Row Row Row Your Boat
There’s a fascinating conversation going on around post-modern New Orleans trumpet player Nicholas Payton’s blog post “On Why Jazz Isn’t Cool Anymore . . .” circulating. I’ve never been much interested in the term “Jazz,” because when I’m talking about music with someone and I say I like Jazz, they will get a very wrong idea of what I like. What I like in “Jazz” is instrumental bebop from almost exclusively the 1950s. That’s a pretty narrow slice. I pretty much am ambivalent to actively disliking the most of the rest of what is called Jazz. So I’m pretty fine with Payton’s manifesto of freeing ourselves from the constraints of terms. The jazz part of this for me, then, ends there.
Why I’m thinking about it this morning is the possibility of overlap into the problems and fights surrounding contemporary American poetry. A lot of the problem Payton has with “Jazz,” and the reactions to such problems, is something of a cognate for contemporary American poetry.
Here’s Payton’s post:
Here’s a reaction to his post, talking about race in jazz:
And here’s the NPR aggregation:
OK, so now, the link to poetry.
First off, to echo Payton, something has happened to make poetry no longer hip in the way it was for people who carried around copies of Howl or Ariel or something by Robert Lowell or Charles Bukowski. And what it is isn’t about the quality of contemporary writing, or what poets are writing about, but instead about what’s hip to do. In some circles, it’s hip to carry around something by Tao Lin or Zachary Schomburg or Heather Christle, true, but these poets aren’t as culturally noticed as Ginsberg/Plath/Bukowski were. What’s hip is now hip on a much smaller stage. Why? How?
Should we talk about that, or should we pick up our horns and blow? Yes, that’s what we should do. But as soon as we do, we begin setting something down. What is it we’re setting down? Does it reflect the loss of possibility that the past has closed off? Are we limited by what has happened before? Or are we trying to preserve and extend the past? Because the past was so grand, right? Where do we remain? Where do we attempt to go? Where can we attempt to go? Are we to attempt ignore the past, or to better it, perfect it, extend it? Do we believe there is such a thing as the future? Are we being culturally relevant? Should we be worried about being culturally relevant? Whow decides what’s culturally relevant anyway?
And what do we call what we’re doing?
So here are a few of Payton’s points (I’ve collaged them into an order that best [in my mind] reflects the cognate problems in contemporary American poetry. To get the flavor of his intention, I direct you to the link above.):
A glaring example of what’s wrong with Jazz is how people fight over it.
Jazz was a limited idea to begin with. Jazz is a label that was forced upon the musicians. The musicians should’ve never accepted that idea.
Jazz is incestuous.
Jazz is only cool if you don’t actually play it for a living.
The very fact that so many people are holding on to this idea of what Jazz is supposed to be is exactly what makes it not cool. People are holding on to an idea that died long ago. Jazz ain’t cool, it’s cold, like necrophilia.
Jazz worries way too much about itself for it to be cool. You can be martyrs for an idea that died over a half a century if y’all want. Lot’s wife turned to a pillar of salt from looking back. Playing Jazz is like using the rear-view mirror to drive your car on the freeway.
Jazz is haunted by its own hungry ghosts.
People are too afraid to let go of a name that is killing the spirit of the music.
Some people may say we are defined by our limitations. I don’t believe in limitations, but yes, if you believe you are limited that will define you. Some people may say we are limited. I say, we are as limited as we think. I am not limited.
Jazz has nothing to do with music or being cool. It’s a marketing idea.
Jazz is a marketing ploy that serves an elite few. The elite make all the money while they tell the true artists it’s cool to be broke.
People are fickle and follow the pack. People follow trends and brands. So do musicians, sadly. Jazz is a brand. Jazz ain’t music, it’s marketing, and bad marketing at that. It has never been, nor will it ever be, music.
Our whole purpose on this planet is to evolve. Jazz has proven itself to be limited, and therefore, not cool. Existence is not contingent upon thought. Life isn’t linear, it’s concentric. When you’re truly creating you don’t have time to think about what to call it.
Definitions are retrospective.
Too many musicians and not enough artists. Not enough artists willing to soldier for their shit.
I am not speaking of so-called Jazz’s improvisational aspects. Improvisation by its very nature can never be passé, but mindsets are invariably deadly. Not knowing is the most you can ever know.
I believe music to be more of a medium than a brand.
You can’t practice art.
I create music for the heart and the head, for the beauty and the booty.
Silence is music, too. It’s where you choose to put silence that makes sound music. Sound and silence equals music. Sometimes when I’m soloing, I don’t play shit. I just move blocks of silence around. The notes are an afterthought. Silence is what makes music sexy. Silence is cool.
- Nicholas Payton
[JG: I’ve taken several important things to consider out of his post. One strand I’ve taken out is the topic of race, and the history of race in Jazz. Race is also an important topic in contemporary American poetry, but it’s different enough from that of the Jazz conversation, that I thought it could be left out. A good question that is asked now and then is how race plays into the cultural practice and reception of poetry in general, and in what is termed Post-Avant and Experimental poetry, as well. And there’s the empty space Payton doesn’t approach, the problem of gender and sexuality in Jazz . . . ]
Incestuous . . .
It’s only cool if you don’t’ read it . . .
What he’s striking out at the most is the problematic nature of the term, and the power and aesthetic economies that term sets up. And then, how the fight about the term itself (what we’re doing and what we should be doing) is sucking the life out of what could be a better conversation on the art. I think of it as passengers on a leaking lifeboat. Some are pointing, blaming the sinking of the ship on each other, while others are consumed with deciding on a name for their new vessel, and still others are saying a different boat would have been better, and yet others are complaining about the paintjob. Who’s rowing?
I’ve felt uncomfortable calling myself a poet in something of a similar way that Payton would feel uncomfortable being called a Jazz musician. I rather dislike what that term sets up. I’d rather call myself a “Word Artist” but that sounds pretentious, so I don’t. I’m OK saying I write poetry, so that’s what I try to say when I can. Fewer people think of black berets and finger snaps or Romantic visages of standing on the Alps. It’s the same problem Payton has. But what use can he possibly get out of saying he's a Post-Modern New Orleans Trumpet Player? That jsut sounds silly. Like walking around saying "I'm a Hybrid, pleased to meet you." There are cultural expectations of Genre, and those expectations, if we let them, make us do things. Nothing should make us do things but the art itself. Not the names or the sub names of the art. And then the aesthetic camps and all the blah blah about what’s this or that about styles and groups. If you just ignore all that and do what you do it'll at least makes sense to you. All this hoard mentality and then anti-hoard hoard mentality. Bah and fie.
And then there are some people who are still saying prose poetry isn't poetry? Really? And on. Whatever is done will become the past that will become the problem with which the future will have to deal. And to go forward, it’s important to go back, but it’s impossible to stay there, no matter how beautiful, for in the end, what strength an artist has is that artist’s alone.
Enter Prospero in his magic robes:
Now my charms are all o’erthrown,
And what strength I have’s mine own,
Which is most faint: now, ’tis true,
I must be here confined by you,
Or sent to Naples. Let me not,
Since I have my dukedom got
And pardon’d the deceiver, dwell
In this bare island by your spell;
But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands:
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please. Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon’d be,
Let your indulgence set me free.