Monday, September 28, 2009

The impossibility of the avant-garde

While aimlessly watching TV for the first time in days, I noticed the above spot, and it reminded me of something Stanley Kubrick once said about how some of the most "brilliant" cinema happens in TV commercials.

If that is true, I wonder about the effect -- either for cinema, or for art in general.

The clip above is fairly "weird" by the aesthetic standards of, say, People magazine. It has the feel of something designed to provoke, and intended as art. It is informed by experimental techniques, however inauthentically. But it is being deployed by a major corporation. To sell jeans. And it will probably be seen by millions of people.

The problem that follows is at least as old as mass media itself: how can there be an outside-of-the-mainstream, if anything can be absorbed and used by the mainstream?

Once upon a time, there was this idea (probably hooey to begin with) that being a "true" artist was about staying a step ahead of whatever the latest cultural "norm" was. Our mission as artists (so we thought) was to figure out which components of a particular practice had been done to death, and then to innovate something new.

We have that impulse toward innovation still, but what's the upshot? It doesn't even matter whether "everything has been done before" (the big complaint of young artists). When the raw power of anything can be instantly appropriated by the people who have the budgets, and the products to sell -- recall Jim O'Rourke's comments on "context" -- there has to be some other reason to make art.

As artists, we may find this or that aesthetic approach tiresome, and we may go after something different in the process of escaping what we already know (that's part of the fun) -- but nowadays, that's ultimately a personal journey, never a broadly groundbreaking act of artistic rebellion.

Which is maybe how it should be -- and maybe how it's always been, under the surface of our mass media economy. There really is no "mainstream" or "avant-garde." No "in" or "out." Art wants to be de-centered, despite all our attempts to organize and rank it. Art wants to be local (and not strictly in a geographical sense). And critical categories ("hip" / "square," "cutting edge" / "predictable") may make sense in the context of a particular microcosm, but beyond that, who really knows? Or cares?

(My wife just walked through the room. She wanted to know who I was yelling at.)

[photo credit: meddygarnet]

* * * * *

Avant garde or mainstream, the Industrial Jazz Group needs your help! We're having a fall fundraiser, in support of our October tour. You can find out more, and contribute to the cause (for as little as $1!), here.

Also! Check out the remix contest -- and, as of today, the IJG "The Job Song" video contest.


Matt Miller has a new review of LEEF in October's All About Jazz-NY. It is conveniently coordinated with our October 19 show at the Bell House (with Darcy James Argue's Secret Society and Travis Sullivan's Bjorkestra).

It’s hard to take anything about the Industrial Jazz Group for granted. Even the LA-based ensemble’s name is misleading to the point that its leader, Andrew Durkin, feels the need to address it in the header of the group’s website. “So we’re not really industrial. Were the Beatles really insects?” As explanations go - humorous as they might be - it rings a little hollow. It does, however, speak volumes about IJG and its singular approach to music-making. Just when you think you’ve got it, when the form becomes clear, the beat insatiable, a song implodes and you’re left to sift through the wreckage or a freely improvised saxophone solo is followed by a foray into ‘70s lounge rock. The result is rarely anything less than thrilling.

Recorded at a series of live concerts from 2004-07 and interspersed liberally with studio material, Leef is an unrelenting amalgam of shtick, pop, cabaret and classical that comes off equal parts Bernstein, Zappa and Mingus. Durkin has a hand in every aspect of Leef, including the live, often improvised performances that make up the album’s core. The result is a so-called “hybrid approach”, where live sections are touched up with studio material and entire passages from studio sessions are inserted into live material. Durkin attempts to tally the ratios in the album’s notes and comes to a rough average 90% live material/10% studio, disregarding the entirely live “Don’t Let ‘em Getcha” and the studio recording of “Fuck The Muck (part one)”. Thus Leef has the spontaneity of live performance along with the lightning transitions and rounded edges of a studio work. Add to that a beguiling uniqueness, humor and beauty and you have a great record by an incredible ensemble.

Friday, September 25, 2009

The second kind of cool

Matt at Twenty Dollars has a post that is tres dope, hip, fly, or whatever the kids are calling it nowadays.

The thesis:

The jazz universe resembles that of railroad enthusiasts or Magic: The Gathering players. It is a subculture: cared for passionately by a small group of insiders, but thought of as a mere curiosity by the wider population, if they think of it at all. [...]

It seems like the only reason jazz is referenced in contemporary popular culture is to mock the music and its fans. [...]

[T]his picture of jazz in popular culture is pretty grim. Jazz is the province of egg-heads and snobs; it is unpleasant cacophony that is perpetuated by bizarrely self-important weirdos. The problem is not just that people don’t see jazz as something cool, it is that they are seeing it as explicitly not cool. This has not always been the case — Bill Cosby used to have jazz musicians guest on his show quite often, and they were always cool “Uncle Dizzy,” or something along those lines. But the older jazz icons are leaving us, and the newer breed of university-trained musicians have not figured out a way to maintain the same aura of cool. [...]

As we struggle with declining audiences, jazz venue closures, and a general music industry upheaval, we must not forget that there is a broader public relations battle that must be waged – the re-coolization of jazz.

One of the more interesting comments came from someone named Nancy:

From my vantage point — that is to say the longtime jazz girlfriend that doesn’t really know or like jazz — I have to say that the reason jazz isn’t cool is because the jazz nerds have effectively shut the rest of us out of it. The way jazz fans fawn over and talk about jazz makes it unwelcome to any casual fan.

There is no music quite dissected like jazz, and no topic quite as boring as dissected jazz. While all of you yammer on about changes and chords and time signatures and social issues related to jazz (bah!), the music has faded to the background... of both your chatter and my mind.

Ah, yes. I feel a stream of consciousness coming on.

* * * * *

What is "cool," anyway?

On one level I suppose it's a basic stance of intellectual or artistic superiority. The cool person is seen by the outsider as ineffably, unattainably, desirably better than. "Cool" in this sense is style-driven: the cool person has access to the "cutting edge," is in the vanguard of taste, and knows about the "hot" new trend (ironic how "cool" and "hot" fit together like this, eh?). Further: he or she is able to walk a delicate (and potentially contradictory) tightrope: publicly shunning broad popularity (which, of course, is problematically "mainstream" or "square"), but simultaneously driven by a desire to be a leading (and thus popular) taste-maker.

In response to this (possibly arbitrary) definition of "cool," I say: who needs it?

Okay, maybe that's a bit dismissive. We all want our art to "speak," and it won't speak if it has nothing to do with the zeitgeist it is embedded in. And artistic superiority is a fine aspiration (as long as you realize that the results are always going to be relative); another word for that is "excellence," and we should all be interested in excellence.

But at the same time this definition of cool has to do with much more than a simple interest in relevance or excellence. This definition of cool always seems to come back to an obsession with status. It thus reminds me a bit of the dynamic that obtained in high school, and, to a lesser degree, grad school.

I lived through both of those environments once. I do not wish to experience them again. So while I acknowledge its value, this is not my kind of cool.

There is, however, a second kind of "cool" that I do find appealing: "coolness" as an almost zen-like detachment. Its natural musical analog is probably not jazz at all (at least not post-1970s jazz), but the (real folk) blues.

Whereas the first "cool" is socially-obsessed while presenting itself as anti-social ("too cool for school"), the second cool is powerful because it is impersonal, because it eschews self-importance, because it does not seek to impress. While the first cool is about displaying superiority and strength (through "chops," "complexity," or a bitchen hairdo), the second is more about embracing the imperfection of humanity, and somehow making that into something beautiful. The first cool is "da bomb," the second cool is "aplomb."

Can you see where I'm going with this? One way out of the dilemma jazz currently finds itself in (i.e., lacking a sustainable audience) may be through this second kind of cool. (The first kind is valuable too, but, as Nancy would probably tell us, it has its limits.)

Let's compare. In rock, this second kind of cool bubbled up to the surface in the wake of super-serious prog-rockers, and spawned a whole series of superstar bands and artists that were comfortable embracing their inner nerd: Talking Heads, Devo, They Might Be Giants, Elvis Costello, et al.

Where are the jazz musicians who are comfortable embracing their inner nerd? Who are comfortable with the aesthetic possibilities of self-deprecation? Who are comfortable with their own idiosyncrasies?

You might point me toward the term "jazz nerd," and yes, that's a term that I have heard plenty of musicians use to jokingly refer to themselves -- always outside the context of a performance. That last is an important detail, because recognizing your own nerdiness is very different from embracing that nerdiness through your music. What if real live jazz musicians were to take up the sort of mockery highlighted by Twenty Dollars? What if that sort of thing actually informed the music more? Would that kill us or make us stronger? (If the former -- does that mean jazz is so fragile that it can be fractured by a few well-placed jibes?)

Of course, I'm really talking about comedy, a subject that is near and dear to my heart. But that's because I have long thought that all the great comedians have the second kind of cool. It humanizes them, and it feeds their popularity. Consider folks like Dave Chapelle, Carol Burnett, Charlie Chaplin, Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, Louis CK, Sarah Silverman, and so on -- all of them demonstrate keen awareness of the absurdity of life. All of them are great at laughing at themselves. And all of them seem to be coming from a very different aesthetic and philosophical place than most modern jazz musicians.

Maybe that's okay. Jazz is not stand-up comedy (though both involve improvisation). And it's also not like there isn't any humor to be found in modern jazz (though much of it seems cursory to me). Of course Nancy might disagree:

Take for example, the Austin McBride “scandal.” While jazzicists debate his merits/demerits and whether or not it’s all a big joke, the rest of us are left with a video of him counting four over “Take Five.” Yes, I get the humor in it. But funny? No, not really.

Which in turns reminds me of something Zappa said in The Real Frank Zappa Book:

What academicians regard as "humor" in music is usually stuff along the lines of "Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks" (remember, in Music Appreciation class, when they told you that the E-flat clarinet is going "ha-ha-ha!"?). Take my word for it, folks -- you can do way better than that.

He was right, I think: we can, and we should.

[photo credit: porcupiny]

* * * * *

If you love jazz nerds, you could do worse than throwing a few bucks at the Industrial Jazz Group. We're having a fall fundraiser, in support of our October tour. You can find out more, and contribute to the cause (for as little as $1!), here.

Also! Check out the remix contest.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Sometimes the internets is a dangerous place, part two

I live in the strip club capital of the country, I have a male stripper in my band, and even I am weirded out by this.

How do you solve a problem like myopia?

Do you remember the brouhaha a week or two ago regarding President Obama's address to schoolchildren? I wrote about it here.

If, for some reason, you entered that situation in an Obamaphobic state of mind, and my brief outburst was enough to convince you to drop your faux outrage (hey, I can dream, can't I?), then perhaps you are looking for a new home for your habitual bitterness.

If that is the case, may I suggest you could more productively direct your anger here?

I mean, hell, if you're gonna get fired up over an authority figure trying to brainwash the kids, why not go after the real thing? The RIAA has, for a long time, been in the business of trying to re-educate schoolchildren. Among the topics on their agenda: filesharing is completely evil, "fair use" is hardly a legitimate defense, and music is essentially a product, which can't properly exist outside the context of a capitalist system.

All of which is misleading or untrue ("filesharing" can often actually be beneficial to artists, "fair use" is a fundamental creative practice, and music is much more than a product). And all of which fits in nicely with the general devaluation of the arts in public education. Because if, eventually, music can only be accessed from behind the walls of the sort of proprietary listening environment the RIAA dreams of, that will be one more obstacle-to-actually-getting-kids-excited-about-music that the 21st music teacher will have to deal with.

(Try for a moment to imagine how hard it might be to get fired up about some of the music featured on A Blog Supreme's Jazz Now series without the mp3s / youtube videos that accompany each post. Now imagine you're a 12-year-old trying to convince a friend to check out some cool new band you like without actually giving them a copy of the music.)

Want to prevent kids from sharing music? You may as well prevent them from listening to music. There are just too many other things they'd prefer to spend their money on. If they have no way of getting hooked on the power of music now, the chances that they will get hooked later (when they actually have some sort of disposable income) are fairly slim indeed. And ten years down the road, the ghost of the industry will still be wondering from which direction the coup de grĂ¢ce originated, and we'll be left with a culture in which the beauty of music is known only to a select few.

But don't despair. While kids' ears atrophy, they can do a project like this (click the image above for the full text):

Imagine that you are in the music industry, and you want to send a message about the consequences of songlifting [a neologistic riff on "shoplifting"]. Complete the chart below noting what each music industry professional would say about the effects of songlifting on their career. [...]

With your team of fellow music industry employees, plan an information campaign that lets others know why it's important to get their music the right way. [...]

Challenge: Take your campaign a step further by contacting the editor of your community newspaper or the director of your community cable television station to see if you can submit an article or a video about your campaign.

I'm half tempted to take these lesson plans into my own classroom just to savor the kids' reactions. But I more or less know in advance that they will laugh their asses off. Which is not to say that my kids are that much savvier-in-the-face of-a-hornswaggle than kids in other schools. It's just that kids in general are not terribly interested in pretending to be "music industry employees."

And only a music industry employee could be surprised at that statement. (It takes a special kind of narcissism, I guess.)

* * * * *

No surprises as I narcissistically shill for the Industrial Jazz Group, right? We're having a fall fundraiser, in support of our October tour. You can find out more, and contribute to the cause (for as little as $1!), here.

Also! Check out the remix contest.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Public service announcement

You were probably hoping that I had given up making these stupid little videos, huh?

Sorry. (Sigh.)

This one is a big commercial for The Industrial Jazz Group's upcoming east coast tour (October 15 - 24, 2009).

Of note: it features unfinished excerpts (raw, unmixed, etc.) from the forthcoming album (to be released in 2010).

It also relies, as usual, on the camera work of Matt Lichtenwalner, Tany Ling, and me.

I suspect that it will make you either want to see the show, or want to run screaming in the other direction.

(Please note: the word "jazzer" is used ironically in this context.)

* * * * *

You may also run screaming in the other direction when I remind you that the Industrial Jazz Group is having a fall fundraiser, in support of our October tour! You can find out more, and contribute to the cause (for as little as $1!), here. Every penny counts! Seriously.

Plus! Check out the remix contest.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Jazz populi

By now, you have probably seen or heard of A Blog Supreme's efforts (or, more specifically, Patrick Jarenwattananon's efforts) to catalog a list of new-ish (within the last decade or so) "albums you would recommend to somebody looking to get into modern jazz." Note that this differs from a pure "best of" list in that its purpose is (hopefully) proselytization -- and so the albums chosen should contain jazz that is not only great, but accessible (and inspiring) to those who are not already inclined toward the stuff.

That word "accessible" is a little controversial, of course -- at least to the extent that one assumes it's meant as a pejorative. For the record, when I use it, it's not. But I guess when Henry Powderly uses it (as he did in a comment appended to Lucas Gillan's list), it is:

I have to disagree on Largo. [Brad] Mehldau is indeed one of the most influential modern artists but Largo is a stain on his discography, a watered-down record that clearly put "accessibility" in front of artistry. I own every record he ever made, and deleted that one.

We should definitely celebrate the young artists that are carrying the torch of jazz, but we can't forget what that torch is, what jazz is: Unapologetic, spontaneous and above all honest music. The rest of the drivel coming out of the record industry may not value those, but jazz must always if it intends to evolve.

Tellingly, Mehldau never made another record like Largo.

I guess I understand the point here. Why try to sell jazz to people who are not already into it by changing it into something it's not? Rock fans (for instance) may end up liking the hybrid thing you create merely to the extent that it is not jazz. And how exactly is that motivation for them to get into the "real thing"?

Of course, this idea of "accessibility" is pretty slippery when you look at it closely. One could argue that a jazz musician who employs the sort of extravagant studio-intensive production that usually characterizes rock releases (as Mehldau does on Largo) is "watering down" his or her art. But what if he or she happens to like extravagant studio-intensive production?

Or, to put it another way: who the fuck am I to say whether Brad Mehldau is or is not being "honest"? There is only one person who really knows that: Brad Mehldau.

(I'm sorry. I'm a natural-born hybridophile. And I love Largo. One man's "watering down" is another's water-on-fertile-ground, I guess. But I digress...)

* * * * *

What about my own selections? Well.

Since I haven't seen a lot of love (so far) extended toward west coast musicians on any of these lists, I'm going to have to represent a little. (Apologies in advance.)

Fair warning: most of the folks I am going to mention have some kind of connection to the Industrial Jazz Group. (Apologies in advance for that too. Is it my fault that many of the best musicians on this coast have played in my stupid band?)

Also: I have circumvented the request for a list of albums (since one could argue that albums are in fact becoming increasingly irrelevant to "the youngsters"), and have focused instead on bands.

Finally, I made my selections, in each case, based on what I perceive as hard evidence, personally witnessed, of crossover appeal. In other words, I'm not just listing these bands because I love them. In fact, there are other west coast jazz bands that I love just as much, but that I'm not listing here, because, in my estimation, they don't offer the same seductiveness for the neophyte. (Which is not necessarily a bad thing.) But I know for a fact that the following folks are all very good at creating new jazz fans. In each case, I've seen it with my own eyes.

1. Kneebody

I know it's a crude measure of their impact, but I have personally witnessed these guys make "the ladies" swoon. How many jazz bands do you know who can do that?

2. Nels Cline Singers

Is this not the 21st century jazz version of Jimi Hendrix setting his guitar on fire? And, besides: Wilco.

3. Spaceheater's Blast Furnace

It's hard to find a YouTube video that does justice to how exciting this band really is. (Try their MySpace page for streaming samples.) Suffice it to say that in the hands of bandleader Evan Francis, the jazz/hip-hop/Cuban thing is a winner.

And, speaking of San Francisco:

Having to turn 200 people away from a concert by a large ensemble? If that's not bringing jazz to the masses, I don't know what is.


The crossover here is less with the Balkan music crowd than with the metalheads. PLOTZ! is loud, and, at their best, kind of sinister. (As an added bonus, it turns out this band was the only way I was able to get one of my System-of-a-Down-loving students to even think about listening to jazz.)

5. Wiener Kids

A video featuring the original incarnation of this group, with Steini Gunnarsson. Note the use of film as a part of the overall artistic expression. (Does it "water down" the music, I wonder?)

So: the first five bands that came to mind. There are more (way more, actually), but you get the idea.

* * * * *

One other (minor) thing:

If, as Jarenwattananon suggests, the problem jazz faces is primarily due to lack of "exposure" (and I happen to agree with that assessment), then it seems odd for any of these lists to include something by, say, the Bad Plus, or Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, or Medeski, Martin, & Wood. I admire these groups as much as the next indie-jazz afficionado, but whatever you think of them, it's hard to argue that they haven't had enough exposure. (Fer crissakes, I first of heard The Bad Plus on LA's hippest of hip radio stations, KCRW.)

Maybe none of these groups have yet performed on the US equivalent of the Mercury Prize award show, but most have been turning up in the usual indie rock haunts for a while now (MMR at Bonnaroo, for instance, or Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey at SXSW (the same year IJG was there, ironically)). So unless I seriously need to re-calibrate my sense of how the music business works, I'm pretty sure that "the kids" are going to hear about them whether we include them on our lists or not.

It's a quibble, I know. And I don't like to quibble, so I'm gonna sign off now.

* * * * *

Nothing to quibble with here: the Industrial Jazz Group is having a fall fundraiser, in support of our October tour! You can find out more, and contribute to the cause (for as little as $1!), here.

Plus! Check out the remix contest.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The world we have lost

Came across an interesting article on Jim O'Rourke today:

Mr. O’Rourke’s production style is precise and dry; he creates a sound picture in which tiny sonic details matter. But where his Drag City records are concerned, everything matters: the pacing, the length, the sound, the cover images. For this reason he won’t allow “The Visitor,” or any of his albums, to be sold as downloads, on iTunes or anywhere else. He’s taking a stand against the sound quality of MP3s; he’s also taking a stand in favor of artists being able to control the medium and reception of their work.

“You can no longer use context as part of your work,” he said, glumly, “because it doesn’t matter what you do, somebody’s going to change the context of it. The confusion of creativity, making something, with this Internet idea of democratization ...” he trailed off, disgusted. “It sounds like old-man stuff, but I think it’s disastrous for the possibilities of any art form.”

Like me, O'Rourke is 40. I suppose, when you're that "old," and faced with the sort of industry-wide upheaval that the music business is currently going through, you're entitled to a certain degree of curmudgeonliness. And while I generally try to resist that sort of thing, for the purposes of this post I'm going to broadly agree with O'Rourke's assessment of where music is at, because it gives me a convenient excuse to express a few thoughts I've been mulling over anyway.

First: the obvious. To the extent that jazz's viability as a music of the future is in jeopardy, that situation has a lot to do with various threats to the existence of a strong and extensive fan community.

But what is a fan? Consider: a true fan does much more than simply "like" a certain artist or genre. True fanhood is, essentially, an irrational enterprise.

For instance: I have written before about the importance of context for a fan's love of a given work. I may be fascinated by the biographies of my favorite musicians, because they provide an engaging frame -- but the music itself is no different whether I know the relevant background or not. The fact that I seem to enjoy a given tune more once I have obtained said information strikes me as somewhat odd.

But if you really want to talk about irrationality, think about the extent to which fanhood has traditionally involved elaborate rituals of fetishization. While true music fans love music, and love stories about music, we also love to fetishize the objects that convey music.

(Right? I'm assuming that you too have lovingly caressed a well-worn LP jacket.)

So the fact that we are developing a purely digital, artifact-less musical culture is maybe a little concerning. Cuz, you know: how do you fetishize an mp3?

And what happens to fanhood when you no longer have an art object to fetishize? Do you stop caring about the art itself? I wonder. While people still do buy physical media, I suspect that in general our relationship with recordings (i.e., qua recordings) has become much more ethereal, and much more casual (I know, I know). Who really worries about losing, misplacing, or wearing out a recording anymore? In my own case, I transfer most of the digital music I download onto disc, but I rarely buy jewel cases in which to protectively house them. I also gave up on CD wallets. Generally I just let the damned things accumulate in piles on my desk, or else just stack 'em back on the spindle they came from. Once they have been "consumed" for a given period of time, the MP3s, in turn, get backed up onto numerous hard-drives, which I hardly ever consult because there is so much new music to get to.

One could argue that the whole history of recording technology thus far has been driven by the search for devices and media that make the experience of music durable, reliable, and convenient. At their most fragile, brittle, and finite, older forms of music media (the 78, say, or even the cassette, which was always getting "eaten" at the wrong time (in my experience, anyway)) seemed to invite a greater degree of fetishization. We knew they wouldn't last forever, we knew they might be hard to replace, we knew they actually required some effort to obtain -- so of course we treated them with greater reverence.

Now that everything is so much easier, more durable and convenient, is that reverence harder to come by?

[photo credits: puroticorico, carlcollins]

* * * * *

Speaking of "fetishizing": the Industrial Jazz Group is having a fall fundraiser, in support of our October tour! You can find out more, and contribute to the cause (for as little as $1!), here.

Oh yeah, and we also have a remix contest.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Fight the good fight

Sometimes I miss LA.

Re: Rocco Somazzi's latest Quixote-esque mission: the Angel City Jazz Festival.

(You may or may not recognize a few former / one-off members of the Industrial Jazz Group in the above trailer.)

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The blind interrupting the blind



Apparently, Viacom decided this non-event (Kanye West interrupting Taylor Swift at the VMA awards, if you must know) was so important and valuable that the video had to be removed from YouTube.

(Double yawn.)

Ah, well:

Friday, September 11, 2009

Political coda, plus assorted flim-flam

Okay. A parting shot on this subject before the weekend.

Probably the best political commentary I've seen this week comes from Ta-Nehisi Coates:

We (liberals) have spent so much of our time on the losing end of the past 30 years, that the impulse is to fight every battle, and challenge every press release. Moreover, media has uncovered our inner crazy. HuffPo blasts every utterance from Jon Kyl in bold font. Politico reports every feint and jab, like it's the whole fight. I'm not blaming them, they're doing well because they've figured out something about our inner animal.

It's fine for us laymen to indulge that, but I don't want to be led by people who think that outlets (including this one) which weigh in on who "won the week" are some kind of gauge of their actual progress. I don't want to be led by people who think that "getting angry" is a actual political strategy. I want to be led by a killer. A cold, unemotional, professional killer.

I keep meeting lefties who tell me Obama's "too soft" with these guys, and I keep looking at them like they're crazy. I am going to go out on a limb and say that there is something deeper at work here, something beyond the policy fights. I think a lot of us don't just want Obama to be effective, we want him to exact some measure of revenge. It's smart to understand the difference between the two, and moreover, how the desire for one can undermine the other. A section of conservatives love Sarah Palin because she drives liberals crazy. That she drives a lot of other people crazy too, and hence undermines herself, is beside the point.

Let's not make that mistake.

In other words, let's not be MORANS.

* * * * *

Other stuffs:

-- The New Yorker shout-out. (Big thanks to DJA for making this happen.)

-- "Yo, Jimbo!"

-- The Industrial Jazz Group Remix Contest.

-- I'm honored to be guest-posting on Seattle trumpeter Jason Parker's blog this coming Monday. Gonna try really hard not to fuck it up.

-- And finally, this:

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The speech that did what speeches do

I'm sure some of you right-wing Industrial Jazz Group fans (if indeed there are any of you still out there) are tired of hearing me rant about my own political views, and would prefer instead more inside scoop about preparations for the upcoming tour. I promise I'll get back to music-related posting soon.

In the meantime: for what it's worth (not much, I know), I must admit that I breathed a small sigh of relief as I watched the speech last night. Part of that was attributable to the fact that Obama had clearly put on his "angry face" -- a look that I associate with the Pulp Fiction-inspired image that circulated during the election.

Still, given the general frenzy of the last few weeks, I was prepared for disappointing news of one sort or another. So I was genuinely surprised when he got to this:

My guiding principle is, and always has been, that consumers do better when there is choice and competition. That's how the market works. [...]

Now, I have no interest in putting insurance companies out of business. They provide a legitimate service, and employ a lot of our friends and neighbors. I just want to hold them accountable. (Applause.) And the insurance reforms that I've already mentioned would do just that. But an additional step we can take to keep insurance companies honest is by making a not-for-profit public option available in the insurance exchange. (Applause.) [...]

[...] the insurance companies and their allies [...] argue that these private companies can't fairly compete with the government. And they'd be right if taxpayers were subsidizing this public insurance option. But they won't be. I've insisted that like any private insurance company, the public insurance option would have to be self-sufficient and rely on the premiums it collects. But by avoiding some of the overhead that gets eaten up at private companies by profits and excessive administrative costs and executive salaries, it could provide a good deal for consumers, and would also keep pressure on private insurers to keep their policies affordable and treat their customers better, the same way public colleges and universities provide additional choice and competition to students without in any way inhibiting a vibrant system of private colleges and universities. (Applause.)

Now, I realize that that particular defense of the public option is not as forceful as some progressives would like. I also realize that some will claim that any perceived "toughness" in the health speech as a whole was merely a response to pressure from the left, that it doesn't represent Obama's true beliefs, and that he will "sell us out" at the first opportunity.

I suppose that's one way of looking at it. But I guess I prefer the take articulated by Balloon Juice's Anne Laurie:

As for last night’s speech, it should always be remembered: President Obama started his career as a community organizer. Which means he is used to (and most excellently skilled at) running an organization by “working for consensus”, a set of skills quite different from the ones needed for running the more usual top-down business/military/GOP organizations. In an authoritarian organization, for better or worse, at the end of the day what the Big Kahuna says goes is what goes. Even if he’s the best, most open-minded Big Kahuna in the universe, heading up a team of uniquely gifted & prickly talents -- he can ask for input, he can get input he hasn’t asked for, but when hammer meets nail it’s the Big Kahuna’s hammer that gets to choose the nail. And the other members of the team are always aware of this reality; barring things get so bad that grenades get rolled into the colonel’s tent, no private in the army forgets for long that the colonel is the one setting the agenda.

In a consensus-driven organization, on the other hand, everybody must have a chance to give an opinion... even when their opinion is stupid, crazy, laughable, and wrong. Being a successful community organizer means knowing that the local Mr. Tinfoil or Ms. Crystal-Bunny will show up at every goddamned meeting and waste everybody else’s time ranting about black helicopters or the necessity for regular high colonics. A large part of the job of being a successful community organizer is ensuring that the resident nutball gets a respectful hearing without being permitted to permanently derail the meeting. Because, sad as it may seem, the rest of us skittish flaky primates want to know (even when we don’t articulate it) that “our guy” will take our ideas seriously, even when we’re not sure our ideas are worth taking seriously. When Obama stands up before Congress and explains that his health care reform proposals will involve neither death panels or government-paid abortions (unfortunately, IMO), he is reassuring the 80% of his audience who have no strong feelings about either topic that he will, at another time, be open to their opinions, however formless and/or gormless. This is important, even when it means that the meetings keep running into overtime and that us sane people have to listen to an awful lot of extremely random crap.

After eight years of the Cheney Regency’s “My way or the Gitmo highway” authoritarianism, anything less forceful than sloganeering and explicit threats seems like pretty weak sauce to those of us who’ve been paying attention. The question, of course, is whether President Obama’s target audience -- the vast quivering voting-eligible majority that isn’t ideologically wed to either Invisible-Hand-of-the-Marketplace-Uber-Alles or Medicare-for-All-Americans-Immediately -- considers his speech, and his administration’s work over the next few weeks and months, as sensible compromise or timid obfuscation. Perhaps we’d get better proposals and a more useful final bill if President Obama would channel his Inner Authoritarian a little more, but his gift for seeking consensus seems to be why Obama is President and certain other people are not. Maybe all the histronics are simply a necessary part of the process of committing democracy.

Yes. Or even part of the process of "rehabilitating the idea of government" (to borrow an eloquent phrase from ObWi blogger Publius).

My main hope is that the speech will do what speeches are supposed to do: galvanize and energize (in a much broader and more intense way than is currently the case) those who are actually interested in real change for the health insurance system. What seems to have been missing until now is something along the lines of the level of organizing that obtained during the election itself. That is where true reform is going to come from.

Which reminds me: I have some phone calls to make.

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Speaking of "galvanizing": gadzooks! The Industrial Jazz Group is having a fall fundraiser, in support of our October tour! You can find out more, and contribute to the cause (for as little as $1!), here. Thank you!

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Random weekend mobile photo interlude

We spent a good chunk of Labor Day weekend in the vicinity of Mt. Hood, in a charmingly-named unincorporated entity called Government Camp, with our dear friends Sarah and Matt, and the assorted kids.

Apparently, we were about two miles away from the Overlook Hotel (aka Timberline Lodge) -- and now I know what our next day-trip excursion is going to be (we didn't actually get to make the hike this time, since the weather was fairly lousy).

Sarah procured a number of zany toys to keep the kids occupied in the event of rain (this turned out to be a very smart strategy). The one shown below was my favorite, mostly because of the subheading:

(Really? What I do with them is up to me? Is it bad that I have always treated my toys this way?)

Coming back (Government Camp is about an hour's ride from PDX), we stopped at a quaint (okay, cheesy) restaurant / coffeehouse / bakery / knick-knack emporium, with the very simple goal of procuring some coffee. This beverage took forever to make, which initially seemed to bode well, since we assumed the barista was a perfectionist. We were wrong -- she was no perfectionist.

Anyway, while wandering through the knick-knack emporium, waiting for my cappuccino, I came across these:

And these:

One could say that my whole career is based on the juxtaposition of unlike things, but I still can't get my head around this bacon + sweet stuff phenomenon.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Try the outrage du jour: it's bitter, and it's cheap

Read it and weep. Here's the crux of Obama's Hitler-youth-on-opposite-day speech, to be delivered today:

I’ve talked about your teachers’ responsibility for inspiring you, and pushing you to learn.

I’ve talked about your parents’ responsibility for making sure you stay on track, and get your homework done, and don’t spend every waking hour in front of the TV or with that Xbox.

I’ve talked a lot about your government’s responsibility for setting high standards, supporting teachers and principals, and turning around schools that aren’t working where students aren’t getting the opportunities they deserve.

But at the end of the day, we can have the most dedicated teachers, the most supportive parents, and the best schools in the world – and none of it will matter unless all of you fulfill your responsibilities. Unless you show up to those schools; pay attention to those teachers; listen to your parents, grandparents and other adults; and put in the hard work it takes to succeed.

Scary stuff, I know.

You can, if you like, count the number of "I's" in this excerpt, or in the speech as a whole. You can also count the number of "G's," or the number of "X's," or the number of periods. (Which reminds me: I wonder if the ass who came up with this exegetical method would have preferred that the president describe his experiences and observations in the third person.)

Or, you can just fucking read it, sounding out the letters to see what words they make, and then assembling the words into expressed thoughts called sentences. If you approach it that way, you may discover that the speech isn't about Obama at all. A summary of its content might go as follows: the onus for the future well-being of the United States rests squarely on the shoulders of current students. (A tall order, I suppose, but that's another discussion.)

Maybe you're the sort of Obamaphobe who has recognized that the speech itself is benign, and so have begun to critique its "subtext." The funny thing about this little pivot, as anyone who has ever engaged in literary analysis knows, is that "subtext" is often code for "any damned bullshit thing you want to read into a statement that is otherwise as plain as the nose on your face." You know: kind like what you've done with art analysis.

Or perhaps you're an Obamaphobic parent, and have decided to keep your kid home from school today. In which case, I feel compelled to say: if you're really concerned that this man is going to "indoctrinate" your progeny with a single speech -- even if the speech were partisan, which it's not -- then you'd better start drinking now. Because unless you plan on locking little Bobby or Susie in the basement for the rest of their lives, you've got much much bigger problems in store.

[Photo credit: dregsplod]

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Wowee zowee, did you know that the Industrial Jazz Group is currently going cuckoo with our fall fundraiser, in support of our October tour? You can find out more, and contribute to the cause (for as little as $1!), here. Thanks much!

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Listening, Party for Ninety-Six

Ah, jeez. Today is the first day of school. But lately I've been doing nothing but tour prep. And, looking forward, I see nothing but tour prep on the horizon.

Looks like I'll be winging it in class -- again! Hooray.

Here's my stopgap: until I can get into a true lesson-plan mindset, I'm gonna host a listening party for all 96 kids in my school. You know: play them some cool shit, let them respond, and then try to start a conversation about it.

(Kind of inspired by this.)

Anyway, to that end, here's the mix CD I just made:

1. “New Me” – Acoustic Ladyland (from Skinny Grin)

2. “Indoda Yejazi Elimnyama” -- Amaswazi Emvelo (from The Indestructible Beat of Soweto)

3. “Sardegna Amore (New Is Full Of Lonely People)” – Lester Bowie (w/ Arthur Blythe, Malachi Favors, Amina Claudine Myers, Phillip Watson) (from The 5th Power)

4. “Fem (Etude no. 8)” – The Bad Plus (from For All I Care)

5. “Radomirsko Horo” – Balkan Brass Band (from Balkan Brass Band)

6. “Casey Jones” – Billy Murray

7. “Ahulili” – Bonsai Garden Orchestra (from Take One)

8. “You Got it Made” – Buddy Johnson and his Orchestra (from Rock n Roll)

9. “Parchman Farm Blues” – Bukka White (from High Fever Blues)

10. “Okwukwe Na Nchekwube” - Celestine Ukwu & His Philosophers National (from Nigeria Special)

11. “There’s a Higher Power” – Charlie Louvin (from Steps to Heaven)

12. “Red Cross” – Charlie Parker

13. “Mardi Gras Waltz” – Clark Terry (from Top and Bottom Brass)

14. “Fresh Born” – Deerhoof (from Offend Maggie)

15. “Stillness is the Move” – Dirty Projectors (from Bitte Orca)

16. “Like Life” – Django Bates (from Like Life)

17. “Ntsikana's Bell” – Dollar Brand (from Good News from Africa)

18. “Hard Times Come Again No More” – Edison Male Quartet

19. “The Cell” – Erykah Badu (from New Amerykah)

20. “Cape Fear” –Fantomas–Melvins Big Band (from Millenium Monsterwork)

21. “Cattle Call” – LeAnn Rimes / Eddy Arnold (from Blue)

Hope you think no less of me because of this approach.

[Photo credit: OliBac]

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By the way, did you know that the Industrial Jazz Group is currently going berserk with our fall fundraiser, in support of our October tour? You can find out more, and contribute to the cause (for as little as $1!), here. Thank you!

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Raise your hands in the air...

...or not.

Just came across this memento from our last SoCal tour (April 2009). It was discovered backstage at the beautiful Dore theater in Bakersfield.

It is, essentially, a guide for audience behavior, and it appeared on the back of a program for a Middle School concert (which took place at the same theater a few weeks before we were there). You can click the image for the full text, but briefly, here are some of the highlights:

A peaceful environment is necessary for the enjoyment of concert performances. [...]

Arrive on time and stay until the concert is over. [...]

Clapping is the only way to show appreciation to the musicians, not whistling or shouting.

Applaud only after the end of the piece, not between movements. If you are uncertain, be the second one to applaud. [...]

Please do not use flash photography during the performance, as it is a distraction to the musicians who are performing.

(Whoops -- that last one sounds familiar.)

I came close to incorporating this into my onstage patter for the Bakersfield show, but then thought better of it.

Context is important. Believe me: as a music teacher myself I totally get how a middle school audience would need an extra dose of "polite" in order to make it through a concert by a band of their peers.

But on my grumpier days, I tend to think that precepts like this are actually teaching kids something else altogether about what it means to be an audience. Here is my "translation":

There is an impenetrable wall (or at least a pretty sturdy museum-case glass) between an audience and the music it listens to. "The performer" is to "the audience" as "us" is to "them."

Music is much less about the body than it is about the mind.

Musicians are fragile. Catch them on the wrong night, and a few random lights can fuck everything up.

Music itself is fragile, like a hothouse flower.

Okay, so I'm exaggerating a little. Clearly some performances benefit from utter silence and propriety. And (despite my various anti-social proclivities) I'd never advocate for outright disrespect by an audience.

But I happen to think that whistling and shouting are not necessarily (or even usually) disrespectful in the context of a performance. And given the choice between respect-shown-through-audience-politeness, and respect-shown-through-actually-paying-musicians-for-their-work, I'd choose the latter, thank you very much. (I would also be willing to bet that the former variety of respect is much more commonly enforced, and assumed to be "good enough.")

In any case, the deeper issue here is whether music of any genre can truly grow, evolve, or thrive when it is being treated with kid gloves. This problem, of course, pertains to creativity and play in general -- if it's not at least a little messy, it's not likely to be very good.

(One more thought: I actually perform better when people are taking pics. I think of it as an inexpensive laser show.)

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By the way, did you know that the Industrial Jazz Group is currently going full speed ahead with our fall fundraiser, in support of our October tour? You can find out more, and contribute to the cause, here. Thank you!

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

This is not another post on Terry Teachout

Really, it's not! I'm sure he's a nice guy and all (go ahead and follow him on twitter, and get frequent updates about his vacation with "Mrs. T"). But sweet jebus am I ever tired of hearing about this man and his infamous article. (I'm not even going to link it. You know the one I mean.)

Sorry to lead off with a rant. I mean no offense, really. I've enjoyed following the various smack-downs (and smack-ups), and have even posted a comment here and there myself. It's just that, at this point, for me anyway, it feels counterproductive to spend any more energy on the "death of jazz" musings of a single drama critic writing for a right-wing newspaper.

Like "Ken Burns," "Terry Teachout" seems to be an incredibly stubborn flashpoint. Why can't we just strike that essay from the record? Ignore it, going forward? (Didn't mother always say that was the best way to make a mean kid go away?)

Even if I did feel compelled to mount a full-on objection (at this late date), I wouldn't know who to address my complaints to.

Teachout himself? (As if he would give a shit! What -- is he going to print a retraction?)

Other jazz musicians? (Who among us would disagree that there were flaws in the assessment presented in the article?)

The people outside of the jazz community -- in my view, the very people needed to "save jazz"? (Well, maybe it would be worth it to address that group. But I think I'd rather make the case that jazz has a viable future by trying to create some viable, future-leaning jazz.)

Instead of continuing to reference the Teachout article, I agree with DJA: it's time to start pondering (in a much more proactive way) how jazz (in particular) is going to make the transition to a new economy of music. Because that transition is not going to be easy or obvious. There are bound to be some false starts. (Really: we're making it up as we go. Do you know exactly how it's going to happen?)

Consider the curious case of Nextbop, a freshly-minted Canadian jazz website that seems hell-bent on getting the word out about younger jazz musicians, and is geared, presumably, toward younger audiences. (Why "hell-bent"? $5000 to start a website -- that's dedication!)

Nextbop seems to have a very specific flavor of new jazz in mind (the well-dressed, high-class, and, um, male flavor, I guess). Of course, the site proprietors are entitled to their taste -- and anyway their selection of artists may be a function of exactly which ones have given the legal "go-ahead" (more on that in a second). In any case, even from my perspective well outside of the sub-genre of jazz that the Nextboppers are attempting to represent, a site like this appears to be manna from the heavens. Just the sort of thing that the Terry Teachout article (which I promise I won't mention ever again) seemed to decry the absence of.

And yet, as Peter Hum notes, these guys are actually getting grief for the love they are trying to show. From the site's blog:

I’m going to be brutally honest in saying that the results have been extremely disappointing. First of all, we’ve received very little recognition from the artists we are trying to promote. Most never answered our e-mails, we received very few words of encouragement and one even went as far as to tell us that we had no right to take the bio and the pictures from his website. I don’t think they realize that we took two years of our time to create a website with the sole purpose of promoting them and their music. On top of that, we’re full-time University students (one in Finance and one in Asian studies, if you’re curious) who not only have no money, but who had to borrow some to make this project possible.

We’ve also had a ton of problems with record labels. Being the good law-abiding citizen that I am, I felt it was important for us to obtain the permission from records labels to stream their music on our website. Most of them haven’t answered our e-mails or returned our phone calls, but I was completely stunned when some of them started refusing. We aren’t even allowed to stream songs which are featured on the artists’ MySpace pages! How are we supposed to promote jazz artists and to create a new audience for jazz if people cannot listen to the music?

We’re trying to help the record labels and the artists and not only are we not being paid for this, but it also uses up most of our free time. [...] I’m starting to believe that jazz doesn’t want to be saved. Jazz is barely surviving and it is content with the way things are. Jazz is a music made by jazzmen for jazzmen and this is why the audience is dwindling.


Jazz needs to change its image. People don’t realize that the music has evolved since Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis. Jazz is thought to be either old and corny or complicated and intellectual. That’s one of the things we’re trying to achieve with Nextbop. We want to show that all these preconceptions are wrong. We want to show people that anyone can find something they like in today’s jazz music as long as they are a little open-minded.

So unless I'm missing something, here's the summary. In response to you-know-who, we in the jazz community (not a monolith, but still) say we are in fact all about the kids. And yet when some young whippersnappers want to use modern tools to bring this music to a modern audience, they run into some very real resistance.

What gives?

[Photo credit: JOE M500]

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By the way, did you know that we are currently going all out with our fall fundraiser, in order to support our October tour? You can find out more, and contribute to the cause, here. Thank you!