Jazzing Politics

Jazzing Politics

Don Byron and Dave Douglas put the political back into jazz.


Everyone knows that Plato mistrusted the politics of music, and most Nation readers probably recall that Adorno saw pop music, in particular, as an insidious form of brainwashing. That current of suspicion runs through philosophy worldwide, reminding us to be grateful that we don't live in Plato's Republic or in a fundamentalist theocracy. (The joy at the sudden return of music to Radio Afghanistan became an instant symbol of this recently.) In this context, Nietzsche was rare in his praise of music's historical and social functions, an embrace that let him appropriate its textures and effects into his sensibility and prose.

It's clear that music–even popular music, which includes jazz–has a power that unsettles philosophers and politicians. The figure of the bard, the Orphic seer whose power can penetrate the world's veils and change its bent, still exerts a strong, if largely subliminal, pull on the imaginations of artists and audiences alike.

It's striking, then, that both left and right nurture a disdain for and suspicion of popular culture, unless it's nostalgic or carefully defined, and hence safe. Today in America, art swims in a near-all-encompassing commercialism. "At least we valued art enough to censor it," a Russian expatriate professor-friend once remarked to me. "Here you just let anyone shout whatever they want." But commercialism can be an efficient censor as well: I cited Lenny Bruce, whom he'd never heard of; when I tried to explain, he didn't understand. "Dirty words?" he asked, shaking his head. My attempted point: Gatekeepers exist always and everywhere, and even in freewheeling consumer America, entertainment capital of the world, art is understood, at least by some, to possess gravity.

There are always some artists who aspire to be Shelleyan bards, no matter their medium. They take the time to study and learn, sometimes in tidy or systematic ways and sometimes in meandering, maddening fashion. In our postindustrial culture, their status and power, like old magic, ain't what it used to be. Still, most people, like most philosophers, tend to think of musicians as talented beasts. Rafi Zabor's fairy-tale novel, The Bear Comes Home, inverts that notion with whimsical charm and some nice satiric turns. Zabor's bear plays cutting-edge jazz saxophone and develops a whole quasi-human life, including human lovers, inside the jazz world, where he's mostly accepted, even considered a star. Now jazz musicians, thanks no doubt partly to race, have long been treated as, well, semitrained bears–especially insulting given the body of work and extended discipline they developed over the past half-century. Some, like Charles Mingus and Anthony Braxton, to name two men who are very dissimilar in most other ways, raged against it in extensive writings and speaking. Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, in their very different ways, sidestepped it or ignored it, at least in public. Beboppers subverted it, as Amiri Baraka pointed out in Blues People, adapting and tweaking the costumes and mannerisms of European bohemians in their claim to be artists.

Political or social commentary has always been part of jazz, implicitly or explicitly. How could an art form originally formulated by outsiders be otherwise? There are famous examples: "Black and Blue" by Armstrong. We insist: Freedom Now Suite by Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln. "Fables of Faubus" by Charles Mingus. A Tribute to Jack Johnson by Miles Davis. "Alabama" by John Coltrane. But now, post-9/11, new resonances have been added, unlooked-for surplus value, to art that has something to tell us about who we are now, much as it has to so much else–normal bits of life in our times, like airplanes falling out of the sky, suddenly acquire newly active potential meanings, a spreading shadow of possible contexts.

Enter clarinetist Don Byron, 43, and trumpeter Dave Douglas, 38. Both have garnered lots of press coverage, gathered awards, attracted musicians and followers, produced varied and important bodies of work that are stylistically and conceptually diverse as bandleaders and composers. Both are those fortunate jazz rarities, possessors of major-label deals. Both are widely read and intellectually cultivated, and infuse that sensibility into their art, which includes how they use liner notes, album illustrations, the whole package surrounding the disc that effectively embeds it in a perspective. Both recorded their latest albums before the World Trade Center came down. Each had particular social as well as musical concerns, creative speculations, the process of rebraiding reality's DNA into something that, in that magical way of art, steps out of time while simultaneously reflecting a vision, a personality, a series of moments rooted like Ygdrasil in our world. Both albums have acquired new echoes, courtesy of history, as inevitable as they were unforeseen.

Byron first. Articulate and funny with a sarcastic wit that can annoy or offend, he says, "I don't think everything I do has to be explained. That's one of the weak parts of this era: Everything has to be literal, you have to get it right now. I often end up having to justify what I'm doing in interviews: Something about me rubs up against their belief systems."

Twenty years ago, studying clarinet at the New England Conservatory of Music, he discovered Mickey Katz, whose klezmer music, which featured intricate possibilities for clarinet, was pretty much forgotten. Byron revived it and inadvertently became a novelty act that was extremely smart and musical. The elderly Jewish couples who came to Manhattan's old Knitting Factory years ago for his shows loved it, maybe even more because Byron is dreadlocked and black.

Byron is generally credited with bringing the clarinet back into jazz as more than an instrument for sax players to double on. Stiffer, less able to flow and bend notes and sounds than the saxophone, the clarinet stopped being crucial to jazz's mainstream around the time of Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, despite subsequent technical extensions like Buddy DeFranco's bebop clarinet. During the 1960s and 1970s, it was mostly avant-gardists or nostalgic traditionalists who picked it up.

Byron's clarinet, which carries this history within its sound, is at once ancient and modern. His licorice stick moves from dry woody piping to edgy squeals to hiccups and vocalizing growls, and his penchant for chromaticism, polytonality and hanging odd passing tones in unexpected places doesn't engage in nostalgia. His circuitous, unexpectedly jumping lines are stamped with his harmonic knowledge and melodic invention, informed by Bach and Schoenberg, Armstrong and Trane. And his rhythmic sense is sharp: He can make any two notes dance. A tireless experimenter, he's played silent-movie accompaniments, hip-hop rhythms, spoken-word performance pieces. That range was one reason Byron was jazz artistic director at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave festival for four seasons.

As a composer, Byron is eclectic, thoughtful and provocative, usually with a political or social agenda. He exudes attitude. His album debut as a leader was The Tuskegee Experiments (Nonesuch), inspired by the federal government's horrific wartime syphilis experiments on unsuspecting African-Americans. His first Music for Six Musicians album (Nonesuch) followed.

"Most of that record," he explains, "was inspired by political events around the time I was writing it. So there are pieces about Ross Perot and Clarence Thomas and Shelby Steele. My music refers all the time to intellectual concerns. Why do that? Why not just play? My answer is, I think a lot about Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln and Mingus, and you can't strip the politics away from that music. The music holds up without it–if it didn't, it wouldn't be worth discussing–but it's the motivation. If you read what they were saying and thinking then, it makes even more sense. People can learn the notes Coltrane played, but unless they're willing to embrace some of the politics that produced them, there's a whole piece of him they're skirting.

"The flip side is, listeners expect political music to sound a certain way: If it's about race, it's either got a McCoy Tyner sound or it's free. But every tune on that first Six Musicians record has techniques that dealt with the subject matter differently. Take 'Shelby Steele.' It states the melody, then states it upside down in the clave, then states it two beats off in the clave; so it talks about how if you state something out of context it changes meaning. My point is that you can talk politically in any context, even repertory. Any lump of clay you pick up, you can use to say anything you need."

And Byron has become an accomplished bricoleur. Bug Music (Nonesuch), like The Music of Mickey Katz (Nonesuch), shows what he means about the cultural politics of repertory music. In his historical revisionism, Duke Ellington, Raymond Scott and John Kirby are presented side by side as listeners heard them in the 1930s. Scott recorded mostly novelties; many became classic Warner Bros. cartoon soundtracks. Kirby led a popular small swing-era unit with a proto-chamber-jazz style. Byron's sly goal: to recontextualize Ellington and the others, changing the angle of vision and hence the potential meanings of the music. His last album, Romance With the Unseen (Blue Note), did something similar with ghosts from Goodman to Disney.

Byron's recent album is entitled You Are #6: More Music for Six Musicians (Blue Note). It alludes to The Prisoner, the late- 1960s TV show starring Patrick McGoohan as a British spy who tries to resign and is kidnapped to The Village, a pleasantly surreal totalitarian holding pen for such as he, where he is expected to be broken. Instead, he mounts one escape attempt after another and plots to undermine the nameless powers (which seem to include his own government) who run the place. Failing to get cover art from the show, Byron substituted A.G. Rizzoli's equally surreal "The Bluesea House," an intricate system of buildings and symbology that, as it sprawls across the opened CD booklet's innards, resembles a board game for a Platonic life system. It had, Byron felt, the right resonances to enhance his music.

Why The Prisoner? "What's interesting," says Byron, a self-described connoisseur of pop culture, "is the scenario. Essentially, The Village is a comfortable place, a nice place to live, had all the amenities, but no one was really free. They kept wanting The Prisoner to get relaxed in that. In some ways they were right; once you're clean and comfortable and everything is taken care of, it really doesn't matter what's happening, in a certain kind of way."

Byron is of West Indian descent; his father played bass in calypso bands in the Bronx when the clarinetist was growing up. Hence another embedded context for his music: the non-Latino-Caribbean tradition, whose cultural roles in the West African diaspora he feels may be forgotten in the current Latino renaissance. "Calypso," he says, "Haitian music, they're part of it; the English-speaking part of Nicaragua and the Caribbean is part of it. When people see me they often think, you're an avant-garde guy. Actually, no, I'm very West Indian. My politics, the way I approach the humor in my music. West Indians are pretty ironic, nastily judgmental, frugal, angrily political and yet joyfully political–West Indian politics is usually a band. When I was growing up there were lots of Sparrow songs about Martin Luther King. The lyrics unfold into pretty long stories, always with a twist and irony. Take my approach to Brazilian music–funny twists and turns, Schoenberg type of harmonies, stuff in places that if you look hard they shouldn't necessarily be together and yet they go together, because they're in my imagination." That, and the fact that clave plays on the ambiguity between duple and triple meter–which multiplies out to six–helped shape an album that is wide-ranging, effective and shot through with knowing, releasing humor.

It opens with Henry Mancini's "Theme From Hatari," which Byron has remade in clave with percussionist Milton Cardona overlaying a santeria chant–a wicked irony for a comic film starring John Wayne as a big-game hunter in Africa. "You Are #6" Latinizes the show's theme, tagging the end with a taped quote from a sardonic panhandler, who classifies people's habits about giving on the street. "Klang" mixes Brazilian and funk beats with deft sonic touches like plinking guitar as mbira. "B-Setting," with its musical and extramusical puns, draws on classic soul–the bridge is pure acoustic-jazz-style James Brown–and sports a witty vocal mixed nearly into the background. "A Whisper in My Ear" nods to Afro-Cuban jazz architect Mario Bauza; the band here best demonstrates its rhythmic suppleness and torque. "Shake 'Em Up" was a local calypso hit for the band his father played in, and it grooves like Eastern Parkway's annual West Indian-American Day Parade, which it invokes. "No Whine" is pointedly blues-free but poignant, resigned, moving. "Dark Room" blends Miles Davis, film noir and Machito. "Dub Ya"–taken, Byron says, from a suite he is writing "about animals that look and sound dumb"–is a tape-loop foray with Mingusy overtones that's hilarious. And one of Byron's growing number of film pieces, "Belmondo's Lip," gets two treatments, the second a stuttering, psychedelicized remix by DJ Spooky that reassembles its deconstructed pieces over its irresistibly chugging beats. That closes the disc.

It's one of the best albums I've heard this year.

From one perspective, Dave Douglas's Witness (Bluebird) got a horrible boost when the Twin Towers fell. Inspired by Edward Said's Representations of the Intellectual, the suite-like album draws extensively on Arab music sources for its celebration of cultural activists: the Ruckus Society, Nawal El Saadawi, Eqbal Ahmad, Naguib Mahfouz, Taslima Nasrin, Pramoedya Ananta Toer and Ken Saro-Wiwa. Though it doesn't address the complicated, tangled role of music within Islamic and Arab societies, it does, with good reason, stake a claim for Douglas as jazz bard.

Like Byron, Douglas has become a jazz-based bricoleur. In fact, one of his first prominent recording gigs was with Byron's Mickey Katz lineup. He attended Berkleeand the New England Conservatory, came to New York in 1984 and studied and worked with Joe Lovano. In the late 1980s he became interested in central and eastern European folk musics, which later led to his forming the Tiny Bell Trio. He worked with pianist Myra Melford, performed with and wrote for dance troupes, and joined John Zorn's Masada, which uses eastern and central European Jewish idioms as thematic materials for free-ish improvisation.

His chosen horn was already the subject of a renaissance, thanks to Wynton Marsalis. Whatever you think about Marsalis's abilities or depth as player or composer, you'd be hard pressed to deny he is the best-known jazz musician alive, that he's pursued Armstrong's position in American cultural mythology, the iconic man with the trumpet, with single-minded intensity and success. Besides, unlike the clarinet, the trumpet has never been benched with jazz's backup squads. In fact, in his early days, Douglas sometimes seemed like a downtown white alternative to Marsalis: in his serious and self-conscious intellectualism (he wowed jazz critics with references to Walter Benjamin, Foucault and Said, much as Marsalis had by talking about Thomas Mann and Ralph Ellison), in the cerebral virtuosity and golden tones of his horn, in his controlled approach to music and the world, in the image he cultivated of straddling the classical and jazz genres.

Sometimes I tend to think of Byron as more Dionysian and Douglas as more Apollonian, sometimes I think of them as the fox and the hedgehog, sometimes I think of them in McLuhanesque terms as warm and cool. For me, as Douglas unfolded a variety of projects with different personnel and goals, his solos, especially in Zorn's "Masada," exhibited more of that unselfconscious grace that I look for in matured artists, what Castiglione called sprezzatura. I admired Douglas's work with his Tiny Bell Trio and Sextet and Charms of the Night Sky, but at a distance, where I felt the music's sensibility in some ways kept me. But his tribute to Mary Lou Williams (Soul on Soul, RCA/Victor) struck me more deeply; Douglas seemed more emotionally attached to this project, and it coincided with Linda Dahl's Morning Glory, a solid biography.

Now he's assembled a first-rate cast of players for Witness, which grew from his several-year-old "Thoughts Around Mahfouz." He says, "The music, just like the culture and the society, has retreated from experimentation quite a bit, retreated into entertainment. And yet I think–and I don't want to overgeneralize–that in the American improvised idiom there's been a lot of awareness of other art forms–dance, poetry and so on–but also of politics/social justice movements and the like. But that awareness has been muted in the ways it's been able to speak. Over a period of time it became much harder to make any kind of statement in the art itself. While we're seeing things like Ani DiFranco and Steve Earle, and even Springsteen making statements in song, for those of us who are instrumentalists and dancers and even novelists in the United States it's been harder to make any kind of impact. The resurgence of community spirit and activism in the wake of 9/11 has made that easier to do, in some ways."

He's also looking to move beyond what he sees as the end of postmodernism. "I don't relate at all to postmodern ideas. If anything, what's going on in the music now is postpostmodern, if there can be such a thing. I think artists are believing in something again. This music is passionate. There are melodies and harmonies and sequence and flow. The juxtaposition of genre language is not happening gratuitously or in a forced way. If you look across the spectrum of the music, that's a fairly universal new area, that there's not this edgy self-awareness and self-consciousness, that artists are looking for meaning."

This is somewhat disingenuous; like Byron, Douglas will talk on, given the chance, of how he's mixed and matched previously un-mixed and -matched genres and styles in unique ways. But more than Byron, who prefers to be subject to interpretation, Douglas has embedded his music as deeply in extramusical signposts as he can to fix the inherent instability of the relationship between sounds and meaning, especially when translated into another idiom. And so his CD booklet cites and briefly glosses the people and materials that inspired each piece, proffers lists of suggested readings (Arundhati Roy, Howard Zinn and so on) and websites (www.ruckus.org, www.indymedia.org), describes the epiphanic moment behind his need to speak out more directly in his music, which produced this project (reading a newspaper on the Yugoslav border "on the rising stock of American weapons makers during the NATO assault on Yugoslavia").

Like Byron, Douglas is well aware that the history of engaged music in whatever form is littered with detritus that was neither good propaganda nor good art. He says, "One of my big fears was that the message not cut into the artistic strength of the project. That was one of my reasons for not using dogmatic statements, even on the tune where I chose to use voice. I don't think anyone is gonna want to listen to it if the art doesn't come first. Said being such a big influence on how I think about the world, the quote on the liner notes steered me along: maintaining a constant state of alertness. The message of the record is, if anything, for people to think. I think that's what the arts are capable of doing–getting people to think. The music in itself confronts a lot of categories, people's assumptions about what jazz should be or could be, what world music should be. Where do I put this in my cultural file?"

Listening to the album's enveloping, often dazzling sense of textures and depth, which adheres and coheres as the well-paced CD runs, should also be enjoyable and entertaining, and it is. "Ruckus" kicks off lustily by doffing Douglas's cap to the Seattle riots against the WTO; it also rather neatly fits Byron's observation about genre expectations for "protest" music, with Arab sounds replacing Trane's Indian sounds. The title track, emotionally centered on a brilliant, achingly beautiful violin solo by Mark Feldman, juxtaposes plaints with bursts of rage over a droning backdrop. "One More News" is a short and lively dance piece about "tragedy fatigue." "Woman at Point Zero" takes its title from the El Saadawi novel and boasts a scintillating use of moods and tension-and-release tactics. "Kidnapping Kissinger," dedicated to Ahmad, lacks Ahmad's "sharp sense of humor" but is an effective genre piece, right down to the electronic music portions. As for "Mahfouz," the nearly twenty-four-minute work is the album's deserved centerpiece, and allows Douglas and several sidemen (there are eleven in total on the album) extensive improvisational freedom within well-developed arrangements, and they all shine. Tom Waits reads excerpts from Mahfouz and Gilles Deleuze, his voice mixed as far back as Mick Jagger's on the early Stones recordings, occasionally dissolving into smoker's laughter. Here, in the music, Douglas finds meaning by layering, interweaving, creating possibilities for interpretations and, in fact, loosening his control.

"How do you protest a system," Douglas writes in the liner notes, "that coopts and marginalizes almost every unique and original thought that confronts it? And how do you stay silent?" When I read that, I thought of my old Russian professor. One critic, reviewing the album, raised and dismissed this issue by noting that Douglas has a rare major-label deal. I'd just note that such Chomskyite rhetoric, the self-defeating vision of totalitarian control of culture that arises from Adorno, can't adequately account for the shape of Douglas's own career.

Consider that idea another external puzzle piece of meaning to ponder while you spin this disc, which I'd rate alongside Byron's as one of the year's best.

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