“Check this out.” For one edition of my trombone teacher’s weekly dose of music appreciation, he removed a red CD from a jewel case with dark blue liners and placed it in his stereo. Mysterious, rubato piano chords floated out of the speakers; then the bass kicked the time off, and the piano answered it with a simple riff. A drumset quietly simmered beneath it all. Three horns joined in with the piano for a while before giving way to a trumpet solo. “This sounds pretty cool,” my teacher said, fading the music out just as the trumpet solo ended. “He’s not a great trumpet player, though.” I was fourteen years old, and I agreed.
Jazz is a niche interest. The days when a jazz musician might appear on the cover of Time magazine are long gone; we are rarely featured in films or TV, and we have a private language all our own (Cats, Jive, Killing…) The jazz universe resembles that of railroad enthusiasts or Magic: The Gathering players. It is a subculture: cared for passionately by a small group of insiders, but thought of as a mere curiosity by the wider population, if they think of it at all.
As such, I’m always surprised when jazz bubbles up into mainstream entertainment. A few such instances were linked to by prominent jazz bloggers recently: DJA posted Spinal Tap’s thoughtful comments on jazz a couple weeks ago, and Peter Hum found this clip from the new Mike Judge movie Extract. Both of these clips are pretty funny, but I am starting to pick up a disturbing trend. It seems like the only reason jazz is referenced in contemporary popular culture is to mock the music and its fans. Let’s review the evidence:
Not much of an update today – more coming soon. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with my latest discovery: Warren Zevon. I remember hearing about him when he passed away back in 2003, but I didn’t know what all the fuss was about. Now I get it.
The geopolitical references in the song are a bit dated, but the story still comes across. Notice the unusual six measure bridge that segues seamlessly back into the main riff of the song. Also, the spoken introduction is hilarious. What a badass.
There is a highly regarded instructor in the jazz department of USC who will never admit that he does not know a tune. If he is on a gig where an unfamiliar song is called, he will say, “Oh sure, I know it. What key is that in? Uh-huh. And the bridge goes to the IV chord, right? Oh, it goes to the III, of course. Great, let’s do it.” Essentially, he bluffs, and just picks up the bits of the tune over the course of the performance. Now, this professor is a world-class player, and can generally get away with this sort of thing. Unfortunately, he advises his students to do the same thing. I realize that it is the sort of skill that can only be picked up through experience, but it leads to some pretty awful train-wrecks during jam sessions and casuals, and it drives me crazy. I’d much rather have the musicians all agree on a tune that they really know, instead of allowing one player’s bluff to sour the first few choruses of a performance.
It has come to our attention that there are a number of people who read this blog regularly, but rarely/never comment. Consider this your invitation to speak up! Make yourselves heard! Starting a conversation is one of the reasons we founded this blog in the first place.
We’re looking at you, USC folks.
At the Sportsmen’s Club, I spoke with Jaqi the barmaid, who went to Hibbing High School a few classes behind Dylan, whom she and her brother would have known as Robert Zimmerman. “Is it true that people in Hibbing talk like Bob Dylan?” I asked. She narrowed her eyes and issued an abrupt correction. “You mean, ‘Is it true that Bob Dylan talks like people in Hibbing?’” Her accent was an even Midwestern plod, garnished with a snarl all her own.
Discussing Dylan brought out the worst in her. She said she hated him and thought Dylan’s parents, “the nicest people you ever met,” had an ungrateful, arrogant bastard for a son (a conclusion hard to dispute, if you’ve ever seen footage of Dylan on the road). The grand auditorium in Hibbing High School, an Art Deco edifice built with mining money in 1920, was the site of Dylan’s first concerts, but his music never caught on there. Jaqi said Hibbing rejected Dylan not because it failed to spot talent but because he was a creep who deserved to be rejected. “I knew a girl who went out with him once,” she said. “Once was enough.”
It’s an entertaining article, and I recommend that you read the whole thing. But I’m surprised by an apparent hole in Wood’s research. His article makes no mention of Woody Guthrie, who was a formative influence on Dylan’s music. To my ears, a big part of Dylan’s early accent is an imitation of Guthrie’s plaintive Okie drawl.
Bob Dylan’s “Talkin’ World War III Blues”
Woody Guthrie’s “Talking Dustbowl Blues”
We know that Dylan assimilated Guthrie’s songwriting and guitar playing, so why not some of the accent as well?
I’m sorry that I don’t have a more substantial post today. I’ve been watching Mad Men obsessively and I forgot to come up with something to write about. Instead, I’ll just point you all to an awesome link:
It’s a catalogue of, and commentary upon, the artistic movements and cultural quirks referenced in the best show on television. As someone who didn’t live through the era, I find it fascinating.
A quick thought:
There’s an episode in Season 1 where Don Draper tells Pete Campbell, “Sterling Cooper has more failed artists and intellectuals than the Third Reich.” But I think that Don is perhaps the one character at the agency who is not a failed artist. He’s a successful one.
I saw this commercial yesterday. It gave me a good laugh:
By sheer coincidence, I also got a pamphlet in the mail yesterday from the Americans for the Arts Action Fund. This organization is devoted to increasing public funding for school arts programs and cultural events – a cause for which I am deeply sympathetic. However, the pamphlet gave me pause. It says:
Research shows that young people who participate in the arts for at least three hours on three days each week through at least one full year are:
- 4 times more likely to be recognized for academic achievement
- 3 times more likely to be elected to class office
- 4 times more likely to participate in a math and science fair
- 3 times more likely to win an award for school attendance
- 4 times more likely to win an award for writing an essay or poem
In addition, young arts participants as compared with their peers are likely to:
- Read for pleasure nearly twice as often
- Participate in youth groups nearly four times as frequently
- Perform community service nearly twice as often
What troubles me is that there is absolutely no suggestion that arts education might be intrinsically valuable. I’ve looked through the Americans of the Arts’ literature, and all of the arguments in favor of arts education (especially music education) hinge upon the idea that arts training makes students better at “real” subjects, such as reading and math. Now, this may be true – just take a look at the statistics quoted above! But is this really the reason why arts education is important?
Seed Magazine published a fascinating article a couple years ago – a discussion between musician/artist David Byrne and behavioral neuroscientist Daniel Levitin.
My favorite part:
DL: Yeah, and I think, ultimately, some aestheticians and philosophers would say that the goal of art is to get you in the same mind-set or heart-set as the artist was in when they created the work. They’re trying to create a mirror emotion experience.
Stevie Wonder told me that he wrote songs by putting himself in a particular emotional state, recalling a specific event or feeling. And then when he recorded them, he tried to get back into the same state.
DB: I would argue that if the song is written well, you don’t have to begin the performance of the song in that emotional state. But by the time you get to the end, the song will have regenerated the emotions that you want to express. So you end up with the feeling that you want to express, but you don’t have to have it going in.
DL: Right. And there is a neurological basis for this, actually. It starts with the finding that when we’re imagining music, it uses the same neurons and circuits as when we’re actually hearing it. They’re almost indistinguishable.
So when you’re imagining or remembering something, it could be music or a painting or a kiss, disparate neurons from different parts of your brain get together in the same configuration they were in when you experienced it the first time. They’re members of a unique set of neurons that experienced that first kiss or that first bungee jump or whatever it is that you’re recalling.
Actually, it’s in the word “remember”—you’re re-membering them. You’re making them members of this original set again. I think that’s what memory is.