Top 50 JAzz Blog

Monday, May 4, 2015

Jazz, Junk, Cool and Nostalgia

So, who gives a crap about nostalgia, that fatuous relict of Ye Olde Bullshit Shoppe? I do.

nos.tal.gia. From two Greek words: nostos (homesickness) and algos (pain).

Notwithstanding the abuse it takes, nostalgia is a singular brain state of happy/sad/hyper-self conscious/free-floating-ness that feels like nothing else. When any emotional state grabs me that hard, I pay attention.

Jazz-the music itself-doesn't traffic much in nostalgia, although jazz-the listeners-with their wax and catalogues, do. Jazz musicians are known for not wanting to listen to their own old recordings, but name me a jazz fan who can't tell you the first album they bought.


Out-and-out schmaltz, like Jackie Gleason jazz records, or schticky trad bands are more bathetic than nostalgic. Unrooted in any particular time, they lack the weight to induce nostalgia, although they may induce a treacly simulacrum. In fact, I think there's an anomalous combination of elements that can make it happen in jazz.
                             Shmaltz + Cool = nostalgia.

Miles, then, would seem to be a candidate-plays a lot of ballads and medium tempi, often uses the harmon mute, cultivates an elusive persona-but his playing lacks schmaltz, which keeps it cool and non-nostalgic. (Miles Davis, the Bertolt Brecht of jazz?)

Chet Baker's pose is emotionally distant, like Miles, but Baker's music has the schmaltz and is nostalgic. His drug habit makes sense in this context. Heavy dope is not about being here now. The Now is Just Too Much. It's about retreating to a place of your own imagining; hassle-free, light (not heavy), but not without bittersweetness. This is also a credible definition of nostalgia. We relate to the music with a sigh, a sense of yearning, an emotional attachment to the notes. 

I don't know of a lot of tracks in jazz that use the word "nostalgia." The two below are the most well-known and are often covered. The first, by Fats Navarro, is in a medium tempo and actually has many of the qualities I defined as nostalgic. Despite the fact that Fats was one of the most declamatory trumpet players, he tempers his style and his solo here fits well in the emotional framework established by the song.

We think of Charles Mingus as one of the least nostalgic players-and people; seemingly, always searching for new musical routes, staunchly in the moment, to the extent that his groups were "workshops" and he taught his musicians their parts by singing them. He also had a streak of violence we don't associate with nostalgia.

While the tempo of this tune is slightly slower than the Navarro, the rhythmic approach is choppy and the second restatement of the tune is even choppier, which actually makes it seem faster. There is a fair amount of dissonance in the melody and little of the lilt and legato of the Navarro. Being nostalgic in Times Square is no simple matter.

OK, now to contrast Miles and Chet, here are their versions of My Funny Valentine. Of course, Miles never sang, and that makes a hell of a difference, but just listen to their horn solos.

Kudos, contrary opinions, suggestions for inclusion, elision and relevant EKG's are welcome.

Was turned on to Svetlana Boym by Artemis Nasby. Found a great essay about nostalgia written by her here.

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