Tag Archive for jazzocracy

The Futureless Future: Intro

the_cry_of_jazzIn the interests of maximum latitude, inspired by the late Ed Bland’s The Cry of Jazz, the futureless future, in all its contradictions, herein represents: the ongoing struggle for racial and economic equality; the avant-garde future (and past) of Black music, a creative continuum; and the pastless past, where history goes down the Orwellian memory hole, which is often where jazzocracy dwells along with protracted atrocities like the Vietnam War, which time, corporate media, and the Beltway have reduced to a simple, fundamentally patriotic, “Thank you for your service!” So I’m having it both ways: the futureless future is both the void of a nonviable future and the galactic expanse of limitless eternal vistas. I’m not going to clarify my use of “jazzocracy” here beyond its contextual allusions. The problem of jazzocracy is the basis of much of Ka-ching, and this site is intended only to supplement the book. If you Google “jazzocracy,” however, your first return is—well, it’s not for me to go there in this space, though Ka-ching goes there and beyond. And we should all go to the invaluable beyond of UbuWeb where The Cry of Jazz can be seen in one 34-minute wail.

Jazzocratic Brubeck: Blue Rondo à la Quirk

Brubeck Jazz Impressions of Eurasia Cover

In 2008, Dave Brubeck was an inaugural recipient of the Benjamin Franklin Award for Public Diplomacy, “the most prestigious honor that the Department of State can bestow on American citizens who are making outstanding contributions to public diplomacy,” according to the State Department’s press release. The release points out that Brubeck has been “declared a ‘Living Legend’ by the Library of Congress,” and goes on to note that 2008 marks the 50th anniversary of his first State Department tour. “We recognize Dave Brubeck for offering a positive vision of hope, opportunity and freedom through a musical language that is truly American,” State trumpets in standard jazz diplomacy-speak.

The award was delivered by then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who got a shout-out in Amiri Baraka’s Poet Laureate of New Jersey-terminating “Somebody Blew Up America”—”Who know what kind of Skeeza is a Condoleeza”—and who was recently back in the news when she declined to speak at the 2014 Rutgers University commencement in the face of student outrage that such an invitation would be extended to one of the architects of the George W. Bush Administration’s disastrous invasion of Iraq under patently false pretenses. Brubeck, who died in 2012, did not live to see this tiny bit of Condi comeuppance, but he was of course around in April 2010 when a Congressional resolution, H. Res. 1283, was introduced by New Hampshire Democrat Paul Hodes, “Honoring and thanking Dave Brubeck for his contributions to American music and cultural diplomacy.” However, it was not enacted, and Hodes, who also wears hats as a guitarist and an entertainment lawyer, lost to a Republican in the 2010 midterms, only to become a 2012 Obama appointee to the National Council for the Arts. Small jazz policy world!

But let’s get back to Brubeck and that first State Department tour, in 1958, whence the logo-crazy album cover seen here, which is the result of a promotional deal between Columbia Records and Pan American World Airways, according to Stephen A. Crist, an associate professor of music history at Emory University, whose research in State Department archives is the basis of the richly detailed “Jazz as Democracy? Dave Brubeck and Cold War Politics,” in The Journal of Musicology, Spring 2009 (linked via the restricted database JSTOR), which in turn is the basis of this post. The tour covered some serious ground: Poland, Turkey, India, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), East Pakistan (Bangladesh), West Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq (in 1958, Iran was a U.S. ally, of course, ruled by the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who was installed by the U.S. and the U.K. after the 1953 CIA-assisted coup that overthrew the democratically elected government of Mohammad Mosaddegh).

According to Crist, Brubeck’s motives for touring for the State Department were a mixture of patriotism, money, and publicity, though money is likely the least of these considerations—he could’ve made more money in other contexts. Brubeck apparently liked to see himself more as an ambassador of peace than a U.S. Cold War weapon, but he quite readily toed the jazzocracy line. Crist notes:

In both the 1950s and the 1980s [when he played a 1988 Reagan-Gorbachev summit in Moscow] it was Dave Brubeck’s settled conviction that performing jazz was profoundly symbolic: it was in essence a musical enactment of the principles of American democracy. Though this notion is somewhat problematic (Do all styles of jazz work this way, even big-band swing and free jazz? Are not some band leaders more “democratic” than others?), it possesses a certain commonsensical appeal. The idea was therefore espoused by many musicians and cultural critics in the 1950s, and it persists to the present day.

Does it ever! Brubeck made a further contribution to the propaganda of jazzocracy, this time on the domestic front, about a month after the tour when he collaborated with New York Times book reviewer Gilbert Millstein on a June 15, 1958 Times Magazine article, “The Beat Heard ‘Round the World.” This is not a reference to the Beat Generation, though Millstein’s chief claim to fame is his Times’ rave review of On the Road in 1957, a huge career-booster for jazz-maniac Jack Kerouac, though, ironically in this context, Kerouac had written in his journal in 1950, “You have to believe in life before you can accomplish anything. That is why dour, regular-houred, rational-souled State Department diplomats have done nothing for mankind. Why live if not for excellence?”

The somewhat less than excellent Times Magazine article was apparently written by Millstein based on an interview with Brubeck, but Brubeck’s is the sole byline. At any rate, in this piece Brubeck rolls out the jazzocratic red, white and blue carpet in support of American Empire . . .

It would be fatuous of me to pretend to correlate [jazz’s] importance with the billions of dollars we have spent to restore nations ravaged by war and in raising the living standards of underdeveloped countries, or the day-to-day spadework of statesmen and diplomats. . . . The United States assumes the most moral role of all internationally. A greater demand is placed on us for human decency than on any other country . . .

. . . and also in support of jazz as a Jim Crow smokescreen (in reference to his integrated band, which included Black bassist Eugene Wright), apparently reading directly from the “Segregation” chapter in the State Department’s classified playbook:

Jazz is color blind. When a German or a Pole or an Iraqi or an Indian sees American white men and colored in perfect creative accord, when he finds out that they travel together, eat together, live together and think pretty much alike, socially and musically, a lot of the bad taste of Little Rock is apt to be washed from his mouth.

Speaking of bad taste, in a reference to Louis Armstrong’s integrated bands, Brubeck says, rather uncomfortably, “Louis symbolizes even more than he understands. He is in life what you find more frequently in fiction—the uneducated American Negro who, through his genius, has overcome all possible obstacles and who is loved universally.” He also trots out the familiar jazzocratic improvisation theme, which privileges jazz above all other arts because “it is being created at the very moment it is played before an audience.” But he does have almost a good word for classical music—he studied with Darius Milhaud, after all. “The conductor of a symphony orchestra must, in my opinion, be a genius to transcend these [fixed] things and bring an element of creativity to what he is doing.”

The piece closes with an irony of epic proportions as Brubeck recounts a moment from his tour.

In Kabul, I was met by an ex-policeman from Berkeley, Calif., Al Riedel, who is helping organize Afghanistan’s forces. He pointed to this huge mountain around Kabul, and at its top a wall. “For 5,000 years,” he said, “people have been fighting over that wall—Tamerlane, Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great, the Indians, the English, who knows who. If a small fraction of what they spent had gone into education instead of defense, that wall would have come down long ago. At best, defense is a temporary thing.”

So’s empire.



International Jazz Day: Global Jazzocracy in Action

Intl Jazz Day StampAs detailed in the section of the Ka-ching epilogue devoted to the politically charged (in the sense only of implicitly defending the neoliberal status quo) curiosities of the jazz calendar, April 30 is International Jazz Day (IJD), a UNESCO production whose 2014 edition is, unsurprisingly, the same Hallmark card to some vague touchy-feely notion of “globalization” that’s been IJD’s standard fare since its debut in 2011.

Check the International Jazz Day site and you’ll find, in addition to the series of cluttered collages that are the new stamps the United Nations Postal Administration has issued to honor IJD (one is seen here), the ever reliable Ken Burns doing his usual jazzocratic strut: “Jazz is a spectacularly accurate model of democracy and a kind of look into our redemptive future possibilities”—gotta love that qualifying “kind of.” Bassist Marcus Miller chips in with an expanded version of the Burns policy, toeing the standard individuality-plus-teamwork line:

Jazz is a beautiful, democratic music. It encourages musicians with very strong, and many times, very different points of view to work together as a team while, at the same time, giving them the space to express their individuality. It’s a very important art form and can be used as a model for different cultures to work together.

In addition, there is this typically boilerplate sentiment from UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova:

The history of jazz tells of the power of music to bring together artists from different cultures and backgrounds, as a driver of integration and mutual respect. Through jazz, millions of people have sung and still sing today their desire for freedom, tolerance and human dignity.

But of particular interest is the 2014 interview with UNESCO Ambassador for Intercultural Dialogue—gotta love that Orwellian title too—Herbie Hancock (whose artistic career peak, many will agree, was way back in the ’60s when he played with Miles Davis), described as the “force behind” IJD. In response to the loaded question, “What are the values of jazz?”—as if it’s a given that music has “values”—Hancock begins, “Living in the moment, working together and, especially, respecting others. Music, and jazz in particular, is an international language that represents freedom because of its origin—growing out of slavery.” OK, forgetting all the blather that precedes it, he scores a point for mentioning slavery. He continues on with the usual “mutual cooperation” routine, which I note simply for the record:

Jazz is in the moment, and it’s non-judgmental: when you’re playing on the stage, you’re not judging what the other musician plays. What you have in mind is to be able to enhance it—whatever a musician plays, your job and your desire is to be able to help it to blossom. It’s not about “I don’t like what that person played,” because as soon as you have that judgmental attitude, it actually stops the flow of the music. There’s a sense of mutual cooperation. Those values are not only wonderful values to have for the creation of music; they are wonderful values to have for daily life.

Then, in response to a question about his latest world music record, he pops the G-word:

One of the issues of the day is globalization, which is a process of human beings adapting to a sense of this being one world with one people. We are all human beings.  . . . I wanted to show the incredible potential that globalization holds for us, if we create the kind of globalized world we want to live in. We don’t want a selfish, greedy world. We want a world where people are not just thinking about ‘I’, but thinking about ‘we’. Imagine a world like that. That’s why I borrowed the name of John Lennon’s song “Imagine”.

Give him another point for touting Lennon’s atheist anthem, but his take on globalization, needless to say, is several worlds away from reality. I’m not going to go on about what’s generally known as the anti-globalization movement here—Seattle 1999, anyone?—nor is it reasonable, of course, to expect IJD to in any way stand in opposition to economic globalization. I’m simply noting jazzocracy in its official neoliberal international iteration.

This year’s IJD host city, by the way, is Osaka—a bold move, perhaps, since it’s a mere 348 miles from Fukushima, and who knows how much of Japan has been poisoned by radiation at this point? The 2014 All-Star Global Concert, streamed live from Osaka, appears to be a resolutely mainstream/smooth, Esperanza Spalding-style affair—again, not a big surprise—with Wayne Shorter being about as far-out as IJD will go. While it is understood that this is clearly not Victoriaville, still, if IJD is all about “one world with one people,” where are the avant-garde people?

HR 57: Conyers’ Love Supreme

hr57-1reduced Rarely does a Congressional resolution become the basis of a monumental piece of improvisational big-band music. In addition to Alan Silva and the musicians of the Celestrial Communication Orchestra, we can thank the inestimable House radical John Conyers for this. If H.Con.Res.57 serves no other purpose (and it’s possible that it indeed serves no other purpose), it supplied the lyrics to the multi-sectioned masterpiece called HR57, found on the H.Con.Res.57 Treasure Box, which is surely the most important federal jazz policy-related piece of music ever recorded.

Ironies abound in relation to this work, many of which are explored in Ka-ching, but one that isn’t is the simple fact that the music of Alan Silva and his compatriots likely lies beyond the scope of Conyers’ jazz appreciation, and in the true jazzocratic manner, may not even be considered jazz at all by his lights. It’s not clear exactly what “jazz” he’s referring to when Conyers calls this music a “national treasure,” but it may well not be the jazz that is frequently preceded by “free,” which I use in Ka-ching as an umbrella term for all aspects of the avant-garde. As Matthew Goodheart points out in his voluminous liner notes to disc III of the Treasure Box set, there is a Great Man theory of jazz history, just as there is of any history; a theory whose “direct-lineage iconography,” he contends,

is an attempt at conscious control over the forces that establish culture. It is a framework that establishes institutional authority over creative expression: creative expression is then validated according to the precepts of that authority. And those precepts are nowhere more evident than in the question, “Where is the next genius coming from?” or “Where do we go after Coltrane?”

Later in the essay, Goodheart explains that those questions belong to a panel discussion, “Jazz: Setting a New Standard—Coltrane, Bird and Beyond,” hosted by Conyers, and apparently presented on his Web site back in 2001, or perhaps earlier, which Goodheart calls “essentially a discussion on ‘genius.’ ” He notes, “In the whole discussion . . . there is no mention of anyone involved in the type of music Silva creates.”

Wadada Leo Smith: Ten Freedom Summers

May Day TFS RouletteWednesday, May 1, 2013—May Day, i.e., International Workers’ Day in many countries, though not so much here in “classless” America—and, significantly, it’s the first of three nights of Ten Freedom Summers, Leo Smith’s musical odyssey of the civil rights movement, at Roulette in Brooklyn. The massive work, released in 2012 as a four-disc set, has no vocals, no lyrics, but it says everything that needs to be said in its 19 section titles, which start with “Dred Scott: 1857” and end with “Martin Luther King, Jr.: Memphis, the Prophecy.”

The opening night’s music was titled “First Collection: Defining Moments in America,” and I experienced a defining Wadada Leo Smith moment even before the piece began. I had arrived early in order to be assured of a front row-center seat (which allowed me to take the picture seen here with my trusty pocket camera). Well before the musicians took the stage, when the room was still filling up (though it would hardly be a sellout, which is typical for such music), Smith was out front on the floor talking to someone, perhaps, I don’t quite recall, when all of a sudden he was walking the floor, shaking the hand of everyone in the front row, saying hello and thanking us for coming. Although I had a general notion of Smith as an avatar of jazz enlightenment, I was still flabbergasted by this display of solidarity. Smith, 71, surely owes some of his trumpet style to Miles Davis, but I was struck by the contrast with my image of Davis, who was actually nicknamed the Prince of Darkness and permanently slapped with a (possibly undeserved) reputation for turning his back on the audience when he played, in addition to being notorious for a dangerously irascible aloofness that he wore like a hip cloak. And after the concert, which ran in the vicinity of three hours, as I recall, the indefatigable Smith launched into a 20-minute explanation—improvised, of course—of the work’s origins, covering everything from his childhood experience of segregation in Mississippi to the particularities of his compositional style.

Ten Freedom Summers is, in the context of the artistic counter-jazzocracy that inspires Ka-ching, Exhibit A—it’s actually about the very issues that jazzocracy tends to erase. And there’s a perfect term for this counter-jazzocracy, which I owe to the University of Guelph’s Daniel Fischlin and his analysis of Smith’s political project in Criticial Studies in Improvisation: the improvocracy. The improvocracy! This is primarily a political concept—as is jazzocracy, of course—that stands jazzocratic doublespeak on its not so pointy head. As Fischlin says in “Improvocracy” in reference to Smith:

The linkage between mobile forms of creative musicking that attack dominant modes of musical discourse anticipates . . . political reforms that change the structures that “handle” our lives—aesthetic change precedes political change. Improvisation lies at the heart of the drive toward aesthetic change and innovation—without it such change is impossible. . . . In the alternating waves of consonance and dissonance that emerge from the sound of improvocracies lies . . . a radical alternative to corrupt and life-destroying models for conflict resolution.

Fischlin also refers to sociologist John Brown Childs’ Transcommunality: From the Politics of Conversion to the Ethics of Respect, noting that “improvisatory contexts . . . allow for differing identities not based on ethnic difference to come together to explore musical and social meaning”—a “bridging,” according to Fischlin, that is akin to Childs’ “transcommunality.” Childs, in the introduction to his book (see the link above), explains:

In an era rushing toward mindless materialism, propelled by powerful, unfeeling economic syndicates that uproot body and soul, more and more people will seek refuge in compartmentalized forms of social identity. However, the search for safety in such sealed compartments is by itself largely illusory. Fragmented, isolated, and unknowing of, or hostile to, one another, people are more, not less vulnerable to the very forces of destruction from which they seek escape. . . . The real dilemma we face is the lack of constructive and mutually respectful interaction among those diverse settings, rather than diversity itself.

Confronted and often confounded by a crushing, globalizing monoculture that is supported by willing national elites, and imposed from the core regions of economic power, we are not becoming better-connected peoples despite “mass communications.” Instead, we are being broken down into ever more atomized elements, subordinated as mere uncommunicating parts of “mass culture.”

Transcommunality emphasizes, according to Childs,

a constant process of negotiational construction of organization among diverse participants, rather than an imposed monolithic system. Such negotiated action involves the recognition that dispute and difference, sometimes profound, must be accepted as a basic aspect of the “human condition” rather than being constrained through top-down, police-like controls.

Transcommunality, in short, is a universal identity politics. Though there’s no reference to anarchism in Fischlin’s piece or in Childs’ introduction, I think it’s worth noting that improvocracy seems to be grounded in, among other things, basic anarchist doctrine—though it can be a very elusive term, virtually any definition of anarchism in the (very positive) sense in which I’m using it will be founded on principles of voluntary association and non-hierarchical modes of cooperation, which I hope to explore further on this site in relation to free jazz. Similarly, this is hardly the first time, of course, that Smith has produced a masterpiece of improvocracy; he’s been doing this for pretty much his entire career, as will be seen in future posts.