KV: I see a subtext to the developments of music during the 1970s in its connection to the politics of the time, within jazz and improvised music, but also in other forms (punk rock, Tropicália, etc.) could be seen as a response to the period’s political climate. Coming out of the post-Franco period in Spain and witnessing the creative explosion in Europe, and also participating in it, what are your impressions of the current slide throughout the world toward right wing, conservative political agendas and how contemporary music is, or isn’t, “responding.”
This is a tricky question! I grew up during Franco’s dictatorship, I’ve seen the king, the so-called democracy, the “good years”, the crisis (many of them) etc. etc. I’m not a historian or sociologist, but I think that the nightmare we are having now in Spain, and elsewhere as well, started with Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Workers rights, unions, civil rights, etc., that were respected for decades (because the governments feared the riots, and because the USSR was the enemy, etc.) have been limited or simply erased. Now the right wing conservative political agendas are paramount. And you are right, the music in the 60s, 70s, and 80s was responding politically to the political environment. Not anymore. This is what 30 years (a whole generation) of conservative politics has obtained. When I try to explain to my students the American free jazz links to the civil rights movements of the 60s… Well, they don’t know about it and they don’t get it. And I deeply think that they don’t care; they see it as a “side effect” or something simply old fashioned. If you ask, “Why do you think John Coltrane wrote a tune called Alabama?” They have no idea, they just think it’s a nice tune.
So oblivion, yes, but more than this- there is an intentional view of music and jazz history that many critics, writers, magazines, musicians and establishment-related characters are trying to impose (Ken Burns, Marsalis, etc.). And they only look at (or listen to, or let you know about) what they have decided is worthy to look at. And their choice is political, not musical. And what is funny is that, [according to them], jazz (and music in general) apparently stopped its evolution 50 years ago! You and your colleagues in Chicago, and many others, are wrong, or on the wrong side of history, according to these critics.
And this also goes for “contemporary music,” maybe not as strong as with jazz because many contemporary composers teach at universities and have a solid discourse about music history. But anyway…
So this is one part of the answer. The false, biased music history that they, [these sources], are imposing everywhere.
The other part has to do with what is going on today politically, and what relationship has music with it. As I see it, there is an atomization of the relationships between people. We are all individually alone, not in a Becket-ian way, but socially and politically (smartphones and the internet also help with this). And for individuals, it’s very difficult to join and defend shared visions and ideas, or just to know that you may share something with other people. And it’s an outcome of the same right wing politics. What Thatcher said (“there is no such thing as society, there are only individual men and women”) is today accepted without questioning. It is, “what there is”.
When you transpose this to music, and to creative music, you get the same picture. There are myriads of musicians, everybody has its own opinion, their own esthetics, their own way of dealing with music and society. There is not a “standard” art as in the 20th century, not anymore. By standard I mean an accepted or shared vision of what is good or bad, artistically or who is better than another. There is not a John Coltrane, or Miles Davis or Duke Ellington (or John Cage) setting the bar anymore.
And there is another way of dealing with the art/society relationship . When I was young, in the mid 70s – beginning of the 80s, there was a strong anarchist movement in Catalonia, and a strong leftist movement as well (these were of course dismantled by the right and center-left parties). When you decided to occasionally join them, because you thought your ideas and their’s were quite similar, they refused what you where doing musically. I mean, sort of “You can join us on the demonstrations but we won’t listen to this shit you are playing. You should play revolutionary music (meaning hymns or protest songs), the music you play is bourgeois to us”.
Today, the only way of dealing with society is to elude it. I just keep playing the instrument. There will always be someone listening, or so I hope. This is why I play music. I need to play and there will always be someone who needs to listen to what I do. I have no expectations about music transforming or influencing society.
© 2021 Ken Vandermark – musician & composer | Disclaimer