A scholar I know has just written an article bashing a jazz group for re-creating Miles Davis’s classic “Kind of Blue”album note for note including the solos’ of the musicians. She makes the point that this is a Western way of seeing music as property rather than the African American one of what Henry Louis Gates calls signifying. Gates defines signifying as “repetition with a difference” which is at the center of black art and culture. This Western way was fetishizing the form of the music rather than the experience of the music. A long time ago I read something by C.S. Lewis to the effect that humans are the only ones who want to repeat a pleasure exactly. Not to just have another pleasure or another version of that pleasure, but to have that specific pleasure with all its feelings, smells, tastes, and sounds exactly the same. This is of course impossible, just as you can never step in the same stream twice. My friend the scholar contrasts this with the work of pianist Jason Moran who when asked to do a recreation of Thelonius Monk’s 1959 Town Hall concert did something totally different. Instead of trying to re-create the concert note for note, he produced an audio visual and live performance version which put him in conversation and connection with Monk that allowed him to “signify” to use Gates’ term. At the end, the big band musicians who had been playing the Monk tunes walked off the stage, paraded through the audience and waited in the lobby to talk to the exiting concert goers.

This reminded me of an experience I had back in the late 60’s seeing jazz musician Rahsaan Roland Kirk at the Village Vanguard. The Vanguard is a pie wedge shaped small basement room holding maybe 120 people.  I had just turned 18 (the legal drinking age in New York City at the time) so I could finally go to jazz clubs where alcohol was served. This was my first time seeing Mr. Kirk although there would be plenty to follow. Kirk was a very technically proficient musician and historian of the music. He was a blind multi-instrumentalist who often played two or three horns at the same time. His first few songs were the usual mix of originals, standards and even jazz versions of pop songs. He then started to use a laugh box, that is, a recording of someone saying exaggerated “Ha, ha ha’s” as a commentary on what he was playing. As the music changed the laughter became various things. A faint reminder of a party in the past now long gone, an ironic commentary on what was happening, or a joining into the current pleasure. As the penultimate song in the set Kirk asked whether we could go to New Orleans. My heart sank. I hated the sterile re-creations of the past that were codified as “Dixieland.” Kirk had something different in mind. He launched into a version of New Orleans music that took my breath away. I can put it no other way than he restored the life to the music. The laugh box became part of the party both of the past and of the present. As the audience was clapping along to the music, Kirk led the members of the group who had portable instruments and marched through the club. He then marched up the stairs out of the club onto the street outside to play much as a second line New Orleans band would. All the time the pianist, bassist and drummer continued playing in the club. They returned a few minutes later still playing and finished the song and the set.

This of course left the young me stunned. I returned to see Rahsaan whenever he and I were in New York at the same time. Each time was different, but each time was a pleasure. I never saw him do the laugh box and “march through the club” routine again, but then I didn’t have to. The point had been made. Music is best as a living breathing thing into which an artist’s joy, thoughts, and feelings are poured. No matter how technically proficient a musician is, unless they can bring something of their own to the music, particularly the music of others including the jazz masters, to quote Stevie Wonder, “you haven’t done nothing.”

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2 Responses to “Re-Creating”

  1. Phyllis Goodnow says:


  2. Randy says:

    Thanks Phyllis.


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