A Question For My Readers: How Do I Learn About Jazz?

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I have a question for all of my musically informed readers.  I don’t know shit about jazz.  Where do I begin?

I have long wanted to understand jazz.  However, i was not raised on it.  It is such a large topic, and I understand so little about the form, what is good and what is bad, even what is the difference between the styles of jazz, that I don’t even know where to begin.  It’s like if you discovered China.  It is so big and foreign and new to you, that it is kind of intimidating.  Where does one even begin?

About a year ago I felt the same way about classical music.  However, I found a good book that explained the different kinds of classical music and gave introductions to many of the different styles and important pieces throughout the years.  Through Amazon deals I was able to acquire a pretty decent classical library for cheap.  There is still a great deal I have to learn about classical music, but I at least have enough of a basic understanding of its history to walk through the door and begin picking things I like.  I still can’t tell a good performance from a great one, but I can at least begin to form opinions about what kinds of classical music moves me.

I have two Miles Davis records.  I have Kind of Blue and In a Silent Way.  That is the extent of my jazz library and knowledge.  I like both of those.  Other than that I am completely ignorant of the form.  Is there a kind of book that discusses, in a musical way, the history of jazz?  Like I don’t want to read just stories of jazz musicians.  I don’t need to read about Miles Davis doing heroin.  I want a book that actually explains the music and why something was important or innovative?  What are different pieces trying to communicate?

Also, what are some of your favorite jazz records?

If you would rather talk to me in private that’s fine.  I have to approve each comment before it is made public.  You can send me your thoughts, your email address, and if you don’t want your comments made public, just state that.

I would be eternally grateful if anyone can show me the light.  Help make 2015 a year when my dumb ass finally learns to love and appreciate what millions of people already understand.  Lead me from the land of ignorance into the land of enlightenment!

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How Music Intersects With Culture and Politics

I’ve noticed as I’ve done this blog that I get the most hits from the posts I write about music.  (Though not always.)  This might lead you to believe that at some point I am going to get smart and turn this into a music blog.  But I’m not going to.  You see, you don’t get great artists like Chuck D, Bruce Springsteen, or Morrissey, because those artists are unaware of the cultural and political situations that are around them.  In fact those artists are great because they each reinterpret their surroundings through their own unique lens.  You don’t get Fight the Power or World Peace is None of Your Business or The Ghost of Tom Joad if those artists aren’t paying attention to what’s shaking on the hill.  Meanwhile although the best music can always connect on an emotional level even if you aren’t getting everything someone is talking about, you can’t really understand the full impact of a lot of records if you have no clue what is going on in the world.  Music and culture/politics is a two way street.  A lot of the all time great records never get made without those artist being attuned to the times.  As a listener you also get so much more out of records if you understand what is going on around them.

There is a collection of George Orwell essays called All Art is Propaganda.  I want to play with that and twist it and say that all music is political.  Even the banal country song that is just about the singer’s truck, or the mundane rap song that is just talking about what the rapper is drinking or driving, is political.  It’s not revolutionary, but it is political.  It’s basically telling you that everything you are being told on TV is OK.  Don’t think too much.  Buy things and you too can live the dream.

When is a pop song just a pop song?  Never.  Motown produced a lot of great love songs, but that was a black run label that was trying to cross over to white audiences, where a great deal of the money was, during the Civil Rights era.  They were making young white teens daydream about black stars.  They were showing young black kids that they could be successful.  During those times of division they were bringing people together.

Now that being said, you can totally, as a listener, just enjoy something on a purely emotional level.  Some music just has a physicality that you get off on.  I’ve been listening to a lot of TV On the Radio lately.  I know that some of their stuff is political, but I am mostly getting off on the sonic inventiveness of their records.

However, what you get out of something and what it is, is two different things.  If you were reincarnated in another country and didn’t understand English, you might still be completely captivated by just the sound of Chuck D’s voice, but that wouldn’t change what he was saying.  (And just the sound of his voice is like a god damn cannon going off!)

So I’m not saying that you have to look for the political in all music.  It’s fine to love a record because it just lifts your spirits.  There are plenty of records that do that for me and nothing more.  But again, that is different from saying that the culture at large didn’t shape those records.  It is there under the hood if you want to dive in deeper.

So if you are a huge music fan, like I am, and you want to understand why certain records get made, or you want appreciate a lot of records on a different level, then you need to understand what is going on out there.  Meanwhile, if you are a musician and you are creating something, you can’t help but be shaped by the times that you live in, even if it is not explicit in your work.  You can’t separate music, or any art, completely from the world at large.  Even a lot of those gospel or soul records, those that allow you to transcend your earthly problems for a couple of minutes, were often shaped by those who were suffering themselves.  Whatever music you are into, it was definitely not created in a vacuum.

17-Year-Old Trans Teen Pens Heartbreaking Suicide Note

17-Year-Old Trans Teen Pens Heartbreaking Suicide Note

http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/news/read-17yearold-trans-girls-heartbreaking-suicide-note-20141230

I am unfortunately pretty used to human cruelty by now, but something like this, where someone on the margins is made to feel like nothing by the very people that should care, fills me with a most rotten kind of sadness.  Abandoned by society, friends, and even your own parents, because you didn’t fit in with what was considered “normal”, is truly absurd and heartbreaking.   Let me tell you about “normal” people:  They are often as fucked up as anyone in their own way.  To quote Morrissey, “There is no such thing in life as normal.”  And who is more fucked up:  The person who is genetically born to feel different about their sex from most others, or people that choose to believe in an invisible man in the sky that permits them to treat their own children like dirt?  The first is nature and the second is delusion.   Only one of those is normal. 

As long as people don’t hurt others, allow them to find happiness in there own way.  If someone was born to feel differently than you, accept them for who they are. 

“There is only one rule that I know of, babies – God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.” – Kurt Vonnegut

Insane Violence and The Bible On Film

DF-04525 - Moses (Christian Bale) charges into a fierce battle.

The more I think about Ridley Scott’s Exodus:  Gods and Kings, the more I like it.  It is a ridiculously violent film, an epic spectacle, and the actors find new and entertaining ways to chew up scenery.  (It would have been an even better movie if it had been rated R.  Though to be honest, other than not showing people getting limbs hacked off in battles and nudity, the movie pushes the barriers of PG-13 to the limit.  We’re talking about a movie where scores of people get eaten by crocodiles, so many that the river runs red with blood.)  All of those things that I stated merely make the movie entertaining.  What makes it brilliant is that this is a movie that brings the insanely ridiculous violence of the Old Testament front and center.

One of my favorite quotes is the Hannah Arendt quote, “the horrible can not only be ludicrous, but outright funny.”  The Old Testament is so ingrained in our culture that even though we acknowledge the violence in it, and the fact that much of this violence comes from a wrathful God, that I don’t think it registers with most people in a visceral way how absurd it is.  Floods, plagues, mass murder, and a woman being turned into a pillar of salt are just the tip of the iceberg.  We know this stuff.  Even those like myself, that didn’t grow up going to church, know all of these stories.  But how often do we reflect upon how batshit insane they all are.  Ridley Scott did.  He made a movie out of part of the Old Testament and he put the batshit insane right up front.  No other movie that I can think of takes the violence of the Old Testament and presents it as such a ridiculously depraved spectacle.  Which, whether you believe in the Old Testament or not, is hard to deny.  Like the Hannah Arendt quote above, this movie is often so horribly violent that it becomes a comedy.  Even if Ridley Scott changes some parts of the story, he tries to find natural causes for most of the plagues for instance, he is getting the essence correct.  I mean, he didn’t make up the plague where all of the Egyptian first born children are killed.

A lot of the reviews for this movie have talked about how Scott got this or that wrong, or that he made it too much of a spectacle, or whatever.  No, Ridley Scott basically just showed what was there without all of the self seriousness of most religious films.  Again, I’m not saying that he didn’t take certain artistic liberties with the story, only that he does so in a way which actually highlights things that are already there.  He helps show us a story that we’ve heard a million times in a way that doesn’t allow us to ignore what is going on.  I would imagine that most of those that really didn’t like this movie already have preconceived notions as to what the story is about.  This movie is basically showing us that we are telling millions of children a year a story full of the most depraved violence.  And it has a good laugh at it.  The comedy of the divine.  I mean certain scenes from this could almost be in a Monty Python movie.

This movie does the opposite of what another famously violent religious movie does.  That movie  The Passion of the Christ is also insanely violent, but what it does is actually obscure what is important in the Christ story through that violence.  That movie focuses mostly on the violence that was directed at Christ leading up to his death.  But there is nothing special about his death.  I guarantee that someone is meeting just as horrible a fate as he did in some third world shithole right now.  Christ wasn’t even the only one crucified that day!  This isn’t the fantastic violence of an angry God.  This is an extreme version of the day to day violence of mankind.  In focusing on this kind of violence it actually helps one to ignore what was spectacular about the story of Christ.  The fantastic part of his story is that he rose from the dead.  But that still isn’t what I’m talking about.  Whether or not you believe Christ was the son of God, or that he rose from the dead is still, in my mind, not what is most important in his story.  Christ spent a good deal of his life teaching people what they should be doing.  They should be loving each other and not worrying about earthly possessions and treating the lesser amongst us with kindness.  That is what makes his story exceptional.  And he did that at a time when the world was even more barbaric and depraved than it is now.  Right now someone is probably being executed as we speak, in a horribly painful way, in an Arab country for drawing a comic book about Muhammad or something equally as ridiculous.  So again, dwelling on the whole crucifixion thing, longer than the love and kindness in his teachings, is kind of ass backwards the way I see it.

So you have two violent movies that tell stories from the Bible.  One highlights the absurdity of violence, while the other uses violence to distract from a message of love.  Do you have to guess which one made more money and got more critical acclaim?

The Good Within Reach

I was reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals last night and there is a scene right after Lincoln issues the Emancipation Proclamation.  Even though it was obviously a controversial measure at the time, a lot of the people in Washington had a joyous celebration that evening.  I remember feeling really happy recently when the news came on and it said that we were establishing a diplomatic relationship with Cuba.  A little door, once closed, now opened a sliver, with the possibility that there might just be a little more understanding between two countries.  I remember feeling happy when Obama was elected for the first time, or when Obama himself put an end to Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.  Not because I was under any illusions that racism or bigotry had been destroyed, or that it was game over for injustice, or that white straight people like me should pat ourselves on the back.  It was because, whatever you think of the outcome of Obama’s Presidency, the world had become slightly more tolerant and inclusive, even if reality was and remains more complicated.  These were still pluses for civilization.

I keep being amazed by this new Pope.  Instead of spending most of the time focusing on petty internal religious doctrine, like his predecessors often did, he seems to be trying to make the world a more equal, tolerant, and just place.  Although I’m not Catholic and will never join a church of any kind, I find what he is doing to be appealing.

There is a quote that is supposedly by Lincoln himself, where he says, “When I do good, I feel good.  When I do bad, I feel bad. That’s my religion.”  Now in all honesty, I can’t figure out if Lincoln actually said that, or if it is one of those quotes that has just been attributed to him over time.  Especially with the internet these days it is hard to tell.  But no matter, anyway you cut it it is a great quote.  (Lincoln was known to be a skeptic for much of his life, even if his views did change slightly towards the end of his life.  That still does not mean that he said the above quote.)

I don’t understand why more people don’t get that actually doing right by other people can actually make you feel good as well.   It can actually lead to the happiness that is so often missing in our lives.  Who do you think feels better at the end of the day:  The person that helps a gay couple get married, or someone that spent all their political time and energy getting the tax rate down 1%?

Now there is a funny line.  I’m not talking about feeling self-satisfaction for the kind of thing people should be doing anyway.  Like just because you decided to not be a racist, doesn’t mean you should get some reward.  I mean more the kind of pride and happiness one feels from doing a good job.  Like you can either go into a job and schlep your way through it, not hurting anyone, but not really helping anyone.  Or you can do the best that you can do and take some kind of pride in your work.  You don’t feel pride because you showed up one day and worked harder than normal.  I’m talking about a pride that comes from continuous effort to do the right thing, no matter what the circumstances.

You would think that more people would get addicted to kindness, would take pride in seeing the world become a better place, would feel happy about progress even if they themselves didn’t play any roll in it. Yet, I am never surprised when I see some kind of barbarous cruelty on TV.  Meanwhile when I saw the news about Cuba, I was not only happy, but I was flat out surprised.  Why are we so often incapable of seeing the good that is possible, that is just around the corner, within reach?

The Mysterious Sound of TV On the Radio

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I mentioned recently that one of the newer bands that I like a lot is TV On the Radio.  I might have included their new album Seeds in my favorite albums of 2014, but I only just got it this week, and it is still somewhat mysterious to me.  In fact, even though I own all of their records and have spent a decent amount of time listening to them, they are a pretty mysterious group.  Their records are hard to get a bead on.

They make indie rock, but their records feature stronger personalities, are sexier, and are more expansive in sound than most indie groups.  The music itself is steeped in mystery as there are heavy layers of sonics, and the musicians themselves play more towards the overall sonic picture than trying to make the instruments do anything unique in their own right.  The writer Nick Hornby talked about how we love pop records until we figure them out.  Once we figure out how they do their magic tricks we move on.  I’ve had several of TV On the Radio’s albums for a couple years now.  For the life of me their arrangements and song structure escape me.  This is not to say they are inaccessible.  Although their first few records have a post-modern dread to them in places, they always feature vocals up front.  All of their records, but especially their last two, feature strong inviting melodies.  There is just something elusive about them that makes them hard to completely pin down.

At first listen they might appear like a good deal of the other indie music that is out there right now.  However, the grooves are deeper, the singing more unique and meaningful, and their personalities are stronger than most bands in that genre.  Their records seem heavily influenced musically from the early 80’s post-punk scene.  (They do this without being married to this period as so many modern indie bands are.  They use this period as a jumping off point, but take these influences in new directions.)  Factory Records bands like Joy Division and New Order seem to hold court here.  So do 4AD acts like the Cocteau Twins.  Vocally there is also some early Prince falsetto going on at times.  There are even times when vocally the band reaches back to an early doo-wop feel, despite singing more modern melodies.  Lyrically the band touches upon everything from sex to politics.  That is the second time the word sex has come in.  Their two singers, Kyp Malone and Tunde Adebimpe, often sing with a sexy soulfulness.  This does not mean that they have soulful voices in the tradition of Sam Cooke or Al Green.  But unlike so many other indie singers you get the sense that they are bringing passion to the proceedings.  (Scan my recent blogs to find where I bitch about indie rock singing and the death of sex in music.)

Yet despite what I have written I can’t say for sure if their records are above average or are actually great.  Although they can write catchy melodies, it is often the texture of their records that I think of first.  As many times as I have heard their records, they seem somewhat new with each listen.  I’ve had Dear Science on my iPod for at least a year if not longer and almost every time I feel like I am listening to an album I just got.  Sometimes, and only sometimes, I feel they are moving my intellect more than my heart.  There is no doubt what they are doing is interesting and worthy.  I feel like on certain tracks they are truly pushing the envelope, yet they do so in a way that never completely leaves behind the pop fan.

I think they are one of the few bands that you really have to hear to know if you like them or not.  Their first two records are more sonically experimental and are infused with a dark and sexy modern dread.  There is a slight amount of David Lynch in these records.  However, because of the love and soul they bring to the equation, they never take on the completely hopeless aura like many latter day Radiohead records have.  If that doesn’t sound like your cup of tea try either Seeds or Nine Points of Light.  These records are much more melodic and major key.  Although the jump between styles isn’t nearly this big, I think you could almost compare their early and later records to the difference between Joy Division and New Order.  (Who were musically the same band other than singer and the addition of another musician in New Order.)  I simply am trying to get you to think along the lines of them slowly morphing from modern dread to more accessible pop music, without ever sounding like they have sold out.  I feel like Dear Science provides the bridge between these two eras.  It continues the darker vibe of the first two albums, but is has a more accessible pop sound than either one.

I think all their albums are worth exploring if you are a music fan.  They are one of the few bands to emerge in the last decade that I am generally interested to see what they do next.  I still feel like there is something about them that is evasive, that only by checking out their records for yourself, can you decide if you like them or not.  Usually when I listen to records I can think of which of my friends might like them, sometimes I am surprised, but not usually.  With TV On the Radio I’m not sure who would or wouldn’t like what they do.  The way I see it this is a good thing…

Here are two Letterman performances.  Both are from the album Return to Cookie Mountain.  The first is the exciting dread infused Wolf Like Me.  The Second is Province, which is one of my favorite songs of theirs, especially the studio version featuring David Bowie on background vocals.  This is one of their more accessible pop songs that points towards the kind of material they would do later in in their career.  Whether you like these live performances or not, I would still check out their studio work, because with producer David Sitek in the band, they are most definitely a studio band, even if their live performances can be exciting.  

New York City Police Boo Mayor

New York City Police Boo Mayor

I just touched upon the subject of the, as of late, childish behavior of the New York City Police:

Police Turn Their Back On NYC Mayor

I pretty much said what needed to be said there.  I basically just want to catalog what is going on.  I want to point out that this kind of behavior by police is actually why so many people dislike and distrust these officers, people that should be a valued part of the community.

They say, ‘To protect and to serve’
But what they really mean to say is
Get back to the ghetto, the ghetto
Get yourself back to the ghetto

– Lyrics from the song Ganglord by Morrissey.

I hope there is a day when lyrics like these no longer ring true.  Maybe the police will eventually see so much backlash and ill will towards their current behavior that they will have to be reformed.  It is currently looking like it might have to be from outside forces.  Wouldn’t it be so much better for everyone involved if they took it upon themselves to make the necessary changes?