Monday, September 25, 2023

Times Have Changed...

Earlier this week I attended a workshop at Manhattan School of Music, as an observer of sorts.  I may be doing one of these next year and I like to see how other folks approach teaching and get a sense of what the students are about these days.  Pianist Jason Moran, who is an alumnus of that institution, spoke powerfully to a packed room, touching on a range of history, people and events, most poignantly his relationship with master pianist Jaki Byard, his teacher at that time.  The students were receptive and their performances impressive.  I couldn’t help but think about my own experience coming to NYC in 1983, which was quite a different environment than the one these students find themselves in.

I had been standing in the back by the door when at a certain point during the proceedings trombonist Frank Lacy walked over and stood next to me.  Frank is on the faculty at MSM.  We had played together a number of times in the late 80’s but for whatever reasons had not crossed paths again until that moment. As I wondered whether he even recognized me he leaned in close and whispered, “times have changed”.  I looked up and smiled as he gave a knowing glance and walked out the door.  Those words could not have been more fitting at that moment even as they could have meant so many things.  It’s certainly a common refrain and one that is always true, but at this point in my life I no longer take the sentiment for granted.  I don’t think Frank does either.

Okay, so this post feels way overdue.  I mentioned previously that 2023 marks forty years of living in New York City, a milestone that I wanted to address in some way.  This turns out to be something of a daunting task and I’m realizing that we only have a few more months remaining before we’re into 2024.  If nothing else, New York City is the city that never lets you forget that you’re in New York City…so, keep it moving!  As it happens, my sister Stacey Eskelin is a writer who has been living in a small medieval village in Italy (which she eloquently describes here) and after ten years has returned to the states, NYC to be exact, and is coming to terms with a kind of culture shock, or “re-entry burns” as she calls them.  Her perspective on the city is more vividly rendered than my own and she has a lot to say on the current state of affairs, so I’m going to defer to her and refer you to her substack, which she calls “Cappuccino”. Fair warning, Stacey’s rhetorical skills are formidable and her critique can often be ruthless but for all of the right reasons.  I might call it compassionate provocation.  She calls it “thoughtful entertainment”.  Her latest installment is titled, “Why You Might Be Going Crazy”.

With that off my chest there were a number of things I considered writing about this past year, such as the passing of saxophonist Wayne Shorter.  That felt big and it may just take more time to absorb the impact of his contribution to music.  Saxophonist Peter Brötzmann also passed.  Two quite different musicians, each claimed their own sonic territory, both possessed of a tonal richness and complexity that strikes me as having a particular quality that is difficult to put to words, sort of like if the word umami had a sonic equivalent.  I’ve been cooking a bit lately and trying to figure out just what umami is, but it seems an apt comparison.  

As for current musical inspiration I continue devoting much of my energy to attending chamber music concerts around town, probably the last bastion of acoustic music performance we have.  There were any number of stellar performances to write about, but briefly…

French classical saxophonist Nicolas Prost gave a commanding performance at Manhattan School of Music last February, achieving what I would not have thought possible on the instrument, delivered with a depth of musicality.  

A dozen students from the organ department at Juilliard elevated the roof of St. Mary’s church in midtown Manhattan with an array of pieces spanning time and stylistic approach.  Bach’s Fugue in E-flat major, first published in 1739 and based upon Christian numerology, was a physical and spatial experience of sound, the interlocking parts rotating upwards at various speeds, seemingly into infinity, taking any notions of antiquity and modernity with it.

Messiaen’s “Les oiseaux et les sources from Messe de la Pentecôte” is an organ mass based upon twenty years of his improvising at the instrument during his time at Église de la Sainte-Trinité, in Paris.  Perhaps due to his use of bird songs, at times I felt I was in the middle of a rain forest.

Prelude "Vision in Flames" by Akira Nishimura was a particularly intense piece of music.  Parts of it would have made my hair stand on end (if I had any).  Rather than attempt to describe it I’ll provide this link to another performance of it.

In June the Prism Quartet (Timothy McAllister, Zachary Shemon, Matthew Levy and Taimur Sullivan on saxophones) gave an energized recital of premiers by six composers (Renee Baker, Marcos Balter, Alfredo Cabrera, Flannery Cunningham, Helen Feng and Adam Silverman) each with contrasting approaches yet rendered whole by the consummate skills of this long running, first-rate quartet.  As with the aforementioned performance by Nicolas Prost, some of these pieces contained elements associated with jazz and improvised music.  The history of blending classical and jazz elements in concert music has often been less than convincing to me as a listener but I’m encouraged of late in that this is becoming a less self conscious endeavor and more a matter of finding the natural musical affinities that exist.  As for the saxophone in particular, there still remain some open issues with respect to sound and timbral variety on the part of classically trained saxophonists.  I can’t help but think for example of Roscoe Mitchell’s 1976 solo concert from the Willisau Festival in Switzerland (released on the Nessa records label titled “Nonaah”) in which he repeats a single phrase for more than five minutes with a sound so insistent and unrelenting as to transport himself and his listeners to some other plane of existence.  The sound of the classical saxophone, while completely different, is equally mysterious to me and so I wonder about this range and how it might be encompassed.  Given that improvisation is more frequently being taken on by classically trained musicians I look forward to the development of an improvising language that is informed by both traditions.

Certainly none of this exists in a vacuum and it’s worth considering the role that concert presentation plays in this.  Concerns about audience share and cultural relevance have resulted in a healthy opening towards other traditions but at the same time I’m concerned that the music can sometimes suffer when the presentation is too beholden to a more casual aesthetic.  Case in point, I recently attended a concert at Columbia University’s Miller Theater, as part of their free series of “Pop Up Concerts”.  I admire the intent behind the series and was impressed with the number of folks in attendance at one of their recent events.  Dismaying however, was the presence of a bar and PA system playing generic groove music right up until the opening announcements and picked back up again immediately as the performers exited the stage afterwards.  Part of the audience was seated on the stage with the performers (in front of an illuminated backdrop) and the rest of us in the hall itself.  With the audience members on stage audibly clinking beer bottles and visibly taking video on their cell phones the audience seated in the hall seemed to lose their focus and began checking email, texting or whatever.  I had been looking forward to hearing the ensemble, who called themselves “Longleash”, as one of the members, pianist Julia Den Boer, has an impressive solo performance archived on the Roulette website. Unfortunately, the program was overshadowed by the enforced informality, the potentially fascinating subtleties embedded in the music being reduced to pleasant sounds.  Other presentations I’ve attended around town have also made efforts to engage the audience in various ways, for example the use of video, which in one case was ostensibly used so that the audience could see the pianist’s hands but instead amounted to a purely unnecessary distraction.  There has also been a disconcerting use of amplification at times, which may well be germane to the music but sometimes feels like a concession to the times, as if audiences need to be made to feel as comfortable with their surroundings in the concert hall as they might be at home in their living room.  Personally, I would advise concert producers to have more faith in their audience.  While challenging music does require something of the listener there are ways to invite people in, empowering them to rise to the occasion.  In fact, I think it’s a quality that folks are hungry for and when given that opportunity in a spirit of positive uplift, the music can take on even more power.  I should emphasize however that all of the presentations I’ve gone to are run by dedicated folks who are genuinely concerned about the future of this music, my opinions about specific events notwithstanding.  Kudos to all involved.  And before I forget, there is a new series I’ve discovered called “Midtown Concerts” presented by the Gotham Early Music Scene at St. Malachy’s church here in midtown Manhattan. New to me that is, since they’ve been going for twenty five years now.  I’ve only been to two concerts so far but it’s wonderful to have a weekly series just minutes away by foot.  

In speaking of concert music and composers I want to acknowledge the recent passing of Gloria Coates, an American composer who spent most of her time in Europe.  Gloria was also a dear friend and neighbor during the years she spent in NYC.  She was incredibly prolific having written seventeen symphonies and countless chamber works of all kinds.  I have no idea where she found the time.  Always wonderful to spend an afternoon with, she would often bounce from one subject to another with the same exuberance whether describing something wonderful or something challenging.  Gloria had been residing in Munich for some time and I hadn’t seen her in years when in 2019 she suddenly appeared at our door unannounced and proceeded to regale us with the dizzying events of the previous forty-eight hours around a performance of her music at Carnegie Hall which included her becoming stranded in an unfamiliar neighborhood when accommodation plans went awry.  Things might have gotten dire but I have to think she was blessed in some way.  The New York Times wrote this about her.

While I’ve not been devoting as much time to organizing my archives as was the case last year there are still a good many stray items that may or may not fit into the larger scheme of things.  Lately I’ve begun looking through letters and other items that my mother, organist Bobbie Lee, saved over the years, making me wish I had asked more questions about the formative years of her life.  She didn’t think of her musical upbringing and career as being all that special but in retrospect I think that’s far from the case.  A friend of hers from their teenage years named Myrna McSwain Alford visited me some time after my mother passed and filled me in on their time together playing music.  Myrna also played keyboards and the two of them often played as a duo.  Myrna's father, being a regional leader of Pentecostal churches in the Maryland, Virginia and Delaware region, took them to many different churches during the 1950’s including African American congregations where they could listen, learn and play.  Any formal lessons seemed to be a matter of the teacher playing something and asking you to play it back.  It sounds to me like a very direct experience of embodying music within a community, for the benefit of other people, and at a time in which mainstream American culture had intensely mixed and conflicted feelings about race and gender, much of which was repressed.  While the country is still in the throes of this it’s good to be reminded that folks have always found ways around these obstacles and that art and music have been so conducive to connecting with what is most true about human nature, those larger and often elusive qualities that we all aspire to in our own way.

In the process of going through her effects and researching events I come across a couple of incidental items from my earliest days spent on the road as my parents traveled across the country doing gigs and looking for a place to settle.  My father, Rodd Keith Eskelin, came from a musical and religious family that provided music for revivals and church services throughout the midwest.  After getting married in Baltimore (having met at the church where her father was in charge of the music, leading the congregation with his pedal steel guitar) they set out for Wichita Kansas where Rodd’s father, an amateur violinist, was beginning a new career as a minister.  They didn’t stay there very long but I found what amounts to my first press mention from an appearance they did in 1960, published in the Iola Register (click to enlarge).  After leaving Kansas and heading west doing gigs in various towns along the way, a photo was taken of me each time they crossed a state line, only one of which remains, this being our entry into Oklahoma.  They got as far as Los Angeles before things took a turn and my mother returned with me to Baltimore.

Also among her papers was an article I wrote for the high school newspaper titled “Will There Still Be Music in 1978?” I had completely forgotten about this and while I do recognize my “voice” this piece of writing will stay buried in the archive.  I do recall that the article upset my band director Mr. Kaufman, by quoting him that “there won’t be any more music left in two years”.  I thought the hyperbole was quite apparent but I suppose this is always a writer’s risk.  Mr. Kaufman was wonderful, an old school band director from the old country (Germany) who wore a suit and tie to school every day and who tolerated our often strange mid-seventies youth culture with a mixture of concern and dry humor.  We had a concert band and orchestra which he excelled at and a “stage band” that he had no real feel for.  To his credit he did not let that stand in the way of total devotion to making it work, for which I admired him.  I would often cut classes and hang out in the band room, messing around with different instruments.

He knew I was not supposed to be there but covered for me and showed me the basics of getting around a string bass to the point that I could play it on orchestra concerts.  One afternoon I discovered a bunch of old sheet music in a closet, started digging through it and was astonished to find a few Dizzy Gillespie arrangements for big band.  I knew that music already, my mother had given me the record when I was eight years old and I listened to it over and over until it made sense to me.  I begged Mr. Kaufman to let us play through them and we did, very badly, but still it was thrilling to try.  So no, music didn’t stop in 1978 but I’m grateful to Mr. Kaufman for challenging us while also allowing us to do whatever we could manage to get away with, in a good way.  There was a certain freedom at that time even if we didn’t always know what to do with it.

And speaking of freedom I’m suddenly recalling an even earlier memory, involving the elementary school band director who got me started on the saxophone in 1969.  Mr. Reinhardt must have been around twenty-two at the time, the youngest teacher at the school, sporting a mustache and somewhat longer hair than any of the other teachers.  I had just received my first horn, one found in the basement of the music store where my grandfather taught guitar.  My mother helped me put it together and see if I could get a sound out of it, her knowledge of the saxophone limited to watching the horn player in her band put his together on the gig.  One thing she didn’t quite understand was that the keys had to be pressed down in sequence with each other in order to change notes, not individually as on a keyboard.  While I was thrilled with the instrument I was frustrated that we couldn't figure it out.  I would have to take it to the school and ask the band director if he would teach me.  The horn came in a big heavy case and I was invariably asked by folks in the neighborhood “is that a machine gun ya got in there?”  I guess they had seen too many gangster movies.  Upon hauling this thing down to the school I located the band director’s room, knocked on the door and waited, then knocked again to no answer.  With a palpable disappointment lodged in my chest like a rock I returned home only to try the same thing next day.  This time there was a voice from inside saying “come in.”  Pushing the door open I see Mr. Reinhardt sitting at a desk along the far wall facing me.  His head is down, looking at whatever it is he’s working on, probably a schedule that he'll post to the bulletin board which I see to my right.  Oddly he is holding one of the large sheets of paper-board card stock bowed tightly over his head like an umbrella.  Hunched over his desk he appears to be vexed with his task and has still not looked at me.  I state my intentions, he looks up and exclaims, “is that a tenor saxophone?”  Suddenly his demeanor changes, he is up and across the room, opens the case, assembles the horn and starts playing the Beatles tune “Michelle”, no neck-strap, just holding the horn up, head back, eyes closed, totally immersed in the song, a current hit at the time but rendered with the kind of vibrato you’d associate with music from the 1920’s.  He played the entire song, handed me the horn and said in a very laid back manner, “OK, you can be in the band.”  I wonder, does this kind of thing happen anymore?  I sure hope so.

Also on the subject of family, there will be a new release of my father’s music in the coming months.  Look for a vinyl compilation of Rodd Keith’s work concentrating on the Chamberlin, a precursor to the more well known Mellotron, a keyboard instrument from the sixties utilizing tape loops and functioning something like the modern sampler.  It’s being meticulously produced by musician Wally De Backer (aka Gotye) as part of his research into early electronic keyboards, on a series he calls “Forgotten Futures”.  I’ll be mentioning more about that upon its release.

So while this post does not necessarily offer anything new, nor does it address the unreasonable task of making sense out of an inordinately large swath of time, it does provide some breathing room as I try and keep my wits about me in the present.  Sometimes the act of trying to make sense is simply too much interference with experiencing what you’re trying to make sense of. 

One last thing…I will be doing a solo concert on December 15th, taking place at the Zen Center of New York City in Brooklyn.  It’s a place I have some history with and I’m looking forward.  Seating is limited and registration is required.

PS...Upon taking a break from writing this I went to the fridge and found that my wife had stuck a recent New Yorker cartoon on the door.  While it’s not necessarily an expression of her own feelings it does seem apropos…(click to enlarge)

Sunday, April 16, 2023

A Radio Interview

Veteran saxophonist Dave Sewelson has just invited me to be a guest on his radio program.  Dave has been living in NYC since 1977 and has played with an array of wonderful musicians.  I look forward to conversing with him and comparing notes on a swath of music history.  Along the way I'll be sharing some recordings, not yet sure what, putting that together now.  Of special note is the fact that this will be done under the auspices of WFMU radio, a broadcasting institution that has served as an essential part of the cultural soundscape for decades.  They are in fact the longest-running free-form radio station in the U.S.  I first visited the station for an on-air performance with Andrea Parkins and Jim Black back in 1995 on DJ Doug Schulkind's program "Give the Drummer Some" which has now taken on a life of it's own as an internet-only arm of WFMU's global reach.  "Music For a Free World with Dave Sewelson" being a regular Saturday afternoon program on "Give the Drummer Some", itself being a long-time part of WFMU radio at large, it all feels quite appropriate.

Here are the particulars:

Saturday, April 22nd, 2023
between the hours of 2 pm and 5 pm, eastern standard time

Listen in real-time at these coordinates (program will also be archived at this same link):

Listen to any of the significant number of other interviewees Dave has amassed since 2019:

If you'd like to know more about Dave and his music please locate yourself here:

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

in 2023 / a renewed emphasis on teaching


With this new year I’d like to take the opportunity to emphasize my teaching practice here in NYC,  something that has become an essential part of my creative practice as a musician, that of helping other musicians to develop and realize their creative practice.  

Given that music and education are social activities it is essential that this is done in person in order to fully embody the experience of listening, learning and music making.  I offer private teaching that is designed and structured towards fulfilling your musical experience while addressing the necessary skills in attaining your goals.

For those of you who cannot come to NYC I also offer video consultation geared towards the exploration of musical concepts in improvisation as well as practical issues concerning aspects of education, business and career.

I offer a perspective that comes from over forty years of experience performing all over the world, as well as having honed the craft of teaching as guest artist in institutions in the US and abroad as well as in my private teaching practice.

I invite you to find full information on the teaching page of my website which includes contact information should you have any questions.  I look forward to hearing from you...




Sunday, December 18, 2022

An Extended Appreciation (of a somewhat confused nature)


We are fast approaching 2023, an old year out, a new year in.  It was in March of 1983 that I made the move to New York City, as in forty years ago, kind of a large number.  Maybe I’ll have some thoughts about that down the road but at the moment it feels compelling to note the passing of this year in the traditional way, an assessment in consideration of the way forward as we enter into the coming new one.  

On a note of gratitude I might begin by sharing an appreciation of music.  

“There's nothing like being in the presence of great musical artistry…as an example of the very best we are as human beings; the music, the performing, the whole shebang.”

That was written to me by a friend.  I was surprised because this person operates in a different field, one in which they don’t have the opportunity to hear very much music.  It was in response to mentioning that I’d attended many chamber music concerts this year and how healing that felt after such a long absence.  

I’ve already written about some of these concerts and have perhaps risked over-romanticizing them as a type of rarefied experience.  I should probably point out that reintegrating myself back into public life was actually a bit jarring even as I was happy to be out of the house.  Just getting to the concert often felt like an ordeal, the streets of Manhattan can be quite harsh these days.  Arriving at the hall was blessed relief but then I wasn’t sure I liked the feel of the seat or whether it’s placement offered the best sound and sight-lines.  The conversation emanating from the seats behind me was a bit too much information.  And the phones!  So many phones.  

Then in the midst of all of this I remembered, wasn’t it always this way?  Maybe not the phones, that’s a whole new thing.  But listening to music always involved being around other people in situations that were often less than perfect.  At first glance my friend’s comment seems to be glorifying the ideals of music but in looking again, it’s actually a statement about humanity.  His appreciation of music is an appreciation of people, actual folks doing actual things.

I’ll mention at this point that I recently played music with another person for the first time in almost three years.  I used the word sabbatical in my previous post, one of a number of possible euphemisms that I remain uncertain about.  But before getting to that please allow me to wax effusive about some recent listening experiences around the city.

A Brief Reportage upon Recent Concert-going

Axiom, a new music ensemble at Juilliard, gave a concert at Alice Tully Hall in October including music by Elliot Carter and George Crumb.  My favorite was a composition by composer Unsuk Chin titled Akrostichon-Wortspiel creating a lush sonic tapestry using quarter-tone sonorities orchestrated in the lower registers of the ensemble.  The voice of soprano soloist Marisa Karchin was clear and precise while retaining a warmth and roundness throughout her impressive range.  In a subsequent performance this season they featured a piece by composer Tōru Takemitsu from 1987 titled Nostalghia for violin and string orchestra.  The harmonies employed throughout this piece were subtle yet evocative, exquisitely sustaining a delicate construction for the entire duration. 

Also at Juilliard was a presentation of works for piano by Rachmaninoff and Scriabin, a dozen pieces performed by eleven student pianists in chronological order, alternating between the two composers.  On paper it sounded a bit heavy and I almost opted not to attend although I’m glad I did.  Each of the pianists played the same instrument yet the differences in sound between them was astonishing.  Things started off on solid footing even as I wondered about the clarity of certain passages and their timing.  These works are notoriously difficult with multiple independent melodic lines weaving throughout the registers of the piano and between the right and left hands of the pianist.  But by the end of the first half things had gone from from good to great.  Each pianist sat in the audience listening to the others, so I can’t imagine the mounting pressure they must have felt after hearing an especially invigorating rendition by one of their peers.  At the top of the second half the performances were sounding so good I assumed we had reached a plateau, but no, the evening continued it’s upward trajectory and we were now hearing musical gestures full of mind-boggling complexity rendered whole, compositions coming fully alive with an effortless and breathtaking command.  The works by Scriabin were of particular interest given that he was working with dissonance in a unique way for his time, this being particularly evident in the Three Etudes Opus 65 (1912).  You can see the program and performers names here.

While contemporary music is my focus I also encountered works from Bartok and Beethoven, hearing them anew by way of the Orion String Quartet at the CUNY graduate center as part of their monthly series.  Also presented on the series was Hayden’s String Quartet in D minor Opus 76, No 2 performed by a quartet of graduate students.  Essentially I felt very little difference between this work from 1797 and much of the contemporary music I’ve heard this season.  Of course the language is different yet so many of the formal devices are quite similar.

The Art of Hot Air

Going back even further was a Juilliard Historical Performance Faculty Recital by a trio calling themselves “Les Basses Réunies” comprised of bassoonist Dominic Teresi, cellist Phoebe Carrai and harpsichordist Béatrice Martin offering music from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries on period instruments.  Here’s a question, have you ever seen a bassoon from the Baroque era?  It’s got no keys on it, just open holes arranged along a piece of wood about four and a half feet in length.  Sitting in the front row of a small performance space I was struck by the physicality involved in their playing of these early instruments.  I don’t want to say that it looked like hard work but my sense is that these instruments do require a bit more effort in bringing out their essential sonic qualities, which are in fact different than modern instruments.  As a result you get the sense that the ensemble interprets the music in a different way than might be expected.  The concert was fabulous, one could easily sense the unity between composer, performers, instruments, room and listeners.  It was the sheer physicality of this concert which made me realize it was time to play again with other musicians.  

After three years of playing the saxophone alone, playing with another person (in this case an informal get-together with drummer Devin Gray) was to be an occasion of some anticipation and some degree of uncertainty.  Instead it felt very much like picking back up from wherever it was I might have left off, except that I’ve been practicing religiously during all of this time, resulting in some notable differences.  Foremost was my surprise in just how far into the physicality of playing I could go and still have the music function.  After about a half hour of playing I noticed that all of my attention was centered in the sensation of shaping the air column and how that felt in my entire body.  The sound of the horn and the sound of the drums were of course present but I didn’t need to track them in quite the usual way.  This coincided with noticeably better note choices, better phrasing, better interaction and better music as a result.  A lesson in how much you can let go of and still account for everything.  My thanks to Les Basses Réunies for the inspiration.

The Telegraph as Virtual Reality

Those of you who read this blog know that I have increasingly been an advocate for acoustic music over the years.  There is nothing new to say here except that I continue to be enthralled in it’s virtues.  Readers of this blog also know that I speak often about the effects of technology on our experience of music.  Here again comes the risk of repeating one’s self except for the fact that we do seem to be at an inflection point that needs to be understood.  

I am in no sense a scholar on social issues but certain questions have always seemed important.  As a kid I didn’t particularly like to be in cars.  I recall my mother once driving me home after a music lesson, stopping for fast-food take-out which I ate in the back seat of the car as we continued driving.  There was something deeply incongruent, if not depressing, about eating a meal while moving, watching strangers in their individual metal boxes passing by, each staring straight ahead.  Later, in my teens, I decided to give up watching television, a youthful snobbishness about it all covering up that same uncomfortable feeling of watching people stare blankly into the tube.

At a certain point in my twenties I began to wonder how much of my experience of life had been actual and how much had been an experience of media.  Meaning how much of what I knew about the world had come from television, movies, radio and recordings?  And how easy was it to take that for granted, imagining events that I was never a part of as if I had somehow experienced them.

We’ve come a long distance.  We now have the internet and the mobile phone.  In this day and age a discussion about music is usually a discussion about technology.  This also seems to be true with respect to any topic we might discuss; politics, environment, medicine, science, art, social issues, philosophy and even religion, continuing to use the language of time and place even when so many activities that we once did in person have become digitized.  The New York Times ran a piece not too long ago about the importance of checking-in with friends for the benefit of our well being.  I finished reading the entire article before realizing that every example given was a use of technology, like sending a text.  While these things might lead to getting together face-to-face, more often they function as a delaying mechanism for doing so.

There are times in thinking about this when I am tempted to view the entire trajectory of media technology, beginning with the telegraph, as leading inevitably to virtual reality.  Of course that is a jaundiced view but it does cross my mind.  Less dystopian but still somewhat unsettling is the idea that for most folks living today, the majority of the music they have heard in their lives has been of the recorded variety.  And when live, almost always amplified. 

Is that good, bad or does it really matter?  It also occurs to me that the history of jazz largely coincides with the history of recorded music.  A music that so values the spontaneity of the moment has also been shaped by the recording process acting as an accelerant to it’s very development.  The received wisdom throughout most of that time was always that live was best.  I’m genuinely uncertain about how that plays out today.

Socially Distanced Jazz

In his book “Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth”, author John Szwed offers a vivid portrayal of what music was like in the famed clubs along New York’s fifty-second street:

“They were small, maybe fifteen feet by sixty feet, and were located in the basements of brownstone residences.  They featured miniature tables for a few dozen people, little space for dancing, and no air-conditioning.  Small-band jazz was born and raised here: music without amplification, with sonic qualities that suited the spaces in which it emerged.  Sitting so close to a band and a singer, one could hear the sizzle and rattle of cymbals, the deep thump of a bass drum, the mix of air and sound coming from the horns, the depth and resonance of the piano, the breathing of a singer, all features that recordings never manage to capture.  It was the musical equivalent of the deep blacks and silvery whites of 1950s photography, an acoustic reality lost to us as musicians and listeners, dependent as we all are on amplification, mixing, filtering, recording, the dry ice of digitization, and monster video screens.”

Musical values have changed since that time in ways having a great deal to do with technology.  Over time, live concerts have increasingly come to resemble their recorded counterparts.  Suddenly we’ve arrived at a point in which credible sounding jazz music is being made at a distance, band members adding their individual parts to a recording at different times and from different locations, never actually seeing or hearing each other.  While this may be an extreme example (one clearly birthed out of the pandemic) the fact that I can not always tell the difference makes me uneasy in that it points out just how artificial recordings have become over time even as we espoused the virtues of live interaction all along.  

Have we been deceiving ourselves a bit?  Maybe, but the recorded history of this music has undoubtedly been a tremendous gift.  It is the live experience that I am more concerned about.  How might we reconcile the virtues of the concert hall in it’s most basic unmediated form with the world at large, in which our lives are increasingly intertwined with digital devices?

We musicians are just as dependent on technology as most other folks, perhaps a bit more, and I sense that we are each trying to find our way in this.  Combining the need for self-promotion with social awareness can be awkward in a capitalist culture, especially one in which the effects of social media cast a performative gloss over everything that passes through it.  I do question how sustainable it all is.

Stranded on the Island of Manhattan (with Ralph Kramden)

I live near Times Square, an utterly insane landscape with respect to the amount of electrical wattage devoted to robbing you of your attention.  After decades of living in this neighborhood (quaintly known as Hell’s Kitchen) you might think one would become inured to the cacophony.  Certainly many people seem to be, casually carrying on cell-phone conversations oblivious to everything around them, not the least of which might be the fire truck they are standing next to, stuck in traffic, sirens blaring at an obscene decibel level.  

People always ask me “how do you deal, do you ever get used to it?”  No one should never get used to this.  And I should never get used to seeing people on the streets talking to themselves even when I know they are hooked in to a phone through wireless earbuds.  Even more so when they are in the throws of an argument, all by themselves.  One evening while walking by the Port Authority bus station I heard a woman yelling loudly and gesticulating wildly at a statue.  It’s the one of Ralph Kramden (of television fame) on Eighth Avenue and 40th street.  Actually, she was standing behind old Ralphie boy, screaming straight into his backside.  Apparently she had her cell phone propped up on the lunchbox Ralph was carrying and was  having it out with someone unseen, big time.  I was relieved to see that she was actually in a conversation but it was just about as distressing as if she had not been.  As strange as the whole thing was, she was clearly in the throws of real emotional pain.  And yet even as she was surrounded by people and connected to someone she knew via her phone, she seemed completely isolated and cut off from any kind of human contact that might have helped.  

This is a rather extreme example of the socially distorting effects of technology but this kind of thing is becoming a daily occurrence.  Clearly there are many advantages afforded in the digital realm but reconciling all of this too often becomes a tedious exercise involving all of the pro and con arguments we already know too well.  

Forty-One Questions without an Answer

A new year being an opportunity to take up resolutions, I’d like to pass along something I read.  It’s an interview done by journalist Ezra Klein with media critic L.M. Sacasas who has created a list of questions to ask about one’s use of technology, forty-one of them to be precise. 

I invite you to read the full list, it’s included in his own essay.  

It starts with this question: “What sort of person will the use of this technology make of me?”  

Some of the other questions are:

“How will the use of this technology affect how I relate to other people?”
“What feelings does the use of this technology generate in me toward others?”
“What does my use of this technology require of others who would (or must) interact with me?”
“What assumptions about the world does the use of this technology tacitly encourage?”

Here’s a good one:

 “Does my use of this technology encourage me to view others as a means to an end?”

These questions are all oriented on an appreciation of other people.  I think it’s that very shift in focus that allows for progress.  Makes me wonder about what kinds questions we might ask as musicians and artists given that technology has always been a factor in music making, embedded in the history of the very instruments we play.

Failed Innovations that Changed the World

All of the concerts I have attended this year have been of classical chamber music and many of them have taken place in music schools such as Juilliard.  It’s rare to hear a saxophone played in a chamber music setting and Juilliard does not even have a classical saxophone department.  And why is that I wonder?  Fortunately the Manhattan School of Music does, and it’s an impressive one, led by performer, teacher, historian and collector of rare saxophones, Paul Cohen.  

Within this tradition there are a number of schools of playing (French school, American school, the German “Rascher" school) and I once asked Paul which one he aligned with.  He replied that his approach comes from the "orchestral school" of saxophone playing, one that I had not heard of.  In fact, the saxophone was invented in the 1840s and envisioned as an orchestral instrument even as the composition of the orchestra was well established by that time.  While the saxophone has never gained a permanent role in the orchestra there is a tradition of wind pedagogy that applies very well to the instrument, which is where Paul’s approach comes from.  In a newsgroup posting he elaborated:  

“The biggest influence on sound came from my college teacher, Galan Krall (also Pat Meighan's teacher) who is an oboist by trade. He schooled us in the nuance and subtlety of sound from his orchestra experiences. This was a seminal experience in understanding the meaning and effect of an artistic tone quality.”

In an interview from 2019 Paul extends the idea of an “artistic tone quality” past technique to include his audience stating:

“It’s about how we take these things and create a much greater artistic experience for the listener.”

I’ve been to a number of performances by Paul’s students presenting a wide array of music written for saxophone, far more than I was aware of.  While musicality is stressed above sheer virtuosity there is little shortage of technical acumen among his students.  This is admirable given that I sometimes suspect that within the world of classical saxophone the push towards ever increasing virtuosity may stem from a feeling of having something to prove.  Fortunately I am hearing more young players who are using their formidable skills towards expanding the music rather than just the instrument.  

The saxophone has made it’s mark across almost all musical genres but when played in accord with it’s original conception, unique qualities are revealed, this being an instrument of some mystery.  As such, I was impressed by a composition written by Shuwen Liao, a student at the Manhattan School of Music.  Her composition Feather of Fantasy, for saxophone quartet, juxtaposes fast moving, softly played utterances from two of the players while the other two create barely audible harmonies against this.  The effect was moving and almost subliminal (I sensed it before I actually heard it) taking full advantage of the saxophone’s inherent ambiguity and diffuse tonal nature

In a fitting close to the semester Paul presented a faculty concert of his own, playing soprano and alto saxophones in various settings, offering up one of the warmest sounds on the saxophone that I have yet heard.  One of the pieces Paul presented involved an exceedingly rare and obscure instrument made in 1928 by the Conn instrument company called the conn-o-sax.  In his program notes he describes just how innovative an instrument this was, remarking that “it succeeded brilliantly as a new instrument but failed in the marketplace”Speaking about it’s “visionary design and tonal qualities” he describes it as being the most coveted of rare vintage saxophones, it’s “haunting, brooding tone” continuing to captivate woodwind players over the generations.  He finishes with some passion, stating “the conn-o-sax has found a new voice in the 21st century” I find that to be a lovely and inspiring idea, wedding notions of physicality with the function of technology and innovation in our lives.  

You should understand that there are only twenty-five of these instruments still known to exist in the world.  The number of people in the audience was even less than that.  (It is not my intention to sound critical, I once played to an audience of three people, one of whom left half-way through.)  But despite the impracticality of his statement, it somehow feels completely true.

It’s probably best not to analyze this any further.  Sometimes when something feels true that you can’t otherwise explain, you just follow it.  

The Skill of Not Knowing

When I think about the fact that I’ll soon attempt writing on the subject of being in New York for forty years, notions of practicality and rationalization tend to fade in importance.  One thing I can say is that when things are clicking, New York City is an amazing place to be.  And when things are not going well, New York City is one of the most difficult environments you could find yourself in.  Just this morning as my wife and I went out for coffee we saw a long line of people cued up on 42nd Street.  When we finally passed the front of the line we discovered that they were there to receive food from Holy Cross Church, this on a thirty degree day.  While some of these folks were homeless, the majority were not.

Human beings are amazingly resilient and adaptable, we compartmentalize our experiences very well, out of necessity.  New York City will grind you to a pulp if you can’t manage to do that.  But all of the seemingly disparate events I’ve described, and struggled to present with any degree of coherency, are all part of one experience.  If we compartmentalize too well, taking for granted the incremental changes taking place around us, we may one day find ourselves shocked when we look up and see the number of folks standing in a food line.  

Does our use of technology help us to see this or does it tend to alienate us from our physical experience of life?  That’s an active question and I think we should ask it often.  I was encouraged in reading about a group of young people responding to the effects of technology in their lives by forming a club in which they put their phones away and just spent time together once a week. It’s a small thing, not that practical, easy to dismiss and at the same time it rings true.  

The best questions we can ask in life do not invite answers as much as they invite us to develop skills.   As we enter this new year, do take good care…