Hill Dispatches

karl nerenberg's picture
Karl Nerenberg has been reporting on federal politics from Parliament Hill for rabble.ca since September, 2011. In his long career, he has won numerous awards as a broadcaster and documentary filmmaker.

How jazz explains Harper's tone deaf damage control

| June 12, 2013
How jazz explains Harper's tone deaf damage control

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Soon the Parliamentary session will give way to festival season in Ottawa.

There will be a dance festival, fringe festival, chamber music (two festivals for that), folk and blues festivals, an Italian street festival, a hot-air balloon festival, and, of course, the inevitable jazz fest.

Jazz festivals -- starting at Newport, Rhode lsland, in the 1950s -- have been around for a very long time. They are charter members of the festival club.

Montreal now claims to have the world’s biggest jazz festival, though how one measures that sort of bigness is a bit of a mystery.

Montreal's festival got its start as a small two-day event in 1979, so it is now something of an historic institution.

Of course, jazz only forms a fairly limited part of Montreal's -- or Ottawa's -- 'jazz' festival program.

For the quite distinct minority of folks who might go out to hear jazz on a cold night in February -- including this writer -- it can be a bit galling that the biggest headliners at  'jazz' festivals are most often not 'jazz' but pop, rock, country or r'n'b artists.

In Ottawa, this year, 'jazz' fest headline performers include David Byrne, Willie Nelson, Boz Scaggs and the Doobie Brothers.

They're all great artists.

Indeed, Willie Nelson has been performing and recording the "standards" -- the songs from the so-called Great American Songbook that still constitute a big piece of most jazz musicians' repertoire -- for a long time, going back to his 'Stardust' album of the 1970s.

After 'Stardust' came out, many who didn't otherwise know that venerable repertoire associated it entirely with Willie Nelson. At a party, many decades ago, I tinkled one of jazz hall-of-famer Duke Ellington's best-known compositions -- 'Don't Get Around Much Any More' -- on the piano, and someone asked me if I could play that "Willie Nelson song" again.

Nelson, like other great icons of popular music such as Stevie Wonder and Lennon/McCartney, also composed some truly immortal songs -- songs that have become standards of their own, and that jazz musicians, these days, often love to play.

Nelson's 'Crazy,' for instance, is a 32-bar standard that would be worthy of Richard Rogers, Irving Berlin or Jerome Kern.

It's all about improvising, creating in the moment

But jazz is not so much about repertoire, whether old or new. It is about the approach to the material, whatever that material might be.

The jazz approach can be summed up in one word: improvisation.

What those who are addicted to jazz most appreciate is the way the musicians stand there (or, in the case of pianists, sit there) and, in effect, "compose" in real time.

The song, or tune, or (as they sometimes call it) the "head" on which they are improvising is just the jazz players' starting point.

The real adventure is the soloist's -- and the group's -- creative exploration.

Much of jazz is not, sadly, music for everyone. Its appeal is not always immediate and obvious, and it does sometimes have the capacity to confuse and bewilder.

This sort of largely improvised music can require effort on the part of the listener.

Most contemporary jazz has the intellectual dimension and complexity of 'serious' or 'classical' music.

Plus, with its focus on improvisation, jazz has another dimension -- another element of complexity -- that classical music normally lacks: spontaneity.

Jazz is one of the very few art forms that is still largely created in the moment, on the spot, right in front of the audience.

Marriage of logic and order to freedom and spontaneity

I had the good fortune to hear the paterfamilias of the famed Marsalis family -- septuagenarian pianist Ellis Marsalis -- at the Snug Harbor club in New Orleans this past winter.

His band mates that evening included a tenor sax player, one of Marsalis' talented sons on drums, and a bassist.

Marsalis' modus operandi, at this performance, was to start each tune with an extended solo piano intro. The other musicians would listen carefully and, somehow, mysteriously, join in at a strategic moment. They just seemed to feel when they should start playing.

On a few occasions, however, it looked as though at least some of Ellis' band mates weren't quite sure what he was playing.

On one tune, it seemed that Marsalis' drummer son didn't know whether dad was playing a ballad requiring brushes, a swing-tune requiring sticks, or a Latin song that would need mallets. As his dad worked his way into the tune, the son kept putting down one set of tools and picking up another, trying, literally to figure out what was going on!

I ran into the bass player during a break and asked him about that seeming confusion.

"Oh, we never know what Ellis is going to play," the bass player admitted.

"Sometimes," he added, "I've played right through a tune to the end and did not know what it was!"

That's a pretty startling admission and it could be a recipe for chaos and cacophony.

But that's not what listeners at that show at the Snug Harbor Club got. There were no musical train wrecks that evening in New Orleans.

This was tight, in-the-pocket, finely executed music. No one in the audience could know that the musicians had never before played any of the songs exactly the way they did on that occasion – nor would they ever again play them exactly that way.

What we witnessed -- and what is so particular about jazz -- was the ineffable marriage of freedom and spontaneity to structure and order.

Marsalis' crew were musicians who understood and had internalized the rigorous musical form and logic of the compositions on which they were improvising -- even if they could not always name those compositions.

At the same time, they were open to the emotional spirit of the moment, capable of reacting to each others' spontaneous creative insights and changing moods.

Jazz is a capitalistically-challenged art form

Like classical music, most popular music, of whatever genre, is much more tightly programmed, organized and controlled than most jazz.

There are occasional improvisatory solos in pop and rock, but they do not happen very often.

On his CBC Radio show 'Vinyl Tap' Canadian rock legend Randy Bachman will draw listeners' attention to the rare and very memorable eight or sixteen bar solos that happen on a small number of classic rock tunes.

At the eight or sixteen bar point, most jazz improvisers are just getting warmed up.

And have you ever witnessed a country, rock or pop band try a trick like having each instrumentalist "trade fours" with the drummer? That's when musicians pass around a tune in a sort of relay race, changing the musical baton precisely after each four bars. It is a difficult musical feat and requires great instincts and intense concentration. But it normally seems so effortless, most listeners don't notice.

Jazz musicians have paid a price for the inherent complexity of their music.

It has meant that, for the most part, they have had to content themselves with relatively small, if dedicated audiences.

Very few promoters or record company executives, not to mention actual musicians, get rich pushing, producing or performing jazz.

All of which is why some of us are happy that festivals provide a big stage -- and a much bigger than usual audience -- for this capitalistically-challenged art form.

If festivals need the big name, more commercially-viable performers to subsidize the more hard core jazz players, so be it. There is no reason to feel offended because of that.

It's just the way it is.

The good news is that, with the advent of the festival season, the sometimes endangered art of creative improvisation will get a pretty big place in the sun.

And that is, indeed, all good.

When politicians try improvising they can produce cacophony

Before the current session of Parliament comes to complete close, however, we are witnessing a pretty elaborate -- and sometimes comical -- demonstration of political improvisation on the Hill.

Except, the current Hill kind almost entirely lacks the aesthetic logic, rigour and order of well-played jazz!

The government's shucking and jiving on the question of the Conservative Party funds to which Nigel Wright had access is, in fact, creating a fair bit of discordant cacophony.

We have one Parliamentary Secretary, Chris Alexander, telling CBC Radio that -- yes -- there was a fund on which Nigel Wright could write cheques for "partisan" purposes.

Alexander's exact words were: "nobody denies that."

Then we have another Parliamentary Secretary, Pierre Poilievre, picking up the tune, but improvising in a totally different key.

On Monday, Poilievre tried a short obbligato of low-rent stand-up comedy.

"I have a secret," he said "... Stephen Harper is Leader of the Conservative Party ..."

Ergo, concluded Poilievre, the Prime Minister sometimes does Conservative, not government, business, for which he needs Conservative, not taxpayers' money.

All very normal, usual and reasonable -- except, of course, that was not the question.

The question was whether Nigel Wright had direct access to, and virtual control of, a Conservative fund, as Chris Alexander affirmed, on more than one occasion -- or not, as Poilievre tried to tell Parliament last week.

Tellingly, Poilievre did not repeat that denial on Monday.

He just meandered away from the tune, losing track of the beat and harmonic pattern, the way inexperienced jazz players sometimes do.

The player who had a better ear and firmer grasp of the music -- Chris Alexander -- was conveniently absent on Monday.

Had he been in the House he might have been tempted -- as musicians sometimes do -- to signal to his Ottawa colleague to focus and "get back in the pocket."

The fact is, though, that the Conservative strategy these days is to quite deliberately obscure the underlying melody, and try to play out the clock.

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Comments

Interesting post.  Albert Schweitzer's biography of JS Bach says that Bach used to play a few bars of another composer's work as a starting point for an improvisation.  Mozart's fantasies are reported to be written improvistions.   Miles Davis wrote chord changes in a taxi on the way to the recording studio over which everyone could improvise, while he drank glasses of vodka between improvised solos.  The greats all improvise.

Alas, Harper and company can not improvise.  They need sheet music.  The problem is, I think the conservative music librarian has mixed up the pages.

 

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