Sunday, June 05, 2011

Some things never stay the same

Supposedly, Duke Ellington once said this:

By and large, jazz has always been like the kind of a man you wouldn’t want your daughter to associate with.

Assuming that was ever true, is it still true?

I suppose one could argue that it is still true in the sense that most jazz musicians still tend not to be very materially successful, and most parents still generally don't want their daughters to associate with freeloaders.

(One way in which it is certainly not true, or at least not complete, is that it doesn't take note of the fact that many daughters are now playing jazz too.)

But I'm pretty sure that the material interpretation is not what Ellington meant. I think, in his suave and elegant way, he was trying to say something about how jazz is connected to illicit pleasure, to rebellion, to the social underbelly, to life as an outsider. I think he was saying that jazz is the music of cool weirdos who are vaguely threatening in some way.

Is THAT still true?

[Photo credit: "KFC Taco Bell Wedding" by Macrofarm]


mrG said...

in the Japanese movie, "Swing Girls" when the teens find out they are going to be playing Jazz music one of them comments that it's the music for middle aged men who swish their brandy around in a big glass while they listen.

The problem really is that Jazz doesn't describe anything. Does it mean Coltrane with Miles or Coltrane with Alice? Does it mean Bob Crosby, Bing Crosby or John Zorn? Genre labels are a convenience of the CD industry trade magazines and they're all bankrupt now so who really cares what they say? I mean really.

I know many, esp those who actually do know something about the modern history of the so-called Classical Music who would say that certain types of jazz (what I'd call 3rd Stream) are the natural and worthy successors to the 400 year European music tradition, having successfully opened that tradition to world musics at long last, just 200 years after Charles Burney completely discredited Euro-composition as the only 'serious' music. And then there's James Chance and the Contortions.

So far as I can see, there are only musicians, and the personalities of each says more about their probabilities of success than what sort of musical vocabulary they choose. Some can knock themselves out learning highly technical strategies of variations and technical dazzlry, others can just plunk about dead pedantic, there is no correlation to the bank balance at the end of the month; the only real determining factor is if you're playing a music that is in demand for a paying public, and whether that concept even interests you or if, like Coltrane, you see yourself as after Bigger Things.

Andrew Durkin... said...

So in other words you disagree with Ellington?

mrG said...

I might need the context of his comment to know for sure, but yes, in general. There are many etymologies for the word 'Jazz', including one that says the first usage musically was on a poster for a boy's school band, hardly a nasty origin. My personal favourite is the Baseball Theory that put the term in Chicago first to describe a pitcher who "had the Ch'azz" that ended up in print as 'Jazz', the original being Irish for "the living energy that powers awesome things like massive storms", which again, hardly a nasty origin. There's evidence the word travelled south with the musicians to turn up put to this 'hot' dance music in New Orleans.

And I stand by my guns, it's mostly the personality, not the musical vocabulary. I know some Classical people who are positively evil, I'd never leave them alone with my kids and watch my back when I deal with them, and I know some death metal kids that I'd let housesit for me.

Alex said...

the baseball story is true, but the location is Los Angeles, not Chicago:


mrG said...

the story I heard was the first newspaper report was LA, but the reporter had heard the term in the midwest, and that possibly Bennie Moten had then ported the term back to New Orleans. The legend is so wonderful, I'm not even certain I care if it is true or not :)

Andrew Durkin... said...

I'll take the point generally, though let's remember that this is Ellington we're talking about. I mean, he eschewed the term "jazz" in enough other contexts that I'm willing to forgive him his usage here. Clearly he was in "quip mode."

And it's not like the statement is entirely untrue, if you take it less literally. He's making the sort of poetic inversion that has been so key to the survival of minority cultures in this country. "Bad" is good. Even today, jazz language (not the musical language itself, but the discourse of the culture) is peppered with words like "badass," "killer," and the one you use, "nasty." These terms are not literal--indeed, they are terms of high praise, and they capture something of the visceral, straight-to-the-gut, passionate quality of the music. (And in that sense, what could be nastier than an exuberant school band or a powerful storm?)

I too know some Classical musicians of questionable character, but, setting aside the exceptions that prove the rule, I have never heard a Classical piece (no matter how beautiful or moving) described affirmatively as "nasty" or "badass." Except, perhaps, by jazz musicians themselves. Of course, that is merely anecdotal.

Anyway, the real question is whether the music lives up to the discourse. There's no right answer to that one, as you know. Personally, I think it used to, but nowadays I'm not so sure.

Vikram Devasthali said...

I think jazz is still "like the kind of a man you wouldn't want your daughter to associate with." The difference now is, I think your daughter would agree with you.