Why I Write
One of the musical tracks I often use in lectures is the 1956 recording “Concerto for Billy the Kid” by the composer and orchestra leader George Russell, who died this summer. Most people – even those who love jazz – have never heard it, yet it is an amazing performance, not five minutes long, which adapts piano concerto format to a sextet. The arrangement is based on a series of congruous scales or modes, rather than the usual harmonies, with the result that the band radiates a rattling dissonance while sounding far larger than it is. Most of the melodic figures are short, pulsing fragments, and they swing like mad. The highlight is an exhilarating piano cadenza created to introduce the as-yet-unknown Bill Evans (the eponymous Billy the Kid). In this section, Russell had Evans improvise on the chords of an old standard, and he hammers the keys as though his fingers were dancing mallets.
This recording invariably dazzles audiences, partly because it doesn’t sound a day older than tomorrow. In this country, however, it’s usually out-of-print; you won’t find it on iTunes, though Amazon offers an import edition (in violation of U.S. copyright) of the source album, Jazz Workshop by the George Russell Smalltet. The short answer as to why I write is to share what I know and love about jazz, to shine a little light on a mystery for which I’ve never found a rational explanation: how can a nation produce a musical tradition as fecund and flowing as the one erected on the genius of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker and treat it as though it doesn’t exist or exists only in the past or only for those “in the know”? “Concerto for Billy the Kid” plays an important role in Jazz, the new book I wrote with Scott DeVeaux.
I decided to be a writer when I was eight, after reading a children’s biography of Louis Pasteur that triggered an epiphany about life and language. Nothing could sway me toward a more sensible direction, especially after I discovered the work of Edmund Wilson, Dwight Macdonald, James Boswell and Martin Williams and knew that I had found my mode – criticism – if not my subject. That would come later. Criticism finds the past in the present and vice versa. It filters time’s nuggets and makes cultural signposts accessible, exciting and pertinent. Biography is another way of doing that, with the advantage of a strong narrative, balancing private failings with a critical analysis of public accomplishments that are the only reason we care about the subject. To my surprise, I found an ideal subject in Bing Crosby, which allows me to combine my interests in music and film while tracking the development of American popular culture over three-quarters of a century. I continue to write essays on movies and books as well. But jazz is different: I write about jazz because Louis Armstrong’s 1938 “Jubilee,” which ought to be included in any universal health-care system, is too good a secret to keep.