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October 21, 2003

TT: Kind of omnipresent

As I sat down to lunch today at Good Enough to Eat, my Upper West Side hangout, I heard a familiar sound floating over the purr of conversation. Buzzy, keening, coolly anguished...sure enough, it was Miles Davis playing "All Blues," the best-known cut from the most popular album in the history of jazz, Kind of Blue.

I smiled and shook my head at the thought of Miles' being reduced to the status of background music, but I can't say it bothered me. The waitstaff at Good Enough picks the tunes (which vary from perfectly all right to totally awesome), so it's more than likely that someone as yet unborn when Miles, Trane, Cannonball, and Bill Evans strolled into a New York recording studio in 1959 decided to pop Kind of Blue into the CD player 44 years later. Jazz hasn't existed quite long enough to have definitively passed the Test of Time, but I'd say that's a pretty good sign.

I usually read when I'm dining alone, but today the music caused me to become lost in thought. It's easy to forget that Kind of Blue was one of the most radically innovative jazz recordings of its time. For a generation of open-eared players, it was the passport to a new world of improvisation in which the meticulously interlocked tonal harmonies of the swing era were jettisoned in favor of spacious modal prairies around which the soloist wandered seemingly at will. So how is it that so Indisputably Important a recording has wormed its way into the pop-culture landscape of America? Kind of Blue, after all, is one of the very few jazz albums owned by people who know nothing else about jazz. (As I write these words, it ranks 132 in sales among pop-music CDs on amazon.com.) It's the record Clint Eastwood (who knows a lot about jazz) puts on when he comes home from a hard day of assassin-hunting in In the Line of Fire. A whole book has been written about its history and cultural significance. Now it's Muzak--yet it remains as vital and listenable as ever. By what strange alchemy was this transformation effected?

Somebody (me, I guess) ought to write an essay about how jazz has come to be used as a cultural signifier in films, TV shows, and ads, an infallible indicator of upper-middle-class hipness. That's part of the reason why a pathbreaking musical statement has become so ubiquitous--but not the biggest part. Kind of Blue, lest we forget, was always popular. It was a hit in 1959, too. Why? Because for all its undeniable radicalism, Kind of Blue is also accessible and memorable. You don't have to know what modal improvisation is to revel in its spare, lucid textures. You don't even have to know who Miles, Trane, Cannonball, and Bill Evans were. Yes, they're doing astounding things--but they don't hit you over the head with their innovations, or try to tie your ears in knots. The results are simple, beautiful, and new, and the last of these is not the first.

I'm not saying that all good new art has to be simple, or that I only like simple art. Nor am I saying that all great art is destined in time to be swallowed up and spit out by Madison Avenue. But as I grow older, I find myself increasingly suspicious of the long-term viability of self-consciously "difficult" art. This is part of what I meant when I observed a little earlier today that the first responsibility of art is to give pleasure. Of course it is our reciprocal responsibility to be open to the new. What seems strange now may soon come to seem beautiful--but I very much doubt that a lifetime's puzzling over Finnegans Wake will cause it to seem anything other than pointlessly complex. There's a reason why the greatest artists dissolve into simplicity as they grow older.

I wrote a piece about "fourth-period art" for the New York Times a couple of years ago. I wasn't pleased with the results, so I left it out of the Teachout Reader, but I did like this part:

Yet once in a while the miracle happens, and an artist not only survives middle age, but also remains creatively vital. "Father Time is not always a hard parent," Charles Dickens wrote in "Barnaby Rudge," "and, though he tarries for none of his children, often lays his hand lightly on those who have used him well." To see such folk in the flesh is to be delighted and puzzled in equal measure. I heard the alto saxophonist Benny Carter at Iridium four years ago; he was then 89, but he played like a man of 60, and I could scarcely believe my ears.

Such apparent freedom from the devastation of old age seems to come less easily to those artists who work with words. "To write tolerably over the age of 65 is exceptional," Kenneth Clark rightly notes. That is when painters and orchestral conductors are just getting their second wind. As he embarked on his 19th novel, "The Fisher King," the 76-year-old Anthony Powell ruminated in his journal on the special problems facing the older novelist: "The sluggish imagination of old age makes giving of reality to characters difficult. The story must be seen from the point of view of a writer's own age group, later life being on the whole thin in action of the kind to give point to novels."

This makes sense, and it helps explain why most of the masterpieces of old age have been non-verbal. The best fourth-period art floats free of action and character. Instead, it is about essences, which are notoriously difficult to convey in words, though the Japanese painter Hokusai came close. "All that I have produced before the age of 70," he wrote at 75, "is not worth taking into account. At 73, I learned a little about the real structure of nature, of animals, plants, trees, birds, fishes and insects. In consequence, when I am 80, I shall have made still more progress. At 90, I shall penetrate the mystery of things; at 100, I shall certainly have reached a marvelous stage; and when I am 110, everything I do, be it a dot or a line, will be alive."

Miles Davis and his colleagues were young men when they recorded Kind of Blue, but the muse visited them that day and brought with her the gift of essential simplicity, causing every note and rest they played to pulse with life. That's why we listen to them a half-century later--and why, if I live another half-century, I expect to be listening to them still.

Posted October 21, 2003 1:44 AM

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