6.25.2004

Jazz, Genre, Poetry, and the Arts

Appropriately enough, I drove out to Tobias Buckell's Writing Jam (there's another week-long jam in July that's probably worth the time to take off work--see attendee reviews from Pam McNew, Tobias Buckell (pronounced toe-BUY-us ba-KELL), Stephen Leigh, "John" Trey and Jon Hansen), listening to this tape series about Jazz: Elements of Jazz: From Cakewalks to Fusion. The series is definitely worthwhile and educational although--I may not be the best authority to judge this--the author and musician, Bill Messenger, while musically talented, is not always capable of rendering all rhythms and forms into their best mode. As they say, if you can't do, teach (the opposite may also be true as Louis Armstrong has reportedly said when asked to define swing, "If you have to ask, you'll never know."). Messenger can "do" exceedingly well, but his strength is definitely teaching, which is why I bought the series. I'm not sure you can learn as much by reading without also listening to what's being demonstrated. I'd be interested in hearing of any series that does as well to introduce its topic.

I've always enjoyed jazz but was never schooled in it--even informally. Some might fear that learning about an art's form would ruin one's untrammeled hearing for the art, but the opposite occured. My appreciation grew with new knowledge of its formation and transformation. Funny how the history of an art can do that to you. (Greg Bear and others have noted how the history of SF parallels jazz. I'd say it's true in certain aspects that may be worth delving into at a later time.)

I bought it for my father, who has listened to jazz since college when all the hip cats were snapping their fingers to it, and my mother, who had some formal training in college concerning music but jazz, at that time, would not have been kosher study material among serious scholars. Ma can get into some jazz but not many of the later forms. My hope is that the series will deepen my father's existing fondness and broaden my mother's. However, I suspect that the broadening will prove self-limiting--"self" being jazz itself.

Jazz, in various forms, grew in popularity as an opposition to current popular music and in turn became the popular form: from cakewalks, to ragtime, to jazz (Dixieland, blues, swing, boogie, big band, bop, and modern: cool, modal, free, and fusion). Rock, an offspring from the boogie branch of jazz, stole the mantle of popularity as jazz took deeper and deeper sojourns into art. You can find jazz in old movie soundtracks that attempted to portray scenes of the cool. But you don't often see it in movies today or amongst the collections of younger generations for whom jazz has lost even its underground appeal--now relegated to cultural appreciation.

So what happened to jazz?

My personal feeling is that blame lies firmly in the fervent attitude of the artier-than-thou-at-all-costs attempts to push the boundaries into a form without form. Art is sophisticated and, by necessity, requires a background of appreciation such as the aforementioned tape series represents. Jazz began by twisting old forms: Cakewalk twisted the march, ragtime twisted everything but especially the previous generation's popular music, and so on--each new twist accumulating new sophistication in methods. Messenger relates an anecdote of possible dubious veracity but a telling one, nonetheless:

On a dare in a New York City restaurant, George Cobb metamorphosed Sergei Rachmaninoff's famous "Prelude in C Sharp Minor" into a ragtime while, unbeknowst to Cobb, Rachmanioff slurped up linguini. When Cobb finished, Rachmaninoff surprised Cobb, standing over his shoulder and delivering the comment: "Nice melody but the rhythm's off." Now Rachmaninoff may have written the greater work of art, but Cobb also produced a variation that become a minor masterpiece in its own field--and perhaps Rachmaninoff should be eternally grateful to Cobb for giving his Classical work a breath of fresh air through a new and popular form.

But jazz's gradual neglect for audience appreciation invariably lead at first to profound innovations but, as way will lead to way, ultimately to boring audiences of all but the most devoted (and/or tone-deaf), playing not only with the net down but also without a ball but with plenty of racket. Miles Davis, perhaps the biggest jazz innovator of the modern age, invented the cool which was an underground hit but his innovations lead him to increasing artistic poverty, which he had to invent his way back out of through innovations closer to form. Messenger is fond of letting his audience know that whenever jazz got too far out, bloodletting its vitality, it had to return to its simple blues roots. It also got a blood transfusion by fusing with the popular form of the day--rock--creating "fusion" jazz.

Every art form has been and will be plagued by this problem: Once you dispose yourself entirely of form, you in effect dispose of art because art is artifice or form, whatever its riffing off of. This will be anathema to all the dyed-in-the-wool, black-beret artistes out there, but in evolutionary terms (and what is art but evolution?), any pathway that leads nowhere new or can spawn no further innovations (how can one vary or form the formless?) leads to a dead-end. The experimental forms of jazz are awe-inspiring once you are aware of its form, the form its varying, and the jazz standard its spinning off of. The same follows for any art. Formlessness allows no sense of appreciation except increasingly minor angles that depend largely on esoterica or, worse, on variations of the emperor's new clothes worn by the zombie of someone's lean-to theory.

All of which leads us to Poetry magazine. Some editors are rightfully bored of the "innovations" in poetry. Some are cool, but these have to be fused with rock or some form of form. I will, however, agree that the June/July issue is somewhat "soporific" as Cheney and DeNiro called it. But it may be that we are less aware of British forms of poetry (it is mostly a British-themed issue). I tend to enjoy every other issue of Poetry, and I tend to assume that poetry that doesn't ring my bell tends to be in a form that I'm either not as schooled in or is a soporific form that rings only a few people's bells. I don't need much schooling to recognize that "Cold Calls" from Christopher Logue's War Music is a masterwork melding forms across the ages, respinning Homer's Iliad into contemporary terms and terminology--perhaps, Troy has a correlation in Logue's and filmmakers' minds to contemporary 9/11 and subsequent warring (it must be said that Logue has been working on the series of books since before 1988, precluding poetic fortune-telling)--however, despite its amazing technical mastery of mixing contemporary and archaic English language structures which amateurs are doomed to immitate with a belly-flop, the content does not manages to pull me in for the full length of the poem. Perhaps reading the work in its entirety gives it a vantage of genius.

"My Father, Crawling Across the Floor" is a work of competent emotiveness--above average fare and worth reading if you're a fan of poetry, but not up to the works of emotive capability in the present issue of APR described below.

Jo Shapcott easily has the most marvelous and inventive poem here: "Hairless." I never know whether to call some poems speculative, but this definitely has that flavor of fun:

"Can the bald lie? The nature of the skin says not:...
You can tell with the bald, that the air
speaks to them differently, touches their heads....
everything
she knew skittered under her scalp
...."

Not just because it has been an industry standard have I subscribed to Poetry. I don't pander to anyone's standards because I'm told I should. Although I'm willing to give anything a shot before I agree, I tend to be leery of "classics" or "standards" and, therefore, read them more critically--but every other issue of Poetry has potent work, and that's why I subscribed, originally. What truly impresses me about the magazine's latest incarnation under new editor Christian Wiman is the dialogue about poetry: from dueling-banjo reviews, to letters debating the critical scene in poetry, to the present issue's literal dialogue between Michael Hoffman and William Logan about the British and American scenes in poetry. It's this sort of critical dynamic that I and perhaps the original instigator Gabe Chouinard envisioned for this blog which unfortunately the other critics abandoned for other projects (I hope not out of fear of its early controversy). Perhaps one day the speculative genre will embrace to a similar, open-minded view of criticism.

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