Ben Ratliff's "The Jazz Ear"

A few days ago, the Harvard Lampoon, a semi-secret Sorrento Square social organization that used to occasionally publish a so-called humor magazine, distributed its semesterly parody issue of the Harvard Crimson. Ordinarily, these parodies aren't of too much interest to myself other than being a mystifying attempt at satire, but I had to post this particular story:



Pretty weird, huh? That seems to pretty much be the Lampoon's M.O., but this particular story came to my attention right when I finished Ben Ratliff's The Jazz Ear (2008), collection of narrative interviews conducted between December 2004 and March 2007, which fittingly features its own set of some of the biggest names in jazz: Wayne Shorter (after I mentioned that my page views spiked from my last post, a friend joked that I should put "Fuck Wayne Shorter Alex Hoffman" at the beginning of every post, so here's that), Pat Metheny, Sonny Rollins, Andrew Hill, Ornette Coleman, Maria Schneider, Bob Brookmeyer, Bebo Vald├ęs, Dianne Reeves, Joshua Redman, Hank Jones, Roy Haynes, Paul Motian, Branford Marsalis, and Guillermo Klein. These interviews were done while hanging out, listening to music and talking about what these musicians heard in the recordings (mostly chosen by the musicians being interviewed), and there are plenty of fascinating moments that come from observing what a great musicians chooses to focus on and what he or she chooses not to spend time talking about. 

Some of these bright moments are very brief, like a recollection of Andrew Hill's encounter with Charlie Parker early in his career:
In any case, he [Andrew Hill] and Parker were talking about music, and Hill said that Parker told him this: “I look at melody as rhythm.” A stray comment led to a long preoccupation. 
Other moments that struck me were echoes of sentiments expressed by other musicians—some of whom might not immediately be grouped together in my mind based on their sensibilities, but whose expressed views overlap in interesting ways. For instance, Vijay Iyer mentioned last summer at Banff the necessity of playing music that was first and foremost sustaining to oneself and others, that keeps you going even when times are tough and when you'd be unable to continue doing what you're unless you were playing a particular music (put another way: music out of necessity, music for survival). Interestingly, Maria Schneider points out nearly the same point in describing a trip to Brazil:

During her [Maria Schneider’s] first visit to Rio, she explained, the composer Paolo Moura took her to a rehearsal at the samba school he belongs to, Imperatriz Leopoldinense. Samba-school rehearsals are like organized parties, held in warehouses, at the edge of favela neighborhoods; there are hundreds of percussion instruments playing together. (Once I visited a rehearsal of Mangueira, another Rio samba school; it was the loudest and most provocative sound I had ever heard.) It suggested to Schneider some new ideas about music’s functions.            
“What I love in Brazilian music,” Schneider said, “is that the way they’re singing is sustenance. It’s not about making music either for entertainment or for the conservatory—you know, music is here”—she spread her hands apart—“and your life is here. Life and music are one. The music I love is necessary for life, for survival.             
“Flamenco—it makes living possible. Blues and early jazz—it made living possible. Samba is like alchemy. It turns pain into joy, into magic. My music was very intense and serious and very jazz, even though it was influenced by classical music. But after that, my priorities changed,” she said. “I really didn’t care if my music impressed anybody anymore, or if it was complex.” 
I should add that Ratliff is a very deft writer in delivering the wisdom from these interviews in such compact narrative form; I'll probably end up trying to adapt some of these tricks with interpolating em dashes in between quotes and the like in some upcoming writing I'll be doing for The Crimson. Anyway, the topics and the music listened to in the collection range very widely, which makes for continually surprising reading. At one point, Roy Haynes points out, without doing so explicitly, the way in which many people have started to conflate "swinging hard" with simply "swinging well," rather than differentiating between different kinds of swing for different contexts, which is a subtle but important point:

What are the drummers from Marcus’s [Gilmore’s] generation doing differently from those of yours? I asked Haynes.            
“Oh, they’re doing a lot of stuff different,” he said.          
But what? I pressed. For instance, in the 1940s and ’50s, there was a bottom-line responsibility to swing hard. Is that still as important as it was?          
“That’s a funny word. What did you just say?”           
Responsibility?            
“No, what did you just say after that?”          
To swing hard.            
“No, it wasn’t necessarily to swing hard. I was with Stan Getz for a while, and you know, it wasn’t particularly hard swinging. Sarah, for five years. We did some big-band stuff, too, but it was light. A lot of it was just mellow swinging. I played with Lennie Tristano and Lester Young, who were not exactly hard swingers. Though there were nights,” he considered. “I would say Art Blakey would be more hard. And Elvin Jones maybe would be more hard. So I did that if the situation called for it.” 
There's a real precision and attention to detail here that illustrates partially why Roy Haynes has been so dominant as a figure on the drums, which is that he is so precise and attends very closely to detail—even in the terminology used to describe different approaches to playing the drums. Bob Brookmeyer's interview also stood out to me for his completely unpretentious demeanor and his brief mention of his admiration of Coltrane as a musician but his dissatisfaction with the manifestation of Trane's influence, which is completely on-point as far as I'm concerned:

Back in New York in the early 1980s—which was also when he [Bob Brookmeyer] started his teaching career in earnest—he began to question the entire established language of jazz performance, but especially solos, which he had come to regard as “ritual gone mad.” “My first rule became: the first solo only happens when absolutely nothing else can happen,” he explained. “You don’t write in a solo until you’ve completely exhausted what you have to say. If you give a soloist an open solo for thirty seconds, he plays like he’s coming from the piece that you wrote. Then he says, ‘What the hell was that piece that I was playing from?’ And the next thirty seconds is, ‘Oh, I guess I’ll play what I learned last night.’ And bang! Minute two is whoever he likes. Which is probably Coltrane.” (When Brookmeyer talked about Coltrane, he growled; he admired his musicianship but hated the form his influence took on others.) 
I'll end with one more brief excerpt from the interview with Pat Metheny about the rise of jazz academia. Based on the informality of this blog's style and it's observational rather than analytical approach, I'd feel pretty safe saying that this isn't close to jazz academia, but I'll have to be careful to make sure my own playing doesn't veer that way, either. I like how Metheny summarizes his feelings about the whole thing, which I pretty much completely agree with (although of course not everybody at New School plays like this!):
 He [Metheny] sees creeping academicism in jazz as a calamitous area. Whenever his conversation turns to jazz pedagogy, or when he finds himself speaking to jazz students in a clinic or lecture, he becomes very precise.            
“This [7 Steps to Heaven] is the kind of tune that, you know, if we go down to the New School now”—referring to the institution in New York City that’s been particularly successful at producing young jazz musicians—“we’re going to find fifty guys who can just eat this tune alive, in the way that the jazz education movement has evolved toward.” (He meant that they could play it precisely and even speedily, to the point of glibness.) “But there is not one second in what Miles plays in his solo that has anything to do with any of that. It’s this completely invented language that happens to line up perfectly with all the things we now have quantified in jazz in terms of its language and grammar. It wasn’t quantified then, as it is now, that if you see this kind of chord, you’re going to play this set of notes.            
“We could say the same thing about Coleman Hawkins. You know, they weren’t thinking in those terms. You kind of had to make up your own system.” (What Metheny wasn’t saying is that he made up his own.) 
 If you're looking for some easy-going but insightful reading, I'd highly recommend checking out this collection.

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