Tag Archives: Leroy Jones

Multimediality

Approaching arts – and human experience in general – from the perspective of multimediality can be fruitful in opening different ways of understanding these experiences. We perceive the world first through our bodily senses and then construct various understandings and experiences of this sensory data through complex cognitive processes. While much of these experiences are non-conceptual I will here discuss mostly the ways in which music is conceptualised by using terminology from other artistic media. I. e we understand – or communicate our understandings of – music using words originally, or more often, used to describe other artistic media or realms of human experience.

Multimediality in music begins with one of the oldest ways of music-making; singing.  Although, as discussed before, singing may actually have preceded language and been a sort of “protolanguage”, singing as we usually think of it includes text, lyrics.

Performance of music is always multimedial.
Performance of music is always multimedial.

Intermediality and intertextuality

Multimediality cannot really be discussed without also addressing some neighbouring terms. Intertextuality became hip in the academic discussions of arts since at least in 1980s. It’s a helpful tool in analysing and understanding the ways in which meanings are created in multifaceted ways by various techniques such as quotation or some sort of reference. As discussed before, these techniques have been central to black American music-making since the times of slavery to the contemporary hip-hop.

Intertextuality tends to fall short when applied to performing arts. While there are certain benefits in reducing everything to “texts”, two dimensional layers of meaning, this comes with a cost when studying music as a performative phenomenon, e.g. through Christopher Small’s “musicking”. Multimedality is a more helpful concept in helping us study and understand how different artistic media are used, and can be used, to reflect and create rich human experiences by drawing from the tools and strengths of the different media in our disposal.

Multimediality in music

Multimediality in music is an old idea as music has always been a part of some “extramusical” performance or context such as a ritual. In fact “pure” music is one of those 19th century Romantic ideas still to some extent holding our experience of music captive. But more about that another time.

The gesamtkunstwerk of Richard Wagner‘s opera remain perhaps the most iconic examples of effort to bring all the art forms together. Whereas Wagner’s operatic works might stand as the ultimate artistic expression of modernity, the 21st century post-modern artists produce more fragmented works.

Whereas black American music has got from the cotton fields to White House (see below), western Classical music is now performed by native orchestras and singers all over the world – here also conducted by a woman, something which in Wagner’s time was quite unthinkable. Multimediality here includes also video projections and TV production.

Earlier I discussed how Jacob Collier presents his multifaceted talent in his YouTube videos and how Janelle Monáe implies multiple – or perhaps fragmented – identities in her performances of the song Tightrope with means of music production, the “music itself” (e.g. melody, harmony, groove), lyrics, video, live performance, etc. The Dutch group Tin Men and the Telephone is also a very interesting example of musical art that draws from multiple media in a very interactive way on and off stage.

Janelle Monáe’s performance in the White House by Barak Obama’s invitation has various multimedial layers. As discussed earlier, her performance style is rich in references to other black American artists, perhaps most notably in the James Brown steps in her dance moves. In this performance the “Funkiest horn section of Metropolis” becomes that of White House, opening up a myriad of interpretations.

Here’s Jacob Collier embracing the social medium of music making in a contemporary digital manner enabling music-making together across temporal and spacial boundaries.

Tin Men and the Telephone do various things with different media from “musicalising” recorded speech and other sounds to typing with the piano keyboard and collaboration with their audience through a special app.

Music in literature – Toni Morrrison’s Jazz

One interesting form of multimediality is that of music in literature; the use of description of music in literature and use of musical techniques in writing. Describing music in words requires quite an effort from the writer and reader alike to convey and share an artistic experience across the media. To describe art of one medium with the means of another requires sharing cultural understanding on a deep level and the ability to imagine, in this case, music described with words.

When I first tried to read Toni Morrison’s Jazz, in the age of around 15 or soI  expected it to be “about jazz”. I didn’t understand much about it and quickly gave up.

Jazz by Toni Morrison, 1st edition cover

Recently I picked up the book again and was better able to appreciate the ways in which Morrison took jazz as a metaphor and method and used its compositional and performative techniques to tell the story of her book.

Like a jazz performance the book has a main theme, a story it wants to tell. However, the main characters are also given “solo spots” to elaborate on their personal stories giving depth to the main story and enabling the reader to approach – perhaps even experience – the story from the individual perspectives of the characters; much like in jazz performance the “tune” is approached differently by each of the soloists.

Jazz in Morrison’s book is also a metaphor for the black American struggle and experience. As briefly discussed before, jazz has come a long way from an unappreciated folk music symbolising the worst of human kind – even among some black Americans – to be heralded as the “American Classical music”. Whereas Amiri Baraka in his Blues People elaborated on the idea of “music as the history of black Americans”, Morrison gives the bones of this history the flesh of her characters.

Amiri Baraka’s Blues People elaborates on the idea of music as the history of black Americans.

At the time I’m typing this the first black American president has just stepped aside to make space for another yet white male, one whose rhetoric and first deeds clearly show how the struggle for human rights is far from over. Morrison’s story takes place in a period prior to the Civil Rights era when many – as some of the characters in the book – still had vivid personal memories of the Jim Crow treatment of blacks.

Music and visual arts

The painting on top of this article is the Garden of Earthly Pleasures by Hieronymus Bosch from 1500.  As sound is difficult to picture music in visual arts is mainly pictured through instruments and musical acts such as dancing and singing. Bosch’s painting is a classic one portraying music as a sinful – or at least not respectable – activity through placing some instruments of the time together with people busy with Earthly orgies.

The pianist Bill Evans wrote liner notes for the 1959 Miles Davis quintet album Kind of Blue, I’ve also discussed earlier. In his text Evans makes an analogy between the Japanese calligraphy shodō and jazz improvisation. He stresses the temporal nature of both media; just as the stroke of a brush leaves its mark on the paper and cannot be undone or altered, a musical sound cannot be taken back. Further challenge in jazz improvisation is the group setting in which it most often happens; there are in fact many “brushes” making strokes simultaneously to the “canvas” of temporal framework set, in this case, by Miles Davis.

Black music – Part IIa

Next I’d like to discuss Black music in light of some debates around jazz and whether it should be considered Black music or not, and why. Jazz has been in the centre of my activities for the most of my musically active life, whether playing, writing, studying or listening to and I’ve learned to approach it from various angles.

The discussion around jazz as Black music (or not) is mostly a North American discourse and I’ll focus on it here as such. The music, of course, has been played around the world since nearly a century now, and there’s been much attention to jazz as global and national phenomena outside United States. As race, however, is a social construct I’ll stay here within the North American context in which race, unfortunately, continues to be a heavily debated matter.

Categories

To put the debates around jazz into perspective it might be helpful to understand “jazz” as a name for a category, or several categories in fact. Depending on how one sees, or hears, jazz it can be a musical, commercial, artistic, racial, social, cultural or political category, just to name a few. As I hope to illustrate here, as a musical practice jazz, like any music, is simultaneously all of the above, even if we might attempt to isolate or highlight one aspect at a time for discussion.

As discussed in the previous part, we can try to establish criteria for jazz as a musical category by defining its constituent elements. The first jazz critics in the first half of the 20th century such as Hugues Panassié, André Hodeir and Winthrop Sargeant talked about “hot jazz” and “real jazz”, referring to musical expression arising from black folk music. It was seen as an “authentic” art form in contrast with other commercialised forms of music, which others – mistakenly, according to this view – called jazz. Such views are today considered primitivistic; placing the value of the music as a socio-cultural practice in it’s “authenticity” as primitive folk expression attempts to “freeze” the music, and its practitioners, into that socio-cultural – and by implication, economical and political – state.

This was rather typical thinking of the time when the “other” and its culture was measured against Western European standards. The post-World War II post-colonial thinking has shown the oppressiveness of such thinking but unfortunately some romanticised notions of e.g. jazz’s spontaneity and “freedom” still echo the above-discussed primitivism.

Tradition

Characteristic to the jazz historical discourse of the early 20th century (and much of the later one as well) is that it attempts to construct a musical tradition similar to that of European Classical music; a narrative of a progressive evolution of a music neatly divided into stylistic periods and highlighted with masters and major innovators. Thus we get a story of jazz from Africa to Congo Square to Chicago to New York and from e.g. Buddy Bolden to Louis Armstrong to Duke Ellington to Charlie Parker to Miles Davis with various forks to the tree of jazz history, but still maintaining a comprehensible linearity. In this narrative jazz progresses from a primitive folk music towards “higher” forms of art music. It could be said to have reached its climax when in the 1980s it was declared “rare and valuable national American treasure” by the U.S Congress and “American Classical music” by the jazz scholar and musician Billy Taylor (here’s a counter argument to Taylor).

Such histories tend to aestheticise musical tradition by removing the human from the equation; music evolves as a creature of its own without human (socio-cultural) agency. History becomes a list of the above-mentioned markers and highlights which don’t really help us understand the socio-cultural-economic-political conditions affecting – but not causing – these developments. I say “not causing” because although the fore-mentioned conditions may drive change in musical practices they cannot explain the particular change that occurs, i.e. (musical) change can (and mostly will) take many paths, even when the practitioners live in similar conditions.

What I find most disturbing in the narratives of jazz history and the way they construct a jazz tradition is that they are based an aesthetic criteria set by the historians and the music industry – the former being part of the latter, in a way – and not the musicians or the music-listening public. In many such narratives jazz history “ends” with John Coltrane’s death in 1967 or with the fusion jazz of the 70s (see e.g. this documentary) as later music cannot be fit into their aesthetic framework.

But musicians still continue to play jazz in ways that pays homage to the tradition but refuses to be bound by it. The best examples of this I’ve found in New Orleans where people like Leroy Jones and brass bands such as the Rebirth Brass Band, Hot 8 and the Stooges Brass Band continue to make music deeply rooted in the city’s rich musical tradition while still being relevant to contemporary audiences at home and elsewhere – and they’re proud to call their music jazz.

Is jazz Black music?

In 2001 the San Francisco Jazz Organization arranged a panel discussion titled “Jazz and Race: Black, White and Beyond”. The panel consisted of representatives of musicians (Steve Coleman), authors (e.g. Nat Hentoff), academics (Dr. Angela Y. Davis) and the music industry (Blue Note records president Bruce Lundvall). I’d also like to bring up here some of the thoughts on the topic by the New Orleanian trumpeter Nicholas Payton.

Jazz in these discussions is mostly discussed as an art historical category – a historically constructed music genre – and a commercial category – a “brand name” for a product to be sold by record companies and promoted by music event organisers.

I find it quite telling of the nature of the discourse that the panel discussion revolves much around jazz musicians of the past. References to jazz history are made to defend positions of jazz as Black music based on a view that the “originators” of the music were black; or a more “shaded” view in which the roles of the many white musicians are highlighted.

Dr. Angela Y. Davis also points out that in racial terms the matter is not “black and white”; e.g. many Latin American musicians have also significantly contributed to the music. In this regard one should also think back to Jelly Roll Morton‘s notion of a “Spanish tinge” and e.g. Dizzy Gillespie‘s Afro-Cuban co-operations.

On the same token – but still staying within the North American context – one might also think of the contributions of black musicians to other genres, be it western art music, various Latin American influenced styles or popular music. My point, as you might have guessed, is that these claims for “ethnic ownership” of music are hard to back up factually, partly because music as a “thing” is difficult to contain within any categorical boundaries, but also because these “facts” are formed around problematic notions such as “origin” and “authenticity”. These remain, however, passionately felt ideas that cannot – and shouldn’t – be neglected, nor taken for granted.

Music in commercial and social spaces

Another much debated topic among the panellists is the distribution of labour – to call up a Marxist term here – within music industry. Saxophonist Steven Coleman speaks of the common perception among black musicians, as well as his own experience, that white musicians often end up doing better than their black colleagues after an “inter-racial” collaboration. He also claims that black musicians don’t receive as much attention and marketing effort from record labels as white musicians. Bruce Lundvall is quick to dismiss this claim.

The issue Coleman brings up tabs into a longer debate about Black music in the United States. For instance Charles Keil and Amiri Baraka wrote already in the 1960s of the trend of every successive Black music style being co-opted and made commercially successful by white musicians. In this discourse music has a significant counter-hegemonic force as black musicians response to this exploitation by inventing yet new styles.

My visit to New Orleans confirmed the feeling I had had regarding this kind of power-struggle in relation to black music, as music there seemed to mean so much more to people than anywhere else I had been to. As Nicholas Payton has said: “New Orleans was and still is home to some of the most talented musicians in the world. There is a strong social aesthetic in the music there. It’s all about the people… It’s all about life, never about music”. I.e. music is being made mainly for (communally) internal reasons instead of external ones. Music can be a means to a strong communal – as well as individual – identity which helps dealing with many kinds of external pressures.

While this might at first sound a bit like the primitivism discussed above, my point is that music making is a social process; made by musicians living in communities with specific “social aesthetics”. Music industry, by definition, aims at producing music that bypasses such specific social values. In the process it often flattens – or compresses, if you’d prefer a more adept term – the music to something quite generic; something it’s able to sell to people who only share some general – and not necessarily musical – aesthetics.

The innovations, however, come from the musicians, not from the industry. Or as Nicholas Payton puts it: “The industry can’t move the music forward, the musicians have to do that… The industry’s success is based on the artists, not the other way around”.

I’ll leave it at this for now. Next time I’ll discuss a specific moment in jazz history some view as a “game changer” while others view it as the “end” of jazz. Below a teaser as well as further discussion on the topic discussed here: