When In Doubt, Read a Book

(Hermann Hesse and Mark Leibovich)

A fair number of jazz musicians have mentioned Glass Bead Game over the years. For Tetragon, Joe Henderson recorded a significant piece of free jazz called “The Bead Game.” One of Clifford Jordan’s best albums is Glass Bead Games. When I asked Keith Jarrett to word-associate about Andrew Hill, he responded, “Glass Bead Game. I dunno. Something like that.” Last week I texted Mark Turner what I was reading and he responded, “Love that book. Western spirituality at its best.”

The Glass Bead Game breaks down into essentially three parts: An introduction to the future world and the game, the story of Magister Ludi Joseph Knecht, and an appendix of Knecht’s own writings.

The slightly pompous and comic introduction predicts the internet and the postmodern age with uncanny precision. The description of the Game – combining art, math, science, music, and sociology – could be helpful for those interested in the best American music. At the least, the following paragraph is relevant for anyone attempting to interface with an older jazz master:

We stress that this introduction is intended only for popular consumption and makes no claim whatsoever to clarifying the questions being discussed within the Order itself on the problems and history of the game. The time for an objective account of that subject is still far in the future. Let no one, therefore, expect from us a complete history and theory of the Glass Bead Game. Even authors of higher rank and competence than ourself would not be capable of providing that at the present time. That task must remain reserved to later ages, if the sources and the intellectual prerequisites for the task have not previously been lost. Still less is our essay intended as a text book of the Glass Bead Game; indeed, no such thing will ever be written. The only way to learn the rules of this Game of games is to take the usual prescribed course, which requires many years; and none of the initiates could ever possibly have any interest in making those rules easier to learn.

Clifford Jordan cared about history and society and how things really work on a macro scale. Musically, he was a master craftsman of straight-ahead tenor but also appreciated the avant-garde; in other areas, he was master of the hang and top-level weed dealer.

Jordan’s first leader dates like Spellbound and Bearcat are brilliant but reasonably conventional. 1966’s tribute to Leadbelly, These Are My Roots, changes it up by becoming superbly surreal. (Tootie Heath told me, “We had to rehearse a lot for that one.”) For the first Afro-centric record label, Strata-East, Jordan offered a curated set of sessions called “The Dolphy series.” While the late Eric Dolphy was a serious intellectual, much of those sessions’ groovy space-outs are only that much better when in an altered state of consciousness.

Billy Hart calls the jazz tradition, “A sociological experiment manifested through music.” Glass Bead Games, Jordan’s best Strata-East session, offers the full exertion of a community that is the product of a sociological experiment.

Hesse explains in terms a jazz master might endorse about their own art:

These rules, the sign language and grammar of the Game, constitute a kind of highly developed secret language drawing upon several sciences and arts, but especially mathematics and music (and/or musicology), and capable of expressing and establishing interrelationships between the content including conclusions of nearly all scholarly disciplines. The Glass Bead Game is thus a mode of playing with the total contents and values of our culture; it plays with them as, say, in the great age of the arts a painter might have played with the colors on his palette. All the insights, noble thoughts, and works of art that the human race has produced in its creative eras, all that subsequent periods of scholarly study have reduced to concepts and converted into intellectual property — on all this immense body of intellectual values the Glass Bead Game player plays like the organist on an organ.

To make his point about the community of “noble thoughts and works of art” extra clear, Jordan programs several pieces that explicitly honor musicians not present at the session: Paul Robeson, Eddie Harris, John Coltrane, Cal Massey.

I’m very impressed with the Game, and a puzzle piece about that “sociological experiment manifested through music” has definitely clicked into place. However,  I did joke to Sarah that the main story of Joseph Knecht was a bit of a sentimental slog, something akin to Tolkien. She was rightfully furious: “Tolkien is so bad and Hesse is so good.”

It may be that I am just a bit old for the big bildungsroman. I’ve heard before that Hesse is really for teenagers, and regret not reading him earlier.


Much of The Glass Bead Game is connected to the question, “How much should the pure artist interface with politics?”

When Vince Keenan tweeted Mark Leibovich’s recent profile of Larry King, I was seriously impressed with the voice of author. Vince then told me that This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral -Plus, Plenty of Valet Parking! – in America’s Gilded Capital had changed the way he viewed politics.

I got This Town and was blown away. Just an amazing document: A Washington reporter and anointed insider dishes on the way it all really works.

A work of non-fictional reportage is inevitably episodic, so I am particularly impressed with This Town’s large-scale structure. We begin at Tim Russert’s funeral and end at the “Last Party” of Ben Bradlee. In between, each chapter flows seamlessly into one another. Just one exceptionally brilliant link: When Leibovich profiles Harry Reid and Tom Coburn in sequence, the transition is the former hanging up on the latter.

This Town is scathing and hilarious. I want to quote the whole damn book, but here are just two tidbits. The first one is short description of, “Terry McAuliffe, the former Democratic National Committee chairman, known as ‘the Macker.’”

McAuliffe made his mark as one of the most irrepressible money men in political history, or better. “The greatest fund-raiser in the history of the universe,” Al Gore dubbed him….So committed is the Macker to his art that he even stopped off at a fund raiser on the way home from the hospital with his wife, Dorothy, after she gave birth to their newborn son, Peter. Dorothy stayed in the car, crying, while the baby slept and the Macker did his thing. “I felt bad for Dorothy,” he would later write. “But it was a million bucks for the Democratic party.”

If McAuliffe’s signature is fund-raising, his principal identity is as professional best friend to Bill Clinton. The title of McAuliffe’s memoir What a Party! might as well be Let Me Tell You Another Story about Me and Bill Clinton….To deprive McAuliffe of the words “Bill Clinton” would be like depriving a mathematician of numbers.

And the second is a self-contained parenthetical bouncing off what “cordial” means in Washington:

Here is an example of how two senators with a “cordial” relationship deal with each other: In 2005, when Rick Santorum was still in the Senate, I wrote a profile of the brash Pennsylvania Republican, who had managed to claw his way into his party’s leadership despite being disliked by many of his colleagues. Santorum’s unpopularity was common knowledge on Capitol Hill. As a reporter, however, getting a senator to disparage a colleague on the record can be next to impossible, given protocol against even the mildest slander of fellow members. I tried. And I turned up the predictably limp platitudes from senators who plainly could not stand Santorum — which is “Latin for asshole,” as Democrat Bob Kerrey of Nebraska once helpfully translated. Finally, I encountered Democrat Mary Landrieu, of Louisiana, just off the Senate floor. As she walked by, I asked her, “What do you think of Rick Santorum?” To which Landrieu grimaced and replied, “You couldn’t quote what I’d have to say about him.” That was good enough for me. I quoted Landrieu saying exactly that. Sure enough, next time they were on the floor together, Santorum made a beeline for Landrieu, saying in so many words that his feelings were hurt. In turn, Landrieu did what most self-respecting lawmakers do when cornered about saying something objectionable: she blamed her staff; specifically, she blamed her communications director, Adam Sharp, who by any reading of the situation had nothing to do with it. But Landrieu reamed him out anyway demanded he craft a letter of apology to Santorum. He did; Landrieu reviewed it and then refused to sign it herself, apparently not wishing to authenticate this travesty with her pristine signature. The office autopen had to suffice.

This Town climaxes with three sections about Obama’s re-election campaign, after which Leibovich drily notes, “By ten p.m. on November 6, the results were sealed for POTUS and the $2 billion cacophony was officially in the books.”

Now that the current monstrously expensive cacophony is underway, I expect to be frequently clutching at my memories of This Town. The truth hurts, but the truth also sets you free.