All the Things You Are

Ethan Iverson’s massive, multi-angled exploration of the music and mind of jazz pianist Lennie Tristano is the best couple hours you’ll spend this week. A lot of the promise of the Internet circles around hyperlinked and non-linear texts, but this illustrates what is, to me, an even greater virtue—a platform to stretch out and explore a subject without having to worry about restrictions on length or scope or focus.

The history of race in America is, in so many ways, the history of America, period. Ethan’s ultimate subject—the complicated role of racial identity in jazz—fascinates me to no end, especially since my own taste in jazz has always gravitated towards cultural mongrels, the sort of music that Stanley Crouch is casting a sideways glance in this quote from Ethan’s post:

As you know, I do not accept the idea that jazz advances itself by following new directions, harmonies or rhythms from European classical music.

I listened to a lot of Dave Brubeck, partially because of his connection, through Milhaud, with Les Six; I listened to a lot of Oscar Peterson because of his Lisztian overtones; I delved heavily into that great American repertoire, jazz’s precursor, ragtime, addicted to both the polyrhythmic modernity and the Chopinesque pianistic and harmonic cast. To me, one of the glories of American music is its seemingly ineradicable ability to take all manner of influence, from Protestant psalmody to hardcore serialism, and turn it into something recognizably American. And yet, such practice does walk a fine line between confidence and arrogance, between enthusiasm and entitlement. Tristano’s effort to form his own sound and school is equal parts visionary and abrasive, and Ethan gets at both without descending into easy psycho-caricature or judgmental simplification. (Plus, he links to the gloriously crazy, overtracked, free-jazz rumpus that is Tristano’s “Descent Into the Maelstrom.” Far out.)

One comment

  1. Or as Charles Mingus said “All the things you could be right now if Sigmund Freud’s wife was your mama…”Thanks for the Tristano link. I’m glad Iverson is making explicit some of the racist climate that hung around the “Lennie School,” though I don’t think he goes far enough, frankly. Tristano (who used to dismiss John Coltrane as “that screaming nigger”) shared with other white musicians of the day the view that “Crow Jim”–what anti-affirmative action folks call “reverse discrimination”–was responsible for denying them the recognition they deserved. (Cf. Art Pepper’s autobiography “Straight Life” for another example.) Ignoring or minimizing the blatant white racism in the business–the AF of M didn’t merge its segregated locals until the early 1960’s–they conjured a fantasy of a Black freemasonry that kept them on the margins. Meanwhile Lennie’s own grandiosity, which his acolytes shared, represented him as the real fount of originality; he wasn’t outside the mainstream, he <>was<> the mainstream, and the studio in Jamaica (I made the pilgrimage there once, around 1957, with one of his students) was the abode of truth and right teaching. (You could identify Lennie students by the peculiar falsetto in which they scat-sang Bird and Lester solos.) It was a hermetic, sectarian microcosm, with some creepy resemblances to the sectarian ultra-Left (the transvaluation of generally accepted standards, the air of righteousness misunderstood, the conviction of ultimate triumph) that with some exceptions produced what Iverson rightly calls boneless, bloodless music. Dizzy was right, if you ask me, and Blakey wasn’t exactly wrong.

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