performances as one of life’s last pleasures to be completely unmediated by electronics. But Bryant Park has taken great pains—and has incurred great expense—to ensure a natural, rich sound in all areas of the park. They’ve invested in a very good mixing board, new speakers, and other equipment, and rent the best quality microphones available.

In addition, they took the step of hiring the legendary Tom Lazarus as an audio consultant for all three evenings. Tom is a recording engineer who worked for Sony Classical in its heyday, but he also has a sophisticated knowledge and understanding of jazz. Tom’s fantastic intuitive sense for sound, combined with a very high standard, has been hugely helpful in ensuring that everyone from the very front row to the back of the park had a completely naturalistic listening experience, with a full, well-blended sound.

In the second concert, for example, The Westerlies, an outstanding young brass quartet of two trumpets and two trombones that plays original music as well as covers of composers like Ives and Machaut, played with a gorgeous, velvety sound; their extremely nuanced, detailed performance came through the speakers immaculately. Even the notoriously-difficult-to-mic string quartet sounded very natural—the Argus Quartet’s passionately committed performance of Eric Guinivan’s String Quartet, and their exquisite rendition of Beethoven’s Op. 59 No. 2, hit the public’s ears with a warm, full sonority.


Varieties of Listening Experience

I wanted to emphasize the quality of sound at IN/TERSECT to make the larger point that, for sophisticated listeners, the intense, focused concert experience remains available. True, there is ambient noise from the surrounding streets, but the amplification pretty well offsets that. On the first evening, we featured violist Andy Lin (of Amphion Quartet fame) and his sister Kelly, who played a somewhat intricate piece by Korean composer Alvin Tam; its every detail was available for connoisseurs to ingest.

On the other hand, you could just pass by and take in a few notes, listen from afar on the lawn, chat with a friend or wander off if you were getting bored or there was a part you disliked. With most new music concerts at destination venues, it’s very unusual to be able to dip your little toe in like this.

Andy Akiho performing on steel pans along with harp and double bass during the June 10, 2016 IN/TERSECT concert in Bryant Park

Andy Akiho and The Foundry performing during the June 10, 2016 IN/TERSECT concert in Bryant Park. Photo by Ryan Muir (courtesy Bryant Park Corporation).

Modes of Listening

New music has been as much about challenging modes of listening and perception as anything else. Schoenberg created his Society for Private Musical Performances out of a dissatisfaction with the traditional ways that audiences approached music. Schoenberg had a much higher standard of listening—in Style and Idea he disdains those who cannot easily take in both a main and subordinate theme simultaneously, and famously derides composers only familiar with half of Brahms’s complete output. Schoenberg’s concerts were places where a small but highly cultured, knowledgeable, and devout audience could gather and bring a tremendous, hitherto-unheard-of level of focus and intensity of listening to the concert experience.

That focus and intensity has gradually been institutionalized within classical and new music culture. Today there are any number of new music concerts where small audiences go to inspect music in great detail (based on an abundance of prior knowledge) that to the uninitiated would carry little meaning. And indeed, in so lifting the standards of listening, Schoenberg and his descendants have left huge swaths of humanity entirely behind.

What was most wonderful to me about the park experience was that all modes of listening were available simultaneously. Sure, you could sit in the front row and scrutinize Sandbox Percussion’s performance of Johnny Allen’s Sonata, with its multiple interpretive modes; you could revel to the minute details of Jonathan Finlayson’s trumpet stylings or hang on every note of Chris Potter’s soloistic flights.

But at the same time there was no pressure to do any of the above. The ambient noise from the surrounding city streets is at a level that makes chatting with a neighbor not feel out of place in the back rows of the seating area, and there are many people who are spread out on blankets on the lawn, or even playing frisbee, as the music washes over them.

I guess Brian Eno beat me to this observation by a couple of decades, but—as someone who’s spent so much time on focused listening—I still believe there’s something really amazing about background music. Indeed—there’s something amazing about new music as background music. One of the most memorable moments during the first concert came for me when I took a full loop around the exterior of the park during the performance. Sandbox Percussion was playing a lovely piece by David Crowell, a very interesting young composer hailing from Alaska. As I was walking through the park, I thrilled to the sound—as did many seated on the lawn—of Crowell’s rhythms pinging serenely off of the surrounding buildings in stereophonic splendor. The content of the music was interesting but it almost didn’t matter; it was the simple fact of mallet instruments playing in concerted rhythm—mixing into and civilizing the chaotic sounds of the city—that was so sublime. The music that we often so minutely scrutinize, that we routinely talk about at levels of detail elusive to the everyperson: can it be that it all boils down to “Ahh, nice mallets pinging into the night air”?

I guess the answer to that is, “It depends.” It depends on who you are. It depends on your level of musical experience, on what you bring to the occasion. It depends on what you expect, what you want, what you think music could or should be. And, unlike almost any new music concert I’ve attended, the IN/TERSECT festival offered a rewarding experience for people with an amazing variety of those levels, those expectations, those desires.

Patrick Zimmerli

Patrick Zimmerli (photo by Maxime de Bollivier)

Patrick Zimmerli is a New York and Paris-based composer and musician. He has written and performed numerous works for jazz and classical musicians, among them jazz saxophonist Joshua Redman, the Escher String Quartet, jazz pianist Brad Mehldau, the Paris Percussion Group, and Bralizian vocalst Luciana Souza.

Submission, Discomfort, and Transcendence

The Blind

Before audience members enter the venue where The Blind is performed, they must put on a blindfold after which they are personally escorted one by one into the space by ushers. (Photo by Stephanie Berger, courtesy Lincoln Center.)

I have frequently described on these pages how for me experiencing a work of art—whether it is listening to a piece of music, looking at a work of visual art, or reading a book—is an act of submission. That submission is, ideally, an eschewal of self in order to focus as much as possible on something that has been created by someone else. As I’ve stated before, I firmly believe that this act of submission—whether focusing on a live performance or recording, attentively observing paintings or sculpture, or quietly experiencing literature—helps us to better respect and understand the viewpoints of other people and therefore become better citizens in a democratic society. There’s also the added benefit of being able to have an aesthetically transcendent experience with someone else’s creative endeavor in that it gets you to think about the world in a completely new way and therefore will hopefully be a source of enrichment for the rest of your life.

But the metaphor of “submission” as my ideal audience intake position has now reached a whole new level for me. (If “intake” sounds too medical to you, blame it on the paucity of words for experiencing that are not vision-specific rather than an attempt to compare audience members to doctors’ patients; after all these years I’m actually still a lousy patient.) Last week, for the John La Bouchardière production of Lera Auerbach’s opera The Blind I attended at Lincoln Center (which co-produced by American Opera Projects), the entire audience is required to be blindfolded. (Full disclosure: I went to the performance since I was asked to moderate a panel for Lincoln Center in conjunction with this presentation about the arts and the senses. While my ongoing immersions with other senses–which frequently relate back to music–offered some valuable fodder for that discussion, nothing was better preparation than sitting through the actual show.) Anyway, many publications have already published extensive reviews of this production ranging from ecstatic to annoyed. (Even The New York Post weighed in!) Since my ideal role as a member of an audience is to submit to whatever the creators and/or interpreters want me to, I have no desire to play critical can opener. But I will say that I found the performance very moving as well as deeply inspiring both on a creative level and as a life experience. Vivien Schweitzer, in her extensive New York Times feature about The Blind, perhaps best summed up the impact being blindfolded had on being able to appreciate not only Auerbach’s music but also the various olfactory and tactile elements Bouchardière incorporated into the production:

I … found the experience initially disconcerting but then vividly intense, as I became highly attuned to the sounds, sensations and unseen movements unfolding around me.

But what struck me as equally significant as the act of being blindfolded resulting in a foregrounding of all of my other senses, was the element of personal discomfort and vulnerability involved in the process. At first the blindfold was too tight. I wasn’t sure what to do. Ultimately I decided that if it remained too tight, I’d waste my concentration on the tightness of the blindfold and not pay requisite attention to the production so I loosened it after a few minutes. Yet I was still occasionally distracted. From time to time I feared the blindfold would fall off and that I would accidently get a peek of something which would ruin the illusion for me. Also I wasn’t sure if I should keep my eyes closed or open. At one point, having my vision obstructed became so annoying that I took advantage of my loosened blindfold and actually stared down at my shoes through the tiny sliver that had been opened up. I confessed to this in a conversation with Bouchardière, to whom I was introduced following the performance, and he said only half-jokingly that he thought I had cheated. But my discomfort with this particular audience requirement has made me ponder audience requirements overall.

The more I thought about it the more I realized that every time we encounter something outside of ourselves and wholly give ourselves up to doing so there will be some discomfort and vulnerability. Some people find it an immense personal sacrifice not to be able to talk during a musical performance. I’ve been a motor mouth for most of my life, and the first few times I had to remain quiet during a concert felt unbearable, but once I became acculturated to it I began to get a lot more from the listening experience. The same is true for the constant rewards I get from reading, an activity which eluded me—since I was very hyperactive—until I was a teenager. I still think I can be a better viewer of visual art. Unlike books which can only be read as fast as one’s reading pace, or music which operates according to its own immovable clock, most visual art allows the viewer to determine viewing time. Since I want to see everything, I think I spend too little time looking at individual works. In this case my voracious sight prevents me from seeing more deeply into things. But no blindfold will enable me to better see a work of visual art. Then again, one of the panelists for my Art and the Senses panel, Rebecca McGinnis, is in charge of the access programs at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, including tours for visually impaired visitors which are specifically designed to offer them ways into works of art that go beyond the visual component—touching various objects, sightless drawing as a way to conceptualize two-dimensional space, etc. These programs make it possible for people to have meaningful encounters visual art without needing to see it.

Ultimately our senses can be as much of a hindrance as they are an asset in our ability to comprehend the world around us. How we balance our senses as well as the preconceptions that all too often block that sensory input from being processed is an ongoing struggle for all of us. But most life lessons do not come easily, so the occasional discomfort that is a requisite for a deeper understanding is a small price to pay.

Manufactured Innocence

Another musician recently alerted me to the existence of Milktape, which is the latest in a recent parade of 21st-century products masquerading as relics of simpler times. The gist is that the device resembles a cassette tape but is actually a 128 MB flash drive, with space for the equivalent of about 15 mp3 files. Milktape retails at $15 for a single cassette, with the small consolation that it comes with a blank case cover and stickers.

I don’t exactly need to point out that Milktape is a preposterous rip-off; savvy consumers could purchase a 20 GB flash drive off of eBay or from discount retailers for about the same price. But the point (or conceit) is that you can’t store thousands of songs on Milktape, but are forced to choose carefully. The manufacturers of the device are obviously hoping that nostalgia for actual mix tape sharing—a laborious process that provided a great way for children of the analog age to share part of themselves with a friend or crush—will be worth $15 to a culture immersed in a glut of retro-nostalgia.
On one hand, I completely understand the poignancy of the mix tape ritual and the desire to return to that deeply felt, handmade aesthetic that characterizes the loving sloppiness of dubbed mixes and hand-scrawled notes. It’s a sincere desire that comes from recognizing that something about the digital age is not quite satisfying to human beings, from recognizing that we crave an experience that is more vivid, tactile, and expressively rich rather than one that is merely efficient. But I also can’t help but think this attempt to return to a simpler time presents its own breed of problems and contradictions; that cute little faux-cassette still has to be plugged into your laptop’s USB port, and its contents dragged and dropped into iTunes. There’s simply no way to even approximate the user experience of Ye Olde Mix Tapes, and the resulting experience strikes me as emotionally manipulative and singularly unfulfilling.

Will people drop $15 on one of these novelty items? I don’t know, but I’m curious: Will consumers pay an absurd price for the mere pretense of an obsolete experience which has removed all functional traces of that which is affectionately obsolete? Milktape refers back to a beloved experience, without replicating anything that made that experience special and loveable to begin with, and adds a layer of pretense where previously none existed. Am I right to be so perplexed by this product, or does the device possess some redeeming quality that’s eluding me?

My Bill Evans Problem–Jaded Visions of Jazz and Race

“I never experienced any racial barriers in jazz other than from some members of the audience.”—Bill Evans
In the early ‘80s, I was working in a Washington, D.C. record store when I heard Kind of Blue, Miles Davis’s midtempo, modal masterpiece of an album that for me, and many others, was an initiation into the colors, cadences, and complexities of jazz. Transfixed by the many aural shades of the LP’s blue moods, I made it a point to get every recording the musicians on the album had ever made. But it was the poetic and profound pianism of Bill Evans that haunted me the most. When I listened to Evans’s studio LP Explorations—with drummer Paul Motian and bassist Scott LaFaro—my Evans-induced hypnotic trance deepened; and so did my problem.
What was the problem? Bill Evans was white. And I am black.

When I got into jazz, I was in my twenties. As a child growing up in the ‘60s and ‘70s, I was a beneficiary of the Civil Rights Movement, and, more importantly, I grew up in a period of American history when, thankfully, black pride was taken for granted. I had black history courses beginning in the first grade and continuing through middle school, and black contributions to world music were a natural extension of that education. I attended Howard University (the so-called Mecca of historically black colleges and universities). Throughout my life, it had been drilled into me that jazz was created by blacks and represented the apex of African-American musical civilization. I learned about the great jazz heroes – from Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington to Dizzy Gillespie to Charlie Parker – and of America’s refusal to give these Olympian musicians their proper due as the revolutionary artists the world knows them to be. I came to know something deeper: in many cases, white jazz musicians achieved more fame and were given more credit for the creation of the music.

Time Magazine Brubeck

The cover of the November 8, 1954 issue of Time magazine.

There are enough examples of this in jazz history. Paul Whiteman was the King of Jazz. Benny Goodman was the King of Swing. Duke Ellington knocked on Dave Brubeck’s hotel door, to show the white pianist that he made the cover of Time magazine in 1954 before he did. (Brubeck, for the record, was hurt and embarrassed.) Then there was the 1965 Pulitzer Prize snub of Ellington. In the ’70s, President Carter presented jazz on the White House lawn, with Dizzy Gillespie and Stan Getz as featured artists. President Carter asked Getz about how bebop was created, with Gillespie standing right there.

Against that historical backdrop, I also practiced a form of racial profiling of musicians. Though I was wrong about the racial identities of the Righteous Brothers, Average White Band, and Teena Marie, I knew what black musicians “sounded like” via Motown, Stax, and Philadelphia International records. Though no one stated it specifically, there was a “black sound” and a “white sound.” To like a “white sound,” or worse, a white musician who “sounded black,” was cultural treason. Without realizing it at the time, this inhibited me on many levels, especially as a clarinetist and pianist in high school. When I was studying classical music, and I allowed myself to be moved by it, I feared that some of my black peers would see me as an Uncle Tom.

It was Bill Evans’s love of, and application of, European classical styles, approaches, and motifs into jazz that was so attractive to my ears, as evidenced by the azure impressionism of “Blue in Green” on Kind of Blue, the intoxicating melodicism of “Israel” from Explorations, the lyrical logic of “Peace Piece” from Everybody Digs Bill Evans, and the chamber timbre of “Time Remembered” from the 1966 album Bill Evans Trio with Symphony Orchestra.

So it was in that hot-house atmosphere of well-meaning—but ultimately immature and xenophobic attitudes about music and race—that my Bill Evans problem existed. The problem manifested itself in many ways. I would often hide Bill Evans albums when talking about jazz musicians with fellow black jazz fans for fear of being “outed” as a sellout, given a look of disapproval, or asked, “Why are you listening to that white boy?” The fact that Evans was lauded by white critics because he was white and his classical pedigree didn’t help.
Slowly but surely, my perceptions about jazz and race began to evolve and change. As my jazz historical studies deepened, I learned that music is a cultural, not a racial phenomenon. Black Americans at the turn of the 20th century created jazz by combining elements of European classical instruments, harmonies, and song forms with African, Afro-Caribbean, and American rhythms and melodic structures. As Ralph Ellison noted, “blood and skin don’t think.” Or to put it a different way: jazz didn’t come into existence because black people were simply black. Its creation was the result of history, geography, social conditions, and, most importantly, the will to create something of artistic human value. To believe anything else plummets us into the foul abyss of pseudo-racist demagoguery that still plagues us on so many levels today.

Specifically, I asked myself, “Why would Miles Davis, a proud, strong black man, hire someone who was white like Evans?” The answer was simple: the artistry of the musician mattered more to him; not his or her color. Davis hired and collaborated with many white musicians throughout his career, from Gerry Mulligan and Lee Konitz in the historic Birth of the Cool sessions of the late ’40s and his extremely popular mid-1950s recordings arranged by Gil Evans to his later fusion bands which included Keith Jarrett, Joe Zawinul, Chick Corea, and even British guitarist John McLaughlin. So Davis chose Bill Evans because (in his own words, as recounted in Peter Pettinger’s biography Bill Evans: How My Heart Sings): “He can play his ass off.” Davis was more specific in his autobiography (Miles: the Autobiography, co-written by Quincy Troupe): “Bill brought a great knowledge of classical music, people like Rachmaninoff and Ravel. He was the one who told me to listen to the Italian pianist Arturo Michelangeli, so I did and fell in love with his playing. Bill had this quiet fire that I loved on piano.”

In addition to Davis, other black jazz superstars hired Evans. He recorded on bassist Charles Mingus’s East Coasting, a superb and elegant recording from the ’50s, and on alto saxophonist Oliver Nelson’s ’60s masterpiece Blues and the Abstract Truth, which also featured Eric Dolphy and Freddie Hubbard. Evans was the featured soloist on arranger/composer George Russell’s arrangement of “All About Rosie,” and on his third stream-meets-bop Jazz Workshop album. He also worked with bassist Ortiz Walton, the author of the book Music: Black, White and Blue. My further explorations revealed that Evans was not the lily-white suburban racial recluse I stereotyped him to be. He was heavily indebted to Nat “King” Cole and Bud Powell (Evans described Powell as “the most comprehensive talent of any jazz player I have ever heard presented on the jazz scene”). So much for being the “great white devil” or the “white hope” black and white critics made him out to be.

So what does my former Bill Evans problem say about jazz and race today? For one thing, it is firmly and correctly established in music education, and in society in general, that jazz is an African-American art form: blacks have gotten their due as the art form’s primary creators. No credible critic, musician, or music curriculum would state otherwise. At the same time, it is equally true that white musicians have made and continue to make great contributions to jazz. While the role Evans and other whites have played should not be exaggerated to move the music’s black known and unknown bards to the back of the bus, giving Caucasians appropriate acknowledgment does not threaten the African-American creation of the music.

If anything, jazz at the beginning of the 21st century is appropriately black, brown, and beige; with every global musical/cultural ingredient embellishing, extending, and enriching it. This is a good thing. More importantly, youth around the world—white youth included—want to play it, despite the fact that in the United States you barely see jazz on TV, radio stations that play it are shrinking, and print coverage of it is dwindling.
The declining significance of jazz in the media and marketplace has, in my opinion, increased the unfortunate crabs-in-a-bucket mentality that plagues the jazz infrastructure, which by default can cause the racial aspect to become more prominent. I see this in two distinctly different, but related aspects. The first is the notion of the “Crow-Jimmed” white musician who has been racially discriminated against by blacks, the record industry, and white critics who are guilt-tripped into adopting an “exclusionary” black agenda to support a kind of affirmative action for black musicians. This was the primary gist behind the 2010 publication of trumpeter Randy Sandke’s controversial book, Where the Dark and Light Folks Meet: Race and Mythology, Politics, and Business of Jazz. Sandke, a New York-based musician whom I first met when we shared a panel on Louis Armstrong at Hofstra University in 2001, sees today’s jazz scene as a retreat into a cult of racial exclusionism that betrays the integration of black and white musicians who played together in the same groups going back to the 1930s. It was a phenomenon which lessened in the ‘60s and which was largely forgotten during the so-called “Young Lions” era of the ‘80s when young, African-American musicians such as the Marsalis brothers rose to prominence.
“Having once been in the vanguard, jazz has fallen prey to the same racial divisions that have plagued the rest of American society,” Sandke writes. “The overwhelming racialization of jazz has not only denied outside musical influences, stifled creativity, and pitted group against group: it has also overlooked the crucial role that white audiences and presenters have played in disseminating and promoting the music.”

I think, with all due respect, Sandke overdramatizes the plight of the white jazz musician. Yes, the Young Lions phenomenon was overwhelmingly black and young, and Sandke is partially right about the market-driven motives of record executives who wanted to hype black musicians to an extent, but their actions pale in comparison to how whites have promoted musicians of a paler shade for centuries. In the end, there is a big difference between the jazz intelligentsia’s attempt to right an historical wrong and the willful promotion of a reverse apartheid for white musicians. Sandke’s views are ironic, because many black jazz musicians and writers complain that African Americans—who, according to the 2010 CENSUS, are 12% of the population—do not frequent jazz venues in sizable numbers.

On the other end of the spectrum, there is Nicholas Payton: a New Orleans-born trumpet player and son of bassist Walton Payton. Payton has enjoyed a critically acclaimed career, earning a Grammy for his 1997 collaboration with the great Doc Cheatman. In the past decade, he has recorded two challenging and creative CDs: Sonic Trance and Into the Blue. Now Payton feels straight-jacketed as a jazz musician, and he has created #BAM – Black American Music—in response, a movement that is “about setting straight what has been knocked out of alignment by mislabeling and marketing strategies,” according to his website. What started out as a provocative essay from Payton entitled “On Why Jazz Isn’t Cool Anymore” has degenerated in some posts and tweets into finger pointing and name calling that advances nothing. To be fair to Payton, he is not saying that you have to be black to appreciate or play #BAM. “Black American Music just acknowledges the culture from which it sprung forth. You don’t have to be Black to appreciate and play it any more than you have to be Chinese to cook and eat noodles,” he writes on his website.

While, as an African American I have some sympathy for Payton’s views, I have the same reservations about his conclusions as I do Sandke’s views. Payton suggests that black jazz musicians cannot change the status quo of their current stature if they call their music jazz. Payton also ignores or diminishes the fact that, as I stated earlier, everyone in the jazz infrastructure acknowledges blacks as the creators of jazz. Yes, jazz artists are hampered by market-driven definitions, but that is nothing special to them. Every musician regardless of genre complains about this.

Just as my Bill Evans problem obscured my early development in my appreciation of the music, adopting verbatim the thoughts and opinions of musicians like Sandke and Payton could do the same for young people just getting into the music, whether as musicians or as fans. It would be quite Pollyannaish of me to tell someone to “simply ignore race.” I (and we) live in a racialized world, and jazz is a part of that world. But if the music teaches us anything, it teaches us that we can keep racial distinctions and distortions at bay.

Playing With The Audience

Over the years I’ve heard so many comments from various pundits that the so-called concert music community (whether it’s classical, opera, or new music) needs to more effectively engage audiences. Yet I can think of few experiences that are more engaging than completely focusing on listening as a foreground experience. Nevertheless, it does seem a tremendous waste of a resource to have a large group of people in attendance for a concert performance and for the only desired sound they make to be their applause at the end of individual pieces of music. Clapping is undeniably a tremendous sonic phenomenon—a spatial microphony of non-aligned irregular rhythms which can be as complex as anything in a Henry Brant or György Ligeti score. But imagine if there could be other viable ways to use everyone in attendance as part of the performance.

Playwrights and directors have attempted, with varying degrees of success, to tear down the so-called fourth wall between performers and audience members for generations at this point, directly engaging spectators to varying degrees, even on television. Presumably, however, the participation of a television viewer in his or her own home has no impact on other viewers watching in their own homes unless such a program could be experienced on an elaborate Web 2.0 open-ended simulacrum of a video chat. Where it has the possibility of really making a difference is in a live theatrical experience. Molly attended Third Rail Projects’ performance of a fourth-wall shattering theatrical experience based on Alice in Wonderland called Then She Fell and described being directly spoken to by the actors and being expected to respond as part of the mise-en-scène.

How could such a thing work in a musical composition? When I was a rebellious undergrad in college, I had an idea for a piece that would involve my playing a fixed chord progression over and over again with some musicians on stage with me creating their own musical lines that harmonized with what I was doing and gradually for everyone in the audience to sing along and harmonize with it, creating a gigantic spatial environment of indeterminate yet consonant counterpoint. It worked wonderfully when it was done in a small room with a group of 10-20 people, but when I attempted to do it in a larger concert hall it was complete and utter chaos, a fiasco culminating with people riding bicycles down the aisles. Perhaps having such a freeform format yet expecting such a controlled result was ultimately a tad naïve and somewhat misguided.

Audience Participation

The audience gets in on the act during a lecture/demonstration of Vivian Fung’s piano concerto Dreamscapes conducted by Andrew Cyr at the America’s Society.

A couple of weeks ago, to celebrate the release of Vivian Fung’s new CD on Naxos Canadian Classics (though currently based in New York City, she grew up in Edmonton), she, together with disc’s soloists—violinist Kristen Lee and pianist Conor Hanick—and conductor Andrew Cyr (who leads the Metropolis Ensemble on the recording) presented a lecture-demonstration at the America’s Society. In the opening of Fung’s piano concerto, entitled Dreamscapes, members of the orchestra are scattered around the hall equipped with a variety of traditional Vietnamese bird whistles. At the end of the piece the musicians put down their instruments and pick up wine glasses, rubbing their rims to produce various pitches. Since the orchestra was not on hand for this lecture-demonstration, Cyr passed out the bird whistles and wine glasses (though without wine, unfortunately, until the post-event reception) to audience members in various places of the room, asking them to make the required sounds upon his conducting commands to illustrate how these sounds were made. It was a magical moment that was perhaps even more magical than it is on the recording, because it was so vulnerable and at the same time all encompassing. (Full disclosure: I was there because I had written the disc’s booklet notes.)

The following night I attended an extremely moving memorial for the composer William Duckworth (1943-2012) at Le Poisson Rouge that contained selections from pieces he wrote spanning nearly a half century. The program concluded with a few songs from Their Song, an extremely beautiful 1991 song cycle performed by the people he composed it for: baritone Thomas Buckner and pianist Joseph Kubera. The text for the final song was a series of words meaning goodbye in various languages which Duckworth set with an instantly memorable melody. At the very end, the audience was encouraged to and did in fact sing along as a final goodbye. It was an extraordinarily meaningful experience.

In order for an audience participatory component to be effective and not just be a gimmick, I think it does have to actually have a significant meaning. Otherwise there are fewer experiences more rewarding than attentively listening.