Should It Stay or Should It Go?

Monday, November 27, 2006

The Grand Narrative

Artists: Count Basie; Duke Ellington
Albums: America's #1 Band (CB); 16 Most Requested Songs (DE); The Duke Ellington Carnegie Hall Concerts (DE); Ellington at Newport 1956 (DE); The Far East Suite (DE)
Source: Bought new (all)

In one of the grad-school courses I'm taking this semester, the instructor leans a great weight on the concept of The Grand Narrative (TGN): the idea that we experience and understand art as a big, codified story. This artist influenced this next artist; this movement followed that movement; every action exerts a sequentially causative influence on acts that follow.

It can be a bit much to swallow sometimes, but it also makes perfect sense. Art is studied retroactively and retrospectively as history, and history is largely an arrangement of people and events along a chronological line. It may be pat to say that Louis Armstrong led to Dizzy Gillespie led to Miles Davis, but it's also kind of true.

It's also true that when people lay out jazz history, lots of room is sketched on the line for Big Band. It matters historically and, while it may be out of vogue now, most of the cats who are in vogue have the Big Band TGN etched into their styles; whether they followed it, expanded it, or (re)acted against it, all roads still lead back to the orchestra. To understand Miles or Monk or Bird, or even Dave Douglas, Bill Charlap or Joe Lovano, you need to understand the Duke, the Count and their bands of merry men.

Or so TGN goes. And I generally go along with it. So I try. I bought Duke Ellington's 16 Most Requested Songs on sale at the Tower Records (R.I.P.) on South Street, and I listened; some of it sounded like old pop songs, and a lot of it just sounded old. When introducing my grandmother to the treasure trove of old recordings reissued on CD, I asked her to pick up The Duke Ellington Carnegie Hall Concerts for me which, I knew from my TGN was important, because it had the debut of the "Black, Brown and Beige" suite; I listened, and it sounded muddy, trapped in the ancient microphones that were swarmed by the big ol' Ellington Orchestra.

Since I was having trouble getting past the old-timey sound quality of the early works, I went modernistic. The Far East Suite (which dating to 1966 is by a long shot the most contemporary thing listed in this entry) sounded great, and I groked it instantly; of course, once I read up on its place in TGN, it seems that the keepers of the historical flame decree this to be good, but unrepresentative of the Duke's "classic" work. I got the 2-disc, complete (and remastered) version of Duke's important comeback at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival, and I used some birthday money to get a whopper of a 4-disc box that, I figured, would point the way to the court of Count Basie. After all, everyone said (and I believe them) that this is great stuff, that I need it.

They're right on one count: pop in any disc of the Basie box and it's just great. There's big band, small group, vocal, instrumental, studio, radio and live recordings, and they're all fantastic. They make me feel happy; they make Eileen dance. They have the depth of the post-bop and contemporary jazz I love, but without the sometimes oppressive darkness. I put them on, and I think, "I should listen to this all the time."

And yet. And yet.

And yet I don't listen to it all the time. I listen to the Count and the Duke pretty infrequently, if I'm going to be honest with myself. The big band I listen to most often is Dave Holland's, and that's a new, active unit that sounds more like a postmodern expansion of his small combo than it does anything on America's #1 Band. I eye these in The Beast, I tell myself, "I should..." and then I usually don't.

SISOSIG? But (and it's not until the judgmental part here that I come to the "but"), even though I don't listen often, I feel pretty sure that I will. Big band music is, I think, something I'm still growing into. My first reaction was that the music sounded too old, but I think the real problem is that I'm not yet old enough. There's an ancient youth in these recordings, and with time I relate to it a little more, then a little more. When I first discovered jazz in college, only the aggressors - Miles, Coltrane, Ornette, etc. - had something to say to me, and with time my ears opened, roughly in concert with my soul mellowing. It's still steeping, I think, and this music will be important...or, rather, its TGN importance will line up more snugly with my own TGN, and I'll feel important enough to hear what the Big Bands have to say to me.

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