History As Hard Drive

wheatchaffThe following statement might sound subjective (and maybe a little cranky) if it wasn’t coming from an established critic on a respected website:

The sad truth is that most tuba concertos are simply terrible and richly deserve their obscurity…

It might also sound funny, unless you’re Kalevi Aho, Paul McCorriston, John Williams (yes, that John Williams) or anyone who put time and effort into composing a tuba concerto. It might even seem harmless, if it wasn’t the type of evaluation that musical authorities use to dismiss whole genres, composers, eras and other categories of music. If it seems like another example of classical elitism, keep in mind that anyone reading Thomas Brothers’s new biography of Louis Armstrong will “learn” the following about prewar jazz:

Hot solos in the twenties often dissolve into aimless noodling, incoherent rhythm, or both.

The common assumption is not just that the writer is there to separate wheat from chaff, but that there is a lot of chaff out there, that it takes a definite form and that it needs to be isolated so that we can skip over it. History, both the one that’s happened and the one happening before us, begins to resemble a hard drive: limited space for just the important items while the rest can be deleted. If you’re not sure what’s important, well, just ask your local critic.

It’s difficult to question people who have experienced more music than I ever will in my entire life, many of whom have also studied it for most of theirs. Yet that knowledge and experience is exactly what makes their statements so surprising. Ideally, a lifetime with music would allow one to appreciate (if not necessarily enjoy) all music. Critics, musicologists, music historians and journalists and other authorities (ideally) have the ears and training to guide listeners through unfamiliar music, to peek into the supposedly mundane, strange and unattractive sounds and say more about the music, not reduce it to snappy copy. “The rest can be ignored” is very close to “it all sounds the same,” something one might expect to hear from a passive, occasional listener but not someone who has devoted their life to music. Maybe there is a price for expertise.

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5 thoughts on “History As Hard Drive

  1. tronepone says:

    Thanks for the heads up on the Brothers book.

    ” to the man Brothers calls Armstrong’s first great disciple, Bix Beiderbecke, who comes off badly. “. If Beiderbecke was a “disciple” of anyone, Nick LaRocca and Eastwood Lane would be among the more likely candidates.

    And Lombardo was “traditional”?

    No, thank you.

  2. jazzlives says:

    “I can’t be bothered to deal with this” is rather childish, not a useful critical position to take.

  3. Albert Haim says:

    “Hot solos in the twenties often dissolve into aimless noodling, incoherent rhythm, or both.” That is exactly the description of solos in “modern” jazz, not in 1920s jazz. What about Bix’s and Louis’s correlated solos, geometrically coherent? What about the stories, perfectly woven, in solos by other jazz giants in the 1920s; in particular I call attention to the magnificent solos created by Miff Mole, Joe Venuti and Adrian Rollini in dozens of their recordings..

  4. Michael McQuaid says:

    In truth, many of MY solos dissolve into aimless noodling and/or incoherent rhythm, but only as I fall short of the high standards set by my 1920s heroes, famous and obscure.

  5. pwlsax says:

    Where’s the erudition in liking everything? Where’s the prestige? Most importantly – how do you build a reputation as an authority unless you can impress at least some people as authoritarian?

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