Rebirth of Reason


What's Wrong with Bebop? Reflections on Ayn Rand and Jazz
by Roger E. Bissell

Obviously, Ayn Rand was not a trained musician—nor even, it appears, very well read about music. (The only reference I recall her ever giving was Helmholtz' nineteenth century work, On the Sensations of Tone.) But that is not to say that her valid principles developed in areas much more familiar to her (e.g., literature) could not be extended appropriately to music. (Nor, granted, does it imply that she was always correct in applying them, let alone in how she extended them to music.)

For instance, back in the 1960s, when I was an undergraduate student in music at Iowa State University, I became very excited by Rand's treatment of plot-structure as a key ingredient in good literature. It seemed clear to me that this had a clear analog in music from the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic eras—and the better music from the twentieth century. Yet, despite the ready availability of books (some of which I will cite below) that demonstrated this very point, she was strangely silent on the matter.

Another obvious parallel: musical themes or motifs "behave" similarly to the characters in a dramatic novel or play—the "gestural" aspect of music, as it is sometimes referred to. Again, Rand had nothing to say about this.

On the other hand, what Rand did say about music and musical perception (especially in her essay "Art and Cognition," now a chapter of the revised edition of The Romantic Manifesto) was sometimes atrocious—not to mention, incorrect.

Her basic error about musical perception was in treating musical tones as sensations, rather than percepts. (Rand's inconsistencies here with her earlier epistemological writings—especially, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology—are glaringly obvious. I discuss more fully how she diverged from her previous, correct discussion of perception in my JARS essay, “Music and Perceptual Cognition,” which is posted at http://members.aol.com/REBissell/indexmmm10.html . See also my other Objectivity and JARS essays on music, posted at http://members.aol.com/REBissell/indexmmm.html) This led Rand to analogize between the ear's/brain's integration of musical tones into a melody and the brain's integration of sensations into a percept of an entity. (Thus, her reference to a melody as a "musical entity.")

Instead, had Rand correctly regarded tones as percepts, she could have seen the multi-layer structuring of music as more similar to architecture—e.g., the combining of a great number of bricks into a building (each tone being like a brick). Or, since music-as-performed is a dynamic process, she could have seen each tone in an orchestrated melodic-harmonic progression as being similar to the actions and events of a dramatic progression.

But all of these wonderful, illuminating analogies fell by the wayside. Instead, Rand's principal legacy in music seems to be that she reinforced Objectivism's reputation of intolerance by shaming or brow-beating her friends, followers, and acquaintances for their unacceptable tastes in music. (E.g., Beethoven is "malevolent." Check out Barbara Branden's biography, The Passion of Ayn Rand, for a broader discussion of this.)

Is it any wonder, then, that Rand's (and my) ideal of an objective standard for musical value seems to have provoked more "instinctive," knee-jerk, negative reaction than in any other area?

Having registered my complaints about Ayn Rand's views on music, I now hasten to weigh in on the side of objective standards for the good in music—and to voice my criticisms of modern "serious" music and bebop jazz. (I have played, listened to, and studied plenty of both, so I believe I am at least moderately qualified in this area.)

Here is my basic argument. If you believe that:
a. The two main forms of symbols—language and art—serve in complementary, division-of-labor fashion the purpose of objectifying (concretizing) and communicating human abstractions;
b. The objectification and communication of abstract ideas serves a valid, vital human need; and
c. Symbols—like all human tools—can and should be judged as to whether and how well they serve that need-fulfilling purpose;

Then you should also realize that:
a. Linguistic utterances can be judged as to whether or not they are meaningful, whether or not they are true, and whether or not they have been well-formulated (i.e., skillfully convey their meaning, by following the rules of grammar and syntax, as well as by doing so with clarity and economy).
b. Artistic presentations can be judged as to whether or not they are meaningful, whether or not the view they present is true, and whether or not they are well-made (i.e., skillfully convey their meaning, by following appropriate artistic principles analogous to the linguistic principles mentioned above).

But none of this, I want to emphasize, implies support for any kind of authoritarian measures or attitudes in support of certain forms of art or language, or to outlaw others. Just as (hopefully) we all become exposed to the proper rules of grammar and syntax, etc., but are free to decide for ourselves the degree to which we will "color outside of the lines" when we write and speak—so, too, should we be free to decide how eclectic to be in our pursuit of artistic enjoyment as producers and consumers.

Who wants to be taxed "for the public good"—or browbeaten "for our own good"—to carry out someone's crusade for "good art," for Pete's sake?!

In regard to artistic consumption, as Nathaniel Branden said long ago (Chicago, 1971)—and I paraphrase (with the standing offer to look up the exact quote from my files, if anyone is interested)—be very cautious about giving up supposedly irrational pleasures. (For they very well might not be irrational, in fact—as opposed to being irrational in someone else's opinion.)

In regard to artistic production, I say: Down with the "politically correct," in art (including music) and language. Hands off our symbols! Let the (economic and intellectual) marketplace decide the value of our creations and utterances.

In that spirit, I would like to offer some thoughts as to why modern "serious" music and bebop jazz do not represent "pro-life" (to use the Randian phraseology) forms of music, worthy of esteem by Objectivists—or listeners in general. Just remember, though, I'm not seeking to shame or bully anyone, esthetically—merely to clarify what it is about certain music that gets in the way of its being of need-fulfilling value to most listeners (even intelligent ones!).

I don’t know Ayn Rand’s opinion about jazz in general. (One of her major followers, Alan Greenspan, was a jazz saxophone player in his younger, pre-Federal Reserve days, and another one, Leonard Peikoff, acknowledges being a jazz lover in his recent DVD, In His Own Words.) However, Rand certainly scorned contemporary “serious” music, and for similar reasons I believe that she would also have scorned at least avant-garde jazz, if not also bebop jazz.

Rand’s opinions aside, however, there are very good, and not-too-technical reasons, why bebop jazz is not something to which Objectivists should give their unreserved admiration and appreciation. And in arguing for this point, I think I can do better than resort to the unfortunate tendency of some to pass off bebop jazz as "bleeps and bloops." That is not an adequate argument!

To begin this critique, I will start by engaging in the greatest act of vulnerability you can undertake in an Objectivist discussion. Acknowledge my fallibility? Reveal my innermost personal feelings? Admit that I like country-western music? No—define my terms!

At least, let me make a stab at defining "jazz." According to The New Harvard Dictionary of Music, jazz is "an eclectic, expanding collection of twentieth century styles, principally instrumental and of black American creation." When I co-wrote a chapter on arranging for the jazz ensemble in a recent college textbook (Gary White, Instrumental Arranging, William C. Brown, 1992), I added the following characteristics that distinguish jazz from the pre-twentieth century European styles of music:
1. Strong emphasis on rhythm, with the numerous rhythmic styles broadly grouped into two categories: "swing" rhythm and "straight" rhythm.
2. A wide variety of articulations and a distinctive sound concept, which requires that the performer learn a much greater number of playing techniques than did pre-twentieth century European music.
3. A flexible approach to pitch, with many "bent" or "blue" notes and glissandi (slides) between pitches.
4. Considerable emphasis on extemporaneous group and/or solo improvisation, due to the unique difficulties in trying to notate jazz accurately—and the loss of jazz's characteristic spontaneity in trying to play notated jazz.

Now, let me get a little sloppier, OK? And from here on, I will rely heavily on Henry Pleasants' book Serious Music and All That Jazz (henceforth, SMAATJ; Simon & Schuster, 1969, especially the section pp. 132-162).

Historically, jazz falls into three periods: traditional and swing jazz, which began about 1900-10 in New Orleans; bebop or bop jazz, which began 1940-41 in New York City; and avant-garde jazz, which began about 1959, at which time Ornette Coleman—one of my all-time un-favorite jazz musicians—arrived in NYC. Obviously, there is a lot of carryover from the earlier periods to the present—thank God! (A large part of my workday involves playing Dixieland and swing-era jazz.)

I primarily want to focus on jazz of the kind that originated in the middle period, but first a few remarks and quotes are in order about avant-garde jazz, aka New or Free Jazz. (Only a few, however; in my opinion, the avant-garde is its own best critique.)
Avant-garde jazz is the reductio ad absurdum of the trends begun during the bebop era. In throwing aside all harmonic and rhythmic restraints, this form of jazz dispenses with all attempts at creating a distinctive style and resorts to "shock and gimmicry...silly eccentricity and pompous vulgarity...aural assault." (SMAAT, p. 152) Avant-garde alto player Charlie Mariano said (Melody Maker, fall 1966): "I don't want to hear pleasant music today. I want to hear screaming and hollering and kicking and biting. That's what the world's about today. And I believe that music should reflect life." This equates Art with a temper tantrum, as Pleasants pointed out. Even the more amiable avant-garde jazz is little better than "infant prattle." (SMAATJ, p. 159)

I must interject here that in citing Mariano's comments about "pleasant music," neither Pleasants (!) nor I am trying to argue in favor of pleasant music, whatever that might be. While I admit to having my own "tiddlywinks" music, such as Paul Desmond's wonderful album of Simon and Garfunkle tunes ("Bridge Over Troubled Waters"), I also love Miles Davis' collaboration with Gil Evans in "Sketches of Spain," Dave Grusin's soundtrack album to "The Firm," and Michael Brecker's collaboration with Claus Ogerman in "Cityscapes." None of these is either bebop or avant-garde jazz—yet each is clearly better described not as "pleasant" or "tranquil," but instead as "unsettling."

Pleasants draws the obvious parallel to "the child rambling along in its own language before it has learned to express its thoughts and feeling in language and gestures intelligible and acceptable to the community into which it was born...There is nothing wrong in [jazz musicians doing] this, but nothing especially admirable, either—or anything sufficiently remarkable to make it worth a price of admission." (SMAATJ, p. 160) And, once we have reached a state of musical anarchy, where "anything goes" and "nothing was any longer demonstrably bad," there is no longer any "sure way of distinguishing between sincerity and opportunism...or between original genius and charlatanism." (SMAATJ, p. 154)

In other words, there may be reasonable disagreement as to the true musical worth of a particular bebop jazz performance, but any kind of objective evaluation of avant-garde jazz is out of the question. (For this reason alone, avant-garde jazz would be disqualified for someone like Ayn Rand!)

Before 1940, jazz "concentrated on the melodic elaboration and ornamentation of a more or less familiar tune over the chords associated with that tune..." (SMAATJ, p. 136). Bop, on the other hand, "altered the chords and distorted the melody accordingly. There were also rhythmic and accented refinements and dislocations. When a group of bop musicians had finished with a given tune, it would be unrecognizable even to its composer." (SMAATJ, pp. 136-7)

What triggered the creation of bop? Two related facts with a single cause. Jazz harmonic and melodic procedures and devices, once bold and decisive, had become so predictable during the late 1930s that: (1) the best jazzers were becoming bored and wanted to "break out of the groove;" and (2) even the inferior jazz musicians knew the cliches and insinuated themselves into jam sessions, playing six or seven choruses to prove that they "couldn't blow at all." (Dizzy Gillespie's words). So bop was invented to give the most talented players a more sophisticated outlet for their creativity and "to scare away the no-talent guys." (Gillespie speaking, again.)

Unfortunately, as Pleasants points out, "what had begun as a device to exclude the square musicians at Minton's and other gathering places of the new elite was sustained in more public performances to exclude the square lay listener, too, the trick being to make a secret of the musical enterprise...[The secret, of course, was] the more or less familiar tune which, with its chord changes, would be the musicians' point of departure, but which would be neither announced nor played," unlike in traditional Dixieland and swing jazz. (SMAATJ, p. 142)

Frank Tirro gives more specific detail: "The enigmatic titles of many jazz compositions are reminiscent of Renaissance and Baroque puzzle canon instruction, anagram texts and acrostic dedications. They are all the marks of a circle of initiates." ("The Silent Traditions of Jazz," The Musican Quarterly, July 1967)

Now, this might, in a sense, be "exalting the mind" as opposed to the feelings—a standard Objectivist theme—but in my rationally humble opinion, it falls flat on its face, intentions notwithstanding. All the ingenuity in the world is artistically irrelevant, if your audience cannot reasonably be expected to perceive and understand your little hidden, creative gems. And it is a historical fact that for every bebop musician who was willing to help bring his audiences along into the "new world," there were that many and more who delighted in leaving their audiences "in the dust." An argument could be made that some of the latter were perhaps exercising a little cultural revenge on the unwitting white folks who had formerly looked down on them.
I have my own theory about how all this "secret society" stuff started. There is a device called "quoting" that has been used by jazz musicians since well before bebop came along. It consists of inserting into a jazz solo a fragment or phrase (whether or not altered in some manner) from some other musical piece. We do this sometimes out of creative whimsy, but at least as often out of boredom. Sometimes our audience (often, dancers) hears what we are doing and comments (usually favorably). Thus, quotes can be a good way to communicate with an audience that is listening.

More often, however, our little didos are perceived only by our colleagues, and we laugh to or amongst ourselves, if we sneaked it past the leader (unless he is a "hip" leader, in which case, we're pleased if he notices). (Just for the record: my two all-time favorite quotes have been "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina" during a solo on "Proud Mary"—the idea being "don't cry for me, Ike and Tina"—and "Alley Cat" during "Memories." And I readily concede the utter tastelessness of quoting the "Too Fat Polka" at a wedding reception for the first dance of an overweight bride with her new husband.)

In any case, I suspect (but cannot prove) that it was this particular practice that "ran away with itself" and was a large contributing factor to the excesses of bebop jazz. Boppers were encouraged in this and other immature, elitist behavior toward a public historically disposed to appreciate them by critics who told them they were Artists to whom "the public has a solemn obligation to listen, to render homage, and to pay." (SMAATJ, p. 140) Sort of, "the Emperor's New Clothes"—in a turtleneck and beret!

Now, to wax Randian briefly once more: does this exclusionary attitude and practice of bop musicians and their critic pals really "exalt the mind"? Or does it instead elevate the will to a prominence that encourages bop musicians to isolate themselves from the minds of those who might well be sympathetic, were they let in on what the boppers were trying to do?
Don't get me wrong. Jazzers (myself included) are perfectly free to play as "far out" as we like for the enjoyment of ourselves and our little in-groups. But we should not complain, if no one wants to listen to what we play, let along to pay us for it! If we are unwilling to educate our listeners—a la Leonard Bernstein's Young People's concerts—or temper our creative excursions so that they are accessible to thoughtful listeners, we will have no one to blame but ourselves for our much-deserved obscurity and/or poverty.

In this connection, read Leonard B. Meyer’s Music, the Arts and Ideas in which he discusses avant-garde music and points out that a good deal of it exceeds the cognitive ability ("channel capacity") of even the educated listener. Granted, no one says that an artist must guarantee that his viewer will be able to grasp it, but if the artist raises the bar too high, he will guarantee that the viewer will be unable to grasp it. This feature of aleatoric and serial music is interestingly similar to the problem listeners of avant-garde jazz have in figuring out what is going on. Intellectual/artistic elitism has played a pernicious role in this mismatch between artist and audience.

But notwithstanding the elitist, "secret society" attitudes and practices of many bebop musicians, is there any value, any redeeming qualities in what they do? Well, of course, there are! As in all forms of music, there is good bebop, poor bebop, and bebop that is so-so. The primary value lies in the experience not of ingenuity, however, so much as efficacy—viz., "the bop musician's frequently transcendental virtuosity." (SMAATJ, p. 144) Or, as we jazzers refer to it: "having great chops."

Even when audiences can't understand exactly what a bopper is doing in his "melodic inventions and harmonic adventures," they certainly "recognize and understand a musician's "feats of instrumental derring-do"—as well as plain old one-upsmanship ("carving"). Ideally, bop's esoteric character could be wedded to a considerable amount of ecstatic expression. "Granted an immaculate execution, there was listening pleasure even in pure instrumental athleticism." (SMAAT, p. 144)

Unfortunately, "since in virtuosity, as in athletics, what one man accomplishes will quickly be accomplished by others, the initially exceptional soon became commonplace. With less inventive musicians it also became a bore...desperate but vain exhibitions of familiar and no longer purposeful...acrobatics." As a result, "...since for many in the audience, possibly the majority, executive brilliance had always been the principal attraction...once the initially compensatory virtuosity began to pall, many lost interest in jazz." (SMAATJ, p. 145)

How could bebop have been saved? What was missing? According to Pleasants—and I agree—the missing ingredient was memorable melody.

Now, just a word to avoid misunderstanding: just because Pleasants and I view melody as a primary or high value in jazz, does not mean that we are saying listeners cannot properly value and enjoy relatively non-melodic jazz. For instance, I enjoy Miles Davis’s  less-melodic work in “Sketches of Spain” much more than I enjoy Al Hirt’s more-melodic Dixieland jazz playing. And I can "get into" music of other cultures, as well, though I find it a lot of work for not a lot of payoff. In general, I acknowledge that there are many values that can be found in music and the other arts.

The reason that I argue for melody—especially, dramatically structured melody—is the same reason that I prefer drama with characters and plot. I think that the "world" they help construct for their audience is more interesting and says something much deeper about human life than music or drama without it. Not all music or all drama has to conform to this ideal in order to be worthwhile, but I think that the best music or drama that does not conform to it is not as worthwhile as the best music or drama that does.

Unfortunately, there has been a strong bias against melody on the part of certain twentieth century cultural elites. As Pleasants puts it: "Nothing is so insidious in contemporary attitudes about music—and nothing so destructive—as the tendency to think of a good tune as somehow inferior, or ignominious...The Great Composers, from Bach to Bartok, knew better. They knew that without a remembered melody, the listener is lost, and further composition futile. They sought good melodies, and, having found them, they assisted the listener's memory by repeating them." (SMAATJ, p. 146)

Repetition also "accounts for the durability of the conventional AABA song form favored by so many of the most successful American song-writers...Most well-remembered melodies are repetitive within themselves..." But bebop melodies ("heads," in the parlance) have not usually been "memorably" melodic, in this respect, "and they have been rendered less easily memorable by denying the listener the remembered melodic nucleus...the melodic workings of bop are more difficult for the lay listener not because they are more complex but because they offer so few obvious clues." (SMAATJ, pp. 146-7)

Granted, the use of the "head" to frame the solos is very helpful to the audience. At least, it is recognizable repetition. But it would help even more if the "head" were memorable (to more than just the musically trained or gifted listeners). That is why people usually like listening to jazz played on standard melodies more than on bebop heads. A tune that has words you already know is just more infectious than a (usually unlyricized) bebop head. Although I get around well in either medium, I personally prefer playing bebop and Latin stylings on standard tunes. That, to me, is the best of both words—hip, fresh stylings and musical material that rises above the musical equivalent of Chinese food (15 minutes later and you've forgotten what you ate).

To put it simply, bebop musicians "forgot how to sing." By failing to recognize that their listeners needed singable melodies, bebop musicians turned their focus to other matters, mainly harmony and virtuosity. By abandoning the primitive tie of music to the human voice, boppers ultimately lost their audience—and their way.

On the bright side, without bebop's influence, we wouldn't have had many great non-stylists such as Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, Erroll Garner, Dave Brubeck, Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan, Bob Brookmeyer, and others. It's safe to say that "...none of these admirable musicians would have played as he does, or did, had there never been such a thing as bop." (SMAATJ, p. 139) Not to mention, eclectic, lesser lights such as myself, who enjoy playing the style, while bending it as much as possible back toward the audience, whom we often try to identify with—and "sing to"—while performing.

So, in the final analysis, I see bebop jazz as being a kind of stylistic cul-de-sac, which nevertheless has considerable "salvage value." Those interested in exploring this style further are encouraged to seek out the early recordings of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Clifford Brown, and others.

Bebop’s sins/shortcomings are much less global than those of avant-garde jazz. Unlike avant-garde jazz, bebop is often/usually melodic, just not often/usually memorably so. It has order, it has structure, it has a number of virtues, to the extent that it transcends its juvenile, elitist origins. A lot of it is good—if not great—art, but you really have to hunt for it.

Avant-garde jazz, on the other hand, is practically all unmitigated garbage—neither great, good, mediocre, nor bad. Just crap. (I would be delighted to learn of even one counterexample.  While I don't view most music as all-or-nothing good vs. bad, in the case of avant-garde music in general and avant-garde jazz in particular, I emphatically make an exception.
Ayn Rand wrote a nice explanation of a colloquial distinction that I will apply here: "It's a great work of art, but I don't like it." See her essay "Art and Sense of Life," in The Romantic Manifesto, in which she explains how you can judge art both according to its technical/esthetic merit and its philosophical/sense of life merit.)

John Coltrane was a superlative jazz saxophonist—I just don't like his music. Coltrane was one of the second wave of bebop jazz musicians; and while he also delved into avant-garde playing, he is more widely respected and appreciated for his early recordings. In his second wave bop playing, he was still working within a basically structured context, so you can certainly analyze and/or respond to true artistic values in his playing. (I respond to them, all right—just negatively!) And there is no doubt that he was a virtuoso. We could certainly distinguish in a blindfold test between Coltrane and a less talented amateur.

Another jazz saxophonist, Ornette Coleman, on the other hand, was in the vanguard of the jazz avant-garde. He was "deconstructing" both music and instrumentalism. For that reason, I despise him and his recordings. (My negative response to them is not to artistry I am uncomfortable with, but to a con artist trying to pose as a true artist.) We might be able to distinguish between Ornette Coleman and a less talented amateur—but only in a sense similar to being able to tell the work of the Unabomber apart from that of a high school or college age terrorist bomber. But why bother?!

For further reading:
Leonard B. Meyer, Music, the Arts, and Ideas. Patterns and Predictions in Twentieth-Century Culture, University of Chicago Press, 1967. See especially the next to last chapter, "The Perception and Cognition of Complex Music."
Henry Pleasants, The Agony of Modern Music, Simon & Schuster, 1955. See especially pp. 93-94.
Henry Pleasants, Serious Music and All That Jazz, Simon & Schuster, 1969. See especially pp. 132-162. But hell, read the whole book! 

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