A New Way of Seeing Jazz

Aesthetic Realism and The Siegel Theory of Opposites offer a new way of understanding the beauty of jazz and all music.


I grew up outside of Philadelphia and have lived in New York for over 20 years. I'm a jazz pianist, singer, arranger, choral conductor and music teacher. I've been teaching full-time for about 18 years. Currently I teach on the junior and senior high school levels, though I've taught from elementary school through college. I also teach privately. Since 1985 I've been studying Aesthetic Realism, first in consultations and now in professional classes taught by Ellen Reiss.

Saturday, February 26, 2005

An Historic Anniversary

Today, February 26, 2005 marks the 50th anniversary of the Terrain Gallery at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation in New York City, and the publication of 15 questions titled "Is Beauty the Making One of Opposites?" by Eli Siegel. These questions are an abolutely thrilling way to study the visual arts--and, surprisingly, music and jazz, too! There will be a gala celebration of this anniversary tonight at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation.

In coming posts, I'll comment on specific questions from "Is Beauty the Making One of Opposites?" in relation to jazz. For the moment, you can read my post of February 6--and check back soon!

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Voltaire's "Candide" says things about jazz, too.

Today I went to a riotously funny matinee titled "Evil Seen Beautifully! or, Voltaire's Candide," a dramatic production of Eli Siegel's great lecture of 1951, at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation in New York City. What a wild book Candide is! And how valuable Mr. Siegel's critical comments on it. And how wonderful the acting was today, by Anne Fielding, Bennet Cooperman, Timothy Lynch, Carrie Wilson, Derek Mali, Carol McCluer, and there was live musical accompaniment by Barbara Allen on flute and Edward Green on harpsichord.

So what does all this have to do with jazz? At one point in the novel, Candide comes to the mythological land of El Dorado, where the streets are literally paved with gold, precious stones are as common as ordinary rocks, and the people--who are all beautiful--drive around in carriages drawn by great red sheep, animals faster than the swiftest horse. Still, Candide longs to be back in Europe, with its wars and earthquakes and more, to be with his sweetheart, Cunigund. Mr. Siegel explained that what Voltaire was getting at is that the oneness of smoothness and roughness--which Europe with the loved Cunigund stands for--is more beautiful, more desirable than just smoothness--which El Dorado stands for. Well isn't that true about jazz as well? For example, like so many people, one of the reasons I love Louis Armstrong is that he is rough and smooth. One hears that most clearly in his voice, but those opposites are together beautifully in his trumpet playing as well. And the two together--! It is always amazing to hear Armstrong go from playing to singing or singing to playing. The sounds are so different, yet they are both unmistakably Louis!

And as we think of Candide and jazz, let's not forget that both have (that is when jazz is true to itself) a wildness that is yet well managed.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

"It Don't Mean a Thing if it Ain't Got that Swing" and a Navajo Circle Dance have this in common

Today was the beginning of the new semester of The Opposites in Music class at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation in New York City, taught by Barbara Allen, Anne Fielding and Edward Green--and what a class it was! Were it not for this class and the Siegel Theory of Opposites on which it is based, I would never have seen a relation between this Ellington classic and a traditional Native American chant--or to the other pieces of music we listened to and learned about, including the first piece from JS Bach's "A Musical Offering" and Berlioz' "Symphony Fantastique." In fact, I would never have even looked for a relation. Like the other students in the class, I was excited to see that each of these pieces put together freedom and order, the first pair of opposites Eli Siegel wrote of in "Is Beauty the Making One of Opposites?" (Read that first question as you listen to these pieces of music--or any music you love--and see if it doesn't open up vistas of perception, understanding and enjoyment.)

The recording of "It Don't Mean a Thing..." we listened to was from 1932, and it was one I'd never heard before. I was familiar with later versions. This one has a roughness I think the later one's don't have, which contributes to the sense of freedom and the unexpected in it. I especially like the ending, as the brass repeat the "doo-wah-doo-wah" figure over and over. This repetition, as the teachers of the class pointed out, is orderly in the extreme. It almost sounds stuck. Yet, because the rhythm of this figure contradicts the underlying 4-4 rhythm of the piece as a whole, the time seems to float freely. Where's the beat? Then the saxes come back in and the piece concludes with one strike of a what sounds like a chime--very neat. I could say much more about this recording. Listen to it, and check out particularly Ivy Anderson's vocal.

The importance of this new way of seeing jazz is not only that it relates jazz to all other kinds of music, but that it relates it to the structure of the natural world and to our own, everyday questions. Freedom and order are in the way a plant grows, sending out new branches and leaves. And freedom and order are what we want every moment: we want to feel unencumbered, unfettered, expressed; we want to be able to kick up our heels. And we want to feel our lives have structure, order that we can count on, the right routine. When we don't feel freedom and order together, we can feel either stuck, hemmed in, or that our lives are a mess--I've felt both! Music, wherever it is good, shows freedom and order can go together. How hopeful!

In another post, I hope to write about the Navajo Circle Dance.