There is Only Today

(A post for my students at NEC.)

When teaching I’m usually trying to make sure that my students respect the jazz tradition. That’s my job. I figure that’s literally what I’m getting paid for.

However, the endgame is never to win a prize by sounding like a record made 50 or 60 years ago. When people play by those rules, the result is usually not very artistic.

All the best music sounds like its time and place. When and where you were born, what you were exposed to culturally by the time you hit puberty — these forever make up the basic DNA of your most natural aesthetic.

My students know about new hip stuff in a way I don’t. I’m too old and too disconnected to what is really happening now, and can neither teach it nor learn it. When assessing contemporary aesthetics, my students just need to ignore me as much as possible, for, inevitably, I will not like some of the latest ideas.

A personal anecdote: Fred Hersch is a mentor, I studied with him very seriously for several years. When I first was playing the Village Vanguard with the Bad Plus, Fred came down. After the set he pulled me aside and said, “Ethan, you have to quit playing so many straight triads.” I looked in his face and saw something akin to horror, almost revulsion.

This was very satisfying. I knew if I had upset Fred so deeply, then I was on to something strong and perhaps even durable.

Some of it may be as simple as not shutting a door. If you leave the door open and let whatever that is in your subconscious float like a breeze through your aesthetic, that might be all that is required.

One clue: Jason Moran, Taurus Mateen, and Nasheet Waits all like the hip-hop they grew up with. The Bandwagon doesn’t hide their hip-hop influence. It’s not ostentatious, it’s just a seasoning, but it is a crucial seasoning. It’s some kind of binding ingredient that makes their wonderful final product speak of their time, place, and shared heritage.

Another clue: When I interviewed Jeff Watts, Tain talked about loving ’70s fusion, and how he tried to incorporate some of that fusion drumming style into the ’80s music he played with Wynton Marsalis. This aspect was ignored by the press and the general discourse of the time, because A) the discourse around the drums is always lacking, and B) that Billy Cobham influence was just a faint breeze in the music.

However, faint as it was, that breeze was very important. The music Wynton Marsalis made with Tain remains the Wynton music with the most outstanding individuality.

In the halls of NEC, many people seem to be blending modernist classical music references into their jazz. That’s more than acceptable, but European techniques can usually be explained in a book.

One reason I bang on and on about the jazz tradition in my classes is partly a racial thing. This is not just for respect and social justice — although that’s surely important enough — but also simply for learning basic aesthetics.

The black geniuses who created the music already knew European music from books and conventional education, but then they figured out how to add in an African aesthetic. How they did it remains almost secret. Today we have hundreds and hundreds of books “explaining jazz harmony” or offering “patterns for improvisation” but there are usually no African-American secrets in those bland manuals.

Rock and pop, let alone hip-hop, are more “Africanized” than modernist classical music. These social sounds are for grooving and dancing. The connections to classic jazz are right there.

I have observed young peer groups in a university treating the influence of twelve-tone music or other esoteric European concepts to be better for their burgeoning jazz than rock, pop, or hip-hop.

To my way of thinking, that’s ridiculous. While swing is a special category — for the record, “swinging” is harder than you think — a beat and a good tune are still a beat and good tune, wherever you find them. And if you absorbed it as a kid, then you already possess it. Let it in.

This is not to stop anyone from adding in twelve-tone theory if that is required. I love certain kinds of twelve-tone music myself. Just keep the doors open. Let it all in.

Also for the record: the more you know about the jazz tradition, the deeper your jazz will be, even if the surface of your music doesn’t have a straight-ahead sheen. (Having been around the block a few times, I now regard the preceding sentence as indisputable.)

More personal anecdotes…

The Bad Plus reached an audience after putting a radio rock or indie rock ethos straight into avant-garde jazz. Honestly, I personally never cared that much for any “rock music” one way or the other on its own, but I was the right age/social group to have heard ’80s rock on the radio and then regard Wes Anderson as a touchstone. (Without Wes Anderson, there’s no Bad Plus.)

In general, my love of popular music — at least American pop music after 1970 or so — is connected to a theatrical element: mostly film and TV, but there was also an avant-garde production of Hamlet by the Wooster Group where the actors broke into indie rock song, and that was definitely one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen.

At the top of the 2020 pandemic, I recorded a bunch of TV themes for my socials. Dave Cantor wrote for DownBeat: “Premising playful content on music that’s familiar to a huge portion of the public…is similar to how the pianist first rose to prominence.”

That’s absolutely right. What Cantor could have added, though, is that some of TBP’s most popular originals like David King’s “Anthem for the Earnest” or Reid Anderson’s “Here We Test Our Powers of Observation” could sound a bit like a TV theme. It’s just a faint breeze wafting across the aesthetic of the music…but it’s there. The three of us were all children of the boob tube. There’s no way around it!

I’ve noted above that I’m too old to keep up with the current trends, but it’s never wrong to keep a door open. When the pandemic hit, I thought to myself, “I should play a video game and see what the kids are up too.” I settled on Portal, an old game at this point, but one that had been praised as wildly influential and even as one of the greatest video games of all time.

Portal lived up to the hype, it was very imaginative, and even had some interesting music right from the beginning: A humorous samba theme (at first it seems like muzak until later plot points are revealed) functions as ironic counterpoint to the diabolical puzzles awaiting next door in the futuristic testing chambers.

Unfortunately, it was just too hard to manipulate from a Macbook keyboard (this old man has never bought a controller) so I quit when split-second timing became essential for progress. Still, I wanted to stay in that compelling Portal world, and the play-though of the complete game on YouTube turned out to be as enthralling as a well-made action movie.

At the end, after an epic climax, there’s a song!

An indie rock song!

The samba theme is transformed into an auto-tuned gift for those players who manage to pass all the levels!

It’s so good. “Still Alive” by Jonathan Coulton and sung by Ellen McLain.

“…Now these points of data make a beautiful line…we’re out of beta, we’re releasing on time!”

I laughed, I cried. It was one of the most inspired and completely fresh uses of music I’ve ever seen.