Tag Archives: jazz

Black music – Part I

After a summer break I’ll try and resume posting again. I’ll start with some ruminations about the genre of music closest to me.

As mentioned before, most of my musical activities have revolved around musical genres which can be grouped under a general category of some thing called “Black music”. While Black music is a common nomination for musical cultures with roots in Africa, the notion does raise some questions some of which I’d like to discuss here.

In addition to have been involved with Black music for most of my musical career, there was one particular incident that got me thinking of this notion more broadly and deeply. This happened in a university in Germany where I was presenting my idea for a Master’s thesis about the brass bands in New Orleans. The most discussed topic after my presentation was the notion of Black music and whether it was a racist, discriminating and/or politically correct term.

In my studies I have largely relied on North American literature about the music. My interests have began with the history of jazz and from there to Black music in a more general sense. The choice of literature has also been affected by my language skills as well as the institutional preferences at Musicology department of University of Amsterdam.

The academic discourse about Black music has gone more or less hand-in-hand with the general discourse in terms of terminology. One of the most significant publications on the field Black Music Research Journal began 1980. In the largest online repository of academic publications JSTOR this journal is listed under the topic African American Studies. Among others the list of journals there include Journal of African American History, Black Perspective in Music and the Journal of Negro Education. It’s notable that the first of these was originally called Journal of Negro History (1916-2001) but the last is still in publication using the original name (since 1932).

Thus it seems that the academic community – at least on that side of the bond – is rather heterogeneous in their terminology in this regard. But let’s turn back to music and what this terminology implies in terms of music and musical practices.

Can music be black? – Some musical markers

The notion of “Black music” would seem to indicate that there’s something specific in the music – as a “sound object” – that makes it “black” as opposed to some other colour, i.e. it points at an ethnicity or a race. What could such musical elements be? With the risk of simplifying and essentialising matters, I’m going to use a bit of comparative methodology here.

Revealing my cultural background and point of view I’ll take – rather stereotypically – as a point of comparison the western classical music. The most striking difference between western classical music and most Black music genres is the use of rhythm. The most distinct feature of such contemporary genres as jazz, blues, R&B, reggae, samba, salsa, etc. is their rhythmic character; swing, groove, tumbao, whatever it’s called in a particular genre. One could also argue that the frequent use of pentatonic scales with some unstable “blue notes” is distinct to Black music genres. Harmony has for so long been in the centre of western classical music that it has for a long time been difficult, if not impossible, to do anything new on that area. It could, however, be argued that harmonising the above-mentioned scales and fixing those unstable inflections into chords corresponds with the (Black) aesthetic of the music and results in harmonies – while nothing new on paper – are characteristic to these genres. Blues is a prime example of this as the use of a dominant chord on all degrees (I, IV, V) undermine the conventional function of this chord, resulting in a distinct “blues tonality”.

Each genre also tends to have its characteristic instrumentation; violin strongly implies classical music – although violin or similar instruments have always been used in popular music as well – saxophone or trumpet are often used to signify jazz in e.g. festival posters and album covers, electric guitar and drums refer to pop/rock, and so on and so forth. Performance venues are also markers for genres, albeit broad ones. You don’t have a symphony orchestra playing in a bar or a heavy metal band in a concert hall. Only due to the acoustics of these venues such performances would not be successful, but also in other ways the music would mostly likely seem to be quite “out of place”, in a very literal sense.

I’ll come back to these aspects later when I take the discussion to a more concrete level with some more specific examples.

Music as discourse

So there are some musical and physical, or extra-musical, markers suggestive of a musical genre. But what do these have to do with any sort of racial or ethnic label or claim on music? Quite a lot, in fact. Music, like any other art form, is used to express, communicate, share and live various, more or less specific, socio-cultural experiences. As such these artistic processes are part of the ever continuing discourse about the human condition.

Music has also the benefit, and challenge, of being the most abstract of the art forms. Referentiality or any kind of “meaning” in instrumental music is a very complicated notion and highly malleable depending on various contextual factors. Shortly, it’s quite difficult, if not impossible, to put a finger on the references or “meanings” of a piece of instrumental music. In most cases there are several semantic layers and various possible interpretations.

To call some music “Black” – or any other such label or category – then is to claim that it has some specific relation to a specific group of people. We are, thus, dealing with a discourse about identity with various cultural, social, political, etc. dimensions. And this is essentially a musical discourse; while a lot has been – and will be – said about music in this regard, the really meaningful discourse takes place in the music itself; the ways in which people make and use music. To give this a Heideggerian twist, we cannot perceive/experience music as a “sound object” without our subjective interpretation colouring the experience with connotations and meanings, i.e. there’s no Music (with a capital M) without extra-musical elements and dimensions (begging the question as to whether “extra-musical” is a valid notion).

I’ll leave it at this for now. Next time I’ll take a more concrete approach to the matter and discuss jazz as Black music and the discourse around the topic. I’ll bring along some other, more renown, commentators on the matter and also discuss an aspect I haven’t touched yet: What does the “Black” in Black music actually stand for?

Charlie Haden – Part 1

"Charlie Haden" by Geert Vandepoele from Gent, Belgium - Charlie Haden. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
“Charlie Haden” by Geert Vandepoele from Gent, Belgium – Charlie Haden. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The passing of this great bass player on July 11th brought up some thoughts about studying and making music, I’d like to share with you. I’ll leave the writing of more extensive and well deserved obituaries and tributes to Charlie Haden for those who are better acquainted with his life and career. As my modest tribute to this pioneer of bass I’ll reflect here on my “musical encounter” with him and what it meant for me.

Institutional study of jazz mostly begins with learning the basics of bebop; swinging on one’s instrument, alone as well as in an ensemble, bebop harmonies and building melodic lines on them according to the voice leading principles, repertoire, etc. Why bebop has been chosen as the centre of the jazz universe in the educational institutions has to be discussed another time. However, we have much to be grateful for to Charlie Haden for showing us “the shape of jazz to come”; showing all the wonderful things the music could and can be – whether one would call it jazz or something else.

To me this world began open when my bass teacher of the time Ari-Pekka Anttila gave me a tip to check out the then fresh duo album of Charlie Haden and Pat Metheny Beyond the Missouri Sky (1997). 15 years later that album continues to touch me and has now become part of the “soundtrack of my life” bringing back many memories. I’m also happy to have had the chance to see the maestro playing live once on his tour with Pat Metheny in 2003.

I’d suggest you to go ahead and listen to the following track at this point. Below I’ll say a few words about this track, how I hear it and what it has meant to me, but I’d recommend you to listen to it first so you’re not “primed” by my views of it. You’re then able to compare your own experience of it with mine and see/hear for yourself whether you agree with me or find my description useful in any way.

Our Spanish Love Song

Charlie Haden is the bass player who stays down low, who plays only the notes that are necessary. He is quiet, in a sense, even as he has a resonant sound, a singing, distinctive tone that speaks of the wood of the instrument, the flesh of his fingers on the strings, the intelligence of man who is thinking his way though the songs he plays and the humanity of a man who can hear the lyrics in his heart with every measure. Will Layman (PopMatters.com)

When I play, it’s very important to me to bring out the wood – like the tree – of the bass. I like to sound like a rainforest. Charlie Haden

Musically the lesson I was trying to learn from Haden was to say what I had to say with less notes. I find the duo performances with Haden and Metheny very effective in driving that point home. Pat Metheny is a master of playing long, elaborate, melodic lines. Forming a continuous flow these lines draw a firework-like picture rich in colours and details in dynamics, timing and harmony for the keen ear to pick up. Charlie Haden, on the hand, plays a few carefully chosen notes executed with equal mastery, cherishing every note, every stroke of his musical brush, embracing the very touch of the canvas, the creation of a musical space for the audience who is invited to share it with him. This is the musical being-in-the-world in a Heideggerian sense I’ve talked about before.

Our Spanish Love Song, from the above-mentioned album you’ve just heard is a great example of what I’m trying to say here; as well as a tune I spent a lot of time studying in attempt to emulate Haden’s approach. The bass solo in the studio version is nothing short of haunting in its beauty and simplicity. The ascending melodic line breaths through the harmonies of the song, marking the changes and building up the tension towards the last part of the form where he resolves it with some arpeggios on the finishing cadence of the form.

In short, Haden has taught me much about the sound of the instrument and the effective use of it in self expression in a way that is economic rather than flashy, and emotional rather than “academic”.  My first teacher at the Conservatory of Amsterdam Arnold Dooyewerd also helped me a great deal in this search,  more specifically advising me to try and bring forth the “Spanish” in this song.

The closest I got in my own playing to realising the lessons from Haden, in my opinion,  can be heard on Rauhaton Rinta from the Finnish-Dutch group Aina.

Rauhaton Rinta from Aina – Leino (2005).  Composition by Izak Boom, lyrics by Eino Leino

When I first began writing this post I could only think of the above-mentioned duo album with Pat Metheny that I really know of Charlie Haden. But while browsing YouTube for his music I was reminded of three other albums on my shelf he plays on.  See Part 2 for my thoughts about/around those albums.

Music(ology)

As already mentioned, my background in music is practical as well as academic. Since both of these approaches to music are going to be apparent in my writing here, I’ll try and open up my thinking a bit here so that you know where I’m coming from with my ideas about music.

Musical practice

With the practical side I basically mean making music; practising an instrument, rehearsing and performing, many hours on daily basis for several years. That kind of engagement with music results in a quite specific experience of music as the pragmatic questions are never far from one’s mind, even when just listening to music.

 

No music no life
No music no life

Musicology

Academic study of music, however, may in principle take up any angle to music one can possibly think of. Musicology, as the discipline is called, has various sub-disciplines studying music as e.g. physical, biological, psychological, cultural, social, historical, political, economical or legal phenomenon, just to name a few – and often various combinations of these and other approaches. To put a kind of Heideggerian phenomenological frame to it, musicology reveals, discovers and studies the multiple dimensions of music as a way of being-in-the-world, music as a human activity through which we engage with the world around us.

Treme Sidewalk Steppers 2ndline February 6th 2011
Treme Sidewalk Steppers 2ndline February 6th 2011

Music as cultural phenomenon

My interest in music has for a while been mostly as a cultural and social phenomenon. Many of the other dimensions, however, are more often than not integrated into the previous. A good example of this is the New Orleans brass band tradition I did my last larger study on. While springing from the aspiration of social upheaval of the late 19th century Creole and black New Orleanians, the brass bands and music of these groups quickly became vehicles for political and economical advancements as well. And being an outdoor practice the musics physical, acoustic characteristics (read: loud) were very consciously used to underline and drive home the music’s complex message. Although much has also changed with these practices, most of this still holds for the 21st century post-Katrina New Orleans brass band music as well.

I hope this opens up my thinking a bit and helps you follow my line of thought in the posts here. And of course any and all questions/ideas/comments are welcome.  Stay tuned!

Cheers,  Mikko