Is music political? Of course, and never so more than in the current conversation. Indeed, it is absurd to consider the recent tidal wave of Beyoncé’s Lemonade as divorced from politics. Amazingly, Beyoncé is actually making headway on progressive issues with the general populace.
There is a price, a kind of corporate tax any truly major pop artist has to pay when part of the industrial complex — I nearly capitalized Tidal in the previous paragraph — but, then again, all progress comes at a price.
Lawrence Block makes the helpful suggestion that all artists are driven first by ego and avarice.
This is the fundamental problem with most overtly political stances within less mainstream music like jazz. My hero, Charlie Haden, made records that all but proclaimed that he was a Communist…but the personal reality was that Charlie refused 5-star hotel rooms that didn’t have thick enough towels and sent back salads that didn’t have enough blueberries.
Traditionally I suspect jazz’s most impressive political power was through understatement. When listening to Count Basie with Tootie Heath, I asked Tootie if the Count’s music was political. He replied: “Of course! Think of what it meant in 1940, to have all those black musicians in suits looking good and swinging so hard.”
Still, if you look at the wonderful autobiographies of Basie band stalwarts Dicky Wells and Marshall Royal, changing the world was a possible side product (at best). Most of the discussion is of getting paid and getting laid.
One person who walks the walk as well as talks the talk is Frederic Rzewski. I commend Zachary Woolfe for two articles in the New York Times:
In His Notes, Protest, and Politics
A Primer to One of America’s Most Political Composers
This coverage in support of three concerts at Bargemusic tonight, tomorrow, and Sunday. I’m about to get on a plane to Europe otherwise I would be there.
My favorite Rzewski disc is North American Ballads and Squares on Hat Art. In Ballads he wildly deconstructs protest songs in a theatric and virtuosic fashion.
Rzewski improvises the cadenzas, too. Indeed, he is the rare kind of classical pianist-composer who can improvise non-tricksy, deeply felt, tonal/atonal cadenzas at the drop of a hat.
The best place I know to hear Rzewski improvise on the music of another composer is his Cornelius Cardew recital We Sing for the Future! (Cardew was another political composer who practiced what he preached.)
On hand at Barge to assist will be violinist Miranda Cuckson. Miranda’s Melting the Darkness was one of my favorite discoveries last year, and now there is a new ECM record of Béla Bartók, Alfred Schnittke and Witold Lutosławski with the equally brilliant Blair McMillen.
This duo plays LPR on Tuesday. Highly recommended.