My father had on vinyl Miles’ My Funny Valentine (1964) —a terrific live album recorded at the Philharmonic Hall (now the David Geffen Hall) in New York City. But it was an old copy, warped from neglect, and it skipped a few bars into the title track’s remarkable intro. One night, alone, when my girlfriend was supposed to meet me at my house—this was my freshman year in high school—I decided I wanted her to discover me in the dark, listening to this album. It would be so romantic, wouldn’t it? I imagined she would appear like Grace Kelly in Rear Window—a shadow looming over me—and kiss me, a teenaged Jimmy Stewart, as I lay on the couch. Because the record skipped, however, I had to get up every two- and-a-half-minutes, turn on a lamp, and, lowering the needle carefully into the groove, start the record all over again—a little Sisyphusian procedure I repeated (embarrassingly) too many times to count. When she arrived at last, my girlfriend flicked on every light leading to our living room, calling out over the music: “Where are you? Why the hell’s it so dark in here?”
If Marvin Bell is right, and “originality is just a new amalgam of influences,” as he once told me in a letter, then the influences a group of jazz musicians—as well as a classroom of students—brings to the aesthetic/intellectual table is enormous. An amalgamation indeed.
So much of the “teaching” of writing—perhaps even the teaching of art in general—lies in sharing experiences and anecdotes. I want my students to feel that we’re all in this together, that our frustrations and ambitions can be dealt with, at least in part, collectively, and that all these conversations color our individual experiences of “making.”
Elizabeth Hardwick: “To proceed to writing is to feel a robbery has taken place. And certainly there has been a loss; the loss of the smiles and ramblings and discussions so much friendlier to ambition than the cold hardship of writing.”
On the title track of Milestones (1958), the soloists are conjoined (the last phrase of one soloist is repeated, with slight variation, in the opening phrase of the subsequent soloist) like a crown of sonnets!
Because we encounter language relentlessly in a variety of media, as well as in common speech, I suspect the layperson is more openly skeptical of—less willing to entertain—what might be called “specialized” or “difficult” writing, such as theory or criticism or poetry (which refutes, cants, or in someway intellectually or artfully employs ordinary speech) than for jazz (which, being music, is “other” enough to politely tolerate at a distance). Doesn’t every Hollywood cocktail party have a tuxedoed, West-Coast-style combo playing a little too quietly in the corner?
There’s a wonderful scene in Julian Schnabel’s 1996 biopic Basquiat. Miles’ “Flamenco Sketches” is playing— a haunting ballad, Bill Evans on the keys—and Jean- Michele Basquiat (Jeffrey Wright) walks at night down a New York street and then through a crowd and into his first gallery show, where a greasy-haired twenty- something removes his headphones, and the music is at once replaced with the babble of the art crowd.
To which universe does Basquiat (and viewers) belong —the private world of art, or the public world of art commerce?
Oh, students, I beg you not to play quietly in the corner.
Last weekend, I asked my wife, Kali: “What do you think about when you think about jazz?” We were driving through humid green Georgia countryside, so that our three-year-old daughter would take a nap, and so that Kali could spot “dream houses.” She’s found a thousand dream houses in Athens alone, and she uses each house as a pretext for talking about the future with me (who tends not to see beyond the tip of his nose). She’s the most beautiful woman on the planet. Anyway, distracted, craning her neck to better see a lemon-yellow barn-style house with a wraparound porch, she answered: “Intellectuals with money.”
For all his desire and ability to sell records, Miles—perpetual Rückenfigur—would never stop turning his back on his audience. Because of Miles, I allow students to turn their back on me, their “audience”: I feel it is their artistic and/or temperamental right.
Writers tend to give readings so that you will read their books; they are, on the whole, promoting their work. Jazz musicians invert this equation: they cut records so that you will attend their concerts—the real art is played live, in the clubs, and the record is mostly a promotional tool and a status symbol. This is partly an inherent quality of the spirit of jazz—improvisatory, communal, determinedly non-reproducible. Yet it’s also partly a means of self-protection and of art preservation. Until only recently, record labels exploited jazz musicians outright: musicians got paid very little for cutting records (often needing the money to support a drug addiction) and many never owned them, either, not even infinitesimally, which is to say musicians and their families never received any royalty checks. Labels like Blue Note, which produced many of my favorite albums, continue to rerelease old records in new editions simply because they needn’t pay anybody a penny (Vernick).
A few years ago, my father and I were hired by Martin Beale (a crooner, who should have been born a century ago) to play a gig at a Chinese restaurant in Sacramento. We arrive at a banquet- style place filled with streamers and glitter—it was some sort of Chinese cultural/political gathering—and everybody’s dressed to the nines. Except for us, of course, because Martin failed to mention that this was a black-tie affair. He tells us to set up in a little cramped corner by the door. Meanwhile, on the big stage, a Chinese pop group from Hollywood is practicing. Their singer looks like a Chinese Joan Didion: very small and chic, huge dark sunglasses. Although we were hired to play from six to seven, this group practices until six-thirty. So we just sit there for a half-hour while Martin arranges his business cards and demo CDs on a folding table, and goes around vigorously shaking hands with everybody. Then we begin. He calls up “A Sleepin’ Bee”—the Mel Torme version. Long story short, halfway through our third tune, we get cut off by the Flower Drum Song and a dancing dragon, and are told to pack it up. Martin had apparently offered us up for free, hoping (I can only guess) to get discovered. The poor guy’s always trying to get “discovered.” He paid everybody out of his own pocket. Four hundred dollars for two-and-a-half tunes. I felt bad for him, but I’d driven all the way from San Francisco to play the gig, so of course I took the money.
I got paid as a musician without being a musician, for merely “performing,” as it were, the practical routine of traveling and dressing up, of lugging around an instrument and an amp.
Just as Richard A. Lanham wants to include business savvy as part of the art of Christo and Jean-Claude’s Running Fence (1967)—“no greater monument to business entrepreneurship has ever been erected,” Lanham writes (61)—so I want to include business indifference as part of the art of jazz and writing and teaching.
One of my early writing teachers had a humungous handwritten sign taped to his office door: ASS IN CHAIR! Though students won’t get credit for the practical routine of sitting at their desks with pens and paper, I still feel this act is worth something. And it is: Students often tell me they feel accomplished after writing their name, or giving their essay a title, or including the requisite works cited page, and they sometimes— almost by accident—begin to write in earnest, feeling perhaps that the foundational or most tiresome part of the writing process has been completed.
It has always seemed to me an advantage that poetry —the genre in which I’m most comfortable (or productively uncomfortable) and which informs my approach to the teaching of composition—has little to no monetary value, or use value, either, that it’s basically free from market pressures: it pushes back, albeit softly, against Debord’s spectacle. To receive money for poetry might dangerously, to quote Natalia Ginzburg, “implicitly affirm the principle— a false one—that money is the crowning reward for work, its ultimate objective”.
In Alan Hollinghurst’s novel The Spell (1998), a young protagonist named Alex goes to a club and takes Ecstasy for the first time. After a while, “it seemed [to Alex] that happening and happiness were the same”. Is that the ultimate goal of jazz—to make happening and happiness the same? No: not merely happiness, but rather the entire spectrum of potential emotions. By attempting to reinvent itself moment-to-moment, jazz synchronizes happening and any number of emotions.
Most texts are created likewise, moment-to-moment; the difference is that a text, in a reader’s hands, cannot be changed. This is why, in my view, the language(s) of my favorite texts are multifaceted, prismatic, pluralistic: they induce in readers a seemingly inexhaustible variety of interpretations, perspectives, emotions and so on, simultaneously.
Ellen Douglas: “It just occurred to me, I might include an additional challenge, the element of a puzzle: Which episode goes where?”
I don’t rush student writing toward “neatness,” “polishing,” “finishing,” etc, etc, which has always struck me as a cruelty. Imagine a friendship in which one person is always ready and willing to embalm the other. Quite to the contrary, I try to convince my students to keep their texts (via revision, rearrangement, reconsideration, reflection, resistance—all those valuable “re-” words) alive and communicative, for as long as possible, because at a certain point (the due date?) the text must be, if not finished, as Valéry famously said, then abandoned.
In music and writing, I welcome disappearance. In teaching, however, I have to remember that there are real people in front of or beside or all around me; and I have to communicate with them—get them to communicate with each other—not merely as sound or as language, but as a human being.
As a musician—an electric bassist—I felt from the beginning the urge to disappear. I loved, still love, playing live, which is of course a kind of disappearing act: you escape into the world of music, even as you and your music both remain perceptible to the phenomenal world. But then the tune’s over, and you’re back on stage, or on a large square of concrete, or in the corner of a marble- floored Italian restaurant, or under a purple, sun- brightened tent in front of a winery in…where are you again?
My feeling is that jazz wants to be made privately (even if collaboratively)—like an after-hours Ayler concert—but the medium denies it: one cannot make music without sound, a sensory perception open, so to speak, to the public. “There is no way to stop sound and have sound,” said Walter J. Ong. This inherent conflict (the publicness of music and the privacy of artistic expression) can be a generative creative force. In a single concert, a musician, even an entire band, can play to, for and against his or her audience.
For student writers, a classroom of healthy or fraught discussions, lively or restrained debate, creates audiences, even if for just one semester. Consciously or un-, students also begin to write to and for and against their peers.
These two disciplines, music and writing, are not elitist. Practitioners do not purposefully obfuscate their material for their own amusement or haughty avant- gardism, as though they like to see laypeople scratch their heads. Music and writing are instead like dialects, or interrelated groups of dialects, which is complicated further by a deep investment in individuality, in each artist finding his or her “voice” within and in opposition to the prevailing dialects.
As a student at Sacramento City College, my father wrote a composition for Jazz Band called “LSD 67,” which consisted of a series of unconnected melodies and musical ideas (stacked fourths; dense, atonal chord clusters; angular percussion and brass; a whole lot of communal improvisation) gathered haphazardly together and bookended with musicians breathing—as though exhausted—into their mouthpieces. After its debut at the ’67 Reno Jazz Festival, one friend commented: “Well, it does sound like a bad trip.”
The compositional strategies of this “essay” are, I believe, a response to my father’s early music.
Text and music maintain different relationships to time. Even though some of the most beautiful, surprising writerly moments arise from the pressure of real-time composition, texts are largely attempts to stop time—“the dream of all poetry, to cut a hole in time” (Mary Ruefle)— whereas music attempts to embody time, to be one with time, for time to coarse through one’s lips or lungs, one’s throat or fingertips. When time stops, music stops.