Read: David Ake’s “Jazz Matters”

 

 

“Truth
is really a series of possibilities”: jazz scholar and educator Ake examines
myriad possibilities in his excellent second book, published this month by the University of California Press.

 

By Steve Pick

 

On the one hand, jazz is a serious enough matter that the
subtitle of the book is Sound, Place, and
Time Since Bebop
(University of California Press), evoking the kind of
scholarly discourse that just might scare away potential readers who don’t
happen to hold PhD’s in music or art. But then again, there is a whole chapter
on the accidental squeak of a chair during a particular Miles Davis recording
session, and another on the role of carnivalesque expression in certain strains
of jazz. Jazz is something that is “played,” and therefore playful, though not
all the time. If there is one thing David Ake is very careful to point out
again and again inside his second book, Jazz
Matters
, it’s that nothing holds true for every jazz musician in every
place at every time.

 

Ake’s first book, Jazz
Cultures
, was a series of diverging essays on subjects like jazz traditions
and the changing roles of standards in jazz, or the relationship between the
ways performers act in public and on stage, and the level of seriousness with
which they are taken by listeners to their music. Jazz Matters hops around once again, veering from extremely close
studies of individual pieces of music to broad generalizations of whole social
strata relating to the music. Ake’s interests are too broad to coalesce into
any single theme or approach, but he does display his ability to think deeply
about so many different ways in which jazz exists. As a result, he achieves the
aim he describes in the introduction to show that the geographical, cultural,
and stylistic sounds and meanings of what is so simply called jazz are beyond
the scope of any one viewpoint to express.

 

Ake writes of arguably one of the greatest, most
recognizable jazz icons, John Coltrane, with a fresh way of approaching the
music he left over what was little more than a dozen years of the prime of his
career. Coltrane’s music divides itself into three distinct periods which Ake
refers to as “being” music, “becoming” music, and “transcending” music.
Whenever Ake focuses on anything specific, he means for them to refer to much
more than the subject at hand. While Ake refers to bebop as the quintessential
example of “being” music, wherein “parameters such as dynamics, dissonance, and
tempo remain more or less fixed from beginning to end,” it takes little effort
to realize he’s also describing many strains of rock’n’roll, most notably punk
and heavy metal. Ake likes to point out that in bebop, it’s possible to
transpose different choruses of a solo, putting the third chorus first and the
first third, for example, without changing the overall effect. Couldn’t the
same thing be said of any of the lyrics to “Blitzkrieg Bop,” for example?

 

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, as Ake points out
that “establishing and maintaining a consistent groove energizes body and
soul.” For that matter, hip-hop, at least in its early stages, extended this concept
further, when DJs began mixing and eventually looping samples of static
sections of older music into much longer and even less changing rhythm
backings. This approach to music obviously works more than well enough.

 

But it wasn’t enough for Coltrane, who pushed onto something
else with what Ake calls “becoming” music. Here, each section of the music
under consideration moves out of what has gone before, and nothing can be moved
to another section of the performance without changing the meaning, often beyond
comprehension. Ake’s particular example here is that of “Afro-Blue,” the 1963
classic recording by John Coltrane’s most famous quartet of the Mongo
Santamaria tune. In fact, here Ake describes Coltrane performing a heroic
function in the context of the piece, undergoing a “departure, transformation
through struggle, and return” as certain as that of Odysseus. Not all
“becoming” music requires heroism, but there is movement in the course of the
work. Ake refers us to the Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” for a non-jazz
example, but he could have easily used work by King Crimson, Metallica, Sufjan
Stevens, or the Arcade Fire to show what is gained by foregoing the being
approach and having music go from one place to another.

 

Coltrane fans are divided into those who followed him down
the next path he took, and those who forgave him for experimenting because they
loved the previous work so much. But for Ake, the movement past the individual
being or becoming into a role outside the ego and into something bigger than
what anyone person should be able to achieve. Coltrane’s “Ascension,” cited by
Ake, is not music which sticks to anything like a groove, or music which flows
from one place to another in an obviously logical manner. Instead, it is the
sound of a group of musicians making decisions which expand the expression of
any one person at any one time; here, the music becomes something beyond easy
description, a massive growth of sound which feels something like floating into
realms beyond everyday reality. Ake doesn’t use the word, but Coltrane et al are chasing the sublime in work
like this. There are those who argue that rock bands such as Santana or Black
Flag or Jimi Hendrix approached this sort of thing, though as a general rule,
most rock seeking to transcend has difficulty supplanting the performer’s ego,
thus making a hybrid of being or becoming with transcending that manages to at
least put the mystic world on the table.

 

After all this, Ake spends a chapter discussing a single
creak of a single chair resulting most likely from a single unidentified
musician shifting his weight during the recording of a single piece, “Old
Folks,” for the Miles Davis album Someday
My Prince Will Come
. Damned if Ake doesn’t make such a seemingly trivial
moment signify a lot more than meets the ear – honestly, it’s possible to have
never noticed this sound, though impossible to avoid thinking about it once
reading this piece. Ake’s chapter on the carnivalesque in jazz focuses on the
relatively obscure band Sex Mob, but could just have easily described works by
the Art Ensemble of Chicago or the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. The latter once
opened a four-night stand in an upscale jazz club with the words, “They tell me
this is a class joint. We’re here to change all that.” While Ake loves to
acknowledge a diversity of approaches to jazz, it’s pretty clear his sympathies
lie at least somewhat closer to those who maintain a clear connection to the
body in the music, and somewhat further from those who aspire to “higher” class
roles.

 

A chapter on Keith Jarrett and Pat Metheny offers the most
intriguing look at these two hugely successful jazz superstars of the ‘70s who
rarely received much status in histories of jazz. Ake identifies a pastoral
approach (similar to that of their contemporary Bill Frisell who avoided the
big money of the ‘70s and won much greater critical acclaim in the ‘80s) which
unites these two in a way not immediately obvious. After reading this chapter,
a rush of rethinking can be expected of what may have been dismissed as
commercial and uninteresting.

 

The last two chapters are more purely sociological. Ake, a
university jazz educator himself, is naturally highly concerned with convincing
those off campus to consider the university as a central place in today’s jazz
world. He makes good arguments in a general sense, but the failure to bring up
enough specific examples here points to one of the most obvious reasons jazz
fans don’t know much about what goes on with students and teachers. There are
too many of them scattered in too many places, without enough ways of outsiders
being exposed to the music. MySpace is littered with a million rock bands that
can’t be heard by more than a small group of friends and acquaintances; jazz
players have just as many options to offer, though an even smaller pool of
potential listeners. The book ends with a look at contemporary American
expatriate musicians living in Paris,
which opens questions of national identity in regard to music without exploring
enough answers in enough depth to do more than state there are many different
ways that it works.

 

If the last two chapters seem less fulfilling than the first
four, that’s because Ake switches his approach, starting with universals and
working down to specifics instead of starting with specifics which suggest
universals. But each method works well enough to keep questions juggling in the
minds of readers. David Ake doesn’t pretend to stand on a mountaintop and
deliver the Truth about jazz.
Instead, he takes a wider view, showing that the Truth is really a series of
possibilities, each one exciting enough in itself to keep us enthralled by the
music no matter how much we think we know.

 

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