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a school of higher learning…

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‘The poet makes himself a seer by a long, prodigious, and rational disordering of all the senses….This is an unspeakable torture during which he needs all his faith and superhuman strength, and during which he becomes the great patient, the great criminal, the great accursed – and the great learned one!’
Arthur Rimbaud

‘Jazz is the big brother of the blues. If a guy’s playing blues like we play, he’s in high school. When he starts playing jazz it’s like going on to college, to a school of higher learning.’
BB King

Of a socio-cultural phenomenon like jazz, Charlie Haden recalled his counsel to young students, noting, ‘I tell them if you strive to be a good person, maybe you might become a great jazz musician.’

And, why would that be? That is, why would Haden make a rather bold, direct point of identifying just the one musical modality?

Classic jazz—the pieces and players we turn to again and again—is that often-complex musical form composed by a discerning, studious collective, to then be ‘abstracted’ (interpreted, improvised, etc.) by yet other knowing masters of the genre—and, further, to be appreciated by the third element in the aesthetic triad: the devotee of classic jazz composition, performance and recordings.

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There abides within the classic jazz idiom, in both composing and performing—and, let it be stressed—a requisite freedom. This most needful thing occurs, in, for example, a player’s uninhibited courting of the creative Muse, that demiurge existing just outside his sensibilities, the familiarity zone of his day-to-day often prosaic, frequently precarious world. To be faithful to that innovative, subtle resource is all-consuming, a devotional akin to the acolyte’s glimpse of the sublime—and, to which privilege other, lesser-gifted beings may at times marvel. A poet of Rimbaud’s vision understood this courting of the Muse in a similar vein, citing a ‘derangement,’ knowingly cultivated, as he put it, in the interest of his vocation—a ‘calling,’ possibly in a literal sense, so acutely did he perceive it:

‘I want to be a poet, and I’m working at turning myself into a seer. You won’t understand any of this, and I’m almost incapable of explaining it to you. The idea is to reach the unknown by the derangement of all the senses….It’s really not my fault.’

The director Antonin Artaud speaks to a similar, disorienting rite (that Rimbaud had fairly apologized to his confidante is an index of the upset), here, for actors in working his Théâtre de la Cruauté:

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‘Furthermore, when we speak the word ‘life,’ it must be understood we are not referring to life as we know it from the surface of fact, but to that fragile, fluctuating center which forms never reach… we should become as victims burning at the stake, signaling each other through the flames.’

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The jazz player listens, and is attentive to, the nuanced, fleeting cues and prompts from the Muse, which are realized, quickly and accurately, as a phrase coordinating with the underlying harmonic base, as well as the rhythmic pulse. Of his dues. Bird noted that he was playing eleven to fifteen hours a day, for three or four years—internalizing the mechanics of the alto, honing his response, a fluid, graced ‘No Mind’ (wu-shin), as Zen adepts have it. Those thousands of hours of ‘woodshed’—the discipline (discipleship) of an acolyte, a harkening unto Artaud’s ‘fragile, fluctuating center…signaling each other through the flames,’ i.e., post-war Be-Bop visionaries, tout ensemble, remnants of the Black Shoah, fluent in the new jazz argot of upper partials, altered dominant sevenths, the signature flat five, etc.—were a Zen seminary for 52nd Street’s hieratic beatified, the Beat cognoscenti vanguard (The Band’s Garth Hudson: ‘But actually the greatest priests on 52nd Street and on the streets in New York City were the musicians. They were doing the greatest healing work…’). Again, Rimbaud, on any possible catharsis:

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‘This is an unspeakable torture during which he needs all his faith and superhuman strength, and during which he becomes the great patient, the great criminal, the great accursed – and the great learned one! – among men. – For he arrives at the unknown! Because he has cultivated his own soul – which was rich to begin with – more than any other man! He reaches the unknown; and even if, crazed, he ends up by losing the understanding of his visions, at least he has seen them! Let him die charging through those unutterable, unnameable things: other horrible workers will come; they will begin from the horizons where he has succumbed.’

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Jazz educator and vibraphonist par excellence Gary Burton describes the difference between a solo passage in, say, pop music, and jazz as one of contriving an effect, versus the arc of a jazz narrative, i.e., a ‘storytelling,’ in the triadic harmony, melody and that most essential element, cadence (or, pulse), as framing device. Again, the composer here is en route to a unique kind of text (texere, to weave), not primarily in a lyric (in the first-person voice, Billie Holiday’s ‘Fine and Mellow’) but, rather, the virtuoso player’s own spontaneity as a composer.

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A hallmark, then, of the classic jazz ‘composition’ is a disposition to re-invention upon the foundation—the essential characteristics—of a chord structure: the AABA 32-bar form is just one instance, heard in the non pareil ‘Body and Soul.’ Note Coleman Hawkins’ graced, inspired tenor flight over the proto-narrative waters, touching down here, alighting there, ‘Body and Soul’ as springpoint for the immediate composition he establishes: a narrative upon a narrative, or meta-text via the immediacy of jazz improvisation, Rimbaud’s creative frenzy via the stalwart Muse Hawkins has been courting. Here, an immolation of the Black poet, who rises, and then scales Parnassus via San Juan Hill and Minton’s proving ground, the Harlem crucible where post-war young jazz avatars ‘die charging through those unutterable, unnameable things,’ like the reality of Jim Crow, Charlie Parker denied a cabaret card (disallowed access to his namesake’ 52nd St venue!), or Billy Strayhorn at Columbia Presbyterian, bringing off ‘Blood Count’ with his last spark and will, and so on.

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It is the profound sense of purpose instilled therein which informs the classic work, of course—a particularly dramatic account in the case of Strayhorn, certainly, but no less present in, e.g., Lady Day, under interdiction, singing ‘Strange Fruit.’ In defiance of a lifetime of racism, yes, but the healing event that derives from making known America’s ongoing, hideous ‘secret sin’—simply not mentioned among the polite, the white, etc., the healing of sacred witness (‘what you do to the least of my brothers…’), a witness to the grotesquerie of ‘the City on the Hill’ jump-started by the slave labor of King Cotton, etc.—is coadjutor to post-war Black defiance, too. It is a jazz praxis in play here, an aesthetic ideology which mandates an activism—the revolutionary act of speaking the truth (full disclosure) where the false Empire survives via omission, duplicity and loveless addiction to a preposterous, failed ego.

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Black America, in its Gethsemane, hears its prophet Coltrane narrate ‘Alabama,’ on the heels of the 16th Street Church bombing in 1963, and the demons of American Gothic are purged, again, again, etc., with every witness, every re-creating and renewing of the piece via Trane’s performance of it, composed on the spot, an unhindered chromatic (<Gk, color) altarpiece and stream of consciousness hymnal, America’s salvific moment, a dispensation and ‘remission of sin’ via its four child martyrs who, in fact, inspired (invoked?) the piece. ‘Alabama’ is a classic work as its mystic, welcoming depth will not be sounded, yet it gives and gives. Surely, it petitions more than condemns.

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The Black poet—America’s own (not a European derivative)—having been compensated with disdain and the lash, returns quality, instead of kind. That is, he hands America the healing, uninhibited, glad grace of jazz. By his stripes we are healed. Again, Rimbaud might just as well have been considering Coltrane, before the fact:

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‘Every form of love, of suffering, of madness; he searches himself, he consumes all the poisons in him, and keeps only their quintessences. This is an unspeakable torture during which he needs all his faith and superhuman strength, and during which he becomes the great patient, the great criminal, the great accursed – and the great learned one! – among men.’

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So, yes, Charlie Haden, a devotee of the art form has to cultivate a sophisticated, sensitive and learned aesthetic within himself in order to…’understand’ the composer and subsequent performers of the piece, in all their joy, anguish, rage, hope and civilized knowing. The ennobling spirit, the curative catharsis of its better angels, jazz is surely the ‘school of higher learning,’ a nourishing mother and balm…it is twice blest, of a noble quality, for both—herald and beatified—an epiphanic ‘signaling through the flames,’ but of the Promethean kind, an endowing of warmth, light and, here, absolution: ‘take, and eat.’

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