Monday, September 27, 2010

The System

For the sake of forming a system, click this link--Do The Math--and then click the link on that website directing you back here--to Cold Jazz.  (Click the Cold Jazz link if you want--just for the hell of it.)

I'm not completely serious, but if you did it, I'm glad.  Blogging is awkward.  It's hard to know who you're affecting if you don't know who's reading your entries.  When I started blogging about two months ago, I had a few agendas:  to have a reason to write on a regular basis, to have a focus, to build an online portfolio of my thoughts.  I didn't really know how to go about establishing online connections.  I had just heard of Patrick Jarenwattananon's A Blog Supreme and thought it would be nice if I got his attention.  I eventually did, here.  But most of the time, I felt like I was only writing to myself. 

I didn't know there was actually a jazz blogosphere--that musicians and journalists and aficionados and self-made critics are actually writing about each other and responding to each other on the internet, right now.  So when the excellent pianist George Colligan, of jazztruth, commented on--by way of aggreeing with--one of my entries last month, I was happily surprised.  It made me feel sort of validated.  It felt good to know he had sat down, gone to my site, read one of my entries and actually considered it.  I wondered how many other people had.   

Maybe the internet depersonalizes relationships, but I'm pretty sure that the people I've met through my blog are good people--including Sebastien Helary and Anthony Dean-Harris of Nextbop (whom I've written for here and here); Alex W. Rodriguez of Lubricity (who recommended my blog here); cristin in Chicago, who comments on my blog (and also blogs here). 

I've never met Ethan Iverson (of Do The Math) in person or online, but he has apparently read my blog. (If you didn't actually click the first link, you should now.)  I know I've read his.  I remember the first time I saw Mr. Iverson perform, in Princeton with the Bad Plus.  I was in high school, was listening to a lot of jazz from the 1950s, but I didn't have any preconceived notions of what jazz should be.  The Bad Plus are like the Jacques Derrida of jazz.  They interrogate the binaries, they deconstruct, but not at the expense of their sense of place, their empathy.

Mr. Iverson served as spokesman for the band the night I saw him--introducing the songs, revealing who wrote them, wryly unspooling anecdotes.  He was quite funny and interactive.  I remember wondering that night where his next show would be, how long he had been on the road, how many audiences he had performed for in his life, how many people he had affected.

It's hard to qualify that last thought.  But it's helpful to think that affection is usually better when reciprocal.  In my second semester at McGill, I took a jazz history class with local Montreal drummer Dave Laing.  I had seen him play the semester before with the singer Ranee Lee, and I had really admired his playing.  I was surprised to find that he would be my teacher.  Surprised to the point of shyness.  I never told him that I saw him, that I enjoyed his performance.  I should have.  He seemed a confident musician, but I'm sure he could have taken a compliment.  We could all take a compliment. 

So I felt complimented when Ethan Iverson linked me from his blog.  It's not a momentous occasion, but it means, maybe, he likes my writing.  I hope he feels complimented by the first link in this entry.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Happy Birthday, Brother Ray

Ray Charles (1930-2004)
When I listen to Ray Charles--which is quite often--I like to imagine his face.  That's probably because there are so many pictures of his face--sunglasses on, head cocked back, mouth agape, cheeks tightened up.  If you didn't know him, you might think he's being tortured in such pictures (look right and think about it).  But it's also because his enunciation seems to require the whole face take part--like when he's reaching for one of those gravelly falsetto notes, staring up and squinting his eyes as though there's too much sun; or he's knee-deep in a blues, growling in breaths, frowning with seeming desperation.  I don't want to idealize a persona:  it's not that his emotions made him a genius.  He was a fabulous, hardworking pianist with one of the finest voices in music.  But when he looks in pain, I believe he is.

Ray Charles would have turned 80 today had he not died six years ago of liver cancer.  The cover of DownBeat's October issue pictures a black and white profile of his face, commemorating his eightieth birthday.  He looks solemn in that picture.  The accompanying article discusses Charles's liminal sort of relationship with jazz, bringing to attention his influence on jazz musicians, the jazz musicians who were his influences, his forays into jazz, his work methods.  I enjoyed the article because I learned a little more, but there was an underlying question that I believe did not need to be broached.  Did Ray Charles play enough jazz for jazz fans to claim him as a jazz musician?

It is true that Ray Charles played on records that are unabashedly jazz records, including, notably, "Soul Meeting" and "Soul Brothers," which he cut in 1958 with Milt Jackson, who had as much or more affinity for the blues as Charles.  They are fine records.  My favorite is "Fathead: Ray Charles Presents David 'Fathead' Newman," from 1960.  Listen to "Hard Times" from that album and try not to feel wistful.  There is "Genius + Soul = Jazz," from 1961, featuring such great jazz musicians as Clark Terry, Thad Jones, Al Grey.  But they do not make this album great.  In fact, the sharp, jarring sound of Charles's organ on this album makes it not great.  There is "My Kind of Jazz," recorded in 1970, produced by Quincy Jones.

So sure, let's claim Ray Charles as a jazz musician.  He did play jazz.  But wanting to claim him misses the point of his genius.  For he did play jazz, but the songs that made him great--"I Got a Woman," "You Are My Sunshine," "A Fool For You," Night Time is the Right Time," "Careless Love"--are not jazz songs.

Some might disagree.  In Gary Giddins's essay "Hard Again," he writes, "Ray Charles had one of the best hard bop bands of the '50s."  But Giddins does not pretend that Charles played strictly jazz when, he writes, "rhythm and blues was tweaking jazz for its loss of soul." (1)  And surely Ray Charles had soul.  Watch the video posted below (mentioned in the DownBeat article) and see for yourself.  (As you'll see, it wasn't just his face that moved with the words.)

Here's how I see it:  Ray Charles sang at the Republican National Convention in 1984.  Was he a Republican?  Maybe, but that shouldn't define him.  Ray Charles played jazz.  Was he a jazz musician?  Perhaps, but let's be thankful that's not all he was.  


(1) Giddins, Gary. Rhythm-a-ning: Jazz Tradition and Innovation in the '80s. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985. Print.  Page 133.

Ray Charles plays the slow blues in Madrid

Monday, September 20, 2010

Jazz in the Background

I can't deny that music sets a mood. It can set your mood. When I first started listening to jazz, I was going to the school library, checking out jazz CDs randomly, seeing what I liked. I remember one album fondly: Oscar Peterson's "Saturday Night at the Blue Note" (Telarc) recorded live in 1990. In the first track, "Kelly's Blues," I was awed by Peterson's virtuosity on the piano, his powerful block chords, the way he ended his solo with such authority as to make it seem the only way: his way. I didn't come to admire Peterson's playing all at once. At first I was put off by the album's sound quality. But for some reason, I went back and listened again, and again. By degrees, I started to consider the interplay, the dynamics, the methods in jazz.

I wasn't drawing any conclusions; I was learning something about listening. About the value of paying attention. One spring day in grade eleven, I put on that Oscar Peterson CD as I drove two friends home from school. They were talking as I turned it on, so I listened alone for a couple of minutes. Eventually, I interrupted their conversation, asking what they thought of the music. They hadn't really noticed it and stopped to listen. Peterson had just ended his solo with thunder and Herb Ellis was emerging from the wake, stating a line that would remain in my head for a long time to come. They both agreed that it was good, that it was something they would play at a party, in the background. Good friends that they were and are, I was still frustrated by their appraisal, even more so because I think they meant it as a compliment.

I sensed they were saying it was music to set a mood, to accommodate an environment, perhaps a quiet affair with martinis and beef wellington, or sugar cookies and mulled wine. But there was a contradiction in my frustration: I agreed with them, though not for the same reasons. Sure, I thought, I'd play this at a party. That's because I'd want to listen to it, to enjoy it with others. I felt that my friends implied it was music not worth listening to, that you'd play it at a party because it seems like a sophisticated thing to do.

I would get a similar feeling two years later, in February of my first year at university, when my roommate told me he liked jazz in the winter as I listened in the living room to Clifford Brown. Once again, I agreed with him, but not for the same reasons. Only in the winter? I thought. Why not all the time? But then again, he seemed to listen to the same Joanna Newsom song every night. I certainly wouldn't have done that, but I'd play "Joy Spring" so many times that I could whistle along with the solos.

I don't lament such instances anymore. You can be offended by a lot of things if you try. I imagine my feelings were hurt in high school because I was younger, excited by something, wanting to share that excitement with someone my age. (I never really did, in high school at least.) My friends didn't know then how much I loved listening to jazz, how heroic I found it and how badly I wanted to understand it. How could they have? How could I have known it would serve as the background music for my life?

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Devin Roth

Fall weather makes me reflective. It might have to do with the imminence of winter, the dampness, the start of school, the sweaters. I'm not sure. But in the fall, I tend to learn something about myself that I might not learn in another season. I tend to make decisions. Last fall, I decided I would take piano lessons. It had been something I wanted to do since perhaps the start of high school. In fact, I had done it, twice. But the lessons never went very far; I would lose my motivation and decide it wasn't worth it. I would never learn, I thought. I was too impatient.

In my third go at piano, I decided to take lessons from Devin Roth, a music student at McGill. He was studying jazz piano--was in his last year--and didn't seem offended if I skipped practicing for a week. In the first lesson, we discussed what I wanted to learn. I told him about my love of jazz, that I wanted to learn, if possible, jazz piano, although I wasn't sure if that would be like stepping into rushing water. I didn't want to deal with Bach's minuets, or the best easy piano classics. They didn't interest me in high school, and I figured I should learn from the past. I had a Real Book and hoped we could start using it right away. We did, the next lesson, with "Autumn Leaves." But before I left, we jammed a C blues. (The blues scale in C was all I knew at the time, although that might still apply.) He told me that I played well, that he liked my ideas. Maybe he lied. But if he had, he was nice; if he hadn't, good for me.

I never did fully learn "Autumn Leaves." But it broke me in. I had never seen chord changes before, dominant sevenths or flat fives or sharp nines. Eventually fall passed and I grew tired of humming "Autumn Leaves" as the snow fell. We moved onto "All The Things You Are." This time I learned it. He guided me through useful chord inversions and I went home, sat down at my electric piano and put it all together. I still couldn't solo, and most often in jazz, that comes next. So we moved on. "Blue Bossa" would be easier--about two keys, sixteen bars, simpler melody. I figured it out quickly, the chords and melody, but we spent a few weeks working on the soloing. He showed me some nuances of the song, when I could play the wrong notes. I could finally play a jazz song through--maybe not well, but maybe that's not what I was going for. The lessons ended there. He graduated, I went home for the summer.

When I started studying with Devin, I thought I was doing it to better understand jazz. But that started to seem so conceptual, so technocratic, after a few lessons. When I put my fingers to the keys, there was a lot more going on than I had imagined. I soon realized I wouldn't be a good pianist. It bothered me at first. What was I taking lessons for? But it didn't seem to bother Devin. Sure, I was paying him, but he never treated me as though I didn't deserve to learn jazz, as though I couldn't be good. Maybe that's why I kept on studying with him.

Last weekend, Devin visited Montreal from the New England Conservatory (NEC) in Boston, where he is getting his master's degree in composition. I sat down with him to talk about his studies, his goals, his musical interests. He had only been in school for less than a week, had not been to many classes--which happen to include one on Oliver Messiaen, another on composing for film, yet another on Lydian chromatic concepts. He told me he wants to compose for film when he graduates, but for now, he is thinking about forming a band outside of school, about having a life in Boston away from the conservatory.

He acknowledged the downside of what he calls "educational inflation" in jazz. But he's not indignant about it. (Perhaps his hefty scholarship has swayed him.) "You need to go to school," he says, "and you can still experiment." Besides, it's hard to complain when your teachers are some of the best musicians in jazz. At NEC, he will learn from Fred Hersch and Jason Moran, Cecil McBee and John McNeil. I asked him if the prospect of working with such formidable musicians intimidates him. He says no. This summer he studied at the Banff International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music. Meeting and talking to and playing with jazz musicians there, including one of his influences, Darcy James Argue (who has a blog), changed his views about jazz as a constellation of artists below which we can only crane our necks and admire from afar.

What I sensed in Devin's comportment was a sobering air of professionalism which might come from years of melding work with creativity. But it also might come from the prospect and reality of spending time with real live professional jazz musicians, people who have decided to be artists and who have become successful artists.

"Talent is hard work," he says, as if to imply they are indistinguishable, which may or may not be true. But that doesn't really matter. If he believes it, why shouldn't it be true? After an hour or so of good conversation, I decided to go. We shook hands, wished each other good luck, and went our separate ways. He seemed brave. It's hard to choose to be an artist. For some reason, though, I'm not too worried about him.


You can find Devin's website and MySpace at the links below:

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Good Taste

I didn't start listening to jazz because I thought I should. I started listening because I liked it, maybe loved it. I still do. For a time--about the last five years of my life--it was almost all I listened to. When I listened to other music during that time, I would often compare it to jazz--not for constructive purposes, but to see it for what it was not. I still compare other music to jazz, but no longer with the same agenda.

I think I can say for sure that I will never grow tired of jazz--that it is my favorite music. Which is not to say I think it is the best music. I do believe in bests. I do have convictions. But I try to take things for what they are. I don't know exactly what jazz is, but that doesn't really matter. For all practical purposes, I can tell what jazz is by listening to it. I've done a lot of listening. But I still have a lot more to do.

I had to listen to a lot of jazz before I started to think about understanding it. When I could recognize Red Garland by ear, or Art Blakey, or Stanley Turrentine, or Stan Getz, I thought maybe I could contain the story of jazz--with all its sounds and textures and victories and blunders--in my head. So I kept on listening, and listening--and realized I couldn't. I also realized that I may have been in a trance.

Recently, I've been wondering if there is a difference between what I think I should be doing and what I want to do be doing. I started listening to jazz because I liked it, but eventually listening took on a whole new form. Music is huge. The music you listen to can define you, in one way or another, whether you like it or not. Sometimes a thing becomes more defined by what people think it is than by what it actually is. It can be hard to distinguish between the two because thought is very real. If enough people think something, it seems true, might be true.

Many people think jazz is for sophisticates, aesthetes, that it's an art music, that it's intellectually challenging. In other words, if you like jazz, it is usually assumed you have good taste. That may be true for some, but I can think of so many jazz fans whose puritanical belief in jazz as the best precludes them from appreciating other beautiful music.

Last night I went to a party. I do that a lot here in Montreal. As I sat sipping beer, talking with a friend, a song came on to distract me--a hip-hop song. I began to tap my foot, wondering who the artists were. And then I began to wonder why I liked this song--and why I was hesitant to say I liked it. What would it say about me? Not that that makes any sense. But I wondered away, about what makes good taste, about snobs, about enjoyment, about embarrassment.

I started to think maybe, for some, liking jazz is a guard: it defends you from explaining your tastes. But really there aren't any pure streams in music. It's all out there--in our ears, in the air, in our memories. The sound waves have intermingled.

When I listen to other music now, I try to take it for what it is. Because I think I should and because I want to. Because jazz is out there and so is everything else. Because maybe music says something about you, but really it says something to you.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

On Ending

Since I started playing music, I've felt that ending a song effectively is harder and more frightening than starting one. This has to do with my confidence as a musician, but it also has to do with the way I see endings. To me, there is more at stake at the end of something than at the beginning. That might not be true: For something to end it must begin, right? But something doesn't have to end if it's begun. The question is, where does it end? How? Why?

When I first started listening to jazz, I was amazed that jazz musicians could end songs in what I considered perfect unison. I now realize that raw improvisation might not exist, but I still value the intuition of jazz musicians. I find effective endings heroic--in music, but also in literature, film, art. In art, as in a painting or sculpture for example, the work exists as an ending in itself. You just have to trust that the artist decided to stop painting or sculpting at the right point.

But that's what I find heroic, that an artist had the confidence to stop, to move on--even if he was not completely satisfied with the piece as a whole.

In the first volume of Susan Sontag's journals, she writes:

"Joe [Chaikin] asks me tonight how I feel when I discover, say, three-fourths through something I’m writing that it is mediocre, inferior. I reply that I feel good and plow on to the end. I’m discharging the mediocre in myself. (My excremental image of my writing.) It’s there.

"I want to get rid of it. I can’t negate it by an act

"of will. (Or can I?) I can only allow it its voice, get it 'out.' Then I can do something else.

"At least, I know I won’t need to do that again." (1)

Despite the seemingly self-loathing bombast about excrement, Sontag is saying that she works extremely hard. Even though she might not keep writing better and better works, she has the courage to keep trying, the will to write more. That means a lot coming from someone who wrote prolifically while battling cancer.

In "The World According to Garp," John Irving writes:

"Garp threw away his second novel and began a second second novel. Unlike Alice, Garp was a real writer--not because he wrote more beautifully than she wrote but because he knew what every artist should know: as Garp put it, 'You only grow by coming to the end of something and by beginning something else.' Even if these so-called endings and beginnings are illusions. Garp did not write faster than anyone else, or more; he simply always worked with the idea of completion in mind."(2)

Even if you haven't read the book, you can understand what he means. If you're going to move on, do it, whatever way you can, but just do it and know that you'll keep on moving, except when you sit down to work again.

An artist may seem timid, unsure, aloof, but if he's finished anything, he had to be sure of something. I don't know if people favor confidence, but I think there is an honesty in confidence that often attracts respect. Perhaps that's what William Strunk was getting at when he said: "If you don't know how to pronounce a word, say it loud!"



(2) Irving, John. The World According to Garp. New York: Pocket Books, 1979. Print. Page 159.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Another Blog


Below is a link to a really good blog on jazz. They're based in Montreal as well, and they were nice enough to put my work on their blog. It might be repetitive to some of you, as they posted a blog entry I already posted here, but I'm assuming not everyone has read every entry. So go here-- check it out if you can.



Thursday, September 2, 2010

Finding Talent

I read the sign on the wall advertising a jazz jam session on campus and stopped to think, with newfound courage, I might attend. I had been playing jazz drums for about three years, felt mildly confident with my ability to accompany, to accent. The jam would be the following day in the music building. Someone passed me in the hall: a fellow student, I hoped. "Excuse me," I said, pointing to the sign, "Can anyone show up to this jam?"

"Yeah man," he said jovially, "What do you play?" I told him I play the drums. "Well, just bring your sticks, man, there'll be a set there." I thanked him and he walked away, a guitar gently bobbing in the case slung around his back.

I walked home, thinking about whether or not I should go. I knew "Autumn Leaves," "Blue Bossa," "All the Things You Are"--some of the songs listed on the sign. I reasoned with myself: Isn't college a place where you try new things? Where you put yourself out there? Where, even if you make mistakes, you try to learn from them, because now we're all humanists, right? And we know that the end of the world is actually the end of the world and not just something that might embarrass you?

I went to class the next day and showed up at the jam in the late afternoon, my palms sweating. Everyone seemed to be seating himself in a semi-circle around the set-up of piano, drums, vibraphone, and some amps. I sat next to a guitarist and he immediately introduced himself. "Hey, man, I'm Tim," he said, extending his hand. I shook it and said my name was Matt. "What do you play, Matt?" he asked. I told him that I sort of played the drums, that I was new to McGill, that I played jazz back home, that I saw the sign on the wall yesterday and thought I'd show up. Eventually I figured out from Tim, who was a master's student studying jazz guitar at McGill music, that this jam session was not really as informal as the sign had made it seem.

"Yeah, man, I'm just checking out the new musicians, you know, surveying the talent," said Tim. He told me that this session was for McGill jazz performance students, that they would jam together, see who they liked playing with, and then form groups as part of a required, year-long, jazz combo class. He told me I should stick around, that not being a music student didn't exclude me from the combos. I stayed where I was. But discouraged, I started to feel like an emissary, as though I should conceal my identity as a first-year in the humanities, major undecided, drumming capable but shoddy.

A man walked in and told us basically what Tim had just told me, with a few more technicalities. When he was through, he beckoned us up to the stage to begin the jam. You could feel the tension in the room, the hesitance. Would he pick me? I thought. Would he make me go up? I had that feeling I used to get in high school when I didn't know the answer to a question the teacher had asked in class. A guy my age finally stepped up and took to the drums. People applauded him, and in a few minutes, an alto saxophonist, a trumpeter, a pianist, a vibraphonist, a bassist, and a guitarist had assembled before us. Then they were into "Autumn Leaves," and I began to tap my foot.

When the group missed trade-offs with the drummer, my heart eased a bit. Not everyone's perfect, I thought. Maybe I could still step up, play a tune. I didn't. "Autumn Leaves" complete, the next group of musicians took the stage and started in on "Blue Bossa." The drummer played well, but I thought he complicated his beats too often. He took an extended solo, the group concluded in unison, and I left--not disappointed, just a little tired of feeling nervous.

That was about three years ago. I don't know how much I've matured since then. I still get pangs of nervousness when my stomach feels light and my heart punches at my chest. People tell me that when I play the drums before an audience, it looks as though I'm uninterested in the music, staring off into space. But the case is that I'm focusing so intently that I recede within myself.

Last night, I showed up at the jam session again. This time without the intention of playing. (I planned to write about it later.) I wanted to incorporate myself into the student community of jazz musicians. It sounded courageous in my head, but when I showed up, I sat down alone and listened to the man from three years ago give the same talk. "Let's not take twenty-six choruses, alright?" he said with a bit of levity. "This isn't going to be the sequel to 'A Love Supreme,' go in and give us all your best ideas straight-up, who needs developing, right?"

I felt uncomfortable as I sat there, but I noticed some familiar faces from the first time I attended. I wondered if they remembered me. Last year I took a jazz history class with some of them, too. Maybe they thought I was a musician. I thought, even though I wasn't planning on it, that I might still have to play. But then again, why would that be such a sin? Am I that bad? Anyway, I figured my not playing might trigger some suspicion, that my casual slouch against the wall might be taken for complacence or insouciance. I also wanted to tell them about my blog. But it would be so lame, I thought. If only I could get their attention. Maybe go up to the stage, or go talk to the man, tell him what I'm all about. Definitely not. Or maybe I could just write it on the blackboard behind the stage and walk out? That would be pretty cool, suave. Maybe.

I listened to a few groups jam. The first pianist to go up played Red Garland block chords and also soloed like Red on "All the Things You Are." The drummer strolled through with some steady quarter-notes on the ride. The guitarist had a good tone, direct and round, but his playing seemed hesitant, like the ideas coming through the amp were not the ideas in his head. But he played some good notes. After he played, he happened to sit next to me. He turned to me, extending his hand. "I'm Matt," he said.

"I'm Matt, too," I said, shaking his hand. He seemed confused.

"Oh, you're Matt as well?" he asked. I told him, yes, my name was Matt as well. I told him, without his asking, that I didn't play an instrument, that I was just checking out the scene. He nodded, said cool. Then I realized what I'd said.

"I do play an instrument actually," I corrected myself. "I play the drums, but I'm in political science," as if they are mutually exclusive. Do you want to read my blog? I wished to ask him as he turned away to talk with some people to his right. I wondered if I consider myself a musician anymore.

I felt reserved, perhaps because I was planning on writing about these musicians as though they were something to be observed and explained. But the more I sat there, the more I wished to explain myself. We're all just people, aren't we? Wouldn't they understand? They all seemed to be having a good time, laughing, clapping for good solos, whooing and ahhing, nodding with approval at the dexterous handling of a turnaround. No, I wouldn't play. I'd stay a little longer and then go home. Perhaps I'd meet some of these musicians later at future jam sessions in the city, get to know them, tell them about my blog.

I stayed for one more group playing "Billie's Bounce," which I happened to have played in the first jam session I sat in at in Montreal. It still didn't make me want to go up. I started to think about talent. About how far it gets you. About how much talent has to do with courage. About who wants what and who thinks they have talent and who is willing to work hard to get talent and who won't ever have talent. About why I'm in school and what I want in life and if I'm willing to work for it and how hard I'll probably have to work for it and that I'll never know until I do. About what people think of me and if that's enough and if what I think of me will get me somewhere and which is more important or maybe not important but...The song ended. I got up and walked out. The end of the world is actually the end of the world, I thought.