Miles did the music to Louis Malle’s 1958 film Ascenseur pour l’echafaud. Though Miles and the four talented French musicians with whom he would play had seen the film and discussed ideas prior to recording the soundtrack, nothing had been written. There was no score. When it came time to record, Malle simply projected the film onto a screen and the musicians improvised to the images.
Shamala Gallagher: “We will make ourselves, in the image of our longing.”
My first and only bass teacher, Mike Kelly, was blind. He taught me to listen first and understand later. And when I began to read and write, I once again listened first: I read an embarrassment of books, early in my literary life, without understanding them at all, though their semantic content, their meaning, cannot be extricated from their sound, their sonic persuasion, their style.
Jazz improvisation is not a deliberate manipulation of listeners’ emotions, but rather a struggle (a positive word, in this case) among musicians to manipulate and be manipulated by one another. In jazz, the listener is a voyeur, not an addressee. I believe the same is true for a lot of writing—for a lot of my favorite writing, anyway: the reader does not receive a text, but is simply witness to an event in language; if in fact there is an addressee(s), then the reader overhears the address or pretends s/he is being addressed. Incidentally, this is perhaps why jazz and so-called “difficult” writing lack mass appeal and are, on the whole, commercial failures.
I played electric bass for the DeWald-Taylor Quintet for over a decade. We mostly played wineries, uppity “romantic” restaurants, political shindigs, and weddings. We were performing a service, and there were rules of etiquette, but we never let this stifle our creativity. As I often tell my students, you can write for a grade, you can perform a service, you can abide by academic (or any other) conventions, etc, but this doesn’t mean you cannot be creative, too.
Can it be abstract?—
As Stravinsky said it must be to be music.
But what if a phrase could represent a thought—
—Donald Justice, from “The Sunset Maker”
Music is often considered the most abstract of the arts, and it’s difficult to disagree. For one, it’s invisible (even if sound never ceases interacting with particles in space). Secondly, music cannot approximate language in the way that language can approximate music—it cannot, for example, invade the communicatory domain of language (give you directions, or teach you how to tie your shoes, even if a musician like Steve Vai can make his guitar “talk”). Nevertheless, for musicians, music is overwhelmingly tactile, and we also see the music in a variety of virtual forms: as notes on a staff, as a geometrical design on a fretboard, as notation on the Guidonian hand, as a series of numerical chords (e.g. I-vi-ii- V). As for the communicatory domain of language—and I’m speaking as a musician here —I feel that music communicates so much in the language of music that it almost warrants conventional linguistic communication null and void.
And yet here I am writing this . . .
One might reasonably assume that a jazz record is equivalent to a book. But this is not so. Almost all jazz records are nothing more than live performances captured in the studio; they are literally records of what was played on a particular day by a particular group of musicians—very much an anomaly nowadays. (Most records are made painstakingly piecemeal, each instrument replacing the original live track of itself, so that in the end the musicians have collaborated not with one another but with pasted-together recordings of one another.) Hence, a jazz record is nothing at all like a book, which arrives in our hands as a set-in-stone artifact, the singular goal and product of several years of composition. A book, even if it feels alive and in motion as we read it, exists in one and only one form.
This essay is being (so to speak) overdubbed, being made piecemeal: I write a number of “notes,” then I go back and write notes between or around the notes, a kaleidoscope of notes, a constellation, an ornate arpeggio of notes, adding nuance and clarity and perhaps unnecessary apologias, technical digressions. Even so, the essay—the kind of writing and approach to composition I’ve been discussing—is still an attempt at jazzlike improvisation: I simply read something I’ve written, and then I write something “off” of it.
I do an exercise with students in which we all, myself included, write “versions” of a single sentence. Twenty- two versions of, for example, this sentence from Virginia Woolf’s “Street Haunting”: “The shell-like covering which our souls have excreted to house themselves, to make for themselves a shape distinct from others, is broken, and there is left of all these wrinkles and roughnesses a central oyster of perceptiveness, an enormous eye”. Afterward, we split into groups and combine portions of our sentences into a single composite sentence. One rainy morning several weeks ago, a group produced this: “The yellow raincoats that our bodies have removed to make us look different again, inside this classroom, lay like shed second skins at our feet, and there is beneath each of these wet, wrinkled, glossy rubber jackets a little puddle of rainwater, the history of where we have been.” Not bad for a twenty- minute exercise.
I find it fascinating, too, that they may have been unconsciously influenced by the sentence I’d given them a week earlier (from Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room): “Every day the book-stall keepers seemed to have taken off another garment, so that the shape of their bodies appeared to be undergoing a most striking and continual metamorphosis”.
Zeina Hashem Beck (from a personal interview): “One of the things I love most about listening to Arabic tarab music is the repetition of certain sentences and musical phrases over and over again until you feel you are almost drunk with them.”
Allen Ginsberg once advised Robert Creeley to write in notebooks, as opposed to a typewriter, so he could be more mobile. Meanwhile, musicians all across the world are lugging drums and amps and double basses and PAs onto stages and up stairwells and in and out of the backs of vans—more mobile than any poet in history, possibly. For those of us who have been musicians, a typewriter doesn’t seem so cumbersome at all. I much prefer Ginsberg’s other advice regarding notebooks— that poets should frequently and experimentally alter the size of their notebooks, seeing as the length of a poem’s lines are so often determined by the size of the notebook in which it is drafted.
I will sometimes write sentences as though I’m stepping on a piano’s sustain pedal. Massive, many-handed sentences.
For many students, the five-paragraph essay or the three-quarter-page paragraph is a difficult convention to break. Furthermore, the allegiance to or the convenience of writing on a computer or typewriter (to say nothing of academic conventions/aesthetic vogues) creates rather arbitrary visual standards. How would your writing change if you had to write by hand on, say, an enormous art easel?
Most of us writers have no audience outside of (if we’re lucky) our beloveds, our families, our close friends; and our texts are a means to communicate with them, directly or indirectly, about ourselves and about the world in our own, linguistically unique voices. Ergo: when Kali reads something I’ve written, I feel it has found its audience.
To make the experience of reading all the more intimate, one tends to read alone, in a semi-quiet place, holding the book, if one is like me, close to one’s chest. Very different than encountering graffiti or a mass- produced pamphlet on a crowded street. And reading poetry is perhaps even more intimate, seeing as a poem tends to be fairly short, which means there’s an attempt—isn’t there? —to say more than its few words superficially express.
Jazz speaks to everybody. Writing speaks to everybody, too, but must be translated. Drop a Mumbai street musician into a New York club and he, who cannot speak a lick of English, will soon be soloing over rhythm changes.
Kali will sometimes look at my fingers on my thigh or on our steering wheel and, tilting her head, ask: “What are you playing?” I won’t even realize, until that moment, that I had been playing anything.
Once, in high school, when playing in a rock band, our singer began to talk at length to the audience between tunes. I rudely cut him off by playing the well- known “Shave and a Haircut” (D-A-A- B-A), to which our guitarist, not missing a beat, responded: “Two bits” (C#-D).
When I watched The Conversation with my students this semester, for our obsession-themed first-year composition course, I realized I had to qualify my statements vis-à-vis privacy and writing. “Despite the privacy of composition,” I told them, as the muted credits rolled on the screen and across— mockingly?—my face and body, “to ignore the overheardness of writing, to ignore the fact that somebody may read what you have written, that your work may indeed be ‘bugged,’ is to pretend that the world does not exist, and that you are not a part of it.”
For several years in my late teens, I was in a rock band called Red Top Road—I won’t comment on the quality of the music—playing the same few songs in pretty much the same way every night, which is to say our music was about as unsurprising as a recitation, though we did have an enjoyable “stage show”: we jumped and wheeled and convulsed all over the stage. In fact, I think the majority of our fans just liked to see us go crazy. (Somewhere somebody has a video in which I’m hanging from the rafters of a low-ceilinged basement bar in downtown Sacramento called Scratch 8, my bass flung behind my back like an AK-47.) When we appeared on the cover of Alive & Kicking, a music-based Sacramento magazine, the large black-and- white photograph was of our singer, lead guitarist and me all in the air—a synchronized jump?—while under our legs was printed: “Sacto’s Eight Legged Freaks.”
Though our acrobatic performances were a far cry from a jazz concert, we were still deeply invested in providing a lot more than our records (we made three EPs on a now-defunct indie label) allowed, and seeing us one night might feel, even if we played the same songs, very different than the next. My extended interest and experience in performance has on the whole deflated my interest in the typical literary or academic reading, because a reading has never seemed to me an intrinsic element of writing itself, but rather an extracurricular social activity, even if it can be an enjoyable act of sharing, of community-building, of solidarity.
The best jazz musicians can play the same tune again and again, and each take will be significantly different. I’ve been playing a tune like “So What?” for almost twenty years. I’m well aware by now that if I grow bored with a tune, it’s my fault: I didn’t make it mine, or rather ours, and I didn’t surprise myself, much less anybody else. Jazz is, as Whitney Balliett famously said, the sound of surprise.
Three o’clock in the Morning
Full Moon and Empty Arms
Strange Meadow Lark
Mighty Lonesome Feeling
My Funny Valentine
Your Feet’s Too Big (Guest Vocal)
Take the “A” Train
Appointment in Ghana
I Surrender, Dear
In Walked Bud
Handful of Keys (Piano Feature)
Run the Voodoo Down
No Room for Squares
On Green Dolphin Street
Self-Portraint in Three Colors
Boulevard of Broken Dreams
It’s Only a Paper Moon
[first appeared in Hunger Mountain]
My childhood home contained more fake books than actual books.
During my freshman year of high school, skater Jamie Thomas founded Zero, a now-legendary skateboard company. At the end of their debut video, Thrill of It All (1997), Thomas performs what came to be known as the “Leap of Faith”: he ollies over a second-story handrail, melon- grabs his board—that is, his forward (left) arm reaches behind and grabs the middle of the board—and then lands, solidly, snapping the board in two.
For about a year after the release of Thrill of It All, my friends and I skated nothing but stairs and gaps and sheer drops. If one of us was scared, if one of us stood at the edge of a grocery-store loading dock, for example, sheepishly tapping the tail of his board against the ground, then the others would begin to holler: “Leap of faith! Leap of faith!” This meant you had to do it—whatever it was you wanted to do.
Many years ago, on my father’s backyard patio, my friend watched in astonishment as I invasively and adventurously edited Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms with a blue, fine-point Sharpie. “Are you editing Hemingway?” he snapped. I shrugged, capped the Sharpie, then continued reading. And for a long time afterward I felt unreasonably guilty—a child caught with his hand in the proverbial cookie jar.
I now do this very exercise with my students.
In Kihachiro Kawamoto’s animated short A Poet’s Life (1974)—based on a short story by Kobo Abe—a factory worker fired for demanding higher wages sends “words to shore up [other workers’] withering spirits.” His mother, meanwhile, is inexplicably woven into a sweater and subsequently sold to a general store, where she lies folded and untouched in a dark storeroom. When a terrible winter befalls the town, and everybody freezes to death, a mouse in search of a warm nest wounds the sweater: “Accidentally, her teeth pierced the heart of the mother.” The sweater bleeds, turns bright red—the only color in the film—and then soars like a ghost out of the store and through the lifeless, snow-covered town until she finds her son standing frozen in the street. She slips herself around his arms and torso, and he is revived. What’s more, “[he] suddenly realized that he was a poet.”
One of the first intertitles in A Poet’s Life is a single Japanese character—“Mother.”
I often revolve my sentences around a word that has a particularly pleasant mouthfeel.
Saxophonist Anthony Braxton often uses little sketches—bizarre shapes, a set of data-like numbers (“W503”)—as titles. He seems to be challenging the idea that a musical composition can be summed up in a single word or phrase (e.g. “Tenderly,” “In a Sentimental Mood,” “Bouncing with Bud”). Hearing this, one of my students erased the title of her essay about her mother’s battle with breast cancer and replaced it with a sketch of a heart.
In the sixth grade, I was chubbier and taller than most of my peers. My mother suggested I play the bass because, she said, I looked the part. One naturally (even if wrongly) associates a person’s body with the sound of his or her music.
On summer days, when I can write at my dining room table from morning to late afternoon, I routinely walk (or am dragged by Kali or our daughter) away with no more than a hard-won line or two. Then at night, slicing a peach or brewing a pot of decaf, I listen to Coltrane at Carnegie Hall soloing like a volcano gushing lava full blast—a phenomenon Ira Gitler once described as “sheets of sound.”