Sunday, February 14, 2010

Miles Davis and Gregor Piatigorsky

Perhaps the only thing more awesome than the thoroughness with which Robin Kelley has accounted for the life of Thelonious Monk is the scope of his bibliography. As I read the book, I would occasionally tick off an item in one of the footnotes when it struck me as a source for further examination. Given the length of Kelley's book, I knew I should do this sparingly. Yesterday I took stock of all the ticks and started checking off which ones I could find in the San Francisco Public Library. I quickly realized that I would have to come up with a list short enough for a pile of books I could manage to carry home! I spent yesterday afternoon at the Library examining all of the candidates, homing in on six and rejecting five. I am not going to enumerate those five, because I suspect that there is still value in them. I had to make a pragmatic decision on what I could manage, and I am sure that I shall be reminded of all five of these books as my research proceeds.

Of the books that I did select, the most fascinating was probably Notes and Tones: Musician-to-Musician Interviews by Arthur Taylor. I realized that, in my own quest to tease out how and why it is that the nature of music has more to do with how that music is performed, rather than how it is documented in artifacts of notation, I often forget that the study of performance has more to do with anthropology (such as is practiced by someone like Pierre Bourdieu) than with music theory or music history. Anthropology, in turn, tends to be a product of methods of observation and interviewing. The problem in both of these settings, however, is that the anthropologist is almost always an outsider; and there any number of jokes about what happens when that outsider status goes awry.

Taylor, on the other hand, was very much an insider. His experiences as a drummer brought him in contact with so many of the leading figures of jazz history that, had he directed his efforts otherwise, he could have been as significant a chronicler of jazz as Jean Froissart had been for the first half of the Hundred Years' War. Instead, he chose a much more modest path. Beginning in 1966 he began to interview musicians whom he had worked with or known to document their perspectives on what "making jazz" meant to them. Notes and Tones is the result of that interviewing process, and it was one of those books that I could not wait to begin.

When the book first appeared, the first interview was with Miles Davis. In a subsequent edition published by Da Capo Press, Miles is preceded by Dexter Gordon; but my Library copy was the original Perigee edition. As could have been anticipated, Miles was not the most cooperative interview subject; but he also made it clear that he felt more comfortable talking with Taylor than with an outsider.

The passage from the interview that interested me the most was the following response to a question about how much things had changed since Miles was first starting to play jazz:

They don’t have anyplace to experiment for young guys who start playing and who play their own stuff. It’s because of all those records they make nowadays … you know, the guys copy off the records, so they don’t have anything original. You can’t find a musician who plays anything different. They all copy off each other. If I were starting out again, I wouldn’t listen to records. I very seldom listen to jazz records, because they all do the same thing. I only listen to guys that are original, like Ahmad Jamal and Duke Ellington, guys like Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins and Coltrane.

This interview was conducted on January 28, 1968. About a decade later I was working in Santa Barbara; and one of my colleagues had previously been in the Music Department at the University of Southern California, where he has served as a pianist for some of the classes taught by Gregor Piatigorsky. He told me that, when Piatigorsky got really mad at a student, the worst thing he could say was, "You sound just like a Rostropovich recording!" In retrospect I realize that he was saying exactly the same thing that Miles was saying to Taylor: The student was so obsessed with copying what (s)he heard on a recording that (s)he did not "have anything original" to say in his/her performance.

Any thought of performance as a "realization" of a notation document is a dangerous misconstruction. Performance is about "having something to say," which is worth saying only if it adds to an ongoing conversation, rather than just repeating what has already been said. The notation may provide the framework for structuring what one says; but the content of what one says resides in the approach one takes to performing, rather than in the notation being performed. This may be more evident when we consider the practices of jazz performers who relied almost entirely on working by ear (such as Art Tatum and Monk); but it is just as applicable in the classical domain, no matter how detailed the notated specifications may be. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why it was not hard for Pierre Boulez to find common ground with Frank Zappa. Both saw notation as a path to push the envelope of what one could do in performance; but both knew that the music was in the performance, rather than the notation. My only regret is that, of the two of them, Boulez is now the only one left to keep reminding us of the significance of this precept.

Ultimately, Miles' complaint to Taylor had to do with "young guys" trying to perform without adequate education. Piatigorsky was up against the same problem. Has this situation improved? As usual, it depends which end of the telescope you use to examine the situation. When I hang out at master classes taught at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, I encounter all sorts of imaginative strategies that direct students away from the details in the notation and towards the more subtle details concerned with performance. This reinforces me when I then confront so much of the junk that is now out there on the Internet by those who are better at self-promotion than they are in cultivating a "self" worth promoting! Unfortunately, quality is not its own reward. (Has it ever been?) Even Conservatory students with the richest of experiences will have to encounter the necessity of self-promotion in the world the Internet has made; but at least they will be going into that world with something that adds to, rather than repeats, the conversation!

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