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E S S A Y S
on music
By Sam Smith
The Progressive Review

INDEX

A half century of American music

Why you don't have to care about Michael Jackson

Sam's waltz

In defense of bass players

ELSEWHERE

MUSIC & POLITICS: THE POWER OF CHANGES

QUIET STORM: THE COLLAPSE OF OUR CULTURE

PLAY IT AGAIN, SAM - Sam Smith's Decoland Band & other gigs

PUNK AND PROTEST: Music and action

HOW THE INDUSTRY KIILED POPULAR MUSIC

WHERE THE MUSIC WENT

REACTION WITHOUT ACTION 

 

A half century of American music

Last evening I went to a party for fellow musicians given by singer and trombonist Dave Burns, who for more than three decades and 2,000 gigs has headed the Hot Mustard Jazz Band, a fixture in the Washington area. Burns has been singing since the age of two when, in Pineville Kentucky "they'd put me on the marble counter at the drugstore and I'd sing songs for a penny."

As the Princeton Alumni Weekly explained it, "Burns ran away from Pineville at 15, living a hobo-like existence until landing in D.C., where he dropped out of high school three times before joining the Air Force. A 'voracious reader,' he realized he'd need a degree after his tour of duty and audaciously applied to Oxford, the University of Kentucky, Occidental College in Pasadena, California - and Princeton. 'I told them if they took a gamble on me I wouldn't disappoint them,' he says of Princeton. True to his word, Burns won a Fulbright scholarship and joined the Foreign Service."

I realized when I looked around the room that I was looking at a half century of American music. There was the sainted Keeter Betts who has played bass for just about everyone in jazz locally and nationally, clarinetist Wally Garner who recalled playing with Louis Armstrong, the jazz writer Royal Stokes and musicians with whom I had shared gigs like Gary Wilkerson and Don Rouse. All of us were playing in the 1950s and some even earlier.

It struck me later was what an atypical Washington evening it was. I gave up my own band seven years ago and I had kind of forgotten what a pleasant, friendly bunch of people jazz musicians can be. All those breaks; all those conversations. I suspect it has something to do with the genre, which requires both individuality and cooperation, something I once described this way:

"The essence of jazz is the same as that of democracy: the greatest amount of individual freedom consistent with a healthy community. Each musician is allowed extraordinary liberty during a solo and then is expected to conscientiously back up the other musicians in turn. The two most exciting moments in jazz are during flights of individual virtuosity and when the entire musical group seems to become one.

"The genius of jazz (and democracy) is that the same people are willing and able to do both. Here's how Wynton Marsalis describes it: 'Jazz is a music of conversation, and that's what you need in a democracy. You have to be willing to hear another person's point of view.'"

2003

In defense of bass players

Your editor has long held the view - although quietly for fear of being mugged - that one of the earliest signs of America's cultural collapse was the introduction of the disco drum machine. I was, to be sure, a drummer at the time, so the opinion may have been a bit premature and biased. Nonetheless, since then popular music has become increasingly stripped of melody, chord range, internal variety and surprise, and dynamics. With the arrival of rap, music itself became virtually irrelevant.

These are not matters of taste, but observable phenomenon. For example, the history of western music, until fairly recently, was in part the story of expanding the number of acceptable chords, something that can be readily seen in comparing, say, a traditional folk song to the works of Thelonious Monk. This does not mean that the folk song was bad, only that the later work was far more venturesome at the least, and more creative at best. Growing cultures keep breaking ground. Declining ones just wear it out and break it up. Retrenchment and regression replaces exploration and adventure.

Anyone who grew up with jazz grew up with this sense of adventure, sometimes found in a single tune. It has been described by one music teacher as being in part the interplay between repetition and surprise. Just when we think we know what is coming thanks to previous reiteration, the music surprises us. Further, as far back as Jelly Roll Morton, jazz musicians borrowed from different musical traditions, blending them in new and unusual ways.

There have been two anchors in all of this: the drums and the bass. And even though I was once a drummer, after I switched to piano I found myself increasingly of the opinion that the bass was the sina qua non of jazz. In fact, in my own mainstream group - blessed by a superb bassist - I did away with drums entirely, leaving room for two horns in just a quartet.

Bassists are remarkable people, all the more so because most pay them so little mind. I have, in fact, never met a mean or nasty bass player. They tend to be musicians of good humor, extraordinary patience, and a sense of modesty that can be lacking in the front of the band.

I fear America's growing passion for power without the balance of community and cooperation, and without the magnificent gift of individuals who are always quietly there doing exactly the right thing at the right time and, in the process, making everyone else sound good as well. Which is what bass players are about

2002

Why you don't have to care about Michael Jackson

MEDIA BIAS is not limited to bad politics; it includes bad math, typically manifested in an inability to count above the number two. According to the mass media, our world is one giant 'Crossfire' show divided into pro and anti, liberal and conservative, war and appeasement, free market and socialism. When such bifurcation fails because of the number of participants - as in sports, Democratic primaries, or reality shows - the media solves the problem by ultimately reducing the number to one, with everyone else a loser. It is by such means that the media discovers the outstanding average American male.

This is a form of semiotic suppression as bad in its own way as political propaganda for it steals opportunities, options, and subtleties from us, turning us into either cheering sycophants or worthless outsiders. It also is the playing field on which we learn mindless acceptance of the minimal choices that the media offers us in the political and economic realms.

We are, for example, supposed at this moment to be obsessed with football, especially if one is a virile male. In fact, however, only about a half of American males are interested in football. A 2002 poll found that only 28% of Americans listed football as their favorite sport, with 16% preferring basketball and 12% baseball. Add them all together and you are still left with nearly half of America having something better to do. But you would never guess it from the media.

The same is true with popular music. Michael Jackson, the latest media fetish, is a not atypical example. If you only followed the "news" you would have to be wondering what was wrong with you if you did not find the fate of Jackson of concern or, worse, never liked him or his music in the first place.

Jackson sold 47 million copies of "Thriller," which sounds like a lot until one realizes that Dunkin' Donuts sells more cups of coffee than that in one month. In fact, more people have a cup of Dunkin' Donuts coffee than watch Bill O'Reilly on the same day. But note where Dunkin' Donuts stands in the media cultural hierarchy compared to Jackson and O'Reilly.

It's actually far worse than that. An ABC News poll last year found that 38% of Americans considered Elvis Presley the greatest rock star ever. Jimi Hendrix came in second at four percent and Michael Jackson tied Lennon, Jagger, Springsteen, McCartney, and Clapton at 2%. In all, pollees list 128 different names. Even among 18-34 year olds, Presley beat Hendrix 2 to 1, albeit getting only 19% of the votes.

The ABC News poll is unusual in that it gave actual percentages. Normally, such surveys only list rank, leaving the reader who prefers number six on the list feeling out of it and leaving all readers badly misinformed.

One way to create more honesty in such surveys would be not only to use actual percentages but also instant runoff voting in which second and third place votes would be factored in. These celebrity surveys instead use the same misguided principle that distorts our politics, confusing whoever is first past the post with the consensus choice.

The matter is further complicated by the fact that we do not know how the over 200 million Americans who did not buy a copy of 'Thriller' felt about Jackson. Some were married to a purchaser, some have downloaded it, some picked it up second hand or from a sibling. But is it not possible that among this vast pool we might not actually find a many people who disliked Jackson's music as liked it?

Yes it is. And although I have not been able to find an American study that deals with this issue, a fascinating examination of Japanese adolescent tastes in western music suggests what we might discover.

Here are the percentages of Japanese adolescents who liked very much a genre of music followed by the percentages of those that didn't like it at all:

Rock: 45, 28
Rap: 26, 43
Top Forty: 25, 43
Classical: 23, 48
Jazz: 23, 45
Techno: 22, 47
Soul: 17, 53
Country: 15, 53
Heavy Metal: 12, 48
Punk: 11, 66
Easy Listening: 10, 60

Note that rock is the only category in which the percentage of those not liking it at all does not near 50%. Note also that one of the most disliked genres is something the media has labeled "easy listening."

One of the reasons the media doesn't tell you things like this is that it would be too embarrassing. Far better to using rankings that obscure the fact, for example, that you could fit the entire American audience of CNN into a place the size of Washington DC.

One of the few people honest about all this is Don Imus who says he wouldn't cover the Jackson story, which repels him, were it not for the ratings boost. But that boost, of course, is based on the media's past success in convincing us that Jackson was worth caring about. And even if MSNBC's ratings doubled we're still only talking about three big stadiums full of people.

So if you can't stand Jackson or his music, don't feel bad. You are just part of the silenced majority. Go down to Dunkin' Donuts have a cup of coffee like a real American.

Sam's Waltz

Our band was playing at a wedding reception when a woman came up to me and asked for a waltz. I said okay and hoped she would forget about it because my memory has suddenly gone blank and I can't remember any waltzes.

The woman returns so I say to the trumpet player, "Follow me." It takes me a couple of choruses to write a waltz. Bob Walter, the trumpet player, was good enough that he could pretend to be providing fills instead of wondering what the hell I was up to.

We finally got it down and people began twirling happily. When we were finished the crowd applauded and a bearded man asked me for my card.

We were happily back into 4/4 time when a woman came up and asked for another waltz and I replied, "Okay in a little bit."

"No we need it now. The mother of the bride wants to waltz.

So I told Bob to do the waltz again. This time we did it with more gusto and the dancers responded in kind.

The bearded man spun by, stopped and said, "That's great. What's the name of that waltz."

Without hesitation I replied, "Sam's Waltz."