Jazzcage

“Music as discourse (jazz) doesn’t work,” John Cage said, in his “DIARY: HOW TO IMPROVE THE WORLD (YOU WILL ONLY MAKE MATTERS WORSE) 1965,” the first text in his collection “A Year From Monday.” “If you’re going to have a discussion, have it and use words” (p. 12). David Revill, in “The Roaring Silence,” his biography of Cage, discusses “the puzzling attitude he [Cage] develops toward jazz” (p. 9). “He [Cage] says simply, ‘I love sounds, and I actually like them more than what we’ve done to them’ (p. 121 – Revill’s source notes don’t indicate where he got this Cage quote, and in a quick skim of my Cage books I’m unable to find it).

I’ve always found Cage’s “…(jazz) doesn’t work” statement surprising, given how he integrates chance into his structures. Cage often sets up a rigorously defined structure only to let chance determine what comes next. For example, from his preface to “Diary:…” “I used twelve different type faces, letting chance operations determine which face would be used for which statement” (p. 3). Isn’t that jazz?

I think Cage’s classical training explains his attitude toward jazz. Classical players don’t improvise. Composers improvise, as Bach probably did, but the classical musician has to play the thing as written. Jazz’s frequent use of popular songs as sources for improvisation probably also annoyed Cage, since he was more interested in sound than sentiment.

Let’s substitute “words” for “sounds” in Cage’s statement that begins “I love sounds”: This gives us “I love words, and I actually like them more than what we’ve done to them.” And we might make the reverse substitution in the opening quote above, which would give us: “If you’re going to have a discussion, have it and use sounds.” Is it possible to enjoy words but not writing or reading? Cage appears to have preferred raw sounds to music that refines those sounds in an attempt to communicate something, even if that communication is an attempt to mimic nature.

But we are nature, and the guitar sounds like a train coming down the line, and the drummer’s brushes sound like salt water receding over smooth stones. All sounds carry some meaning. Besides, Cage’s “Diary” follows with “(Dialogue is another matter.)” What? Another matter (discussion, music, discourse?) wherein jazz does work?

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