Well it finally happened. And brace yourself folks it's going to keep happening. The heritage minister was on CBC's "The Q" talking to Jian Ghomeshi about the cuts to the diversity fund which for small time independant musicians translates into the loss of the grant for specialized sound recordings from the Canada Council. (click here to stream the interview) These decisions apparently were made based on recommendations from several arts organizations including Factor, Music Action, and various music producers and industry representatives in the country. And I don't have to tell you that the jazz community in Canada has been up in arms for the past month over this. Numerous petitions have been cirulating on the internet and letters by such musicians as Jane Bunnett and Christine Jensen have already been sent. Basically there has been a shit storm. So now that the dust is settling and everyone is hunkering down for that one last grant application deadline (October 1st!) I'd like to weigh in with a few thoughts. Tell me if you agree with these.
The redistribution of canadian tax payers' money to fund arts grants is basically a form of socialization. I have benefited from the grant system as much as anyone and maybe even a little more than most but I also understand the bad feeling people have when they are forced to subsidize art. This bad feeling that conservatives get when they give money to artitsts is actually shared by everyone to some extent. I mean is there anything more useless to you than an unwanted piece of art? Its been my experience that musicians certainly don't support music that they don't like. I put to you: why should the average tax payer be compelled to support art that they themselves do not choose?
- What can we really do about the choices that are made en mass as a culture to document the kind of art and music that we like? The art we document represents our aesthetics, our morals, and even our values as a people. Generations to come will judge us as we have judged the generations before us based on what we have chosen to document as a representation of who we are. Are the governmental arts agencies successfully combating society's choices with the grant system?
Musicians need to remember that if what they are saying doesn't resonate with society it doesn't make the value of their contributions any less. In fact it might make them worth more. How much did this factor into the development of a great artist like say Van Gogh or John Coltrane? In a sense don't we want it both ways? We've chosen to pursue a career path that is on the "fringe" (and as musicians don't we sometimes milk the "fringe" image?) But as Canadians we somehow feel entitled to reject the economic consequences of this career choice. How does this affect our art and music as a culture? Could our grant system actually be subverting our creative processes because in order to get funding from the government we need to work our project ideas into a preexisting template on an application form?
Anyway does it really work to have a handful of people dole out the public's money and decide what is worth documenting? I can tell you it makes a lot of musicians unhappy and it certainly makes a lot of tax payers unhappy. The next logical response to this statement is to point to the European model of governmental support for the arts. My response is to ask: Is the art funded by the government really better than the art that doesn't get funding? Are the musicians who don't get their grant support one year all of a sudden making worse music? If there is only so much money to go around that we have to draw the line in the sand somewhere WHO should decide? Considering the subjective and often very biased nature of art criticism, can we say that the art funding agencies operate a true meritocracy?
Don't get me wrong. I'm putting these questions out there for the very reason that they need to be addressed in light of our current economic reality in order for us to continue to legitimately ask our country for financial support. Times are a changin' and we are beginning to witness some of the natural logical conclusions of capitalism. The jazz community needs to stay current with these changes if we want to remain a vital and necessary component to our society's culture.
Friday, September 25, 2009
Sunday, September 20, 2009
Fall is almost officially upon us and the new semester has been steadily picking up speed over the past 3 weeks. While some students still cling tenaciously to their summer temperament others have already given in to the inevitable and have resigned themselves to their assignment deadlines and preparations for December juries. It's usually in these first few weeks back at school while both teachers and students reacquaint themselves with academic routine that I am sometimes faced with what I call “learning resistance”.
During the first few weeks things have been going well. I’m usually getting to know my new piano students so in our lessons I get them to play as much as possible for me. I want to try to accurately assess their needs so I ask to hear everything from scales and arpeggios to playing tunes and transcriptions. For this I usually try to accompany the student both so that they can feel comfortable without a rhythm section and so that I can try to interact with their sense of time and musicality. Inevitably after I get an idea of what I can offer as their teacher (really I see it as being a sort of guide on their own personal journeys) I reach a point where I tell the student that we need to revisit some fundamentals. For some its technique and we need to go back and solidify fingerings for scales and arpeggios and perhaps work on knowing and playing all the relevant jazz scales. For others it’s going back to basics with left hand voicings (I’ll blog later about basic left-hand voicings). Its often the case that the student needs to take apart some of their learned habits in order to achieve a deeper relationship with the piano and greater clarity in their playing. It's here that I first encounter the resistance.
I’m not saying that it isn’t hard to unlearn our habits. And certainly as jazz musicians and improvisers we develop such a personal connection to the musical material that we play. After all we’ve worked so hard to get to where we are and here is this teacher telling us to use these simple voicings! “He doesn’t even use them when he plays, who does he think he is?” I still experience to this day the frustration of realizing that I need to take a step backwards in order to really get to the heart of the material I am trying to organize into music. Maybe its playing a block-chord passage that I can't still can't pull off or maybe I hear myself on a recording project and I’m just not swinging the way I thought I was. Not only is music an intense process of refinement and distillation but its also a process which is almost impossible to be really objective about. Its very easy to start making little convenient lies to ourselves about our own abilities and accomplishments on our instruments. And certainly if we spend most of our time alone in the practice room at school it becomes easier and easier to look outwards for reasons why we didn’t play so well at the rehearsal or on the gig. We can get into playing the blame game with the musicians we play with (“if only that drummer wasn’t rushing I would have been able to solo well”) or we can develop a negative vibe when we are around musicians whose level we consider beneath us (“I don’t need to jam with those first years”).
Most of my students are cool with what I’m trying to get over to them. Or at least they maintain enough courtesy to give it the old college try. But about 1 in 10 see this as something that must be absolutely resisted by all costs. “I’ve already learned this” is usually the first thing I hear. It generally comes down to what the student considers to be “hip” or not. The farther along they are from the first things they learned (like basic voicings and scales/technique) the more they consider these fundamentals to be “unhip”. I once heard a student say that he didn’t like to practice major and minor scales because they weren’t modern sounding. And certainly to the young piano student who has been mostly listening to Brad Mehldau it doesn’t seem like it would benefit their playing to limit themselves to using only 2 basic left-hand voicings. Then the next question is “why should I do this?” I tell them its because they can’t get through 8 bars of “All the Things” without either scuffling over the changes or playing some weird sounding voice-leading in their left-hand. Basically we need to limit ourselves to more fundamental sounds because we still don’t know them well enough to start adding anything on. What the students don’t realize is that what they are playing just isn’t having the “hip” effect that they think it does because they still lack an understanding of the fundamentals: Time (rhythm), melody, and harmony.
It’s hard for me not to start feeling “unhip” myself. I become a parent who is trying to get a kid to clean up his room. Its like I’ve betrayed a trust that this student has placed in me to show him/her what I played on my last gig that impressed them so much. The young student has made a snap judgment about what goes into the music that they think sounds really great; a judgment that is based on a very limited experience. After several years of studying with some of the masters in the genre I’m more convinced than ever that the jazz process is two steps forward and one step back. When I studied with Kenny Werner he told me that he realized in his late 20’s that his time-feel was weak and that he needed to improve his rhythmic concept (this is after he had released a fantastic solo piano record and held the piano chair in some pretty high profile bands like the Mel Lewis orchestra).
A friend of mine once attended a clinic at the New School in NYC. The clinician was non other than Brad Mehldau and during the question period he remarked that no one ever asked him who his favorite rhythm section was. As it turns out it is the Miles Davis rhythm section of the 50’s (Wynton Kelly – piano, Paul Chambers – Bass, Jimmy Cobb – drums). If you really do your homework on Mehldau this doesn’t seem to be such a stretch. Listen to him on the recordings he made when he was quite young. Listen to him on such straight-ahead outings as the fantastic debut by Anthony Wilson. Try to listen without passing snap judgments on style and “hip-ness”, although Brad always sounds fresh even when playing very “inside” the harmony. Listen to the groups and musicians that influenced the groups and musicians that influence you. If you don’t know who they are how can you really understand their music? Listen…you must listen…resistance is futile!