Thursday, April 3, 2008

Musical String Theory

Science has this peculiar habit of not being quite as scientific as it would like to be. The main reason is that it is almost impossible to prove new theories because the instruments needed to get the hard data don’t yet exist. As I said in on another blog, the first person to invent a machine that measures ‘life force’, will win a Nobel Prize, even though every other culture in the world already recognizes this force as not only existing, but being a cornerstone of that culture. It took years before Einstein’s theory of curved space was proven. The latest theory on the table, pretty well accepted, seen in PBS specials, is String Theory, that the universe is made of these super duper extra special tiny strings. So tiny that one string has never been seen. So tiny that it is reasonable to assume no string ever will be seen. And yet, more like a detective story than a scientific investigation, the theory of strings just seems to fit the available facts. Most times that’s just the best we can do, toss out a theory to which the available facts stick for the time being.

The problem tackled by this blog, in many ways, shapes, and forms, is trying to figure out what happened to jazz. What happened to the most beautiful, inspired, elegant, moving, even life-saving music the world has seen—that it is now relegated to either an afterthought by people who know music, that those playing it can’t seem to reach the heights of their predecessors, that at present, it is, at the most, hip background music for various television commercials? And most importantly, how can it be saved, how can it be brought back to life?

Well, here’s a theory.

In western civilization we just don’t like to improvise. The western mind likes things to be ordered, formulaic, predictable, known, regulated, and rational. Western civilization has survived because of time periods, eras, of improvisation, but those only lasted for a short period of time. One of those periods was the Renaissance, covered over by the formula guys, the math guys, the orderly guys of the Enlightenment. Another one of those periods was when this Enlightenment world collapsed under the weight of its own discoveries, and a period began that we haven’t yet classified. We’re still close enough to it that no historian or sociologist could really get the old conceptual meat hooks into it.

Einstein was improvising, and then other physicists began discovering things that were supposed to be impossible, and then all of physics had to start improvising. This is when Louis Armstrong was born, and he also began taking music—that most ordered product of the western mind, and threw it into chaos, and it became more chaotic, until it crawled into the universities to become ordered and clean once again. I was just looking through a book last night on improving your skills at improvisation. Literally the guy was talking about formulas to use with certain chord progressions, and he wrote with no sense that he was mocking himself.

Jazz improvisation is walking down a dark alley, it is purposely making wrong turns—you the improviser are trying to do something that you haven’t done before. For every note you know, you’re looking for a note or phrase you don’t know. In other words, you’re looking to get into trouble, and then looking for a way out of that trouble. That one sentence is Charlie Parker’s life in a nutshell, it is Stan Getz, it is so many of the pioneers of jazz in one form or another. Or it was played by immigrants and the poor, those whose every day life was a form of improvisation. For Wes Montgomery, intense headaches would come as he discovered how to use octaves the way no one has since. But none of this can possibly be comfortable. And if there is one other thing marking this historical phase, it is that we certainly like our comfort.

For the early and great jazz musicians, it was nothing, soulfully, to walk over the edge of the cliff. They were pretty sure they would fly—but how can a human be certain of this? But they did fly. And we, the audience at the time, went along. That was the feeling of the music, that’s what the musicians were doing, that was the dominant new technology of the time, that was the name of the dance—the Lindy Hop. Jazz began to drop off when the fascination with flying dropped off, and that would be 1969.

Today, jazz players are concerned about making it through the changes, flying is not an operative concept. Comfort through the changes, that is the goal. The solo has become a quest for comfort, the opposite direction of their predecessors. It is learned in an orderly manner, with formulas, the western mind has once again taken control. It is the opposite of Horace Greeley’s frontier spirit, the call of Go West. Today, it isn’t even Go East, it’s Go to School.

And so, where is the life, where is the pulse of this great music? Is it now in Asia, another bud on their tree of knowledge—the tree of how to deal with life force, with chi, with prana, with nefesh? Because, this stuff within us, can only be dealt with on the improv. And who knows, maybe we can fly.

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