Barney McAll, the winner of the 1990 National Jazz Awards for his piano playing, and now resident of New York, recently wrote a testimonial for Wangaratta Jazz, the annual festival that bills itself (probably correctly) as Australia’s Premier Jazz Festival: “I live in New York and it’s rough at times and to come home and play amongst all those great musicians and to feel the openness of the audience to accept whatever hare-brained scheme I may hatch is priceless. It’s a real springboard for inspiration.”
If you’re seeking the jazz spirit, you could find its spoor right here: “I live in New York … great musicians at home … the joy of an accepting audience … hare-brained schemes … springboard for inspiration.”
Jazz is not what it used to be – as an art form it’s had such a journey that the connection of what we call jazz and improvised music to the roots of the music in American blues and swing is not always obvious. World-renowned improvising trio The Necks, though hard to categorise, fit under the label of ‘jazz and improvised music’ but their relationship to Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Wynton Marsalis or Diana Krall is not obvious.
Paul Grabowsky, one of our highest profile jazz and improvising musicians says that jazz works well as an adverb, rather than a noun; it is, he says, a syncretic process: “… there is a jazz way of doing things, jazz as a process … [taking] elements of different things and putting them together …’
New York is viewed by many musicians as the mecca of jazz – a place that must be visited and played in as part of the musician’s journey. There are many musicians who don’t think that of course. Yet New-York-as-destination is a jazz meme.
And there’s more to jazz than its memes (thank goodness). ‘Jazz’ exists in Australia as a thriving, hard to define musical style that draws on an American tradition, shoves it into the backpack and heads out to our own landscapes; the red earth of our dry centre, the multi-ethnic inner suburbs of our cities… and collaborations with musicians from other places, other landscapes, other traditions.
New-York-as-destination is a writing meme as well. And of course, like jazz, there’s more to writing than its memes… But writers do the same as jazz musicians, don’t they – drawing on a tradition, shoving it into the backpack and heading out to other landscapes? And don’t small publishers do the same? And don’t we all yearn for readers open to the creative, the new, the beautiful; an accepting audience for our hare-brained schemes?
Jazz and writing
Live jazz and improvised music often provide stimulation and inspiration for my writing. You can’t guarantee that when you go to a jazz gig there will be one of those clear, bright moments when something makes sense and the words to express it spring to your fingertips. But these moments (for me and others I’ve spoken to) often happen when I’m listening to live improvised music, aka jazz. I don’t know why this should be so. There are many theories and I’m drawn to hypotheses about the requirement for jazz musicians to improvise in the moment, to create on the spot, in front of an audience and usually in ‘conversation’ with their fellow musicians. Then there’s that thing about music – it’s its own language. It cannot be misinterpreted and does not need to be edited for precision. It seems that the creative impulse can ripple outwards into the minds and hearts of its observers.
Jazz and editing
There’s a distinction between the creative process for text and improvised music. The music is made on the spot and when it’s out there, it’s out there – warts and all. I figure the editing happens in the practising, the endless hours of scales and exercises and rehearsals that the audience doesn’t hear; a kind of pre-edit. These musicians make it look easy – until you know what’s gone into the preparation. It’s tempting to think that jazz writing – about, or inspired by the music – could get away with minimal editing, tapping into the apparent freedom of the performance moment. But the truth is that jazz writing remains the same as any writing task. Jack Kerouac connected with this ‘in-the-moment’ thing; his stream of consciousness novel On The Road was written in six weeks. I read somewhere that it took 22 weeks to edit the bloody thing, but nobody mentions that!
Jazz and publishing
It’s no accident that extempore is named the way it is. Of course the name is a signpost to the kind of music that inspires the journal’s contents, but I also wanted to flag an approach to publishing. Too much planning can close the doors to serendipity. I wanted to be able to create each issue of the journal in the moment, in conversation with the ether… to let accidents happen and draw on the combined consciousness. So we engaged a wonderful designer and some excellent editors, developed a firm but flexible editorial policy and a vision. We cultivated an openness to possibility… Then we started to improvise. Publishing as jazz; publishing as a syncretic process. Let me tell you, it’s harder than it looks!
Miriam Zolin is a member of SPUNC and the publisher and editor of extempore, a journal of writing and art inspired by jazz and improvised music.