Jazz and SF

I’ve heard people, time and again, compare jazz to SF in terms of them both being very “American” artforms, and, along with the cowboy movie, among America’s original contributions to the common human repository of art and culture.

The cowboy movie, I’m afraid, has roots that go way deeper than American history, which is why it resonates so powerfully with other forms of literature and narrative. I see a lot of the Gothic novel in the Western, and a lot of the Bible too.

As for SF, let’s be honest: it didn’t really begin in America: the historian/theorists can fight over whether it begins with Kepler’s Somnium, or Lucian of Samasota, or Shelley’s Frankenstein, or Verne and, later, Wells. It’s true that American writers, editors, filmmakers, and performers have contributed significantly to the palette from which we take our paint, no doubt about that; but SF is no more “uniquely American” than slavery was, even if we might concede that it has taken on a very American cast in the past century or so.

Jazz music, though, is in my opinion different. The qualities that make up jazz are, of course, drawn from various places: the tonality and (in general) the musical instruments of Europe; the vocality and the rhythm of West Africa; the historical experience of black Americans, yes, who have obviously been the driving force behind this music for the whole of its history, but also a musical culture including and surrounding and coming out of it that could not be anything but a mixed mongrel of European and West African cultures and traditions.

So, I think that jazz is the one uniquely American contribution to world art and culture, because while it (like all art and culture) grew out of antecedents elsewhere, its formation and the combination of those antecedents led to something radically unlike the antecedents, or anything else in the world.

(You could argue with me, for example, that jazz has a lot in common with various regional Indian musics. I could agree, given that both make heavy use of solo improvisation along with a supporting group of musicians (especially rhythmic support). But having a lot in common doesn’t negate what I said, and I think jazz remains radically different from Indian music in a lot of ways, not the least its use of Western harmony and its radical revision of the same.)

(You could argue also that there are other unique contributions America has made to world art and culture… for example, the gangster film, or the TV sitcom. I’m interested in those arguments, generally, but let’s move on for the moment.)

Given my general lack of interest in narratives about cowboys and sheriffs and those sorts, that leaves me with SF and jazz.  Now, I have brought the two together, in the past, in a way that got a response that at least seemed to be received appreciatively. That said, I cannot help but observe that it’s really, really difficult to bring jazz and SF together in a way that works… or, this is my experience.

One reason for this is that, while jazz remains a vital and growing form of music in a lot of ways, if you know where to look (and no, it’s not in the dusty museums where Ken Burns, Wynton Marsalis, and Stanley Crouch want us to think jazz now “lives”), but vital or not, it’s not very popular. Other forms of music are easier for SF fandom to “get” in a story. Even for me, Alastair Reynolds’ story in Shine, “At Budokan,” is pretty revealing in this way: at its core is what he calls “bitching hard rock music” (in this interview) and the story wouldn’t really work with any other sort of music, truth be told. (Not to spoil it for you, but it’s not like he could have gone with Wagnerian opera, or even some branch of electronica.)

The second point is this: jazz no longer is a popular music in Western culture… but it once was. It is, in other words, a music of the past for many people, and even if that’s not how I feel about it, it’s still a popular perception. This suggests alternate history (which I’ve done before, and which Kathleen Ann Goonan appears to have done in her novel In War Times, which is on my nightstand waiting for me to get to it, as well as in other of her books in my pile) as well as time travel (like the story I’m working on now, which I’m fine with but making jazz a time-travel theme seems tantamount to declaring it dead). Yet for most people, jazz does not suggest, in any easy or straightforward way, a strong connection to the future, and so it’s hard to write SF about jazz… unless of course you feel comfortable with the museumization of jazz, which, again, I don’t, or you’re able to imagine a resurgence of awareness of the musical history of the modern world, which… well, I’m dubious. Or, of course, unless you’re willing to just embrace the jazz and make it part of the world anyhow, which I’m guessing is the main way to do it.

The third thing is, music is really bloody hard to write about. It’s hard to do well, anyway, and by “hard” I mean really hard. More so when it’s a really dynamic, cerebral, and complex form of music. It’s sort of like the monster in a horror story, in that the more you attempt to reveal the music itself directly to the reader, the more likely your description will fall flat for that reader. You have to find metaphors to do the heavy lifting in building that bridge between the music as it exists in your story, and the mind of the reader.

That said, there are some good reasons for writing about jazz in SFnal terms.

First, it’s the music I love. So hey, you know, write what you know. (And love.)

Secondly, I think that jazz and SF have something else in common, which is that they are inherently postmodern. Not postmodernist, mind you, but postmodern in themselves. They are at once collective extrapolations of ideas, but also intensely personal expressions of a worldview; cacophonic as both discourses often seem, they are also possessed of an amazing power to shape the way we see ourselves and our world. They both seem to transcend the comfortable boundaries we put on a lot of the artistic or literary fields surrounding them: “literature” is often either thought-provoking, or exciting, or mind-blowing, but often not all three, whereas SF tends to require all three (or at least two out of three) to work well. “Art music” can may be accessible or difficult, may be self-consciously entertaining or unremittingly intellectual, complex or simple, beautiful or ugly… but it rarely manages to spin all of those plates at once the way good jazz does. There’s an affinity there, and one that cuts to the heart of whatever it is we are today. For me, especially it’s important how both amazing jazz music–in the virtuoso improvisor’s hands–is mind-blowing and instills a sense of wonder for the listener. This is as true for old jazz as it is for the really out stuff, like I’m into.

Thirdly, I think, is that jazz is underappreciated. I like to imagine that someone who has read a story where the music plays an important role might happen to go online and check out some of the music on Youtube, get his or her hands on it, and listen. Maybe some love might even result.

But fourthly… hm, this might sound crazy, but I think that the US State Department was onto something about jazz back when it was sending jazz musicians out to tour the world (as I discussed here). I think the USSR was onto something too, when they viewed jazz with distrust. Despite all the problems of their interpretations–the racism and the whitewash-universalization by the State Department, the latent racism and the aesthetic snobbery of the Soviet authorities–they were right to feel that there was something deeply democratic in the structure of jazz music: the communal construction of music based on agreed-upon rules and structures, the primacy of (and importance of supporting) individual expression, and the freedom so inescapable in the music. It seems to me that this is a particularly important message–and an inherently political message–that gains pertinence with every passing week, with every new shift toward control. (And I don’t just mean political conservativism, but rather all the different control structures that are part of our world and growing in prominence everywhere.) I don’t know that the message of jazz will necessarily get through in every story that involves jazz, but I think working with a particular material can help infuse the sensibility into the story. I hope so, because, like John Coltrane told Frank Kofsky in this 1966 interview (here, also available in here) –a year before he died–I want to be a force for good:

You know, I want to be a force for real good. In other words, I know that there are bad forces out here that bring suffering to others and misery to the world, but I want to be the opposite force. I want to be the force which is truly for good.

It seems to me, today, that speaking against the strictures, the increasing controls, and the interests that would prefer us to shut up and consume and watch our cultures and the world both continue to die. The parting shot by Pizzahacker (Jeff Krupman) in this interview comes to mind:

I make about $5 an hour (maybe less, I don’t have time to calculate) selling my pizzas for $12 to $18 a pizza. They are truly a labor of love. I mix the dough by hand, pick/can the sauce by hand. Make/transport the oven, etc. I spend more on olive oil or wood per pizza than Domino’s does on ingredients for a whole pie. If you think my pizzas are too expensive, Fuck You! Please enjoy your family farm-killing, exploited illegal immigrant-built, fake cheese-laden, nutritionally void, race-to-the-bottom pizza. You deserve it.

Okay, okay, that’s probably way more Miles Davis than John Coltrane, but I’m taking Krupman’s words as more of a diagnosis of some of the things going on. Add in the stuff everyone knows who’s been in an airport since 2001, or paid attention to climate change, and you end up with a lot of stuff for which being a force for good is important. Whether fiction can do much, I don’t know–but it’s certainly no more far-fetched than the idea music could, and lots of pretty intelligent people take that idea for granted today.

Dostoevsky was, I suspect, wrong: Beauty probably will not save the world. Very nifty ideas will probably do that. But beauty can inspire us to have those nifty ideas, and it can give us impetus to have them and to avert disasters, to preserve cultures, arts, foods, and all those other things that make life so much more vivid than a corporation could ever offer us.

Well, I’m done, but for more observations on jazz and SF, and the connections that can be made between them, here’s a great essay by Kathleen Ann Goonan.

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