Olvasói levelek (5)
Magyar Jazzkutatási Társaság
1023 Budapest, Lukács utca 4.
Simon Géza Gábor

Alapítva: 1995. január

2011 mérleg és közhasznúsági jelentés:

A Magyar Jazzkutatási Társaság a jogszabály adta lehetőségekkel élő támogatói jövedelemadójuk egy százalékát utaltatták át egyszámlánkra. Az összeget jelen kiadvány költségeihez használtuk fel. Köszönetet mondunk mindazoknak, akik bennünket és ezzel lapunkat támogatásra érdemesítették.

1999-10-18 • Henri Broms
Notes to Semiotics of Jazz

Kedves barátaim, ladies and gentlemen!

It is with some hesitation that I take up this subject on these prestigious premises. Firstly, jazz has not been earlier dealt with from a semiotic viewpoint. Secondly, even if popular culture is a worthy academic subject, jazz is not even today everybody’s cup of tea. But I am happy that I have something to say just to our Hungarian hosts.

These are some stray observations on the jazz research, and I am going to divide my subject in three parts.

1)I am going to start with a presentation of a less known but great Hungarian jazz scholar, Géza Gábor Simon –

2)I am speaking about jazz as a very specific mode of creation, on the basis of some semiotic theories

3) I am talking about African jazz


A little known Hungarian jazz scholar

I should like to ask how many of you know this researcher of jazz, Mr. Simon, who has published more than ten books, and numerous articles ? (Author’s “post facto” comment: no hands rise).

I shall mention only a few of the works of Géza Gábor Simon. He started his work as a jazz researcher and discographer in 1985 by Magyar jazzlemezek/ Hungarian jazz records (Pécs 1985). This work was later, in 1994, enlarged to Magyar jazzdiszkográfia 1905-1994/Hungarian Jazz Discography 1905-1994 /Budapest 1994).

How should I describe the interest and substantiality of this kind of work? Some linguists among you might know some of the great dictionaries of old, often written by just one man: Gamillscheg’s French dictionary, Grimm’s or Paul’s German dictionaries. Discography is the same kind of undertaking, it is not done very often, perhaps only once in a hundred years.

Simon’s discography is very large, it includes all records abroad, where only one member of the band is a Hungarian, Thus I have found an almost complete discography of one of my early interests, the Swiss jazzman Teddy Stauffer. Likewise Peter Kreuder, the great pianist of the war years, who disappeared to South America, is there.

Naturally for a friend of the Hungarian jazz this books is a constant source. I have myself two or three Hungarian jazzmen to whom I take interest, The first is József Szabó, of whom I have been able to get only one, though excellent tape, Este Dunabárban (A Night in the Dunabár). The tape is published in 1982, but I always wondered when it was recorded. In Simon’s Discography I find now a full description of the personnel and the recording date. Jószef Szabó was one of the forgotten masters of Hungarian jazz, who had a strong and perhaps negroid sense of swing.

But in another work of Simon’s apparently endless activities I find even more about Szabó! We come now to another work of Simon. In 1999 he started to publish his jazz journal (earlier in printed form) now as a CD ROM with the title Jazzkutatás discs 1 and 2 (Jazz Research 1 and 2). There are fantastic collections of original films (yes, on the same disc, in movie form!), special discographies of jazzmen, photo collections and lot of articles of Hungarian jazz researchers. There I find in one of the subsections (such as: sources, articles, photos, films, sound recordings) an article of early jazz researcher Attila Csányi, about the history of this recording A Night in Dunabár. The article tells where was Dunabár, who played there, when Szabó/Beamter duo started. I think this kind of publishing, in CD format, is very rare in whole Europe. Certainly this kind of collection of sound pictures, movies and discographies put together, is mostly unheard of in academic circles anywhere. – a pioneer’s work!

I must here skip the excellent histories of Hungarian jazz written by Simon. The Book of Hungarian Jazz (1992) and the very comprehensive Magyar jazztörténet (Hungarian Jazz History, with rich material of photos and more than forty old discs n two CD’s). All these photos and jazz memorabilia, are an extremely valuable collection, and its value increases, as time goes by. I must also mention my first introduction to the rich Hungarian jazz scene, Csányi’s and Simon’s long playing disc Jazz and Hot Dance in Hungary, 1912-1949, published in England by Harlequin. Let us hope that this work, done with an extraordinary enthusiasm, still continues.


Jazz as a specific mode of artistic creation

A very relevant source to the semiotic understanding of jazz is Roman Jakobson’s and Peter Bogatyrev’s article Die Folklore als eine besondere Form des Schaffens. (Utrecht 1929).

The authors ask: Where is the frontier between the two ways of production: individualist and the popular (ethnic) way of creation? They answer: It is actually the same kind of question as: How many peanuts you must take out of a heap, until it ceases to be a heap?

The authors note that popular creation has mainly two forms: Reproduction and improvisation. “The people does not produce, it reproduces”. Improvisation is very important identification of folk poetry. Improvisation plays the main part in it. The collection of acceptable themes is limited and it is memorised. The styles of how to reproduce, the figures of speech, the metaphors, all these are memorised and then the improvisation takes place only with these accepted figures of speech and accepted styles.

The authors speak of the strict censorship of folk creation. There are no lonely geniuses in folk poetry, they would be discarded already in the early process of creation. If they have existed, they are unknown, because of the hard censorship of style and metaphors.

The authors say that the people does not create a new “milieu”. The milieu rests the same for centuries, but in Europe since the fourteen hundreds, the task of new schools of art and poetry has been to create its own new “milieu”, different of the father’s world. Reproduction would be called plagiarism and it would be distasteful.

This all is very relevant when speaking of jazz. Thus Jakobson and Bogatyrev speak of two things as being characteristic to folklore’s way of creation, reproduction and censorship.

We can find that these both are cornerstones also of the way in which jazz produces music.

Blues is a musical form which is very near the heart of jazz, it is one of the essentials of any jazz musician’s self-education. Blues is in fact one of the easy things (on a modest level) that one can learn in jazz. Improvisation of blues can be learnt from models. The learner listens to tens of records of the great blues guitarists or pianists (or whatever is his instrument) and starts to memorise the fingerings of ten or twenty figures that sound good. A typical blues consists of five parts. The 4 bars of C, the 2 bars of F, again 2 C’s, then 2 G’s, and in the end 2 C’s. (C’s F’s and G’s could be changed to any key). It does not take so many of these figures, until you can play a blues that satisfies you (even if not your neighbours!) on a low level.

I think this corresponds to Jakobson and Bogatyrev’s description of learning by reproduction.

The censorship is also found in a jazzman’s education. Those who have played In school bands, know how strict is the censorship over the styles of improvisations. In European jazz circles, after the war, improvisation was sometimes raised to the height of a law, every type of music reading was an evil. There were also “pure” styles. That was the contents and effect of the French jazz theories (notably Panassié). When going home carrying their instrument cases, the players often spoke about each others way of improvising, very easily the words strange, crazy ands corny appeared. That was the censorship. The good bands are those who can improvise well, and in a known language. Mad players are not accepted easily. We remember what was said in earlier jazz books (e.g. in Leonard Feather’s Inside Bebop) about Thelonius Monk. It was said that he tried to play those things which others could play, but he couldn’t. Now he is hailed as a king of original piano playing.

Here we come to the question of innovator-geniuses in jazz. Is jazz a people’s music or product of a lonely individual struggling upstream? If we observe how originality is treated in jazz, we get an idea of how in this question jazz is quite specific, and halfway between popular music and concert music.

Since romanticism, since Emerson’s, Schopenhauer’s and Nietzsche’s writings (the two last ones wrote on music), there is a hero or genius worship in the (at least German) concert music. Innovator is seen as a lonely wolf that creates his own milieu and language, nobody knows him, and he is recognised only slowly. He listens only to what his genius dictates to him. In Carlyle’s i>On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History (1841) makes originality the artist’s almost only goal. These ideas have spread to the jazz journalism.

There are innovators in jazz too. S. Lemponen’s doctoral thesis Swing to Bop – Hep to Hip (1999) is a very illuminating work on the question of how the innovators in jazz create their new language. The work shows how closely the innovation of Bebop was tied to the black culture’s concept of what is an élite. The black élite were the hipsters, those who were “cool” around the year 1940-41. The jazzmen of the bebop era were “vocational mystics”, there were “distinctive , shared patterns of appearance” (Lemponen p 81). There was a language of the hipsters, a bebop talk, which was unintelligible to outsiders. Lemponen describes this language. There were special suits, the “zoot suit”, there was the Mohammedan cult (which had little to do with Mecca and Kaaba). There was an aspect of naming places and things – there was a whole culture based on non-conformism. Thus even the bebop’s musical language was developed together, socially, in Minton’s Playhouse (and other places of jam sessions). It was not a lonely man’s creation but rather a music of a social élite.

What is the role of individuality in this? If we had to do a bit unsavoury comparison of the way in which Charlie Parker found his style and, let us say, Beethoven found his style, we must say that both ways are similar. Parker’s originality, and beauty of his phrases does not come finally from Minton’s Playhouse, but from his own mind, his “genius” (even in the German sense of the word). If we compare him with some of the best players of an alto sax, like Lee Konitz, we understand the big difference in depth of melody and swing.

So, jazz is a people’s music, it can be described with Roman Jakobson’s and Peter Bogatyrev’s terms as a folklore, but there is also something else in it. It is also an individual creation, Both of these trends have taken influences from American life, from its black folklore, but also (through American life) of Emerson’s hero-worship. Of course jazzmen never read those books, but things spread intuitively, like by a “sixth sense”.

To confer Jakobson’s and Bogatyrev’s idea of reproduction in folklore to jazz, we could also quote Yuri Lotman’s ideas of two cultures, culture of identity and culture of contrast. Lotman’s example of culture of identity is Commedia dell’arte, which was based on improvisation and memorising of phrases. Almost all the phrases of the "arlecchino" and "dottore" etc were memorised, and by reproducing these memorised phrases the play was produced as a total improvisation. III

Questions of Periodisation

Semiotics has many new things to say about periodisation of art.

It has been written ( I think it was Boris Vian, but I have not found the quotation) that the last period of jazz and its future lies in Africa. Now we have had cool jazz, then free jazz, and jazz begins to see its own history, as something that suffers a death in academic circles and conservatoires.

Art, said Shklovski, travels down the inevitable road from birth to death. (V. Erlich, Russian Formalism, Leiden 1955, p. 226) The artistic form becomes a dull object which our sense register only mechanically. Sad to say, this what has happened to much of the free jazz.

What next? We can see (to quote Shklovski, op.cit. 226) “a canonisation of the minor form”. What was in the periphery, and was not admitted to the parlour, is now raised to a status. This can be said has happened to Rhythm and Blues, which is now in the mainstream, a salvation to those ears that do no listen easily to ten minute solos.

Another possibility is the “return not to father but to the uncle”. The uncle here might be European symphonic forms. After Ellington we have not seen big-format jazz which retains its jazziness.

So jazz waits for a new period.

Totally independent and carefree of what happens in America, lives the African jazz. The jazz in South Africa, The West- and East Africa seem to develop quite independently. The medias have now come to Africa, we all know Miriam Makeba and some of us know King Sunny Adé or Fela.

The African music can be divided in four geographic areas:

1)West Africa: Guinea, Ghana, Senegal, Côte d’ivoire.

2) Kongo and Zaire

3)The East Coast, Tanzania, Kenya Zimbabwe

4)South Africa

In Africa musicians have often the role of soothsayers of the nation. In West Africa they are called Griots, keepers of religious philosophical and historic traditions.

We have to make a mention of the ju-ju music. It is a kind of African mysticism. Ju-jus are spiritual beings, the main god Olurun has on his side Shango, and perhaps twelve Helpers. Some musicians bring these new religions to bear in their music – and thus give to it a charming new context of allusion to “higher forces”,

“High life” was born in the 30’s in the West Africa, when players made extra money by playing in the hotels a music that reminded of jazz, to the pleasure of the white listeners. “High life” of all African forms, reminds us most of mainstream jazz.

Another chapter are the Africans’ inventiveness in instruments. Drums we know. But then there is e.g. the Mbira, a charming instrument, made of a gourd of melon or a big enough tin can. On top of it is attached a metal plate which is cut like the metal plate inside a mouth harmonica. It can play melodically, but this melody is repetitive, it expresses polyrhythmic figures that seem to surpass the listener’s understanding. Its music has a strong cyclic character. The repetitions are full of small variations which uninitiated does not even notice. Then there is the “interlocking”. Several Mbira players interlock in a subtle way to each other. A superb natural talent for music and rhythms is exemplified in this simple instrument.

The main part of African jazz (do we call it that?) is played with jazz instruments like saxophones and trumpets.

Clinking and klonking away with instruments made of empty conserve tin cans ? Today the situation is such that 99 % of Europeans would borrow very little from Africa. However, we can also say that European music sometimes has only its dignified overcoat, the outer form left. I once attended when Mauricio Kagel broke slowly a violoncello.

Jakobson (op.cit. 236) wrote: “Art can and did flourish during periods of technical regression, conversely, social progress is known to have gone hand in hand with mediocrity in art.”

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