Saturday, August 12, 2017

John Halle writes a defense of Kenny G against the respectability politics of "real" jazz

A few weeks ago, an off duty flight attendant discovered that her neighbor on a Tampa to Los Angeles flight was a musical celebrity. Having recently lost her daughter to brain cancer, she suggested an impromptu performance to raise money to for cancer research. The request was immediately agreed to, resulting in the artist strolling down the aisles with his instrument, passing the hat for donations which quickly exceeded the $1,000 goal.

All that would seem innocuous enough. But as might be expected within some corners of the internet, what was an anodyne act of charity became the grounds for opening the floodgates of abuse.
Why this was the case will make sense when name of the musician is revealed, a figure so universally reviled that to utter a word in his defense is to invite social ostracism, namely “the weasel-toned saxophonist,” as he was referred to by the New York Times, Kenny Gorelick, or Kenny G, as he is known to his fans. So toxic are the sounds he emits that an encounter with them constitutes “torture”-the aural equivalent of the United Airlines assault of one of its passengers, which had occurred only a few days before.

At least, such was the perception of the cross section of the left/liberal consensus which appears on my twitterfeed.

As was often the case within this sector, the apparent fact of the matter was something other than what was imagined. According to reports, many passengers on the flight found it the exact opposite having reveled in “the show of a lifetime.”

But these expressions of enthusiasm were easily written off. They were, after all, deriving from a “large crowd” whose “basest impulses” manifest “callous disregard for the larger issues . . .marking a new low point in modern culture – something that we all should be totally embarrassed about – and afraid of.” All this “we ignore. . . at our own peril.”

This bit of cultural news or trivia passed me by ass I'm not a Kenny G fan and have never much liked his music.  But if he put on an impromptu charitable performance to raise money for cancer research, that's great.   It's certainly possible to not be on the same page as Halle about his "Jazz After Politics" piece or even the various heated reactions written to that piece (although, in a way, that could have invited an opportunity to revisit Adorno's "On Jazz" polemics as having possibly been vindicated, even though I think there are reasons to reject that assessment (interesting to me now is how Halle's piece predated the no-jazz-at-Yale incident that would happen the following year, and get a response by Ethan Iverson, one of a number of people Halle seemed to bracket into the "jazzbro" category).  Still, this recent defense of Kenny G was interesting reading because what Halle decided to take direct aim at was the respectability politics of despising Kenny G's music.

One might dare to suggest Kenny G's music is so widely despised among respectable circles that nobody would even think to suggest, as has been done with so much more popular and respected entertainment acts, that Kenny G was guilty of cultural appropriation--who, after all, would dare to suggest that whatever Kenny G culturally appropriated was worth appropriating if they could figure out what it was!?  ;) 

Halle wrote:
Metheny and those who cite him have evidently failed to learn the underlying lesson from the collapse of these defenses of the traditional canon. For it will be apparent that their criticisms amounts to little more than retrofitting the discredited assumptions of the old musicology to defend a post modern “high/low” distinction. The only difference is that pure jazz now occupies the summit (1) with the debased form represented by Kenny G and others viewed as fundamentally unserious and beneath discussion. The grounds on which this is claimed to be so is just as was the case in the benighted past: some analytic characteristic is shown to be present or absent in the objective structure of the music and taken to be a proxy for aesthetic merit, artistic seriousness of purpose or the lack of it based on the assumption the there is a necessary connection. But that matters are not so simple, while taken for granted within what was formerly known as “classical” music, has evidently yet to register with those who concerned with policing the boundaries of jazz.

For example, for them, G making use of a “limited vocabulary” constitutes a de facto criticism. It is, however, obvious that this is not the case and that Metheny himself doesn’t believe that it is: for if any composer can be described a making use of a “limited harmonic and melodic vocabulary” it is Steve Reich, whose Electric Counterpoint Metheny himself commissioned and presumably admires. What is the difference between the “minimalism” of Kenny G and that of Reich? Showing that there is one is not so trivial. But even if we could determine what it is, it would not answer the question why “we” (those claiming to have acculturated and informed musical tastes) tend to value the music of Reich above Gorelick.

Or, moving closer to Kenny G’s soul/pop/jazz idiom, if a “limited” harmonic and melodic vocabulary is a fatal flaw, what to make of the blues? Yes, one finds objectively less chromaticism in B.B. King, Muddy Waters or Albert Collins than in Wagner or William Byrd. But only a pedant or a chauvinist would suggest that this, or any “limitation” unearthed via a music theoretical analysis should take precedence over the visceral experience evoked by the blues.

At this point I'd interject that what we can find in music is that simplicity in one area can be offset by complexity in some other area.  Anyone who has tried to play music in open D and open G tunings on a guitar will understand how drastically your range of easily-played notes becomes.  That helps me appreciate why blues recordings can blur together.  A lot of songs in A and D and E and G where open strings abound.  It used to bug me sometimes but I can respect it as a convention and the guitar lets you play the same note in six different places if you've mastered the geography of the fretboard.

Ah, back to my actual point, a harmonically and melodically "simple" musician like John Lee Hooker can abound in subtleties in rhythm.  There's all kinds of beautiful things you can do in compound meters that John Lee Hooker did throughout his career even when it could seem to an inattentive listener he was just endlessly vamping on a seventh chord in an open G tuning, or open D. If you can't hear oblique motion you might slip into thinking this performance, for instance, is just constant vamping on a single chord.

Not too surprisingly, Halle builds up to this point, which is not so much a defense of Kenny G's music itself (of which he, too, has never been a fan).


At this point some readers are probably wondering why I devoted 1300 words to meta-theoretical questions provoked by the music of Kenny G-probably 1300 words more than any previous discussion of the subject.

I should make clear that, appearances aside, it is not my intention to defend Kenny G or his music for which I have as little intellectual and temperamental affinity as those attacking it. But while the music doesn’t require a defense, those being belittled for their musical preferences and, by implication, their lack of intelligence and sophistication do. And it is one which they deserve to have since, as was demonstrated above, the attacks on them are fundamentally fraudulent in that the supposed authority on which they are based collapses when subjected to scrutiny. [emphasis added]

With that in mind, we can return to the comparison alluded to above: what accounts for near identical rhetoric deployed in jazz purist attacks on Kenny G and those emanating from the political establishment against Trump.

Which, as so often happens lately when I read about these kinds of things, reminds me of what Richard Taruskin described as the gap between the academic canon of music and the repertoire canon of music; between that music which is regarded as respectable to discuss and teach in colleges and which people pay to hear with their own money in concerts and through recordings. 

Getting back to Iverson ...

Robert Blocker put his foot in it properly last week. Outraged tweets on my timeline were soon followed by several valuable longer objections.

Alex Ross.

Michael Lewanski.

Matthew Guerrieri. (If you look at just one of these links, make sure it’s this one, a brilliant set of unlikely connections concluding with a luminous call to arms. Soho is always a good read.)

It’s so nice when a member of the opposition makes a public mistake, it gives us a chance to pile on and declare what we are striving for on our side.


I'm sure for most people the talk of not teaching jazz at Yale came and went without so much as a thought but amongst blogging musicians it was a big thing, even a scandal.  Iverson didn't unpack so much as suppose a definition of "opposition" to jazz being taught at a place like Yale as part of the Western canon.  There's something of a self-imposed double bind in Iverson's approach which seems not atypical of self-identified liberal white musicians who like jazz.  Let's see if we can come up with a demonstration:

All the jazz greats existed outside the system. Indeed, most of them ignored the limitations of their racist society to create not just music but whole ways of living that forced fellow Americans to give respect. This kind of cunning, streetwise, and unstated elegance is a key to the music. I’ve never met an important jazz musician who wasn’t some kind of gangster. (The last sentence could be said of most significant artists in any field, but it might particularly apply to jazz.)

Outside what system?  The music business?  The American market?  Or does the system refer more strictly to American academics.  Because if the jazz greats existed outside the system ...

Thelonious Monk's The Complete Riverside Sessions had to come from somewhere.
How about Ellington's RCA/Victor centennial edition?  How much did this great musical legacy really exist "outside the system"? 

Some kind of gangster?  Like racketeering or violent crime?  Really?  If Iverson was so sure that important jazz musicians were always some kind of gangster then jazz fans like him and others shouldn't have found Terry Teachout's biography on Ellington so upsetting.  Is it so difficult to grasp that Ellington's band could be both a haven and a prison for the openly gay and black Billy Strayhorn, whose nickname for his boss was "Monster"?  Or was it awkward to read that a lot of what Ellington pursued could be described as a politics of respectability?  Gaining respect, earning respect and using that respect as a platform from which to press for better treatment was considered a legitimate path to take by more than just a few blacks in the United States, wasn't it?  Or could a mythology of the American outlaw risk distorting the history of jazz a teensy bit? 

Iverson gets to another composer in the aforementioned blog post.

I’ve gotten quite interested in Harold Shapero, a major composer who just might have been the greatest American Neo-Classicist. When he died only recently, I had barely even heard his name, partly because he hadn’t composed much since about 1960.

There were apparently two reasons Shapero stopped composing, both connected to college. He became a teacher himself: He stopped being a gangster. He fell in, raised a family and had hobbies. (All this is very bad for artistic production.)

Somehow ... it's a little tough to buy the idea that Harold Shapero was a gangster. There's a phrase that sometimes pop up in discussions about politics about the state having what's sometimes called a monopoly on legitimate violent.  If the difference between a gangster and a cop can be elucidated in the bluntest colloquial terms, the difference is the monopoly of legitimate violence.  The cop has it by dint of being part of the state machinery and the gangster doesn't.  There in is the blood-letting rub, we know many, many times the monopoly the state has on legitimate violence gets used toward ends we could agree are not legitimate on the one hand, on the other hand a lot of violence perpetrated without the rubber stamp of the state is not necessarily legitimate just because a gangster does it. 

 Iverson's got a bit more awe of serialism as a style than I have been, but he highlights something Halle addressed in another context, the dominance of serialism and atonality in American academic composition and theory textbooks:

The other reason was peer pressure to deal with the twelve-tone system. “Academic” is right! A whole crew of postwar intellectuals seized power in the universities and declared that rigorous atonality was the perpetual future.

When Blocker says, “new music,” I suspect that this kind of  unpopular “academic” genre is what he’s talking about. Of course, “new music” could mean just about anything these days, and I certainly don’t know what exactly they are up to at the Yale composition department. But surely a gold standard for the phrase “new music” is Milton Babbitt, and it is impossible to divorce Babbitt’s (terrific) music his academic positions at Columbia and Princeton.

Having never heard of Shapero, that I can recall, prior to reading Iverson's mention of him, I'd hesitate to agree with "major".  I've found that on the whole I've got better things to do with my time than listen to Babbitt, even if I can get there being a certain cheeky humor to something like "All Set".  I have a few recordings by Penderecki, Lutoslawski, Xenakis, Ligeti, Kurtag and a few others so it's not like I have no appreciation for avant garde concert music but Babbitt ... eh, has moments but I'm still just not sold on the idea that Milton Babbitt or Elliot Carter comprise more than a long-term dead-end without a foundational apparatus (there's a pun for you, cue up Benjamin Britten's concern that a lot of "foundation music" was written to please well-heeled patrons without seeking a wider audience) to keep it alive.  Aka a proverbial hothouse growth. 

There was a period of time in which serialism and atonality was held to be the legitimate way "forward" for the art of music.  Atonality as symbolic of the exhaustion of the language of Western European expressionism and Romanticism distilled in Schoenberg was something Adorno famously got behind.  If there was a Hegelian end of history that could be translated into a self-aware end of art then maybe atonality represented art able to reflect on the ends of German Romanticism.  I ... actually kinda do like the Schoenberg violin concerto ... but Schoenberg paid tribute to the music of Gershwin and said there was still music to be written in the key of C major.  Adorno was less reconciled to this possibility. 

But Iverson's defense of jazz comes with a certain kind of trade-off.  He wants jazz taken seriously as an art as high as Bach or Stravinsky but he doesn't really want the art culture of a century from now to be comic books, video games or Star Wars movies.  Halle's larger polemic regarding jazz and politics is that once jazz ended up on the right side of respectability politics its advocates started to look down on pop and mass culture in much the same way that defenders of the literature musical tradition of Western Europe looked down on jazz as a base dilution of anything good about the art music tradition.  If Adorno looked down on jazz compared to Beethoven and Schoenberg then Ethan Iverson can look down on Star Wars and Batman movies compared to Milton Babbitt and Bud Powell.  Okay.

I just refuse to concede that we can't study Stevie Wonder's harmonic vocabulary in a way that insists that it has to somehow be different than a similar study of the harmonic vocabulary of Scriabin or Stravinsky.  I get that Ben Johnston and others who have followed in the wake of Harry Partch have liked to say equal temperament is an acoustic lie.  I can even get why they say that.  But for all of us who aren't in a collegiate system with access to programmers and resources to map out microtonal possibilities we use fixed pitched instruments like guitars.  Johnston, at least, has declined to insist on his approach being "the" way, it's just one of many possible ways to take from the older musical traditions and use them to create something new.  His argument that serialism and associated techniques are refined forms of organic thematicism and that these can still work in tonality but are not sufficient devices to work past the cognitive constraints of the human brain (i.e. serialist music makes sense to the producer but not the untrained would-be consumer), is more cogent than anything I've seen from the Future Symphony Institute side of things against either Schoenberg or Adorno. 

It's been noted by a few music historians that the revolution that took place in the early Baroque by way of the Florentine Camerata was a revolution undertaken by educated amateurs.  It's possible that if we live in an era of mercantile powerhouses in the United States that elements of the Baroque era won't literally repeat themselves ... but history could rhyme. 

It can seem as though, per Halle's polemic, that the battle for the respectability of jazz in academic contexts may be moot if it's turned out to be a music enjoyed by a ruling elite.  A lot of people I've met in my life say they just don't like jazz.  I like jazz but I have wondered whether it's procedures have become so entrenched and sclerotic that the relationship between the popular and the idioms of jazz have fractured past the point where they will be recovered without a titanic amount of effort. 

A particularly vicious irony could be if a musician like Kenny G has retained the ability to play impromptu concerts because, whatever his failures to comply with the criteria of high art sanctity, he has worked in a pop idiom close enough to what people enjoy to retain a connection to an audience.  Kenny G is probably not going to end up being discussed in academic musicology, ever, but that might be the thing about being popular, he won't need that.  Respectability politics, whether the aspirational kind through which some black artists sought to gain and retain respect to make a social point about the injustice of racism or the other kind of respectability politics that seeks to fence out the "wrong" kind of popular music from being taken seriously as art, is obviously never necessarily the same thing as being popular. 

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