Monday, August 20, 2007

The Wisdom of Lennie Tristano

Back in 1945, when Lennie Tristano was just beginning to acquire a reputation as an extraordinary jazz pianist and before his reputation as one of the best jazz teachers had been established, he published an article in Jazz Quarterly entitled, "What's Wrong with Chicago Jazz," which established that his way with words was almost as good as his way with notes. The content of this article has now been resurrected in Eunmi Shim's new book, Lennie Tristano: His Life in Music. His thesis is that what was wrong with Chicago Jazz was its commercial nature, particularly as fostered by greedy bookers and café owners. He did not say much about the recording industry because he tried as hard as possible to ignore it, knowing full well that recorded jazz could never do justice to a "live" performance. The basic thrust of his argument was that commercial interests were only concerned with delivering "product" (overlooking the historical fact that Mozart, too, had to worry about "product") in mass quantities, meaning that most of the "product" that was actually delivered was hack work. Tristano's reasoning, however, appealed to me for his examination of consequences. It was not enough to complain about drowning in mediocre jazz; it was necessary to establish why all of that mediocrity was a bad thing.

This is where I really caught on to his writing. His argument was that jazz performers were responsible for "the process of educating the public to good jazz." In other words, as far as Tristano was concerned, performing jazz was as much a public trust as was publishing a newspaper (which was regarded as axiomatic in 1945, sigh). He then offered a secondary argument that mediocrity is demoralizing. A performer stuck in a mediocre group will usually react by letting his own technique go to pot, knowing that doing any better will not serve any advantage. Thus, mediocrity begets inferiority, ultimately descending to the sort of junk that everyone recognizes as a waste of time.

I suppose what stimulated me the most about this line of reasoning is that it is not just about jazz (although I feel things are much worse in today's jazz scene, where it is hard to find anyone performing today whose chops measure up to the quality jazz one could hear in 1945). Today Tristano's argument can be applied to just about any performing art and just about any medium. At the end of Amadeus Peter Shaffer had Salieri "bless" the audience in his new capacity as "patron saint of mediocrity." Did Shaffer anticipate the extent to which that "blessing" would take? Perhaps it is because we are as consumed by mediocrity as those jazz performers whose technique can only get worse that we have finally come to a point where our very capacity for communication in any form is at death's door.

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