This morning I watched a video on YouTube by Fred Sturm. Fred wrote Changes Over Time, a book about how jazz arranging evolved over the 20th century. He analyzed a number of arrangements of four pieces; three jazz compositions and one standard (All Of Me). In the video Fred very briefly describes the overriding characteristics of All of Me arrangements by Benny Carter, Billy Byers, Thad Jones and Manny Albam. Benny’s arrangement embellishes the melody. Billy’s uses rhythmic displacement and simplicity. Thad pushes the melodic, rhythmic and harmonic boundaries while still keeping the form. Manny’s chart references the melody and harmonies of the song, but never quite states them or the form. He even changes the meter. So far, so good. I can relate to all the arrangements. Thad’s is not my favorite Thad Jones arrangement. By the time he wrote it, he had lost much of his creative juice and was becoming a caricature of himself. But still, when I listen to all these charts, I understand what they are doing to our beloved All Of Me—a popular song that everyone of my parents generation knew and loved—and for good reason.
Songs express in words and tune what we feel. The songs of the American Songbook were designed to appeal to Americans, but quickly spread all over the world because so much of how we feel as Americans is universal. All Of Me on the surface is not particularly intellectual in its construction, however when we analyze it in terms of rhythm, melody, harmony and lyrics, the structure is solid, even brilliant in its simplicity. At no time do we think, “Where did that come from?” It all feels so natural—like the relaxed manner of how we, as Americans, move and speak.
I knew all four of these arrangers. I only worked with Benny and Billy once, but I knew both Thad and Manny quite well over many years. Each of them wrote what they heard. They could analyze their own music, but they didn’t, and they certainly didn’t think analytically while they were writing it. Their music came from their knowledge of the idiom and their beautiful subconscious imaginations. The arrangements in Fred’s book were written in different decades (1940s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s respectively). In them, we can easily hear the progression from popular dance music to more abstract jazz.
Next, Fred analyzes his own arrangement of All Of Me from the 1990s. Immediately, I am struck by his complete abandonment of the tune and form. I don’t recognize the melody, harmony or rhythm as All Of Me. And since there is no singer, I can’t depend on the words to help me.
Now, here is where I am going with all of this. Fred explains how he came up with his abstract conception of our beloved song. He describes how he used his own convoluted logic to subtract elements of the song and then reconstruct them. It occurred to me that he began by consciously imposing his logic on the music and then choosing to use the most pleasing of the sounds he created. This is the opposite of my process. I let my subconscious mind inspire some music and then use logic to tidy things up a bit. I believe this makes my music more accessible, but there are many ways to skin a cat.
On a deeper level, what does art tell us about ourselves and our culture? About 50 years ago I saw a short film about a modern painter who dripped different colored paint onto a huge canvas. After it dried, he took a saw and cut the canvas into pieces, thereby creating paintings from the sections that he selected. He discarded the unused sections. Basically, his process was to relinquish control and let chance determine what went on the canvas, and then use his eye to determine what makes a good picture—the same process a photographer uses when shooting un-posed subjects. He/she frames an artistic picture and clicks.
When I saw that short, most of the audience in the theater thought the painter was jive and laughed when they saw him dripping and pouring the paint on the canvas. They became curious when they watched him take his electric saw and lay into the canvas, but everyone was quiet when we got to see his final paintings. They had their own sense of beauty and logic, which came from the painter’s recognition of beauty when he saw it.
All art is contrivance. Al Murray taught me this 30 years ago. Some artists are better at disguising or downplaying their control of the work. Without exerting control, we would be looking at life, which is raw and unfiltered. This leaves the point of view and meaning up to the consumer. We look to our artists for guidance. They are our teachers. Sometimes they use words to teach, and sometimes they use visuals or sounds. Chefs get to use taste and smell.
What we consider beautiful has much to do with what we bring to the table. The culture we grew up in, our age, our level of intellect and understanding of the art form. Joe Temperley used to say that Duke Ellington’s music wasn’t more popular because people aren’t born with a taste for fine wine.
Sadly, I didn’t care for Fred Sturm’s All Of Me arrangement. He retitled it, but I still didn’t relate to it. I had nothing to hang my hat on. It didn’t make me want to pat my foot. Someone once asked Count Basie what his music was all about. He answered, “Pat your foot.” Of course, there was much more to Basie than that, but at the heart of it, we want our music to feel good, and that demands that it reinforce our orientation to the world, which starts with the regularity of our heartbeat.
With every generation we gain some things, and we lose some things. Young people need to make their mark. To feel satisfied, they need to push the envelope a little further than their parents’ generation. Charlie Parker built on Lester Young. Lester built on Frankie Trumbauer. How much we cling to the past or crave change doesn’t determine the quality of the art or the validity of our taste. J.S. Bach was unquestionably one of the greatest composers in Western Music, and yet, as he aged, his music was regarded as old-fashioned, and his sons became more popular. The 20/20 lens of history has corrected this myopic contemporary view.
There’s no way that we can change popular tastes. The masses don’t want fine art. They don’t want to be challenged. They don’t want to feel uncomfortable. They resist change and learning. Of course, our government and institutions can help to develop interests in the arts. This can begin with our schools and Public Television.
While I was watching the Yankee game on TV yesterday, I had a thought. What does it say about us as Americans, that during the seventh inning stretch of every major league baseball game, we are asked to honor veterans of our military? My father was a vet, and I am deeply grateful for what he and all the other servicemen and women did, and still do, for our country. But I can’t help but think what this constant attention to the military says about us. I guess we are just a warmongering people. The first time I saw this, I couldn’t help but see the Fascist nation we’ve become.
What if, instead of honoring our military every game, we honor them once a week and the other five games we honor a different great American with each day from a different walk of life? We could start with George Washington, Mark Twain, Albert Einstein, Jackson Pollock and Louis Armstrong. I don’t know about you, but any one of these giants would make me feel proud to be an American and want to learn more about them and strive to be more like them. Especially Louis Armstrong—nothing contrived there. Just pat your foot.
P.S. I know that Washington owned slaves, Twain was an anti-Semite, Einstein selfishly abused his wife, Pollock was a wife-abusing drunken driver and Armstrong was a pothead, but we live in the real world, and nobody’s perfect. I know that I didn’t include any women, and I don’t mean to downplay these men’s faults. As for Armstrong, his marijuana use was illegal and landed him in jail once. Years later, he allowed then Vice President Richard Nixon to carry his stash (hidden inside his trumpet case) through airport customs. This story makes me so happy on many levels.