Friday, November 2, 2007

Two Canuck Views of America's Classical Music

From time to time my various lives converge/collide with satisfying results. I LOVE books and I LOVE improvised music/jazz. When I get the opportunity to combine these two passions at the same time the potential for a nirvana-like state is extremely likely.

Here are two examples of books written by Canadians, published this year that fall into this category. One is fiction. One is non-fiction. Both books are from small Canadian presses and deserve to be read by many people, well, many people who enjoy jazz. Sure, if you’re a “jazz geek” (as my friends and I proudly refer to ourselves) you’ll likely find these works of more interest, but if you’re a reader who likes a fine character-driven novel or an in-depth investigation of one seemingly inconsequential historical event these two books may just fit the bill.

Let’s begin with the novel. I have to state at the outset that I am a good friend of the author. His name is Jim Reil. He’s been writing from 5:30 to 6:30 am every day for over 20 years! He’s done this while helping to raise three children and working as a vice president of an advertising firm in Ottawa. Frankly, I don’t know how he does it. He studied creative writing at the University of Victoria under Jack Hodgins in a class of 13 students. Jim told me that Mr. Hodgins came into class the first day, walked up to the front of the class and began something like this: “Look around you. There are thirteen of you – thirteen people who want to be published writers. I’m here to tell you that, in five years, only half of you will still be writing. In ten years only three of you will still be writing. In fifteen years only one of you will still be writing. To give yourself the best chance to be that one lone writer two decades from now you must write every day. EVERY DAY.” Jim took Jack’s advice.
Jim’s novel (his third) is called Now’s The Time. It centers around an Ottawa-born jazz saxophone player named Red Sanders who goes to New York City in the 1950’s to “make it” in the world of jazz and a scholar/professor from Victoria named David Grant who is researching the life of Sanders for a book he intends to write. The story plays out as Grant begins to uncover Sanders’ life. Along the way we meet a cavalcade of colourful characters as Red encounters them during his personal journey. There is the enigmatic orchestra leader Billy Williams (who is a composite of Sun Ra and Miles Davis) who preaches a militant form of Black Pride yet hires the red-headed “white” kid from Canada to fill his 1st tenor sax chair. There’s Neil Hefti, an actual historical figure, who first recognizes Red’s talent but is afraid to let the kid loose in the Big Apple. The reader learns a bit of social history, jazz history and, most importantly, a lot about what makes jazz so unique in the world of music. I feel fortunate that I got the opportunity to read this wonderful book and am looking forward to reading Jim’s next novel, which has absolutely nothing to do about jazz.
My second recommendation is The Battle of the Five Spot: Ornette Coleman and the New York Jazz Field by Hamilton writer/musician David Lee.
I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to interview David on stage at the Ottawa launch for his book. It was all I could do to keep from gushing about the book. It’s a slim volume (only 99 pages, not including the index and pages of bibliography) but it puts forth such a fresh interpretation on a two week gig that the Ornette Coleman Quartet began on November 17, 1959. Lee discusses how this single event, despite much opposition from many quarters, changed the path of jazz for ever. The Five Spot was one of the preeminent jazz clubs in NYC for most of the twentieth century. Many classic live recordings have been made there. It was a prime spot for jazz musicians to showcase their talents and make a name for themselves. It’s where the musicians came to lounge.
Lee incorporates the philosophy of Pierre Bourdieu and his “Concept of Field” ideas. As a “jazz geek” I always knew that Ornette Coleman held an important place in the history of jazz and I sort of know why. But I never knew how he had accomplished this until I read this book. So often we get the impression that many historical figures make marks on history unintentionally or unknowingly but that is often not the case. Coleman knew exactly what he was doing and understood how revolutionary his music was to the establishment but he didn’t back down. He was vilified at the time by most (but not all – and, in the end, that’s crucial) but he did not let that stop him. Like the fictional character Billy Williams (from Now's The Time) who cast an unfathomable spell over his band members, Coleman convinced his band members with such conviction that he (and they, by association) were on the verge of changing musical history forever and, damned if he wasn’t right.
For me this is a wise book reminiscent of Ted Gioia’s The Imperfect Art (which is, alas, only available as a print on demand title) – a slim volume that draws in all areas of the arts to situate “jazz” within a larger context and give it resonance within the world of culture in general.

May I suggest that you listen to some “Stan Getz Complete Roost Recordings with Jimmy Raney” while reading Now’s The Time and Ornette Coleman’s Atlantic recordings collected on the “Beauty is a Rare Thing” box set while you’re reading The Battle of the Five Spot: Ornette Coleman and the New York Jazz Field.

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