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Jazz: The Abused Muse

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--The Story of Jazz is one of epic proportions--

from
Many Corners magazine; Barry Casselman, Publisher;
Minneapolis, Minnesota; Summer 1981

"The Abused Muse"
by
Ted Unseth


I've always thought that a fitting title for the subject of music is the Art of the Muse. Other art forms have some claim to that title, too (there were nine Greek Muses in all; and the goddess of music and lyric poetry was named Euterpe, not Music) but music derives directly from 'muse', so I see it as muse-ic (akin to the Muses): the art of.

I feel strongly and have thought longly about Music. In grade school and high school, it was mainly Classical (my first conscious enrapturement was over Shostakovich's First Piano Concerto), but I had my favorites in the world of Pop, too (Alley Oop and Big Girls Don't Cry come to mind). What I wasn't into (because what little I heard didn't hit me one way or another, for some reason) was Jazz. And I see so much irony in that because nowadays I'm completely taken with Jazz.

My true appreciation of Jazz didn't begin until I was in my middle twenties. My college years found me caught up in the Folk revival of the 1960's (Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Jack Elliott). Then came my Creative Rock band phase (the Weeds; the Spearhead), a Rhythm & Blues phase (Little K and the Internationals), and the Love Generation phase (Acoustic Guitarist/Singer-Songwriter).
Looking back, I'm amazed that Jazz didn't touch me much (if at all). Knowing what I know now, I'm sorry I didn't get on the bandwagon sooner. My interest hasn't waned one bit since I first gave it real consideration.

I think Jazz is high art. The same goes for Classical music. For one thing, both idioms invariably require the expertise of reading written music. The Pop (popular) modes, on the other hand, are executed in-the-main by musicians who play by ear. I was an ear player for many years and considered myself to be a creative musical artist. But, for the past ten years, I've been informing myself about the art of written musical composition (specifically Jazz orchestra arranging) and it's so much more demanding than what I was doing before. It's caused me to conclude that Jazz is a higher art form (which is not at all to say that Pop and Folk are artless).

The situation is: this highly qualified art form, Jazz, has been largely ignored by the public-at-large for the past 25 years or so. From the 1920's through World War II, Jazz (in some form or another) enjoyed popular support. But after WWII, everything changed. Only a handful of Big Bands survived. The smaller combos were developing their sophistication to such a degree that a lot of people thought it was getting too intellectual. (I have an older friend who remembers the middle 1950's as the time when Jazz became phoney.) Perhaps some of the College crowd could groove with post-war Jazz, but many more young people were totally immersed in the new music that displaced Jazz: Rock 'n Roll. And things aren't much different today.

By the time I got to College (1965), there wasn't a hint of Jazz on campus (nothing that caught my attention, anyway). The Folk revival was what interested me most and off I went into the discovery of the great Folk traditions that were (still are) the backbone and roots of American music. My explorations eventually led me to the roots of Jazz: Blues and Spirituals. And from there it's been one great discovery after another re: the world of Jazz.

As far as Rock and Jazz go, the roots are the same. But, Rock couldn't come into its own until amplified instruments made the scene--for the first time in history, a group of four musicians (Rockers) could outblow a dozen (Jazz orchestra); and, nowadays, they can drown out a full-blown, 60-plus Classical orchestra. I'm sure this (sheer volume) was a major factor in the demise of Jazz popularity (particularly big-band Jazz). But, there were obviously other factors involved.

The Beat, for instance. Every human being has a machine called the Heart, which beats regular intervals 24 hours a day from birth 'til death. Which means that everyone in the entire world has Rhythm (even though you might not conclude such by observing a typical dance floor). In music, the Beat is the most primal element: the pulse, the throb. Certain societies have deemed a heavy, throbbing beat to be overly-primal (thus we have Lars Levi Laestadius, a Christian missionary of the late 1700's, converting the Laplanders of northern Scandinavia by taking away their only man-made musical instrument, the heathenish drum--to this day they use only their vocal cords for their songs). Classical music has generally embraced the notion that music should soothe the savage breast; but many other kinds of music are designed to do the opposite--stir up the emotions. According to one musicologist, there are seven basic drumbeats associated with certain African tribes; and the one that connotes War is what we call the Anapestic Beat, or back-beat (the most often used beat in Rock)--foot-stompin' stuff designed to agitate and incite.

Before the great Jazz tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins died in the early 1960's he was asked what he thought of Rock 'n Roll:

"You talk about Rock 'n Roll--and that Beat. Well, that's been around forever. We used to play that as kids. Only we called it 'stomp' or 'shout' music. That's something that's been happening in backyards and out in the street for as long as I can remember. But, it's just kid-stuff."

In the early days of Jazz, proper members of American society deemed the Jazz Beat (or Syncopation) to be the rhythmic resultant of the Devil. But as the Story of Jazz (a fascinating story of epic proportions) unfolded, the music and the rhythms became more sophisticated and complex. After WWII, the smaller combos were generally using the less-heavily-accented shuffle beat. And by the 1950's (as my older friend would say) the Jazz Beat got "too complicated--can't dance to it". Modern Jazzers experimented, more and more, with unusual (to Western ears) time signatures and rhythms (as did Modern Classical Composers); and the average listener's response was, "If you can't tap your foot to it, forget it".

So the Popular idioms (Rock, R & B, C & W) have been grabbing a lot of people for a long time now. Which is all right, I guess. But if that meant the demise of Jazz, then it's not all right.

Some say it's the Jazzers' own fault: they got too fancy pants; they forgot how to reach the average Joe(Jo). Even Duke Ellington said he always made sure not to forsake the dance-beat because you lose a lot of your crowd when you do that. This is not to say that there isn't a place for just-listening Jazz--of course there is. And I'd be very happy to see a lot more people really listening to Jazz. But I'm afraid the number of people on this planet who know how to really listen (to Jazz or any substantive Music) do not a Majority make.

I don't worry about the Classical Music scene--it's had hundreds of years to get its support group effectively organized; there will always be a monied elite to keep it going.

I don't worry about the Pop Music scene--Jane and Joe Average will always be there, en masse = megabucks.

But I think there should be a lot more support for Jazz Music than there is. It's such a phenomenally diverse, creative and intrinsically American musical idiom. I think Americans in-particular should be a little ashamed for knowing less about Jazz than do the peoples of most other countries around the world (American Jazzers have been leaving this country for years and years--simply because they get more work and genuine appreciation abroad than they do at home). More than that, I just think a lot of Americans don't know what they're missing; they've never been motivated to explore it much. Too bad. The reading material alone (on Jazz) provides a seemingly endless source of fascinating true-life drama--heroes, heroines, the whole bit. Even Hollywood has missed the boat--I don't think there's ever been a Jazz film made that truly captures the Spirit and Magic that's evident in the writings. (Some have come close, true; but I've never seen one that hits the nail on the head.) [Ed. Note: 2001. A tip of the hat goes to Ken Burns for his PBS series on Jazz--it's a truly valuable addition to the Story of Jazz.]

I speak of Jazz music in particular, but I also want to say a few things about music and art in general. Art can cause people to muse, to ponder thoughtfully. I like that notion. Art can also cause people to feel agitated, restless, even destructive. Though I believe there's a place for this kind of art in the whole scheme-of-things, I prefer to concentrate on what I consider to be constructive art, fired by constructive passion.

There are elements in society who question the validity of the 'ultimate importance' of art. To them, art is nothing more than diversion and entertainment. Beyond that, it has no worthwhile application toward the nitty-gritty realities of civilization (creating jobs, saving lives, etc.). My premise is that art is the Saving Grace of Humanity. It is an integral, important aspect of society and we need art to reconvince ourselves that we're not entirely dishonorable co-existants on this planet. (As much as Humanity has accomplished, it still owes Mother Nature an apology.)

I find in the Jazz Story a Jazz Ethic that inspires, uplifts and ennobles. John Steinbeck once said of Jazz musicians:

"They are hard to buy and if bought they either backslide into honesty or lose the respect of their peers. And this is a loss that terrifies them. In any other field of American life, great rewards can be used to cover a loss of honesty, but not with Jazz players--a slip is known and recognized instantly. And further, while there may be some jealousies, they do not compare with those of other professions. Let a filthy kid, unknown, unheard of and unbacked sit in--and if he can do it--he is recognized and accepted instantly/"

The only thing Jazz musicians dont have enough of is jobs. Perhaps you can trace that back to the observation that a lot of people have either lost interest (from the 1920s through the 1940s, Jazz was big-time popular) or weren't particularly interested in the first place (I was in the latter category for almost 25 years). I'd like to see this changed and I have a two-part plan:

1st, the Audience. "The more you know the more you grow" into wider appreciation. Motivate yourself to be intrigued by the Jazz Story. I don't quite know how to get this across, but if you don't have some sort of historical perspective (via books and album-jacket liner-notes) there's a tendency to dismiss or ignore the Story of Jazz. Every distinct syle of Jazz (from ealy Syncopation to Modern) is a piece of the whole story; once you have an overview of it you can flip to any page and it'll have significance.
Tied to this knowledge should be an awareness that Jazz requires a great deal of sacrifice and discipline; that it's physically as well as mentally demanding (as Bop saxmaster Eddie Berger might say: "If people realized how physical it really is and saw it more as a sporting event, you'd have unhuddled masses cheering their favorite Jazzers on to new heights." Something like that, right, Eddie?).

2nd, the Performers. The ultimate dream of every creative artist is to be an 'original', 'one of a kind', perhaps even 'visionary'. As philosopher/historian Will Durant said:
"Yes, believe it or not, there is One Thing more thrilling than Sex: an Original Thought." To my mind, the art of the future is the greatest challenge; and in music, I see Jazz as a way for coming up with a New Music that speaks to all in a meaningful way. We should look beyond the feeling that "it's all been done and there's nowhere to go from here"--that feeling has been disproved periodically for thousands of years.
Also, Jazz performers/jobbers could perhaps put a little more thought into their Presentation. Sometimes, a jobbing Jazz band appears almost morose ("we're serious about this stuff, man; and it's a lot of work, too"). I'm not suggesting Show Biz buffoonery; just a little more Showmanship.

Well, I've pretty much said everything I wanted to. I've been thinking on these things for quite some time and I'm glad to get them off my chest.

Grow straight and let Jazz bend you,

Ted Unseth
1981




Early Jazz Band