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I’ll never dive fully into the avant-garde, but dipping my feet in that pool can be quite exhilarating!

In episode #13, Avant-Garde Jazz for Dummies, I spoke about how avant-garde music plays a behind-the-scenes, supporting role in much of the mainstream music we love.

But as a musician who is relatively mainstream (sort of), I realized, after producing that episode, just how vital the avant-garde has been in keeping me from getting stuck in predictable, ultimately deadening patterns.

Musical Nature vs. Musical Nurture

Most of us create music with many assumptions, a priori axioms that we think of as being “just the way things are.” To some extent, these assumptions grow out of nature and how we perceive the world aurally. We are drawn to the major triad (C-E-G in the key of C), the tonic, the one chord, because it is the fundamental chord of natural acoustics. It is literally part of nature and how we perceive it sonically.

On the other hand, while based on natural “laws” of acoustics, many of our musical conventions simply reflect cultural norms—what we’ve grown up with seems normal. But, of course, normal wasn’t always normal. At some point in the past, the commonplace was a new idea. Over time, through inertia, habit, and even a kind of cultural hegemony, what was once new is integrated into our lives as the new normal. As with everything else in life, we yearn for a certain amount of normalcy in our music. We want it to be reasonably predictable, with just enough surprise and innovation to keep us interested. 

Still, when “normal” ossifies—in culture, politics, and science—somebody needs to shake things up. Avant-gardists, by definition, rarely enter the mainstream, at least while they’re alive and advancing the guard. But they do help push the boundaries of the mainstream, to help us break out predictable patterns.

Plunge or Dip?

As for me, I frequently traverse the boundaries of the avant-garde in music, never diving in completely. Why don’t I take the full plunge?  Because I really don’t want to swim in that pool, where all norms disappear, and you are effectively reinventing water—and the treading thereof.

But I do like to dip my feet in occasionally. It keeps me fresh. Am I a coward for never going all the way in? Perhaps. But it’s really more about my personality (and perhaps my status as a white-male-heterosexual.) I still want to live in “normal” society, even if I find it to be about 49%  screwed up.

I’m assuming that for the full-fledged avant-gardists like Cecil Taylor,  “normal” culture is at least 75% screwed up.


Episode #15 Transcription


I realized after the avant-garde jazz for dummies episode that I had a lot more to say about that.


Part of what I wanted to say, even though I somehow went into Billy Strayhorn’s Take the A Train there. Was that the greatest gift of the avant-garde is to free our minds as both listeners and practitioners, as consumers of the sound and creators of the sound and everyone in between. And there are people who are in between. Uh, maybe those are record companies, oy. But yes to free our minds from set patterns. Now music of course, as I’ve said on many occasions, is all about patterns. Usually, simple patterns multiplying to create more complex patterns. Light


Three notes.


Moving it up.


Taking a pattern like that, moving it around, inverting it, meaning playing it backwards, playing it in counterpoint. Now, what does all of that have to do with the avant-garde, you may ask. Music. patterns, sound patterns. Well, the truth is like any pattern, we fall into certain patterns. We get stuck in patterns musically as much as in life. You wake up, go to the bathroom, eat breakfast, go to work, do whatever that is, come home. There’s a pattern and it’s normal, but it can also lead to stasis. And that to me is where the musical avant-garde becomes a mechanism for freeing ourselves from one’s usual patterns.

And as I, um, what’s producing this show, avant-garde jazz for dummies, I started to listen to some of my old avant-garde heroes, particularly Cecil Taylor, who was kind of featured in that show and I went back and listened. And for me what was most powerful about his music is that it gave me the gift of being able to look at all of this from a different perspective to get away from thinking of, well, it has to be a tune, it has to be this certain structure that I follow. In jazz in particular, where the kind of default mode is to play the tune improvise, which is would be the equivalent of the development section in classical period music. And then come back to the tune. Now, of course, jazz has gone well beyond that formula. But part of the reason it goes beyond those patterns, those formulas is because of people like Cecil Taylor. Now, this is not to suggest that Cecil was just there to free all of us. He was great in his own right. He had his own sound, his own language as I spoke about in that episode.

But for artists growing up, it’s very easy to get stuck in certain patterns and when you hear somebody like that or John Cage, it frees you to think about things in a different way. And I do find that every time I get stuck in any particular mode, I’m working on something and I’m, I’m kind of in a holding pattern. It really helps me to go listen to think about artists like Cecil Taylor or Cage to get out of that pattern.

Now, John Cage is a really interesting case study. There is much that I don’t care for in his philosophy and music. His kind of anti-jazz status bothered me, but what I loved was his rather zen acceptance of all sound as being valid as a part of music. I wrote about this in the opening of my memoir, which is incomplete, but you could find on the link below if you want to read it. It’s attached to a solo piano album called Blues, Preludes and Feuds.

But when I was 18-year-old jazzer, I used to call Cage a decomposer and I meant this in a negative sense, but as I got to know his music and more importantly or just as importantly, his philosophy, I came to understand it as a positive, for what he did was made us think about our assumptions about what is music, what is sound? This so-called perfection of music that goes back to the classicists, goes back to Bach and Beethoven, how we tend to want this kind of classical perfection, which creates in the right hands like a Beethoven or a Bach, absolutely beautiful music.

But one of the things that is troublesome about it is that you go into a concert hall, say to hear the Chicago Symphony Orchestra or whatever, and the whole thing is so formalized. You’re not supposed to talk, you’re not supposed to cough. And I get that: we’re listening to music. It’s an experience of this music. But that mindset of eliminating all distractions is something that Cage attacked. In fact, he said the distractions, what’s going on in the background is part of the musical experience.

And of course, this was expressed perfectly in his famous Four minutes and 33 seconds of silence in which the performer or performers are supposed to sit there and do nothing for those four minutes and 33 seconds. But it wasn’t nothing. First of all, there’s a score that tells you that you’re not supposed to play for these three separate movements within that four 33 which is kind of funny, but it also makes the point that when I first quote-unquote heard this in a concert in a church, what does it do that you have to sit there silently?

Well, you to pay attention to what’s going on around you and realize that there are all sorts of sounds, ambient sounds. And as we try to create perfect music, whether it’s Beethoven or in a modern recording studio with modern pop or whatever, we’re eliminating all distractions, isolating the sound. So that one sound doesn’t interfere with the other. A drum booth, the perfect mic, the perfect compressors, the whole chain of effects to make it big or whatever sound you’re going for. All these things are great, but they do tend to put you in the mindset of ignoring what’s going on right in front of you.

So if I had to come up with one thing that avant-garde is having common—and they’re all completely different. There’s between Cage and Cecil Taylor, or even between Cecil Taylor and Coltrane, supposedly both in the jazz genre—there is a world of difference, but the one thing they do, they have in common is they make you think differently about sound music. So if I took that little phrase that I started with,




did I start it this way, doesn’t matter if I now took that and thought about it in different ways, what could I come up with? I don’t know. After all, it’s just three notes and those three notes, they’re tones, pitches, they’re a rhythm, a specific rhythm “dat dat dat“, they’re a particular timbre, a sound. All of those things can be manipulated, altered.

Though in end , after this, two episodes exploration of the avant-garde., I have to admit, I prefer a good tune, a structure I can follow, preferably without the benefit of a manual, a melody I can hum.


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