Beatnik Beat: Jazzin Up the Children

by William Morder Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments Will hum about mine ears … -The Tempest Bill Morder

In my dream, a white monster creeps behind me. Next, I am swallowed by inches. My head remains. Then I awaken in a sweat. Riverwest, my Storyville, crumbles at the edges. But the problem is much bigger. Radio is clogged by synthetic socalled jazz. Liberal arts wither away in schools, because culture is a luxury and business is business. Our children talk like jaded sailors, because they have already seen it all on television. Meanwhile, we worry about pollution, terrorists, wars, melting polar icecaps, and uncharted asteroids. Life gets increasingly brutal, yet nobody can be blamed, since our leaders are just doing their jobs. To alter our future for the better, therefore, I will now tell why dragons, both real and mythical, can be conquered by jazz. I ought to explain that musicians, like poets, talk strangely. My musician friends describe sounds as fuzzy, warm, round and hollow. Likewise, Mose Allison plays black, they say, while Sarah Vaughn often sang white. Musicians remind me of infinite realities yet to discover, because they experience life differently. Jazz — both the word and music — came from Africa, via New Orleans. The roots are debated, but jazz is agreed to have erotic connotations. We use the word in various senses: jazz up : improve, improvise jazzy : bright, flashy, spirited jazzed : excited, aroused An English word, spunk, comes close in meaning, and spunkwood is kindling. I will therefore boldly guess that the idea beneath both jazz and spunk is spirit, fire, is spirit, fire, or passion. Black musicians I know tell me they never owned recorded music when they were young, in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. If they heard music at all, it was on the radio, in church or school. Some people might suddenly become musicians without formal training. Pythagoras, father of western music theory, intuitively understood harmony by listening to a blacksmith beat out patterns on an anvil. But then, Pythagoras was gifted. Later, Plato warned that if society promotes athletic competition, but neglects geometry and music — the humanities and liberal arts — people will become aggressive, violent and lawless. Children will disrespect their elders, and rulers will grow corrupt and greedy. (Plato never foresaw armchair athletes, though.) Plato advises locking the barn before our horses get out: To create a happier future, give children those skills essential to a good life — cooking, agriculture, pottery or astronomy. Everyone’s work is a special art, says Plato, and the ideal philosopher was, like his teacher Socrates, a jack-of-all-trades. Schools provide the outlines of knowledge, but children’s real education comes, I believe, from loving parents. I am unqualified to expound on intricacies of Greek philosophy. However, to saute fish, play a blues shuffle, plant a garden, build bookshelves, or locate the Pleiades in the night sky, I am my children’s best teacher — not because I am an authority on anything, but because I am their father. Maybe music seems unimportant. But since all life is connected, I predict that the musician’s fate today will be yours tomorrow. Great players cannot get decent work. Meanwhile, shoppers in a mall prefer watching mechanical bears sway to piped-in music. T-Bone Walker described musicians as

… too lazy to work and too nervous to steal.

Say, if you like, that times change. Musicians need to shape up, and get real jobs. But musicians are generally unsuited to other work. Take away paying gigs, and they are left to beg in the streets, or turn to crime. Literature, music and the arts help us to refine our thoughts and feelings; without such influences, we can only grunt about our blunt desires. And if desires are frustrated, a brute rages, whereas musicians sing the blues. Our worst moments as humans, too, are when we behave like herd animals, as in soccer stadium riots. Note that Plato would have detested jazz. Our tritone — the notorious ‘blue note’ — he called a crime against harmony. But Plato, the author of scandalous verses, also outlawed poets from his Republic; so maybe he, like poets and musicians, sometimes used words in unusual ways. The blue note refers to sulfurous blue flames of hades, the Greek underworld. When hades became the Christian hell, mediaeval writers named the tritone diabolus in musica, and it was officially forbidden. This outlaw note was remembered in English as a twang: Saint Columcille once praised a song as ‘lovely, but for the fairy twang about it’. (Apparently, the fairies played jazz.) Earlier, the word is tang, meaning a sharp point, or spicy tang food. Blue notes, quartertones, and other unclassical ideas persisted in folk music, of course, although some ears were offended. Round the world, though, jazz sensibilities prevailed. Improvisation transforms the rules. Creativity is always a kind of jazz — upsetting staid conventions, discovering ‘harmony in discord’, allowing us to hear new possibilities. On this field, Socrates, Miles Davis, Galileo, Gandhi and Shakespeare meet as equals. The tritone’s name is also given to the lightning that joins heaven and earth, poetic inspiration, and ‘love at first sight’; as well as the three-pronged hook used by Mediterranean fishermen. Remember Job’s question — Can you catch Leviathan on a hook? Leviathan is a shape-changing sea-monster, spotted serpent or dragon; also, the ‘whale’ that swallowed Jonah. In many tales, a sea-monster is caught, and a person found alive in its belly. This symbolizes the immortal soul freed from its bodily prison. Remember, too, Jesus made his disciples ‘fishers of men’. I hear facts and figures about the future of Riverwest. And what, you ask, can one person do? Be not deceived by those illusions: I banish them with a wave of my hand. Look to the real reality. In another century, everything will change. Few houses today will be left standing. Nobody will remember us. Neither can I deflect asteroids from striking the earth; nor prevent famine, disease or war. But, you see, I have bigger fish to fry: I have my children, and they are my hopes for the future. Comments or ideas? Write to William Morder, Riverwest Currents – Volume 1 – Issue 6 – July 2002
by William Morder