Monday, October 19, 2009

critical massage 4

anyone who has checked in here recently will probably know that i was hoping to get writing again... and you can see how well that worked out... generally i have little or no free time during the days, and by the evenings i am often unable to summon up the desire to write (or do anything much requiring brainpower). not quite sure when that problem might resolve itself... but one thing i have been doing - and not before time - is reading george lewis' excellent book on the aacm, a power stronger than itself. not surprisingly, any number of fascinating points are raised in this book (i'm about halfway through it at the moment). there's a couple of things i want to single out here.

the first one concerns the whole question of negative attitudes towards free (-spirited) music displayed by the critical fraternity over the years, and specifically in the late '50s and early-mid '60s (by the end of that decade, things apparently had evened out somewhat - though this was something of a false dawn, in that the '70s saw creative musicians pushed ever further into the margins, and to the verge of penury). of course, i knew about leonard feather's blindfold tests - though lewis' book makes it abundantly clear to what extent feather used these to push his own personal prejudices regarding "legitimate" musical approaches - and i knew about john tynan's notorious "anti-jazz" attack on coltrane and dolphy in 1961; but chapter 2 of a power... really goes into all this in disgraceful detail: that is, the (uniformly white, middle-class) critics under scrutiny here emerge in disgrace. their sheer arrogance is breathtaking. clearly, they felt that they understood "jazz" better than the musicians who played it, who created it; more than that, even, they seem to have felt that by setting themselves up as arbiters elegantiae for the music, they owned it in some way, and were therefore entitled to express outrage whenever they felt that some newcomer had "broken the rules". it makes grim reading, particularly so as it's hard to doubt that there was an undeclared racial prejudice at work: lewis tells us (ch. 4, p. 87) that as late as 1966, down beat was giving far more attention to the (white) joe daley trio than to any local black musicians, even going so far as to label them "the city's foremost 'new thing' group" (the new thing itself having been, of course, widely lambasted by these same critics when it was originally introduced... by black musicians). the fact that such blatant cultural favouritism was being indulged (at a time when the south side of chicago was seething with activity) is made still worse by the fact that down beat was itself based in chicago - !

[at least i am far from being the first to comment on this stuff - lewis wasn't either: he points out (ch. 2 again) that ekkehard jost has been scathing of (what we might politely call) the highly conservative views of many american critics during this period; and in fact down beat's own wilful ignorance of what was happening in its own backyard in 1966 had not gone unnoticed even then - the canadian magazine coda had commented on precisely that.]

the actual extent of any racially-motivated elitism in all this is impossible to gauge, as the issue is of course highly complicated. as lewis makes clear, the whole point about the blindfold tests around this time was that feather was able to use them to voice his own reactionary views, without sticking his own head above the parapet: indeed, in getting black musicians to say what he thought, he also pre-empted any possible accusations of racism. and there were black musicians who disapproved of many of the new approaches, as we know, and perhaps the most strident of them - miles davis - was (therefore) called upon more often than most to put the new thing in its place. never afraid to speak his mind (especially if it might offend someone), miles was also known to detest most critics, and to be (shall we say) rather ambivalent towards whites at the best of times; from feather's point of view, who better to have on your side in this sort of argument? almost certainly, lester bowie had davis in mind when he wrote that, from the perspective of the power-brokers, "musicians... must be made to discourage rather than encourage their fellow musicians' needs, desires and right to play. this is accomplished by several means; by far, the most effective means is to take the few (very few) negative cats and make them big STARS." *1 - it would be interesting to know who else besides davis was being alluded to here; lewis himself discreetly avoids speculating on this, but in referring to bowie's screed as "uncommonly prescient", he cleverly points us towards another notorious motormouth, wynton marsalis, who has (as we all know) done more than anyone to attempt to erase the free players from musical history. *2

* * *

just briefly, then, the second point i wanted to mention concerns the rivalry which is supposed to have existed between anthony braxton and roscoe mitchell. in chapter seven - which i am still reading - this is addressed when it comes to examining the events which took chicago's avant-garde to paris. leroy jenkins (who cannot now be asked about it) had it that "the art ensemble was very competitive, always have been" and that b. "was very competitive too, especially with roscoe". on the other hand, lewis tells us in a footnote that b. has it differently: "the so-called rivalry between me and roscoe mitchell is non-existent". this chapter makes very interesting reading, but i'm not going into any of this now... the issue of rivalry, or the lack of it, between the two saxophone masters is one which i will look at when i eventually get to mitchell's duets with anthony braxton in the braxtothon... don't hold your breath, bearing in mind i still haven't actually wrapped up phase four yet, but this landmark recording will kick off phase five.

* see comments.