Tag Archives: Blindfold Test

“LARKIN’S LAW” AND ITS DISCONTENTS, or “WHO’S SORRY NOW?”

When I first read poet / jazz-lover / jazz-essayist Philip Larkin’s “law,” some forty years ago, I thought it sardonically amusing, as was Groucho’s “I wouldn’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member.”  Now, I find it and its effects quite sad:

“If I were to frame Larkin’s Law of Reissues, it would say that anything you haven’t got already probably isn’t worth bothering about.  In other words, if someone tries to persuade you to buy a limited edition of the 1924-25 sessions by Paraffin Joe and his Nitelites, keep your pockets buttoned up: if they were any good, you’d have heard of them at school, as you did King Oliver, and have laid out your earliest pocket money on them.”

I’ve always had an odd admiration for Larkin, while making the necessary effort to ignore much of what he wrote: he is the embarrassing relative at the holiday dinner table who shares his racist, misogynistic views.  I am also certain that had we met, he would have satirized me in his diary that evening.  But his vigorous parochialism ran parallel to some of my taste: he thought the 1932 Rhythmakers sessions the height of Western civilization, a sentiment I can understand.

Larkin’s Law would seem valid to many in “the jazz audience” I know, a credo in support of Their Kind of Music.  Caveat immediately: there are so many jazzes and thus so many audiences that I can only speak of the small slice I experience, in person, in correspondence, and through social media.

With JAZZ LIVES as my creation for over a decade, I continue to be thrilled by the music yet often puzzled by the provincialism of the response it receives.  Of course this blog is an expression of my own tastes, which have been shaped by experience(s).  I prefer X to Y even if received wisdom says I shouldn’t.  And although my response may be simply “That band doesn’t move me,” I stand by my aesthetics.

However, even though jazz was once a radical music, an art form relegated to the basement where it wouldn’t upset the pets, the audience can be aesthetically conservative, defining itself in opposition.

As Sammut of Malta writes, people view art as a box rather than as a spectrum.

I think many of the jazz-consumers have decided What They Like and it is often What They Have Always Liked.  Their loyalty is fierce, even in the face of unsettling evidence.  My analogy is the restaurant at which one has a brilliant meal, then a good meal, then a dreadful meal — but one keeps returning, because one always eats there.  Familiarity wins out over the courage to experiment.  “I love this band.  I first heard them in 1978!”

As an aside: I’ve watched audience members at jazz festivals who race to see Their Favorite Band and then talk through the set, applauding loudly what they could not have heard, convinced that they are having the time of their lives.  (This phenomenon is a subject for another blog: it worked its way in here and it deserves its few words.)

Loyalty is a lovely thing, and audience members certainly may gravitate to what pleases them.  If you tell me that Taco Bell is the best Mexican food that ever was, I can protest, I can meet you after lunch, I can invite you to the taqueria down the street, but changing your mind is difficult.  You like what you like for a complex network of reasons, many of them unexamined.

What does worry me is when affection becomes rigidity and turns into a rejection of anything a few degrees away from the Ideal.  It happens on both ends of the aesthetic continuum.  One of my Facebook fans used to dismiss music she found too modern as “Too swingy.”  I suggested to her that jazz of the kind she preferred also swung, but it was clear that some music I embraced seemed heretical to her.  Conversely, “I don’t like banjos and tubas” is a less-heard but prevalent response, to which I want to say, “Have you heard A play the banjo or B play the tuba?  Perhaps your condemnation needs to be refined to ‘I prefer rhythm guitar and string bass in rhythm sections, but other ways to swing can be pleasing as well’.”  I can even say, “Have you heard Bernard Addison and John Kirby in 1933?” but does everyone recognize those names?

In practical terms, Larkin’s Law means that many people reject as unworthy what they do not immediately recognize.  Closing the door on anything even slightly different will not help those who want the music they love to go on.  And it will deny the listener pleasurable surprises.

I, too, know jazz parochialism.  When I was 14, I could have told you that I liked jazz.  Pressed for a definition of what I liked, I would have said Louis Armstrong, Jack Teagarden, Benny Goodman small groups, and not much else.  Soon I added the Billie Holiday small groups, 1940 Ellington, 1938 Basie, and so on.  It took a long time before I could “hear” Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie with pleasure and understanding, but I knew there was something worth investigating.  I have not gotten beyond early Ornette or Wilbur Sweatman, but I keep listening and attending live jazz performances.

I know some JAZZ LIVES readers and friends have more open ears than what I describe.  And some of them, whom I celebrate happily, have written to say, “Thank you, Michael, for introducing me to _____ and _________, whom I wouldn’t have heard without your blog.”  Reading this, I think gleefully, “My work on the planet is done,” and go to do the dishes with a big grin.  But I wonder how many listeners have seriously considered, let us say, both Mike Davis and Lena Bloch, Kim Cusack and Ted Brown, Paul Asaro and Joel Forrester, the Chicago Cellar Boys and the Microscopic Septet, Kirk Knuffke and Danny Tobias — to pick a few vivid examples.

My apparent ecumenicism does not mean I like everything.  And I receive a good number of solicitations from music publicists and even CDs: I listen before saying, “No, that’s not for me.”  Rarely do I think, “Wow, that’s bad music!”; rather, I say, “What that artist is doing is not pleasing to me, but that says much about me as well as what it says about the art.”

We all, I believe, fell in love with certain varieties of this art because they made us feel excited, joyous, alive, exuberant — a WOW moment.  For some, the Love Object may be Oliver’s ROOM RENT BLUES or the closing chorus of the Hot Seven’s WEARY BLUES, or a Decca Lunceford, the Jones-Smith session, Hawkins’ SIRIUS . . . .  And no one would propose to say to an enraptured listener, “You really shouldn’t listen to that,” unless one wants to argue.  But what if some musician or band offered a serious WOW moment and the listener had refused to try it out, because, “I don’t listen to anything that isn’t . . . . “?  Should we be so in love with what we love that we keep our ears closed, as if it would be fatal for us to spend two or three minutes with a music that didn’t instantly please us?

Our preferences are strong.  But occasionally those preferences are so negative that they make me envision my fellow jazz-lovers as irritable toddlers.  “Honey, we have A through L for lunch.  What would you like?” The response, in a howl, “No!  No!  No!  Want R!”

There is another manifestation of this calcified reaction, one I perceive regularly through JAZZ LIVES.  Certain artists have powerful magnetism: call it star quality, so whatever they play or sing attracts an audience.  (It is reminiscent of the imagined book with the widest audience, called LINCOLN’S DOCTOR’S DOG.)  I have often thought that the most-desired video I could offer would have technically dazzling music at a fast tempo, performed by young people, women and men both.  A little sexuality, a drum solo, novelty but not too much, evocations of this or the other jazz Deity . . . it’s a hit!

But it also should be music made by Famous Names.  You can compile your own list of stars who often play and sing beautifully.  But when I offer a video without Famous Names, without the visual novelty, fewer people go to it, enacting Larkin’s Law.  “I don’t know who that is.  How could (s)he be any good?”

Do we listen with our ears or our eyes or with our memory for names?

Could listeners, for instance, make serious judgments about music they knew nothing about — the Blindfold Test?  I admire Hot Lips Page above most mortals, but I have learned to be courageous enough to say, “I love Lips, but he seems bored here — he’s going through the motions.”  Whether I am right or not matters less, but making the critical judgment is, I think, crucial.

These thoughts are provoked by Larkin’s Law as an indication of historical allegiance rather than expansive taste, of a narrowness of reaction rather than a curiosity about the art form.

What I conceive as the ideal may seem paradoxical, but I applaud both a willingness to listen outside one’s tightly-defended parameters and, at the same time, to be seriously aware in one’s appreciation and not turn habit into advocacy.  Let us love the music and let us also hear it.

And, in honor of Philip Larkin, who may have stubbornly denied himself pleasure by hewing to his own asphyxiating principles, here are some of his artistic touchstones:

A personal postscript: JAZZ LIVES gives me great joy, and I am not fishing for praise.  Many people have told me in person how much they appreciate my efforts.  But I perceive provincialism creeping up the limbs of the jazz body as sure as rigor mortis, and I would like this music to continue, vigorous, when I am no longer around to video it.

May your happiness increase!

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SOLVE THIS PUZZLE!

THE PUZZLE:

Eddie

 

says:

The road isn’t

 

if you know your

(From The Chicago Defender, March 16, 1935.)

THE HINT:

“Don’t like that sickly sounding fiddle [Grappelli with Hot Club]; for jazz I prefer Stuff Smith’s strange noises.”  Dave Tough in Leonard Feather’s “Blindfold Test,” Metronome December 1946.

Quotations courtesy of the ABFable Archives: reprinted here with thanks.

COME OUT FROM BEHIND THOSE WORDS!

I’m troubled by the code words that jazz listeners use to describe the varieties of music they prefer. 

Some who believe that jazz only reached fruition when Charlie Parker (or John Coltrane or Ornette Coleman) burst forth, say in print that they prefer jazz that is “forward-looking,” “adventurous,” “innovative.”  Others who think jazz reached the perfection of form sometime before 1945 or 1960 or 2000 and has been in decline ever since, then your music of choice is “authentic,” “the real thing,” “pure,” “uncorrupted.”  Of course, “modern,” “contemporary,” “timeless” get a workout as well.   “Adventurous,” too. 

Veiled in code words, these ideological positions seek to validate a false premise: that Art progresses or declines.  Did Louis “improve” on King Oliver?  Did Clifford Brown “improve” on Roy Eldridge?  Was “Swing” more innovative than “New Orleans” or “Chicago”; did “Bebop” sweep all that come before it away, only to be rumped by “Hard Bop” and “Free Jazz”? 

Seriously, it makes jazz seem like a parade of the years: if you thought 1944 was great, wait till you hear 1945 — or one box of detergent replacing the last one because the NEW box is IMPROVED (and orange with blue stripes, too).

We all have very particular — sometimes idiosyncratic — preferences in our music as well as in everything else. 

But when those preferences are expressed as statements of critical truth, they may do the music a disservice.  I prefer Ellington’s analogy of the diner in a restaurant who likes his fish cooked the way Pierre does it.  So if your definition of the ideal way to play the alto saxophone is Hilton Jefferson or Benny Carter or Phil Woods, say so.  Those who see jazz as a progress year by year, with each new stylistic change an inevitable improvement on the old-fashioned music of the dusty past are missing out on many hot choruses, now and on record.  And the listeners who are so committed to banjo-and-tuba rhythm sections and find anything else oppressively “modern” may deprive themselves of the joy of Andy Brown, Neil Miner, and Jeff Hamilton. 

So let us abandon the ideological structures for an hour or a day.  Say, rather, “I like the way _________ sings, the way ________ plays trumpet,” rather than suggesting that either of these players has somehow made all others superfluous.  “Better” and “greater” might well be dispensable.  Let us be open about our admittedly subjective likes and dislikes (I have boxes of them to share) — to be cherished as personal expressions, but not made into statements of value. 

And perhaps it’s time for listeners and critics, too, to go back to the Blindfold Test — or what CADENCE calls “Flying Blind.”  Let us not be swayed by the famous name (or the absolutely unknown name) on the CD: what does the music sound like? 

A few unsolicited ruminations to begin 2010 . . . .

BRILLIANT EMPATHY! (November 20, 2008)

The jazz musicians I know say that improvisatory duet playing is intensely difficult, sometimes highly rewarding.  For a duet to work, it needs a great deal of intuitive cooperation, players anticipating each other’s thought patterns.  But the duo that is too congenial runs the risk of being tamely polite.  Alphonse and Gaston are ideal pals, but some friendly jousting is at the heart of jazz.  However, if players go their own heedless, self-absorbed ways, collisions are a sure thing.  Each of the two players must be attuned not only to what is being played, but what might be played, what might be just around the corner.

The video clips of pianist Ehud Asherie and reedman Dan Block (here on tenor sax and clarinet) here will show that the title I’ve chosen for this posting is enthusiastic but wholly justified.  They listen; they take chances; their technical brilliance is matched only by their emotional depth, their timeless swing.

Flip and I went to Smalls on West Tenth Street about ten days ago for one of Ehud’s Thursday night duo gigs.  These gigs last only an hour, but they offer more resonant jazz than many other sessions that go on much longer.  Ehud’s partner was the wonderfully soulful Dan Block.  Here they work their eager way through Vincet Youmans’ HALLELUJAH!  (My sentiments exactly, with the shades of Tatum and Hawkins standing in the wings, smiling sagely.)

Here they are on a haunting melody, one of those that you might begin to hum without knowing its name or the lyrics.  AUTUMN NOCTURNE, music by Josef Myrow, was a favorite of Sonny Rollins, Claude Thornhill, Art Farmer, and many others, although it never became a popular or jazz standard.  (Myrow, incidentally, wrote many more forgettable songs — “Keep Cool, Fool” suggests the kind of evanescent pop ditty he leaned towards — although we know him better for YOU MAKE ME FEEL SO YOUNG.)

A more familiar jazz standard, Fats Waller’s I’M CRAZY ‘BOUT MY BABY, is next — with the memorable verse.

And this mini-program concludes with two more contemporary jazz standards from another stride pianist, Thelonious Monk.  (Monk scholars will remember that when he was corralled into a Down Beat “Blindfold Test” and one of his own records was played for him, he said, “That sounds like James P. Johnson.”)  Dan and Ehud, comfortable playing all sorts of music, treat us to Monk’s lyrical RUBY, MY DEAR.

Finally, here’s the duo’s propulsive OFF MINOR.

This coming Thursday, December 4, Ehud will be improvising alongside his great friend, tenor saxophonist Grant Stewart, someone I’ve celebrated in this blog.   I’ll be there!