Sharing More Than Birthdays
Just over a week ago, on September 9th, 2011, I was reminded of the relatively obscure fact that two of my favorite musicians, Elvin Jones and Otis Redding, share a birthday.
Now clearly, in and of itself, this isn’t especially noteworthy. After all, with all of the wonderful musicians on this planet, many share birthdays over the years. However, I found the juxtaposition of Elvin and Otis to be especially pleasing. Mostly because they share so many wonderful qualities, despite the fact that they are almost never mentioned in the same sentence. Individually, and when examined comparatively, they have quite a lot to teach us, especially when considering the marginalized position the jazz art form finds itself in.
An important question that runs in and out of the minds of many jazz musicians, listeners, and fans in today’s climate goes something like this: “How can music that has evolved into something that is no longer familiar to the vast majority of people still manage to reach people and affect society in a positive way?” Then, there are a few added bits of emphasis (How can we affect society in the MOST positive way), and clarifications (…without pandering or compromising certain core musical values..)
In no way do I believe these questions can be answered easily or quickly. Nor would I insist that the answer only be provided from one point of view. However, the cosmic convenience of Elvin Jones and Otis Redding sharing a birthday provided me with an opportunity to highlight one small way that musicians can more effectively reach the people around them. I’d like to propose that we make a point to find the common ground between musicians like Otis, who moved millions of people within a general landscape of music that comes from many of the same roots as jazz, and musicians like Elvin Jones, who is thought of as a “modern” drummer that only really musicians are aware of. By tapping in on what common qualities made both of these musicians (and others of their ilk) so great, we can expand our own musical offerings and work to have a more powerful impact on our listeners, as well as in the communities of people we play for, teach, and connect with.
It’s time to look beyond the linear, and this comparison encourages that. There are obviously many characteristics of Elvin and Otis that just don’t match upon first glance: drummer vs. vocalist, music that swings and generally follows certain forms and structures involving a lot of improvisation vs. music built on simple grooves such as shuffles, etc. without excessive improvisation, simple harmony vs. complex harmony, and on and on we go.
However, it’s exactly those surface level inconsistencies that provide insight into some of the barriers we’ve got to break down. First of all, a musician such as Otis, who took so many chances in live performance and could clearly hear his way through a number of musical situations is a “musician,” period, not merely a “vocalist.” In this kind of chance taking, we start to see some qualities that line up nicely alongside Elvin’s adventurous nature. To be more specific, some of Otis’ raspy and uneven vocal performances have often reminded me of the rhythmic bombs that Elvin often drops either in odd places, or after a resolution that just don’t quite line up. Both men had an incredibly patient and compelling mastery of extremely slow tempos (this is often overlooked about Elvin). In all aspects of their individual musical expression, there is a common feeling and aesthetic, born of the blues, the black church, and other quintessentially American elements. Otis’ performances would not be the same if it were not for this feeling and neither would Elvin’s playing- even if it is not expressed vocally, or through a traditionally melodic instrument. Investigating these less tangible elements (that were key in Elvin achieving such an individual sound) is easily as rewarding as analyzing the complex rhythms that Elvin played, and far more difficult to “get.”
Obviously, this concept, if applied without the kind of nuance and consideration, could result in some inane and silly exercises in musical comparison. I do not propose that zeroing in on the shared qualities of Sonny Rollins and Britney Spears will help musicians reach more people. Hell, we’ve seen plenty of attempts to simply throw “jazz solos” on top of instrumental pop music without much more than a hint of a thoughtful plan. None of these attempts have succeeded in advancing jazz into the communities of people who may be receptive to it, and who may benefit from it. No, pandering is not the way to go. Furthermore, I’m not writing all this just to advocate adding vocalists, or a shuffle groove. Those elements are out there, they can absolutely be accessed should anyone have the desire to do so. What I’m advocating for is for more jazz musicians to examine the human elements, and the intangible qualities of a musician like Otis Redding. Or a Robert Johnson, Toots and the Maytals, Son House, Mahalia Jackson, Caetano Veloso, Thomas Mapfumo, The Police, Dvorak, Odetta, etc. etc. along with their common jazz heroes such as Coltrane, Elvin, Miles Davis, etc. I’m especially highlighting those within (but not limited to) the broad African American musical tradition or the wider umbrella of music from the African Diaspora, but that is, of course, just one route to take. Above all other considerations, it is the aforementioned intangible human elements that we can’t afford to over look, as they make music such as Otis’ or Elvin’s, or anyone else’s powerful and transcendent. Elvin’s performances with Coltrane and others made stark, visceral statements during the civil rights era, and though Otis’ music is not identified with social movements, he clearly made a lasting impact on many in a way that cannot be easily defined.
Identifying musicians we love and connecting dots between them, and doing so without getting hung up on styles and eras (yet informed by logical connections and progressions) seems like a way to inject possibility into our music, without merely relying on toying with superficial changes in instrumentation, or changing the groove to a different meter or a backbeat. These commonalities we’re looking between great musicians can exist without them covering the same songs and without playing in the same “style”.
With the injection of possibility and excitement, we have a chance to add elements that resonate with people. That’s exactly what both Elvin and Otis’ music did, and what enabled them to have such a positive impact. Many of us play music that has grown out of the tradition that Elvin played such a vital role in. It’s important to remember that musicians like Otis are connected to that tradition too, and to determine what we can learn from him (and others) and apply to our music without losing our own identity.
The challenge, of course, is to do this effectively; many attempts to make these connections often result in a watered down product that takes the bite out of each influence that is applied. Here is where I think it is important to remember where jazz came from, and how that still applies to problems in today’s audience, and barriers to involving jazz in our local communities. This is an African American art form (though it is much more than merely that), regardless of who plays it. That does not mean it can’t be expansive. But in rejecting many of the aesthetic qualities that make jazz what it is, we distance ourselves from key communities. Using connections between disparate but not unrelated artists, we can manage to honor and expand upon the roots of this music, and reach out to communities beyond groups of students or other musicians. So long as we feel honestly compelled to do so, by tapping into those qualities, any message, education, or efforts beyond mere performance will be more effective. As we access some of the key elements, qualities, and flare of ANY communities we seek to connect and integrate with, exchange and interaction become far more beneficial to all.