Tick-tock

Time, as David once said, flexes like a whore (he went on to suggest that it 'falls wanking to the floor', but I'm not sure about that). Playing Alladin Sane a lot in our place over the last couple of months and so, subconsciously inspired, no doubt, I bought Walter Tevis's novel, The Man Who Fell To Earth. Poor T.J, blinded by X-rays, addicted to booze, his plans to save his own world, and ours, in ruins - a tragic tale.

LETTERS/DIARY

Weds, June 7th 2001

Came home last night to find a cloud of small white pigeon feathers on the lawn - most distressing - looks like the bird was ambushed from the dense foliage as it fed on the bread that Jane put out. Hope she doesn't feel too guilty. Must tell her to stop encouraging the birds to ground feed. Fucking cats. Why don't owners put bells on them? Suppose they're not thinking about their prescious feline friends putting their cute little claws into a bird. I'm so sensitive about this kind of thing these days. Getting older must heighten not only our awareness of our own immortality, but that of other creatures too. Funny, though, I don't get squeamish or upset (like Jane) when we watch the wildlife docs that show a predator catching his/her dinner. I see that as 'natural'. Domestic cats act naturally, but the fact that they've got a bowl of food at home robs them, in my eyes, of any justification. Cats are always sneaking around, they crap on your garden, and they kill our song birds. I wish I'd bought that catapult we saw in Lanzarote last year. Perhaps I'll get an air rifle...

Election day - 6.07am - we'll go and perform our democratic act this evening - first time I'll have voted for years...since...the Thatcher years. I understand the apathy, but that's because everyone's living pretty good, thankyou, so there's nothing to get upset/excited about. Whether Tony's to thank for this or whether this society of ours would have settled into a kind of steady climate regardless of who was in power, I don't know. I'm not the 'politcal' person I once was, so I don't even take much notice of what goes on, but the Tory-voting guy at work reminded me today of why I'm more inclined towards Labour than Hague and Co when he started banging on about 'the pound' and the immigration issue. I'm not even a PC kinda guy (got my own prejudices etc), but he's a Sun-reading cave man with the social awareness of a flea. People are stupid. Everyone's stupid in one way or another, but the kind of stupid you are says a lot, possibly...

Heard Too Much Too Young (or whatever it's called) by The Specials (?) today on the radio, and the lyrics struck me as being so perfectly right about our stupid obsession with breeding - ain't you heard of the starving millions? - stupid people shouldn't breed, but what can you do about that? Nothing. Best not to get mad about things you can't change. Babies are still making babies, so how can the parents be expected to set a good example of anything except how to breed and live futile lives of boredom, drunkenness, desperation, frustration, anger etc. God bless the working classes...without them, who would post the mail, empty the bins, help manufacture carrier bags...work in the factories that churn out the CDs which give us so much pleasure...?

A guy stopped me at Work today and asked if I knew about the Jazz doc coming up on BBC2 this week-end. I said yeah, but from what I've heard, it's biased towards the first half of the century more than the second, except for the Bop crowd, obviously, and Miles. I heard it doesn't give a lot of time to the likes of Ornette, or Ra, or Ayler, or Cecil Taylor - perhaps because they're not 'proper Jazz' - and in a sense, that's right, they transcend the definition. So perhaps any documentary calling itself 'Jazz' shouldn't be expected to spend a lot of time on the 'free' spirits of the modern age. I'll watch it, of course, because the history is fascinating anyway

******

To use the waiting for a bus analogy Ken Burns's 'Jazz' documentary is the equivalent of the whole fleet finally arriving and each one of them breaking down halfway along the route. Jazz fans can hardly believe their bad luck. Not all will be unhappy, of course. If, like many, you happen to believe that everything pre-WW2 was fine and dandy and most of what took place afterwards was a noisy decline, his epic film will be a joy and a validation of your beliefs. As a supposedly objective piece of film-making, however, 'Jazz' defies belief.

Burns was, by his own admission, an ignoramus when he set out to make his third Great American historical voyage of discovery, having done the civil war and baseball. This naivety should have made him open to everything, rather than biased against so much. This is where the first conspiracy theory comes in, based around the fact that Wynton Marsalis is a heavily featured talking head, and we know where his preferences lie. Could one man have exerted such power? It seems unlikely. But who did Ken consult when first approaching the century-old art-form? Was he advised against spending too much time of the avant-garde by someone he trusted as an 'authority'? This idea doesn't make much sense either, assuming that he read a few recent books on the subject, and must have noticed that the likes of Sun Ra, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor and Albert Ayler are all recognised as having contributed more than a little something.

'Jazz' will go down as the biggest missed opportunity in the history of documentaries, surely. The history of jazz is so blindingly obvious in it's general course that those seeking a conspiracy appear to be on the right track, but have yet to find the right one. Government intervention? It's one thing to highlight the lynchings and Jim Crow policy of the early-20s, but to show that nothing much had changed forty years later is too....subversive? I suspect that the ultimate reason has more to do with Burns falling in love with the nostalgic appeal of olde jazz as entertainment in adverse conditions, cue shots of river boats and the sound of Louis's horn. Despite the social degredation of those times, the musical response was, ultimately, joyous. By the 60s, the response to both social injustice and musical stagnation was much more 'difficult' and, yes, angry.

Perhaps it all boils down to someone's definition of 'jazz', and a decision was made based around an evolutionary point which had created a very different animal to the one that was born at the start of the century. Unfortunately, if you think a bit about this, the notion of a 'pure' form is also total nonsense. It was born a hybrid of various cultures, and started changing as soon as Ellington applied his sense of grandeur to the genre. It changed when Armstrong took horn-playing into another dimension, when Billie Holiday sang the way she did, when Parker and Gillespie took over, and it kept on changing.

The one bold decision Burns made that I do agree with was to stop in 1975, when Miles declared the thing to be dead. This would have been annoying enough to those who value what happened for the remaining fifteen years, but to race through the preceding fifteen is absurd. It's so ridiculous that, not having seen the whole thing, I still half-believe that all the critics are lying, are out to discredit the man. Yet all reports confirm that the sixties are dealt with in just one hour. In defence of his time frame, Burns apparently asked critics to name one player of the modern age who had been as influential as Ellington, Parker etc, and no-one could answer. This makes sense looking at the period from '75 onwards, but is he really suggesting that Eric Dolphy, Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra, the Chicago players, late-Coltrane and the whole New Wave were not influential or important?

As someone who was an absolute beginner when he started (owning just two jazz albums), Burns made a bizarre switch into a warped form of 'purism', but his lack of understanding may well be the key to all this. I suggested earlier that the open mind should not, theoretically, be biased, yet the flipside is that someone not accustomed to a musical 'challenge' might also easily fall for common conventions, just as a Pop fan would find Ellington 'easy' but Ayler a 'nightmare'. Defying my own theory, however, Burns is equally dismissive of Fusion, apparently. Jazz gettin' down with Funk, despite providing an easy access point to other forms, left Burns as cold as the Free school. Whereby most objective opinion must acknowledge the importance of Miles's 'Bitches Brew', where it could have offered a final big bang in the 'Jazz' time scale, it's left with the rest as so much cold custard after the 'main course'.

Robin Tomens

Read the next part of Robin's 'All The Time In The World' series here.


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