Saturday, May 29, 2010
An Oscar Wilde quote worth knowing: “There are only two tragedies in life. One is not getting what one wants. The other is getting it.”
Case in point: “Kind of Blue;” a wet dream for the Mile Davis Estate; maybe not so great for jazz.
In the last 50 or so years, jazz has had an uneasy relationship with popular success. There is always a lot of talk about how Bop moved jazz from dance music to art music and, being less tied to the functional needs of the culture, moved into a smaller corner of American life. Vocalists could have a foot in the jazz and popular camps and succeed, not so modern instrumentalists.
Occasionally, something hit: Errol Garner’s “Concert By the Sea”-1955, “Ellington at Newport”-1956, Brubeck’s “Take Five”-1959, “Getz Gilberto”-1964. The success of these, amplified a hundred-fold in the case of “Kind of Blue,” takes a toll, as the material is increasingly used for essentially nostalgic purposes. There's less space in the American musical brain for jazz anyway. A phenomenon like Kind of Blue hogs what's left.
No doubt my patience has worn thin as a result of living long enough to hear several generations of jazz DJ’s “discover” K.O.B. In any case, the phenomenon resurrected thoughts I’d had on the way repetition created musical monsters of 3 songs: "Satin Doll," “Blue Bossa” and “Misty.” All of which have suffered fates akin to that befalling “Kind of Blue.”
First, “Satin Doll.” It’s to the good that this song provided solid income for Ellington. Unfortunately, like musical kudzu, it has crowded out the many works of genius he created in the mind of the average music consumer. His great work lay elsewhere-Bartender: another Black and Tan Fantasy-but the psychic space is taken up by Satin Doll. The pseudo hip lyrics only make things worse:
"Cigarette holder which wigs me
Over her shoulder, she digs me.
Out cattin' that satin doll.
Baby, shall we go out skippin?
Careful, amigo, you're flippin',
Speaks Latin that satin doll."
And: switch-a-rooney. Johnny Mercer, how could you?
Everyone plays this song, no matter how scant their credentials for playing jazz. In wedding party rooms, pizza parlors, church basements, rehearsal rooms, even in recording studios, this tattered tune is infinitely resurrected.
A second song suffering a similar fate is Kenny Dorham’s "Blue Bossa." KD was one of the finest jazz trumpet players of the 1950's-early 60's. He was musically adventurous and wrote a number of interesting tunes that pushed harmony, time signatures and explored 'free' and classical concepts. Not so, this song.
It was born in an era when ill-conceived mash-ups resulted in tunes like: 'Bossa Nova Baby,' 'Soul Bossa Nova' and 'Bossa Nova USA.' Like “Satin Doll,” it is played by anyone who can recognize a D minor chord. I understand its value as a learning tool that can be used to addle the brains of aspiring musicians at Berklee and like institutions. All well and good, if it had been quarantined to quarters. However, it has continued to leak out and infect the wider listening public. Evaluating Dorham’s composing skills via Blue Bossa is like using Satin Doll to evaluate Ellington. Their ubiquity warps judgment.
Number 3 on this list: "Musty," er, sorry, “Misty,” written by pianist Errol Garner.
As a musician, Garner was an interesting case: Couldn't read music, which in jazz by the 1950's, was getting to be rare; made a bunch of records, but only a few clicked; at 5'2" (nickname: The Elf), he needed to put phone books on the bench to get up to the keyboard. To my ears, he does attain one of the classic jazz goals-you can recognize it's Garner right away, largely because of the stretching of time, the independence of left and right hands and the frequent use of octaves and tenths, a la Stride players like James P. Johnson and Fats Waller. Jackie Byard was a similar eclectic stylist a half-generation later.
A composition like Misty served Garner well, allowing for the kinds of melodic, harmonic and rhythmic digressions he liked to make. However, as this song seeped more and more into the popular repertoire, it came under attack by kitch-a-coccus, began to age badly and lost its appeal. Its fate has been remarkably similar to that of Blue Bossa and Satin Doll. Every wedding in every Elks hall in American resounds with its opening descending arpeggio.
Note, please, that I make no claims about whether it did or didn't gall these musicians to have to play these songs interminably (KD died too young to have to), merely that crossing over into long-term, popular success has not only neutered these songs, it has sapped, in some way, the creative strength of jazz. There are those who have used these songs as raw material and tried to transmute them into something original, but for the most part, they are used for nostalgic purposes; to try and re-create a feel-good feeling that can be used to sell the song itself, and an idealized version of sophistication.
A moratorium should be declared.