Wordless jazz

Phil Ford

Thomas, one my students in my American music course, sent me this:

Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, "Leap Frog." What a great routine. You have to admire the skill that went into making this little video: his gestures follow Parker's and Gillespie's incredibly intricate lines perfectly, but what's more, the physical gestures seem like perfect analogues to the musical ones. It's like King Pleasure in reverse — not vocalizing horn lines, but  devocalizing them, but with paradoxically the same result.

Can you do anything like this with any other kind of music?* It wouldn't work as well with, say, a Bach invention — you need the asymmetry and disruption of bop to make it seem sufficiently like human speech. This was one the things that made midcentury literary intellectuals care about jazz when they wouldn't otherwise have paid a lot of attention to music — something in the patterns and shapes of jazz lines made it seem as if literature and jazz share a common destiny. One of the things I'm writing about in my book is the bop-era project to put words and music in the same space, whether it's Kerouac trying to do in prose what he thought jazz musicians were doing in sounds, or King Pleasure setting famous horn solos to words, or the Kenneth Patchen reading his poetry to jazz, or Ken Nordine trying to find analogues to jazz improvisation in concepts (and then setting them to jazz). The consistent idea seems to be that jazz communicates something almost like words, but not quite (or vice versa), and that the point where they touch is the point where some new art might be found, not a third-stream sort of fusion of art forms but some entirely new way of conceiving and representing experience, where the flow of experience itself, the whirls and eddies of life as lived in the moment, would be not so much represented in writing as traced, like the vibrations of a seismograph registered on a piece of paper.

*except, of course, for hiphop. And, come to think of it, recitative, though that seems to be a cheat.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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8 Responses to Wordless jazz

  1. mark says:

    I’ve been working on something similar, a long story or novella by Julio Cortázar called “El perseguidor” whose main character, Johnny Carter (Johnny Hodges + Benny Carter?) is based on Charlie Parker. The narrator is a jazz critic who has a biography out about Carter. But the text we’re reading isn’t the book, it’s rather a meditation about his relationship Johnny. If the biography is writing about jazz, the text we are reading is trying to be “jazz writing.” I’m not sure Cortázar pulls it off, though. To me it comes off as discursive and rambling, while a Parker or Gillespie phrase (while improvised) is still structured and like the voice. I can see the want to do “jazz writing”: improvisational, spontaneous, but because of the question of time, and with Diz and Bird, velocity, it doesn’t translate. And speaking of velocity, I sense that the guy in the video can’t get nearly as many words in as Bird and Diz get in notes. Many notes are lost. There is time or swing in jazz that is so hard to capture in écriture. I think Ken Nordine succeeds in a way where Cortázar and Kerouac fail, because of the fact that word jazz is not only text but sound too.

  2. mark says:

    Just one more thing. listening to Parker, I’m more and more convinced that he was a blues player, not for his harmonics world, but for his accentuation. How can you get that in words? Maybe through humor and (I don’t want to say it) timing. Cf. Ralph Ellison’s essay on Parker, which asks, what sort of bird is he? Answer? a mockingbird.

  3. rootlesscosmo says:

    I’m struck by the performer’s expression, which suggests he hears Bird and Dizzy as engaged in a dispute. It’s one reading, but not the first that would have occurred to me.

  4. ben wolfson says:

    You could probably do it with the music on this album: http://www.dustedmagazine.com/reviews/3681

  5. brent reidy says:

    a different direction, but up the same alley: check out jason moran’s speech-to-music translations. on a recent CD he uses some recorded cellphone conversations in turkish to inspire the lines of his compositions. it works well and is not nearly as hokey as it might sound. can’t find a youtube of it but i could drop the cd by sometime.

  6. Julia Davis says:

    I really loved this Leap Frog Video. Thank you so much for posting it. I’m with mark on the on the accentuation. BTW this is kinda random but have you ever heard of classical pianist Ronnie Segev http://www.ronniesegev.info ? He’s a brilliant artist. If you aren’t familiar with who he is, he has this organization: http://www.tocmusic.com that donates music lessons and instruments to kids in need. He also plays around New York City… I found Ronnie Segev’s schedule here if anyone is interested in checking out the next concert: http://ronniesegev.net/ronnie-segev-schedule.html online.

  7. Evan T. says:

    Thanks so much for posting this. I love the question “Can you do anything like this with any other kind of music?”. My immediate thought is to throw it to students to figure it out – the process of having them figure it out could be a really interesting exercise and in a way this type of video making or gesturing? could be used as pedagogy. I’m thinking in terms of public school students but it might work well in a university setting as well. It could really help younger students who don’t play instruments get an embodied sense of phrasing while trying it out I bet. Rootlesscosmo’s comment about the interpretation is also an interesting angle as well – how might students express their interpretation – Could lead to some really interesting discussions.. I’m going to have to keep thinking on it for pedagogical implications but thanks again for putting it out there!

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