Wednesday, August 31, 2011

On Listening.

If we are to talk about “problems” in appreciating and engaging art, one of the chief concerns is that after a certain point in life, people don’t want to have to be taught to do something unless they are getting paid for it. That in-itself is understandable at the basest level (who doesn’t want some sort of non-intrinsic reward sometimes?), but it isn’t a very fruitful path if one wants to expand one’s horizons. By the time you get to be of a certain age, you don’t want to be taught how to listen to music or see what is in a work of visual art. That seems like something that you should know how to do from an elementary age. The thing is, we still have to learn how to appreciate even the things we like. With music – and with jazz/improvised music especially – understanding how to listen came well after my first or even second engagement with it, and unknowingly I sought teachers who would help me to hear the history and beyond it so I could hopefully have some grasp of what this music is.

With the drums, I thank Alvin Fielder for helping me to hear the lineage and really study where different rhythms and phrases come from. Even as a non-musician and someone who, when I was a musician, didn’t have the greatest sense of “time,” I’ve learned more about where modern jazz drumming comes from through knowing and talking to Alvin. He is a historian and a treasure.

For finally beginning to love the trumpet, as well as a true appreciation of tone and understanding how this music is put together orchestrally, credit is due to Bill Dixon and Stephen Haynes. I am still learning how the trumpet does what it can do and it is a challenge, but for gaining knowledge about the subtleties of sound and assembling the “parts” of a piece of music, I owe Bill and Stephen a lot.

Picking apart the music critically and thinking about the literature around it started with David Raskin (my art history mentor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago) and continued with Bill and Stephen as well as (writer-musician-composer) Allen Lowe, (writer) Larry Kart, (producer-label owner) Chuck Nessa, (musician-scholar) Karl Evangelista, (musician-educator) Jeff Crompton and a number of others.

Of course, having the good fortune to interview and interact with quite a few of the music’s most important figures has helped tremendously, and that also goes for getting to know and being involved with a community of fellow travelers/friendly experiencers who are enthusiastic and willing to share. In writing for Ni Kantu and other places as a critic, one might take away from that a lack of substantial negativity about the music – rarely do I give negative reviews, though it does happen sometimes. Acquiring an understanding of how to listen (and I’m still doing that and will probably always do that) has quashed most of the propensity to give a recording bad marks. Plus, I barely have time to write about all the great music that enters the marketplace, much less a set of music that (to me) isn’t interesting.

Without trying to sound like I’m on any enlightened plane – far from it – I do think that appreciating art is a learned thing, taught through getting to know the creators (biographical experience) and others who are part of the sub-cultural fabric. As pianist Burton Greene wrote in his autobiography Meditations of a Musical Pesty-Mystic (Cadence Jazz Books, 2001), and quoting Swami Satchidananda, “to understand is to stand under where you are already standing.” Being willing to learn and try to have humility in that process, remaining a student even if it can be agitating to do so, is an undeniable step in the right direction.

Sparked by a question of whether audiences are "afraid" of new music earlier today I'm not sure that they are, but I can say that to accept the idea of continual learning is a tall order, and ultimately a rewarding one.


  1. David S. Ware said about his music: that it is an ocean that he will never cross.

    A parallel between his words and what you say, Clifford, is appropriate to draw.

    Learning does not stop when you are out of school or have reached adulthood. In fact, some of the most important learning comes IN adulthood when, hopefully, consciousness is growing and one can see the past as a witness and apply the attitude that grows out of witnessing to the present.

    It might be a relief to people to know that the act of omniscience can be dropped, even for the grandchildren. Discovering with them is ultimately a great teaching experience because it is also very deeply concerned with learning both for adult and child.

    Music and art are disciplines which require attention and focus in order that their significance be gleaned for the composer, artist AND the audience. All that attention and focus, though, needs to comes as second nature. As if the clouds have lifted and the light is shining through. That is the way life behaves; it is the way the cultural experience behaves. Life and art cannot be separated.

    Even when one goes to the market to shop.

  2. Thanks Lyn - your very last statement calls to mind Stephen Haynes' improvisational/compositional cooking statements.

  3. You know, CA, I do not even remember writing that comment. But I must have. It has my name on it and you are welcome! Good ideas spread throughout your last interview.