Last summer spent a day in New York with my friend John, and we wanted to see something of the city. Mostly we walked around south of 14th street rather than seeing sights; sights, we agreed, are lame. Take Mount Rushmore: you drive there, get out of the car, and it looks just like the postcard (which you then buy in the gift shop). The reason you go at all is to have had the experience, to check a box on an imaginary list of things to say you’ve done. You see the sight in order to have seen it. The sight itself is fully conventional, simply the realization of a pattern that already exists fully-realized in the mind. You don’t get anything unexpected out of seeing Mt. Rushmore: that’s not the point.
So John and I, being intellectual types who must at all times seek substance and meaning rather than the empty touristic rituals, went to a jazz poetry concert at a place called the Brecht Forum, which advertises itself as “a place for people who are working for social justice, equality and a new culture that puts human needs first.” Its music series, which hosted the jazz poetry program we saw, is a “volunteer-run collective.” The performance space was a room the size and odd, improvised proportions of a basement rec room, with a metal-and-plastic stacking chairs and small round tables scattered around a loosely-defined performance space. This room was open to another which had a table laid with some snacks and a big tub of ice with beers sticking out; you could go over and grab a beer and sit back down, just as if you were listening to some guys jamming at a friend’s house. Even the small detail of the refreshments table bore out a sensibility
in which one is at all times to struggle against reified social relations under capitalism: you pay your cover fee, you can get your own beer. I counted fourteen audience members, including ourselves, before we left after the first set.
At times, social idealism sometimes turns into great art, but this was not one of those times. On our way out I turned to John and said, we just saw Mt. Rushmore. I was now able to check off the “Greenwich Village jazz-poetry concert” box on the lifetime list of things to do, and like Mt. Rushmore, it was a sight, something that fulfilled the necessary expectations of what a jazz poetry concert would be.
The music was in the traditional style of the jazz avant-garde. Each piece seemed to have two possible textures: Sound #1, the quiet one, which allowed you to hear the speaker, and Sound #2, the loud one, when the ecstasy of transgression would crest in a feverish roil. At those moments the trumpet and saxophone players would ride up to altissimo range and play short chromatic/microtonal run figures over and over again as loud as they could (or just half-valve a trill as fast as possible). Sound #1 had a lot of cymbal rolls and long bowed notes from the bass, a lugubrious ground against which the other instruments would play misterioso figures. Many of the poems were appreciations of canonic jazz musicians and seemed to blame their deaths on the indifference of the American public. Musical allusions would poke up out of the texture in response to the poems: the first four notes of “Yardbird Suite” at a mention of Charlie Parker, a few repetitions of the “Love Supreme” motive at a mention of Coltrane.
The cadences of the poems followed the canonic patterns of the established jazz poetry style, too. Important words were complicated bifurcated gestures, poised between the explosive tension of their initial articulation and the falling croon into which the word-gesture would relax. (This is a pattern familiar from the Last Poets, who, however intense and serious their political purpose, always end up sounding incongruously like a crew of Afrocentric William Shatners.) Word repetitions were used to ramp up to explosive shouted climaxes, at which point, on cue, the musicians would move from Sound #1 to Sound #2. One musician, reading a poem about American shallowness and materialism that ended with the thought that America is a country that gives nothing and takes everything, worked himself into an apoplectic fury — “take, take, take, take, TAKE, TAKE, TAKE, TAKE!!!! ” — doubling over, his pale goateed face turning red, as the band went nuts behind him.
And the form of the poems themselves traveled well-worn paths of Beat poetry. Much of the time they seemed to have traveled to the source, mimicking the cadences of Howl, with its long chains of co-ordinated subordinate clauses:
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked [. . . .]
who wandered around and around at midnight in the railroad yard wondering where to go, and went, leaving no broken hearts,
who lit cigarettes in boxcars boxcars boxcars racketing through snow toward lonesome farms in grandfather night,
who studied Plotinus Poe St. John of the Cross telepathy and bop kabbalah because the cosmos instinctively vibrated at their feet in Kansas [etc.]
each one articulated in the same bifurcated way, the explosive beginning and cool crooned continuation writ large at line length.
God, I sound like such a hater. Really, I’m not. I like Muhal Richard Abrams as much as the next guy. Like anything else, there’s both good and bad avant-garde jazz. But avant-garde clichés seem especially lame because the avant-garde makes such a big deal out of not being clichéd. As I’ve written before, the avant-garde has always considered itself as a negation, a refusal, of the current “state of the material.” Peter Bürger’s classic work of literary philosophy, The Theory of the Avant-Garde, argues that the avant-garde doesn’t have a style of its own — it’s not a style or a movement, but is instead a certain way of incorporating existing artistic materials into an assault on artistic and social institutions. And in Bürger’s view, this assault is a response to the objective conditions of society. In a sense, the avant-garde is called into being by history itself. This certainly is the pose of the musicians I heard at the Brecht Forum — the pretense is that this music is ripped from their souls as they encounter modern society, and in the concert you watch them locked in battle with the demons of industrial capitalism itself. But it’s always the same battle fought over and over again, like a Civil War re-enactment or something. If you believe that there really is an existential battle between Moloch and the troubled free soul of modern man, then it is depressing to see it enacted again and again, with the same 14 people on the same stacking chairs, because nothing is ever resolved — see you here next week! This is not how Revolution is supposed to feel. Or else you suspect there’s no battle at all, never was one, and this is all just another show. Which wouldn’t be such a bad thing, except that they can never bring themselves to admit that that’s what they’re doing — putting on a show.