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Book Review

Jazz in Search of Itself

Jazz in Search of Itself by Kart
Larry Kart
New Haven & London: Yale University Press (2004) 342pp
ISBN: 0300104200
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Unlike most jazz fans, I came to the music relatively late, in grad school. The music never was an essential part of my growing up, not like classical and classic pop. Even at this late date, over thirty years later, I still feel that I'm playing catch-up and that I'm missing something important about the music. I've read a fair bit about jazz, especially about the players and composers I regularly listen to, but I don't really know them from inside-out. I like what I hear, from all periods, but usually don't know why in any significant detail. When I listen to myself think on jazz, I hear echoes of books I've read, not my own voice.

So it was a little surprising for me to get this review copy from the publisher. I seriously considered giving the book a miss, but when Yale calls, I snap to.

Most books on jazz fall into three types: biographical, sociological, and impressionistic. The biographical usually follows the life and career of some jazz great (or even not-so-great), concentrating on amusing anecdote and horrendous personal train wrecks, and at its best gives us a convincing (if not necessarily true) version of a life. The sociological approach seeks to give you the importance to the culture in general of the music. The impressionist tries to capture the sensations flickering over the writer's brain-fields while listening to a particular cut or solo. Very few books deal with the ins and outs of the music itself. Gunther Schuller's massive The Swing Era is an exception, as is, on a smaller scale, Alec Wilder's American Popular Song. Kart gives us a collection of essays, essentially fugitive pieces, and manages at one time or another to take all three roads. In addition, however, Kart practices criticism – not the "thumbs-up/thumbs-down" Consumer Reports variety foisted on us by a good deal of journalism, but criticism which tries to know the thing in itself. I strongly suspect that Kart has studied critical theory, because his arguments are so solid and so free of the annoying, first-semester-freshman stumbles that plague music criticism in particular. Kart routinely makes distinctions among what he hears, what it means to him, and what it may mean to the performer or creator. When he argues against the ultimate value of, say, the neoconservatives (Wynton and Branford Marsalis, John Faddis, and David Murray, for example), he makes the best case he can for them before moving on to the demolition work. Even here, he takes on the critical big guns rather than the straw men. He also very carefully points out that he could be wrong. But he has an obvious faith in the jostle of debate sorting out false leads and arriving somewhere closer to things as they really are.

The essays take on major topics: the current state of jazz, the pitfalls (aesthetic, as well as economic and psychological) facing jazz musicians building a career, the key figures in the development of the music and what made them key, the uneasy relations between jazz and classical, the jazz "life." In addition, Kart tells me about the music itself – his most sustained run an analysis of Ellington's "The Sergeant Was Shy," certainly not one of Ellington's better-known recordings (that is, one I haven't heard). Reading Kart inspired me to hunt this piece down. Kart ranges over a lot of different music, jazz, classical, and other – and literature and criticism besides. Of course he displays detailed knowledge of the line of jazz from pre-jazzers like Joplin and Lamb through the avant-gardistes of the Sixties and Seventies to wherever we are now. However, he also writes allusively and suggestively, only possible if you have great familiarity with material that normally has nothing to do with the object at hand. Stravinsky, Stockhausen, and Wagner appear to make real points, rather than to hear their names called. I recall in particular a stunning analogy between the music of saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell and fourteenth-century polyphony. Kart isn't showing off. He makes a telling point on the independence of rhythm related to a new alignment of tonality.

If that weren't enough, Kart also writes some of the best prose I've ever encountered. The following paragraph, on Thelonious Monk, displays most of his virtues, both intellectual and stylistic.

His very name suggests eccentricity, and there was behavior to back up that image – the sly, elflike dance steps that Monk (a physically imposing figure) sometimes would indulge in after a piano solo; the unusual titles of many of his compositions ("Misterioso," "Epistrophy," "Off Minor," "Nutty," "Ba-lue Bolivar Ba-lues-are," and "Rhythm-a-ning"); and his reclusive role in recent years (he last performed in public in 1975). Yet if the notion of eccentricity is extended to Monk's music, nothing could be further from the truth, for he may have been the most logical composer-performer jazz has yet produced. Listen, for example, to Monk's composition "Little Rootie Tootie," which, like his "Locomotive," Luckey Roberts's "Railroad Blues," and Duke Ellington's "Daybreak Express" and "Happy Go-Lucky Local," belongs to the long jazz tradition of pieces that imitate the sound of railroad trains. An impressive portrait, with its chugging chords perfectly capturing the sound of a steam engine leaving the station, "Little Rootie Tootie" becomes an astonishing musical discourse after the theme has been stated and the piano solo begins. Like Alexander Pope's spider, who "feels at each thread and lives along the line," Monk spins out a steadily evolving pattern of musical thought in which the most practical and the most abstract virtues become one thing. Simultaneously delicate and strong, as joyful as a nursery rhyme and as grave as a hymn, "Little Rootie Tootie," like so many of Monk's creations, has an unshakeable aura of finality to it, as though his way were the only way to proceed. And it is this quality of utter completeness, as rare in jazz as it is in any other music (or any other art for that matter), that made Monk a master.

If you think about it, a music critic's basic job seems incredibly difficult. You've got to give the reader an idea of what the music is like in words, rather than in the actual musical sounds. Bernard Shaw made it a point of pride that he could write meaningfully about music without ever resorting to musical type. About the only time he ever did so was when he made fun of those who thought they needed staff line and notes. Kart, like Shaw, realizes that musical events are not simply constructs of the brain, but audible, thus available to anybody with ears. He has the gift of describing these events in a way that listeners, even not knowing the piece, have some idea of what it sounds like. He also provides those who have heard the piece with signposts that point toward discovery, a jazz version of What to Listen For in Music. Note the beautiful choice of the word "chugging" and the balanced, opposing similes "joyful as a nursery rhyme … grave as a hymn." Notice how he suggests the quality of extreme attentiveness in Monk, without actually stating it, in the quote from Pope, and the musical qualities of the prose itself – all those m's in the last sentence, for example, magically transforming the word Monk into musical master. Kart talks about stuff notoriously hard to pin down, in prose that, for all its virtuosity, remains clear and without sacrificing the subtlety and multiple layers of thought.

I think it worthwhile to talk some of Kart's critical foundation, particularly as it relates to the jazz neoconservatives. In general he takes an intricate Romantic view of jazz itself. For him, the primary creative value of jazz lies in its expression of an individual point of view. The performer is, to a great extent, the composer, even when working on pre-existing material. Coleman Hawkins's "Body and Soul" differs significantly from that of the tune's creator, Johnny Green. Indeed, it's that difference that makes the Hawkins valuable, analogous to Bach's reworkings of Vivaldi. To Kart, the jazz solo isn't merely a working-out of related musical ideas, but (in the words of Elgar), "a man's attitude to life." This doesn't necessarily mean that the soloist works out his own life, any more than Shakespeare dealt with his own problems in King Lear. Kart quotes a novelist to the effect that an artist creates art for complex artistic reasons, as well as for complex psychological ones. Kart also recognizes the ambiguity of a creator's commitment to the emotion expressed, often using the metaphor of drama and irony. Nevertheless, for Kart the value of art lies in some personal "stamp." This seems his primary criticism against the neo-cons. Classical music, of course, doesn't place the same kind of emphasis on performers. It's enough for Fleisher to play superbly. He doesn't have to have the immediately identifiable, individual approach of Tureck or Richter. In any case, classical performers even approaching jazz-level originality are pretty rare – Stokowski, Schnabel, Bernstein, Gould, Szell, Gieseking, Callas, and Rostropovich come to mind – and in many quarters are regarded as tasteless freaks. Instead, classical music puts its demands for individuality primarily on the composer. Since jazz usually regards the player as composer, this pressure gets transferred.

Kart's view makes a lot of sense – or it did, in the first half-century or so of jazz. Jazz continually renewed itself. A player like Lester Young could not only inspire disciples but also encourage others to find a path through the grounds he laid out to a whole new garden. It's kind of like Haydn and Mozart begetting Beethoven begetting Schubert – none of whom, incidentally, are worrying about "the direction of music," the development of "The Classical Style," or the "Dawn of Romanticism." As jazz continued, however, the sheer body of work grew. The "tradition" stopped being a process of renewal and increasingly became a static body of knowledge. This is also pretty close to the current state of classical music. At least, while I see a host of good, perhaps even great composers around, I don't see anybody changing or extending the landscape. Our avant-garde seems pretty tame, compared to what went on in the Twenties and Thirties. I would say the same holds true in all the arts today. Currently, there is no Beethoven or Schoenberg, Goethe or Pound, Turner or Picasso. I don't think that the arts are dead, as some have claimed for jazz (not Kart, by the way). We simply – well, not exactly "simply" – need a certain kind of artist to come along and shake things up in a way that leads somewhere. I agree with Kart that the Marsalis brothers (all of them) are probably not going to do that. The tradition intimidates them, rather than frees them. That doesn't make them dreck, however. The large corpus of jazz needs now the "repertory" player, to a great extent what the Marsalises are, in addition to the innovator. A recording, even a great one – and recording, as older players die, becomes the primary artistic repository of jazz – is, as classical aficionados know, frozen and unchanging, and as such threatens artistic renewal, particularly when it comes to be regarded as an inviolate exhibit in the Temple of Art. People on both sides of the debate do this, although Kart's an emphatic exception. The only way the tradition gets renewed is if it means enough to performers/composers/listeners to want to perform, write, or listen to its current expression, the way it's going to be done tonight – in other words, as long as it's a living thing. As Vaughan Williams pointed out, it takes a lot of mediocre composers, all plugging away, to make it possible for the great composer to come along. Bach didn't just happen. He came from a living tradition of North German organ music, from writers worse than him. So, in all, I'm a lot kinder to revivalists than Kart.

My one complaint with the book is the lack of an index (bad form, Yale!). You might retort, "It's essays, not a scholarly tome," but Kart's thought is so rich, I want something that helps me find the nuggets quickly.

Copyright © 2005 by Steve Schwartz