Archive for November, 2010

A Public Space, Issue #11

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We’ve mentioned the excellent Brooklyn literary journal, A Public Space, on the JLP site numerous times.  APS published my piece, Gene Smith’s Sink, a few years ago.  They also collaborated with JLP and CDS on the promising but ill-fated (so far) Chaos Manor, a “performance” of the JLP book scheduled to take place outdoors in Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn this past July, part of the City’s summer Park Lit program.  The performance was canceled due to 104 degree heat in NYC that day.  Then, two weeks ago APS founder and editor Brigid Hughes presented the Innovative Use of Archives Award to JLP at the Archivists Roundtable of Metropolitan New York, Inc. ceremony at Columbia University.

I’m pleased to report a couple of new things regarding APS:  1) Issue #11 is out now.  Among other unique things in the issue, there is a spread of photographs by Frank Hunter made at the turn-of-the-century Hillsborough, NC home of writer Allan Gurganus, with an introductory essay by Gurganus.  You need to subscribe to this magazine.  It’s one of the vital, hopeful enterprises in literature currently.

2) APS and JLP are working to resurrect Chaos Manor, maybe bigger and better.  We are making overtures to an innovative NYC theater company to produce the event.  This time it will be indoors.

- Sam Stephenson

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Infinity Goes Up On Trial

Last Monday night after The Bad Plus event in Durham we had a discussion about iconography in jazz and the Jazz Loft Project.  TBP appreciate the fact that the JLP tapes contain many, many hours of mediocre music – trials and errors, false starts, and just plain bad stuff.  That’s how it works.  That’s a bigger part of the history, in terms of time, than the spectacular moments that happened to be recorded.  But you rarely hear that larger story, unless you experience it yourself.  It makes it hard to pass along traditions to younger generations.  It’s hard to replicate this kind of deep experience in a classroom or workshop.  It’s like teaching sports by having kids watch highlights on ESPN Sportscenter.  Once the iconography is established the story changes.

For example, today’s story tells you that Michael Jordan “led” the University of North Carolina to the 1982 National Championship.  At the time, however, he was the 4th most important player on that team behind James Worthy, Sam Perkins, and Jimmy Black.  MJ went on to become the greatest player of all-time.  All you see now is the jumper he hit with 17 seconds remaining in the 1982 title game against Georgetown.  Often today’s story makes this jumper seem buzzer-beating but Georgetown had two possessions after that.  It would take a sustained effort, with witnesses, to convince any new fans (and many old ones) that MJ was the 4th most important player on that team.  The judge and jury of iconography has ruled once and for all.

Consider these lines which are found in the notes to the 3-cd set, Bill Evans: The Complete Village Vanguard Recordings, 1961, released in 2005 by Riverside/Concord:

This is it.  The breakthrough.  The pinnacle of spontaneous musical communication.  Three men breathing as one on a tiny bandstand.  Everything Bill Evans, Scott Lafaro, and Paul Motian had been working on for the previous 18 months led to this moment.”

Really?  It sounds like the trio just won the World Series.  The “moment” referred to here was the afternoon and evening of June 25, 1961.  Five sets were recorded that day.  The first four sets contained about twenty-five minutes of recorded music apiece.  The fifth and final set, less constrained, I suppose, by needs of clearing and reseating tables in the Vanguard in between sets, was longer – thirty-nine minutes.

So we’ve got about 140 minutes from this remarkable trio on June 25, 1961.  Is this really their greatest, most telepathic and magical moment?  I find that hard to believe.  It might be their best recorded moment.  What of the other tens of thousands of minutes – hundreds of thousands – that weren’t recorded?  What about the times the music didn’t come together?  What about the times Evans was strung out and a sub had to be called in for the gig?

One thing I love about this 3-CD box set reissue of these recordings (most of the music was released long ago as the LP’s “Waltz for Debby” and “Sunday at the Village Vanguard”) is the producers included much of the sound that occurred inside the Vanguard that day in between tunes.  It sounds to me like the club was maybe half or one-third full at times.  You get to hear people talking and clinking glasses during the music (“shhhhh” you’d be scolded today in the Vanguard).  Part of the bloom is off the rose right there.

Iconography in art may not be the worst thing in the world.  On the eve of these mid-term elections I can think of more disturbing things going on now.  I’m glad the Bill Evans Trio was recorded on June 25, 1961 and I’m glad commercial forces produced these CD’s.  I’d rather shell out twenty-five dollars for something good rather than something mediocre, that’s for sure.  In a few hours I’ll be driving down N.C. Hwy 264 toward the Coastal Plains with these tunes cranked as loud as I can stand it.

But in terms of story-telling, iconography is only one method.  It’s the one that sells tickets and merchandise, though, and it builds monuments.  I’m reminded of the lyric by Bob Dylan from “Visions of Johanna”:

Inside the museums, Infinity goes up on trial.

Voices echo, ‘this is what salvation must be like after a while.’

Iconography is, in part, the result of our need for significance, something to tell us where we stand, to point us in the right direction.  The larger, infinitely complex and ambiguous human stories usually lose out to iconography.  That’s what makes Whitney Balliett’s jazz annals so essential. Fifty years from now Balliett’s work will be even more important than it is now.  He transcended the iconography and left us with a chronicle more various.

This also makes me think of a quote by Gene Smith from the 1970s:

“I can’t stand these damn shows on museum walls with neat little frames, where you look at the images as if they were pieces of art. I want them to be pieces of living.”

-Sam Stephenson

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