Friday, January 08, 2010

I gotta take my clothes off / tryin' to play some bebop

(A free LEEF CD to the first person who gets the titular reference.)

I was fascinated to read Marc Myers's recent death-of-jazz-ish post, not because I have strong feelings one way or the other on the topic of the music's mortality (actually, that topic pretty much bores me), but because Marc's commentary touches on the tension between visual and auditory perception in 21st century writing about jazz.

He notes:

Today live music for large numbers of people no longer is solely an audio experience—or an acoustic one. Sadly, most music now demands visual excitement, shock and a techno dynamic. Musicians standing and playing together no longer is sufficient for a growing segment of the concert-going public. There's not enough theater or impact.

On the one hand, I sympathize with this view. It references the very stereotype of "the music fan" that I have been so inconsiderately lampooning, via the Industrial Jazz Group, for a few years now. This is, after all, yet another reason we wear the crazy, half-assed costumes of our current show -- we recognize (and lament) the fact that the larger music industry is very much about appearances, often at the expense of sounds -- and we try to highlight that phenomenon with an ironic wink.

But to assume that jazz (as a subset of the larger music industry) is, or ever was, totally immune from the impact of visual culture -- as if, living in the West, anyone but the blind could have "solely an audio experience" -- is to fall back on an argument that is deeply frustrating in its unbridled purism.

There's a moment on Burnt Weeny Sandwich (okay, okay, it's a personal favorite of mine, but you know where I'm coming from) when a heckler shouts out an admonition to "take off that uniform!" (I've heard different versions of what this dude was actually talking about, but my favorite, which is probably apocryphal, is that he was addressing the Mothers themselves -- because, of course, they too were inclined to dress up.) Zappa's response seems to me to be somewhat devastating, and is, I think, addressed to the audience as a whole: "Everyone in this room is wearing a uniform, and don't kid yourself."

Precisely. It's not that jazz fans are somehow able to magically "tune out" visual stimuli when listening to the music they love. (The very fact that hardcore aficionados sometimes react negatively to the IJG's proclivity for costumes is, it seems to me, pretty compelling evidence that ocular information is actually more important to these folks than they want to let on. Jazz musicians, apparently, are supposed to "look the part.") For all its auditory power, jazz has always been informed to some extent by a strong (and even striking) visual aesthetic. If it wasn't, why would there even be a market for a book of Blue Note album covers? Why would we package the music at all?

In this country where jazz began, even the most serious jazz musician makes time to "prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet." It's a truism of our society. And while practitioners and fans of this music may be more interested than most in the nature and mechanics of sound (I do believe that's true), that doesn't mean they (we) are uninterested in (or unaffected by) the visual trappings of the art.

[photo credit: IJG at the Bell House, by Steven Noreyko (October, 2009)]


Anonymous said...

i think steve digitally erased my middle finger...


Andrew Durkin... said...

No, that was a different pic.

mrG said...

there's no way Miles Davis dressed like that by accident. Or Diz. Or that suite Ornette wears. Or Cab Calloway's long-chained zoot for that matter.

Or even straight-suited Wynton Marsellis! As telling and tainting of their sound as the scales set against which harmonies. In actual physical fact, people directly detect very little of the real-time experience, what they 'see' is a re-combinant mind's eye view assembled from whatever data and whatever modalities are available and tunable at that moment.

The notion of The Show has a long and noble tradition in the performance of jazz music. Sun Ra said costumes were music too. As were the lights, and he'd travel with swaths of coloured cloth to adjust the colour tuning of the halls where they played.