Back to Ellington V Coltrane

I lifted this lock, stock and barrel from The View From Fort Miley blog, partly because I thought it was a good reading of what James says in his essay, but mostly because it shows that the problem of what does and does not count as development is not confined to jazz

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The long and short of it

Many thoughts ran through my head as I read Clive James’ essay regarding the death of swing in jazz music, comparing pre- and post-War forms via Ellington and Coltrane. His argument — a reasonable one in many respects — has many parallels in various art forms, not the least of which is rock’n’roll. And while he may be quite fair when he swings the wrecking ball at Coltrane’s vaunted pedestal, I can’t help but think that the writer is ultimately a reactionary.

James’ basic thesis is that jazz music was most exciting when it was concise and swinging, and least interesting when it was academic and technical at the expense of brevity and rhythmic drive. Upshot: I’d rather hear Ben Webster blow for eight seconds of an Ellington composition than hear Coltrane explore his scales for fifteen minutes, he says. Similarly, most rock critics, and many fans for that matter, have traditionally been most impressed by something with a beginning, middle and end that’s wrapped up in, say, three and a half minutes. Epics are boring, so goes the school of thought; give me “The Seeker” (3:12) or “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” (2:46) any day. (Sometimes I have the impression that lazy rock’n’roll record reviewers reject longer songs based on length alone, automatically leveling a charge that the songs are “bloated,” “ponderous,” “pretentious” or similar.)

Now, I don’t mind hearing good musicians, or even average ones, stretch out if they’re still revealing something. Longer, ambitious compositions can be very satisfying too. Admittedly, the longer the piece, the less likely I am to return to it frequently. The songs we listen to over and over are usually the short, punchy ones. And, indeed, Ellington took us places we’d never been before in “three-minute miracles,” as James calls them, without losing the swinging backbeat that made jazz music fun.

Today, where do we find rock’n’roll? Born as black American dance music, it’s been through phases: watered down for teen idols, energized by British kids with good taste in American blues records, blown up into little psychedelic pieces, mated with country, jazz and classical music, beefed up and slowed down, refined into a high-octane version, celebrated as music of incompetents for whom intent mattered more than skill, reshaped into an artier soft-focus jangle, rendered as cartoonish meathead party music, booted off the charts by synthetic dance records, and reconstructed by backward-facing fetishists of all these past eras. (Among other things.) The conciseness and danceability has ebbed and flowed, but today, it’s not uncommon to find fans who insist that the music “rocks” but who wouldn’t be caught dead actually dancing to it.

You know what’s funny? Many of the first jazz records I bought were by Miles Davis and John Coltrane. (Ask any jazz novice what they like, and those will probably be two of the first three names out of their mouths.) But nowadays, I’ve knocked them off the pedestal myself — at least partly. A couple of weeks ago, I plucked from the bin a Prestige twofer of Workin’ and Steamin’, two five-star albums that featured both players. They were, I’m afraid, boring in just about any context — close listening, casual spins while cooking dinner, in front of the fireplace with company. I understand they’re very similar to what the Miles Davis Quintet would do onstage at the time. And while I appreciated the players’ individual talents and modest interplay, their actual creativity left something to be desired. As players, each seemed to have better ideas than he was capable of executing. Sometimes it’s interesting to have your reach exceed your grasp; other times it just sounds like you’re fumbling. Would I rather hear some playful Benny Goodman trios and quartets? Yes, definitely.

That said, I think James’ article fails in part because it doesn’t recognize that the most obvious driver of innovation is boredom. People thought up bebop because it was a new challenge, after spending fifteen years refining swing. Free jazz? For one thing, it gave players something new to do while waiting for someone else’s solo to end. (For me, they just didn’t do enough while allegedly Workin’ and Steamin’.) It’s easy to see this as one big story that you could learn from a few records, or in a semester-long class. It’s another thing entirely to experience it over the course of a century. Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, as someone once said — far more concisely than this post.

(One other thing: James has to know that Ellington’s band used to stretch out the songs onstage; he must know that Webster was turned loose to play “Stardust” for several minutes on at least one occasion. The three-minute 78rpm record may have caused Ellington to keep his compositions short, but that doesn’t mean he wanted to play them that way, given the opportunity to stretch out.)

Meanwhile, check it out: Women are chokers!

FMFM: Gentle On My Mind And Other Originals By John Hartford, eleven songs in a solid twenty-six minutes. Fun, poetry and insight.

posted by Paul @ 11:37 AM

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