Monday, December 24, 2012

The End of Jazz?

THIS year -- soon drawing to a close -- has gotten me thinking about the American songbook in a major way. Part of this is because of the publication of Ted Gioia's wonderful The Jazz Standards -- which has shown up on a number of year's best lists, and through which I have whiled away many hours.

Another is the notorious Atlantic article, "The End of Jazz," which is both a review of the book and a larger essay -- intelligently argued, albeit not entirely convincing, I don't think -- about how the disconnection between jazz and the songbook has left them both dead.

The third, perhaps, is my own progress (if you heard me play, you'd know that this is probably the wrong word) as an amateur jazz guitarist, learning various numbers such as "All the Things You Are," "Autumn Leaves," "Chitlins Con Carne," "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat," "Blue Bossa," and so on. I've been struck by how inventive, ingenious and musically bottomless these great songs, whether by Jerome Kern or Charles Mingus, remain. How far can you stretch 'em before they break?

And how does the shrinking of the jazz audience connect to my ideas about the crisis of the creative class?

For my latest piece for Salon, I've looked at some of the issues, and crossed them with a look back at jazz over the last year or so. My understanding of some of this mix of good and bad was bolstered by another very fine new book, Marc Myers' social history Why Jazz Happened.

I spoke to Myers, Sonny Rollins, jazz scribe Gary Giddins, head of Nonesuch Records Bob Hurwitz, and others. The question of how jazz can thrive in the future is important to me and I hope I've taken a step into understanding it.

Happy holidays to my readers from The Misread City.

New West Coast Folk

SOMETHING about the cool weather, the melange of religious songs and the reflective tone of the end of the end of the year leads me to play a lot of acoustic folk music around the holidays. (And lest you jeer at the frigid winters we have in Southern California, I’ll tell you that it was in the 50s most of today and I could actually see my breath this morning. Okay, so we’re not in Yorkshire.)

In any case, two newish records have pushed their way into my end-of-year folk canon. Both have connections to the West Coast, which may be the best folk (and folk-rock) terrain outside the British Isles.

The first is Deer Creek Canyon, by the youngish Seattle-based folk singer Sera Cahoone. This is her third record, but she’s new to me and I don’t know her story in much detail. (Turns out she played drums in Band of Horses for a while – huh?)

I’ll just say: I don’t often hear an artist who’s able to blend tradition with a solid personality this well. None of these songs make me rethink the history of music, but all are intelligent, tastefully played and effortlessly tuneful. A few – Rumpshaker, Shakin’ Hands – are better than that.

The other album comes from a whole other generation. Bert Jasch was a Scotsman and one of the fathers of Britfolk. His show at Largo a few years back – his last American tour, I think – was one of the most riveting performances I’ve ever seen, with his peerless fingerpicking, his adaptation of traditional English and Celtic songs, and his rough-hewn voice.

Janch made a number of classic records in the ‘60s, some with John Renbourn; my favorite live record of his is the reasonably obscure Live in Australia.

But Omnivore has just released a two-CD disc that captures the late fingerpicking hero near his high point. The title disc, Heartbreak, was recorded in 1982. But even better is the second disc here, Live at McCabe’s Guitar Shop, which captures a 1981 solo date at the Santa Monica shrine.

Jansch opens with the old Irish song “Curragh of Kildare” and works his way through “Blackwater Side,” “Come Back Baby,” “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” (a Celt folk tune by Ewan MacColl before Elvis made it famous) and a song he had special sympathy with – the darkly romantic “Blues Run the Game.”

All of this music will be ringing and chiming around my house this week. Happy West Coast folk holidays to all.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Soul of Bettye LaVette

HERE at The Misread City, we’re longtime fans of the LA-based biographer and ghostwriter David Ritz. Many of you know his work – his definitive biography of Marvin Gaye, Divided Soul, and his "collaborative autobiographies" of Ray Charles, Jerry Wexler, Cornel West, and many others. He’s among the most productive and genuinely soulful people we know. (Ritz is, among other things, a former student of one of our intellectual heroes, Leslie Fiedler.)

Ritz’s latest book is on the once lost – now found -- R&B singer Bettye LaVette, who exits both inside and outside of the tradition. She can build up a phrase like Otis Redding, and she can smear her tones like Eric Dolphy. “She is a voice from the wilderness,” Pete Townshend has said. “How did we miss her for so long?

Ritz captures that voice, and her strange, at times very sad, at times hilarious story, in A Woman Like Me. (Don’t take out word for it: Elvis Costello loves the book as well.)

LaVette also has a new record, Thankful 'n' Thoughtful, on the Anti- label. It's got her usual counter-intutive set list, with songs by Dylan, the Black Keys, Neil Young, and two versions (one of them wonderful) of Ewan MacColl's "Dirty Old Town" -- originally written about Salford, Lancashire, which makes me wonder how long it will take her to cover The Smiths.

We spoke to Ritz about LaVette’s roller-coaster career, the book and his work as a ghost writer.

Bettye LaVette manages to be both a classic soul singer in her vocal tone and technique, and also a real individualist: It takes just a bar or two to tell it’s her. Can you describe her style, her approach to a song?

She describes herself as a rhythm and blues singer—and I think that’s accurate. She’s street-trained in the Etta James/Otis Redding school of singing: unrestrained emotional expression; idiosyncratic style over self-conscious composure; emphasis on percussive narrative. Let the beat drive the story. Sing conversationally. Stay  loose. Never fear the funk cause the funk is deepest and messiest truth. Like all the great soul singers—Marvin, Ray, David Ruffin—she’s also informed by jazz. Her sense of harmony is highly sophisticated and her phrasing, though raw, has jazz-like cadences. The way she elongates a line. The way she cuts off a phrase.

One of the things that makes LaVette so distinctive is her choice of material. Unlike a lot of R&B singers, she doesn’t sing many blues numbers or classic soul tunes, at least not on her recent albums, but rather songs by everyone from Ewan MacColl to Tom Waits to Aimee Mann. One of her records was produced by musician Joe Henry, an inspired choice but hardly an obvious one. Where does that impulse come from?

She’s an iconoclast by nature. She resists the obvious. She’s also a searcher. She’ll search out various writers—say, George Jones—and learn their entire oeuvre. She and her husband Kevin, a brilliant musicologist, are fearless about seeking out esoteric material. They never stop looking for good stories set to music. They search far beyond the R&B genre because they know if the song is righteous Bettye has the chops to reinvent it.

As riveting a musician as she is, LaVette spent decades poor and obscure, at times working as a prostitute. Was it just bad luck that put her so far on the margins for so long?

God only knows. Why some great artists hit early while others hit late or not at all is an eternal mystery. We can look back and analyze but I prefer to leave the mystery in tact. Who can say why the planets align the way they do? Was her it fault that she languished in obscurity for so long? Probably yes, probably no. Why does the cosmos conspire to bless one artist and deny another? Who knows? I’m just glad she’s finally made it.

What is LaVette like temperamentally? Intense? Laid back? Guarded? Funny or deeply sober?

Sober is not a word you’d apply to Bettye. Neither would you call her laid back. She is not guarded. I know no one more candid. She is funny, even hysterical. She’s intense. Her mind is fascinating. Her brilliance is always on full display.

It’s interesting how she breaks from the classic grounding of soul music and the black church, or at least Christianity. “My story is one in which Jesus will not be making an appearance,” she says in the book. “My feeling then and now is that if God is fond of black people, he has shown his affection only recently.” How typical is this point of view, have you found, among black musicians of her generation?

Given her cultural background, her atheism is highly unusual. It’s also refreshing. A believer myself, I was happy to be challenged over and again by her skepticism about the Christian story. Bettye’s strongly anti-authoritarian. She also likes to use language to shock. Her main tool, as a singer and conversationalist, is surprise.

You’ve spent time with a lot of subjects for as-told-to novels… Many of them are black musicians whose backgrounds are in basic ways very different from yours. Part of your job is to capture their voices, or maybe merge them with your own? My guess is that the trick is a bit like the secret to improvising: You listen. But what else is there?

Love. It helps enormously to offer love to your collaborator. Love comes in the form of not simply listening, but listening with your heart as well as your head. Love comes in the form of not judging your subject. Love is also expressed in patience. Letting her take as long as she needs to tell her story.

Love also comes in the language you use to ask questions. Even the tough questions ideally should come from a place of love. Love is also the source of my enthusiasm. And without enthusiasm—for the mere fact of hanging out with Bettye, for the joy of hearing her speak, for the privilege of channeling her voice and sculpting her story—the work becomes dull. With enthusiasm, art is possible. A groove can be set. A story can be told. 

Friday, December 7, 2012

Why Jazz Happened

THE history of an art form is more than just the biography of its exemplars. But you wouldn’t know it by reading most histories of jazz. (I’m speaking here of some books I really like, by the way.) A fresh, engaging new book by Marc Myers, a Wall Street Journal contributor, tells the story so differently than the way we normally hear jazz history that reading it is a kind of unfolding revelation. Even if you know the overall story pretty well.

Why Jazz Happened, published this month on the University of California Press, calls itself the first social history of jazz; it concentrates on structural factors – economic developments, demographic shifts, changes in technology, and so on. We get appearances from Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman, but we get recording bans, suburbanization and race riots as well. And it’s told smoothly and often briskly.

Unlike most cultural histories, this one doesn’t overlook the role of the West Coast. (Speaking of the West Coast, RIP to Concord, CA native Dave Brubeck.)

Here’s my exchange with Myers, whose award-winning blog JazzWax is well worth a look as well.

Part of me wonders why it took so long for someone to do this. But: What made you want to write this kind of atypical, outside-in musical history? Did you have a specific historian or historical school in mind as a model?

Most jazz histories have been written from the inside out—meaning the writer’s perspective and conclusions were based largely on the artists and the albums they recorded. Such books don’t often account for external forces or the economic, business, cultural and technological events that took place and had an impact on artists and how they thought and created.

When I was studying history in Columbia University’s graduate program in the 1980s, social history was hot. “What” was important but so was “why,” and “why” was often much more interesting in explaining timelines and outcomes. So whether you were researching the Civil War, Imperialism or the Depression, the facts themselves were essential but so were the socio-economic issues that enabled such events to take place when they did.

I wanted to approach jazz the same way. Instead of treating it as a string of musicians and recordings, I wanted to see what forces outside of jazz caused jazz styles to change so rapidly between 1942 and 1972. By forces, I mean the opportunities that musicians faced and he pressures they faced. What I discovered is that the 10 major styles that surfaced between 1942 and 1972 did so for reasons that went beyond the genius of the artists.

You concentrate mostly on the years 1945 to ’72 – less than three decades across the century-long span of jazz as a distinct musical form.  What made those the key years?

Before 1942, jazz was largely dance and folk music. From the start in 1917—when jazz was first recorded in New York—the music had a practical purpose. Its fast pace and steady tempo was background for those spending a night out in restaurants or ballrooms. And if you liked the music you heard there or on the radio, you bought a phonograph and records. Or jazz was the blues—a folk form imported from the South and interpreted by ever-larger orchestras. There was some jazz improvisation during the period, but not much. 
After 1972, jazz becomes a repertory form and remains so today. Musicians specialize in one or more established jazz styles—bebop, hard bop and jazz-fusion, for example. And audiences attend clubs and concerts to hear music that was once played by musicians in their record collections.

But between 1942 and 1972—what I call jazz’s golden three decades—you see the rise of improvisation, composing, arranging and artists with socio-political statements to make. This trend doesn’t happen out of thin air. Unlikely events outside of jazz create opportunities for changes to occur and put economic and social pressures on musicians to re-invent jazz repeatedly.

One of your best chapters, “Suburbia and West Coast Jazz,” is primarily about L.A. in the ‘50s. Why did that time and place seem crucial to the music’s story?

West Coast jazz has long been thought of as a movement led by white musicians who left big bands and settled in California. The laid-back contrapuntal, sound of sextets, septets and octets at the time has been viewed as a byproduct of Gerry Mulligan’s influence after he arrived in Los Angeles in 1952 and formed his piano-less quartet.  

All of this is true to some extent but it doesn’t tell the full story. The suburbs of Los Angeles developed faster than any other part of the country after World War II, resulting in millions of new homes, wider freeways, bigger shopping centers and a white society completely detached from the inner city. With new homes came phonographs and an interest in high fidelity and LPs, which were relatively new. 

Economic segregation was enforced by local police and real estate covenants, which kept blacks grounded in South Central Los Angeles. The result was a white mass culture existing in ever-growing suburban rings around the older city. The expanse of Southern California had little in common with the density and diversity of New York. So the music came out of a different culture and experience fed largely by bliss. Interestingly, widespread drug use in California by jazz musicians at the time didn’t intensify the music.

West Coast jazz isn’t bad or good. It’s just another style that emerged from a different set of environmental factors—like the jazz that came out of New Orleans, Chicago or Kansas City. Certain factors contributed to its development and success. Interestingly, the sound of West Coast jazz owes a great deal to the surf, the longer sunsets and the unbridled optimism that many musicians, particularly white ones, felt at the time.

Your book feels especially fresh on the issue of race. Did the civil rights movement help assemble the coalition of the jazz audience during the good years, and drive it apart – or at least destabilize it – later on?

It’s impossible to study the development of jazz in the second half of the 1950s without considering the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision. From the 1920s through the mid-1950s, black musicians who toured the U.S. faced unspeakable indignities, harassment and racial terrorism. Even though many of these artists and bands played in black communities, they had to travel long distances through a racially charged landscape, often at their own peril.

By the late 1940s, the climate started to change rapidly. Baseball starts to become integrated in 1947, the U.S. Armed Forces is integrated in 1948 and music becomes a unifier among teens in the early 1950s with the rise of the 45-rpm and independent radio. The Supreme Court decision made government segregation laws unconstitutional. Which sounded great on paper until it became clear that many parts of the country were continuing their segregationist practices as though nothing had changed. Those who had been assumed racial equality would take place overnight found the civil rights struggle dragging, particularly in the South. 

Throughout the ‘50s, what you hear in the music of Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Art Blakey, Horace Silver and virtually all jazz musicians—black and white—is growing frustration with the status quo and a need to express how they felt as individual artists. While not every track recorded during this period is a political statement, the spiritual urgency that surfaced along with the celebration of Africa and other homelands has much to do with the need to be heard.

By the 1960s, racial injustice is still an important issue for many black musicians. But for millions of white and black teens, the Beatles and Motown become more important. Jazz during this period grows increasingly avant-garde—partly a result of jazz musicians’ frustration with shrinking opportunities in clubs and recording studios and the rise of pop-rock and soul, which they found aggravating. Jazz in the 1960s becomes disenfranchised, leaving musicians despondent and angry, which creates schisms between black and white artists and audiences.

The usual critique of a work of social history is that it is somehow deterministic. So I’ll ask: Given all these outside factors – technology, economic and demographic shifts, cultural trends, and so on – could things, with a different cast of characters on the artistic side, ended up differently for jazz?

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that someone like Charlie Parker existed in the 15th century and someone like him exists today. What I mean by this is that if recording technology, records, radio, the jukebox and all of the other factors that existed in the 1940s had been around in 1045 and consumers could afford them, someone with a saxophone might have invented bebop back then. 

We know about Parker only because his music was documented, and that was possible only because smaller record labels emerged in the mid-‘40s to capture him. We’re just lucky that Parker was up to speed artistically when these events took place.  

So, it’s my belief that jazz history—like all history—is 50% individuals and 50% conditions. The telephone would not have made any sense in the 1700s. If Alexander Bell invented it then, the phone would likely have been used to hold horseshoes in place or weigh down broadsheets. Artists have nothing to say if no one is listening, and people only listen if the artists’ works are accessible and meaningful. 

The same is true of jazz. Parker, Hawkins, Silver, Clifford Brown and Hank Mobley were motivated to create and recreate the music they make because there were economic incentives and technological developments to do so. Count Basie led quite a few bands from the 1930s through the early 1980s. Each was different because Basie shrewdly re-invented his sound to suit commercial needs. The fundamentals were there—the piano, the swing and soloists. But the arrangers changed as did the soloists, and they were recording what would sell to new audiences.

Your book closes with guarded optimism on how jazz has survived all these decades of tumultuous changes without losing its soul. What are some of the great careers or albums since 1972 – what we might call, borrowing from Arthur Danto on art, jazz after the era of jazz?

Jazz continues today but the re-invention of new jazz styles has pretty much ground to a halt. It’s not that jazz musicians have run out of ideas. There’s just less of an economic incentive to take risks. There’s also nothing to prove by inventing new forms of the music. I suspect that dozens of new jazz styles have surfaced and evaporated since 1972—largely because none of them excited audiences or record labels, or other forms of music were a better investment.

I doubt jazz will ever change at the same rate it did between 1942 and 1972, when roughly 10 major styles surfaced, each one topping the one before it. Why not? First, concert audiences now expect a visual component. Rock and pop concerts deliver music and performance to stimulate excitement. Jazz, like classical, is largely static—musicians on stage playing. Second, universities aren’t putting a premium on teaching jazz and exciting young minds. 

Young music fans have little interest in jazz because they haven’t been exposed to it in schools. I constantly hear of students who don’t really care for jazz because the professors they had were nasty or boring.

Unless jazz musicians today recognizes that they must do what jazz musicians have always done—integrating other contemporary forms of music and re-inventing jazz to say something more exciting and relevant—musicians will always be standing on stage playing the music of someone who died 30 years ago. And unless schools hire teachers and professors who are excited by the social history of jazz—the dramatic story of how jazz came to be and evolved—jazz will remain a classroom elective in which students use the time to text friends. For jazz to reach younger generations, it must be positioned as a dramatic story, not a series of albums.

Los Angeles Gets a Poet Laureate

WELL, folks, the mayor has appointed Eloise Klein Healy the city's first poet laureate. Here's the LA Times story.

Healy and I have a second-hand connection since we've both published on Red Hen Press, so I will not evaluate her work except to say I'm pleased with her appointnent. Here's poet Dana Gioia, who was part of the selection committee, on her commitment to the city:

Healy has devoted her time and energy to building the L.A. literary community. For years she has exhibited the passion and commitment for public service that we looked for in a poet laureate. When she applied for the position, she also wrote a detailed vision of what she hoped to accomplish if she was awarded the position. It was clear from this statement that she not only had a vision of her laureateship but that it was also based in a deep understanding of L.A.'s literary and educational landscape.

A hearty congratulations to Eloise Klein Healy from The Misread City!