During his victory speech in South Carolina on Saturday night, Newt Gingrich joked about allowing President Barack Obama to use a teleprompter in debates. Gingrich has made this joke before, implying that the president needs far more preparation than he does to discuss the issues. I haven’t found any statistics comparing the ratio of Gingrichian teleprompter comments to criticisms against President George W. Bush for using similar devices, but let’s agree that neither side is safe from these attacks. It’s also safe to assume that they arise out of some powerful perceptions (if not necessarily actual facts) about the candidates.
Speaking off the top of one’s head in an articulate, exciting manner seems more impressive than doing so from a script. Spontaneity implies intelligence, poise and sincerity, while canned lines imply inauthenticity, an indicator that the orator doesn’t really know his or her stuff. After all, isn’t it easier just to read something? Aren’t we hearing something more honest when someone improvises?
Let’s face it, many jazz lovers make the same value judgment. Even if we listen to and love a variety of composed and extemporized genres, deep down we assume we’re hearing “more” of an artist when they’re improvising. The use of the phrase “opens up” is telling: it’s rarely used to describe an arrangement. A good jazz chart knocks our socks off, but we hear the “true” musician when they’re creating in the moment. It’s also why highlighting a musician’s inspirations rather than their innovations can be damning: referencing another player too much in a solo implies planning, and worse, imitation. Creating something entirely original from an admired colleague’s utterances never seems as personal when compared to offering something totally unfamiliar.
For even casual listeners, jazz is primarily associated with a soloist improvising multiple choruses. Stylistically jazz has steadily shed all perceived impediments to completely “free” improvisation: first the written score, then the set melody, next chord changes, then key and in some cases even a steady groove. This development not only leaves a lot of jazz in stylistic limbo, it passes over some great music that happens to be on paper.
In an interview I conducted with Vince Giordano last year, the bandleader, performer and historian glowingly described the music of the twenties and thirties as “a combination of orchestrated stuff and loose jazz.” In his liner notes to An Anthology of Big Band Swing, Loren Schoenberg applauds arranger Bill Finegan’s ability to “…create scores with little or no improvisation that were still highly effective jazz.” It’s also worth noting that many jazz musicians have found inspiration from the written and rehearsed pages of the classical tradition (which itself is not always reducible to a score).
And if all the performers of Bach, Mozart and Brahms are doing is simply reading from a score, then anyone can be a great orator; all they need is a speechwriter and a research staff. There are quite a few ways to express knowledge and sincerity (or for that matter to sound knowledgeable or sincere). Whatever the relationship is between jazz and improvisation, music and spontaneity or expertise and preparation, the point is “what,” rather than “how.”
Duke Ellington understood his players so well that many parts he composed for them were mistaken for improvisations. In performance, where the sheer sound of “Concerto for Cootie” comes from seems like a footnote:
This of course leads into the murky waters of privileging “originality” over “derivation,” as if individual musicians picked ideas out of the cosmos that no one had ever thought of before. And it may go back to Plato’s notion — we’ve been saddled with it for centuries — that the artist creates in a kind of divine madness, cut off from reason. Ha! I can’t remember who wrote this, but some august jazz figure said that (s)he could write an entire score with written-out solos that would fool any listener into thinking it was improvised, and was that then “jazz”? To which one wants to reply — in the words of Mr. Armstrong on race, “Who cares if the cow is black or white? Just drink the milk.” Without the written parts in the Basie band, circa 1938, would Lester or Herschel have sounded so fine? Musicians play; critics theorize. Both are useful in their own fashion, but the players who improvise for a living have a real respect and admiration for those who put the notes on paper. Consider Jelly Roll Morton as well as Mingus, if you like. Or don’t.
Drink the milk, indeed! I for one love hearing how Mingus always desired to hear his works in a big band setting, or how Dizzy Gillespie would keep trying to put big bands together despite financial troubles; I guess the printed score meant a lot to those gifted improvisers.
Thanks as always for reading and commenting!
Long live Don Redman, Eddie Durham and Bill Challis!
Damned right, Michael! While we’re at, viva Fud Livingston, Horace Henderson, Tiny Parham and Dean Kincaide!
Not forgetting John Nesbitt, Bob Haggart, etc etc!