Thursday, January 27, 2011

Daniel Bell (1919-2011)

Daniel Bell died yesterday on January 26. A classic(al) New York intellectual, he was one of the few intellectuals to resist pigeonholing. Author of The End Of Ideology and The Cultural Contradictions Of Capitalism, he refused to fall into so many traps into which his peers were almost always thrown. I am most interested in one quote of his in particular which I will reproduce here in its entirety:

"When I had my Bar Mitzvah, I said to the Rabbi, ’ I’ve found the truth. I don’t believe in God… I’m joining the Young People’s Socialist League.’ So he looked at me and said … ‘Kid, you don’t believe in God. Tell me, do you think God cares’?

Actually that is not the quote I had in mind. Sorry. Here is the correct one:

"I am a socialist in economics, a liberal in politics, and a conservative in culture."

He meant by this that in politics he started from the sovereign, inalienable, "individual and not the group", thus liberal in politics. And in economics he thought economic justice a priority, thus socialist though, "not statist". And he was conservative in culture because of respect for "tradition" and a belief that some works of art are better than others, though not that these works necessarily need be elite in status. By conservative he did NOT mean pro-capitalist, anti-abortion, or Republican.

The world will be a poorer place without Daniel Bell.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Memoirs of the 1970s Part 12: Literature and a Nod to Hal Ashby

I don't remember the exact year, but it must have been in the very late 1970s, when I was milling around the B Dalton, or The Paperback Shack at the local mall (in between visits to the Record Shack or the Slack Shack, or Pops and Suds, Spencer Gifts, Smoke and Snuff, Peaches Records and best of all, The Haircutting Place which was an all wood panelled shack where two people would cut your hair: a beautiful blonde who was a double for Chery Tiegs and a tall man in a white leisure suit a full mane of feathered hair, a beard, Foster Grants and an oversized panama hat in some kind of plastic complete with a feather). I picked up a book by one Jerzy Kosinski and asked my friend Greg who worked at the bookseller (in keeping with my habit of having friends far younger and older than my own age) if it was any good. It was called Being There.

(A couple of years later it was made into one of the few decent films from any novel, by my favorite Hal Ashby, complete with Peter Sellers, Shirley Maclaine and others. Below is a great anecdote from the production history of the film).

What is perfectly appropriate and fitting is that I was a child reading an adult novel, indeed one with sexual matters discussed within but that had at the center a protagonist who was an adult man who was nevertheless developmentally stuck at a child's stage. (Wonderfully, as in all good art Chance's condition is never defined or conceptualized - before the age of medical labels like aspergers and so on). In keeping with the feeling of the period Chance's simplicity is thought to be the result of culture and experience since all he knows was what he saw on television, being isolated and holed up in a wealthy estate, where all he had trained to do was take care of the garden, yet apparently never had occasion to actually leave the estate.

The most important face about my reading of a novel, written for adults in a most adult sensibility (in contrast to today's popular and even fine arts where the sensibility is child-like though the content is often adult, and not good child-like as in Wordsworth and Stevenson, but a bankrupt or beneath bargain basement conception of the child), and featuring a childlike adult protagonist is that this novel had a seal of approval by none other than my all too brief principal at the time. Before all the awful teachers and administrators took over in the middle of the year there was a short-lived principal of character, decency and learning who would take me aside in this sort of free school (NOT the one that was outdoorsy, but some other one that was in the end far worse. At about a school a year it is hard for me to reconstruct with complete exactitude or accuracy. But I do have the senses, the impressions, like the ones in this particular blog). This principal was tall, lean, an ex-marine: a pacifist, bearded Principal, wearing boot-cut Levis and Frye boots and a trim beard and with a passion for literature. He took me aside in secret behind closed doors and said:

"This is the ONLY Kozinski novel that I can deem okay for you to read. But you have to promise me something. If you read this novel you are to do a book report on it, for a grade. And in return you have to 'read' something for me. You have to go with your parents to see a movie called One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. It features a great new actor named Jack Nicholson and the movie is about what America is really like and about".

Well I read Being There and went to see Cuckoo's Nest. The movie did have a bit of overheated pathos that was well done, and it gave me a sense of certain themes in American art and ideas about stylized performance and comedy. My principal - let us call him Murphy - told me the keyword was TRICKSTER. "Research that word. What is it?"

Reading the book report over in my adult years I am struck my little I understood this novel. I would write out each character's name and a brief description:

"Chancey Gardener is a very nice man and a good gardener. Eve is a wife of a powerful man, the president of the United States. She is a very nice lady. She wants to love another man because her husband is not physically able to love anymore. Elizabeth is a very nice woman who likes Chance. He likes her too but not in the same way. Mr President is a very nice man who works hard at his job and is misunderstood".....

And so on.

I wish I had read other, better books that year. Not necessarily ones written for kids because I did read those, some in that year, like Are You There God, It's Me Margaret? and Then Again Maybe I Won't, both by Judy Blume. But the kinds of books I later discovered other children were reading, like Treasure Island or even Shakespeare.

The novel is not great. Years later there would controversy surrounding Jerzy Kozinski's status, vis a vis plagiarism and other issues.

The film is better than the novel. Which as we know, is a rare thing indeed.

Here are actors and others in tribute to Hal Ashby's greatness. I should one day write of Shampoo and The Last Detail as well.

Here is the opening of Ashby's film Being There with Peter Sellers.

I can't help but feel there was sartorial inspiration upon me at the young and impressionable age I saw this at the theater. One of the noteworthy things about the film is the Bruce Conner like fashion it uses media and television. The insane anarchy of the imagery makes it so much more interesting than other studio movies and adds so much to the meaning (through the stylistic effects) of what it is to be live in a mediated life. The film, in this sense does not date but is for us in the here and now, in the internet age. Ashby thought about all these things.

Note too Johnny Mandel's piano score, based on Eric Satie, one of two piano scores that are as good as anything written for the concert hall. (The other is David Shire's score for The Conservation).

But this particular blog is not about Hal Ashby or my weird schooling. It is about, in a sense, what it means to read whether it be visual or textual, and how and what we find when we are able to finally read and how we develop as a consequence. Many of my childhood years were spent in from of a television just like Chance in this fiction. I recognized the images in this film yet, because of Ashby's Brechtian style was able to look critically at the imagery. For the first time, through Principal Murphy and this film, I began to criticize and be skeptical of media.

And that is all I have to say for the moment on life or art.

Friday, January 21, 2011

A Few Phrases in Appreciation of Ahmad Jamal

Of all the arts music seems to me the most difficult on which to write. One may think that for me, a jazz pianist and composer, the task might be lightened by my knowledge of and ability to write and perform some of the music that would be discussed. But as the jazz pianist Bill Evans remarked, a sensitive layman may know more about music and be able to judge it better than a professional. Ideally a critic should be that sensitive layman.

Also I am often disappointed and weary by much of music criticism. On the one hand it is too sociological, too concerned with a musician's ancestry and what he had for breakfast and what, if any, drugs were taken. On the other hand the criticism writes about music as if music were but a symbol or code for something unmusical. I aim to correct these trends in a few brief phrases on Ahmad Jamal. I hope to create not a mere impressionist criticism, with vague adjectives, nor a technical or cultural criticism with emphasis on biography, politics, or musical theory, but something akin to the aesthetic values that merit a close reading of the artist in question.

Firstly, some general words about Jamal. At eighty years old, and after the recent deaths in the past couple of years of Hank Jones and Oscar Peterson, Jamal is one of the last living masters of the jazz piano, in particular the piano trio form, still working. Jamal can generally be described as working in a modern post-bop style that developed in the fifties and sixties. He will often play standards with somewhat familiar ways of groove making from a bassist and drummer. He had popular hits in the fifties with Israel Crosby on bass and Vernel Fournier on drums, the biggest probably his recording of Poinciana.

But to mention those general signposts is to miss what is really exceptional about Jamal.

Jamal is one of those rarest of jazz artists who is sui generis. This places him in the canonical company of figures like Charlie Parker.

To talk about Ahmad Jamal is to talk seriously about the eternal musician's dream of having a sound that is truly one's own.
Although he works in traditional tonality, with steady grooves of swing, funk or Latin, and though his work bears resemblance at times to rather commercial genres - to the point where some of his music might fit into even a "smooth jazz" format - Jamal, to my ears, is the one of a handful of pianists to have developed an approach to phrasing and motivic development such that I can readily identify him after a few notes of a single bar, in seconds.

It is not so much production of tone itself that makes Jamal so immediately identifiable (tone being a clear identity from so many jazz greats from Miles Davis to Coltrane and Keith Jarrett) but his wildness of phrasing.

Jamal will work figures from all walks of musical life into his improvisations: so heavy with quotations and allusions from the popular to the classical, so abrupt is his approach to musical line, that he can be considered a cubist in jazz. He is doing in jazz something akin to Picasso or Kurt Schwitters in visual art, or closer to home, he is like the Charles Ives of jazz piano.

Like Herbie Hancock, but of a prior generation, Ahmad Jamal's interest is in what Hancock called "controlled freedom", that is, in using an Avant-Garde approach in the context of tonality rather than atonality and regular rather than destabilized form: an Avant-Garde attitude in a decidedly non-avant-garde setting. There is no essential deviation from underlying form yet what is on top is pure deviation, full of bluster, wit, and droll repartee. This interest in keeping with underlying form but deviating in the process is a uniquely American contribution to arts and letters. I find it in literature, in Walt Whitman and Thomas Pynchon, in American Feminist art especially where narration is all important but the point of view is ever so slightly shifted, and in the cinema of John Cassavetes and American neo-realists like Robert Kramer or Hal Ashby. And there are many other examples.

And from African-Americans we have jazz as a most shining example of the principle. In American modernism you will always have a narrative and dramatic conflict but it will be disguised and delayed in all sorts of ways. Like tonality in music, what you less often find, is an outright dismissal or destruction of, say, narrative altogether.

There is nothing Jamal plays that is not worked out from a repertoire of perhaps finite material. But, and this is the important matter, it seems infinite because one never knows which tune Jamal will pick and at which moment. Unlike Hancock, Jamal is not primarily interested in the long, chromatically complex line, but rather orchestral passages more akin to traditional popular solo piano playing or swing and R&B bands from an earlier time. Duke Ellington comes to mind, who had a similar interest in arpeggios and popular tropes. (It is noteworthy that detractors of Jamal liken him to a lounge pianist.) Of course the same was said about Bill Evans). If Jamal does uses chromaticism he will, play, abruptly and most straightforwardly, a chromatic scale, as can be heard below. However anyone doubting that Jamal is a master of melodic line as much as orchestral collage should listen in particular to his solo on "All The Things You Are" on Chicago Revisted: Live At Joe Segal's. It is so lyrical and so subtle and so lengthy line, one might mistake it for a passage of Keith Jarrett's!

James Commack, his current masterful bassist, told me that playing with Jamal is like a combination of playing in a rock jam band like the Grateful Dead and playing with a great string quartet. Ears have to be open because a listener literally does not know from measure to measure which one of those surprise attacks or figures Jamal will pull out of the keyboard. There is a great deal of planning here: Jamal has said he has worked arranged chords from the chordal root up rather precisely, and yet there is the greatest freedom. The resultant effect is of a jazz music that is more full of joy than in anybody else I can think of, and, given the wildness of Jamal's changes from measure to measure, a sense of anarchic comedy akin to the energy of The Marx Brothers or Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn in Howard Hawks' Bringing Up Baby on screen.

Commentators and critics have all too often missed Jamal as the innovator he was. Arguably he was one of the earliest "fusion" artists, using popular non-swing grooves even before Ramsey Lewis and Miles Davis. He was an incredible influence on Miles Davis to the point where many of Davis' ideas about musical space and surprise are in part taken from Jamal. Ahmad Jamal told me in a brief conversation I was fortunate to have with the man how disappointed he was with the PBS jazz series by Ken Burns, how much was missed by its restriction to a narrow narrative of large and general stylistic shifts and schools.

Today at eighty Jamal has never played wilder, his energy approaches the insane, betraying a tendency one finds in certain artists where they become ever more truly themselves in their "late" periods (Federico Fellini in film and Henry James in prose being the best examples of this happy occurrence).

One of the reasons for Jamal's importance is that he is an illustration of a principle summarized by the English critic Stephen Booth:

"Great works of art are daredevils. They flirt with disasters and, at the same time, they let you know they are married forever to particular, reliable order and purpose."
Here is a most representative example of all of the features of Jamal's playing, in a personal favorite composition of his, "Bellows." Ahmad Jamal: in two parts.