Genius in Jazz

“A genius is the one most like himself”: Thelonious Monk’s typically incisive statement is a fascinating lens through which to consider genius in jazz music. Here are three jazz moments that resonate with an astonishing unity of person and performance.

The above quote is taken from a list of advice that Monk gave sax player Steve Lacy in 1960 (full list here). The words echo something deeply familiar to anybody who has ever engaged in an artistic act: That creating truly moving experiences requires an artist to free themselves from external influences and expectations, and express something that is unique to them – while simultaneously awakening a revelation of subconscious familiarity in their audience. It’s a paradox I tried to explain in my piece on improvisation earlier this year — with limited success. Typically, Gustave Flaubert had much more success when he addressed the same topic: “Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars.” This is the artistic fantasy, always tantalisingly out of reach: To produce something so pregnant with ethereal truth that it changes the world. What makes Thelonious Monk’s quote so memorable is that it goes beyond the “what” and speaks about the “who” of creating great art. Below, you can find three examples of moments in jazz music where performers get close to meeting Monk’s criteria for genius.

Billy Strayhorn: The Peaceful Side (1963)
There are few jazz musicians for whom it might have seemed more difficult to meet Monk’s criteria: Strayhorn devoted much of his creative energy to writing and arranging music for Duke Ellington and his band. His professional life was lived on the fringes of the jazz scene, acknowledged as a great musical mind but rarely afforded the credit that his astonishing catalogue of hits deserved – and even more rarely enjoying his share of the limelight. The Peaceful Side is one of only a handful of recordings of Strayhorn’s playing that exist, dwarfed by the enormous number of recordings of his music played by other artists. The record affords a unique glimpse into the man behind the music, and the results are breath-taking.BillyStrayhorn

Strayhorn’s gentle and soft-spoken nature unfolds through his piano playing, which stands in the absolute focus of each track. The gorgeous melodies that he created for Ellington are presented without the force of a big band weighing on them. It is incredibly intimate: An undressing of phrases and harmonies known the world over, but with purity and honesty restored. With pretty melodies pushed to the forefront, the tender and beautiful heart of these extraordinary pieces of music is layered with occasional support from strings, and punctuated with the angelic sighs of a small vocal group. The record is Strayhorn understood at last: A genius like himself, soft-spoken, thoughtful, loving, and immaculate. A man in love with the music, the music in love with him too.

Charlie Parker: Lover Man (Dial Records version, 1946)
Parker is known to have felt deeply injured by the publication of this recording. Legend has it that Dial Records producer Ross Russell (who later published a biography of Parker) had to physically hold the saxophonist up during the recording: Parker was suffering heroin withdrawal due to scarcity of the drug on the west coast, and had medicated himself with whisky. Unable to stand, struggling to blow into his instrument, Parker delivered a fragile performance that stumbles from phrase to phrase, groping in the dark, clinging to the lead sheet, desperate and vulnerable.CharlieParker

To label Charlie Parker a genius is an almost unforgivable cliché. The alto sax legend is celebrated as a man who had an unparalleled knowledge and intuition for harmony, coupled with unprecedented instrumental virtuosity. He was the driving force behind the development of exciting forms of jazz music: Indeed, one could argue that Parker’s constant challenging of harmonic structures, genre boundaries and expectations of style has informed the way musicians have approached the music in the decades since his death. What makes this specific recording of Lover Man such an unforgettable moment in jazz music is that Parker shares his suffering, his despair and his weakness with the listener. The recording is illustrative of the power of the jazz standard reimagined into a completely new experience (see previous post here). It is a chillingly personal experience: His riffs seem to roll out of the saxophone like tears, at times the phrases are articulated through raw changes of dynamics that are reminiscent of a man breaking down: Wracking, excruciating, convulsing waves of despair. A genius, broken and anguished – unable to be anything other than himself.

Sun Ra: Space Is the Place (1972)
There is truly nobody like Sun Ra: His work exists not only as music, but as a series of parallel universes – complete with planets, landscapes, species and laws of physics. This makes listening to Sun Ra, particularly his material from the mid-60s and the 70s, a deeply challenging experience. His compositions are worlds that must be explored with only very rudimentary means for navigation, and each listener is responsible for drawing her or his own map or the terrain: In fact, often the listener must draw the terrain first. It is music that frequently requires an extremely active listener, and one who is prepared to contribute a high level of their own imaginative forces. Sun Ra is not looking for a customer. He is seeking a co-conspirator.Sun Ra

This all testifies to the assertion that Space Is the Place could only ever have emerged from Sun Ra’s mind. The self-proclaimed “sound scientist” simultaneously conducted an experiment and an orchestra (or rather, an Arkestra). The title track is a towering piece of composition that is executed with jaw-dropping precision. The refrain, sung over and over throughout the 21-minute track, provides orientation: A short phrase with a simple rhyme, formed into a melody so familiar it rings like a doorbell chime. Against this context, the Arkestra is unleashed. The instruments explore wild intervals, inject fragments of harmonic meaning and madness, and deliver tension and release through surges and vacuums of dynamics. To the uninitiated, it may feel like anarchy – but Sun Ra’s credibility as a masterful “straight” musician within the jazz tradition was confirmed much earlier in his career, through collaborations with acclaimed musicians like Coleman Hawkins and Stuff Smith (see Jazz Lives! Blogpost here). Space Is the Place is the work of a man who was not just unlike any other: He is absolutely himself – a pioneering, innovative philosopher with a mind powerful enough not just to create music, but to construct entire universes.

And a few more…
It was rather difficult to reduce this list to just three moments of genius in jazz. Here are a few that almost made it:

Lounge Lizards: Voice of Chunk (1988)
John Lurie’s saxophone sound is a miracle, reaching violin-like breadth of tone. Spontaneous and conversational riffs repeated with jarring precision, to provoke a devastating range of often contradictory emotions. A kaleidoscope of genres, motifs and ideas, delivered by an unmistakable voice.

Charles Mingus: Beneath the Underdog (1971)
The great bassist and composer’s autobiography is a labyrinth of half-truths, exaggeration, excess and silliness, interspersed with moments of philosophical brilliance. A fantastic reflection of an enigmatic and eccentric musical icon, and an unparalleled contribution to literature about jazz.

Parliament: Mothership Connection (1975)
Pure, unadulterated fun: A landmark demonstration of what the human mind is capable of, and the joy that our species can spread when we rise to the full dignity that is our birth right. Mothership Connection should be broadcast into every corporate office space in the world, every single day of the year.

Pharoah Sanders: Karma (1969)
Heartfelt, unpretentious and warm: This recording is beautifully imagined, and unabashed in its sincerity of message. Left off the list as it is perhaps a little over-produced, and draws a little too much influence from the trends in popular music in the 1960s. Nevertheless, a fascinating artistst expressing himself in wonderfully candid terms.

Thelonious Monk: Live in Oslo (1966)
It seemed unfair to let Monk win a game that was being played according to his own rules: This concert shows him at his idiosyncratic best, complete with dance breaks, beanie hat and beard. A fantastic line-up of great individuals that leaves enough space for each voice. Glorious.

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