Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Music Shows How We Want to Be: Artie Shaw's "Nightmare," Part 2, by Michael Palmer

Control and Crying Out in the Clarinet

When Shaw comes in a second time, on a longer solo, he is deep, thoughtful and yearning; you feel he is looking for something and is not satisfied as he leans on blues notes that sound sour, painful, and don’t quite fit the background harmony. As the solo progresses, he goes further, becomes more abandoned, goes higher and higher in the instrument’s range—nearly three and a half octaves. Every phrase takes in more and more territory; and surprisingly that steady beat underneath, which earlier seemed so ominous, now seems to support him, encourage him on even as it remains so tight, just two semitones. What a contrast to the range of the clarinet!

(Shaw clarinet solo)

So different from “Nightmare,” dark, minor and portentous, is a song Artie Shaw is very much associated with: Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine,” which is mellow, beguiling and in the major. It was one of Shaw’s biggest hits, and audiences would demand he play it again and again. These two compositions were recorded in the same year, 1938, and it thrilled me to see that the same opposites are central in both of them: the contained and the expansive, something tight, held back, and something that surges forward, together with a persistent, ongoing beat.

(Opening of “Beguine The Beguine”)

Isn’t it something to think that the same man is identified so closely with these very different pieces—one upbeat, with a smooth, undulating melody, the other severe, dissonant, critical. It shows that Artie Shaw, like every person, was trying to put opposites together.

As “Nightmare” concludes—with that dark, inexorable pattern below, the brass blaring out above, and that final bright cymbal crash—we get an emotion that’s very satisfying. This music is brash, it’s bold, it’s critical, it doesn’t smooth things over. We can imagine audiences in the late 1930s, worried about what was happening in Europe, and trying to make sense of their own lives, pleased to hear it played by a big band, to hear something troubling given artistic form. And audiences today can feel this too. In fact, “Nightmare” is part of the background score to the current film, The Aviator.

As we listen to that last assertive minor chord with its crashing cymbal, we feel there’s something honest going on. Reality is not summed up--we feel there’s more to see.

(Conclusion of “Nightmare” starting with the end of Shaw’s solo
when he seems at the top of his range)
For your comments, please email me: mpalmer131@rcn.com and/or visit my website.
Kindest regards,

Friday, January 21, 2005

Music Shows How We Want To Be: Artie Shaw’s “Nightmare," Part 1 by Michael Palmer

The education Aesthetic Realism, founded by American poet and critic Eli Siegel (1902-1978), describes what makes for beauty in music and shows how music comments centrally on what we’re hoping for in our lives. “All beauty,” Mr.Siegel stated, “is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” There is not one thing that music does,” Siegel once said in a lecture “that does not say something about how a person should organize himself, too.”

The composition “Nightmare” by the late Artie Shaw is a great example of this. It wowed me when I first heard it as a teenager living in the Bronx. It was on a big band radio show. The announcer would come on and say, “Now, live from the Blue Room of the Hotel Lincoln, the music of Artie Shaw and his orchestra”--and the band would come in with the opening bars of “Nightmare.” Hearing that intense, heavy, unrelenting beat, and Shaw on the clarinet seeming to cry out--I would get goose bumps—-and I still do!

As I think of that time in my life, it’s surprising that I liked this music so much. Though I cared for sports, I was a very contained person; I didn’t like exploring new territory, being tossed about. I preferred familiar, comfortable, smooth ground; and so I held myself back, and while I felt “safe” inside, I often wanted to yell out. I had no idea that the reason this music, aptly called “Nightmare,” with its dissonant, ominous wail, excited and satisfied me so much was because it opposed my desire to be smoothly contained, and gave outward form to my hope to break out of that deadening narrowness I had welcomed. Many people go around in a kind of quiet nightmare, not knowing how they got there or how it can change.

In an early Aesthetic Realism class I attended, Eli Siegel asked me: “Do you think you want to change, but you also want to remain exactly as you are?” I said, “Yes.” And he asked: “Are you fond of the status quo and the status no?” I was. I remember, for instance, going to a singles club hoping to meet a woman, but waiting for someone to come to me and start a conversation. I thought my mere presence was enough. But I was wrong, and usually left alone, blaming others for being unsociable. I came to see what I was really hoping for as Mr. Siegel asked me: ”Do you think there is something impelling you to have to have a good effect on someone? Is there an imperative there?” The answer was yes—and my fortunate life these years ratifies that “yes,” a thousand fold.

What Is This Music About?

I see in “Nightmare,” which Artie Shaw composed and arranged himself, a dramatic tension between the confined and the explosive: something painfully contained struggling to break free. As we heard, it begins with that thudding, repetitive pattern on the trombones, saxophones, and drum. The low saxophones are playing a tight, chromatic figure that is almost airless. The rest of the band comes in suddenly in the high register, and the effect is like an electric shock. The high and low aspect of the band are almost in a combat, and out of it, in the middle register, Artie Shaw enters on the clarinet.
It’s important to say that Shaw felt this music, with its nightmarish quality, represented him so much he used it as his theme song. What was impelling him? I feel these sentences by Eli Siegel from Self and World help explain it:

"One thing that can be seen in dreams and also in life is that on the one hand we want to go ahead, and on the other hand we want to check ourselves.... We should see, however, that the desire to be wild and abandoned and the desire to be self-restricting are common desires, and are present all the time, both when we sleep and when we are awake."

As I studied the life of Shaw for a public seminar at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation, I came to see that this desire to go ahead and also check himself, to be both abandoned and self-restricting troubled him very much. An innovative bandleader during the heyday of the swing era in 1930’s and early 40’s, Shaw, writes music historian George Simon, “was a searcher, a man looking for something new, something different.” And he could be very kind, generous; becoming the first white bandleader to hire a Black singer, Billie Holliday, and supporting her with a beautiful insistence despite the terrific bigotry and racism she had to face as she traveled with him and his band in the South. And Shaw also cared very much for knowledge, taking courses in French literature so he, as he said: “could read men like Flaubert, Proust and Baudelaire.” But he was also snobbish, looking down on fellow musicians who he felt were not as intellectual as he was. And unfortunately, he had contempt for his audiences, describing them as “musically illiterate.” Had he studied Aesthetic Realism, he would have been able to learn from the very music he wrote, and his life—which included pain about love—would have been so much more fortunate. In an important paper, Martha Baird, poet and critic of music, wrote of Shaw’s “Nightmare,” saying:

"Artie Shaw is intense. There is a kind of pain in the tone of his clarinet, but he has control too and he knows what he is doing. [And she also wrote] You feel Artie Shaw wept a lot."

Please check back soon for Part 2 on
Artie Shaw's great jazz composition "Nightmare"


Sunday, January 16, 2005

Basie, Williams, and the Blues

Joe Williams, Count Basie Orchestra "Every Day I Have the Blues"
By Michael Palmer

In the Opposites in Music class, I've been seeing how Eli Siegel's principle, "The resolution of conflict in self is like the making one of opposites in art," is true about music as such, including music I've cared for.

The song I speak about is one that affected me very much when I first heard it on the William B. Williams disk jockey program--sometime in the 1950's‑‑the wonderful baritone Joe Williams singing "Every Day [I Have the Blues]" with the Count Basie orchestra. At that time in my life I was feeling pretty low, thinking I'd gotten "bad breaks"--not knowing what I was to learn later from Aesthetic Realism, that my own aloof, disdainful attitude towards the world and people was taking the life out of me. And I had no idea that the reason this music stirred me is because in it the Basie band and Joe Williams take that feeling so many people are prone to, of "having the blues", and give it a form, an energy and liveliness that definitely contradicts the very mood of what is being said. Here is how it begins:

[PLAY :00 through :48 & FADE]

In Eli Siegel's lecture, Poetry and Cheerfulness, he said: "One of the important things about art is that it can take something sad and sincerely put it into a swift rhythm."

And that's what happens here. As we heard, Count Basie himself is at the piano, setting the blues mood in his distinctive way, with both major and minor sixth on the way down the scale: [Edward Green demonstrates].

A beautiful thing here is the rhythm, the way Basie takes that downward shuffle and gives it critical, energetic edge with those sharp, staccato right hand chords. [EG demonstrates]
Then Basie turns the scale around, goes up, and signals the band to come in; and they do--with that deeply swinging rhythm.

[PLAY :09 to :31 and fade]

We feel immediately something sad has a cheerfulness and form as the brass begins, with the saxophones following, and all the while, the rhythm section of Basie at the piano, Freddie Green on guitar, Eddie Jones on bass, and Sonny Payne on drums keep a steady and lively beat.

As Joe Williams comes in, he sings with tremendous energy and a smile in his voice on the complaining words:

Every day, Every day I have the blues
Every day, Every day I have the blues

He shows that something and someone matters to him; he's not cool and aloof like I was:

Well you see me worry baby
Because it's you I hate to lose.

He is affected, and the orchestra is affected as well. Williams and the saxophone seem almost to be in a conversation with the sax sympathizing with him as he sings:

Nobody loves me, nobody seems to care.
Nobody loves me, nobody seems to care
Speaking of bad luck and trouble
Well you know I've had my share.

[PLAY from 1:23 through 2:28 fast fade]

The message is sad, but as Williams emphasizes certain words, and exchanges phrases with that sassy saxophone, played by Marshall Royal, it sounds lively.

I once felt there wasn't much to get too excited about. In fact, I didn't even think things were worthy of outwardly complaining about. Unlike Joe Williams in this song, I went for inward brooding, worked hard to maintain a smooth exterior, and increasingly felt remote from people and dull. In an Aesthetic Realism class, Mr. Siegel explained:

"Aesthetic Realism says every state of mind has a cause, whether it's moderate, bitter or depressed. Does your feeling moderate have a cause?....Do you feel right now that your living pitch is high enough? Would you like to be keener in your sense of life?"

I answered "yes," and Mr. Siegel said, with kind humor that I love, "If I had my way, I'd have you go through the motion of a Russian kazatzka and yell at the same time." He explained:

"Once we make reality a failure, we ourselves feel a failure and dull. Do you get a triumph in making reality not a success? Would you like all the clocks to run down?"

This was exactly what I was doing, and I'm happy to say what I heard that day marked the beginning of a big change in my life. I've seen that there's nothing uglier, more unethical than getting a triumph out of hoping reality is a failure. It is contempt, and it's the cause of every injustice and cruelty in the world today. And I've seen the joy, the exhilaration that comes from trying to be honest about reality, seeing it truly, is the real success in life.

I've learned in the "Opposites in Music" class that the Blues themselves arise from like of the world--an affirmation of form in sound even as a person wails, complains, and is sad. The way Joe Williams and the Basie band work together, we feel anything but "clocks running down." Instead, we feel reality matters, it gets to us, and we're excited and composed at once.

There's precision in the arrangement, which is by Ernie Wilkins, but the band and soloists do things in a wild, delight­fully unexpected way. When Williams comes back to the refrain "Nobody loves me/Nobody seems to care" a second time, he just throws his head back and shouts it out in a way that's anything but moderate, smooth. In fact, it's so raw, it startles you--this is no cool customer--and we respect him. There's beautiful courage in that sound. I learned that Joe Williams studied operatic singing but was prevented by the racism of the time from pursuing a career in it. Meanwhile, he loved the blues tradition, and he became famous for what was called his "voice breaking" cries. On the liner notes for this recording, it is said

"They call Joe Williams a "blues bawler" and they say that when he sings he has a "bawl," which is largely true."

Yes, and there's honesty in that bawl.

[PLAY 2:29 to 3:53 and fade]

And Williams concludes on a surprising, very long and very high note on the sound of oooo. I think the sense of wonder after all that complaint and misery is great--and it has an ethical message. To end so sweetly and gently after all that wailing is a tribute to the Aesthetic Realism idea that every person's deepest desire is to like the world, and that the criterion for an honest complaint is whether it enables us to care more, feel more for the whole world. I think this music definitely answers yes!

[Play 4:20 or 4:21 to end]