Today we're thinking about the blues, metal and jazz. Mainly jazz though.
Blue Metal Jazz
These days whenever anyone asks me for my favourite genre of music I give this reply: Blues, because it is grandfather to my second and third favourites genres of music, heavy metal and jazz. Indeed, there can hardly be a style of music (outside of classical and opera) that has not been influenced by blues in the last century. I once saw on TV a Danish neo-Nazi heavy metal group singing white supremacist lyrics over 12 bar blues. Sometimes incredulity can only give way to hysterical laughter.
As previously written about in an article on Bruce Dickinson’s ‘The Chemical Wedding’, heavy metal was the first music scene I got into. If I’d been born a decade earlier, I’d have undoubtedly been a punk, but I was a teenager in the late 80s and it was heavy metal at this time that was in the ascendancy. In many ways, I’m glad. Punk is fine and sometimes, as with the first few Clash albums or that one vitriolic offering from the Sex Pistols, even brilliant. Punk though was very much of its time, visceral and immediate, it made no apologies and it acknowledged few debts to its roots. It also had, ultimately, a limited range.
The reasons that I grew to love metal are the same reasons that I have grown to love jazz. On the musical spectrum, both occupy an enormous range of styles. They also blur the boundaries between neighbouring genres. Are AC/DC a rock band or a heavy metal band? Is Nina Simone a blues singer or a jazz singer? The answer in each case is both.
With both metal and jazz there is a bewildering breadth of styles, from blues rock to hard rock to glam rock (thankfully a dying breed), speed metal to black metal to progressive and power metal . There’s modal jazz, cool jazz, free jazz, and jazz-fusion; bebop, hard bop and fast bop. They can even encroach upon each other’s style, as in The Bad Plus’s kick ass jazz version of Sabbath’s ‘Iron Man’. Or listen to any Iron Maiden album featuring Nico McBrain on drums, especially ‘Seventh Son of a Seventh Son’, to hear a jazz trained drummer at the top of his game. Most of the best metal drummers list jazz legends like Chick Webb and Buddy Rich as major influences, in the same way that Tony Iommi credits gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt as being instrumental to his playing style (see ‘Planet Caravan’ on ‘Paranoid’).
Of course, as similar as they may be in some respects, the two styles of music are vastly different in a great many more. Consequentially, I tend to listen to each under very different circumstances. Metal is my getting stuff done music. When I sit down at my desk to write of a morning (ok, afternoon), I usually need something rhythmic and plodding to shift me into writing mode, the bass drum propelling me forward, banishing any lethargy from my soul.
Jazz though is for reading. To settle down to the sofa with a volume of Alice Walker, Asimov or Melville, one needs a good jazz album. Most of the musicians I love are favourites because of their lyrical ability, but it’s difficult to listen to them when reading, because instead of concentrating on the words on the page, I’m lip synching to the words in the air. Jazz though wraps itself around the words, compliments them, soundtracks and illuminates them. Rock music kick-starts my day, jazz draws it to a close.
I came to jazz the way most people have come to jazz over the last fifty years, via Miles Davis and ‘Kind of Blue’. If you’re used to more regular or mainstream forms of music then listening to jazz is like learning to speak a new language. ‘Kind of Blue’ serves as Rosetta Stone to this arcane tongue. It’s also a fine indicator of how far your comprehension has progressed. There was a time when I hated jazz and even thirty seconds of any jazz album was enough to make me feel physically sick. First listening to ‘Kind of Blue’ was like hearing Beefheart’s ‘Trout Mask Replica’ for the first time. Or struggling through that first, tortuous reading of ‘Finnegans Wake’. It was jarring, strange and didn’t always make a whole lot of sense.
These days I speak jazz fluently and ‘Kind of Blue’ sounds to me as mainstream as anything else I listen to. To be honest, I prefer ‘Sketches of Spain’, but that’s solely because of Miles’s heavenly interpretation of Rodrigo’s ‘Concerto de Aranjuez’, one of my favourite pieces of classical music. That said, ‘Kind of Blue’ is in many ways the perfect jazz album, the musical equivalent of ‘Frankenstein’ or Rimbaud’s ‘Ma Boheme Fantaisie’ in the original. It’s musica universalis, the music of the spheres in which ancient philosophers and eighteenth century astronomers and composers believed. Miles Davis is to jazz what J. S. Bach is to the classical tradition.
As mentioned earlier, Nina Simone blurs the lines between blues and jazz, as well as pop and rock, from covers of Leonard Cohen, the Beatles and half a dozen Dylan tracks, to her own compositions, like ‘Mississippi Goddam’, written in response to myriad racist murders committed in the 1960s (she called it a show tune for a show that hadn’t been written), to the instrumentals that showed off her sheer virtuosity on the piano. The latter, in particular, are showcased on her 1958 debut album, ‘Little Girl Blue’. To hear songs like ‘Central Park Blues’, ‘Good Bait’, the opening to ‘Mood Indigo’ is to experience serenity. These are complimented by the fragile tenderness of her voice in ‘He Needs Me’, ‘I Loves You Porgy’ and the title track, ‘Little Girl Blue’.
‘Little Girl Blue’ also contains perhaps Nine Simone’s most famous track, ‘My Baby Just Cares For Me’, made famous when used in an advert in the 1980s, selling a product the name of which I care neither to name or even indeed recall.
Nina got screwed out of the royalties for her first few albums and was understandably belligerent in refusing to play any of their tracks live, making sure audiences comprehended her exact reasons. The albums still exist however and the world is a better place for their existence. She could be tough, demanding, insisting people refer to her as Dr Simone after she was awarded an honorary doctorate, but I guess she had to be. There isn’t an African-American musician in the last century who hasn’t experienced the kind of abuse that should fill any rational human being with revulsion. Slaves made America, north and south, what it is today and virtually every musical style to come out of the States in the last hundred years, good, bad and indifferent, is infused with the blues. A lot of the time I think the kinds of racism that is pointed towards the African American population is born out of jealousy and pure resentment.
I once knew a couple, she of Afro-Caribbean, he of eastern European Jewish decent. In Britain, few people looked at them twice, yet I was told that in the States, even in Manhattan, people on the street would regularly drop out of reality in seeing them together. My response upon hearing this was, what, has no one in New York ever heard of George Gershwin? The music of Gershwin embodies the artistic evolution that results in cultural cross fertilisation. ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ is often mislabelled a classical track, but it is as much jazz music as anything. For many, ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ is the theme song of New York, the soundtrack to Woody Allen’s Manhattan, one of the cultural crucibles of the world, an area of outstanding ethnic mixing. But then Gershwin’s all-black opera, ‘Porgy and Bess’, a work forged in the Manhattan melting pot by the son of east European Jewish immigrants was a flop at the time of its original production in the 30s, derided and sneered at by the usual subjects. It’s heartening to know that ‘Summertime’ from ‘Porgy and Bess’, with lyrics by DuBose Heyward, became, briefly, for a time, the most recorded song in history a couple of years ago, with everyone from Billie Holiday, Janis Joplin, Tom Waits and Louis Armstrong recording versions of the song. Nina Simone recorded her own version. Miles Davis too.
Jazz blurs not only into blues, but into classical music. Aside from Gershwin, some of the greatest American composers of the 20th century came out of jazz. One has only to think of Count Basie and Duke Ellington, the two greatest composers, pianists and band leaders to come out of the era of swing and big band. “One more time.” Many of the most recorded jazz standards in recording history are Duke Ellington compositions, ‘It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)’, ‘ In A Sentimental Mood’ and ‘Mood Indigo’. “One more, once.” The high pitched horns of the Count Basie Orchestra almost define the sound of the 1940s. It somehow doesn’t sound right hearing them without the occasional doodlebug exploding outside.
Nina Simone I would characterise as my favourite female singer. Yet for all time jazz composer and performer, I can only pick one man and that is Charles Mingus. Much as I love ‘Little Girl Blue’ ‘Kind of Blue’, ‘Sketches of Spain’, I adore ‘Mingus Ah Um’ above all others. If the ‘Count Basie Orchestra’ are the sound of the 40s, ‘Mingus Ah Um’ defines the 1950s, even if it wasn’t recorded until the decade’s final year (I can be forgiven, as I wasn’t born at the time). Released in the same year as ‘Kind of Blue’ and the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s peerless ‘Time Out’, ‘Mingus Ah Um’ somehow encapsulates that time more than its contemporaries. ‘Kind of Blue’ is timeless and ‘Time Out’ mixed up with so many styles of world music as to almost escape the gravitational pull of jazz altogether.
‘Mingus Ah Um’, with its defining track, ‘Fables of Faubus’, written in mockery of Orval Faubus, the Governor of Arkansas who deployed the National Guard in order to prevent two African-American students from attending high school in Little Rock, stands out as an album of its time. It’s an album of outstanding tracks, ‘Better Git it in Your Soul’, ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’, ‘Jelly Roll’ and ‘Self-Portrait in Three Colours’.
Like Ellington, Basie and Gershwin, Mingus is a genius composer. His meisterwerk, ‘Epitaph’, is so complicated that it was only successfully performed for the first time more than a decade after his death. Any fan of Radiohead will know Mingus’s work, if only by proxy, with both ‘Pyramid Song’ and ‘We suck Young Blood’ both heavily influenced by the Mingus track, ‘Freedom’ (from the album, ‘Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus’, a title that inspired at least one ‘Jazz Club’ sketch on 90s programme, ‘The Fast Show’).
Indeed, it’s indicative of how far my comprehension of jazz music has come that there are so many jazz artists that I listen to these days that I have not yet even mentioned, including Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn, Lee Morgan and Sonny Rollins, Charlie Parker, Dizzie Gillespie, Thelonius Monk, Cassandra Wilson and The Bad Plus.
I still listen to heavy metal, but much of it being the music of my youth and, strangely for a genre firmly rooted in the mid-twentieth century, the list of jazz artists I listen to is marginally more contemporary than that of the metal. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, what’s contemporary is what’s new to you in that instant. I read 102 books last year and only one of them was published within the year (Philip Hoare’s, ‘The Sea Inside’), so who needs contemporary? The past is another country. They may do things differently there, but it also means there’s a lot to discover for yourself, as if it had never been discovered before.
Get it done.