From The Blog

Speech: Art Gallery of NSW – Giacometti Exhibition

To be asked to speak on the subject of jazz in the context of an exhibition of the great Giacometti must inevitably come as something of a surprise....

To be asked to speak on the subject of jazz in the context of an exhibition of the great Giacometti must inevitably come as something of a surprise. The work of this great artist seems to fall more or less equally into two halves, the first being the surrealist figures of the thirties, before his compressed studies, many of his brother Diego, began to appear in the forties. There would seem at first glance to be little relation between the work and the music, and indeed I am not here to attempt to reveal some magical synaesthesia between Giacometti and jazz, but just for the sake of it, I will point to one or two cultural synergies. The first relates to the embrace of the idea of jazz by certain artists and writers of the European intelligentsia of the 1920’s, mainly in Germany at first, a nation shattered by the consequences of World War 1 and eager to reinvent itself during the turbulent Weimar years, but also in France where composers like Stravinsky and Ravel were excited by its Otherness.

A child of many parents, born out of wedlock, one would have to say, jazz is redolent with irony. In his book Blues People, LeRoi Jones talks about the psychological reality of being a slave in the Americas during the first half of the 19th century. A slave was a chattel in the eyes of the state, not a human being. A nothing, born to work until death with no sense of the basic things we take for granted like dignity, self worth, freedom. It is sobering to think that while Liszt was wowing them on the concert stages of Europe, many of those brand new venues were a product of economies which depended on slavery, whether we are talking textiles, tobacco or sugar. So, with Brahms busily at work on his first Symphony, America drowned in blood for a few years, and the slaves were freed. But not for long, or not really. Other kinds of slavery took over, as their rights were revoked and institutionalised racism led to an urban and rural underclass, or segregated communities with their own social mobility.

 

This was certainly the case in New Orleans where under the catholic inheritance of French speaking culture, far more had been preserved of African tradition for far longer than in the more conservative, protestant puritan north where anything remotely pagan was ruthlessly suppressed. All of which should be painfully familiar to indigenous Australians and Pacific Islanders. Jazz was the counterattack of the black American, with its off beat rhythms, its brass band instrumentation poking fun at the four squareness of the military, its exotic language of smears, growls and percussive devices leading to the overt sexuality of swing. Swing is what happens when one rhythmic layer exists with another one in a simmering tension of give and take. The bottom end wants to push and the top end wants to lay back, but only a little bit each way, enough for the music to feel good. Now there’s a new concept: feel. You don’t hear Chopin enthusiasts talking about it, because of course the eros of Chopin has far more to do with the head than the body, wheras the eros of jazz involves the sensuality of the dance, that great human mating ritual. Now this Dionysian force was accompanied by the other radical innovation of 20th century music, the gramophone, just as well really, because of the third piece of the equation. Without the gramophone, we wouldn’t have recorded the uniqueness of the great jazz performances containing as they do improvisation.

What had happened to improvisation? Well it depends where you look, because of of course it had been happening, one assumes, forever on the undocumented level of folk music. In fact, apart from the sanitised idea of folk tunes and rhythms that we hear from time to time in composers like Beethoven and Haydn, it took the gramophone to show us what that folk music actually sounded like when composers like Bartok and Grainger went around collecting songs and recording the people who sang and played them. Improvisation used to be a central part of performance practice until at least the late 18th century. JS Bach and his sons, particularly the unfortunate Wilhelm Friedrich were wonderfully gifted improvisers, and Mozart would routinely improvise on themes suggested to him by audience members at recitals. But it disappeared pretty much entirely from music education during the 19th and 20th centuries, except it you were trained as an organist, where improvised counterpoint was still on the agenda.

Not surprisingly, classical purists are still inclined to look down their noses at jazz. Now why do we think this is? What is it about the language of jazz that gets up their noses? Is it the preponderence of Saxophones and brass? Is it the seeming formlessness of a music that often relies on the repetition of structures of relatively short duration at a constant tempo, or the torrents of notes that seem to pour mercilessly from great soloists. Is it the wildness, the spontaneity, the urgency, the vitality , the joy? I know from some lovers of rock that they find it all too note-heavy and serious. Too intellectual. That they don’t get it. Which can only mean they don’t listen. Jazz, an utterly romantic form, pitting as it does the artist/hero in a titanic struggle with his or her own ego, is the great night music, the music of neon, of the city, of Edward Hopper, Jackson Pollock, Henry Miller, of Paris, Berlin, Tokyo, Shanghai and of course New York. Lately its spread its wings to become the brooding lay of the fjords, the cry of the polish soul, and , indeed, the expression of the vast space and dryness of Australia, as well. This music, the marrying of intellect with passion, which spins on the pinhead of real time, the result of untold billions of spontaneous decisions, is the metaphor for the life force itself. Its lessons are legion, but the biggest one is about the connection of the player to the instrument, that in order to be able to really do it, the player and the instrument must become one.

Then there is the supple relationship that the jazz musician has to rhythm, the feeling of a music not based on the barline, but on pulse, a music in constant forward momentum, in which ravishing harmony, not necessarily subservient to any grand scheme, is enjoyed for its own sake , simply as sound. This is the great achievement of Black America, a music born out of synthesis, which continues to morph into various versions of itself wherever it puts down roots, a music of process, the music closest to human speech in its asymmetrical phrasing. And now a music which involves turntablists and computer players.

So we can talk about the ephemerality of jazz as being part of its very nature, indeed its appeal. It is the celebration of the now, and this anarchic license might seem to be very much in the spirit of aspects of Dadaism, and its cousin Surrealism. The Dadaists loved the idea of the moment, of the absurdities which seem to throw all reason and narrative out the window, to be replaced by a freewheeling succession of moments made real by the imposition of the creative will. Certainly the free improvisation movement which arose on both sides of the musical divide during the sixties could be said to reflect this philosophy, the jazz side tending to produce music of confrontation, often at the service of a political message, with the classical side leaning more toward the ‘happening’, a theatrical event involving a cello, a bucket of offal, a naked woman and an upside down trombonist. Andre Breton, the intellectual force behind the surrealist movement, championed automatic writing, a kind of free associative improvisational form, as a gateway to the language of the subconscious, where images from dreams rubbed shoulders with ideas drawn from the new thinking of Freud and Jung. This type of associative improvising reminds me of the music of Ornette Coleman, who found a way of creating a musical discourse freed from the constraints of repetitive harmonic cycles which had dominated jazz since its earliest times. Ultimately, finding meaningful parallels between these movements doesn’t always reveal much. How do we account for the harmonies of Debussy in relation to the waterliles of Monet? We don’t frankly. They are both French, and have something to do with the gallic sensibilite around the turn of the 19th Century. You could of course throw Mallarme in there as well, and yes Proust got excited by Cesar Franck, but we would strive in vain to search for actual processes which parallel the creative moment in these great artists. Jazz, particularly be-bop, the revolutionary new music ushered in by Charlie Parker, or Coleman Hawkins according to some, is often likened to the great canvases of Jackson Pollock. But the painter’s world is a solitary one, and jazz is by and large a communal activity with its roots in folk practice, based on a series of consensual conventions. These are of course occasionally turned on their head and exploited for their ironic historical deposits as the art Ensemble of Chicago demonstrated in such great works as “Certain Blacks” or “Old Time Religion”.

It is the compression of ephemerality inherent in Giacomettis later work which strikes a jazz chord with me. Jazz as I have said is the celebration of the moment, in which intellect and passion are the virtuoso ballroom dancers twirling on a single needle point of time, the notes, phrasing, dynamics and attack which make up the improvisers’ creation the result of countless billions of decisions acted out in split seconds. Coltrane’s later work always strikes me as sculptural; one has the sensation of the artist wrestling with his material in a titanic struggle to break through from one level of intensity to the next, the resulting music being so present as to be almost tangible. The pianist Cecil Taylor demonstrated this fascinating ability to create a sonic sculpture at a concert I witnessed in 1983. He built layer on layer of sonic material in such a way that it all seemed present long after the last sound had died away, a towering, brooding sonic spectre. The great Australian tenor player Mark Simmonds had this quality, and there is something akin to a visual aesthetic in the slowly unfolding sound world created by the Necks, like looking at a floating object at different times of the day, with different light conditions, and your own changing psychological state forming the nature of the attraction between creators and listener.

As I write I am listening to the Duke Ellington Band recorded in 1940, with Ben Webster on tenor and Jimmy Blanton on bass, one of the greatest bands led by the greatest bandleader in jazz. There was certainly no doubt about the providence of the word jazz in relation to Ellington, none of the ambivalence or confusion surrounding the word and its cultural/political resonances that we have today. This was the golden age of jazz, a time when despite its sophistication, it was the popular music of the time, and one largely enjoyed through he medium of dance. The audiences had as much fun as the players, and the level of dancing virtuosity in some cases certainly matched the virtuosity of the players. And what virtuosity it was. Johnny Hodges, nicknamed Rabbit, whose gorgeous sound on alto was the closest thing heard to a black Caruso, Ben Webster, the gruff poet and great balladeer, and the greatest trumpet section of them all, which included Ray Nance, also a wonderful violinist with a tone like Heifetz and Cootie Williams the king of growls and smears. In fact it was a band of virtuosi, which probably played 400 plus gigs a year, and that’s what I’m talking about. If you add to that the other great big bands of the era, you’ve got Basie, Lunceford, Chick Webb, Jay McShann, Earl Hines, Louis Armstrong to name a few of the black bands of those segregated times, and Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller and the list goes on and on. For the first time in history concerts were broadcast live coast-to-coast so that bands and their singers, including the young Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Frank Sinatra, Billy Ekstine, Mildred Bailey, Billie Holiday and Peggy Lee to name just a few, could become overnight sensations. This was large ensemble music, with reams and reams of music being written for it. And, as one might expect, the music grew in complexity depending on the artistic visions of certain individuals.

Ellington himself had his great musical alter ego Billy Strayhorn, who at 17, black , gay, and having never left Pittsburgh penned the immortal lines “I used to visit all the very gay places/ those come what may places/ where one relaxes on the axis of the wheel f life/ to get the feel of life/ from jazz and cocktails’. They understood the potential of jazz to be the new classical music of America, a notion supported by Percy Grainger who had recognised Ellington’s greatness in the early 30’s. In 1940, Ellington and Strayhorn composed the great suite Black Brown and Beige, the first of many ambitious long-form works. It was premiered at the great temple of the western canon, Carnegie Hall. On the other side of the racial divide, bands like Claude Thornhill and Stan Kenton were employing arrangers such as Gil Evans and Bob Graettenger who were hearing more and more complex tapestries of harmony and counterpoint, and leading the music further and further away from the dance.

So it should come as no surprise that within this fertile environment individual jazz soloists, raised within the big band culture, should be seeking new modes of expression. The real revolution in this regard, led by tenor player Lester Young and trumpeter Roy Eldridge, was in the rhythm area. Soloists really started to cut the beat up, playing around and across it, and forcing rhythm section players to change their approach to a much more propulsive, complex design based on pulse rather than beat. Tempos became faster, manic in fact, and levels of virtuosity realized that have been in some cases unsurpassed. A language was created, with a parallel street parlance and dress code, that have maintained their presence ever since. It is impossible to imagine the sound of modern jazz without the presiding spirits of its creators: Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Fats Navarro, Charles Mingus, Max Roach.

This is where jazz crossed the line from popular music with a wide fan base and media attention, to something with aspirations as art, if by art in this case we mean something which needs to be appreciated on its own merits, on its own terms, uncoupled from its previous attachments to human mating rituals. Jazz’s evolution has accelerated exponentially from this point. The large ensemble, with its reliance on composition and swing rather than improvisation took a back seat, in fact pretty much died away with the notable exception of Ellington and a few others, and the jazz musician became a concept in the popular imagination. Behind the white picket fences of Main St USA this was a creature best avoided: a night creature, likely to be black, or at least to speak like one, a person of bad habits and eccentric tastes in most things. And this is the jazz that attracted me, heard on the wireless in the outer eastern suburbs of Melbourne. Miles Davis blew the whole jazz thing wide open in the 70’s leaving us to wonder whether it is a noun, ie can we define it with precision, which has led to a kind of reactionary movement in the music spearheaded by Wynton Marsalis, or an adverb, ie is it a way of doing things, a process, a continuum? This is the way I as an Australian prefer to see it, and I think that the history of jazz in Australia would back me up, but that is a story for another exhibition.