Deciphering Culture

Posts Tagged ‘Jazz

Regenerating jazz?

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There is a lot of talk about the need to regenerate jazz and bring back the audience it has lost (a recent NEA study documents the dramatic aging of the jazz audience). Just take a look at the website of the Jazz Audience Initiative (of the Jazz Arts Group), one of the projects investigating the fading of jazz from the American cultural landscape.

Why is this Work Necessary?

Relatively little research has been done on jazz audiences and what they value. We know that jazz audiences are aging, jazz media outlets and festivals are fading, jazz organizations are struggling, and jazz musicians are overly burdened. In addition, the jazz field lacks meaningful opportunities to network and learn as a professional community.

But maybe the problem lies somewhere else — in assumptions implicit in the suppositions of this problem statement. I think a statement by Cicely James, author of the book The New Face of Jazz, in an NPR interview is instructive:

…I came to realize that hardly anyone I knew (and I consider my circle of friends to be well-educated and very cultured folks) could name a single player alive and well on the jazz scene today, I knew something had to be done. As a reader, I was also frustrated with the endless supply of books out there on Coltrane, Miles, etc. Why do we keep hashing their lives over and over again and ignoring the Coltranes of today? We’re allowing jazz to pass up this generation and the next ones by revering the past as if it’s the only period in this art form that matters.

How can a musical style stay vital if it is defined (and perceived) as being in the past? Let’s take an abbreviated, and admittedly cursory look at the history of the creation of this perception of Jazz. Many mention a 1988 opinion piece in the N.Y. Times What Jazz is and isn’t by trumpeter Winton Marsalis as significant. In this piece, Marsalis argued for a narrow definition of jazz that would place many “jazz” players outside of the tradition. Disgusted trumpeter Lester Bowie responded, “If you retread what’s gone before, even if it sounds like jazz, it could be anathema to the spirit of jazz.” Bowie was one of many critical voices but Marsalis’ opinion held more sway, particularly after the success of Ken Burns’ PBS series Jazz (Marsalis was the executive producer of the series). Beautifully done, Jazz became influential in creating the current perception of Jazz as America’s Classical Music. I must confess that I’ve used it in university classes on Jazz history but innovators (after Miles) and iconoclasts have little place in the history it presents. And where does that leave the current crop of innovators and iconoclasts. Jazz has always been busy reinventing itself — at least until now.

Written by Jeffrey Callen

July 21, 2010 at 8:41 pm

Music & the Struggle to be Human — Patrice Lumumba (@History is Made at Night)

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From History is Made at Night: The politics of dancing and musicking, a post asserting the primary place of music in the struggle to be human.

O Music, it was you permitted us to lift our face and peer into the eyes of future liberty

Patrice Lumumba (1925-1961) was a leading figure in the struggle for the independence of Congo from the Belgian Empire. He briefly became first prime minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1960 before being overthrown and later murdered by Belgian/CIA backed forces. The following extract is from his poem May our People Triumph (full poem here). In it Lumumba puts music and dance (and specifically jazz) at the centre of the struggle to be human in conditions of slavery and colonialism:

‘Twas then the tomtom rolled from village unto village,
And told the people that another foreign slave ship
Had put off on its way to far-off shores
Where God is cotton, where the dollar reigns as King.
There, sentenced to unending, wracking labour,
Toiling from dawn to dusk in the relentless sun,
They taught you in your psalms to glorify
Their Lord, while you yourself were crucified to hymns
That promised bliss in the world of Hereafter,
While you—you begged of them a single boon:
That they should let you live—to live, aye—simplylive.
And by a fire your dim, fantastic dreams
Poured out aloud in melancholy strains,
As elemental and as wordless as your anguish.
It happened you would even play, be merry
And dance, in sheer exuberance of spirit:
And then would all the splendour of your manhood,
The sweet desires of youth sound, wild with power,
On strings of brass, in burning tambourines.
And from that mighty music the beginning
Of jazz arose, tempestuous, capricious,
Declaring to the whites in accents loud
That not entirely was the planet theirs.
O Music, it was you permitted us
To lift our face and peer into the eyes
Of future liberty, that would one day be ours.

Written by Jeffrey Callen

May 8, 2010 at 10:16 am

Stars Campaign for Inter-Racial Friendship: rock against racism in the 1950s?

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Reposted from History is made at night

Jazz musician John Dankworth died last month. As this BBC film from 1959 shows, one of his early achievements was to chair the Stars Campaign for Inter-Racial Friendship, founded in 1959 to combat the activities of the White Defence League. As well as Dankworth, members of the campaign included Cleo Laine, Tommy Steele, Lonnie Donegan (looking very like a young Billy Bragg), Humphrey Lyttelton, and folk singer Karl Dallas.

As described at Love Music Hate Racism, Colin Jordan’s White Defence League later merged as part of the first British National Party in 1960, with Jordan’s former comrade John Tyndall later going on to form the National Front and then the current BNP. Jordan, who was once jailed for trying to burn down synagogues, was later the fuhrer of the British Movement leading a motley crew of neo-nazi skinheads to nowhere in the 1980s.

Written by Jeffrey Callen

March 24, 2010 at 9:52 am

Intimate Dialogue (@ East Bay Express)

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Indo-Pak Coalition melds Indian music and jazz for a stylistically ambiguous sound.

By Jeffrey Callen

Like most musicians who suddenly burst onto the scene, Rudresh Mahanthappa has been working on his craft for a long time. His reputation as an innovative jazz musician and composer took a major leap from the realms of the cognoscenti into popular culture with the enthusiastic reception of his 2008 album, Kinsmen. That album featured the Dakshina Ensemble, co-led by Mahanthappa and fellow alto saxophonist Kadri Gopalnath. Kinsmen, which melds jazz and South Indian Carnatic music, ended up on more than twenty top jazz CDs of 2008 lists, and the prestigious Downbeat International Critics Poll named Mahanthappa a rising jazz artist and alto saxophonist of 2009. He also became the subject of numerous features in The New York Times, the New Yorker, and Rolling Stone. That’s how the message used to come down from the cognoscenti to us hoi polloi and, sometimes, even in this age of viral marketing, it continues to do so — and sometimes, it still works. (to read more got to East Bay Express).

Written by Jeffrey Callen

March 11, 2010 at 3:21 pm

Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue” — a turning point in 20th century music

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Kind of Blue (1959) changed the course of jazz, bringing new sonorities and modalities to the forefront. It also helped open up and retrain the ear of music listeners and influenced creators of various genres from classical to rock. As rapper Q-Tip said in a 2008 interview, “ It’s like the Bible, you just have one in your house.”

Check out Brian Gilmore’s review in JazzTimes of Richard Williams new book: The Blue Moment: Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue and the Remaking of Modern Music

New Book by Richard Williams

Written by Jeffrey Callen

March 5, 2010 at 10:00 am

This week's genre transgressions (Swedish hillbilly/swing) (Canadian Arab pop/pscyhedelic/jazz/protest music) (European classical spa music) (Polish avant garde)

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Swedish Hillbilly/Western Swing with some bluegrass tossed in? Bring it on! Fiddler Ralf Fredblad and company must have spent many a dark frigid Nordic night listening to the heart and soul of Appalachia. The Original Rockridge Brothers bang out some of the most authentic Hillbilly you’ll hear, without irony or any suspicious modern trappings. “Rockridge Hollerin'” is pure gold. (go to Musical Emissions)

Land of Kush -- Against the Day

Montreal composer Sam Shalabi has played or found his way to be involved in many genres, including punk, free jazz, improv. Lately he’s been composing for large ensembles, one of which is the 30 member Land of Kush.  “Against The Day” is a five section piece whose foundation is haunting vocals, strings, and Shalabi’s Oud. Combining aspects of Arab pop with pysch, the piece begins with the eerie “The Light Over The Ranges,” before moving into the more trippy, Arabesque “Iceland Spar.” (go to Musical Emissions )

SPA MUSIC? New Book from Oxford University Press: Water Music Making Music in the Spas of Europe and North America by Ian Bradley.

Many of the most famous composers in classical music spent considerable periods in spa towns, whether taking in the waters, or searching for patrons among the rich and influential clientele who frequented these pioneer resorts, or soaking up the relaxing and decadent ambience of these enchanted and magical places. At Baden bei Wein, Mozart wrote his Ave Verum Corpus, and Beethoven sketched out his Ninth Symphony. Johannes Brahms spent 17 summers in Baden-Baden, where he stayed in his own specially-built composing cavern and consorted with Clara Schumann. Berlioz came to conduct in Baden-Baden for nine seasons, writing his last major work, Beatrice and Benedict, for the town’s casino manager. Chopin, Liszt, and Dvorak were each regular visitors to Carlsbad and Marienbad. And it was in Carlsbad that Beethoven met Goethe. Concerts, recitals, and resident orchestras have themselves played a major role in the therapeutic regimes and the social and cultural life of European and North American watering places since the late eighteenth century. To this day, these spa towns continue to host major music festivals of the highest caliber, drawing musicians and loyal audiences on both local and international levels.
This book explores the music making that went on in the spas and watering places in Europe and the United States during their heyday between (…to read more)

Unsound New York website

“Hello, New York: Avant-Garde Eastern Europe” by Steve Smith (New York Times)  — Krakow’s “Unsound” Festival comes to New York City with “programs of club-oriented electronica, indie rock, free improvisation, ambient music and contemporary classical work. In some programs such distinctions become meaningless: at the opening event, for example, Sebastian Meissner, a German electronic artist, will collaborate with the young Polish contemporary-classical group Kwartludium in a project inspired by the seminal California punk-rock record label SST.” (to read more)

Written by Jeffrey Callen

February 1, 2010 at 9:56 am

Queering Pop Music Studies

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I had a female impersonator for years named Jean LaRue. I didn’t tell you about that. She was out of Oakland. I don’t know if she is living or dead. She was with me for years. Name was Jean LaRue. (August 14, 1998 Interview of Clarence ‘Little Red’ Tenpenny).

“Little Red” was one of my richest sources of information (and knowledge) when I was doing research for my Master’s thesis on the blues nightclub district that existed in North Richmond, California from the mid-40s to early ’70s. Red mentioned Jean LaRue in our first interview but didn’t mention that she was a female impersonator until a later conversation.  That remark sparked my interest and led to later research, which resulted in my writing “Gender Crossings: A Neglected History in African American Music”*,  an analysis of the exclusion of female and male impersonators from the history of African American music. I’ve also written an encylcopedia entry for the long-delayed but forthcoming Encyclopedia of African American Music: “Transgendered Experience in African American Music” (a terrible title — not my choice). {Digital copies of this entry and/or my MA thesis Musical CommunityThe “Blues Scene” in North Richmond, California available on request

Also, check out Sherrie Tucker’s excellent article “When Did Jazz Go Straight? A Queer Question for Jazz Studies” in Critical Studies in Improvisation (2008). An insightful article that asks the right questions (and kindly cites my article “Gender Crossings”). I haven’t checked it out yet but Sherrie is one of the editors of Big Ears:  Listening for Gender in Jazz Studies that was published in October, 2008.

Female Impersonator Jean LaRue with the Red Calhoun Orchestra (from "Woman's a Fool to think her man is all her own" -- Nationwide Production, 1947 -- available from Not the Jean La Rue that Clarence Tenpenny told me about. La Rue seems to have been a popular stage name for female impersonators (i.e. the famous British entertainer Danny La Rue).

* published in Queering the Popular Pitch in 2006 (Sheila Whiteley & Jennifer Rycenga, eds. – New York & London: Routledge). 2006.

Written by Jeffrey Callen

December 15, 2009 at 7:07 pm

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