As part of our coverage of the International Festival of Artistic Innovation, postgraduate student Matt Rhea is giving us daily updates on the sessions he’s been attending and what he’s found inspirational about them. In this entry he reflects on Katherine William’s paper on live jazz.
University of Bristol lecturer and former LCoM lecturer Dr. Katherine Williams presented quite a question-raising topic (or question raising for me at least). She talked about how there is a contradiction in jazz. Jazz is presented and approached as a spontaneous art form, but it relies heavily on its recorded history. It has been through recordings that jazz has predominantly been taught and handed down through the years. Though jazz is meant to be spontaneous, these recordings create a “fixed” perception of how jazz is to be performed and taught. The question is then, if there is a “fixed” way of playing jazz, how can it be spontaneous?
In this way, the recordings of many jazz tunes and standards become the score for how a piece is to be played. For instance, if a band wants to play Miles Davis’ tune “Freddie Freeloader,” it has become common practice to use the recording off of the Davis’ Kind of Blue as the primary reference point for how the tune should be played, which then raises the argument that if you are not playing “Freddie Freeloader” like Davis’ recording, then you are not actually playing “Freddie Freeloader.” There is now a fixed way to play a jazz tune that is meant to be spontaneous.
Dr. Williams also brought up the point of how recordings are often manipulated, even when they are meant to be a live recording. Duke Ellington’s Live at Newport album was recorded live in concert, but there were so many issues with the recording that the set was then later recorded live in studio, and it has not been until recently that the live concert recording was released because the radio station that originally broadcast this concert archived the broadcast and had a better recording than the actual record label. When Ellington’s concert was recorded in the studio, the record label was hoping to recapture some of the magic and energy in the solos that were played in the concert. Is this possible to do after the fact? Can you recapture the same essence of a spontaneous moment?
There is a seductive quality to jazz recordings, then. They give the picture (or the sound, really) that you are hearing a special moment in time. And sometimes you might be, but that moment captured in a recording can be pieced together through numerous takes and rerecorded moments and that there is a precise fixed way of performing the music.
I am still wrapping my head around this presentation even days after. I often get caught up in thinking that I have to find the “right, proper, and correct” way of doing music, especially with jazz, and hearing this presentation helped release me a little bit from that way of thinking. It is motivating and inspiring to me think about how I can do my music my way and not have to necessarily follow the standards that the decades before have solidified.