Let me start by quoting Mark Twain: the reports of my demise have been greatly exaggerated. I’ve been receiving emails asking if I’m OK, since I haven’t posted any of my short essays in a couple of months. Not to worry. I’m more or less intact. The truth is that I’ve become obsessed with writing and editing books. I’ll be telling you more about them just as soon as they near completion and are available for sale.
I can give you a heads up on the first one: the official new hard copy edition of Creative Jazz Composing and Arranging, Vol. 1. I put off writing this book for 30 years. I waited until I could figure out how to present crucial information that goes beyond technique, addresses artistic choices and encourages individual creativity. I expect the book to be available on my website, www.suchsweetthundermusic.com, in a week or two. Pre-orders are welcome.
A couple of years ago I made the book available digitally in raw form. Over the past few months, I’ve been working with my editors and designer to make things read more clearly, look more pleasing and be easier to digest. I’ve learned a lot in the process, which will be reflected in my future books.
Do you ever think about what makes a book interesting to you? Or what makes music interesting to you? Or a TV show, or a movie? There are several components. One is accessibility. Is the presentation user friendly? Easy to read, understand, hear. Another is universality. Does it reach you on a gut level that is common to all people. Does it express the traditions of the culture that it sprang from? And finally, is it unique in representing the individuality of its creator?
When I was growing up in the 1950s, my dad traveled to Europe and Asia on buying trips for his business. He would send us picture postcards of places and people that looked nothing like us or where we lived. When he came home, he would open up his suitcases and give us kids presents that he bought during his travels—things that we’d never seen. There were British soldiers, chocolates in the shape of little wooden shoes from Holland, a slide rule from Germany, jazz records from Austria, and electronics from Japan that we wouldn’t see in America for another five years, and all kinds of clothes. I wish that I still had my silk Japanese jackets with the huge birds on the back.
At first this was thrilling, but as I got older, I became embarrassed that my stuff wasn’t American like what all the other kids had. I didn’t want a purple Japanese baseball glove. I wanted a tan Rawlings like the major leaguers used. The desire to conform had entered my consciousness.
By the time I was 12 or 13, my mom started to travel with my dad on these business trips. She would tell us about all the clothes, languages, customs and food. All of a sudden we were going to French, Italian and even Japanese restaurants. Who even knew there was a Japanese restaurant in New York? When we got a dog, we sat around the kitchen table discussing what to name him. My little brothers came up with provocative names like Lassie, Rover and Rin Tin Tin. I asked my mom if she knew any Japanese words. “Dozo means please,” she said. And so he was called Dozo. That was so fitting in my childhood. Nobody had a dog named Dozo. I liked that it was original, but I didn’t like the teasing I got from my friends.
Around the same time I discovered jazz, the quintessential American art form. Is it any wonder I was drawn to it? Just hearing this music made me feel like an authentic American like Jimmy Stewart in It’s A Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. But jazz was bigger than that. It also included Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis—the Black experience. I so wanted to be cool like them.
That summer we made a family trip south—first to the Pennsylvania Dutch Country and Gettysburg, then Washington D.C, and finally Virginia. I’d already been all around New Jersey, New York and New England. I was surprised by just traveling a few hours by car, that I could be transported into foreign lands. The architecture, clothes, food and accents were nothing like New York. The biggest shock was coming face to face with the Jim Crow South in Virginia. How could this be?
I understood from a very young age that there were many countries in the world, and each had its own customs, history and way of seeing the world. The United States, being a large nation made up of Native Americans and immigrants from lots of other countries, was slow to absorb all those disparate parts into the proverbial melting pot. It was interesting to visit and experience different cultures. I longed to travel overseas, like my parents did, and see the world. I didn’t want to be changed by their customs. I didn’t even like learning to speak French in school. It wasn’t cool. I wanted speak like Dizzy and Prez. You dig?
Then I discovered pizza. And pasta, and escargot. I could appreciate other cultures without giving up who I was and who I aspired to be. I didn’t set foot on truly foreign soil until I was 22 and went to Europe for the first time. It was a bit daunting—I wasn’t an experienced traveler yet, but in every way experiencing those cultures was every bit as exciting as I’d imagined. Whenever I hear Americans say that America is the greatest country on earth, I know that they’ve never left the States. In fact, they’ve probably never even left their own state. The truth is that every country has many great things to offer, and we are missing a lot in life if we don’t experience it.
Anyway, that’s how it used to be. Over the last 50 years, the world has gotten a lot smaller. People in other countries admired Americans so much, they wanted to live like us. They dress like us, eat and drink like us, listen to our music, use our medicine and technology, watch our movies and TV shows, and even speak our brand of the English language. Our footprint has messed up the world.
Oh, at first it seemed OK that the Japanese adopted baseball and jazz. We liked that, but when their kids started preferring McDonald’s to sushi, I had to question their sanity. American companies have morphed into multinational cartels. Paddy Chayefsky’s monologue that Ned Beatty gave in Network 40 years ago was scary and prophetic. He explained that there are no countries. That’s all a façade. The world is controlled by a handful of multinational corporations. This was echoed in an article in the New York Times just last week.
I used to wonder why we were putting men on the moon and exploring outer space, but now I get it. We have homogenized and destroyed the earth, so what’s left? Of course, if we ever do colonize other planets, we’ll bring them jazz and Jesus, and then we’ll kill off and enslave the inhabitants and finally deplete their natural resources and pollute their air and water in the effort to make Planet X just like home. God help us. What ever happened to vive la difference? How about we start by saying, “Let’s agree to disagree?” If we truly love ourselves, we can extend that love to others. What do you think?