An American guitarist friend of mine told me a story about how his father – a mid-western hardware store owner with little prior knowledge of jazz – asked his son “Why do jazz musicians always look like they’re smelling shit when they play?” I’ve always found that story to be hilarious, in that it’s both witty and observant – why so often DO jazz musicians often look like they’re, if not smelling shit, then at least involved in some ugly and very serious task when they’re playing? And light-hearted as that question might seem, it does raise a point which has intrigued me over the past few years – at what point did so many jazz musicians come to feel that the music they play must inhabit such a narrow emotional bandwidth?
A lot of contemporary jazz, especially coming from Europe and the loosely titled ‘Downtown Scene’ in the US, seems to only recognise one shade of the emotional spectrum – the darker one. So a lot of improvised music will have a feeling of such things as anger, seriousness, turbulence, melancholy, and a kind of macho brow-furrowing intensity that many musicians seem to feel is the stamp of ‘real’ music – the stamp of music that is serious, of music that is deep, and of music that is worth doing.
And when I speak of this kind of approach, I speak of what I know, believe me! I say this because for many years I was as enthusiastic for this kind of dark-hued emotional approach as anyone – perhaps even more so. And I still have a great taste for it, to tell the truth. Bartok String Quartet No. 2? Excellent! Late Coltrane? Great! Steve Coleman-esque astringency coupled with complex polyrhythms? That’s the shit! But in recent years I’ve also become tired of the relentless diet of grimness served up in the name of contemporary jazz.
And it’s not just subjectively that I’ve begun to question this approach, but also objectively and even philosophically. Because I think there’s a kind of emotional apartheid going on here in that it would seem that some emotions are permitted in the music (the above mentioned anger, seriousness, melancholy, etc.) but some are not – happiness, joy and celebration for example. But the people who produce this music are usually people who are happy from time to time, who have reasons to celebrate occasionally and who no doubt experience joy like the rest of us. So why is this never represented in the music? I remember speaking to a musician friend of mine about this last year – he’s a guy who is one of the most positive and up people I’ve ever encountered – a pleasure to be with because of his unrelenting good humour and sunny outlook. Yet his music is unreservedly dark – you would never know from his music that he was a generally happy guy. I asked him about this and he seemed genuinely surprised by the question, I don’t think he’d ever been asked it before, or ever really thought about it.
Of course we eventually come to the question of what constitutes ‘dark’, and the inevitable argument that ‘it might sound dark to you but it doesn’t to me’. However I think this argument is disingenuous on the part of the people who make it – I think most of us can agree on the basic difference between happy music and sad (or non-happy, or serious) music. No arguments about the musical prerequisites for happy or sad music need be gone into - music is either dark-hued or it’s not. Just like the civilians in the audience, we in the jazz army can tell the difference. Now we may enjoy sad, or serious or dark music – that’s a different point – but we can’t pretend that sad or dark music is happy music, whether we are happy to listen to it or not, or whether we are happy to play it or not. I think there’s a difference between music that we’re happy to play and/or to listen to, and music that represents happiness – these are very different things.
So why is happiness and general celebratory music a no-no among many contemporary jazz musicians? It wasn’t always so – jazz was originally a dance music and therefore by necessity had to be upbeat. Dancers in general want something happy to dance to, since dancing is usually celebratory in nature. But even when jazz moved off the dance floor and onto the stage it retained this generally optimistic and sunny outlook. Listening to the great Charlie Parker and Dizzie Gillespie – the two people given the most credit for changing jazz from a pop music into an art music – playing ‘Blue’n’Boogie’ live at Birdland is to hear two guys having a great time playing music together, and showing it. This is sunny, happy music. In general bebop and hard bop is. Dave Liebman in a recent blog, makes a very good point in relation to how he felt after playing some gigs dedicated to the music of Dexter Gordon. He describes it as follows:
"Playing all Dexter tunes it struck me that so much of pure bebop is uplifting and joyous music, often played by people who were prejudiced against, often had drug problems and never really made much money, whereas guys like me who come from pretty secure bourgeois backgrounds play so much dissonant, melancholy and “down” music. It’s interesting what the human spirit is capable of doing."
Precisely – these guys lives were in general much harder than ours are, yet they managed to produce uplifting music. How is it with our much better lifestyle that we find it impossible to play anything blatantly happy? Is it a matter of style? Is it because playing happy music is not hip? I feel it’s probably a combination of these things.
In film and TV there’s a point of view that comedy is easy, not anything like as hard as ‘real’ acting. I think in contemporary jazz there’s a similar misapprehension – a feeling that happy music is light music, is less worthy of consideration, or is less deep than serious or dark music. There’s an association in the minds of many musicians that happy = frivolous, or commercial. Happiness is something that pop musicians do – not us serious guys over here in contemporary jazz! Pat Metheny is for me a classic example of the suspicion with which generally upbeat music is viewed in jazz. Metheny is someone who has never been afraid to show a sunny disposition to the world and has been incredibly popular due to the accessibility of his ‘Pat Metheny Group’. This latter group is one of my least favourite of Metheny’s bands, but the optimistic vibe of that group is brought into other Metheny projects, and that’s something I really enjoy about Metheny, his willingness to indulge in bright music that has an unashamedly celebratory feel to it. But many times I’ve heard Metheny being dismissed as a lightweight by jazz musicians – or they excuse Metheny the celebratory stuff by pointing out that he also played with Ornette Coleman – which proves he must be serious, right?
And Metheny’s obvious technical ability is another thing that gets him off the hook with the Jazz Police – because we admire technical ability. And in a commercial environment where more and more of the jazz audience consists of jazz students, jazz musicians, or ex-jazz students and musicians, this obsession with the technical details of music has become more prevalent. With this kind of audience the hipness factor is very important – is this music in an odd metre? Does it use complex chords? Even better, does it use odd metres AND complex chords!? If so then it must be good. A musician friend of mine calls this the ‘boy’s music syndrome’ - if it’s hard it must be good, the harder it is, the better it is. The more arcane the structural devices used the better the devotees of boy’s music like it. In the world of boy’s music you’ll never hear something in a simple 4/4, or if you hear a major chord it will ALWAYS have a #11 on it, or even better, a #5 (or for real seriousness, how about a #9!!).
Once again I should point out that I have nothing against complex music or emotionally dark-hued musical environments, I enjoy them both as a listener and a player. What I do object to is the exclusive focussing on this kind of musical sombreness – like anything it becomes wearing after a while. And anyway, who says that happiness and complexity are mutually exclusive? The music of Hermeto Pascoal is relentlessly joyous and life-affirming yet contains enough gnarly odd metre and harmonic complexity to satisfy the most hardened boy’s music advocate. Have a listen to Mundo Verde Esperança for a classic example of complexity meets joyousness.
And for myself, I believe that if I never write and play music that is happy or celebratory in nature then I’m not honestly representing myself as a person through my music. And we have very good examples of how great it can be in the midst of a sea of seriousness to be given an island of celebration and positivity. Check out the final movement of Bartok’s ‘Concerto for Orchestra’, or the playfulness of the second movement of the same work. Or how about Coltrane playing ‘Bessie’s Blues’ on ‘Crescent’? If even these purveyors of some of the most serious music ever written and performed felt the need to smile and celebrate occasionally then surely we can follow their lead and do a bit of smiling of our own?