Tuesday, May 20, 2014

You keep using that word.

NOTE:  This entry was an attempt to respond to some things I was hearing.  It was an ambitious thing to take on, and I took it on too hastily.  I'm going to resist the urge to delete it, but I now consider it to be a very unsuccessful attempt to say what I meant.  Maybe I'll try again someday.

Actually, two words: New Orleans.

I don't think it means what you think it means.

And it's really starting to bother me.

But, there is a simple and better way to talk about music: say what you mean.  And, you don't have to know any fancy words.  That's the solution, but first let's define the problem.

Every time I have a conversation about music in the dance scene, someone complains about what music is being played (this is unavoidable) and expresses their complaint in terms of genre, or style.  I've heard so many people talk about whether too much "New Orleans" music is being played.  I was recently asked whether "New Orleans style" jazz was the style that I want to play.  I've heard people refer to "big band style" music.

People, I think I know what you think you mean when you say these things, but the words are almost meaningless.  At best, these terms are fuzzy.  At worst, they could indicate that you don't know what you are talking about.  If you want someone to listen to your opinion, it's always a good idea to be precise, if you can.

So, let's talk about styles.  But first, as a person who has had to take multiple endless, awful, complicated graduate courses about the naming, identification, and understanding of styles, I want to share these unchangeable truths:
    -Names of styles are aids to understanding and conversation.  They are tools, not truth.
    -Names of styles are usually fixed after the style stops evolving.  They are usually retrospective; they refer to something which is historical, which is dead*.  Creation is confusing and messy, but afterwards we want to make it nice and neat and give it a name.
    -Style names are most useful within a field or community where everyone understands what is meant by the words (especially in academia), but even then the names are often contested and controversial.
    -Style names are often used to divide communities by exaggerating differences and marking cliques (from within or without).

There are plenty of problems in categorizing jazz music, so let's concentrate on one example: the use of the words "New Orleans."  When dancers talk about New Orleans music, I assume that they mean Meschiya Lake and Tuba Skinny.  There are two problems here.  One is that Meschiya Lake and Tuba Skinny play very different kinds of music.  They are not the same style.  The other is that there is such a thing as New Orleans style jazz, and it is probably not what you think it is.  Jazz came from New Orleans.  We all know that.  I think most people would understand "New Orleans style jazz" to refer to the kind of jazz that originally developed in New Orleans. I think this is logical.  Here's the thing: I can't think of a single band in New Orleans today that plays that style.  There are probably bands in the world that do, but I don't know of any.  So, if you refer to New Orleans style jazz, you may only be demonstrating that you don't know what it is.  Quick, imagine it.  What does it sound like?  What does the band look like?  What kind of beat does it have?

Did you imagine a dixieland band?  Maybe playing a song like "Everybody Loves my Baby?"  Each musician takes a solo?  Maybe some straw boater hats and striped vests, if you're so inclined?  Good.

Except...  Dixieland is nostalgic fiction.  It seeks to recreate something which never existed.  It borrows heavily from the earliest New Orleans jazz, but it is a unique creation, and has its roots in Chicago, New York, and San Francisco.

Maybe you thought of Preservation Hall.

Ok, that's better.  That is New Orleans music.  But it is also a revival movement, or a result of evolution, depending how you look at it.  I don't mean that in a negative way, but what the musicians of Preservation Hall play and always have played is a new creation (starting in the 1950s), though very much inspired by what came before.  It is its own style.

So what is New Orleans style jazz?  There are two answers:
     -It is no one thing.
     -We don't know.

It is no one thing because, as in any scene at any time, different people are doing the different things which excite them or which might be good for business.  Jazz has been played every day in New Orleans for over 100 years, and it keeps changing.  Even if we wanted to keep playing it the same way, we couldn't.  We are not immune to the influence of new kinds of music.

We don't know because, well, we don't.  There are practically no recordings that capture it.  Most of the ones we have were made somewhere else, after all the great pioneers of New Orleans jazz moved on to other places, and were influenced by other kinds of music.

The key point here is that we are trying to talk about one term, New Orleans, and we now have a number of different styles to consider:
     -the ur-jazz of Buddy Bolden, which no living person has ever heard,
     -the first recorded jazz of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, which is probably a commercialized and sanitized version of what was happening in New Orleans years earlier,
     -music of Kid Ory and King Oliver, which was probably influenced by newer music by the time it was recorded,
     -the music of Jelly Roll Morton, which was heavily shaped by other music by the time it was recorded,
     -the Music of Preservation Hall, which was created from a mixture of tradition and innovation in the 1950s,
     -the music of Pete Fountain which-- well it's awful saccharine crap, but he's a good clarinet player,
     -the music of the Jazz Vipers, which is inspired by New York jazz,
     -the music of Meschiya Lake, which melds countless influences into something new which feels old
     -the music of Tuba Skinny, which draws from all kinds of old American vernacular music, and makes it sound old but feel new

Which one do you mean, exactly?  Tuba Skinny is not like the Jazz Vipers.

A similar problem applies to decades.  General trends do exist within decades, but at any time there are a lot of very different things happening.  So if you say twenties music is this or that, someone who knows a lot of twenties music might stop listening to you, concluding that you don't know what you're talking about.

This same problem exists with the term "trad."  I think I know what people mean when they use it, but I'm not always sure.  If a musician I know uses it, I know what they mean because I know what their outlook is, but if a dancer uses it, I can't be sure what they think it means.  Properly, it refers to an English jazz revival movement, which is not what anyone I know means when they say it.  A lot of people use it to mean "good dixieland," because the word dixieland is now almost synonymous with "bad music."

Then, the idea that "big band" is a style...  I...  I...  No.  It means the band is big.  Say "big band swing" and I know what you mean, in a foggy way.  But it would be better to say "big band swing like Benny Goodman."

Now, let me be very clear: I am not trying to put anyone down.  I don't think you have to go study and absorb the whole history of jazz before you can have an opinion.  (I haven't.)  But I would suggest that you will have more useful discussions if you are a bit more precise.  If you mean "music like Tuba Skinny" or "music like Benny Goodman," say that.  (And if you mean "music like Count Basie" or "music like Ella Fitzgerald," please also specify a decade.)  It's fine to not have the right word.  If you say this music is too charleston-y or too bouncy or too nervous, or that the other music is too smooth or it doesn't have enough energy, then we have something to talk about.  You don't have to know music theory to talk about music.  But if you say that this dance event has too much New Orleans style, or that 20s music doesn't swing...  that's...  difficult.

To avoid interrupting the flow of this, I've saved the examples for last.  Here are a few...

The Original Dixieland Jazz Band, 1917
We must assume that this represents what early jazz was in New Orleans, because we don't have any recordings that are earlier.  The important points about this are that there are no solos and that it has an even 4-beat feel, not a 2-beat Charleston feel.

King Oliver, 1923
This unquestionably represents what New Orleans jazz was, but it was recorded in Illinois.  King Oliver left New Orleans for Chicago five years earlier, in 1918.  Did his music change?  Probably.  A lot?  Who knows?  Now we have a clarinet solo, but still a nice 4-beat feel and ensemble playing is still the emphasis.

Sam Morgan's Jazz Band, recorded in New Orleans, 1927
Is this New Orleans jazz?  Yeah, I guess.  But now there are saxophones.  That's new.  It's still got a 4-beat feel, and stresses ensemble playing over solos.  Is it borrowing ideas from New York and Chicago jazz by this time?  Yeah, I think it is, but that is not definite.

Meschiya Lake
Is this New Orleans jazz?  Well, it is jazz.  It comes from New Orleans.  It was recorded in New Orleans.  But it has very little to do with what New Orleans jazz was.  It has newfangled instruments like a guitar.  It has more of a two-beat feel.  It has solos.  It is a song written in 1939 in New York.  It has a lot of New Orleans feel to it, but it's the New Orleans feel of the 21st century.  (Also, I was surprised to find my photo at the start of this video.  You never know where they'll go.)

Tuba Skinny
Is this New Orleans music?  It's in New Orleans.  It has guitars, saxophones, and washboard, just like New Orleans music always used to have.  No, wait-- that other word.  Never.  Never used to have.  It's a song written in 1931, after the heyday of New Orleans jazz.  (Written in Scranton, Pennsylvania, I think.)  It's got plenty of solos, and a bit of a 2-beat feel.  It's got the feeling of an old recording from somewhere, but I wouldn't say it has a New Orleans groove, whether old or new.

It's been pointed out to me that there is no guitar here.  Mea culpa.  There was in the other four Tuba Skinny videos of this song that I tried to post, and which Blogger wouldn't accept.

The New Orleans Jazz Vipers
Is this New Orleans Jazz?  Well, it is "smokin' jazz from New Orleans," as the band described themselves.  But no, this is New York style jazz, with a wonderful dose of New Orleans funkiness.  It has nothing to do with any "New Orleans" style.  (And it's great!)  It's a song written in 1939 in New York by Fats Waller and Andy Razaf.

We could do this all day with New Orleans examples, or with 20s examples, or with big band styles.  That's not the point.  Enjoy this music, and just say what you mean.

*dead, as a parrot might be.

No comments:

Post a Comment