Monday, June 19, 2006

Revise and Re-submit

The Race is Off: Butcher Jazz, Part 2

Can we make sense of jazz and machismo without thinking about race, the term that is conspicuously missing in John Gill's controversial screed in Paris Transatlantic? Probably not. We should start by recognizing that writing about jazz has long been preoccupied with the ways that white male musicians (and music fans) engage with black culture as a way to work out their identity-related anxieties, which in turn shapes their enactment of masculinity and class as musical performers or aesthetes.

Because what is at stake is the resolution of a specifically gendered crisis, it is easy (but wrong) to focus exclusively on the troubling sexual dimension of white males' identification with black culture: i.e., the way they enjoy fantasizing about temporarily inhabiting "black" personas, from Stagolee to Shaft to Shaq to Snoop, presumably as a means to escape the emasculating constrictions and Victorian residue of mainstream white culture. Equally important is the way that jazz culture offers an appealing intellectual and political alternatives to establishment groupthink. If this point is perhaps obvious, it does tend to get lost in the shuflfle.

A few years back, Robert K. McMichael wrote a great article about this topic (Robert K. McMichael, "'We Insist—Freedom Now!': Black Moral Authority, Jazz, and the Changeable Shape of Whiteness,'" American Music, vol. 16, 1998) looking specifically at the historical conjuncture of the 1960s-- the African-American "freedom jazz" movement and Southern white "massive resistance"-- as a significant moment of racial realignment.

McMichael provides an excellent summary of the complexities of jazz ca. 1920-1960 as a laboratory of cross-racial solidarity: "The integrationist subcultures of jazz clubs and other social spaces housed various kinds of cross-racial interaction between audience members and musicians, creating potentially important sites of resistance to racism." It is hard not to find many aspects of this phenomenon encouraging-- a celebration of hybridity, mestizization, or even the rejection of white identity advocated by scholars like Noel Ignatiev and David Roediger. The continuing engagement of white musicians with the rich and wonderful legacy of black music can only (one hopes) encourage cross-racial solidarity and understanding. It certainly couldn't hurt, right?

Not necessarily. McMichael notes that "much of the cross-racial interaction in the jazz scenes still reverberated with long-standing elements of racism, especially primitivism." For reverberated, we can substitute "reverberates." What McMichael means by "primitivism" here is the expectation, on the part of white audiences, that African-American artists will comply with racist stereotypes, and perform a "noble savage" routine still cherished by some white liberal listeners (now that jazz is no longer mainstream, "world music" has replaced it as the "primtivist" genre of choice).

A few years ago, a friend told me about a free jazz group from Alberta, Canada in the 1970s (made up of white fellows who were fanatics for the radical black music of the Black power era, and who surely thought of their enthusiasm as an expression of politcal solidarity with the civil rights movement and its legacies) who adopted the Art Ensemble of Chicago's practice of wearing elaborate costumes, but going one step further by also corking up in full blackface (!!!). Talk about a ne plus ultra demonstration of the aptness of the title of Eric Lott's history of blackface, Love and Theft.

Less inflammatory, but perhaps no less offensive, we know of many white jazz musicians/fans who find inspiration in the alleged sexual heroism of jazz heroes like Miles Davis and Charlie Parker, and many others . If fans and admirers do not typically attempt to replicate the precise boudoir antics of these icons, they do nevertheless relate libindinally to something in the jazz persona... in a way they do not with Lawrence Welk, Bill Monroe, or Angus Young (or white jazzers like Paul Desmond, Joe Pass, or Bill Evans). Where is this racial cathexis made visible? At very least, in the bragadoccio, the use of hipster jargon, and a particular "jazz" version of on-stage male bonding.

But let us not linger too long on the possible unseemliness of white jazz fandom. Like everything else under the sun, the politics of race and music are deeply contradictory... we should try to find the radical/utopian strain within the sketchy mimesis. While a certain racist libidinal investment charges some aspects of white participation in jazz, it accounts for only a fraction of the desire that sustains the interaction with the music. Equally significant (and frequently neglected) is the investment in African American artistic culture as an idealized intellectual and social milieu. I am not thinking of the familiar and banal denial of prejudice on the basis of inclusive musical taste (e.g. Gareth Kennan on BBC's The Office denying his homophobia by bragging about his record collection: George Michael , Pet Shop Boys, etc., and then immediately confirming it by referring to these artists with a British anti-gay slur).

We might recall another point raised by McMichael, who notes that the free/artist-centered jazz of the 1960s arose at the same time as the civil rights movement linked "blackness" with moral authority, political commitment, and spiritual integrity. Since the post-1960s backlash, the majority racist culture has tried to deny that African Americans have a purchase on these values, while profiting off of a commercial culture that peddles their very opposites to citizen-consumers: a Cold War/Neoliberal Globailization/War on Terror political "realism" that denies the grievances of victims of racism/international capitalism/US foreign policy in the name of strategic interests, the hidden hand of the market or domestic security; cynicism about grassroots activism and electoral/parliamentary bourgeois politics; and spiritual drift, New Age eclecticism, or servile obedience to religious leaders. With one hand, then, the majoritarian culture degrades the values linked with the Civil Rights movement and by extension, African Americans; simultaneously, with the other hand, it smuggles in a white, conservative, reactionary "values bloc" (Pro-Life, anti-gay, etc.) to supplant the activists of the hated 1960s in the national imagination.

We must keep this in mind when we confront the problem of "butch" jazz and the racial mimesis of white participants in jazz culture. In the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, participation in out-jazz subcultures provided white musos with a link to a resistant organic intellectual tradition, and access to a culture of collective enjoyment outside of (and viral to) the anomie of the suburban Galleria.

Which leads to the final point: the history of cross-racial interaction within the out-jazz tradition frustrates any simple binary distinction between "butch" neo-primitivism and intellectual engagement. What remains to be explored (in a future post) is neo-primitivism as intellectual engagement within the African-American avant garde tradition. Stay tuned!

Friday, June 16, 2006

Butcher Jazz?

(Explanatory note: this post touches on issues related to contemporary improvised music, a genre that I participate in as a performer and of which I have been a fan for some time. Prepare, therefore, gentle reader, for some hopelessly nerdy insider talk).

Sometimes one stumbles across a piece of criticism so mind-bogglingly off-base that the only logical response is perverse admiration. Such is John Gill's meditation on the butch-ification of jazz at the hands of younger-generation practitioners (which appeared in the November 2005 edition of the online journal Paris Transatlantic). It would be difficult to summarize exactly what Gill is getting at, and it remains a possibility that I am too obtuse to get the irony, if that is what it is, embedded in his writing.

Dwelling on the outrageous wrongness of Gill's thesis would be a waste of energy, I think, and we should take the opportunity to consider whether a different take on the (sometimes very provocative and suggestive) themes that he raises might be more productive. To put it simply-- do current trends in jazz (and perhaps, by extension, free improvised music and experimental music more generally) reflect a narrow preoccupation with "butch" musical and performance tendencies, at the expense of other less macho possiblities? Does this trend stem from a streamlined and selective (as well as phallocentric) historical narrative of jazz(and/or free improv/experimental)music, and has it or could it introduce "butch"-biased distortions in jazz/free/out historiography?

More specifically, have things gotten better or worse, friendlier or chillier for queer musicians and female performers in these milieus over the past few months/years/decades? Finally-- and this is the question Gill avoids formulating explicitly, for the same reasons, no doubt, that pedestrians tend to avoid jumping in snake-infested lakes of quicksand that are also on fire-- can we make any correlations between "hard" and "soft" musical tendencies and the performance of gender and sexuality?

The emergence of a new "butch" jazz/free/out music has been on the radar for a few years. Following the principle that nobody likes a dialectical negation of a negation like a lazy music journalist, we could have guessed that the vogue for quiet/self-effacing/personality-dissolving music over the past 5 years would be declared moribund right around January 2006. The way would thus be cleared for a macho/aggro/butch revival, ensuring new niche markets for signed and numbered limited-edition CD-Rs.

What trend for quiet/self-effacing/personality-dissolving music over the last 5 years, you ask? Well, some time around the year 2000, "blowing" (feverish, often lyrical, expressive improvising, frequently performed by a whole ensemble at the same time) was declared "out," and something else was understood to have replaced it.

What exactly this "something else" was is still a mystery. Many called the new thing "quiet," but the vogue for contact-miking small sounds (often by musicians who were exploring electronics and amplification for the first time, and were thus not used to controlling volumes) and laptop computers (same deal) meant that the music was actually quite a lot louder than the acoustic jazz/improvised/out small-ensemble music it was meant to replace/supplement/critique. Some called it "lower-case," which pointed to the interest in "microscopic" aspects of the audible world, although since many groups in this scene were large assemblages of droning electronicians (notably Keith Rowe's MIMEO), it would not be accurate to use this label indiscriminately, either.

Others chose more focused appellations: "onkyo" for new Japanese improv, which centered around a community of musicians who dramatically restricted their sonic palettes (by using post-fluxus instrumental strategies such as "empty" samplers, no-input mixing boards, etc) and explored silence/non-intentionality/modesty/space in distinctive and exciting ways; "minimalism" and "reductionism" and god knows what other names were tacked onto the music coming out of London, Berlin, Vienna, Boston, Chicago. It was/is an exciting/infuriating/confusing time, especially for folks like me who feel that silence and small sounds are integral parts of the old european impro-jazz tradition, not a new challenge to orthodoxy. The distinctions made regarding old guard vs. new school improv seem in retrospect arbitrary and ahistorical, often articulated most forcefully by musicians trying to carve out a market niche, get on the right festival invite lists, or compensate for the excesses of their bebop-jock youths. No matter. An incredible amount of great music got made. Maybe people will continue to make it.

To tie this little recap to the overall theme of this post, one of the great things about this movement has been its openness to female and non-butch/sensitive-flower male improvisors. The list of important and inspiring female improvisors who have found a home within this scene is amazing and inspiring, especially as a reversal of the "sausage party" tendencies of improv scenes past: Annette Krebs, Kaffe Matthews, Andrea Neumann, Brigitte Uhler, Sachiko M, Ami Yoshida, Sabine Vogel, Angharad Davies, Liz Tonne, Maria Chavez, to name just a few. While I have no data on the friendliness of improv scenes to queer/bi/tg performers, it is true that the new cultural climate has at least encouraged some male improvisors to abandon the warrior/viking/lothario posture favored by some musicians of yesteryear.

Nevertheless, the butch aesthetic has been on the upswing. Gill's bete noire, Mats Gustafsson, has recently been working a lot with a hard-rocking band called The Thing, which plays ecstatic free jazz and covers of tunes by PJ Harvey and the White Stripes. Anthony Braxton (he of the cardigan sweater collection and radical dweeb persona) de-butches with hirsute hardcore boyband Wolf Eyes. Sensitive Japanese guitar manipulator Tetuzi Akiyama embraces blazing ultra-amplified boogie guitar music to great acclaim. Boston quiet trumpetmaster Greg Kelley has been heard in many loud psych/rock bands playing with Shure SM57-in-fist. One-time crackle-and-glitch maven Kevin Drumm releases a slew of mximaliest metallic noise records. Australian small-sound/drone guitarist Oren Ambarchi collaborates with heavy music merchants Sun O))). The list could surely be extended further...

There is nothing wrong with any of this, in my opinion. For one thing, much of this activity appears to be distinctly complementary to traditional improvised music projects, or indicates that the performers involved have shifted from improvised to compositional or rock endeavors. The only real danger that I can see would be a rollback of gains made during the "quiet" music revolution. If musicians are encouraged to show up at gigs with the most obnoxious, aggressive, or antisocial materials they can muster, a great many performers and listeners will feel (rightly, I think) alienated. There are deep links between musical style and the social dynamics/norms of interaction and self-presentation that communities encourage. Inasmuch as quiet/contemplative/listening-oriented improvised music opens space for dialgoue and reflection, so can "macho" practices encourage hierarchy, posturing, and tolerance for the creative legitimacy of stomping all over others' feelings and personal space.

Nevertheless, Gill is dead wrong about the politics of musicians like Mats Gustafsson. Gustafsson has always been very vocal about the signal importance of Peter Brotzmann's Machine Gun in his decision to become an improvisor, and his approach to intense laser-focused saxophony can be heard in sparse settings as often as in hardcore blowfests (can any contemporary improvisor of his generation claim as many fabulous small-sound/small-group recordings-- his duos with Paul Lovens and Gunter Christmann, not to mention the seminal Gush albums, the solo records, up to the extremely life-affirming set of "blues" duets with David Stackenäs from last year?) Surely we can let at least one improv dude be a handsome athletic guy with a bit of charisma and stage presence, no? I will personally guarantee that the rest of us will remain vigilant in maintaining social awkwardness, male pattern baldness, and mismatched socks as the de facto mode of self-presentation in the impro-world.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

God of Thunder, meet Count Olaf: Evil, Transference, and Jewish Aesthetics

Ever since a dear friend hooked us up with tickets to the sold-out Lemony Snicket reading here in Austin last fall, I have been thinking about Jews and art and evil and transference. Lemony Snicket is the alter ego of writer Daniel Handler, who are collectively responsible for the massively popular "Series of Unfortunate Events" books. Handler/Snicket (who self-identifies as a Jewish writer) taps into a rich tradition of Ashkenazic melancholy and gallows humor in these books, inspired partially by stories he heard as a child of family members' flight from Nazi Germany... Rather than present escapist fantasy or wish-fulfillment diversions like so many other kids writers, Handler/Snicket elicits pleasure by satisfying his readers' appetites for horror and catastrophe. He warns his young readers to resist reading about the endless unspeakable disasters that plague the books' protagonists, the luckless Baudelaire orphans, (most caused by a evil, obssessive predator, Count Olaf) and then, of course, ruefully delivers the bad news...

Besides his incredible anti-reading/performance in Austin, which concluded with an extraordinary accordion-driven sing-a-long (a tune by Stephen Merritt about the audience's collective death at the hands of Count Olaf), two things got me very interested in Handler/Snicket. The first is that a fully formed and quite radical ethics informs his books. When NPR's Terry Gross asked if Count Olaf was not perhaps
too evil, Handler replied something to the effect of: "He is. Let's get him." The second is that this engagement with "real evil" comes via an act of creative transference-- here meaning an identification with or adoption of the features that we despise in our adversaries. In a revealing throwaway comment, Handler revealed that the name Lemony Snicket was a pseudonym he used originally when he was doing research on far-right white supremacist groups, whom he did not want to give accurate personal information.

I was reminded of this during Vh1's aweomse "Metal Month," now sadly over. During a feature on KISS, I got to see a remarkable 1974 clip of Gene Simmons on the Mike Douglas talk show, which is even more mind-melting in its full form:

Gene Simmons was born Chaim Witz in Haifa, Israel... and as his fellow panelist (does anyone know who she is? She looks so familiar...) kibbitzes, he could not hide his "nice Jewish boy" interior under his demonic regalia. Do we not find here another example of Jewish transference in Simmons's attempt to make himself into "evil incarnate"?

Okay, what's the connection between Witz/Simmons and Handler/Snicket? Well, besides the obvious one-- two Jewish-American artists who assume pseudonyms and flamboyant alter egos to work out their fascination with radical evil-- they both select counter-intuitive names and personas. Lemony Snicket is the tragic Jewish writer with the ridicuolous WASP name who stands in for the tragic Jewish writer... Chaim Witz chooses to embody the demonic as a fire-breathing bat decked out in the clip above in garb eerily reminsicent of the skull and crossbones of the 1930s KKK offshoot Black Legion, but calls himself Gene Simmons-- of all the names in the world, he chooses the one that sounds most like a B'nai Brith vice-president? This is a joke, of course, but also psychologically/ideologically significant... as if Simmons needed to Judaize his satanic alter ego...

To further complicate matters, the KISS image-system included some overtly Third Reich elements. As a child, I was simultaneously drawn to and very disturbed by something about the KISS logo-- later I figured out that this was a function of the Waffen-SS logo embedded in the KISS insignia. At the time, of course, I didn't not realize that Gene and Paul were as Jewish as Streitz's matzohs... but even if I had known, the question remains. What were they doing borrowing this Nazi iconography? I don't mean this as an accusation-- it is really more a technical curiosity. Was this intentional? Accidental? Some sort of creative exorcism by indentification/simulation, maybe?

An interesting note: apparently, the "SS" on KISS records is forbidden in post-WWII Germany, so Deutsche metalheads get a modified logo on their their copies of "Alive" and "Destroyer."

I think Lacanians would have interesting things to say about this. Anybody know any?

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