I really, REALLY don’t get jazz. Or at least, not jazz about Bernie and Hillary

There’s this jazz musician who has composed tunes about four presidential candidates. From a release I received about it:

Famous pianist Marcus Roberts recorded a song about Hillary Clinton as part of an EP of songs inspired by the candidates. Listen to at Newsweek: http://www.newsweek.com/hillary-clinton-election-marcus-roberts-jazz-pianist-430521

The song “It’s My Turn” comes off Roberts’ upcoming ‘Race for the White House’ EP, a nonpartisan set of songs about four presidential candidates: Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, Ben Carson, and Clinton. The New Yorker recently premiered the first track, “Feel the Bern”:http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/feeling-the-bern-in-g-minor

“All those meter and key changes symbolize constant evolution, and Hillary has certainly evolved from her early days in Arkansas,” Roberts says about the new song. “The song has a cool stability to it, reflecting her ability to change with time while maintaining her own quiet intensity and relentless purpose.”

Roberts will be on NPR Weekend Edition tomorrow talking about the project, and will debut the songs live at an upcoming residency at New York City’s Birdland, March 8-12. Let me know if you want to hear the other two songs about Trump and Carson.

* One of the most important jazz musicians of his generation, Roberts was recently profiled on 60 Minutes: https://vimeo.com/90518308

* More info and photos on Marcus Roberts: http://shorefire.com/client/marcus-roberts

How Mr. Roberts came up with Carson as the fourth, I don’t know — maybe he started the project when the surgeon was viable. Personally, I’d consider either Rubio or Cruz as more interesting characters to interpret musically.

Marcus Roberts

Marcus Roberts

But that’s not my point. My point is that I’ve given the Sanders and Clinton compositions a listen — and I don’t dig them. I don’t mean I don’t like them — I’m neutral on that point — but “dig” in the sense of “get” or “grok” or “understand.”

In other words, I don’t see what the music has to do with either subject.

Oh, I’ve read the rationales — in words. This is an experience that reminds me of Tom Wolfe’s takedown of modern art, The Painted Word — the basic point of which was that art “had moved away from being a visual experience, and more often was an illustration of art critics’ theories.” In other words, you couldn’t get it by looking at it; you had to read the theory.

Well, I don’t see or feel either candidate when I hear these compositions, in any way, shape or form.


18 thoughts on “I really, REALLY don’t get jazz. Or at least, not jazz about Bernie and Hillary

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    OK, I’ll take that back slightly.

    Right at the end of the “Bern” piece — like 20 or 25 seconds from the end — there’s this muted trumpet that comes in with a slow tempo, and it has a kind of shambling, semicomic sound (probably because of the mute, which has often been used for comic effect — wah-wah-WAAAHHH), and at that moment, I can picture Bernie walking onto a stage. Or at least Larry David, dressed as Bernie…

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Now see, THAT sounds more like hang-gliding than those other compositions sound like Bernie or Hillary.

      Of course, the effect is amplified when the conductress spreads her arms like wings, or makes swooping motions with her hands…

  2. Howard

    To me Jazz is nothing more than people playing scales. It’s either so complex that the people performing are geniuses or they’re no talent hacks just playing whatever they feel like with no rhyme or reason for any of it. To me it’s more noise than music.

  3. Phillip

    Well, that’s why music is music and words are words (or images are images, etc.) . Composers have for centuries written instrumental music that was meant to convey a story (Johann Kuhnau’s “Biblical” Sonatas from the Baroque era for harpsichord or Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique, or evoke images from nature (e.g., Impressionism in music—titles by Debussy like “Gardens in the Rain” or from Ravel, “Sad Birds”). But portraying people is the most elusive thing for music to try to do—how can you evoke all that a person is, in musical terms?

    Leonard Bernstein tried a sort of thing like that with his “Anniversaries” for piano…each was written to celebrate the birthday of a friend, and he attempted to do something like a musical portrait of the friend, really more just about the feelings he had about that person. But of course to somebody else it could sound evocative of something else entirely.

    Just as a painting really should have the power to say something to you BEFORE you go over to the wall to see A) who it’s by and B) what the title is, so must music be able to speak to you on its own terms, whether or not you know the extramusical associations the composer might have brought to its creation. Methinks Marcus Roberts (who is a wonderful and really important pianist of our time) simply wanted to sort of cash in on the electoral season.

    For my money, one of the most powerful “portraits in sound” is of a…well, sort of a “politician,”
    but beyond that one of the two most terrifying and powerful men of the last century—Joseph Stalin. Though he certainly didn’t officially say this openly at the time (for obvious reasons as in not wanting to die), Dmitri Shostakovich was said to have indicated (in some writings late in his life smuggled out of the USSR and still somewhat challenged as to their authenticity) that this 2nd movement of his 10th Symphony was his portrait of Stalin.

    Crank your speakers up to 11 and check this out. And note: this is a YOUTH orchestra playing.

    1. Howard

      I don’t think music or art has ever made a major impact on my life. To me it’s all background to more important things.

      1. Bryan Caskey

        “We don’t read and write poetry [or listen to music] because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.

        To quote from Whitman, “O me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless… of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?” Answer. That you are here – that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play *goes on* and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?”

        -John Keating, Dead Poet’s Society

  4. Bill

    release 2015/check it out
    You have to learn to focus on the silence, to adjust your listening threshold so that the dark, empty voids become the prime reason to dwell in this place. Concentration is required here and for much of this grand four-disc set Rowe and Tilbury perform in such a manner way beyond any doctrines of music being “…the space between the notes”. Here, the improvising duo have reduced down to the point where they seem to be playing the space itself.

    Enough Still Not To Know comes packaged as a black, impenetrable monolith. You hold this beautifully austere box in your hands and it seems to swallow up the air and light around it, becoming an absence of being yet weighty and dense with heavy vacuum. When you press play on ‘First Part’, you hear creaks and rubs, hisses and very occasional stuttered clusters of piano chords or shortwave fragments of charged electricity. It’s a bit like listening to movements in the shadows, phantom gestures which are hard to decipher and inscrutable in their intentions. But if you start to focus on the silence, then you realise that it is these passages which are the punctuation and marker points and not the direct conversation between Rowe and Tilbury.

    As part of AMM and multiple other improvising collectives of the past fifty years, these two players have worked to such an extent that one can only marvel at the level of expertise in their craft and how they listen and respond to each other. I once saw John Tilbury perform as part of a trio improvising a piece which took no account of the throbbing blare of urban nightlife pounding at the venue walls. Instead it only seemed to make him and his colleagues that evening more determined to reduce every motion to the tiniest detail, like focusing on breathing in a hurricane. We as the audience were welcome to join them in that space, but it was for us as individuals to decide whether to open up to that concentrated microcosm or allow the intrusive rhythm and grind of outside forces to overwhelm us.

    Its much the same listening here. Created in collaboration with visual artist Kjell Bjorgeengen for a video installation, this music was recorded over two days in a London studio. On listening the first few times, you may wish there were concrete visual evidence of what took place during these sessions as the music is initially so difficult to get a handle on. ‘First Part’ is the sparsest of the four discs, rumbles and scrapes which seem barely to exist. Then, Tilbury may suddenly produce a single note of unhesitating deliberation. The swathes of silence only seem to intensify with these rapid escalations which vanish as quickly as they appear. The ear searches for sound as the eye yearns for light, hoping for context in which to place these occurrences. But none is offered beyond what you may or may not hear, each of the four parts coming to an abrupt stop as if indicating that enough has been said for now.


  5. Harry Harris

    I appreciate the talent and skill of good jazz musicians. I don’t like much jazz because I, too, don’t understand it. I’ve thought before that God let man develop jazz so that we would have an idea of what eternity meant.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *