Thursday, July 20, 2006

What can I tell you about the Marcus Shelby concert ... ?

I had such mixed feelings -- sitting in the audience. I felt petty -- nitpicking petty. Why was that?

The auditorium was huge -- probably held at least 3500 people (I'm not very good at judging such things). There could hardly have been more than 50 people in the audience. The band on stage would have added about 15. What had happened?

But when I thought back over the day it was clear that the relatively small town of Pittsburg had a number of groups vying for center stage in advance of this day. After all, Port Chicago (no longer a viable town -- closed by the government after the explosion) lay in the shadow of Pittsburg, the site of Camp Stoneman, a major army base during World War II. The Concord Weapons Station is still an operating army site and it borders the town of Pittsburg, a working-class city with a racially diverse population. Bay Point is an adjunct area that is where the low low-income folks live, and resembles North Richmond in many ways. Both towns are leftovers from the great war and neither has ever recovered or been able to carve out any other identity. The great explosion on July 17, 1944 stands as their great historic event and a number of organizations had planned observances that ran throughout the day and evening.

No one was expected to attend all of the programs offered (starting at 9 in the morning and running through until the concert ended at around nine o'clock in the evening. Except for Superintendent Martha Lee, Dr. Stanton, other NPS park staff, and me. It was a long day. I take the time to describe that marathon of a day as one way of explaining to myself my less than enthusiastic reaction to the jazz concert. The music was -- by anyone's standards -- just fine.

The Jazz Suite for Port Chicago opened with a melodic line that borrowed heavily from Duke Ellington. A good thing, surely. But before the first notes were sounded, I was struck by the fact that only two of the musicians in this jazz orchestra were African American. Is this, then, the result of the virtual elimination of music and the arts from innercity schools across the country? Only the composer/bassist, Shelby, himself, and a saxophonist were "brothas," and the sax player didn't take a single solo. He scarcely smiled nor did he have any reaction to the music throughout the long composition.

Here it was. The thing I've feared and have written about quite a bit over time. All of the composed parts were exciting and well-constructed, but it didn't take long to see that the weak places were those places where individual musicians improvised against the organized background. Here it tended to fall into that kind of "...lots of notes but very little music."

There's that thing that Miles Davis used to talk about, "the Zone." Most of the jazz greats learned early on to respect the silences -- the places between the notes -- the place where the listener can anticipate the next notes or phrases along with the player -- and get that sense of participation when the notes anticipated actually creep out through the horn, or the piano keys, or the ...

I remembered now -- in the first movement -- that was so strongly Ellingtonesque -- that I felt visceral disappointment when Juan Tizol or Harry Carney should have come in and didn't ... . It was strange.

I felt a real sadness when the young brotha failed to ever stand and take a solo. I was obviously placing an awful lot of weight on just what that ought to sound like -- but he never did. Only in one of the blues movements did I see the music turn the corners of his mouth up in the shadow of a smile and -- if I looked closely enough -- just the hint of a swaying of his body. Other than that -- this was clearly just a job.

I missed the call and response of the audience, especially when that blues movement got to really swinging -- and I wished for an audience that was at least 75% black, because they wouldn't be sitting on their hands but would be shouting out and clapping along and swingin'!

It's what I miss most in white audiences -- that call and response that feeds the players and urges them out of mediocrity and into greatness if only for a few notes at the end of a transcending improvised solo. Without it you may just as well be listening to Haydn or Mozart. I'm reminded of my 8 year-old granddaughter, Tamaya, at her first chamber music concert last spring. Tom and I had taken the two kids to hear an evening dedicated to Mozart. The girls and I were the only African Americans in the elite suburban audience. It was an important concert -- Mozart's birthday celebration. The two kids had squirmed for about as long as they could stand it and at one point Tamaya leaned over to whisper in my ear, "...Grandma, why aren't they dancing?" Tamaya like her grandmother, is hard-wired for jazz and Mozart just didn't speak to her -- at least not without the chance to express the music in some way.

It was another of those times when it felt to me as though the heart has been removed from our own classical music, and that those who "source" it are fast disappearing -- leaving behind only the derivatives who are setting the new standard for jazz and without realizing that much of it is simply melodically painting by numbers now.

Oh how I wished for young Mr. Marcus Shelby an entire band of brothas as in the old days. Even the Duke -- though taking on a number of sideman who were not black -- was careful to keep the majority strong enough to command the direction and execution of the music. That's the way it should be. We need to define what jazz is. Otherwise it simply isn't!

I'm not even sure that anyone who is now young enough to not recognize the loss can be trusted with this cultural treasure. I'm not sure that -- in this day of cultural integration of the arts -- there will ever be a time like that again.

What will happen to our music when there's no one left who remembers?

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