Feb 15

KIND OF BLEUGH, or seven better stand-alone ways into jazz in the early age of the long-playing disc (possibly)

FT42 comments • 4,208 views

(Hoisted from comments on Tom’s thread re-exploring LP-listening in the age of the no-longer moored individual song)

So Tom had put Sketches of Spain by Miles Davis on his list, and in response the thread had discussed the mechanics of politics of tokenism: some idea how and why SoS so often ends up as a rock or pop listener’s one trusty jazz LP, and some suggestions as to better candidates. Inevitably, I ended up getting pre-emptively grumpy about Miles’s Kind of Blue, and was called on this. What’s my actual beef with KoB? And, given this beef, where I would I suggest starting? These were my semi-mulled thoughts, tidied up, with extras added, and responses to responses further down…)

My basic beef with Kind of Blue:
chill outthe short version (set out at speed) is i suppose this: that it is a sly, niggling, jittery record of odd subtle hard-to-pin-down not-very-nice emotions and evocations, which depends for its expressive intent on the listener having a pretty solid familiarity with the music of its day and what went before, for its devices and effects to come across properly (most famously the introduction of the modal approach to harmony, the details and purpose of which i’ve watched seriously learned and articulate musicians struggle to explain coherently or usefully)

and yet it has somehow become the stand-alone representative of the form it is on the whole sardonically setting itself against: something about the way it’s been made — its constituent parts, its presentation — exactly and completely masks this subtly hostile aspect of it, to the extent that it’s instead become a kind of nice-to-hear-in-the-background chill-out classic, which in my opinion suggests a flaw in its conception or execution: that it can’t (or anyway doesn’t) draw the newbie into its darker heart

i don’t think it’s bland or diluted, exactly the opposite — but there’s something about it that allows it to be excerpted from its somewhat snidey role in a larger conversation, and set up on a plinth that puts the rest of this conversation into shadow if not oblivion… which annoys me! miles was never not an argumentative man: he disliked a lot of the work his peers were making, but this almost always meant he came round to his own version of this work by another route

if my musicological chops were less rusty i’d write this up in more detail — tho if/when i attempt this will probably then merge itself into my long-awaited ever-expanding epic dissection of rattle and hum (the “angel of harlem” volume) –:D

[Expanding a bit: i don’t think it’s an accident the record’s called KIND OF blue, or that the first song is called “so what”; i think there’s deliberate misdirection going on. In one sense Miles remained the black face of the cool school, its prior enabler — but the cool school was already controversial by the mid-50s, as a whitening of jazz (on-stage as well as conceptually) and Miles never had much time for the way his own (white) fans understood his music. I think there’s mindfuck going on here — it’s never been a record I can just put on in the background — and it’s not as he wasn’t above sledging his own sidemen, even the loyal, long-term ones. Plus he favoured elision and ellipsis temperamentally — he was never a flamboyant virtuoso and from time to time had harsh things to say about this side of jazz (Coltrane didn’t know when to take the sax out of his mouth etc; various beloved maximalist figures were “greedy”). So to me this is totally a problematic candidate for an “all you need to know is here, and hey! it’s ME!” (quite apart from the fact that this sentence is even less in the spirit of jazz in any era than the idea that composed or recorded contributions best typify it). Besides, there isn’t an era of the jazz he lived through that Miles wasn’t at odds with as he lived through it — which is not an uninteresting fact, but it does mean that you have to know something about what he might be at odds with in any given moment to follow where he’s taking it. And he sure as shit isn’t going to talk you through this dimension: he’s much more likely to remove explanatory props than supply them, just as he did with musicians, getting the performances he wanted not by discursive exploration among equals, but by undermining headfuck, borderline bullying, and sustained personal opacity. He is a great man! But he is neither a direct nor a generous artist; and much of his direction is counter-direction.]

The issue of homework:
Not unreasonably, Tommy Mack came back and asked if I was therefore saying that to understand jazz, you have to arrive (as tommy’s brother insists) with a well informed ear (implication: to understand any of it, you have first to listen carefully to the entirety of jazz in the historical order it was made). This isn’t quite what I meant.

i should add that my general view is not your brother’s! i don’t think you need to do lots of homework before jumping into jazz at any point other than the start: but i also think there are good and bad records to jump in at, and kind of blue is — for me, for the reasons given, not a good one (not least because it seems to end up being the first AND ONLY for so many ppl, which is i think telling)

i tried to put together a quick list of records that would be better places to start in roughly this era — obviously this cleaves to my own tastes (no coltrane) but i don’t think any of these are these days controversial or quirky or contrarian; all of them are strong and striking just in themselves, obviously you get more out of them if you do know more (this is true of everything) but you don’t need a run up.

Adding: what this list attempts to do is provide better routes into the whole of jazz, with the proviso that we’re starting from roughly this point, viz c.1956-64, rather than say 1921-29 or 1935-45 or 1967-75. All of these other startpoints are fine (any startpoint is fine!): all of them will run into their own difficulties. My task here is to outline and endrun the specific difficulties that starting with a LP from c.1956-64 likely runs into. In particular this means any given suggestion has to take into account salient issues in the jazz of the day, trends and beefs and so on, without assuming the newbie listener has any sense of same or orientation within same: in terms of immediate interest and (if you listen closely and often) exploration and development, the records present as stand-alone; you can learn everything you need to know, provided you’re alert and patient and have a goodish natural sense of aural recognition. They’re kind of a beginner’s portal and an advanced masterclass rolled into one. The list is down-page: before I get to it I’ve tried to flesh out my decision-making.

[this^^^ par edited a little on 21.2.15 in light of enitharmon’s comments below: it was clearer in the original discussion than it is here that i absolutely think there are multiple routes into jazz — including hers! which was listening to live jazz as a kid made by people she knew! — and that this exercise is about minimising the obstacles and maximising the potential if you decide to enter jazz via this specific portal]

Format wars!
The key development — the arrival in 1948 of the 33-third vinyl long-playing microgroove record — is discussed in the comments on the earlier thread, by me here and (somewhat argumentatively) here and here: I won’t c&p this here tho by all means request or initiate discussion (and disagreement!) in the comments below. Columbia’s reasons for the new format were better sound (vinyl is less brittle and more durable than shellac) and longer playing time (the microgroove fit more playing onto the same 12 inches; the initial vibrations were smaller so had to be amplified much more, but not-quite-paradoxically this also allowed for more subtlety of variation to be picked up by the new diamond needle). Columbia initially had the new format in mind for classical audiences bored with getting up 6-8 times per symphony to flip or change a 78: and while it offered great potential for jazz musicians to spread out and explore, a particular peril arrived with this — essential that the “serious content” arrived in hock to the values and listening habits of middlebrow classical listeners. Improvisers were already playing creative games — in far more curtailed listening spaces — with echo and anticipation, variation and juxtaposition, so the greater space and complexity wasn’t itself a surprise: but there was a danger that the imposition of classical form was obscuring the value already there. And of course jazz from the teens to the 40s had been brash, because cutting through the noise of a nightclub or a scratchy 78 surface was essential to being heard. Vinyl allowed you to play softly also: sonority or arrangement luxuriated in this new velvety richness of possibility; if quietness was never mistaken for quality, its absence was sometimes taken as a lack of it.

(No accident — as Ward Fowler gently jokes below — that bachelor pad loungecore also started here.)

Against the cool
MJQ third streamSometime around 1957, musician-scholar Gunther Schuller coined the term “third stream” to categorise music that (as a later time would put it) explored a fusion of classical and jazz elements. Now “classical” potentially covers all composed music from Gesualdo to Varèse; jazz by the mid-50s included everything from King Oliver up to if not quite including Cecil Taylor; Schuller had a more delimited territory in mind, hard to pin down w/o getting deeper into the weeds than I plan to here (he definitely saw it as covering Ellington and Strayhorn as well as Charles Mingus). Still — enabled by the new technology (and by the ever-increasing numbers of non-self-taught jazzbos who’d had first-class musical educations: Miles himself went to Juilliard, tho of course he also dropped out before completing his studies) — this was an encounter that was bound to happen; and one that was bound to get intensely politicised, in the era of civil rights struggle and the beginning of the drawing down of legal segregation in the US. On one hand, jazz was “black” and classical was “white’; on the other, there should be no bar wharever to black musicians entering white cultural enclaves, and presumably vice versa; on the third (problematic) hand, white musicians playing what was considered half-assed pseudo-classical jazz seemed to getting the lion’s share of the attention, the approval and the paycheques. (Brubeck as first jazzer on the cover of Time magazine was very much a “zap! bam! comics are not just for kids anymore!” type phenom, for example, marking the apparent enthronement of the cool school as the one that entailed genuine grown-up seriousness worthy of yr sunday arts supp attention…)

Schuller had proposed the term (at least in part) to take some of the political heat out of underlying situation: classical and jazz dudes were both getting territorial about experiments in combination that they felt were encroaching on the excellence of their favoured side. A third recognised zone could perhaps evolve in its own pace at its own way without threatening to spill over into and taint anyone’s considered values. And several figures in Miles’s various projects were good Schullerites and active Third Streamers. Pianist John Lewis had been a key player-composer in Miles’s original Birth of the Cool sessions (he’d co-founded the Modern Jazz Quartet in 1952; in 1960 the MJQ put out a collection called Third Stream Music). Teo Macero had worked with Schuller and Lewis before he teamed up with Miles.

Schuller was/is a front-rank musicologist and historian: always worth reading even when his tastes (or tone) bug you. If he wanted to act as an aesthetic peacemaker, though, he was hopelessly naive. Too much rankled; too many felt shut out. As styles, hard bop and soul jazz both functioned as resistance to the alleged deracination of cool or third stream (but also sometimes fallback and retreat: as invaluable training grounds for many excellent players who only flourished and found themselves after they left). Long story short: an LP from either side of this divide selected as a route into all jazz requires a better history lesson than ^^^this of the divide to operate as introduction; a self-consciously “third stream” item even more so.

The prisonhouse of harmony (a bit technical tho I’m doing my best that it not be)
If you’ve read Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon (or watched the middle two Pirates of the Caribbean movies), you’ll recognise the idea that the imposition on the entire globe of the full latitude-longitude grid changed the nature of travel-as-flight-out: in a very real sense, an adventurer always now knew where they were, and could increasingly draw on reliable accounts of what they’d find there. Quests became a matter more of careful pre-planning — and filling in small gaps on the map — than leaps into the unknown: and the tenor of the tales that followed changed along with this.

Something not dissimilar happened in music: twice, actually. In the 17th century, the 24 Preludes and Fugues of the Well-Tempered Klavier, J.S.Bach had helped establish the latitude-longitude grid for tuning and travels in harmony; by Wagner’s day, the adventures had changed in nature, PotC-style. Previous tuning systems had exactly tuned the home key (usually C major) by the cycle of fifths method; this meant meant that distant keys (like F# major) sounded super-weird, all its proportions wrong. Bach had pioneered a system of conventional mistunings and adjustments that allowed every key to sound in tune — each with its distinctive nudged flavour — and thus allowed harmonic modulation within quite short pieces to take you to remote keys without breaking the extant rules. The extant rules provided a logic within which note and chord choices were made; and thus a context of games with anticipation; expected directions and therefore surprise directions. By the mid 19th century, Wagner had demonstrated you could effectively demonstrate musically that every possible broken modulation rule was in effect a shortcut for a properly constructed route — you could dab in the clues if you liked, but a smart theorist could also supply them afterwards — and so the rules no longer presented composition with the spur of the Fruitful Obstacle or the challenge of a problem-solving. Every direction was now equally OK: and therefor no fun. Whatever you did (in terms of the exploration of harmony) you were still somewhere known on the map (and in fact, composition increasingly moved to explore sonority, which had no such in-built logics).

As its harmonic basis, jazz had inherited the pragmatic aftermath of European composition: composers like Ellington or Strayhorn or Gershwin were well versed in Debussy and Greig and so on. Popsongs were melodies with association chord progressions; improvisation increasingly explored the potential for chord substitions and alterations, and agile darting and leaping around the various spaces this allowed (a lot of bop tunes were essentially well known songs reworked — Bird’s “Koko” famously based on Ray Noble’s “Cherokee”, for example). But in the aftermath of bebop, a not-dissimilar impasse had been reached — the conventional range of altered chords so large, and the networked cycle of connections so pre-explored — that musicians began to feel they were merely glued into reruns. There didn’t seem to be an “out” anymore.

This is one of the reasons that Ornette Coleman’s free jazz project was so startling — exciting for some, terrifying and enraging for others. From the start he was a player with an endlessly melodic invention, a gorgeous ear for the expressively bent blue note at any point on the scale, and an effortless swing. Plus: completely uninterested in harmony as it’s understood in the two paragraphs above. He just somehow stepped entirely outside the self-imposed prison, and from Free Jazz (1960), the New Thing followed him en masse (a couple of players, notably Cecil Taylor, were there before him, though they got there by a very different route).

My contention is that (on the whole) to choose a post-Free Jazz New Thing LP is to make the route back to the earlier history of jazz something that requires a whole lot of in-fill explanation (as above, but, y’know, comprehensible). Which makes it a bad stand-alone start off point: because post-Free Jazz any New Thing thing is part of a larger conversation — a trend that’s also an argument, political as well as aesthetic. Does this stricture apply to Ornette himself? SEE BELOW :D

[adding (edit made six hours after posting): the modal approach to harmony found in Kind of Blue is *also* an escape route out of the exact same prisonhouse of harmony, albeit a less startling one than ornette’s leap into outer space — roughly speaking (bcz there is no room in this margin for an adequate description/explanation) modal organisation is what came before “classical” harmony evolved: versions of it can be heard in the polyphonic church music of the 15th and 16th centuries, though this doesn’t help make deep sense of KoB really, except to underline its hidden peculiarities…]

Sociology: Biography | Politics

If there’s one thing that distinguishes the discursive jazz aesthetic of the 50s and early 60s from the the discursive rock aesthetic of the late 60s and after, it’s the issue of the role of the backstory (whether personal or social). Rock was never not also about stagecraft and performance, and (most importantly) the treatment of the public image (in print and on-screen) as a central part of the project (if not the most important part): before LeRoi Jones’s Blues People (1963) and A.B.Spellman’s Four Lives in the Bebop Business (1966), very little jazz discussion operated in this territory (Jones, or Amiri Baraka as he later became, is a hugely important writer for rock critics like Richard Meltzer or Lester Bangs). So again: I’ve looked for releases that don’t depend on this kind of backstory to establish their value, because in effect, from this specific era, I think it’s a bit anachronistic.

Jazz Expansive | Jazz Reductive | Jazz Evasive

I’ve dodged away from items in the second two categories. Hard bop or cool jazz would be jazz reductive, because only “representative” if you add explanatory context or other material not there in the groove — including records in the opposing camp. And later Miles — In a Silent Way (1969) or On the Corner (1972), both of which I adore — are jazz evasive: by then, Miles was off on his own exploring (and anticipating) other territories. This is my list of jazz expansive: if you start here, and listen well, you find yourself taken out into a larger world, and learning a little how to navigate that world, and respond to what else you find.

Anyway here (at last) is my actual list!

Mingus Ah Umi:sonny rollins: saxophone colossus (prestige, 1957) [1]
ii: ornette coleman: the shape of jazz to come (atlantic, 1959) [2]
iii: charles mingus: mingus ah um (columbia, 1959) [3]
iv: oliver nelson: the blues and the abstract truth (impulse!, 1961) [4]
v: roland kirk: we free kings (mercury, 1961) [5]
vi: lee konitz: motion (verve, 1961) [6]
vii: eric dolphy: out to lunch (blue note, 1964) [7]

1 (colossus): rollins is possibly actually the player i’m most circumspect abt saying you can come to cold and get something out of, bcz (a) i came really late to him, and (b) actually maybe prefer way out west myself, which is a complex and playful argument abt quarrels in jazz in the late 50s (and authenticity! which it teases!) [adding: the west in the title tweaks at the fact that the the cool/anticool tussles fell into a west/east coast split]. rollins has enormous knowledge of the history of jazz (and other musics) so he always is talking about them, but i don’t think you have to bring any of this with you yourself, i think you can begin learning it from him! (others may disagree…) (miles by contrast is a really tricky place to start learning abt the rest of jazz, he has OPINIONS and a MANIPULATIVE AGENDA —> not that these are bad, quite the reverse, but caveat the newbie listener)

2 (shape): originally i went with ornette on tenor here, the first ornette i owned myself, but it is more of an oddity i suppose [adding plus free jazz]. — i am very fond of it though; ornette’s desired title for the shape of jazz to come was focus on sanity, haha x0x0 never change dude (he is probably my favourite player of all, forever) — if all you do is listen to the loveliness of the melodies and the sound and the interplay, you are discovering lots (certainly you don’t need to arrive with an exam passed in harmonic progression)

3 (ah um): kind of a history lesson in itself: mingus when not irascible or sprawling (he’s great when irascible and sprawling also, but keeps it very tight here — and establishes the links to black music that isn’t jazz very effectively); great title, great cover

4 (abstract): nelson probably the least widely known in my list; bcz he afterwards went to LA and mainly composed for the telly — as per the title, yet another stab at the question of how to combine composition, arrangement and the improvised encounter of individuals only just now in a group (a very 50s question, which many returned to), but again, entirely stands on its own; gripping, not least because the modern remaster means the sounds just leaps out and grabs you (i hadn’t listened for ages, just went to find it on spotify)

5 (kings): not yet “rahsaan roland kirk” (he found his extra name in a dream), kirk was blind, a multi-instrumentalist showman (he mastered strange-named instruments like the stritch and devised a means to play three saxes simultaneously), with a dramatising fascination for sound — like mingus (who he played with) he has a deep knowledge of black music history, so you’re learning upfront from him and the homework can come afterwards :) and he can also be wildly and weirdly funny [adding: there’s an element in jazz that has its start in forgotten circus-act stunt-music — the kinds of showman cornet players that louis armstrong originally took off from; the kind of sax that rudy vallee’s inspiration rudy weidoeft played; kirk is in this tradition, which maybe sidelined him a bit the way it did the otherwise fairly dissimilar sun ra]

6 (motion): i saw konitz play at one of derek bailey’s company weeks, genuinely one the strangest and startling performances i’ve ever seen (he was way out of his apparent comfort zone — a white cerebral scion of the cool school far out into hardcore improv terrain — except he seemed not only comfy but composedly making more of the adventure than anyone else there); this is not *that* but in a curious way not entirely dissimilar, a deeply reserved man finding a space to make endless reflective plangent shapes

7 (lunch): this is of course the record everyone should have if they only have one :D
[adding: ward f below wonders if it’s too demanding to jump right into? i don’t believe so, but fair warning i suppose: not least bcz it strikes me that the title is a giveaway joke — this is music that in one sense has stravinsky and varèse at its back, so yes, it’s “out”, but it’s out in a comfy cheerful way! out to lunch (and then back again…) (and you’re invited!)]

if i were actually to pick a miles i think it wd be live at the plugged nickelin a silent way is lovely but no longer really “jazz” in the sense wichita and others are puzzling at (contentious i guess, but it’s miles’s own position also). as noted my list skirts the shores of the NEW THING (aka free jazz) without plunging in: like miles post in a silent way, free jazz is just i think a different issue — but it was actually my starting point (i think this is quite often true of ppl arriving from rockier territories), and declares itself more ab novo than it probably actually is (which i didn’t then realise, [ADDING: as also noted, essentially i think that both hard bop (as exemplified by the tireless and inspirational art blakey) and soul jazz (as it wasn’t yet quite being termed?: i mean ppl like horace silver) were retrenchments in the face of the issues of west coast cool and third stream]

quite pleased that i got seven difft labels there — this wasn’t done on purpose!

PUNCTUM: My starting point also, aged about five, when life is a big cartoon and so Ornette etc. were yet more crazy but lovable primary-coloured blocks-o’-fun. Before you fall into the trap of “learning” about anything.*

*”what do you mean, five, you poseur?” My father loved, bought and played the stuff (and Stockhausen, Xenakis &c. on parallel plane) and I listened.**

**but then you get to where I am now and have worked your way back to The Beginning Of Jazz with the starkly delightful revelation: oh, they were doing this kind of stuff from the off!

response: Yes, I completely agree here — a lot of what was presented as avant garde in the 60s actually required LESS backstory than the mainstream (if any), which was a big element in its success. So the new thing is as good a way in as punk would be a generation later: because you were literally being let off doing any homework before you started listening. (The extent to this this is true does vary though: Ornette is easy-entry because he is bypassing the conventions of 40s and 50s jazz harmony; Coltrane by contrast is absorbing and mastering and transforming them — all of them — which means you are certainly missing something if you haven’t absorbed at least some of them.) (It’s the apparent setting aside of generations of achievement in black music that tasks Wynton Marsalis, incidentally: he believes that the New Thing casually dispensed with decades of accreted value, as if it had never happened.) You can indeed hear all the connections and echoes if you go back by choice and plunge into the early music — and as punctum says that’s a good thing to do — but there’s an element of the rhetoric surrounding the New Thing that sometimes maybe discourages this? The kind of tone that allowed ppl to call Armstrong an Uncle Tom or a sellout :(

LENA: An American quartet called Mostly Other People Do The Killing (they are good and funny, yes humor does belong in jazz) have done a note-for-note cover of Kind Of Blue, which I am more & more intrigued by (like my mom I like things like Miles Smiles and Miles Ahead). A big co-sign from me on Sonny Rollins, as he once said that jazz is the umbrella that all other musics stand under, and his music proves it. Way Out West is great, but then so is The Bridge

response: I’m delighted ppl are repping for Way Out West, but as noted I do think it requires a bit of homework/backstory in the disputes between west coast/east coast style, and even the cool jazz vs soul jazz factions, to get the context of the jokes, and the territories Rollins is blasting off out of. The issue of cover versions of entire LPs continues to intrigue me: why doesn’t this happen more often? (c.f. also newly performed versions of Stockhausen’s electronic pieces…)

TOMMY MACK: My dad too had a load of jazz and avant stuff though he rarely played it, having settled, by the 80s, into a dadrock diet of Joe Cooker, Eric Clapton and Dire Straits. He definitely played me On The Corner and In A Silent Way, possibly Bitches Brew and Live Evil too. I remember being intrigued but clearly not enough to return to them much. He was a big John McLaughlin fan and definitely played me a couple of Mahavishnu Orchestra albums which I tried to get into, being similarly awestruck by McLaughlin’s guitar playing but I found their sound harsh and ugly and their music impenetrable at the time. He also played me John Cage, possibly Stockhausen, definitely Steve Reich, who I found most interesting (It’s Gonna Rain sticks in my head – this must have been much later once I had re-embraced dance music as I remember hearing parallels with phase stuff DJs were doing). For the most part I plumped for the more rock/pop stuff in the parental record collection (Beefheart, Modern Lovers, Chuck Berry, Who, Zep, Atomic Rooster from my Dad, Nilsson and Nat King Cole from my mum, Beatles from both)

What I did haven’t mentioned is that in our late teens, my brother and I used to go to live jazz all the time. It was mainly dancing to jazz-funk at Dancehouse Cafe Bar but the odd sit-down modern jazz gig too. We were stoned most nights. While I don’t want to sound like a tedious weed enthusiast (haven’t smoked it for years) for a bit it definitely helped me absorb myself in rich and complicated music.

response: No comment re weed, except to say it’s never played a part in my own listening habits. There’s a big book still to be written here, about which drug-of-choice nurtures what music, and how much this is actually significant. Jazz is of course full of drunks and dopers and junkies. I am not the person to write it :)

speak no evilWARD FOWLER: Yes! to Way Out West over Saxophone Colossus. Yes! to Blues and the Abstract Truth – EVERYBODY likes that when they hear it. Hmmm to Out to Lunch, because in my experience ppl who are new to jazz find it quite difficult to get to grips with – in some ways those semi-free Blue Note albs of the early-to-mid 60s are more daunting – abstract, elusive – than the fire-breathing stuff like Spiritual Unity. Yes! to Motion: just as the Nelson smuggles in Bill Evans (so Kind of Blue is present anyway!) Motion smuggles in Coltrane via Elvin Jones (tho’ yeah Konitz and Coltrane are a million miles apart as players and people).

My number eight wld be Speak No Evil by Wayne Shorter – because it’s quite ‘witchy’ modal jazz played by a stupendous group, and it has one of the great Blue Note front sleeves. “Where Flamingos Fly” on Gil Evans’s Out of the Cool also has some of this semi-exotic/post-Martin Denny spookiness – ‘cool’ as heroin-y numbness and emptiness (see also the Chet album w/ Bill Evans again.) And Gil always said it best about Ornette – “I like him. He swings, and he’s got a good feeling for melody.”

response: Yes, I completely forgot about Wayne Shorter (though of course he’s on the Live at the Plugged Nickel sets); apparently my unconscious filing system places him later chronologically, bcz Weather Report I guess :\

The Gil Evans/Martin Denny connection made me grin (because yes: grown-up 50s music does overlap with loungecore). See also response to Tom.

TOM: I have learned more from this excellent discussion than from Sketches itself, though I enjoyed it very much. It was at its most evocative in the car park outside Croydon IKEA waiting for a kids’ birthday party to finish at the nearby. bowling alley. Obviously what Miles and Gil Evans had in mind.

response: Replaying Sketches of Spain last night I realised that it’s pretty much the template that Ennio Morricone exhausted scoring the spaghetti westerns, something I’d actually never spotted before.

LONEPILGRIM: I’ve also glad to have a(nother) recommended route into jazz. I’ve never listened to Kind of Blue – it’s another of those monoliths like Pet Sounds that I tend to avoid. Knowing that it is open to other interpretations makes it more appealing. I think I got drawn into jazz through Prog: Mahavishnu Orchestra > Miles Davis. His name was also dropped from time to time in the NME (and later in The Face). Weather Report got played a bit on Nicky Horne’s show on Capital Radio and there was some crossover via Steely Dan and Joni Mitchell. There’s something about Wayne Shorter’s playing that really appeals to me. I went to see Art Blakey in the early 80s because he was playing near and near the end of the decade I saw Abdullah Ibrahim and Ekaya. Both shows were marvellous. More recently I worked at a (state) boys school which supports a big Jazz band and it was an astonishing privilege to listen to them as they rehearsed – the volume! the rich complexity of tones! I appreciate that I’m wandering into ‘jumpers for goalposts’ territory here – but it is music that stimulates me whenever I get to hear it so I’m glad to have another set of routes to explore

response: The link that wichita lineman notes — of John Barry as a Sten Kenton disciple — is good, I think. A lot of the orchestral wing of this music ended up helping shape 60s film scores and TV themes, not always as strikingly sui generis as Ennio Morricone’s, but still rich and vivid and effective. I guess I should also say that all of this is expanded out of a desire to ensure that the monolith isn’t just rolled against the door it’s meant to be helping you pass through. Kind of Blue is a great record! But there are better places to start from if you want to understand and enjoy the rest of jazz.


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  1. 31
    Tommy Mack on 30 Mar 2015 #

    My Tennesean cousin in (common) law framed Miles’ fusion period as him having lost much of his black audience to soul and his white audience to emergent rock styles then catching the west coast ballroom bands and thinking ‘these honkies are basically playing jazz badly so if I borrow some of their musical aesthetic, I can grab some of their audience’ (this, probably much reduced by him and subsequently by me, in direct answer to my question of what did Miles do during most of the 60s in between the two most famous periods of his career)

  2. 32
    koganbot on 1 Apr 2015 #

    Think we might be talking past each other a bit on my Question 3. Yes, radio and the new record formats play a driving role, but nonetheless certain musical elements are highlighted as “jazz” more in the ’50s than previously, and others suppressed (though not by everybody); of course, this is hardly independent of the needs of the record companies — as you point out, vamping long fits the new LP.

    But what’s really of concern for me isn’t just the reconfiguration in the ’50s (and my account suppresses the fact that there are earlier reconfigurations as well, for example that caused by the introduction of the word “swing”), but also (i) the backwards reconfiguration whereby what constitutes the history of jazz is also narrowed and made more consistent, and (ii) what in the ’50s and early ’60s your seven albums likely won’t get us to.

    To look at ii briefly, is there a way that any of your seven albums can lead someone to, say, the guitar solo in “Rock Around The Clock”? To Dinah Washington? I don’t know, only having listened to several of your recommendations so far. And it isn’t a defect of the list if none of them do, just an indication of where you’re aiming. It wouldn’t be a serviceable jazz list if it led to all music in the history of the world.

    The back configuring is more interesting. Louis remains indisputably a jazz master in the reconfiguration, but what makes him a jazz master probably reconfigures. E.g., the solo at the start of the 1928 “West End Blues” becomes significant for, among other things, foreshadowing bop. But I don’t think jazz history makes as big a deal of his, say, popularizing a body of song. Whiteman keeps a foot in the history of jazz for fostering Bix Beiderbecke but not for fostering Bing Crosby. Benny Goodman becomes more significant for having employed Charlie Christian than for having made popular dance music. And so forth.

    I’m hardly against such reconfiguring, which is about people inventing the parentage that they most need. And I’m not against our inventing and twisting terminology any way we want to if it helps us understand the past. But inventing parentage and understanding the past are different projects: inventing parentage is really about the future.

    Now this takes us afield from what you were trying to do in your post. But to bring up one of my own pet concerns: inventing parentage often creates bad history. I’m too ignorant to put forth any jazz history, but in, for example, thinking of the history of science, Thomas Kuhn is emphatic that one is making a huge mistake to, e.g., treat someone like Kepler as fundamentally a precursor to Newton. Of course, we wouldn’t even bother with Kepler if what we now know as Kepler’s Laws didn’t end up fitting with Newtonian laws of motion; but Kepler himself obviously had no inkling of laws of motion that would be discovered in the future; rather, in creating his laws of planetary motion he was doing something of a piece with his trying to, for instance, relate planetary motions to musical harmonies. And Kepler comes across as a stronger, better thinker and scientist if you see how one aspect of his work connects to another rather than if you divide his work into the good stuff that we consider science because it later fits the Newtonian project versus the bad weird stuff that we’ve cast aside as something else. (Again, this isn’t addressing your concerns here, which aren’t about understanding the 1920s.)

  3. 33
    koganbot on 1 Apr 2015 #

    Btw, was there any “jazz radio” prior to the mid ’70s, not counting a specialty show here or there? In any event, from what I can tell, jazz radio these days divides into two: (A) public radio and college radio, which define jazz more or less as respected jazz histories do (though I’ll bet there’s more emphasis these days on Latin jazz and non-American jazz scenes than the histories give), and (B) smooth jazz stations, which I listen to about once a year, and which invariably play a lot of Stevie Wonder.

  4. 34

    Down Beat cover from 1953, partly interesting bcz it nowhere uses the word jazz (partly bcz it’s hilarious, and very obviously quite “insider” in outreach):

    Yes, I hadn’t quite understood where (3) was coming from, perhaps a little suspicious of the apparent passive voice formulation of “the reconfiguration”, which seems (to me) to stand in mainly for the unwilled collective effects of a social decision/shift/reaction re the use of the word (among musicians, among the cognoscenti, among music fans as a whole, among the wider population, four groups that moved at different speeds to different rhythms) but somewhat sidesteps the elements that were conscious boardroom labelling or niche-marketing decisions (by radio stations, record labels, record shops, specialist magazines, media generally).

    Below is the cover of Time in 1954, re Dave Brubeck (it DOES use the word jazz). It marks a fashion shift, probably in two directions (popularisation of association with a particular kind of progressive aka “musical-in-the-classical-sense” move; reaction against this, by haters, inc. trad dads against “modernism”, AND all musicians cross that it’s white Brubeck that gets the first encomium of this kind). 1954 also the year of Brown vs Board of Education, of course.

    (I’m reading the ferocity of Spellman and Leroi Jones’s counterstrike partly to be an argument against the criticial-pedantic capture of the music — for example at Down Beat — within a “narrowing” usage of the terminology (associated with critical approval for the wrong things and wrong reasons). Jones began using the term “Black Music” — admittedly some tiMe later — as a way to bring back into the fold musics that he valued, including gospel and R&B, that he felt had been incorrectly left out of consideration by the interests and analysis of those of mere musicological bent (he was guardedly respectful of some — Martin Williams for example — but scornful of most others). And of course he championed Albert Ayler and Archie Shepp, who also deliberately threw the boundaries back out wide again in the forms they played and adverted to.

    My conclusion is the the configuration was operating in different ways among different constituencies, sometimes markedly different, and that the difference was strongly socially and racially (and thus politically) marked. In other words it’s an argument about what would today probably be referred to as cultural appropriation — the insistance that a particular group “own” a form of cultural expression, and that other groups should be respectful in what they take from same. At the time of Blues People, Jones was at a a distinct angle to these (modern tumblr-style) disapprovals of cultural appropriation: Black Americans were first and foremost Americans, and what was distinctive (and important) was how they used ALL elements of their multiform heritage (include the fact that many of the separations were marked by extreme violence aimed at them). As he moved (under changed name: now Amiri Baraka) towards black cultural nationalism later, and forms of cultural separatism, he possibly converged with and somewhat anticipated elements of tumblrthink re cult’l app’n. (I’d have to re-read stuff I haven’t read for years to confirm this: I think that I think his earlier writing is much better — but it’s an age since I read his 70s and 80s work, which I mostly got of Hackney Library and don’t own.) (haha “own”)

  5. 35

    a summary of my koganresponses — and apologies for taking so long to work through this and put it clearly — is that i think it’s important to be aware not only that different groups of people are using these various words differently, but that the usage is shifting at different speeds among different groups, sometimes in reaction or response to new usage elsewhere: the question “was this word used thus-and-so?” is sensibly followed by the counter-question “used by whom?” before you really start getting anywhere

    (also worth noting that (as some use the term), from the mid-50s jazz was quite unusual in culturing an explicit awareness of its own history as part of its identity — in seizing on retro-fashion trends, for example, to make subtle arguments and enable listener explorations overtly informed by this or that musician’s sensibility) (mingus and kirk, most obviously, in my list)

  6. 36

    notes on jazz radio:

    in the UK the answer is no — until the early 60s the only radio in the UK was the BBC, and it (notoriously) failed to accommodate either jazz or modern pop until forced to by the pirates (radio caroline from 1964) and radio luxembourg, with its famously vast and powerful generator and (east coast) UK audienc e share for its pop programming — jazz wasn’t in this mix at all (except what you’re calling “specialist” or one-off programmes) (curiously enough, british television did much better for jazz of all kinds, though it was bad at archiving its recordings)

    as for the US, i’m not a scholar and only know the story in depth in the early years of radio (e.g. up till c.1935)

    but in general i think the picture is this: in the 30s and 40s, most music programmes were live hook-ups from specific venues (most famously the grand ole opry of course); a swing orchestra would play at a particular ballroom, and their show (or part of it) would be the programme — big band jazz did pretty well out of this, as did its smaller successors like cab calloway (the war bit the big bands hard, with drafted musicians and straitened audiences) (calloway’s is today usually known as “jump” rather than jazz) (but as i’m suggesting above, i’m not at all sure how much the word “jazz” was used in the current sense in the 40s, when the happening word was “swing”)

    in 1935, martin block famously began broadcasting the “make-believe ballroom” programme, which consisted not of live music from one band, but of records selected by the “disc jockey” (term in use from c.1941, coined i believe by variety magazine) — the bureaucratic ecology wasn’t initially keen on this (stations got licences dependent on proving they’d broadcast a siginificant proportion of live music in their first few months) and musicians also deplored it, because it cut into their work potential (a show broadcasting only records wasn’t helping pay them for a live gig)

    [in the middle of this comes the ASCAP vs BMI wars, which is complex and has a significant effect on the kinds of music being recorded and being booked for gigs: basically royalty agents ASCAP, which favoured fancier and more respectable music and was being boycotted and shunned; while rival royalty agents BMI, which favoured wilder and more raucous music, was not]

    by the early 50s, the cult of the DJ had arrived — jocko henderson, dr jive, alan freed, casey kaseem, wolfman jack a bit later — and radio shows began much more to be shaped round a personality, their patter and their selection: and naturally 45s (duration 2-3 mins) suited this format far better than 33s or any kind of music extended to more than 4-5 mins duration; in other words vocal groups, R&B and rock&roll — and (outside black areas and country music catchments) listenership skewed towards the young

    i literally don’t know if there were jazz equivalents — or if e.g. jocko henderson played jazz in among the r&b and latin music — but i suspect the format played against this (i’m also curious — and ignorant — abt the presence on us radio of the broadway/las vegas dimension: the sinatra wing of music)

    there *were* figures like studs terkel, who had a chicago radio show where he interviewed interesting characters of all kids (certainly including bluesmen and folkies) and his first book (1956) was called “giants of jazz”, so at least in principle jazz was part of the mix, but i don’t know (and in a sense this seems to swerve towards “specialist”)

    (adding: unless i’m doing it wrong, a search for the word “jazz” in this book, vol.2 (1934-55) of erik barnouw’s definitive history of radio, gives just four hits, two of them in the bibiography…)

    (adding further: a history of US armed forces radio abroad seems worth looking into: GI Jive was a DJ’d record request show that featured interviews from singers like Shore and Sinatra; and Casey Kaseem began his DJ career in Korea)

  7. 37
    koganbot on 3 Apr 2015 #

    I read Blues People and Black Music too long ago, and know very little of Baraka’s later work. But I think his “black nationalist” period was pretty short, after which he described himself as a Marxist. My very uninformed guess would be that even in the nationalist period his argument would never be a simplistic “white people shouldn’t appropriate from other people” (or “white people should take care appropriating from other people”) but rather that Black American culture contains — among other things — a critique of America, and he doesn’t want to see that critique blunted.

  8. 38
    koganbot on 3 Apr 2015 #

    (1) Any opinion on Sidney Finkelstein? I read Jazz: A People’s Music but can’t recall specifically what I took from it; and I once owned but out of a combination of busyness and fear never read How Music Expresses Ideas (the fear because, when I opened it at random, I read something along the lines of “While the Soviet criticism of Shostakovich may have been heavy-handed, there was a fundamental truth…,”* and decided I just wasn’t up for it emotionally; I’m sometimes very weak). Do remember considering the jazz book interesting and smart; also that Jones/Baraka cited him favorably — notice that for the title of my John Wójtowicz–Leroi Jones chapter I paraphrase the title “How Music…”

    (2) A question we should go into — that we’re implicitly raising — on your Oasis or teaching adjunct thread is whether Jones (as I’ve perceived or misperceived him) is right, that music (as opposed to, say, books and essays) is up to the task of creating a cultural critique, at least creating a critique that’s more than merely incipient.

    (3) Actually it’s Otis Ferguson and Manny Farber and Andrew Sarris and ilk who really propelled me to the question. The way I thought of it in college was that the two great proto-auteurists, Bazin and Ferguson, both treated filmmakers’ aesthetic decisions (not just dialogue, but what to show, how to show it, whether to cut and pan, what angle to use) as ways of thinking. To put it crudely, Bazin reads movies for, among other things, the filmmakers’ attitudes towards the world, whereas Ferguson reads movies for, among other things, what filmmakers’ are doing in the world. But obv. it’s not either/or for those two critics or in general. Anyway, extend to anyone’s behavior, e.g., musician choosing to play this note rather than that, singer phrasing this way or that, fan deciding to dance and deciding which dance, person wearing or not wearing band T-shirt, and on and on and on. Question is, does this hairstyle and acting out really take us far in the way of usable and repeatable critique, of effective understanding, rather than just placing us in Spot A or Spot B etc. in various social situations? (Ludwig Wittgenstein belongs here: we can include in our idea of language that it’s more than just the utterances/words, it’s also the social practices in which they’re embedded, including events, actions.) Btw, what I drew from auteurism wasn’t “the director is the author of the film” but rather “filmmaking is a series of choices, and these choices, no matter how original or how rote, constitute thought, no matter whom or what you assign the thought to — the actor, the screenwriter, the director, the studio, social habits, the social structure, the zeitgeist — and no matter how good or bad the thought is. Question is, how far does such thought go? E.g., how a cashier goes about scanning bar codes represents thought, but that doesn’t necessarily mean one’s scanning of bar codes is a form of social commentary, or can be extrapolated into social commentary. [Gonna cross-post this to the teaching adjunct thread and maybe on my lj, too.]

    *Can’t locate the exact quote through Google books, which doesn’t show any general excerpts and is sparing as to what from my searches from this book it’s willing to show. The phrase “heavy-handed” gets me no hits. I did find this noxious sentence: “In the Soviet Union, criticism is a sign of the high regard the people have for music and its creators.”

  9. 39

    Re Finkelstein: never read it — I know of it, and have read about it, but that’s it.

    I saw a couple of days ago that Ted Gioia — who has recently been annoying my pals by writing negatively about current writing about pop — has also recently published a big doorblock of a history of jazz. I might go into a bookshop and glance at a couple of the more ticklish sections (eg KIND OF BLUE!) to see how he’s negotiated them, and what he’s said.

  10. 40
    koganbot on 16 Jul 2018 #

    I found it! Live recording from the Pittsburgh Jazz Festival, 1965, Duke Ellington “Second Portrait of the Lion,” first track I heard affixed to the word “jazz”: instrumental (so to speak) in fixing in my brain the idea of jazz as quick notes in a pointillist haze.


    (Surely I’d heard jazz previously in movie scenes and on TV shows: lounge singers and their accompanists, as private eyes and wise guys pass through. But not part of my sense of a genre “jazz.”)

    [This is in regard to my comment #26 above.]

    [Oh, and here’s a new Lee Konitz album; I’d posted a link to it in a comment here a couple months ago but somehow that comment got lost.]

  11. 41
    mark sinker on 26 May 2022 #

    ‘I can’t say it any better than Tony Williams: “‘Milestones’ is the definitive jazz album. If you want to know what jazz is, listen to that album. It embodies the spirit of everyone who plays jazz.” Coda: This track is EVERYTHING’: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UXApi1bKZlE&t=5s

    (track is “straight, no chaser”)

  12. 42
    mark sinker on 26 May 2022 #

    (added to this thread bcz tony williams’ opinion is worth having and it completes a useful twitter-thread top ten pre-electric miles tracks which doesn’t include anything from KoB >:) )

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