Thursday, May 10, 2007

bailey, the problematic pt. 0: preamble

This started out with my flippant remark (I should stop doing these in the semi-public sphere of a blog) which Dominic Lash rightly flagged me up on. I left that discussion with what I’ll take as a kind of mission statement for this thread:

…Although [Derek] Bailey is one of my models… I think I should flag up the problematic in (some of) his rhetoric….
…The non-engagement with (and consequent invisibility of?) the issue [of race], I think, is actually part of the problem….
One last thing before I go: I was avoiding the word ‘racist’ in this discussion. I did this not because there’s no such thing, but because it can put an hard-edged boundary between ‘the good guys’ and ‘the bad’—between ‘progressives’ and ‘reactionaries’—and that’s not really the politics I wanted to be discussing in this context.
Like many improvising guitarists, I owe Derek Bailey a great deal (my humble lexicon is a kind of transplantation), but I also find his work (his writings in particular) a problematic.
Perhaps I was being unkind to Bailey in my remarks: re-reading Improvisation (Bailey, 1992) has been a bit of a revelation—it’s not quite the troublesome book I remember. I have, however, a complex relationship with this text. On the one hand, I cite it often (including in this blog), but it is a book steeped in a certain sensibility that I intersect with but don’t wholly endorse.
Before I continue with this discussion, I want to lay down what I hope to avoid: I don’t want this to become a character assassination, nor give the impression that I am guilt-free in comparison to Bailey. I’ve been guilty of many ill-considered and/or foolish statements—remarks that make public my private prejudices—and I don’t wish to give the impression that Bailey was a unique case. I certainly do not want to single out Bailey as a sacrificial figure head—a scapegoat—for what is a broader systemic problem.
With that out of the way, I want to look specifically at the statement that opens the first Jazz chapter in Improvisation:
There is no doubt that the single most important contribution to the revitalization of improvisation in Western music in the 20th century is jazz…. But for the Western musician its greatest service was to revive something almost extinct in Occidental music: it reminded him that performing music and creating music are not necessarily separate activities and that, at its best, instrumental improvisation can achieve the highest levels of musical expression.
Ibid., p. 48.
To be continued…


Bailey, Derek (1992), Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music (London: British Library National Sound Archive).


peter breslin said...

hey S- Haven't ever read Bailey's thoughts on improvisation; looking forward to getting closer to what's problematic for you. The word "racist" is an important word and I think the whole topic of "racism" in Western music is a crucial one. Check the percentages for example of professional African American symphony musicians, let alone conductors. This was something Mingus (for example) lamented way back. Not that there's a level of musical success marked by being a symphonic musician, necessarily, just that the opportunities still seem sparse.

I usually think of racism as represented, practically, by theft. The co-optation of some of the aspects of "Black Music" by white performers who gain much greater economic benefit from their semantically depleted parroting. (as an aside, this is one of the aspects of Miles Davis from 1969-1975 that I find exhilarating; his insistence on plundering in the other direction, although the commercial rewards dropped sharply after his first forays).

anyway looking forward to more,


the improvising guitarist said...

PB, if you haven’t read it, Bailey’s book is still in print with Da Capo. It’s definitely worth a read. I read a battered first edition ’round 1990, and it made a big, big impression. Problematic or not, it is still one of those books that I regularly recommend to others….
And, goddammit, when is Channel 4 (or whoever hold the copyright) going to release On the Edge on DVD?
Thanks for reading, PB (I’m bordering on terrified in writing this).

S, tig

peter breslin said...

Hey S- I continually adjust my comfort/discomfort level regarding the topic of racism as related to culture and art. It's the kind of area of analysis where people drop their rational pants at the door and assume all sorts of revealingly defensive postures. There isn't any way around heat in discourse about race. The trick for me is to just put out what I honestly think and listen to what people say in response, or more commonly, reaction.