Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Reaction to Geoff Dyer's "Catastophic Coltrane"


Geoff Dyer's recent article in theNY Times "Catastrophic Coltrane" was brought to my attention this morning. Here is a link to the article and a brief reaction to his piece.

http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/gallery/2014/oct/04/catastrophic-coltrane/

Dyer does raise an important issue:  the Temple University concert represents a last rather than late example of Coltrane's art.  We don't and can't know what he would have done if he had been able to stay on this planet longer.  Thus, both Dyer's analysis and my reaction to it are both speculation based on our understandings of Trane's legacy.  Perhaps the difference is that Dyer wants to understand Coltrane's music within the scope of jazz and his impact on that idiom.  I want to understand Trane in the broader cultural and musical sense. He was not just a jazz musician, he was a cultural, revolutionary, spiritual and artistic force.

Dyer’s analysis makes sense if one views Trane’s music only through the window of ‘jazz’.  In this article, the writer fails to acknowledge the power of the activity of music making as a communal experience and process and as a site of not only personal development, but also cultural exploration, revolution, and redefinition. In my view, these issues were extremely important to Coltrane and essential for any kind of understanding of the last few years of his life.  Dyer seems to be looking for coherence in terms of the traditional harmonic, rhythmic, melodic, and formal concepts deriving from the jazz tradition.  Such obvious points of reference may be beside the point when we consider the music from the Temple University concert or other recordings from this last period of Trane's life.

I believe that Trane saw (or was beginning to see) the activity of doing/making music with and for people as primary.  The recording from Temple University seems clear evidence of that to me. The actual sounds resulting from the process might even be secondary to what was happening with Coltrane's music during that time, hence his tendency to include more and more participants in the music making.  Perhaps the use of the older tune-based improvisations like “Favorite Things” served as a warm-up or as a way of drawing in participants to a deeper experience. In any case, the importance of actual musical results as observed and evaluated by outsiders (let’s not forget that we are listening to a live recording nearly 37 years later) is secondary or perhaps even further removed.

The author’s suggestion that ‘free jazz' had hit a brick wall shows his lack of understanding of the communal aspect of music making and of subsequent developments in European (and now international) directions and developments in free playing.  Trane was simply pointing music in another direction.  Many people moved in that direction and the road has not ended yet.  Coltrane’s own career demonstrates an incredible arc of development: from simple imitation and music as entertainment to complete technical mastery of the idiom to artistry and innovation within the idiom.  Eventually, through intense self-examination and searching he eventually broke the bands of that idiom and began to question not only his relationship to the jazz tradition, but the purposes of music itself and the changing roles of performers and listeners.

This search and questioning should be viewed not within the narrow window of ‘jazz’ but rather within the broader cultural revolutions of the 1960s.  Speaking just within the field of music, we have at the same time period John Cage, Terry Riley, Lamonte Young, the Fluxus movement, etc. all asking similar questions. Some of them were very much inspired by Trane of course. What is music?  What is it for? Who is the performer and who is the listener?  I find it interesting that in 2014 we still have not fully come to terms with the things people like Coltrane and Cage were saying and exploring.  Many in the jazz world (and many critics certainly) are still extremely conservative.  What happened to the tradition of innovation left to us by Trane and other giants of the 20th century? Has the malaise of the post-modern (or post-post-modern?!) condition extinguished the desire for revolution? This question is directed first and foremost to myself and my own music, but it is worthwhile for anyone to consider it.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Autumn Performance Schedule

Hi All,

I took the summer off from blogging and some other things too. The summer in Vancouver has lasted so far into September that I feel reluctant to get back to work on teaching and playing music. Nevertheless, Autumn is officially upon us and there are gigs to play. I am very fortunate to be involved in a wide range of exciting musical projects. Please come out and hear some great music and be part of the scene.

Sept 25 - JB Trio at Tangent Cafe.  8:30-11:30pm No cover.  food and drink are excellent.  I'll be playing with Kerry Galloway (bass) and Joe Poole (drums).  Mostly jazz standards stretched and pulled into new shapes. 2095 Commercial Drive.

Sept 28 - Swamp People at Tangent Cafe. 6-9pm.  I'll be performing the music of Jimmy Giuffre with two young geniuses: Geoff Claridge (bass clarinet),  Emma Postl (voice). 2095 Commercial Drive.

Oct 8 - Danderfer/Claridge Quintet at Presentation House.  8pm. $10 at the door. Free tea and cookies. Playing the music of Benny Goodman and his successors with clarinettists Geoff Claridge and James Danderfer, Joe Poole (drums), Graham Clark (bass).  333 Chesterfield, North Van.

Oct 16 - Terry Riley's "In C" at Capilano U.  Fir 113.  Free admission. 11:40am.

Oct 17 - the Offering of Curtis Andrews at Cafe Deux Soleil.  8-10pm.  Curtis' indo-afro-jazz-rock fusion extravaganza with a 7 piece band for your listening and dancing pleasure. 2096 Commercial Drive.


Oct 22 - Indian Music at Presentation House.  8pm. $10 at the door. Free tea and cookies. Classical Indian music from North and South and all points in between with renowned sarode player, David Trasoff,  Karnatic vocalist, Vidyasagar Vankayala, Curtis Andrews (mrdangam), and me.

Oct 23 - David Trasoff (sarode) and Sunny Matharu (tabla) play at Capilano U, Fir 113, 11:40am. Free admission.  I will join these two fine fellows for a few tunes.

Oct 26 and 27 - Convergence: Capilano Jazz Faculty Concert and Live Recording.  21 of Vancouver's finest jazz musicians work at Capilano U.  The concert will feature all of them in various combinations, with special compositions and arrangements written just for this show.  Click here for tickets and info. Oct 26 is for the public.  Oct 27 for Cap Jazz students.

Nov 6 - Music of Kenny Wheeler at Capilano U.  Fir 113, 11:00-1:00.  Free admission. Bassist, Dr. Paul Rushka, presents a lecture on the music of Kenny Wheeler followed by a concert of that music with Brad Turner (trumpet), Dave Robbins (drums), Dennis Esson (trombone), and Bill Coon and I on guitars.

Nov 7 Colin MacDonald Pocket Orchestra plays Eliezer's, "Fantasia.  Port Moody.  Details TBA.

Nov 12 - Music of Kenny Wheeler and Benefit for Doreen Wheeler at Presentation House. Brad Turner (trumpet), Dave Robbins (drums), Dennis Esson (trombone), and Bill Coon and I on guitars. 8pm. $10 at the door. 333 Chesterfield, North Van.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Academic Freedom/Censorship Debate at Capilano U


I had taken this post down, but in the interest of full public discussion of the matter have decided to put it back up and keep updating as the story progresses. 

I wrote the following on the morning of Monday May 13. Many others wrote letter of protest or called the University.

Free speech and academic freedom have been under attack at Capilano University. Please check out the article in the Straight (link below). My letter to Cap U President, Dr. Kris Bulcroft explains. 

Dear Dr. Bulcroft,

I learned today from an article in the Georgia Straight that the University has taken George Rammell's sculpture. The following article is making the rounds of social media this morning at lightning speed:


I saw the work when it was unveiled and thought it was hurtful and in very poor taste. I feel it damaged the relationship between the Faculty Association and the Cap U administration and did not help dialogue between the parties. I expressed that opinion to the Faculty Association executive.  Be that as it may, I believe that George had a right to make the sculpture and show it in any public forum he likes. This is Canada, not North Korea. George has a right to express his opinion through his art or in any other way he chooses, even if that opinion is unpopular in some quarters or seems to some to be in poor taste. The idea that the work belongs to the University because it was created on University property is a gross abuse of University policies in this area and a flagrant violation of George's academic freedom and intellectual property rights. George Rammell is the owner and creator of this work and the University has stolen it. It makes me wonder whose work will be next and I am sure it makes the public wonder what kind of University we have.

This seems destined to ruin a year's worth of positive efforts to put the pain and tumult of the last year's cuts behind us. Why would the Administration want to create more bad press for the University at this critical time in its development?  Many departments at Capilano, including mine, have spent the past year in damage control trying to recover from the harm done to our reputation by the cuts of last year.  Now basics rights to free speech, intellectual property, and academic freedom at our University are called into question.  The recent budgeting and academic planning processes have done much to restore trust and collegiality between faculty and administration.  I was so hopeful for the future of this kind of dialogue.  This seriously damages that relationship again.  What a terrible mistake. Please do the right thing and give back George's art.

Most sincerely,

Dr. Jared Burrows
Coordinator, Jazz Studies

*UPDATE* as of evening May 13, 2014
Since I wrote this, the University has given the sculpture back to George (perhaps in damaged condition or in pieces? waiting for news on that).  They sent the following outrageous and laughable explanation to the University community;

Late last week, an effigy of the University President, produced by George Rammell, was removed from campus on my direction.

The effigy has been repeatedly displayed on and off campus and online over the last year. The decision to remove the effigy was not taken lightly, but rather was the result of endeavouring to find the right balance among many competing values.
Our University is committed to the open and vigorous discourse that is essential in an academic community, the inherent value of artistic expression, and the rights to free speech and protest that all Canadians enjoy. No one wants Capilano to be a place where art is arbitrarily removed or censored.
We must also be mindful of the University's obligations to cultivate and protect a respectful workplace in which personal harassment and bullying are prohibited. These obligations are reflected in our employment policies, as well as legislation. Our policies are intended to protect the interests of all individuals in our community - including our president, as well as our faculty and all others.
I am satisfied that recently the effigy has been used in a manner amounting to workplace harassment of an individual employee, intended to belittle and humiliate the President. This led me, as Board Chair, to take action.
I understand the University's Administration has offered to give Mr. Rammell the effigy. The condition attached to this is that it not be returned to campus, and I fully support that position.
Jane Shackell, QC 
Board Chair
Capilano University

Stay tuned for more!

Friday, May 9, 2014

A Serious Post about Education.

This is a posting prompted by a Facebook comment, but is also in reaction to the BC Government's "BC Jobs Plan" announced last week. For those of you who haven't heard yet, the BC Liberals decided to "redirect" funds away from universities and colleges who aren't in the business of training students to serve big industry. Their plan relies almost completely on the long term availability of fossil fuel extraction jobs, and on the still-hypothetical Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) industry in the North in particular.

Don't get me wrong. I'm 100% in favour of giving people opportunities and funding for trades training IF they want to be trained and IF the jobs are REAL and of long-term benefit to the province. Whether that is so with LNG is very much up for debate. If these jobs are so certain, surely the Province should be keen to invest new money and demand that big industry contribute their share to train their future workers. Why will it be necessary to take funding away from other areas of higher education that are already suffering from underfunding? It makes me angry and it makes me wonder if anyone actually values education for its own sake.  Then one of my students posted the following on Facebook today.

"LOL Jazz Education: preparing musicians for a future…in Jazz Education."

I responded with "No one is twisting your arm. YOU decide what your future will be."

He said:  "It's just a joke." ;-)

I know it was a joke. But my response was in earnest.  I guess I don't like it even as a joke because music, learning, art, and knowledge are central in my life. I really believe passionately in what I do as a teacher, researcher, and musician. I also believe in the historical purpose of a university education. That purpose is (or was) a tripartite purpose comprising the sharing, preservation, and discovery of knowledge. It is an opening of the world to the student - an opening that I hope stays open when students leave. Job training or preparation as expressed in the idea of 'preparing students for their futures' has always been an important, but secondary, function deriving from education, not the primary purpose for it.

There is nothing wrong with getting training to do a specific job. If you want to become a welder or a bank manager or a nurse or a plumber, that is great. These are all worthwhile pursuits and specific training and skills are required in addition to broader kinds of education. But the idea of education, especially an arts-based education, is so much more than training. The more our society holds universities responsible for job training and career preparation, the poorer we become as a society. When we hold the ideals of education hostage to job outcomes, we push our society toward becoming nothing more than an ant colony where individuals mindlessly serve in limited, foreordained roles. We cut off the benefits of the expansion of knowledge and limit the meaning of education for successive generations. The freedom to be educated and choose what we will do with our lives has been a great dream of humankind for millenia. Only a few societies in the world today have the wealth, political freedom, and economic conditions to support the kind of education that has been available in universities. Even within our society, access to education is far from universal. Barriers of many kinds remain for those who are poor and marginalized in various ways. Those of us who have been born into this position of privilege should hold the ideals of education and free access to it sacred and safeguard the privilege for our children against whatever forces seek to erode it.

To all of my students I say the future is now. Your "real life" is now. Don't think about your education as having some future payoff other than the possibility of spending the rest of your life trying to reach your potential as a human being. A university education can give you a glimpse of that potential. It might become, and is likely to become, the basis for further training for a job related to your field of study. If it doesn't, you may wish you had pursued more specific vocational training (and that possibility always remains open) but I doubt very much you will regret the educational process itself or wish you hadn't learned the things you learned. It is a tremendous privilege to spend part of your life in the full time pursuit of knowledge. The seriousness and dedication with which you approach this period will be a pattern for the way you relate to the pursuit of knowledge, skill, and artistry for the rest of your life.



Monday, February 17, 2014

The Tao of Ron (On Tribute Bands)


Ron Samworth
I'm writing this post in response to two things.  First, I've got the flu and can't do much except lay in bed with a computer on my lap.  Secondly, and much more important, this is a response to Facebook post by my friend, Ron Samworth.  Ron is a great guitarist and composer here in town, a musician of striking originality and invention. He simply wrote:

"I'm putting together a tribute band to pay tribute to my favourite tribute bands in Vancouver. Cool idea, huh?"

I and others thought this was pretty funny. Very pithy.  But it is not so funny in some ways. It seems to me that the number of tribute bands/projects in Vancouver has grown exponentially over the years that I have been playing music.

In classical music this 'tribute act' thing has been a feature for more than 100 years. They might not do "Tribute to Beethoven", but a performance of his Ninth amounts to the same thing and is likely to attract a huge audience compared to a presentation of "Violin Concerto by Joe from East Van". In the pop world, this starts as cover tunes and extends further to Elvis tribute artists, Beatles tribute bands and on and on.

I suppose the attraction of the "Tribute to So and So" is that it makes an easy point of access for a public.  It seems that, despite the massive variety on offer, the listening public is interested in safer and safer entertainment accessed, if at all possible, at the effortless click of a mouse.(I'm listening to a live broadcast of a Peter Bernstein gig while I write this...) We at Cap U are certainly part of this 'tribute inflation' with our annual January tribute series. The Brubeck tribute this year was sold out and we turned away many, many people. I'd like to think this is because everyone loves our students (I'm sure they do) but I don't think that is the only reason. Even though we creatively reinterpreted and rearranged Brubeck's music (I arranged “Blue Shadows in the Street” for the big band) it still felt in some ways equivalent to an orchestra playing greatest hits from the Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. That is not a bad thing of course! It was actually a really worthwhile and challenging project for faculty and students, as the shows in this series always are.  It was an easy sale for the folks promoting the show (a whole other department at the U) and I'm glad they sold tickets. I'm glad people heard our students play so well. Truly, I am happy about these things. At the same time, I am a bit sad that this same huge and receptive audience didn't hear the amazing tunes of my students like Jesus Caballero, Bronson Wright, Mike Allen, Nikko Whitworth and others who are writing such original and engaging music that reflects their own unique experience and position as musicians at the beginning of a new century. I don't think we could have sold out without the established, proven popularity and genius of Brubeck.

I dig the tribute thing for what its worth. Many of you may know that my friend Cory has used it to some benefit in getting bums in seats at the Cellar and I don't take issue with that at all.  I'm not suggesting that marketing is a primary motivation.  Musicians usually engage in such projects out of love and reverence for music and musicians of the past. An audience listening to Cory's Hank Mobley tribute is going to hear some great music played by wonderful players (Olly Gannon was in the band - you can't do better than that) and that is clear a benefit to our community of musicians and listeners, even to society as a whole.  It isn't that tribute bands can't be creative.  In jazz at least, the tribute in the title generally refers to a source of repertoire and general style. The solos and improvised band interactions are going to be relatively fresh and new every night.  This is a noble motivation to be sure. There is a lot of music of Monk, Ornette, Ellington, that I use over and over again in various ways and it is a massive challenge and a lot of fun to try and put one's own stamp on music of that calibre. Lots of good music is made in this way. The latest development in the tribute trend seems to be that if you can find someone obscure or unlikely to whom to pay tribute (Nick Drake or Liberace) then that is the hippest way to go.  I have seen tribute bands with stunning musicians and musicianship and sometimes with creative and original approaches to the material. 

On the other hand, I think about Charles Mingus. Mingus loved Ellington and honoured him, but he'd never have made a “Tribute to Ellington” band. He wrote “Duke Ellington's Sound of Love” instead. That tune feels like Ellington heard through Mingus' ears, but it belongs organically to Mingus. I think about John Coltrane's love of Johnny Hodges. He didn't do a Hodges tribute band, but he did display that influence to great effect on “John Coltrane Ballads”.  I have my Grandpa's (large) nose and bald head. If you knew him you'd know where I came from. But you wouldn't really know much about me. 

The proliferation of tributes makes me a wonder and worry a bit (not too much worry – I'm too optimistic to get really hung up on it...). The tribute band is, essentially, a move toward a classical view of an art form that used to be part of the avant garde. When I got into jazz, in the late 80s, the big deal for me and my friends was to hear local people doing their own thing.  I'm thinking of many shows at the Glass Slipper hearing Ron, Tony Wilson (including Tony's Albert Ayler and Monk tributes that were both totally original, unique, and beautiful) Claude Ranger, Paul Plimley, Lisle Ellis, Bruce Freedman, Gregg Simpson, and hoping I could come up with my own thing too one day.  When I got my first gig at the Slipper, I fully expected that it was my responsibility, nay, my divinely appointed duty and destiny to write and perform something that was somehow an honest reflection of me, at the very least an attempt at an original contribution. Maybe that way of thinking is ebbing in the jazz world or some corners of it? The tribute band can be a great creative vehicle. You can buy a cake mix and make a great cake. You can grow a plant from a seedling you buy at a shop and it can be a great plant. 
I  just think I would rather hear something cooked from raw ingredients or grown from the seed.

Thanks for the inspiration, Ron!

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Locker-room Conversations and the Power of Music

I swim a few times a week at a pool near the University.  Conversations in the locker room tend to be quite limited; perhaps a nod or hello here and there.  Nudity among groups of men seems to demand a certain anonymity.  Despite this, one does hear interesting exchanges between friends at times and, occasionally, strangers strike up a conversation.  So it was yesterday.  An old gentleman in his nineties engaged me in small talk that quickly became much more.   Fortunately, my memory for scenes and conversations is extremely good so I'll present this story as he told it to me.

Dennis:  The best part of a work out is when its over, eh?

Me: Yeah.  It feels that way sometimes.  I really look forward to it, and then find once I'm doing it, it can feel like I want to quit pretty fast.

Dennis: Ya gotta do it though.

Me:  Yes.  I really need it to take out my frustrations.  It helps me deal with problems at work.  I guess just helps me be happier overall.

Dennis:  You know I was at a sort of talk the other day.  A bunch of retired guys from all walks of life.  It was at UBC.  I was a student there way back.  There was this fellow called Helliwell (John Helliwell) who is a real famous economist.  He goes around measuring people's happiness with numbers and such somehow.  He had all of us singing that song, "If You're Happy and You Know It Clap Your Hands".  You know what? Pretty soon everyone was doing it and clapping and singing and smiling and laughing.  It was great.

Me:  Wow.  That is really neat.  I actually just co-authored a paper in that field with my friend Clyde, who is also an economist.  It is all about how improvised music performance can teach people how to interact with each other and how it can help them be happier by understanding relationships with each other.  As it happens I know a little bit about this fellow, Helliwell.  He is an important figure in this field called the Economics of Happiness.  What an amazing coincidence that you should mention this to me.

Dennis:  Are you involved with music then?

Me: Yes.  I teach music at Capilano University, just up the hill.

Dennis:  I don't know much about music.  Know the white and black keys on the piano? I'm always there in the cracks.  No kidding!

We both laugh briefly. After a second or two, he fixes me intently with his one good eye, the other cloudy with a cataract.  His face flushes and tears begin to form.

Dennis:  I want to tell you a story about the power of music.  There we're two times in my life when I learned about the power of music

I nod.

Dennis:  If I go on too long just stop me.

Me:  I'm not in a rush.

Dennis:  We were in a landing craft waiting to go to France.  Off the south of England somewhere. It was dark and there were three boats there, all anchored close together.  You could see the men in the other boats and hear 'em. There was a boat of Poles, you know, from Poland?  All the men were pacing around pretty nervous and smoking cigarettes.  Everyone smoked back then, or just about everyone. We didn't know what was going to happen in the morning when we got to France. D-Day, you know?  So these Poles start singing Lili Marlene.  In Polish, and then some other languages.  Everyone was laughing and singing.   One of the other boats was English guys.  Mostly miners I think. Well they got into singing their songs and had some kind of routine going too. Everyone was having a great time. And you know what?  When they were done singing, one by one you saw the cigarettes go out and everyone went below deck and slept.  we slept like babies.  Can you believe it?  With all that going on.

Me:  That is amazing.  Beautiful.  I guess the music just relieved all that stress that everyone was feeling.  Everyone must have been really nervous.

Dennis:  Yup.  I'll tell you another time when I understood the power of music.

Me: Ok. Sure.

Dennis:  This was in Europe.  A place called Leopold Canal.  Ever heard of it?

Subsequent research has taught me that Leopold Canal was an important turning point in the Battle of the Scheldt.

Me: Is it in Holland or Belgium or...

Dennis: Yeah. Well were were stuck in a hole there for fifteen days playing catch with hand grenades at Leopold Canal.  Fifteen days, ya know?!  Stuck in the mud throwing hand grenades across the canal. We didn't have hardly anything to eat. Everything was filthy. Covered in mud.  Well, after fifteen days we finally got some relief.  Those Buffalos came in, ya know? (Buffalos are amphibious landing craft in the picture).  It was all over and we started walking out of there.  We were in a village and somehow one of the boys found a piano.  Just in a house in the village.  He went in and started to play that piano.  Beautiful music.  Classical music I guess.  It was so beautiful. We all just sat down right there in the mud and listened to him play that piano for hours.  Forgot all about getting a shower or food or anything.  Just listening to that beautiful music.  That's the power of music, ya know?

Me:  Wow.  What an amazing story.  Thanks for telling me about that.

Dennis: So what kind of music do you do?

Me:  I play the guitar.  I play a lot of jazz, some classical music.  I compose.  I teach people.

Dennis:  That is really wonderful!  To make music every day.  What a wonderful thing.  You must be very happy in your choice. To be a musician that is.

Me:  I guess I am pretty happy, yeah.  It beats a lot of other things I've tried.

Dennis:  Yup.  The power of music.  That is really something, boy. I'll never forget.

At this point I look at the clock and realize I'm almost late for work....

Me:  Thanks for sharing those stories with me.  I really appreciate that.  I have to get to work now though.

Dennis: No problem.  See ya later.

Me: Have a great day! Bye!


Why did he take the moment to talk to me?  Why not someone else? With the passing of Pete Seeger last week, I've been thinking a lot about what music means and what it can do.  I learned a lot from this experience.  In relating the story to my wife, I found the whole thing very emotional and moving.  Some things happen for a reason and I'm grateful that they do.

UPDATE: This week I got some more stories about D-Day and the liberation of Holland. Dennis is an amazing guy.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Inspired by Anthony Braxton

This past week, I watched the NEA Jazz Masters award ceremony.  Among the other award recipients was Anthony Braxton. Braxton is probably the most unusual choice the NEA organization has ever made for the award, but perhaps one of the most important in the sense that the NEA has sometimes taken a very narrow and 'classical' approach to the idiom, celebrating the mainstream artists whose music can very clearly be called jazz by the public, even if some of the masters themselves might dislike the name. Braxton's composing and saxophone playing have a clear relationship to jazz, but also to just about any other art or folk music. His speech showed an incredible generosity of spirit and deep humility. The fascinating quirks of his eccentric genius were very much in evidence. Of all the music presented during the awards ceremony, the excerpts from Braxton's opera, Trillium J, seemed the most alive and fresh to me. I must admit that his music hasn't always been at the top of my personal playlist, but that really doesn't diminish my admiration for the man. I can think of few other musicians or artists in any genre that have shown such courage, ingenuity, integrity, and such incredible productivity over such a long period. Truly inspiring.

Kristin Fung has transcribed the speech here.

For a while, you can still view all the speeches and the music here.