Showing posts with label Jazz music. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Jazz music. Show all posts

Friday, August 21, 2009

The Primitivist Myth

A few months ago I wrote a blog dealing with adjectival criticism and music, complaining that many popular music writers—like the AMG sort, for example—have a limited repertoire, preferring to label rather than to critique or interpret. Part of the problem is in understanding music as an art, and part is that the writing is shallow. The fact is, most writing on popular music, perhaps unintentionally, has the effect of dumbing it down. It is difficult to translate sonic experience into definition, and the standard deployment for some writers is predication of names on (adjectival) descriptions.

One individual who came across my blog a couple of months ago wrote to me personally (I hesitate to mention his name because he wrote to me in a private email, not in a blog comment), largely agreeing with me, observing that there are, of course, some good writers on popular music: Peter Guralnick, Greil Marcus, Dave Marsh, Rob Bowman, James Lincoln Collier, Gunther Schuller, and Nat Hentoff, to name a few. These individuals are all exceptionally good writers—learned, passionate, insightful, dedicated, who demonstrate a remarkably vast erudition. He also made the point—and I think he’s right—that some of the best writing on music is on so-called “legitimate music,” observing that the problems of writing about “legitimate music” (jazz, for instance) are intrinsically different than those of popular music, simply because the rhetoric, diction, style, and assumptions about audience are so different. Much of the writing about pop music is purposefully dumbed down on the assumption that its presumed audience views anything remotely intellectual with utter contempt. He mentioned to me that one of his favorite books happened to be Ted Gioia’s The Imperfect Art: Reflections on Jazz and Modern Culture (Oxford University Press, 1988), which he characterized as exploring jazz by channeling Walter Benjamin.

Two decades after the fact, I finally managed to get hold of a copy of Ted Gioia’s slim volume (152 pp.), and read it all in one sitting. For what it’s worth, I found it rich, learned, well-written, and—yes—thought-provoking. I was particularly taken with the chapter, “Jazz and the Primitivist Myth,” which explores how jazz was embraced as a modernist art form because its earliest and most enthusiastic writers (mostly European) were also immensely interested in the idealization and theorization of the primitive. He observes that primitivism was a source of modernist art, but also served as a critique. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, “primitive” and “exotic” others of non-Western cultures started attracting the attention of Western artists and became sources of new ideas and new forms: Picasso’s “Cubism” for example, or Puccini’s “Oriental” operas such as Madame Butterfly and Turandot. (The plundering of so-called “world music” by many contemporary pop music artists is an expression of the same impulse.) In other words, primitivism and exoticism became a fashion and also sources for “high” art. Gioia points out that one of the distortions of jazz by its early theorists resulted from the treatment of jazz as “natural” and “primitive”: French theorist and jazz lover Hugues Panassie—the “Venerable Frog”—was capable of writing:

primitive man generally has greater talent than civilized man. An excess of culture atrophies inspiration, and men crammed with culture tend too much to play tricks, to replace inspiration by lush technique under which one finds music stripped of real vitality (qtd. by Gioia, pp. 29-30)

Such presuppositions led to critiques of Louis Armstrong, for instance, as a “primitive genius.” Robert Goffin was to observe about Louis Armstrong, in Jazz: From the Congo to the Metropolitan, that Armstrong “is a full-blooded Negro. He brought the directness and spontaneity of his race to jazz music.”

Thus primitivism became a source for modernist art, and an individual who claimed to be a “modern” embraced jazz, even if he or she didn’t quite understand what it was doing musically. The influence of African masks on Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907, pictured), for instance, is an illustration of the way primitivism influenced modernist art. The painting depicts five naked prostitutes in a brothel; two of them push aside curtains around the space where the other women strike seductive and erotic poses. But their figures are composed of flat, splintered planes, their eyes are lopsided, and two of them have masks for heads. Their faces were influenced by African masks that Picasso assumed had once functioned as a kind of apotropaic magic—protection against evil spirits. Indeed, he was to say later that this painting was his “first exorcism painting,” and a particular danger he had in mind was life-threatening sexual disease, a source of considerable anxiety in Paris at the time—after all, these were days before penicillin.

Of course, as Gioia points out, “jazz is not primitive art. Nor, like the works of Picasso or Modigliani, is it imitative of primitive art. The jazz artist could not achieve the naïve attitude of the Lascoux cave painter even if he tried. And far from trying to imitate such artlessness, the jazz musician has strived, from as far back as we can trace, to increase his level of sophistication and his knowledge of his craft” (p. 45) But such was the power of the “Primitivist Myth” to distort perceptions of jazz music. As Gene Lees (b. 1928, author for years of the monthly Jazzletter) observes in his review of Barry Singer’s Black and Blue: The Life and Lyrics of Andy Razaf (1992):

If the work of black songwriters and performers emphasized the torrid and wanton sexuality that was supposed to be a racial characteristic, it was because that was the way white publishers and producers perceived black people and because they demanded that black people be shown as lascivious exotics in entertainment designed for white audiences. Jazz as we know it emerged not as a black music meant for black audiences but largely as a black music for white audiences; blacks were barred from the audiences of Connie’s Inn and the Cotton Club.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

The Ideas They Kept A-Rollin’

This morning I was pleased to discover that the number of hits on my blogspot had taken a noticeable spike, I suspect in part because of the stimulating exchange (stimulating to me, anyway) Tim Lucas and I have had the past couple of days regarding the relationship between psychedelia and bubblegum music. I invite all my blogspot visitors to read his comments, available through the comments link at the end of my “Bubblegum Breakthrough (Slight Return)” entry. (His initial comment, that prompted the subsequent discussion, is available at the end of the previous day’s entry.)

I am especially gratified by the number of visitors because I think he and I have, in the space of about 48 hours, generated more ideas about how to read (as in interpret) popular music than one can find on websites specifically dedicated to the task of reviewing albums. It’s true that we have been focused on a rather narrow slice of popular music history--admittedly, a slice that is perhaps not interesting to all readers. But what I’ve found so stimulating (as I think Tim has) is not so much our individual valuations of the individual albums or songs--disagreement is a healthy thing, not a “bad” thing, because it promotes further discussion that usually translates into knowledge--but the various methods we’ve employed to make the music meaningful in the first place. After all, popular music doesn’t “mean” anything at all—doesn’t gain any adherents--until it conforms to certain trends and ideas that make it valuable to listeners.

Perhaps the point is best expressed by James Lincoln Collier, in Jazz: The American Theme Song (Oxford University Press, 1993), a critic whose knowledge about jazz is encyclopedic in its breadth. Although he is writing about how jazz music came to represent the new modern spirit of America in the 1920s (“Modernism”), his point is applicable to the way all popular music is ascribed meaning and value:

The point is that a particular style or form in art gains adherents not simply from purely aesthetic considerations, but also from how well it appears to agree with fashionable social, philosophic, or even political considerations . . . . (p. 9)

It was Collier’s insight that formed the basis of my initial assertion, that psychedelia is the aural equivalent of a hallucinogenic drug trip: the particular “sound” that became known as psychedelia meant nothing until it was ascribed a certain analogical meaning.

I think exchanges of the sort Tim and I have the past couple of days are rare in the sense that they happen because the individual participants coincidentally have the time to dedicate to such pursuits. (He’s trying to assemble the latest issue of Video Watchdog while I’m trying to provide him with the material to do just that.) Although Tim has been writing on the cinema since he was a teenager, and I’ve been writing for Video Watchdog for the past 11 years, both of us have keen interest in popular music and it has always been a pleasure for me to share ideas and views about music with him. I don’t think our mutual love of movies and music should be surprising to those who know us primarily through Video Watchdog, as we’re both extremely interested in what in the most general terms is called the “entertainment industry,” the way it has formed our identities and contributed to the life of our individual imaginations. We’re also interested in it because we’re both striving to understand ourselves as individuals whose identities were formed during a particular historical moment when the cultural influence of the entertainment industry had finally achieved the cultural dominance that we now accept as a given, like a fact of nature.

In short, we take popular music very seriously. Last year he and I both submitted proposals to Contiuum’s 33 1/3 series, only to have our proposals rejected by the editor. The manuscript for his book, on Jefferson Airplane’s Crown of Creation, has been completed for a year now if not longer; my manuscript, on Wall of Voodoo’s Call of the West, is perhaps half completed, as I stopped working on it once I received the rejection notice (an email). Both of us obviously were disappointed by the outcome, as we’d each completed a considerable amount of original research, and a number of original interviews. In my case, I had the complete cooperation and total support of the defunct band’s leader, Stan Ridgway, who is still active touring and making albums. If anyone knows of a potential publisher for these books, please let Tim or me know.