Back to the Beat: Drifting on a Read
In the introduction to Drifting on a Read: Jazz as A Model for Writing, Michael Jarrett says that jazz “starts with what is given and spins off new melodies, rhythms, and harmonies” (3). The model that Jarrett puts forward is pure be-bop, and he riffs plenty on the likes of Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins. Jarrett draws on these figures for heuretic purposes to consider how jazz might serve as a model of writing.
One way Jarrett does this is by ringing changes on a reply Louis Armstrong once gave to a lady who asked him to define jazz. Armstrong purportedly said, “Lady, if you gotta ask what it is, you’ll never know” (1). Jarrett re-mixes Armstrong’s quote from the standpoint of various theories that students might encounter. As Jarrett explains Armstrong the Lacanian replies, “Jazz exists for the Gaze”; Armstrong the Marxist replies, “Them that ask have got to go”; Armstrong the Deconstructor replies, “What it [jazz] is is a question of what is is”; Armstrong the Feminist replies, “Lady, if you are a woman, why do you ask me?”; and Armstrong the Home-Spun Philosopher replies, “Ask a silly question, you get a smart answer” (7-11).
Without unpacking the implications of each of these theoretical examples, what Jarrett is showing is how re-mixing Armstrong can strengthen student understanding of theory that may otherwise seem obscure and out of reach. While I am sympathetic with Jarrett’s use of jazz as a framework to model different theories, what I want to do is open up his framework. I do so less with a desire to make jazz a model for the field of cultural studies, by investigating Lacan, Marx, and Derrida as Jarrett does, and more with a desire to allow students to re-mix the signatures and "insider-language" of their music and their careers as they choose.
In this, I am making a move from Armstrong to Miles Davis, that sinewy trumpet player who had strong ties to Charlie Parker’s innovative brand of Be-Bop, but who is also known for his interest in the younger music that many considered an anathema to jazz. Drawing on the funk of James Brown, the groove of Sly and the Family Stone and the guitar chops of Jimi Hendrix, Davis developed an electrified rock and roll/soul brew that became known as Fusion. More fractured and dissonant than even the most aggressive hard-bop of the period, many wondered whether Davis’s drawing on the sounds of youth could be considered jazz at all. Davis’s work not only caught on with a younger generation, but it paradoxically led many younger groups to take renewed interest in the standards that Davis was busy exploding.
Thus, as is often the case, “old” soundwaves incorporate new soundwaves, only for the new to fold back into the old once more. And, then, more so… For his part, Davis, at the crest of a mile-high wave, caught the movement of Big Band as it transmogrified into the up-beat chord changing tempos of Be-Bop, and the sound of Be-Bop as it metamorphosed into the melody of Modal Jazz, and modified itself once more when Modal Jazz bifurcated into the electrified cacophony of Fusion. All these becomings are the soundwayves of Music/Composition.
Can we see in Davis’s music composition an approach to teaching English composition in terms of a Fusion between whatever music students enjoy with whatever career path they see themselves on? As Thomas Rickert and Byron Hawk write, in the conclusion of their “Avowing the ‘Unavowable:’ On the Music of Composition" (in one of the first essays in the R/C field to explore the intersection between music and composition): “As music composes us, newly and differently than we were, we too recompose ourselves as we write these musics” (http://enculturation.gmu.edu/2_2/intro.html).
Breaking it Down: Towards a Modal-Fusion
The Sound(Career)Track Project is a rock and roll/soul/funk Modal-Fusion effort with Jarrett’s largely Be-Bop centered work. It shares in Jarrett’s groove to make music as a source for reading-writing-listening. The approach takes cues less from the idea that “jazz [is] a model for writing” and more from the idea that “‘Jarrett’ is a signature for modal writing.” That is, prior to Be-Bop, Jarrett’s own play with his signature points to a shift from relying on jazz as a model to the modality of a single note: your signature.
To be sure, in marking the difference between “model” and “modal,” I am drifting towards the “music geek” language that, even those who may have had piano lessons in their youth may have long since forgotten. In terms of jazz, modal music refers to players improvising one note in a given scale, rather than needing to follow a hierarchy and tempo of chord progressions. For bass and piano players, in particular, this opened up room for further improvisation on the melody. Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, in addition to often being considered one of the greatest jazz albums of all time, is considered one of the first expressions of this simple, yet complex, approach to music.
Jarrett’s work expresses this modal sensibility not through music, but rather through the mason jars from his grandmother’s pantry. These mason jars are filled with “pole beans, okra, corn, tomatoes, bread n’ butter pickles, and all kinds of preserves (peach, pear, watermelon rind, blackberry, and muscadine, to name only five) …” (91). For me, the content of these jars read (reed) as the "insider-language" (like Weird Al's scalpels, forceps, and retractors) that I encourage students to tap into, but what is more important is why Jarrett considers his grandmother's mason jars at all. Jarrett’s modal move is in using the "Jar" from his signature as a site of invention. While jars are hardly standard jazz equipment (save, perhaps, for innovative composers like John Cage), they are potentially sites for Music/Compositionists in a way similar to Weird/Norm Al’s re-mixing of medical equipment. Jarrett suggests that “the most brilliant improvisations are always signature experiments” as it allows students to “make something out of what their culture has dealt them,” namely by way of their name (90).
In pushing Jarrett’s signature insight--a move that can be traced back to Ulmer--to any signature and any song title, the effort to ring rapid chord changes on one own's name becomes a site for invention for all names. While I appreciate Jarrett's chord changes (which are largely limited to the play of his music, his signature, and his theorists), I would open up a modal sensibility so that students might improvise with their music, all signatures, and the insider language of any current career path. This may or may not spark an interest in earlier music like Jarrett’s jazz, but experience suggests that if students can be drawn into further readings, the immediacy of what they want to write is given room to grow. Their immediate interests in albums like the still visible Jimi Hendrix Experience may (yet) become a Jarrett Heuretic Experience that will take students to earlier Be-Bop Models. Modal-Fusion departs from Be-Bop initially, however, in that it is up students to both choose their music but also their career path.