A MULTIMEDIA DOCUMENTARY PROJECT ON THE MILLENNIAL GENERATION: THE LAST GENERATION TO REMEMBER A TIME WITHOUT THE INTERNET.
"What Buddy Bolden started to play was American music. Within thirty years its impact would make an American tune instantly distinguishable from a European tune, no matter how strait-laced the music. And it would be a music, in all its forms, that would reject Puritan America. Even at its mildest it would have a beat, and in that beat would be everything that denied the split between the mind and the body."
Michael Ventura, "Hear that Long Snake Moan"
Great music is relevant music, and that's bound to be true into the far reaches of time. However out of touch people may be, some vibrations crack the shell of apathy to release feeling and remedy ill ideologies. Healer of sadness, receptor and transformer of anger, home for wandering souls; musicality is the great motivator for enlightened motion.
When a song was written makes no difference in how poignant the material can feel now. A singular song or piece of music can be played ad infinitum, and still be imbued with a genuine spirit that beckons for catharsis.
My affinity for traditional jazz unfolded with the "eureka!" of a wandering soul finding her home. I did not grow up listening to old records, like many often assume I did; I grew up intensely with the sound of my father playing classical violin (my
fundamental vocal influence). The meticulous, passionate and ever-so-human-sounding tones with which he played intricate pieces of music gave me a deep familiarity with both hearing pitch, and feeling resonance. Playing piano later on gave me practice with the logical sensibilities of some Western classical forms. Bach was the great composer I feel probably first gave me a consciousness for how logic and beauty can come together in music.
I feel our inheritance has been vast.I don't really believe in revivalism. I love to explore, experiment, and meditate musically through traditions. And after all, isn't all life some version of receiving what lingers from the past--and moving with, away from, towards and beyond it? If I hope to revive anything through playing music, it's basically my own spirit. I'm quite grateful to be alive now. I don't yearn for a time past, though I'm endlessly inspired by so much of what has been given. I feel our inheritance has been vast. I wonder if most people are able to see their fortunes were made from those who have been here before us.
Tradition and the avant-garde are not at odds. They are family. One responds to the other. Tradition: a refuge of strength, beauty and sanity for an ever-changing, unpredictable world.
The avant-garde: exploring the edges of conscious expression. A tradition is such only because its conventions are strong and relevant enough to speak to people throughout time.
Jazz is an exploratory tradition that I imagine is one of the greatest that time has seen.
"Play, in mammals, is always an instinctive effort to learn something necessary for survival."Michael Ventura, "Cities of Psyche"
Harry Houdini, the great magician escape artist, was often billed in poster advertisements as "The Elusive American" or "The Self-Liberator." Apparently, his escapes voiced an ethos that resonated particularly strongly with refugees. He and his family were Jews, having immigrated to America from Hungary in the mid-nineteenth century. Each escape strengthened a hope that is perhaps universal in human hearts, and especially wanting in those who have keenly suffered: Even when one is forced into the most rigid of confines, survival always holds possibility.
My father was born in a Stalinist gulag, a prisoner of war camp in Siberia in 1941. His father always wanted to play music, though as an adolescent he
brought an instrument home and his father (my great-grandfather) smashed it that night. I had always thought that was the product of some awful, violent altercation--but in recent years, I found out that the family was part of a sect of Judaism that did not allow the playing of musical instruments! My grandfather told me it was at that time he decided he would have his child play music someday.
My dad began playing violin at about four when my grandparents and he were at a Displaced Persons Camp in Germany run by the U.S. They immigrated to Montreal eventually in 1948, where my dad as a boy practiced intensely, daily. At eleven he soloed with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra as a youth series. I never knew he had also been on CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) in conjunction with the concert. After my father passed, amidst stuff that had been in boxes in the garage--taken from my grandfather's house after he died in 2000--my mom found a vinyl LP of his radio station visit, a true time capsule. Courtesy of Dan Levinson, just below you will find his performance in MP3 form: my dad's voice and violin playing from 1954.
My early improvisations were a Houdini escape, with me trying to evade the confines of the given
melody and rhythm of a song. Jazz was a framework to practice survival. I was creating musical patterns from which to liberate myself. Perhaps my magnetism to improvisation grew in part distantly out of a cognizance about my dad and grandparents being refugees. Everyone has a way of inheriting some of the pain of their parents', and moving beyond it. Thinking of how jazz may have to do with transcending suffering, it's no wonder it feels so universal.
***I was given refuge, life and purpose by music. I met Jake Sanders eight years ago and it was his love, hard work, taste for and ability to play soulful music that enlightened my life. He introduced me to music of all sorts I never heard, including Harry Smith's American Folk Anthology. This collection is bound to change a person as soon as they hear people sing and play before the conception of commercial celebrity musicians, who were enabled en masse by recording technology.
Together and with others, we delved into listening and playing from the Louis Armstrong 1930s orchestra canon. Fats Waller, Joe "King" Oliver, The Hot Fives and Sevens, Jelly Roll Morton, Jimmy Rogers, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and The Carter Family were some of our fundamentals. After our
earlier stages, playing as the Treasures of the Sea with the clarinet player Michael Magro, we brought The Cangelosi Cards together.
I began to taste freedom. The music brought together my interests, inspirations and needs. It coalesced them into a mysterious framework to which I felt utterly and miraculously kindred. Playing seemed to integrate all my disparate selves into something whole and better than the sum of their parts. That New Orleans-rooted music brought together something of the richness of tones and timbres, and the complexity of counterpoint I knew and loved in classical music. It added vibrant character and humor akin to the best of theater and true life. Everything came together with the visceral phenomena we call heart, soul and guts!
I think it was the "simultaneity" in traditional New Orleans-based jazz that brought me such a compelling sense of freedom. Musical sensibilities I had been introduced to in more modern jazz seemed comparatively individualistic, as players would quiet down significantly to get out of the way when another was soloing. In the more traditional forms, some player may be at the forefront of the sound at a given moment, but the music was based on layers of sound. The musical involvement of other players would provide support and counterpoint when another was
soloing. The solos also tended to be more concise in the traditional framework.
***For me, jazz is alive and well. And so long as the musical dialogue consists of listening to what has been, and is being said, then we will have a way of communicating its inevitably evolving culture.
Traditional jazz never died. To call it retro, vintage, or revivalist denies the issue that--though its popularity may have ebbed into smaller niches, and out of mass cultural spheres--people have continued to play jazz since its inception with whatever degree of traditionalism. Something that is not completely of the past need not be treated as a relic; the playing of music rooted in a living (however classic) tradition is more of an embodiment than a "revival."
The tradition of jazz is something written into the spaces where it has been played, heard and felt. It is an ongoing conversation in the medium of patterned sounds (the specific melody and rhythm that constitutes a particular song) and their infinite variations (improvisation), plus some vibrational embodiments (the actual resonance and timbres that emanate from the instruments at a given moment). Tunes are played for years by different groups of musicians. Even with the same
formation of players, that tune is always new somehow when played for the first time in quite that way, in that particular space, in that new day's context. Even the stylistic sensibilities of note choice and timbre (sound resonance quality and character) that may be identified with traditional or early jazz cannot be codified so easily, for jazz and music in general incorporates a web of conscious and unconscious influences from past listening experiences.
Interestingly, a traditional jazz orchestra may even play transcriptions of recorded pieces, such as the great Vince Giordano and His Nighthawks Orchestra. The best way I've thought to describe that band to folks who've never heard them is as the "philharmonic of hot jazz." It's close to classical music, in the sense that most of the material has been written out note-for-note from recordings of very intricate arrangements of jazz tunes, or silent picture scores from the 1920s and 1930s. The musicians are so world-class in their abilities and knowledge of the idiom, and the music itself so exciting, that the sound is thrilling to hear.
Beautiful traditions are the practice of great ideas. If they are ritualized, adhered to repeatedly, and so integrated into one's life and culture, then the depth of their reverberations will be heard by all around, whether consciously or not. People's cultural and personal associations may dictate their
responses and reactions to particular traditions, but whenever a strong seed is planted, it does not die. It often sprouts, whether soon or long after inception.
Yet there are edifices of "culture" that are empirically strong and inspire by universal vibrance. There are architectural environments, ways of socially engaging, and artistic or spiritual traditions in music that simply spark in people strength and happiness. I see these "cultural" works as those which intrinsically absorb and give space and motion to transform, through repetition, raw human experience into something one may call progressive thoughts and actions. The process of musical refinement is not necessarily to sterilize, but to enhance and cultivate nature into a peaceful, joyful, responsible cultural ecology.
***I received an amusing and interesting compliment recently from a truly great cornet player I know; Jon-Erik Kellso, who plays with The Nighthawks. He was introducing me to another singer friend of his and said, "I sometimes describe Tamar to people as sounding like a singer from the 1920s who never existed." A guy said the other week to me that he felt like he was in a time capsule; like he was looking at a hundred years ago as he faced me.
I'm glad if people feel like they've found a refuge from the madness that they're inundated with in the "outside" world. The older music will do that. And when you play it, it will transform your rhythm of life--and, little by little, begin to reconstitute the sweetness of the sounds in the air.
And so I'll lay this to rest after six fortnights--and many, many previous to that since I've been navigating what I want to say in this medium. I now plan to go on saying old and new things in that home of mine, music. And for this end, here are the lyrics of the song I wrote at the outset of my Fortnight spell:
In the beginning there was feeling
There was the light of the soul
In the beginning we had the world to know
And as time flows onward
We have so much to take on, and take in, and let go of
And as life flows outward
We see inward, to move forward towards what we shall become
In the beginning, there is feeling
There is the sound of the soul
We'll keep on digging, We'll keep on singing
We'll keep on building, We'll keep on being
We'll keep on keeping on,
All the beginnings