Saturday, March 19, 2011

Marshall Stearns: The Story of Jazz

I'm reading Marshall Stearns 1954 monograph The Story of Jazz.  Stearns traveled along with the Gillespie band on the 1956 Middle Eastern tour, and maybe the South American tour, though that is not confirmed yet, and presented a lecture on the history of jazz, which the Gillespie band provided stylistic illustrations of, playing tunes in dixieland and swing styles as well as the modern jazz that they specialized in.  Stearns also went on to found the first academic jazz studies program, currently located at Rutgers.  Because I'm telling the story of how musical stories are told and what that telling means, his work is important to understanding the rhetorical presentation of the Gillespie band, and the discursive field surrounding jazz as it moved from being a popularly supported commercial practice to an institutionally supported academic practice.

Stearns' history is actually pretty good, and I am surprised that it doesn’t have a higher profile in jazz and/or popular music studies.  The notion of stylistic transmission isn’t really highly theorized, but it’s also not sloppy or incomplete and it pays attention, perhaps too much speculative attention to possibilities of juncture, blending and synthesis.  In general there’s an ideological commitment to & an underlying belief in the idea that people respond to democratic possibilities, to some kind of mixture of individual expression and group belonging.  Some of this is American exceptionalism at work, as surely here as in Henry Nash Smith and any American Studies text from the period, and its worth remembering that Stearns is a part of that same institutional/scholarly/aesthetic apparatus whose progressive and humanistic visions of American possibilities were funded in part for their value as cold war propaganda.  Somebody needs to do an extensive contextualized accounting that follows the money that fed the developments in American Studies, Jazz, and modern art during this period.  And not because the money totalizes the vision, but because both should be accounted for in a full understanding of how popular taste, aesthetic differentiation and domestic and international politics come to bear on popular memory and national identity..   

The arrangement of the book is oddly chrono-spatial, meaning that its chronological linear narrative doesn’t proceed uniformly forward.  The first section, The Pre-History of Jazz, makes the case for African retention and cultural survivals in the new world, which is in many ways the underlying basis for the entire history, the authenticating origin which gives jazz an alternate pre-history from European American musical practice and thus renders it something other than a minority appropriation of Euro-American music.  Here, Stearns draws heavily upon Melville Herskovits' work, which is a good thing.  The second section, New Orleans, follows the religious and cultural currents that connect the Caribbean to the Cresecent City, and details to the degree possible, the development of jazz as a particularity in that city.  Here Stearns helps establish Buddy Bolden as a seminal figure and does a good job of acknowledging the uneven coverage of various eyewitness accounts of Bolden’s playing, producing something like a textual montage of shaky, hand held home movies and snapshots.  This montage is actually more convincing than it ought to be, depending to some degree on the agreement between the reader and those eyewitnesses that all of this is part of the birth of something called jazz, and on the reader’s agreement to be enlisted in a history whose authenticity is signaled in part by its incomplete and mysterious qualities.  Buddy Bolden’s place in this history as the fount of jazz is cemented, rather than disputed by the fact that he escaped the reach of the audio recording devices that were just beginning to appear.*  There’s a separate tangent that leads off here, interrogating the narrative placement of male figures in jazz histories, but I have to track down a source that helpfully disputes this trend and places a woman who played piano at a New Orleans brothel in the place usually reserved for Bolden.

Stearns’ next section is entitled The American Background, and it’s here that the current of American exceptionalism I noted in paragraph one really begins to assert itself.  This section begins with a chapter on The Great Awakening and black preaching performance in that context and follows a pattern that’s familiar by now but was much less so in 1954: The Work Song>Blues>Minstrelsy>The Spiritual>Ragtime.  Again, Stearns draws upon good sources, and I am personally glad to see John W. Work given greater attention than Alan Lomax.  From here on out, the book proceeds more or less chronologically, and The American Background is followed by 4 shorter sections that chronicle the emergence of Jazz as such and subsequent branches and stylistic subdivisions.  This is the section that I’ve read least of, so I have less to say about it but it is worth noting that, like all genre critics, Stearns assumes that there is a thing called jazz that exists outside of the histories of jazz compiled by critics, fans and musicians, despite the fact that those critics, fans and musicians agree on very few particulars regarding the definition of that thing called jazz.  This puts genre firmly into the definition of culture that I first encountered in Bill Dressler’s cognitive Anthropology course: Culture, Minda and Behavior, at the University of Alabama: unevenly shared (i.e. disputed) knowledge.

Friday, March 18, 2011

What the hell happened to rock criticism (pt. 2)

OK- just a quick note because I'm working on more important stuff. I shouldn't complain about most current rock criticism unless I can provide something more specific about what it it should or could be doing that it isn't. So here it is: the liner notes to True Love Cast Out All Evil detail a horrific story describing how the 13th Floor Elevators, and Roky in particular, were victimized both by local law enforcement for their advocacy of psychedelic drugs, and by would-be friends and psychedelic guides and gurus, notably Tommy Hall who, upon joining the band as a "jug player" insisted that the members dose every single time they played live. Long story short: Roky, already acting more than a little discombobulated is arrested for possession of a single joint in 1969, and faced with a potential life sentence pleads insanity and is sentenced to indefinite detention in a state hospital for the criminally insane where he's treated to a regimen of electroshock and chemical "therapy."  He is released after a couple years, but his musical output is erratic, in part due to continuing mental problems and in part due to the severe side effects of his medication.  Unable to support himself, he ends up in subsidized low-income housing under the care of his mother who forbids all medication on religious grounds.  He deteriorates further, develops painful and dangerous abscesses in his mouth and is eventually arrested for stealing his neighbor's mail.  As shown in You're Gonna Miss Me, Roky's brother Summner fights for and wins custody, is able to get Roky better help including actual therapy and more sensible and individually indicated medication.  Within a few years Roky has re-established relationships with his son, taken over as his own legal guardian, begun performing and recording again and even bought a house and a car. And made a pretty good record here.  One that's substantive and interesting enough that I'm saving talking about the actual songs on the record for later.

On True Love Cast Out All Evil producer and Okkervil River songwriter Will Sheff has chosen to dramatize Roky's back story to some degree, to make it part of the experience of the album.  He does so in his choice of songs from Rocky's archive to either re-record or overdub, in the sequencing of those songs, and in the musical choices in the recording and production of those songs, including the use of sound fragments from Roky's archive of live performances, demos, and home movies and recordings, and in the use of dissonant instrumental passages in the context of what (except for their lyrical content) otherwise pass as straight ahead folk and pop inflected rock songs.  It's an interesting strategy and it raises interesting questions.  Sheff brings real musical depth and evidences real respect for Roky as a person and a musician, but does putting Roky's history of mental illness at the center of the record trade upon his misery differently than previous attempts to market Roky as the icon of crazy rock?  Or was that history so unavoidable that it had to be dealt with before Roky's art could be presented simply as his art?  Would some of these songs have been more powerful without the sometimes literal evocation of dissonance and confusion, or do these sonic choices extend the meanings in the songs themselves as much as they do the meaning of the singer's history?

And, if that history is at the center of the story, what does that history tell us about he abuse of authority; about the harm done by indiscriminate drug-taking as a response to abusive authority; about the shameful history linkage between poverty and mental illness in America; about the dangers of over-medication and the dangerous and romantic myth that mental illness and creativity are so inexorably linked that treating the former with medication necessarily destroys the latter; and about the uses of mental illness or "madness" in the rhetorical construction of authenticity in rock performance?

To my mind, these are all interesting questions, although not apparently to any of the approximately 500,000 people writing music reviews right now.  And that's a shame because this record sits right where criticism-thoughtful text-based listener engagement with popular music and its production-ought to live.  Roky Erickson is a "popular" artist whose career has manifested itself almost entirely through the attention of a subset of critics (to use the term quite broadly) and fans connected to each other and to Roky as much or more by textual accounts of recordings and performances than by those same recordings and performances.  To some degree this has involved a romantic engagement by those fans and critics with circumstances that have caused Roky very real pain. And to some degree it has involved, depended on and marshaled disparate people's sincere emotional connections with Erickson's music and what it evokes, making a well produced and widely distributed record by the 63 year-old former singer of the band that placed a song at #55 on the Billboard Pop singles chart of 1966, possible.  A textual engagement with this record, whose liner notes, by Sheff, were nominated for a grammy, ought to betray some critical or at least reflective consciousness of that history instead of reading like it was cut and pasted from the allmusic guide.

Friday, March 11, 2011

What the hell happened to rock criticism? (pt. 1)

Tonight, I went to the library with the daughter, and one thing I took home is the record True Love Cast Out All Evil by Roky Erickson and Okkervil River. It's great, a tremendous record, one that I'm still absorbing (no, wait, I think it's over, but still...) as I write this. But that's not exactly what this is about.

Instead, it's this: I ran into the CD completely by accident. I don't think I knew it existed, so when I saw it, I thought "In what universe does Roky Erickson have a CD out, one that looks more like someone trying to make a real record than it does a bunch of psychedelic verite tragedies hobbled together, and I don't know about it already?" I had heard that Rocky had his head together and was making music again, but maybe I'd resisted because knowing this album because, since I'd heard of them, I'd thought that "Okkervil River" was a terrible band name, one seemingly based on the idea that if you combined the obscure and the rural you'd automatically produce the authentic. But whatever, maybe they have a perfectly good reason to call their band that.

Anyway, I have the CD in the laptop, earphones on, listening and doing some freewriting, and I think, "whoa- this is good!" And then I think "Hey, I wonder what the reviews were like?" But I don't go look right then, because I remember how, before the internet, the space between getting an album and reading a review of it used to be much longer, regardless of which you did first. This keeps me off of the search engines for a good 4-5 songs, just long enough to remember the way record reviews and records used to interact in my brain, how the space between the music and what was said about it became charged with what I felt about it. so I hit the internet searching for reviews, and what do I find? Tripe! The reviewer at pitchfork doesn't even have the basic biographical data that's in liner notes right. After reading a few reviews, I'm not convinced that anyone is actually describing the record I'm hearing. Not because I like it and they don't, but because the reviews trade on Roky's biography, but do so without evocative depth, failing to communicate what's at stake when a human being gets to make a record like this after being battered and discarded. And, none of them do a very good or thorough job of describing the sounds, textures, and song structures on the actual record either. There's talk of "themes" and "moods" and assertions of meaning based on vaguely dramaturgical mobilizations of press release fodder.

There's something else here that I'll come back to: the relationships between madness, authenticity and critical and popular romanticism, and how this record negotiates with but doesn't succumb to the cult of Rocky's insanity. But that's part two. Part one is: why hasn't someone already written anything decent about this record? The internet is filled with "reviews" of albums, songs, books, videos, etc. But they mostly all suck.

It's not just the lack of gatekeepers. Some of the best and most useful reviews can be found on aggragated commerce sites, like Amazon, where the reviewers don't offer even a pretense of professional authority. Some of the worst, or at least the most shallow, are at Rolling Stone and pitchfork and other sites that sell themselves on supposedly telling people about new music, on being gatekeepers. Why are they so bad? Where is the good stuff, and, are they hiring?