Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Riffing on Canadian Jazz

I'm leaving tomorrow for 10 days at the Siena Jazz Workshop, where I'll be both participant and observer. In addition to researching profiles for DownBeat on pianists John Taylor and Franco D'Andrea—both of whom are on the workshop faculty this year—I'll be delivering a lecture in the workshop's jazz history series.

My topic dates back to lengthy email (and occasionally phone) discussions I used to have with the late jazz writer Eric Nisenson. Eric was one of the first people I met online in the early '90s, and he encouraged me to expose him to what was happening in Canada's jazz scene. The basis of his interest was a comment that Miles Davis made to him while Eric was trying to wrestle the trumpeter into sitting down for formal interviews for an oft-promised autobiography (Quincy Troupe finally succeeded where Eric failed, but that's another story). Davis told Eric that he was the only white guy besides Gil Evans who struck him as truly colour blind, which Davis attributed to Evans' birth in Canada. That always struck me as one of those outrageously—and usually purposefully—provocative things Davis said, since Evans was barely out of a crib when his mother moved him from Toronto to California, but we Canadians love to claim him as our own if we can.

Eric's interest in Canadian music was also sparked by his deep love of Glenn Gould's music, his attraction to the work of Kenny Wheeler, and his abiding dislike of anything Oscar Peterson played.

It was a good time in Canadian jazz, with a lot of young(ish) players coming up, and I was happy to share tips and recordings with Eric.

Our conversations about the music led to him encouraging me to write a survey book. I demurred, saying that my friend Mark Miller had already cornered that subject, but Eric persisted, saying that there was a book to be written on what Wheeler, Paul Bley and Sonny Greenwich (an artist he knew about—through Davis—but hadn't heard until I sent him some CDs) had in common. Gould's landmark Idea of North and his various essays on the influence of the Canadian landscape on artists made Eric believe there was a link there. Good idea, I agreed, but how to interest a publisher in something like that? An academic publisher, perhaps, but not likely a mainstream one.

So, years passed, as did Eric, but I kept coming back to the idea. Every so often I'd ask a Canadian musician if the theory rang true for them, and eventually got a chance to ask Wheeler, Bley and Greenwich. No one ever dismissed it as rubbish, although Wheeler—as recently as two weeks ago, when I asked him about it again—couldn't put his finger on any specific influences.

It's certainly true that Canada is distinct from the United States in many ways, and at a symposium organized by George Lewis and Howard Mandel a few years ago at Columbia University, I spoke about how some Canadian jazz musicians (pianists Andy Milne, D.D. Jackson, Marilyn Lerner and John Stetch) retained rich elements of their ethnic heritage in their music.

In Siena, I'm going to expand on the topic, finally giving Eric his due on the validity of this theory. We'll see where it goes from there. Here's the introduction to what will be a 75-minute presentation with music samples, and hopefully some give-and-take with my European audience.

Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau once said that living next to the United States was like “sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered the beast is, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.”

If such is the case for things like trade and politics, it is amplified when it comes to art and culture, and no more so than when the topic is jazz, which my neighbours to the south love to call “America’s classical music.”

So, sleeping next to this beast, how does one create music that both respects—and builds upon tradition—and reflects your own culture?

How do you tell your own story… in your own musical dialect… when the story has shared roots like jazz?

It is a challenge that exists not just for Canadian improvisers, but for those who live anywhere in the world.

The elephant is that big!

For those who may not know, Canada does have a distinctive cultural voice… in visual arts, it is the raw, wild landscapes of A.Y. Jackson and his fellow members of the Group of Seven. It is the expressionism of the west coast rainforest, as expressed by Emily Carr.

In literature, it is the psychological inner views of Robertson Davies, the futurist feminism of Margaret Atwood, and the merciless self-examination of Mordecai Richler.

These are forms of expression you will not find in any other nation.

In his prolific writing for radio, the Canadian concert pianist Glenn Gould frequently addressed what he called ‘The Idea of North.’

By that, he meant that Canada gave its citizens a sense of space, isolation and alienation that was their own. And yet, there was always the elephant looming large.

So, artists in Canada develop their own voice, their own approach to storytelling—whether with a brush, a computer or a saxophone—but the lure is often there from the other. The grass the elephant grazes on looks sweeter. And clearly, it’s nourishing. There is enough of it… well, to feed an elephant.

But Canada—like any nation—is not static.

Like Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Finland, its face is constantly changed by global migration patterns.

It reflects the trend of urbanization that every country is undergoing.

How that affects Canada, and how Canada reflects that reality through its arts, is also unique.

America is frequently referred to as ‘a melting pot.’

The theory is that America is a land of immigrants, who have arrived in wave after wave since the 1600s. But regardless of where the waves have originated—from Eastern Europe, Ireland, Italy, the Middle East or Southeast Asia—the people who arrive in America want to be American.

They desire to blend in.

To melt into the masses.

Canada has always been different.

While many of our immigrants come from the same places, those who decide to stay in Canada more often keep their own cultural identities.

Or at least they blend their ethnic identities with the Canadian identity.

And that reality is the story of jazz in Canada.

Our artists have developed distinctive voices.

They’ve been lured to the sweeter grass. And many times they’ve returned.

And they have kept their own distinctive cultural identities, and blended into with both the Northern Voice and with the tradition of improvised jazz.


reynpa said...

What a great idea, and an intriguing intro, James. Post the whole thing someplace when you're done!

dan blake said...

Too bad you didn't run into Seamus Blake, another great Canadian jazz musician while you were in Siena.

Howard said...

We used to call it a melting pot, but it becomes ever more clear America is not quite that. Some immigrant groups more than 100 years/4 or 5 generations) old seem ever more eager to claim their old country connections (I'm thinking Irish, Italian, Polish), while some black Americans identify themselves strongly as African Americans, the native indigenous people of America have never been melted into the one American alloy, Jews are still suspect in many quarters, Asians identified as such. I've heard the more recent metaphor is that America's a "salad bowl," different ingredients touching but not necessarily flavoring each other, except by comparison in close proximity. I don't know if Canada is more that way, or about the same, or less. Very hard to put a finger on that idea of North.

James Hale said...

Dan: I crossed paths with Seamus several times, including sharing a communal lunch table. Seamus has been one of my favourite tenor players since the first time I heard him. He is featured in the John Stetch piece I played during my lecture.

James Hale said...

Howard: While it may be true that the melting pot has changed (I like the salad bowl concept) it's undeniable that our countries differ widely in the way they have subsumed (or not) other cultures. To my knowledge, the concept of "multiculturalism" has never been ingrained in U.S. government policy as it has in Canada, and, having just spent the weekend in Toronto, I am reminded that no U.S. metropolis displays such clear-cut ethno-cultural boundaries as does Toronto. I think it would inconceivable that the U.S. would bend policies (or be forced to by its federal courts) to allow people to maintain their ethnic identity as, say, the Sikhs have done within Canada's Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

John Doheny said...

Along the lines of Howard's comment, I'm inclined to think that the idea of things like the 'melting pot' or the "cultural mosaic' (god I got sick of that term in Canada in the 70s) are more an imagining of policy makers and trend pimps than something that plays out on the ground. The idea of starry-eyed masses "yearning to be free" in their journey to America bears little resemblance to the desperate economic refugees who constitute most of the crowd sitting in your local INS office waiting on their green card interview (where I spent many happy hours with my wife waiting on her green card interview some years ago). Many of these people are not so much coming to America as they are fleeing desperate circumstances at home, and many couldn't care less, or are totally unaware of, the lofty expressed goals of American democracy. Nor are they much interested in adopting American mores and culture or even, in many cases, learning English. That is reserved for their children born here, or brought at an early age.

I was just up in Canada playing the Cellar in Vancouver, and had occasion to dip into "The Glenn Gould Reader" while up there, and I must say that "The Idea of North" struck me as just that, an idea, since the vast majority of Canadians live in Urban or suburban environments (as do Americans). The Great Canadian Trope of being a wilderness people always struck me as a parrallel to American myths about being rugged-individualist cowboys; fairy tales told to themselves by Babbitts, or leverage to be exploited by politicians.

Maybe I'm prejudiced by my residence in New Orleans, a very "African" city where jazz is perhaps still more of a "black thing" than some other places, but the extent that Canadian jazz has a unique sound always seemed to me to be the extent of it's European influences. While the straight ahead stuff still hews to a grounding in Africanized, additive rhythms (as opposed to European metric-divisive ones) the vocabulary sometimes contains more "folky" vibe ala Dave Douglas. And then you have those folks who toss the African stuff entirely, like Peggy Lee or Jill Lebeck, who sometimes seems almost Bjorkish to me. But I'd be hard pressed to find anything uniquely "Canadian" in this. The boundaries seem too nebulous to be national.

James Hale said...

Like the "cultural mosaic" term or not, John; it is ingrained in our constitution. All things considered, I'd rather have that than the right to bear arms.