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What Isn't Jazz?                                       Don Strange






Like most music enthusiasts of my generation, I discovered jazz later in life. By later in life, I'm referring to that time in one's late-twenties/early-thirties when musical sensibilities are supposed to be fully ingrained. We've all peeked at the CD collections and iPods of former college roommates or hometown friends only to spy the same tired selection of albums: bands whose careers have long since dried up, styles so tailored to a particular fad that they seem anachronistic even a decade later, and of course the errant soundtrack from some not-so-indie movie that was talked up more than it was viewed in its heyday.


        At the time of my discovery of jazz, I'd been listening to some indie music that I thought was a great counterpoint to the whole vibe of the 90s. Sam Beam's mysterious southern analogies and sparse yet layered acoustic arrangements on early Iron & Wine records; M Ward's tragi-comic trysts about love and failure melding nicely with his vintage-sounding guitar riffs; as well as other groups centered around a singer-songwriter doing the narrative-funny thing of the day--you know, parotic but with some weird bright-eyed sincerity that lifted it all up.


        These were artists whose abilities and creativity outshined the fluff and hype of whatever the mainstream was shoveling. Arrangements took on interesting variations on common chord structures, such as country-esque alternating bass notes, strange folky tunings, or choppy guitar strumming. Lyrics really meant something this time too, not just the pretension of depth and not some unearned conferment of poetry upon the lyricist. Some artists were actually making poetry with lyrics and not requesting to be dubbed 'poets' for once.


        So why ruin a good thing? And why jazz? Jazz itself may be timeless, like all good art, and listening to jazz may win you some bragging rights in certain circles, but it's hardly the new cool.





        One of the main reasons I chose jazz was more or less dictated by my situation.


        I was in my final year of grad school, pursuing an MFA in Fiction Writing, and I was rewriting my manuscript, a novel about three generations of a ruined immigrant family due to a decades old affiliation with the Communist Party. The first draft was pieced together over the course of two summers and now I was gutting the entire book, scene by scene, sentence by sentence. I'd revised short stories in the past but I'd never rewritten anything; literally, salvaging the core action of a passage and starting over from scratch, sometimes more than once, and not stopping until it reached what felt like its fullest maturation. The work was time consuming and difficult, but at the end of the day, reviewing a page of high-quality polished prose was a real reward. It never felt better to toil with craft, to figure out new ways to translate experiences and details into words, and often times, I'd find myself lost in that amazing instantaneous otherworld of creation.


        Most of my rewriting time was spent in noisy coffee shops. The hipsters at the back table would be smoking and talking about how they were going to make art, spewing words around the place like little fountains of Massengill. The music piped in by the barista was decent, but often a confusing hodgepodge of eras. Think of a precarious rotation of Woody Guthrie, early-Bjork, and Sufjan Stevens; pretty cool at first, but not the kind of thing that's conducive to maintaining concentration.


        Besides, listening to words, spoken or sung, while I was constructing my own words was not only distracting, but carried with it the terrifying possibility that the influence of these outside dialogues was going to appear in my writing. I was all for Sufjan Stevens, but the prospect of my prose containing unintentional hidden facts about the state of Illinois was serious cause for alarm.


        It made sense then that jazz, particularly the non-lyrical variety, would fulfill my criteria as a noise-blocker without introducing many other distractions.


        My initial foray into jazz was Bebop, 40s through 60s era jazz that defied the traditional, more organized, swing compositions of the time. The beat writers loved bop because of its quick tempo and erratic phrasing. It wasn't necessarily danceable, in a general public sense, but hearing great bop musicians go at it was like listening to some channel left open between the artist and the art. The screen fell and they became the same thing for some marvelous transitory moment of creation.


        This might suggest that bop compositions were loose or not rooted in some basic principles of songwriting but that's not the case. Much of early bop was based off of swing tunes but made complex through more challenging melody and countermelody. So of course it helped that the band leader was a virtuoso at their instrument, such as Charlie Parker or John Coltrane. Thelonious Monk might be the 'exception' of the early greats, since his stiff percussive playing and odd behaviors behind the piano were often criticized as sloppy or gimmicky, but that is a debate that has been raging on forever.


        Bop was certainly the style that spoke to me. When searching out other artists from similar or later eras, I found myself first gravitating toward Jimmy Smith. Smith was a Hammond player, an electric organ often played through a rotary speaker that modulated the bass and treble ends of the audible signal. Smith was much bluesier than any of the primary bop players but his improvisational chops were on par with the best of them.


        Mal Waldron was another composer that stuck out to me, particularly the work from his free jazz period. While listening to Waldron, I'd have the experience of the musicians in the band in separate corners of a large room, all vibing on their own thing, but at the same time seamlessly connected to the main themes of the composition. Through what door did all this music enter? How will it exit? A certain degree of suspense existed in this type of jazz.


        It's hard to say if listening to jazz has a direct influence on one's writing or if it's just that listening to jazz has an influence over one's life.


        It's common knowledge that music has an influence on emotion, memory, and behavior. I think this is a reasonable statement without entertaining far-flung claims that Marilyn Manson caused the Columbine High School shootings, or, conversely, that the Beatles' White Album was the real culprit behind Charles Manson's crazed cult murders. Certain music is better to eat to; other music is better to study to. Certain music makes you happy; other music puts you in that mood.


        With jazz, I found myself particularly attuned to tempo and rhythm in a way that became inseparable from my daily writing process. I usually worked to the same playlist, heavy on Monk, which led off with "Hackensack," the version from his 1963 album Criss-Cross. The particular version of a tune is important in jazz since different incarnations of the same song usually appear on like twenty records. This take of "Hackensack" had the most spunk and always felt tightest to me. The bouncy opening piano riff put me in a certain posture over the laptop keyboard, as though I were waiting for my cue from Monk to accompany him. And as I grooved through some of the standards like "Straight, No Chaser" and "Bemsha Swing," I found myself weaving through the prose, moving the clauses of the sentences into interesting arrangements, altering them almost in dalliance, much in the way the melodies were played with throughout the song.


        As tempo and rhythm relaxed in more introspective pieces like "Pannonica," my brain would still be locked into the same sort of tonal engine but the gears had changed. The strong countermelody in the bass register in the first half of "Darkness on the Delta" almost summoned up in me a reminder to keep looking at the things in the prose that were always there but often overlooked, such as a reminder to define the colors of the flowers and not just their variety or their smell. Sometimes, it's easier to explain the complicated part over the simple quality that, when expressed correctly and succinctly, may offer a listener or reader a more enriching experience.


        During this time, I had started reading The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen. This was my second go-around with the book. The first time I set it down around page 150, not because I didn't like it, but because distractions and/or other activities had gotten the best of me. I wasn't very far into it again when I thought to myself: "Reading this is like listening to jazz." Franzen's flexibility and muscularity at the sentence- and passage-level, his ability to define details, insights, and thoughts and then redefine them and redefine them again in the same paragraph, each time gradually raising the level of 'meta' or consciousness, echoed something special to me about the improvisational nature of jazz, about how rhythms and melodies were not nailed down but amorphous blobs that could be shaped and reshaped into various forms. But it was also clear to me that these forms required artistic consistency for success. Virtuosic performers were able to lay complicated melodies and countermelodies over familiar patterns, and no matter how much they stretched or compressed the material of the tune, it all fit just as sweetly. I read Light in August by Faulkner not long after The Corrections and was struck by the same revelation. The stream of consciousness sections seemed to be exactly what jazz was about.


        The easy conclusion would be to chalk it all up to good art, that all these artists, music and prose-based alike, had tapped into the Aristotelian principle of 'unity'--the one thing defining all great art. Another argument might be that rhythm is just as important to music as it is to writing. Perhaps, even another, is that rhythm simply is life.


        I'd like to avoid the trite ending here, so I'll try to take a pseudo-academic approach. Let's say that, at some point, there is no best, there are only variations of great across the whole panorama of art.


        What music, literature, film, drama, painting, sculpture, all of the genres and subgenres of art, when expressed by a genuine artist, evoke in us--the readership, the audience, the viewer--is a window into our own experiences that we were unable to describe, but that someone else was able to describe for us to a truly remarkable degree.


        I don't think great art is a celebration of uniqueness so much as a brief glimpse at the universality of our shared human experience. Although artists are unique in the manner in which they construct their art--that's usually the prerequisite for how they become a lasting success--the appeal they provide to us is universal.


        When I visited the Uffizi in Florence, I saw an endless stream of paintings of the Madonna and baby Jesus. All those halos and cherubs were more than a little off-putting, but as I walked down the long marble corridors into the vaulted chambers where the paintings hung, I began to understand that it was a mark of a true master to make a staple image such as this their own, to recreate the scene in a way that shared all of the common elements of all of the other versions before it, but that spoke to the universal perspective in a new way. It's that redefining of a common image that I found at the heart of great music and writing too. It became obvious when an artist was over their head: the art was distant, inappreciable, the common thread lost. There was usually a struggle to keep the core vision together or unified. Stories unfurled. Songs felt uncentered.


        When I finished rewriting my novel to the many-headed mantra of jazz, the literary world showed some favorable interest in the book. My novel was a finalist for some notable fellowships and awards, and an editor at the Viking imprint of Penguin Press ended up liking it enough to take it under consideration for publication. But after a long period of hopefulness, a deal didn't materialize.


        I began working on other projects, and when I had my head clear a few years later, I looked over the novel again to mull where I had been and where I was going. I saw that unmistakable note of 'trying too hard' in the first book, a contrived attempt to match a level of artistry I wasn't able to keep pace with. This wasn't a disheartening revelation. The bigger fault would be to accept the idea that craft could be mastered, that artists weren't servants to their craft but the other way around.


        A great artist like Parker wasn't born great. In an interview with Paul Desmond, Charlie Parker said that he practiced between 11 and 15 hours per day, driving neighbors so crazy that his family was almost asked to move out of the neighborhood. He practiced, he struggled, he had fun, and he kept trying. In a popular literary meme of the internet age, Kurt Vonnegut was quoted as saying that anyone of marginal intelligence could become a worthy novelist. If one was willing to tweak a bad detail, making it a little better each time, improvement was more or less guaranteed. Vonnegut likened writing a book to inflating a blimp with a bicycle pump…so of course time was necessary too; yeah, a lot of time.


        Although my appreciation of jazz emerged at a later age, it presented to me the myriad ways in which great art was linked, and it has also served as a guidepost for refining my own craft. I like to think of the influence jazz has left on me as the coal that feeds an old locomotive engine. Listening to my man, Thelonious Monk, right now, performing a solo version of "'Round Midnight" while I write this final paragraph, I can feel the energy that he left on the recording fuel me as I chug along on this final line.





Don Strange's writing has appeared in
Hayden's Ferry Review, Quick Fiction, Potomac Review, among other places. He is working on a novel and regularly performs around Pittsburgh with his band The Doosh Bears.


Illustration by Emily Emaline