Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Julio Cortazár and His Takes on Jazz

Julio Cortazár (1914-1984)

Last night, I borrowed a translated version of Julio Cortazár's "Around the Day in Eighty Worlds" from a friend who suggested I read its four chapters on jazz and jazz artists.

I read those four chapters--each only one to five pages in length--this morning, and enjoyed two of them especially: One on a Thelonious Monk concert in Geneva from 1966 and another on the meaning of jazz takes. The two others were a paragraph homage to Clifford Brown and a slightly-too-hagiographical description of a Louis Armstrong concert in Paris from 1952. (And for those of you who are Cortazár fans, the Armstrong entry is the one in which he first employs the word "Cronopio," which threw me off a bit, as this was my first encounter with Cortazár. But don't be offended if I ignore his jargon here.) Throughout this entry, I will be drawing some chunky quotes from the chapters on Monk and jazz takes. They are worth reading.

Of Monk, he writes:

"[F]rom backstage, taking a completely unnecessary detour on the way, a bear with a cap that is half fez, half skullcap walks up to the piano, putting one foot in front of the other with such caution that you think of abandoned mines or those flower beds of Sassanid despots where each crushed flower meant the slow death of a gardener. When Thelonious sits down at the piano the whole hall sits with him and produces a collective sigh as great as his relief because the diagonal progress of Thelonious across the stage contained something of the risk of piloting a Phoenician sailing ship with probable grounding in sandbars, and when the ship loaded with dark honey and its bearded captain reach the port the masonic wharf of Victoria Hall receives it with a sound like air escaping from the sails as the ship's bow touches the pier."(1)

He continues, in one heroic (abridged) breath of a sentence:

"When Charles Rouse steps toward the microphone and his sax imperiously shows us why it is there, Thelonious lets his hands fall, listens a moment, tries a soft chord with his left hand, and the bear rises...he leaves the bench and leans against the end of the piano, where, as he marks the beat with a foot and his cap, his fingers go gliding over the piano, first at the end of the keyboard...and then imperceptibly his fingers set off on a safari across the piano...and Thelonious makes a dizzying journey...toward the end of the piano, but he won't reach it because to get there he would need more time than Phileas Fogg...so Thelonious travels in his own way...every so often moving his fingers to gain an inch...measuring the heights with a a sextant of smoke and refusing to go forward and reach the end of the piano, until his hand abandons the shore, the bear gradually spins around...we feel the emptiness of Thelonious away from the shore of the piano, the interminable diastole of one enormous heart where all our blood is beating, and just at that moment his other hand falls from the piano, the bear teeters amiably and returns...to the keyboard, looks at it as if for the first time, passes his indecisive fingers through the air, lets them fall, and we are saved..."(2)

Watch this video of the Thelonious Monk Quartet from 1966 to get an idea of what is being described, Monk's inscrutable yet avuncular demeanor, his immaculate yet seemingly unrefined and uncalculated control:

The Thelonious Monk Quaret live in Oslo, 1966

For me, it was refreshing to read poetic writing on jazz. I spend so much of my time delving into the history of this music that I sometimes get tired and less hopeful because there is so much ambiguity and so much to know. From time to time, I prefer some metaphor over historical accuracy. (This doesn't often happen in writing on jazz.) Sometimes I'd prefer to believe that Monk's genius was ineffable, just as I'd like to believe that some of nature's mysterious ways are impervious, to an extent, to scientific observation.

In his short essay on jazz takes, called "Take it or Leave It," Cortazár is writing partly in response to accusations from a Uruguayan critic who has written that Cortár's novel "Hopscotch" contains errors regarding discographic dates. Cortazár's writing does not convey any huffiness or indignance or sadness or defensiveness. It is humble. He acknowledges the errors in his book and respects the critic, who, as Cortazár writes, "knows a lot" and has written "really a solomonian column." Cortazár wisely demonstrates that he will not let these errors deter him, and in fact, uses the experience as an opportunity to write a well-crafted and thoughtful essay. The last sentence is a victory.

He writes:

"The instructor who taught me to drive told me that if I ever cracked up, the only thing that could keep me together would be to get in another car as soon as possible and keep on driving as if nothing had happened. So let fall the cords that bind Saint Sebastian, let the solitary column stand, and let's talk of takes, which, as everyone knows, even me a little, are the successive recordings of a single theme during the course of a recording session...

"Strange power of the record, which can open for us the workshop of the artist, let us attend his successes and failures. How many takes are there in the world? This edited one can't be the best; in its turn the atom bomb could someday be the equivalent of Bird's Hold it!, the great silence. But will there be other usable takes afterwards?

"The difference between practice and take. Practice leads little by little to perfection, what it produces doesn't matter, it is present only as a function of the future. In the take creation contains its own criticism, so it often interrupts itself to begin again; the inadequacy or failure of a take has the value of practice for the one that follows, but the next one is not an improved version of the preceding one, rather, if it is really good, it is always another thing entirely.

"The best literature is always a take; there is an implicit risk in its execution, a margin of danger that is the pleasure of the flight, of the love, carrying with it a tangible loss but also a total engagement..."

Then he bravely concludes:

"I don't want to write anything but takes."(3)

Neither do I.

(1) Cortázar, Julio. Around the Day in Eighty Worlds. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1986. Print. Pages 72-73.

(2) Ibid., pages 73-74.

(3) Ibid., page 136.


  1. one of my favorites, glad i found a way to post.

  2. Have you read "El Perseguidor" ("The Pursuer")? It's a short fictional story where he pretends to be the biographer of a Charlie-Parker-like character. Great story, good take on Bird.

  3. I haven't, but I've heard great things. I'll have to check it out.