Bebop: Evolution or Revolution?

May 8, 2012

By Tom Barry,  Associate Professor of Social Sciences

From the earliest sounds of jazz coming out of New Orleans and its Congo Square, jazz has undergone much change.  Such changes, as with other areas of life, are a reflection of the historical landscape and its people, emerging technologies related to the production of music, as well as audience desires.

In the early 1930s, swing arose as jazz’s dominate form. As its name indicates, swing music “swings” by putting a shorter beat after a longer beat.  Aside from its music form, swing music was big band music.  Conductors such as Benny Goodman, Count Basie, and Fletcher Henderson orchestrated and directed their troupe of musicians.  Audiences were drawn to this sound and the energy coming from a stage with a band leader front and center.  While swing chartered new territory, it was politically conservative.  The major players in the music industry, including various companies located New York City’s Tin Pan Alley, popularized and standardized jazz.  Rather than seeking and rewarding innovation, the industry fostered replaceable, reproducible sounds.  The conservative nature of swing is also visible in the style – dress, mannerisms, and demeanor – of its musicians.

While swing music would get audiences stomping their feet and out on the dance floor, performers desiring artistic autonomy found it quite stifling.  Band leaders, the industry, and the audience directly and indirectly limited musicians to performing the notes on the page, denying them the space to explore and innovate.  Black musicians traded this limitation to gain status, freedom, and wages that were difficult to find elsewhere in a racially regressive society.  But after joining an orchestra, many found the wages were insufficient compensation for the exhaustive touring schedule.  The demanding work schedule, coupled with the inability to find much reprieve while traveling across a Jim Crow South and Midwest, left many in search of other options.

When performing in New York and other Northern urban centers, musicians found comfort in off-the-beaten-path clubs.  Musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Thelonius Monk took their desire to experiment, explore, and expand music boundaries of the possible and impossible to the nightclub.  One of the most well known clubs was Harlem’s Minton’s Playhouse.  At Minton’s and other clubs, these musicians were able to toss out the restrictions of swing and play what they wanted without being constrained by  either their big band boss or an audience desiring conventional sound.  In the wee hours of the morning, as the sun began to rise, musicians pushed the boundaries of jazz conventions, subverted the hierarchy of composer as Chief Executive Officer and performer as worker, and in the process created a new form of music called bebop.

Much debate exists among academics, critics, and jazz supporters about whether bebop was an evolution, an almost inevitable outcome from the trajectory of New Orleans style jazz to swing and beyond, or a revolution, a sudden, dramatic and paradigm shifting break from jazz and swing.  In The Birth of Bebop: A Social and Musical History, Scott Knowles DeVeaux addresses arguments from both sides of this coin.  Rather than claim he has the answer, DeVeaux seeks to understand each position and who advances it.  Jazz writers, historians, and critics often take the evolutionary viewpoint.  These folks argue that bebop stands on the shoulders of earlier jazz and swing greats by moving the music in new but somewhat easily traceable directions.  The revolutionary perspective is espoused by those who view bebop as a music springing from a well of a racist society and oppressive music industry that brought musicians together who broke conventional musical codes and forged not just new ground but a new planet.

In the end, there is merit for both positions.   It was evolutionary in the sense that bebop musicians used their knowledge of and experience in jazz and swing to take these earlier forms to a new place.  But it was also revolutionary both in terms of its social-political origins as well as how it shattered the institutionalized limitations placed on what musicians could do with their music.

From left to right: Thelonius Monk, Howard McGhee, Roy Eldgridge, and Teddy Hill c. 1947


A Folk-Revival Without All the Juice

April 27, 2011

By Tom Barry, Sociology

Two months ago the 53rd Grammy Awards took place.  The best performance of the night, in my opinion, happened when Mumford & Sons and the Avett Brothers joined stage with Bob Dylan in a rendition of Dylan’s 1965 “Maggie’s Farm.”  If you did not watch it live, watch this youtube clip compilation of some of the tunes these bands played that eventful night.

Bob Dylan will be 70 years old in May.  Even though his vocal chords were shot and the sound system experienced some technical problems, I was delighted to watch Dylan passing the proverbial baton to these younger folk-rock musicians.  I was also intrigued by how this reinvigoration of folk music reflected the political and economic climate we are currently experiencing but at the same time is turning it’s back to the legacy of the earlier 1960’s revival. Or is it?

The 1960s was a tumultuous time.  Students were protesting against the war and fighting against the military-industrial machine.  The Congress for Racial Equality (CORE), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and other freedom marchers were resisting a system of racial bigotry and advocating for racial justice.  Activists mobilized to advocate for services for the poor.  This included social justice-minded students and other organizers participating in sit-ins in urban welfare offices to bring attention to the lack of government response to addressing a limited and demeaning social support system.  Women activists were raising gender consciousness, drawing attention to oppressive patriarchal forces.  And by the close of the decade, the gay rights movement gathered momentum, especially after the tide turning Stonewall Inn riots.  These movements were held together by charismatic leaders, concerned citizens, academics, and songs.

Coinciding with the 1960’s march for change was a folk-music revival.  Youth and other politically-engaged citizens were drawn to music which both spoke to power and inspired group cohesion.  And musicians were delivering.  Working in the shadows of their populist predecessors, such as Woody Guthrie and Henry Ledbetter (a.k.a. Ledbelly), songwriters used their instruments to carry a message.  Bob Dylan was one of these musicians.

Many Dylan songs of the 1960s were, depending on which side of the political aisle a person sat, confrontational or affirming.  In his1962 “Oxford Town,” Dylan told the story of James Meredith, a young African American and Air Force veteran who was denied admission to the University of Mississippi.  Dylan’s 1963 “Masters of War” forcefully critiqued the abuse of power of industrial, government, and military leaders.  Because of the ability of Dylan and his songs to mobilize people, he was recruited to be a leader of the folk protest movement.  Regardless of the reasons, or what people make of them, he rejected wearing this hat.

As with many songs, it is difficult, perhaps even impossible to know an artist’s original intent.  And with many songs, they are various potential meanings, some more valid than others.  This is the case for “Maggie’s Farm.”  Some people interpreted, and there continues to be debate about the validity of this interpretation, “Maggie’s Farm” as the song where Dylan came out against the protest movement, stating that he would not be a pawn in the counter-culture’s game.  Others have interpreted the song with a more activist frame.  For these individuals, the song speaks to Dylan’s refusal to engage in oppressive institutions.  Regardless of how people interpret this song, the folk music of the 1960s – at least until sell-out musicians and money hungry producers counterfeited it – was political.

Fast-forward to contemporary times.  A folk-music revival is currently underway.  The listening public is once again drawn to folk music for its more organic production and collectivist spirit.  People are seeking engagement, understanding, and connection.  But whereas the political spirit of folk music was a central part of the 1960s revival, it appears as if much, but not all, of the current revival provides little in terms of raising political consciousness and challenging power. But that’s why the Grammy’s were entertainment and not a message.


Punk and Free Jazz Meet at the Crossroads

November 17, 2009

By Tom Barry, Social Sciences

In a recent ConX posting, Professor Sean Rule, one of COCC’s esteemed mathematicians who freelances during off hours as the drummer for the local punk band Hands on Throat, reflected on the various meanings attributed to punk and its practices.  As Rule stated, it is a form of music often misunderstood by those who do not know its history and purpose.   This is due to many factors, including  punk’s utter disregard of the culture industry including  the organizations, artist and repertoire (A&R) folks who determine what’s hot and what’s not.

The recording industry produces music that meets the industry conditioned desires of the audience.  The industry makes it.  The audience accepts it.  The industry produces more.  Then the audience comes to desire it.  With new organizational strategies and technologies, such as iTunes, the industry becomes increasingly involved in directing listeners to the new artists of the day, artists who are mostly reproductions of the artists who have been chewed up, lost nutritional (market) values and spit out.  Because of its economic imperatives and influence on behavioral conditioning, the industry is not responding to audience demands but rather identifies and reconfigures the demands in ways that best accomplish the industry’s mission.  In the words of Theodor Adorno, a social philosopher and ardent critic of the culture industry, “the culture industry not so much adapts to the reactions of its customers as it counterfeits them.”

While I think George Ritzer’s term McDonaldization is often overused, the concept has certain and valid applications to the production of music.  McDonaldization refers to the fact that an increasing number of life areas follow the organizational principles of the fast-food chain.  The principles include predictability, uniformity, control through automation, and calculability.  The mass production of music follows these principles and, as result, we get exposed to an extremely limited range of music.

Aside from the pressures to conform to industry demands, Professor Rule addresses another core component of understanding punk.  This is the desire to have a voice that is otherwise silenced by dominate society.  The reaction against the corporatization of music is not only about the desire to exercise artistic freedom; it is a symptom of a larger social reality where institutions disregard the voice of people and will only hear that voice if it is presented in a particular manner determined by the industry itself. 

Punk’s development as a medium to air grievances has common ground with the origins and purpose of the Free Jazz movement of the 1950s/1960s.  During this time of advancing democratic ideals of equality for all and an increased consciousness of structured racial inequality, African American artists, from all arts, turned towards the “black aesthetic,” art developed, produced, and performed by and for African Americans.  It was political and truly free.  It was also misunderstood by dominate culture.  But unlike punk, there were no twenty second songs.  Instead, Free Jazz artists performed songs that lasted twenty, thirty, and forty minutes.  Try putting THAT on a record, Columbia and RCA!


“Why do you guys sound like such unbelievable crap?” An analysis of the post – mainstream hardcore thrash community’s population and draw

November 3, 2009

By Sean Rule, Math

photo1So, I’m a musician.  Well, actually, I’m a drummer; I hang out with musicians.  And the guys with whom I hang out and play music play very loud, very thrashy, very energetic music.  As a result, we usually play to very few people.  We have our moments of well – attended glory (see photo 1, courtesy of Dearric Winchester at Focus on Infinity Photography), but, usually, we play to about 30 people, give or take a few.  And, they’re usually highly inebriated.

 This is nothing new to me; I’ve been playing drums in punk rock bands since many COCC students were learning their ABC’s (some would say that’s why I should stop), and the turnouts have usually been abysmally low.  This is not something that upsets me; that’s the topic of this little piece.   

The reasons for punk rock’s low turnouts are subject to great speculation around the Hands On Throat (my current band) practice space.  The first and most obvious explanation is the character of our music.  Most mainstream “punk” bands (by the way, that phrase is idiotic in itself; by definition, punk rock needs to be reactionary to the mainstream) write catchy, melodic, poppy, easy – to – aurally – digest songs that are the “correct” length.  My band writes songs in collapsing keys that grate against the ear, whose tempos start and stop so frequently that you can’t bop your head to keep time (let alone dance), and whose lengths vary from 20 seconds to 4 minutes (with a median of around 2.5 minutes, I’d imagine).  Add to that the vocals, which are usually screamed at top volume and maximum snottiness, and you’ve got a recipe for a room clearing.

“Sean!  You’ve just described the solution to your problem.  Fix your songs!”, you might exclaim.  Well, you see…that’s it.  I don’t want to fix anything, because I don’t think anything’s “broken”.  Take, for example, the entire body of one of my favorite compositions, “Look Ma…Opposable Thumbs!” (you can listen here)

What sets us apart?  Not much.  Just timely execution of clever evolution. Stylized monkeys all are we.  Don’t take yourself so seriously.”

That’s it.  That’s the idea I needed to convey.  It took 10 seconds of screaming, and just about a half of a minute for the entire song…but the idea gets delivered.  It wouldn’t work in any context, other than hardcore thrash.  Somehow I don’t think Green Day could’ve pulled it off (nor could we have pulled off “Basket Case”, their first big hit after signing to a major).   

What’s the formula for a hit song?  Who knows?  I certainly don’t, and most “artists” don’t either.  Producers and engineers often get hold of a raw song idea and morph it into something it wasn’t and will never be again, outside of the confines of a studio.  It’s no longer real; it’s a façade.  Digital recording has made this worse; now, any jokers with a PC and an illegally downloaded version of Pro Tools can pollute MySpace with their “band’s” “songs”.  But I digress.

Wait a minute…maybe I’m onto something!  Back in the early 90’s, shows were announced via fliers.  This required paper and footwork.  We would roam the streets hanging fliers on light posts until we were asked to stop by local authorities, at which point we would go door to door to the closely knit punk community’s residences and drum support.  Nowadays, bands “flier” by posting jpegs online.  As far as I can tell, very few people actually look at these postings, or, if they are seeing them, they’re not moving people to make it down the show.  Actually, I think that the internet has made it harder to book shows.  We’re all inundated with material online, so if a flier is added to the mix, who’s to say it isn’t simply flushed out of our minds like a forwarded email about the perils of drinking coffee?  Or was it plastic bottles?  Ah, whatever.

OK, so the answer is that 1) my band writes annoying music, and/or 2) the internet is ruining everything.  Hmmmmm…that seems too easy.  Maybe it’s pop music itself.  Let’s revisit that one.

Consider the equal tempered scale: 12 notes, perfectly arranged, which can be arranged into ear – pleasing patterns.  From that scale, musicians for hundreds of years have built melodies.  Some are very well known: the Ode to Joy from Beethoven’s 9th symphony; Barber’s Adagio; Louie, Louie.  But, what makes a melody great?  Memorable?  Timeless?  There are a whole infinitude of possible combinations of these notes, yet only some are pleasing, and fewer still ring true years after their recordings.

 As a thrash band, we’re not trying to make pretty music…we’re trying to make quality music, in the vein of great bands (you’re never heard of) like Refused, Propaghandi, and DownSet (see note 1 below) . We’re trying to craft lyrics that are at once succinct, poignant, and thought – provoking.  We want to sing (and scream) songs about equality, positivity, and awareness.  I want to play my drums as fast and as hard as I can possibly play, driving my band and the few folks in the crowd to the very brink of collapse…and to get people’s attention away from their Blackberries and their beer, so they can hear what’s on our minds. 

photo2Yeah, this kind of music is an acquired taste, like anise biscotti or Guy Ritchie films.  As such, our devotees are few and far between.  But, once the taste sets in, it never lets go.  See photo 2?  That’s a picture emailed to me about 4 years ago from a guy who used to watch my old band, Plow United, play in Philadelphia.  The phrase he had tattooed on his chest, “at least I’ll die believing”, comes from the Plow United song, “The World According to Me”:

As I go, from day to day, I keep my head before me. And if time should end today, at least I’ll die believing.”

I wrote those lines in 1993.  More than a decade later, I received that picture from 3000 miles away.  Tell me that isn’t rad.

We’ll never be “successful” in the normal sense.  I won’t have a gold record.  The records I do have, however, are sold, traded, and stolen worldwide.  Our songs are floating around, some on cassette tapes, some on CD, and some online…and I love it!  I’ll never have a video on MTV, but I’m constantly sent (from former bandmates, scenesters and friends) forums and videos that have popped up with comments like, “I wish I had a chance to see them live… their music changed my life”.  We’re not pretty, we’re not easy listenin’, and we’re not sonically agreeable…but we’re real.  And that, I think, is what people like.

At least, the 30 that come to our shows.    

Endnote: Interestingly enough, I was going to hyperlink a My Chemical Romance song (“Welcome to the Black Parade”) in this blog to compare a commercial pop band (them) to a nasty, abrasive hardcore band (us).  However, Warner Brothers (MCR’s label, I presume) pulled the clip.  That means that, rather than let fans enjoy the song and its video, they’d instead chose to deny fans the avenue to spread attention.  Never have I been happier to not be attached to the commercial machine that is the record industry.  Do It Yourself!


[1] If you choose to watch these clips, you might notice things like, “Hey!  DownSet sounds like Rage against the Machine!”  Yup.  DownSet was, however, around years before RATM’s mainstream success.  Why Rage got popular and these guys didn’t is beyond me.  Also, I suppose I should warn you…there are some “bad words” in there.  George Carlin, rest his soul, would be thrilled.


Walking With My Feet 10 Feet Off the Beale

April 21, 2009

by Tom Barry, Social Sciences

In his 1991recording Walking In Memphis, Marc Cohn reflects on the history of the blues.  The references to the general history of this music form are straightforward but arranged in such a way to draw upon the ghosts of the past.  Cohn’s blue suede shoes pays respect to the Carl Perkins 1955 song titled the same that marks, for many, the transition to rockabilly and rock and roll.  The Delta Blues is the home of the blues.  The delta blues is the epicenter of the blues.  The Chicago blues, St. Louis blues,  and the songs coming out of other cities following the Great Migration out of the South call back to the delta.  And then there is W.C. Handy.  With his 1914 St. Louis Blues, W.C. Handy would start a lengthy career that would eventually earn him such titles as the Father of the blues and “the  Beethoven of Beale Street.”

wchandy1

I recently read an article titled  “Make My Getaway”:  The Blues Lives of Black Minstrels in W.C. Handy’s Father of the Blues” (Gussow, 2001).  Much of the article is devoted to understanding the ways in which Handy navigated a culture of racial oppression.  Whether on the stage performing minstrels or singing the blues in clubs, Handy neither shied from giving voice to the struggles of black men and women nor did he make this art a platform for being an activist for civil rights.  His approach is contrasted with other artists, such as the literary giants Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright who wrote more to inform and promote a move to justice.  It is for this reason that 100,000 copies of Handy’s autobiography Father of the Blues were sent to overseas military personnel and Wright’s Native Son remained on the shelves or libraries and people’s homes back in the States.  While Handy’s approach was more palatable to the racial majority, and the power structure of the segregated military that supported troops reading his autobiography, Gussow argues, and I agree, that it would be shortsighted to identify Handy as either complacent or submissive. In his work and his life, he voiced opposition to racial divisions.  He stood for racial justice.  And based on his personal experiences such as nearly being lynched, he realized when and how to be speak of the struggle and when to accommodate in order to survive another day.   

Excerpt from Marc Cohn’s Walking in Memphis

Put on my blue suede shoes
And I boarded the plane
Touched down in the land of the Delta Blues
In the middle of the pouring rain
W.C. Handy — won’t you look down over me
Yeah I got a first class ticket
But I’m as blue as a boy can be 

Then I’m walking in Memphis
Walking with my feet ten feet off of Beale
Walking in Memphis
But do I really feel the way  I feel

 

To watch Marc Cohn play his song , see the YouTube clip below: