Point of Departure: The biggest envelope

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Back when I was in college, my Beginning Tonal Harmony and Counterpoint professor dropped a bomb by declaring that Charlie Parker wasn't actually improvising. And let me tell you, you've never seen hackles raised if you haven't seen a room of mostly jazz students being told Bird couldn't improvise. Shouting ensued. Even the sleepy stoner kid who fell asleep within the first five minutes of most classes was practically up and out of his chair, spittle flying.

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Charles Ives: Badder than Bird

Now, let me qualify this story in a couple ways. First of all, my professor was a pompous windbag and the foundation of his contention was that Parker (or any other jazz musician) was bound by rules, by the structure of the tune they were blowing over. Real improvisers (for him) were people like Cage or Ives--basically, people creating music out of thin air and making up their own rules. He bragged about his own improvisational abilities; I never saw them put to the test.

And we, we students, were basically idiots. We were all--with some exceptions--playing at being jazz musicians. Any musician can study jazz, can learn their modes, can learn the whole tone diminished scale, can apply that knowledge against a set of chords moving in time and create something approximating jazz. But to live and breathe inside the music, you have to break your playing down to its very roots and then reconstruct it. It can take years before you're competent, and then years and years before you begin to have something original to say.

And now some pretentious art-music loser teaching a class we all had to take and almost none of us wanted to be in was telling us we weren't shit. Let's just say it wasn't a good day, and that class was mad early as well, which wasn't making anyone less cranky.

But I think about that debate often because it brings home how different things can look depending on where you stand. To someone playing at the fringes of what most of the population would consider music, jazz (or at least bebop) may have appeared confining. But then again, many of the jazz students were perfectly happy to look down on jam bands as facile, boring, and masturbatory.

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Photo by Francis Wolff
Andrew Hill

But then, context is everything. We find meaning in art when we understand (intuitively or explicitly) where it arises from: its culture, its structures, its practitioners. The more we understand, the better able we are to appreciate. You don't need a deep knowledge of Thelonious Monk to appreciate the spare, airy beauty of Andrew Hill's solo on "Refuge" from the 1964 album this column takes its name from. But it helps when he references the melody from Monk's "Trinkle, Tinkle." Unfortunately, sometimes greater knowledge also brings along greater snobbery.

We all bring to music our own prejudices, but we make them strengths by recognizing them and trying to learn from them. There's joy to be found in a Duane Allman solo that pushes the envelope of blues-based Southern rock; there's joy in Charlie Parker's incendiary and wholesale deconstruction of each and every chord change and in Miles Davis' careful, spiny exploration of one of his tune's open-ended harmonies. And yes, there's even joy in the most abstract modern music because it pushes against the biggest envelope we've got as music fans--the one labeled, simply, MUSIC.


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