Thursday, 21 March 2013

Could I be more famous?

I was just reading the BBC article on Esperanza Spalding (posted 3rd June '12) with her take on making music, or as the article mentions 'Bringing Jazz to the Masses'. I should maybe also bring to your attention articles from Ronan Guilfoyle on his Mostly Music blog (article 1 - article 2) which talk about the effect of pop music on jazz and how some musicians benefit from the 'press' of popular music by playing a type of jazz music which is less 'pure', or one could say leans towards pop music. So, who is this guy >> on the photo, what's he got to do with jazz musicians playing more commercial music, and so why did I put him there?

Some of you reading this will already know the identity of the 'Viking' in the photo. However it's maybe enough to say .. "Once upon a time there was a man who believed in his music so much that he didn't care about anything but just living and making his music, and his name was Moondog". Of course he was (and is) just one of thousands of musicians who are prepared to die for their art form. But does that make their music any better for it? I guess not, because believing in your music (or art form) is what really matters, and one cannot say that musicians such as Esperanza Spalding don't believe in their music. I think Esperanza Spalding really does, and to add to it she's a great musician. What's more interesting (for me) is how 'selling out' seems to be a very American thing to do, and in particular a jazz musician's thing to do. So what makes these musicians - with great potential - feel the need to become successful in a more commercial area?

It's unclear what started this trend off, or even if there was a starting period. After all musicians such as Louis Armstrong or Sidney Bechet both liked the idea of 'playing to the audience'. Jelly Roll Morton also loved the idea of being popular and like all the others around him understood that for them jazz was about entertainment, and not necessarily about pushing boundaries forward. I imagine that none of these musicians ever thought about trying to substitute chords, change time signatures and play in odd meters superimposed over 13 bar forms. I guess that whilst jazz was fashionable young players didn't feel the need to look elsewhere for a public. However after 1960 jazz music, even though important, started to loose ground to popular music of the day, and by 1970 many more young people were listening to rock than jazz. This is probably where dissent started to creep in and those who were lucky enough to have mass appeal (and had selling power) such as Charles Lloyd or Dave Brubeck were lucky enough to play what they wanted and sell out large concert halls to a younger audience. Labels such as CTI (standing for Creed Taylor Inc) had artists play in more commercial setting and some of the results were great. Wes Montgomery, George Benson, or Freddy Hubbard produced fine crossover music without compromising their artistic values. The music also spoke to younger people, although due to it's sophisticated sound it didn't make inroads into the area of rock and roll youth culture. In fact one of the main complaints today (among jazz musicians) is that the average age of the public is often quite old. The age of the public, however appreciative, does have an effect on the musicians. The energy of a room full of 50 year olds (my age) and a room full of 25 year olds is different. 

So what is it that drives theses musicians to be commercial? I imagine that it's mostly from public attention, after all it is exciting to see a whole room (hall) of people jumping up and down to your music, even if you're not that convinced. Musicians enjoy public attention, something good for the ego, and a source of inspiration. The fact that you become commercial also doesn't mean you're not relevant, or innovative. Some groups that combined commercial and popular music, ex: Donald Byrd and the Blackbyrds, were pioneering in terms of cross over music, and to a certain extend this jazz-soul approach certainly shaped much of our musical culture from the 70s. It's also left a very strong mark on the younger musicians of today such as Jamiroquai to name just one. Many writers and groups have been heavily influenced by the sound of 70s film music and 70s soul. Of course less commercial cross over jazz such as Herbie Hancock's 'Crossings' and the Mwandishi 6tet has also been highly influential even if due to logistical and financial concerns it isn't reproduced by modern day groups. The Soul music coming out of the states at the time was very political in direction, and the Free Jazz movement was also interested in making a statement about society, something which is less prevalent now. Music such as Marvin Gaye's 'What's Going On' and Curtis Mayfield combined biting social commentary into their lyrics along with very danceable rhythms and more importantly sophisticated harmony (chord progressions, melody and arrangements), something which today seems less relevant to mainstream performers.  

Following the same thread that politics and music making are linked, an interesting idea that comes from the times of Plato and his Timaeus is the idea that the world, when in harmony, produces music which is also in harmony. M. Murray Schafer illustrates this very well in his 'Tuning of the World' by quoting Herman Hesse, "Therefore the music of a well-ordered age is calm and cheerful, and so is its government. The music of a restive age is excited and fierce, and it's government is perverted. The music of a decaying state is sentimental and sad, and it's government is imperilled." Or in real terms what this means he explains: "The Thesis is also borne out well in tribal societies where, under the strict control of the flourishing community, music is tightly structured, while in detribalized areas the individual sings appalling sentimental songs." I wonder if this rings any bells when talking about the development of popular music today via such channels as the 'X-Factor', '.....'s Got Talent', or 'The Voice'? You could even take a look at the average chart selection for any month/week of the year to then wonder if this statement reflects something about our society and the politics of these past years?

So finally we could ask is it possible to sell out? I guess in real terms the answer is no, I suppose the bottom line is; if you're happy doing what you're doing who can criticise you?

To read more about the politics of music and life in the community read Steve Isoardi's 'The Dark Tree', a brilliant biography of the life of Horace Tapscott, someone who decided to choose community over fame.

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