Monday, February 06, 2006

Now Play It Like You Mean It

I was looking for a reference on the Internet the other day, and I found this, a peripherally related topic. This is from Roadside Theater's Web site, an essay entitled Art in a Democracy, by Dudley Cocke. (Text from The Drama Review, Fall 2004, Social Theatre, Vol. 48, Issue 3)

Locating Oneself in a Tradition

Thirty-odd years ago, a famous folksinger from California came to the coalfields of central Appalachia to perform in a high school auditorium. A big crowd was on hand as a local string band opened the concert. The local band, rising to the occasion, had the audience's rapt attention. The famous folksinger followed with some success. Backstage, she made a point to congratulate the local band on their performance, noting that she, too, often sang from the same Appalachian song book. She went on to say how keenly the audience had been listening to their music and wondered what their secret was. "What is that little something extra you seem to have?" she asked repeatedly, each time more emphatically. The local band looked at the floor as she pressed for an answer. Finally the fiddle player spoke up, "Well ma'am, the only difference that I could tell was that you were playing out front of them ol' songs, and we were right behind 'em."

Aha! I said to myself. This person is getting close to that indescribable something that traditional Appalachian string bands have that is missing in so many "revivalists'" performances. Perhaps he's defined it for me. Then, he goes on to quote Ralph Ellison.

Ralph Ellison deftly spins the fiddler's point:

There is a cruel contradiction implicit in the art form itself. For true jazz is an art of individual assertion within and against the group. Each true jazz moment (as distinct from the uninspired commercial performance) springs from a context in which each artist challenges all the rest, each solo flight, or improvisation, represents (like the successive canvases of a painter) a definition of his identity: as individual, as member of the collectivity, and as link in the chain of tradition. Thus, because jazz finds its very life in an endless improvisation upon traditional materials, the jazzman must lose his identity even as he finds it. (Ellison [1964] 1995:234)

Don't get me wrong, now. I admire Ralph Ellison up one side and down the other. "True jazz moment" versus "uninspired commercial performance" sounds like he's getting to the heart of the matter. I just have no idea how "each solo flight" is like "successive canvases of a painter," or is a definition of the musician's identity. Maybe it's true, but I'm no wiser than before.

Maybe you can't do better than John Blisard, who advises aspiring musicians: "Now, play it like you mean it."

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