Tuesday, April 26, 2016

"Influence," Prince & Some Jazz Guys

There's been an enormous response to the death of Prince. An internet search leads me to think that he's been eulogized in every major media outlet in the U.S. and many abroad. Consistently, the emphasis is on his musical genius and his influence on popular culture. A common riff is that "pop music will never be the same," but details of what this means are sketchy.

The interplay between persona/projection/charisma and the music itself is always complicated. In the case of Prince, the music is both collaborator and counter-foil to the gender ambiguity of his look and style, the contrast between his stage presence and his reclusiveness and the tension between his Jehovah's Witness-straightness and his sexual explicitness.

These kinds of tensions were present in the work and very public lives of Ray Charles, James Brown and Michael Jackson. However, the cultural impact of these three resides more completely on the bedrock of their music. Prince is reckoned to have done everything supremely well; everything being the key word. Time will tell us if his eclecticism begat something musically new and reproduce-able, or if his influence will ultimately derive from his persona.

In the case of jazz, media saturation has always been quantum levels lower, especially for black musicians, and the paradigms I describe above were unlikely to play out as publicly. Still, there are parallels to be seen in jazz careers. Below are five important figures in jazz and brief descriptions of how I think the personal and the musical interacted to determine the scope and area of their influence.


W.C. Handy: His compositions, chiefly St. Louis Blues and Memphis Blues, were widely performed; he organized an orchestra that hovered between ragtime and jazz and he did have some influence within the world of popular music. However, his organizing and entrepreneurial skills brought him much wider cultural renown, to the point where he is widely known as "Father of the blues;" a phrase that both overstates and misplaces his musical importance.

Jelly Roll Morton: His work in the 1920's as pianist, composer, arranger and synthesizer of influences marks him as musically influential in jazz. However, his "re-discovery" and narration of jazz history through the Library of Congress recordings-inaccurate or not-broadened his influence into the larger cultural sphere. His gold teeth, braggadocio and pimp-style also played a part in keeping his name elevated above other contributors, like James P. Johnson.


King Oliver: A trumpet player who was influential musically in the late 19-teens to mid 1920's. You might liken him to Sidney Bechet in that respect, but unlike Bechet-a strong, sometimes volatile character who carried on for many years-Oliver's health issues, a lack of personal charisma and business naivete greatly shortened his career. Oliver's wider cultural impact has been largely relegated to "the man who brought Louis Armstrong to Chicago."


Duke Ellington: His work remains a perennial influence in jazz (not a word he cared for), but he has achieved wider cultural renown. Aside from songs and jazz compositions for his orchestra, he wrote film, television and sacred music and was compared with America's best "classical" composers. His persona is relevant. Ellington seemed perfectly comfortable performing for the rabble and for royalty and his elegant and somewhat enigmatic personal style had a lot to do with bringing him wider cultural acclaim.


Charlie Parker: The co-creator of Bop presents an interesting case. The jazz community acknowledges him as arguably its most influential musician. During his life, he was acknowledged by members of the wider cultural, non-jazz elite as an artist of the highest calibre. Yet, while his name took on a meme-like character ("Bird lives" graffiti) and many in the non-jazz community may say they have heard his name, the trappings of wide cultural renown aren't there. What do I mean? Streets, schools and scholarships very rarely if ever, carry his name. Chic chefs, fashion trend setters, politicians, advertisers and mainstream media seldom, if ever, refer to him as a cultural touchstone. Had his drug use not been so widely known, his place in the wider culture would probably be very different.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Review: Miles Ahead


Writer-director-producer Don Cheadle took this gig seriously. The cinematography, costuming and editing of the film are strong and Cheadle's performance throughout is impeccable. He completely inhabits the persona of the "late Miles." Also to his credit, Cheadle lets the relationship between Miles' musical genius and being an utter bastard play out, without resorting to childhood flashbacks or other filmic devices meant to lead us to psychological "insights." 

The first part of "Miles Ahead" gives hope that with the charismatic, controversial genius Miles Davis at the center of the movie, and so well portrayed, there will be enough inherent drama without the film resorting to cinematic cliches. But, while there are moving and satisfying scenes throughout, melodrama starts to creep in and the length of time devoted to car chases and trumped-up plot devices vitiates much of the original promise. The power of the performances of Cheadle and Emavatzy Corinealdi, who portrays Frances Davis, become subsumed in a dense layer of sub-plots that, in the end, don't add up to much. 

Here's the jazz snob portion of our review: I didn't like the fact that Miles-in-the-film says he rescued Trane from walking the bar. Trane was years away from that. I also don't like that they had Miles playing what looked to me like a sliver-plated Bach trumpet. Someone can tell me if I'm wrong and that it was a Besson Brevete. To his credit, Cheadle mostly did a good miming job and seemed to actually play "Fran-Dance" in one scene.

The scene with Miles and Gil Evans in the studio made Evans completely passive and Miles the creative presence. By all accounts, Miles was a good collaborator and they didn't need to overcompensate like that. In fact, the white characters were invariably shmucks and or thieves when, as noted above, Miles collaborated well with musicians of any race. After taking heat-in real life-for having the white Bill Evans in his band, Miles said:"I don't care if a dude is purple with green breath as long as he can swing." Having Miles say that in this film would have been inimical to its racial approach. You don't have to overdraw the difference between racist thug cops and Teo Macero and Gil Evans, but you can have more balance than this movie does.

Maybe filmmakers are right in thinking there's not enough drama in the jazz life to sustain an audience's attention for 90 minutes; maybe the exigencies of the form mean they do have to cook the books. If life was fair (hah!), critics would be forced to say what they would put in the film instead of car chases and one-dimensional foils. Ok. How about filling that time by having the audience sit in the theatre with nothing on the screen, just listening to the music of Miles Davis (and this from a guy who's a member of SAG). Ay, caramba; quelle idee.