Wednesday, June 29, 2005


Finally, not yet

I've finally recovered from my case of Summer Vertigo, but now I need a vacation. Fortunately, I'll be leaving for one tomorrow. That means this is another post about not yet posting. I've also been out of the loop on reading posts lately: my Bloglines account tells me I have somewhere around 700 posts that haven't been read, and while it pains me to think of the brilliant posts I may have missed, I'll probably mark all of my feeds as "read" when I get back from my trip.

At that point, I also hope to make progress on the two-part progress post I started. (Hopefully the second part will be less shrill.) And I hope to finally respond to The Book Meme (I think it deserves capitalization at this point; it's virtually a proper noun), which I was double-tagged to do.

For the next several days, though, here's my to-do list:

1. Tear up this to-do list.
2. What part of #1 didn't you understand?

Wednesday, June 22, 2005


Is this progress? Part I

Today Dick Durbin apologized, after a firestorm of protest, for earlier remarks on the Senate floor comparing the treatment of U.S. prisoners to the practices of Nazis and Stalinists. Durbin's critics, as I'm sure you know, argued that such comparisons were totally incommensurable. Charles Bird at Obsidian Wings suggested, for example, "that putting American in the same sentence with Nazis, gulags and the Khmer Rouge has no place in civil political discourse." My feelings are closer to those of Fred Clark, who argues that in constantly comparing ourselves with regimes who have committed horrendous evils, we ensure that we do not become like those regimes ourselves. [P.S. After posting this I also read Jason Kuznicki's excellent post on the subject, as well as this one by John McGowan.]

What interests me about both sides of these exchanges, though, is the assumption that America has to look outside its own history to find examples of torture and injustice. That's the presumption, it seems to me, behind Bird's argument that the very word "American" doesn't belong in the same sentence with "gulags," as though the word "American" is so virginal in its innocence that to place it alongside a Russian word is a violation of the most dastardly kind. That's also what seems to drive the idea that Durbin somehow slandered America by comparing its treatment of prisoners to that of other countries. Fine, then, compare the reports of what's going on at Guantanamo to our own history, which includes plentiful examples of humanity's inhumanity to fellow human beings.

Just for starters, recall that for two and a half centuries after the settlement of North America, millions of men and women were enslaved, with countless numbers of them raped, killed with impunity, mutilated, chained, worked to death, bought, sold, separated from their families, and legally held "in perpetuity." Less than two centuries have elapsed since slavery was abolished, but even less time has elapsed since such practices were common among Americans and winked at by our government. In our headlines this week, after all, we read about an eighty-year-old man being convicted for brutal killings that occurred when my parents were pre-teens--murders he got away with because the victims kept going on and on about how all human beings have intrinsic dignity and inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Set aside for the moment how far we are from gulags and concentration camps. How far are we from Selma, Montgomery, Kent State, from Philadelphia, Mississippi?

I wonder if Durbin's critics would have been nearly as vociferous if he had said, "Reading this FBI report, you might be excused for thinking you had stepped back onto a plantation in the antebellum South, or into a sweatshop in late-nineteenth-century New York, rather than into a twenty-first century military jail."

Perhaps some would have called for Durbin's apology for that too, on the grounds that Americans have moved beyond those sins of our past. But the fact that Americans have been capable of horrors in the past robs Durbin's critics of the right to say that the very word "American" does not belong in a sentence with the names of other countries with records of human rights abuses. We have a record of human rights abuses; we are not an unblemished exception to history. To their credit, Americans have very often acted according to the better angels of our nature, and put away many of our past crimes against humanity. But even that does not make us exceptional: Does the fact that we abolished slavery give us a free pass any time we start chaining people to the floor? Only if Stalin gets a free pass on collectivized forced labor because Russians once emancipated their serfs ... before Americans emancipated their slaves.

Perhaps some readers think that I am lingering too long on our past, that I, like Durbin, am skating too close to the edge of patriotism. The past is past, some patriots might wish to say. We moved on; we do better now.

I do believe that we are, in many respects, better than we were. But I am fearful of our capacity to move backwards as well as forwards, to return like a dog to our own vomit. Why would we do that? Don't we truly want to be better than we were, and if we do, shouldn't it trouble us that reports from our detention centers suggest that our official policy on the treatment of prisoners is regressing instead of progressing? Progress, I am aware, is a loaded term, with conceptual liabilities all its own. But part of me craves the return of a certain usage of the word "progress" in our political discourse. Usually, when you hear a government official say something like "we're making progress in Iraq," it's intended first and foremost as a spatial term: we've pushed back insurgents in this neighborhood, we've secured this city, we've pushed the borders of the Green Zone out a little farther. What I want to know is, are we making progress in time? Are we becoming better? If we cannot ask of our policies whether they are better than the practices of the gulag, let us ask of them: are they better than the practices of our great-great-grandparents, our great-grandparents, our grandparents, our parents? Will we be proud to report this policy to future generations? Or is that question, too, un-American?

Earlier this week I happened to be reading a chapter in Dorothy Day's autobiography, The Long Loneliness, which describes her first experience in an American prison. She was arrested in 1917 for participating in a peaceful rally for women's suffrage in Washington. Here's an excerpt from her description, which is stark and terrifying:
For many hours the women had to wait in a little room back of the court. This waiting, too, was part of the burden put upon us. Years later when I read Arthur Kosetler's Scum of the Earth, he too spoke of the interminable hours of waiting experienced by prisoners who were being sent to a concentration camp.

Finally, at four o'clock, things began to happen to us. Prison wagons were brought, wagons that had only ventilators along the top and were otherwise closed. ... Those whomen who had served sentence before knew that we were being taken to the workhouse, and many stories had been told of what the prisoners had suffered at the hands of the violent keeper there, a man named Whittaker. We were all afraid. ...

Our spokeswoman got up and began to announce that we were all going on hunger strike unless our demands were met, but before she could get the first words out of her mouth, Whittaker had turned to the door and beckoned. Immediately the room was filled with men. [By the way, what a sentence, the way the rhythm accentuates "men."] There were two guards to every woman, and each of us was seized roughly by the arms and dragged out of the room. It seems impossible to believe, but we were not allowed to walk, were all but lifted from the floor, in the effort the men made to drag, rather than lead us to our place of confinement for the night.

The leaders were taken first. In my effort to get near Peggy I started to cross the room to join her, and was immediately seized by two guards. My instinctive impulse was to pull myself loose, to resist such handling, which only caused the men to tighten their hold on me, even to twist my arms painfully. I have no doubt but that I struggled every step of the way from the administration building to the cell block where we were being taken. It was a struggle to walk by myself, to wrest myself loose from the torture of those rough hands. We were then hurled onto some benches and when I tried to pick myself up and again join Peggy in my blind desire to be near a friend, I was thrown to the floor. When another prisoner tried to come to my rescue, we found ourselves in the midst of a milling crowd of guards being pummeled and pushed and kicked and dragged, so that we were scarcely conscious, in the shock of what was taking place.
Remember, the "crime" for this treatment, which happened in the lifetime of my great-grandparents, was demanding that women should be able to vote. (I apologize in advance, by the way, to the estate of Dorothy Day, in case they should receive any angry emails demanding a posthumous apology for Day's comparison of her waiting for the wagons to the waiting in concentration camps, or for her use of the word "torture" to refer to the rough handling of prison guards.)

Set aside for the moment whether our treatment of detainees in Cuba and elsewhere is better than those Others and their irreducible evils, and compare ourselves with our former selves. I'm still distressed by how far we haven't come.

Monday, June 20, 2005


Big Shot Bob Strikes Again!

Wow. For the first three quarters, Robert Horry had me wondering whether Felix Gillette was right. But then Big Shot Bob proved us both wrong--again. That was an NBA Finals game.

Sunday, June 19, 2005


Coltrane on Father's Day

Yesterday I wandered into my local CD store and discovered that they were having a big sale: Buy one used CD and get another free. I walked out with four albums for about twelve bucks, including Joe Henderson's tribute to Billy Strayhorn and the new album by the saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, In Flux, the latter of which I'm listening to now.

The album is really good so far, and one of the reasons is the interplay between Ravi and EJ Strickland, a drummer in the Elvin Jones mold who mixes rock back-beats with a constant blur of percussion that drives the action of the group forward. The compositions, mostly by Ravi but some by other group members, are also exceptional. "Away," by bassist Drew Gress is a beautiful ballad, and "Leaving Avingnon," by Ravi, has an interesting form. The rhythm section carries the melody while the soloist keeps the beat, speeding the song up and slowing it down again at the end. The song concludes with a piano and bass duet that finally foregrounds the underlying melody.

I've only given the album two complete listens, but it has a consistency that I have had trouble hearing in work by some of Ravi's more heralded contemporaries like Joshua Redman. I like Redman, but on some of his most recent albums, like Elastic, I feel like his creativity with studio tricks becomes distracting. There's a stark contrast between some of the songs on Elastic and the sixth track on In Flux, "Blending Times." It wasn't until my third listen to this track that I even noticed that three horn parts had been overdubbed, and whereas I think Redman, who has a penchant for soul jazz, would have extended the song, Ravi ends the tune right at the three-minute mark, just after the third overdub has been added. The brevity of the tune is what makes the overdubbing subtle, so that it's possible to be pleasantly surprised on subsequent listens. Similarly, the short "Variations I" opens with a chain of staccato blasts on the soprano sax, which seem intended to savor, through a pronounced reverb effect, the acoustic space of the studio.

Ravi Coltrane is--of course, need it be said, don't you forget it--the son of John and Alice Coltrane. That's the statement that jazz writers always seem to make about Ravi, even when they're not making it. Every review I've ever read of the man's music either makes inevitable comparisons to his father's sound or makes a point of not making comparisons by talking about how Ravi is a wonderful musician "in his own right" who is "finding his own path" and crafting a "distinctive" sound that lives up to "expectations." These kinds of locutions are so pervasive that you begin to wonder which is the supposed albatross: his father's influence, or the cliched questions about his father's influence. In this recent interview on NPR, Ravi actually had to deal with a question about the questions about his father.

The thing is, I understand the impulse of the interviewers and the reviewers, and I gather from Ravi's good humor in dealing with the questions that he understands too. When a man casts a shadow over twentieth-century music as long as John Coltrane's, it's to be expected that those considered closest to him will find it harder to run out from under that shadow. Besides, in jazz, everyone is always under everyone's shadow: it's a music constantly in conversation with its past. Conceivably, a reviewer could ask every single tenor saxophonist since 1960, "So, what's it like to be John Coltrane's son?", and to the ear of a jazz lover, the question would not ring false.

The other thing is, that question is also about as appropriate in Ravi's case as it would be in the case of any other saxophonist, since John Coltrane died when Ravi was only two years old. To the extent that John Coltrane has influenced Ravi Coltrane, it is only because Ravi, like any tenor saxophonist, has listened to Trane's classic records again and again.

That's why I think the fascination with the John-Ravi connection has more to do with a lingering sense of loss among jazz fans about the fact that Coltrane died so young, rather than from a real sense that there is some direct line of descent from the father to the son. I know that's the case with me: a young jazz fan who came to the music in the CD age, discovering Coltrane for the first time long after he had played for the last time. And once you've been struck by that music, you can't help but wonder what it must have been like to be there, to see Trane swaying on the bandstand, with Elvin Jones' face dripping with sweat and McCoy Tyner coming up off the piano bench everytime his basketball-player hands crashed down on a chord.

It was around this time last year that I got to see Ravi Coltrane live, playing with the band that recorded this album, at the Zinc Bar in Greenwich Village. I got there early; the band was having a drink and casually organizing the set list as if they had just rolled out of bed. I sat at the end of the bar, where my knees virtually touched the piano. The bartender was polling those of us at the bar by asking "What is America?" (I'm not making this up.) Just before the set started, Ravi came up to the bar right next to me and leaned over to order something. Right next to me was a huge jar of sangria, and I remember Ravi casually joking with me by wrapping his arms around the jar as if he were taking the whole thing.

I laughed. But I also remember looking, in spite of myself, at his hands, wondering if that was what his hands had looked like. One reason John Coltrane's music is so powerful is that it forces you to imagine his hands flying across the fingerboard of his saxophone; it draws attention to every curve of the instrument, just as surely as a Jackson Pollock painting makes you picture the bucket of paint in the artist's hands. Were these hands like those, I wondered? I was embarrassed to think it, but what could I do? It wasn't that I was judging Ravi's music by his father's; it was just that I wondered what it was like to be around John Coltrane, to shake his hand and hear him talk. And if there's anything tragic about the constant questions about Coltrane that Ravi has to field, it's probably that Ravi wonders the exact same thing, more powerfully than fans ever could.

Saturday, June 18, 2005


Conceding Afghanistan

I get easily frustrated by critiques of the war in Iraq that begin by using the war in Afghanistan as a foil. Such critiques first concede that the latter was unquestionably just, and then use the presumptive legitimacy of invading Afghanistan as a way to question the invasion of Iraq. Here's an example:
The war in Afghanistan was a necessary result of the 9/11 attack on America. We had to eradicate the nest of devils who were using that country to plan and launch and coordinate the downfall of our nation.

The same can't be said of the war in Iraq. As evil as Saddam was, he posed no imminent threat to us, and he was essentially incapable of aiming more than rhetoric at his neighbors.
As I've said before, I'm always uncomfortable with descriptions of war that use words like "necessary" and "result." War is always a chosen response, not an inevitable effect. Saying we "had to" invade Afghanistan because of September 11 immediately forecloses any discussion of more imaginative and ultimately productive responses to terrorism. By giving the war in Afghanistan the virtue of necessity, you shield it from criticism. And if it's pointed out that the problem of terrorism in Afghanistan has not been solved by war, or that the human costs of decades of war on the civilian population of Afghanistan are almost unimaginable, the ready response is that the war was a "necessary result," an event without agency whose effects are therefore without responsibility.

Even more troubling is the way that talking about the war in Afghanistan so often serves as a loophole for critics of the war in Iraq who still want to vent some dehumanizing rage about terrorists. Our faceless enemies in the warrens of Afghan mountains become a "nest of devils," our war against them nothing more than a big can of Raid. That's precisely the kind of rhetoric that underwrites the Bush administration's doctrine of preemptive war; we "eradicate" terrorists where they are so that we will not have to fight them here. So if you disagree with that doctrine, you should also refrain from framing war as a kind of pest control. That perception of our enemies as demonic anthropods is probably a large part of the reason why the war in Iraq, no less than the war in Afghanistan, can be accepted by so many Americans as a necessary, rather than a willful, act. Who needs a reason for stepping on a cockroach or blowing up a gopher hole?


A pet peeve

I've started to dislike a certain rhetorical tic that historical writers often use. In an attempt to add drama to turning points in the narrative, a writer will often say of a character: "He never could have anticipated that ..." or "She could not have foreseen that ..." The book I've been reading has used such a construction to close at least two chapters, but instead of pointing the finger, here's an example of this tic using my own material from the essay I've been working on:
In 1833, twenty-two-year-old Charles Calistus Burleigh was a law student and part-time teacher in Plainfield, Connecticut, where he helped tend the family farm for his disabled father. When he looked out over the horizon of his father’s hay fields, envisioning his future, Burleigh probably saw a Windham County law practice, or perhaps a life of scholarship and teaching like the one his father had led before a midlife case of blindness descended on him. He could not have anticipated that five years later, on January 2, 1838, he would be ascending a platform in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, the capital of the first independent black nation in the Western Hemisphere, to address a meeting of the Haytien Abolition Society.
It's not that I have a problem with historians trying to figure out what their actors could or could not anticipate. But usually, that's not what paragraphs like this are really trying to do. It's a writer's trick to surprise the reader; it's a piece of dramatic flair. What the writer really means to say is not that Burleigh never anticipated where he would be in five years, but that you, the reader, never would have guessed the chain of events that took Burleigh from Plainfield to Port-au-Prince. It's a way of transmuting the reader's mental state and expectations into speculations about Burleigh's mental state.

Again, it's not that I think speculations about Burleigh's mental state are totally out of place. I think one of the most important thing historians can do is try to explain what historical actors found thinkable and possible, to sketch their horizons, to determine the boundaries of what Carlo Ginzburg called the "flexible cage" of culture. But if this is one of the most important historical endeavors, it's also one of the trickiest.

What people can anticipate is, first of all, highly contingent. For any given historical event, the extent to which contemporaries could have foreseen that event varies considerably. To say of President Bush, as Condoleeza Rice tried to do before the September 11 Commission, that he could never have anticipated that terrorists would turn airplanes into weapons, is quite different from saying of someone who worked at the World Trade Center that she never could have anticipated, when she left work on the morning of the 11th, that terrorists would fly planes into the Twin Towers. Just because both President Bush and the putative worker were contemporaries on September 10 doesn't mean their horizons of expectation were exactly the same, and their horizons would also continue to change the more we specify the future event. It takes hard historical work to figure out precisely whether a given historical actor could have foreseen a given historical event. To set that work aside for the sake of surprising a reader seems careless.

Often, the most historians can do is say what their actors did anticipate; to rule out what they could not have anticipated is much harder, because proving a negative is always more difficult than proving a positive assertion. For even after we scour the material records that actors leave behind, we are treading on thin ice when we attempt to look into their minds and see what they could foresee. This is partly because anticipating things is part of what it means to be human. To borrow from Heidegger, human being always has a temporal "fore-structure." In our day-to-day being in the world, we are constantly anticipating our next moves and forming "fore-conceptions" of ourselves and our futures. Who knows how many of the expectations that flit across the face of our minds will actually come true? And who knows whether we ourselves could say with certainty that we never anticipated things that happen to us? That self-reflection ought to at least give us pause when we say, cavalierly, that a historical actor never saw something coming.

Friday, June 17, 2005


Friday shuffle

1. "Don't Need a Reason," by Beth Orton, from Trailer Park
2. "The Scientist," by Coldplay, from Rush of Blood to the Head
3. "Each Coming Night," by Iron & Wine, from Our Endless Numbered Days
4. "Skin Is, My," by Andrew Bird, from The Mysterious Production of Eggs
5. "I Hear You Say So," by Innocence Mission, from Glow
6. "The Circle Game," by Joni Mitchell, from Hits
7. "Cold as It Gets," by Patty Griffin, from Impossible Dream
8. "Sunshine of Your Love," by Cream, from The Cream of Clapton
9. "The Inner Light," by the Beatles, from Past Masters, Vol. 2
10. "To Make You Feel My Love," by Bob Dylan, from Time Out of Mind


History Carnival X

This is belated notice, but the newest History Carnival is up at Spinning Clio! As for me, my head is still spinning.

Sunday, June 12, 2005



"Exclaim to our people about a passer-by 'Oh, what a learned man!' and about another 'Oh, what a good man!' They will not fail to turn their eyes and their respect toward the first. There should be a third exclamation: 'Oh, what blockheads!'"

-- Montaigne, "Of Pedantry," trans. Donald M. Frame

* * *

"The lesson to be drawn from such contradictions is that modern concepts of race, nation, language, and geography are irrelevant to the biblical text. The classical terms Asia, Africa, and Europe are also absent, and more subtly, the geographical valence and content that later generations have imposed on these terms are also alien to the geographical view of biblical writers and redactors. Given the arbitrary quality of geography, this is hardly surprising. After all, Europe is little more than a pimple on the landmass of Asia. Unconvincingly divided as it is from Asia by the modest Ural mountain range, it has considerably less right to a separate continental existence than does India, which European geographers have reduced to a subcontinent. Cultural hegemony along with objective physicality plays a role in defining geography."

-- Benjamin Braude, "The Sons of Noah and the Construction of Ethnic and Geographical Identities in the Medieval and Early Modern Periods," William and Mary Quarterly 54, no. 1 (January 1997), p. 109.

* * *

"Honest and earnest criticism from those whose interests are most nearly touched,--criticism of writers by readers, of government by those governed, of leaders by the led,--this is the soul of democracy and the safeguard of modern society."

-- W. E. B. DuBois, "Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others," from Souls of Black Folk

* * *

"At the end of a war, when peace is concluded, it would not be inappropriate for a people to appoint a day of atonement after the festival of thanksgiving. Heaven would be invoked in the name of the state to forgive the human race for the great sin of which it continues to be guilty, since it will not accommodate itself to a lawful constitution in international relations. Proud of its independence, each state prefer to employ the barbarous expedient of war, although war cannot produce the desired decision on the rights of particular states. The thanksgivings for individual victories during a war, the hymns which are sung (in the style of the Israelites) to the Lord of Hosts, contrast no less markedly with the moral conception of a father of mankind. For besides displaying indifference to the way in which nations pursue their mutual rights (deplorable though it is), they actually rejoice at having annihilated numerous human beings or their happiness."

-- Immanuel Kant, from a footnote in Perpetual Peace, trans. H. B. Nisbet


If I were a meme ...

"Abigail" at Social Studies tagged me almost two weeks ago with a meme, which, bad blogger that I am, I have not responded to. I'm supposed to finish five sentences from the following list:

If I could be a scientist...If I could be a farmer...If I could be a musician...If I could be a doctor...If I could be a painter...If I could be a gardener...If I could be a missionary...If I could be a chef...If I could be an architect...If I could be a linguist...If I could be a psychologist...If I could be a librarian...If I could be an athlete...If I could be a lawyer...If I could be an inn-keeper...If I could be a professor...If I could be a writer...If I could be a llama-rider...If I could be a bonnie pirate...If I could be an astronaut...If I could be a world famous blogger...If I could be a justice on any one court in the world...If I could be married to any current famous political figure...

If I could be a musician, I would play the tenor saxophone.
If I could be an athlete, I would make it my goal to be able to shoot free throws consistently at 85 percent.
If I could be an inn-keeper, I would enjoy chopping wood for the fireplace in the welcoming foyer.
If I could be a farmer, I would try to start a diner that only used produce grown within a 100-mile radius of the restaurant.
If I could be a professor, that would be really nice! Could I? Please?

Thursday, June 09, 2005


We interrupt this absence ...

... to bring you this important message.


We now return you to your regularly scheduled non-blogging.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005


Busy ...

I know blogging has been very light, well, since the beginning of the year. Still is. Right now I have a Category 1 case of Summer Vertigo, so I'll be away from blogging for at least the next several days, trying to steady myself.

Sunday, June 05, 2005


"Forget the Founding Fathers"

Cliopatria is hosting a symposium on "Forget the Founding Fathers," a provocative essay by Barry Gewen in today's New York Times. Thanks to Manan Ahmed for the idea and to Ralph Luker for putting the comments together.


Jazz hierarchies

Every jazz mythologist has to come to terms with the fact that the music's "Golden Age" was also an age that saw the best players of its generation destroyed by booze and drugs--Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Lester Young ... the list goes on. But the best mythology can turn even tragedy into romance, and so it has been with the story of how drugs got into the bloodstream of jazz.

Here's a crude version of the often romanticized history of jazz and drugs: It begins by stressing that most beboppers got into dope in the 1940s and 1950s because they wanted to sound just like (or better than) Bird. Like Prometheus bringing fire to mere mortals, Parker brought junk to jazzmen. But the second half of this myth is a phoenix story: as jazz musicians began to realize that drugs were destructive rather than creative (so the story goes) they repented and rose from their ash trays. Braving Herculean tests of rehab, giants like Miles and Coltrane and Sonny Rollins lifted themselves out of addiction, proving once and for all that the jazzmen did not need the junk.

This basic mythology pervades popular jazz writing: it's unnoticeable most of the time because it is so taken for granted. For instance, I recently found it reproduced in Stanley Crouch's article on Sonny Rollins for the New Yorker. Crouch begins by telling the story of how a young Rollins took up the tenor saxophone hoping to sound like Coleman Hawkins, until he heard Bird and started trying to sound like Parker. But Parker, writes Crouch,
also brought with him the troubles of heroin. Just as musicians a generation earlier had smoked reefers when they found out that Louis Armstrong liked the stuff, so, now, did the members of the bebop movement follow Parker's self-destructive path. The result was disastrous, with many musicians dying young. Rollins said that he and his musical buddies from Sugar Hill foolishly thought that taking heroin "would make us play better."
Rollins himself was hooked until the mid-1950s, when he shook the habit after a rehabilitation program. After that, he played in one of the most influential and sparkling small bands of the period, led by Max Roach on drums and Clifford Brown on trumpet. Brown seems to have been universally beloved by his contemporaries, and he has become an almost virginal figure in jazz mythology because he steered clear of addiction. His talent also proved, according to the now standard legends of the period, that jazz did not need drugs.

Tragically, however, "Brownie" died in a car accident in 1956, while Rollins was still with the band. Yet Rollins' reputation continued to grow in the years following Brown's death. In rapid succession, he recorded Saxophone Colossus, Way Out West, and Freedom Suite, albums that are widely regarded as his finest achievements. Then Rollins hit another career wall, according to Crouch's story. But this time it was caused not by drugs, but by Rollins' perception that he was in competition with Trane:
Just when Rollins was becoming one of the leading figures in jazz, a new force emerged, in the form of John Coltrane, a tenor player from Philadelphia by way of North Carolina. Coltrane, who also struggled with drugs, was then in the process of leaving the Miles Davis Quintet. After playing with Monk at New York's Five Spot in 1957, Coltrane began to ascend very quickly, startling the jazz world with his innovative harmonic schemes and the complex originality of his phrasing. Before long, people were saying that Rollins had been left behind; he felt the slight profoundly.
In Crouch's account, that perceived slight sent Rollins spiraling into years of insecurity and eccentricity from which he did not recover until the mid-1960s. In 1959, Rollins added his own iconographic myth to jazz history by withdrawing from recording for a time, practicing his horn on the Williamsburg Bridge by the light of the old devil moon. Now, however, Rollins tells Crouch:
"I don't think that Coltrane was thinking about competing with me or had any bad feeling toward me, but I did start to resent him at one point and I feel very embarrassed by that now. When I was up on the bridge and he used to come by my place and see me, we were together. In fact, if I was uptight for money I could get a loan from him, or from Monk, and know that it would never end up in the gossip of the jazz world about how bad off Sonny was. They were real friends. But when I came down from the bridge I think I let his success and the attention that he was receiving get to me. It should never be like that. Never."
Reading Rollins' story made me suddenly notice something about the standard mythology of jazz and drugs: Writers now routinely ridicule the idea that drugs could have made jazz artists better (Rollins and company were thinking "foolishly," to borrow Crouch's adverb), but it is rare to see jazz critics questioning the competitive inner urge that supposedly sparked that foolish thinking. I wonder whether the fact that drug addiction is now seen as a jazz pathology has had the effect of shielding artistic competitiveness from criticism. The standard myths teach us not that artists shouldn't have tried to beat Parker; it's that they did not need drugs to do it. It was the drugs that were "self-destructive"; not the cocktail of reader polls and fickle critics that apparently sent Rollins up to the bridge.

I've been reading some chapters from But Beautiful: A Book about Jazz, which I read about months ago over at Sharp Sand. In the opening chapter, Geoff Dyer gives a haunting portrait of Lester Young's final days that deftly hints at the links between jazz's history with drugs and the music's constantly changing pecking order:
He lay down on the bed, making only a slight dip in the soft mattress, convinced he could feel himself shrinking, fading to nothing. Scattered over the floor were plates of food he had pecked at and left. He'd take a bite of this, a little of that and then head back to the window. He ate almost nothing but he still had his preferences when it came to food: Chinese was his favorite, that was the food he didn't eat most of. For a long time he'd lived on buttermilk and Cracker Jack but he'd even lost his taste for these. As he ate less he drank more: gin with a sherry chaster, Courvoisier and beer. He drank to dilute himself, to think himself down even more. ...

Hawk went the same way eventually. It was Hawk who made the tenor into a jazz instrument, defined the way it had to sound: big-bellied, full-throated, huge. Either you sounded like him or you sounded like nothing--which is exactly how folks thought Lester sounded with his wispy skating-on-air tone. Everybody bullied him to sound like Hawk or swap over to alto but he just tapped his head and said,

--There's things going on up here, man. Some of you guys are all belly. ...

Soon it was a straight choice: Pres or Hawk, Lester Young or Coleman Hawkins--two approaches. They couldn't have sounded or looked more different but they ended up the same way: swilled out and fading away. Hawk lived on lentils, booze, and Chinese food and wasted away, just like Pres was doing now.
I'm not trying to suggest some kind of causal connection between drug addiction and the constant comparison and hierarchy-making that goes on in jazz. But what Dyer points out is that both parts of jazz history can be and have been, to some extent, tragic. That's the sense I got from Rollins' comments, too, that there was a certain tragedy in the tendency of the jazz star-making machine to anoint the next Hawk or the next Pres or the next Trane or the next Saxophone Colossus. "It should never be like that. Never."

I'm not sure where I'm going with this line of thinking. I just think it's interesting that while the jazz intelligentsia now routinely lament the deadening effect of drugs on the music, there are few writers who would suggest that the competitiveness of the Golden Age also took its toll. Crouch certainly didn't come away from his interview with Rollins having learned that lesson. In an online interview at the New Yorker, this was the first question Crouch was asked:
BEN GREENMAN: Where does Sonny Rollins rank in the jazz pantheon?

STANLEY CROUCH: No. 1, along with Roy Haynes and Hank Jones.
Isn't that number-one-ism precisely what Rollins was implicitly calling into question? And doesn't Crouch realize how ridiculous this kind of thing sounds? (Sonny's No. 1, but so is Roy Haynes and Hank Jones and Pres and Hawk and ... Jazz fans are pantheists who only know how to talk like monotheists.)

Perhaps the number-one-ism is a harder myth to part with than the myth that drugs made Bird play better because it goes to the heart of the music's creation myths. Jazz was supposedly born in the "cutting" contests of New Orleans, with warring bands and musicians bringing their "axes" to competitions from which only one player would emerge victorious. I'd be the last to suggest that this kind of creative competition has not been hugely responsible for the development of the music I love. But if the benefits of that competitiveness are clear to every appreciative listener of a song like "Tenor Madness" (a "cutting contest" between Trane and Rollins), Rollins and Dyer have got me thinking about the costs.

One more thought before I step back and let the rhythm section carry me out. I wonder if one of the reasons so many curmudgeonly critics (like Crouch, for one) think that the Golden Age of jazz is over is precisely because today's jazz community does not seem to be driven, as it once was, by a quest to anoint the next Colossus. (There was a recent interview with the young tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman in the New York Times, now unfortunately behind the pay wall, in which Redman clearly revealed his love for the cutting contests of old. But the article also quoted from an essay by Redman in which he questioned the aesthetic value of the number-one-ism that is so endemic in traditionalist jazz writing.)

Read through the liner notes of any album put out in the 1950s and you'll see references to how the players on the date rated in the most recent Downbeat poll. Nowadays, few listeners pay attention to such polls, and the overall importance of "cutting" seems to be in decline. The big-ticket concerts now do not share the concept of "Tenor Madness"--pitting two giants against each other. Rather, they are reunion concerts or intergenerational concerts. In short, the voices (like those of Crouch and the Marsalis brothers) that are confident enough to say some newcomer is "No. 1" in an Olympian "pantheon" of contemporary artists are becoming increasingly rarer. I'm not sure, though, that this means jazz is dead. Maybe, instead, it's finally got some room to breath.

Friday, June 03, 2005


Friday shuffle

See if you can guess what I was in the mood for today ...

1. "Bags' Groove," Miles Davis and Milt Jackson, from Bags' Groove
2. "When I Fall in Love," Miles Davis, from Steamin' with the Miles Davis Quintet
3. "Country Son," Miles Davis, from Miles in the Sky
4. "Ah-Leu-Cha," Miles Davis, from The Complete Miles and Trane: Disc 1
5. "Dear Old Stockholm," Miles Davis, from The Complete Miles and Trane: Disc 1
6. "Gingerbread Boy," Miles Davis Quintet, from Miles Smiles
7. "Blues by Five," Miles Davis Quintet, from Cookin' with the Miles Davis Quintent
8. "Prayer (Oh Doctor Jesus)," Miles Davis, from Porgy and Bess
9. "Masqualero," Miles Davis, from Sorceror
10. "Miles Ahead," Miles Davis, from The Complete Miles and Trane: Disc 3

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Wednesday, June 01, 2005


History Carnival

The latest History Carnival is up at Cliopatria. Stop by for a surplus of great posts on history, collected and masterfully organized by Sharon Howard.

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