Sunday, November 27, 2011

Dear Wynton Marsalis: Shut the Fuck Up

I just watched a great documentary on the new face(s) of (jazz) called "Icons Among Us" and it made me fall in love with this music all over again. It also made me feel: curious, inspired, angry, frustrated, happy, and full of bilious rage at critics, professors, so-called jazz purists, and Wynton Stickindabutt Marsalis.

This is not a retread of the usual debate of Traditional Jazz versus New Jazz. This is an examination of jazz losing it's way in order to find its way. Jazz transcending jazz to be...I don't even know - cosmic improvisation? tathagata-jam? The definition of jazz is not expanding, it is evaporating. The musicians in this documentary play improvisational music built on a number of influences beside the tradition of Jazz. They're soaking in the world and living a philosophy of improvisation within community, treating the music as a living organism. The music is incredible! Hip hop jazz orchestras, metal blues bop, and freestyle rhythmic vitality. The music is alive and well and going in new directions.

But then the purists step in and embarrass themselves with the same old stock "This isn't Jazz!" bullshit. A writer says, "Jazz today has no clear message, no clear identity." Marsalis says, "We're not producing the same caliber of musician." Harrison says, "If you haven't shared the stage with a Blakey or Gillespie, you don't have the foundation to move this tradition forward."

The new musicians respond in kind. Robert Glasper says, "If Charlie Parker came back from the dead, he'd say, 'You're still playing the same shit I was - what the fuck are you doing?" Robert Shipp says, "I don't have to view music through the prism of 'Bud Powell played it like this' or 'Bill Evans played it like this'. Fuck those guys. I do it my way."

That to me is the spirit of this music: that which does not grow is dead. I love the way Bill Frisell defines music. He says it's "a place where no one gets hurt and you can do whatever you want." I think that's all the context/message/identity you need. Now pick up that goddamn horn and say something honest.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Head Full of Pages

During a break at a recent writing event, a favorite Reader question was asked in a playful, get-to-know-you way: "If you could live in any book, what would it be?" Normally I would skip this line of inquiry in favor of inscrutable silence, but the NaNo folks are a kindly lot and I decided to join in. Without giving it too much thought, I said the Hobbit. This was immediately seconded by a dozen other people and gave way to one of those intense nerdalogues wherein the pros and cons of a completely fictional concept are scrutinized in detail. Where would you live? What species would you be? When would you live - before or after the first or second defeat of Sauron? What would you do for a living? It was all going swimmingly until I broached a practical question to the would-be Hobbit contingent, namely, what kind of sewer system is employed in a Hobbit hole? Bilbo Baggins lived under a hill in a multi-roomed, one story house with one-sided ventilation. Where do you put the toilet in that layout? Next to the windows? IN the center? Where does the waste drain out? Middle Earth is basically a Medieval era world which means, er, garderobes at best, privies at worst. Bag End, as we all know, was the epitome of Hobbit comfort and coziness, but let's face it, it's still a hole in the ground. Once you hit that bathroom, that place is going to smell like Hobbit crap. And those little dudes are way too fond of rich food.

The Hobbit contingent countered that their favorite species is a very industrious and resourceful one and surely they would have invented some sort of Roman aqueduct style of sewage. Perhaps. But if anyone in Middle Earth is going to do that, it would be those stinky but clever Dwarves living under that damn mountain.

We were all in agreement on this.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Luddite In The Meatlocker

Yesterday I sat in on a writing group which had convened for NaNoWriMo - or National Novel Writing Month. It took place in a library at CalTech. A small, freezing room full of scientific journals at the end of a hallway cramped with cold storage lockers and cabinets full of empty beakers. I loved it. Froze my fingers off, but I loved it (though it was so cold, the guy across from me asked, "What is this? NaNoGitMo?")

We started at ten and wrote until two, with a couple of breaks to step outside and warm up. They also kept track of everyone's "word count" and awarded various prizes for Most Words In An Hour, Fewest Words In An Hour, and the very special prize, made up on the spot, of Negative Word Count. The last was awarded to a guy who forgot to save his first couple of pages.

The awards were a nice way to break up the day. I didn't mind the interruption like I thought I would. The whole energy of writing in a group of people who are just writing to have fun and reach 50K words in a month is pretty infectious (Hunter Thompson once said that writing is like sex, in that it's only fun for amateurs - he was only half joking, I think). There is a lot of criticism of NaNo for the "gamification of novel writing" (actual fucking quote), but I think it's wonderful - people are writing books! What could possibly be wrong with that? Yes, yes, agents and publishers are less than a month away from being swamped with sloppy, unedited books which are all inexplicably only 200 pages long, but so what? That's what slush piles are for. On the other end of those books are happy people who have fulfilled a dream. May the Great Scribendu bless them and keep them.

I was an oddity in that room, being the only one not writing on a computer. I was immediately branded a Luddite, and given a free sticker. But what can I say - the first draft for me must be physically exorcised with pen and paper. The computer is for the later, refined version. Plus it felt fun making all those scratchy-scratch sounds on my legal pad while everyone else was gently plinking away on their keyboards.

All said, I had a blast. This idea of a daily word count is working, because if I'm going to get anything done, it has to be measurable. This is a concept from the fitness world which I have come to believe in wholeheartedly. 1,667 is the magic fucking number today and everyday until this nightmare is in the can. Follow it up with some heavy December editing, some last minute character revisions, a little bit of Old Negro Wisdom, and we'll have ourselves a Novel!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Vox Populi

I am a shy, skittish man at times - no more so than when I am speaking to a large crowd (large being here defined as five or more people). But if I am reading to said crowd, I feel calmer and more in my element. I am connected to the words like an anchor. I have noticed, however, that this is the exact opposite of most people.

The context I am speaking of is my meetings, where people are regularly called upon to read from the Big Book. Rarely have I seen adults who are comfortable in this role. I think it's because for most folks, they have not had to do this since high school English class, reciting Eliot or Shakespeare in that disinterested monotone so beloved by students the world over. Called upon to recite as adults, they stumble, stutter, and hesitate, unsure of their rhythmic footing. They also seem to unable to pronounce certain words which they could probably use in casual conversation without a problem. The biggest offenders?

1. anonymity
2. autonomous
3. regularly

Read these aloud if you have any doubts.

Why the struggle with the public voice? Pressure. Most likely from old fears and social expectations. My advice is to have fun with it. Listen to your voice - no, dance with your voice. It's an instrument of expression. And this is not to say that I recite all my readings like Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan, or Sean Connery - though of course I so wish that I could. No, even when I fall flat vocally, I still enjoy it. (Put another way, yes, I do enjoy the sound of my own voice!)

So relax, o speakers and readers! For your voice is buried treasure, here unearthed and strewn at the feet of a awestruck populace!

(No, I don't know where that came from, I'm just having fun...)