Dr Eliot’s’ Five Foot Shelf

Dr Eliot’s’ Five Foot Shelf

Dr. Charles Eliot

Dr. Charles Eliot

I came of age as a bright-eyed student in the middle of another flare up of the canon wars.  Not “cannon”, as in the large gunpowder piece of artillery that shoots steel balls between pirate ships.  Not “Canon” the camera company, in some sort of field battle where photography equipment is launched across a field using catapults.  In this case I am referring to “canon” as in a body of historical works in music/literature/art that are recognized as masterpieces worthy of study.  There have been many attempts to establish and codify what constitutes the “Western Canon” over the last 150 years in literature, philosophy, political writing, music, art and drama.  The idea of the “Western Canon” is central to educational perennialism. It is the thought that there are pertinent issues and ideas that are relevant to all humans everywhere throughout history.  All humans are people, and learning should first be about people and principles that apply to all people and the human condition.  

western_canonAn early attempt to make a list of books to be included in the “canon” was done by Dr. Charles Eliot, a president of Harvard University who collected a set of “Harvard Classics” in 1909 (proving that this argument is over 100 years old).  More recently, the Great Books program of the University of Chicago has sparked great debate in the late 1980’s and 1990’s.  Allan Bloom wrote a book called “The Closing of the American Mind” that outlined his thoughts of how higher education has failed students by not using the great books more.  The brilliant Harold Bloom (no relation) wrote a book in 1995 titled “The Western Canon” which also promoted the idea of a body of works that are authoritative in western culture and should be taught.  Harold is a brilliant man and professor of Humanities at Yale, a thoughtful guy who suffers from insomnia and spends nights reading just about everything.  He has all the credentials to suggest what might be a good book.  However, every attempt at creating a list of canonical works has been controversial.

The problem with making a list is that it divides the world into two parts;  those things on the list and those that are not.  Much of the argument in the 1990’s was about what was NOT on the list.  Critics argued that the list was made by old white guys and included almost exclusively other old dead white men from Europe and early America.  If the canon is supposed to include universal “truths”, why is there no diversity?  Are old dead white guys the only set of humans with access to universal principles?  Moreover, this criticism played well into the constant, whining question of students asking “What does this dusty old stuff have to do with me, why do I have to read this?”

Teacher Leave Those Kids Alone

The same sort of canonical process goes on in “classical” music, wherein the season long programs of professional orchestras are heavyly laden with the “standard” repertoire.  Every season includes Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn and Brahms.  Music Directors feel compelled to provide many of the same old warhorses year after year.  The repertoire is big enough so that every season isn’t a carbon copy of the last, but over time audiences have a lot of familiarity with the kinds of things included each year.  There is only a rare occasion that my local Detroit Symphony Orchestra plays something on a concert that I haven’t heard before.  Certainly one of the properties that makes something Good Music, and included in the repertoire, is that it is worth hearing more than once.  There is a depth to great music (and art and literature) that makes it worth hearing over and over, revealing new insights with repeated exposure.  

Beethoven Symphony No 3, Movement 1

As a composer, I also think the “standard” repertoire is killing orchestra music.  There are only so many concerts, so many of hours of music that are performed each year.  There is little room for new music.  Once or twice a season, a short work may be performed, and inevitably it is paired with something like Beethoven’s Fifth or another favorite that makes it worthwhile for the audience to suffer through the new work to get to the “good stuff”.  Because there is little opportunity for performance, few composers are interested in writing new orchestra music.  Many modern composers concentrate on chamber music to be performed by small groups, often groups they already know and by whom have a chance to have their compositions performed.  The orchestra repertoire has become a closed feedback loop, with orchestras playing works from the standard repertoire because that is what audiences are familiar with, and audiences being only familiar with those works because that is all the orchestra plays.  

In the world of jazz music, a similar fight has gone on for years and created its own controversy.  At the center of the maelstrom is Wynton Marsalis, director of Jazz at Lincoln Center and world-famous trumpeter.  He has been an advocate for jazz music, and made great efforts to elevate the art of jazz to a cultural equal with any other art music in America.  He and critic Stanley Crouch have gone a long way to identifying a canon of jazz music and musicians that are essential.  They have run into the same controversies and problems in making a list of important stuff that every other list maker has run into.  The stuff on the list is never the real problem, it is the stuff that gets left off that creates a stir.  As historical advisors and contributors to the Ken Burns film “Jazz” for PBS, Marsalis and Crouch guided Burns to focus very heavily on Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington in particular. Armstrong and Ellington are geniuses and no one can quibble about their importance, but other important figures got small amounts of screen time and some people’s favorites didn’t make the film at all.  Crouch and Marsalis don’t seem to think very much of so-called “avant garde” jazz music or jazz fusion as pioneered in the 1970’s, so those things didn’t fit their definition of “Jazz” for inclusion in the Burns film.  The same old problem of authority arose for Marsalis and Crouch as it did for those trying to create a canon of literature.  That problem being, who gets to decide what is important enough to be included on the list?  Who should have the power to determine what should be read or seen or listened to?

Duke Ellington, “It Don’t Mean A Thing, If It Ain’t Got That Swing”

My own humble view on the idea of any sort of canon of Western culture is this.  There is nothing included on any version of the Western Canon or standard repertoire that is unimportant.  They are all masterpieces and well worth anyone’s time to read or study.  Shakespeare for example, is very important and has much to offer all of us both as the historical figure showing us a vision of his own period, and as a universal poet that speaks to us with a contemporary voice.  The comedies of Shakespeare are all about love and the romantic loving relationships between people.  If you are a human being (of any gender or race) and have been in love or hope to be in love, there is something personally relevant for you in Shakespeare’s comedies.  The problem is to think that they are the ONLY important works.  There are plenty of things just as important that did not make the list, whatever version of whatever list you happen to be looking at. Socrates, Plato, Dante, Shakespeare, as well as Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington are all valuable.  But they are only a beginning.

Benedict in Love, Much Ado About Nothing

One mistake is to think that the canon of Western culture holds the answers, some sort of universal set of truths.  It doesn’t, and in fact the so-called Great Books don’t even always agree with themselves.  If the answers, the truths, the solutions to the problem of the human condition were already written, the world would not be the troubled place it is today.  The value in studying great works in how it teaches us to think.  You don’t have to agree with Plato, Chaucer, Milton, Goethe, Tolstoy, Freud, Proust or Joyce, but the benefit is in arguing with them.  Reading their ideas and deciding for yourself if you agree or disagree and why.  Get angry with one of these writers and put together your thoughts on why their writing is a big pile of steaming crud.  The important thing is using your brain to formulate your position and rise to the challenge of the discourse.  Wrestling with masterpieces builds the skills to critically analyze the culture and institutions around us.  If you can argue with Plato, you can easily figure out why any political candidate is full of prunes.  You can be a thinking member of society and not be fooled or manipulated by forces around you.  A person doesn’t learn the answers from the canon, a person learns how to learn.  Education should not be exclusively vocational.  

Renaissance Man – St. Crispen Day Speech

Ancient societies were unequal, and it is true especially of historical works that much of what has been preserved for us to read or hear was from old dead white guys.  There is nothing wrong with the works in the canon of Great Books or the standard repertoire of music.  The other mistake is to think that they are the only works possible to teach critical thinking and great ideas. There are plenty of writings and works of art from other cultures that could serve similar purposes.  The point is to engage the mind and develop the ability to be a thoughtful person.  History was unkind, however, and we are only passed down the works that had the opportunity to exist. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, for example, had a sister who was also a musical prodigy.  Maria Anna “Nannerl” Mozart went on some of the early tours of Europe that Leopold paraded his children on, and amazed audiences performing right alongside her younger brother.  She had the potential and skill to be as important a musician as her brother, but not the opportunity.  Her musical training and activities stopped when she was 18 years old, as she was no longer a novelty as a child and had no future of a musical career in 18th century Europe.  So we have no great symphonies composed by Maria Mozart, and we are poorer because of it.  
My solution is straightforward.  Read everything.  Listen to everything.  Literature, music, art, theater, philosophy  and the like.  I agree with the philosopher John Searle, when he suggests that there shouldn’t be one fixed unchanging canon, but rather a “certain set of tentative judgments about what had importance and quality”, and that the list of what is part of the canon should be constantly revised, changed and expanded.  It is the process that is important,  not the final list.  By the way, I have a much bigger shelf than old Dr. Eliot, 🙂


A Snapshot of 1929

A Snapshot of 1929

1929 Model A Ford

1929 Model A Ford

The twentieth century in music brought in a modern world that was fragmented in many directions at once.  Thanks to recording technology, it was a musical world that was preserved for us to still hear today.  Before the twentieth century, the only ways to preserve music was to write it down as best as possible, or by keeping alive an aural tradition by teaching the next generation to sing the same songs.  With the invention of sound recording, we can actually hear all of the nuances of musical performance as it existed at that moment in time.  This was a huge evolutionary leap, and the sounds of music grew in a multitude of ways.

Let’s take the year 1929 as an example, and listen to a selection of things that could be heard at that time.  One of the first selections that comes to my mind when you mention the year 1929, is the great Duke Ellington’s time at the Cotton Club in Harlem.  This stint was early in Duke’s career, and lasted only a few years.  This is very artful music of the big band era.  Here is a recording with three tunes, “Jungle Nights in Harlem”, “Saratoga Swing”, and “Haunted Nights”

Duke Ellington’s Cotton Club Orchestra, 1929

Also in jazz, the great Louis Armstrong was growing in importance as a singer, as well as a trumpeter.  1929 saw Satchmo record “When You’re Smiling” for the first of several times in his career.  The double entendre of the record for me is that Pops himself had a famous smile, and his singing always seems to inspire a grin for those who listen to him.

Louis Armstrong, “When You’re Smiling”

Stock CrashThe Stock Market Crash of 1929 had lots of people singing the blues, continuing for many years into the Great Depression.  In the Mississippi Delta, lots of blues singers were being recorded, and those records sold throughout the American South.  One of the most popular blues records that year was “That Crawlin Baby Blues” by Blind Lemon Jefferson.

Blind Lemon Jefferson, “That Crawlin Baby Blues”

One of the most influential musicians of the day was the blues and folk singer Charlie Patton.  Just a few years ago, the great Bob Dylan released a song paying tribute to Patton.  Patton had to be one of the more organized musicians of his day. Instead of just wandering around the Mississippi Delta looking for places to play, he actually had scheduled gigs from place to place.  His recordings are more essential listening from the Delta.

Charlie Patton, “High Water Everywhere”

Elsewhere in the world, Arnold Schoenberg was causing a stir by throwing out tonality and writing music using his twelve-tone system.  Schoenberg was in full serial dodecaphonic mode in 1929 when he wrote the Piano Piece Opus 33a.  Arnold had turned Vienna and the rest of the classical music world on its ear by “emancipating the dissonance” and writing music that did not center around one home note.  At first listen, this may sound like chaos, but it is highly ordered music around a structure that keeps all twelve tones of the chromatic scale circulating all the time.  I love this video, because of the way it demonstrates the critical nature of using multiple colors of highlighters to analyze Schoenberg’s music.

Arnold Schoenberg, Piano Piece Op 33a

In Russia, a young Dmitri Shostakovich was a rising star in the Russian musical world.  He hadn’t yet felt the full oppressive force of the Stalinist dictatorship that would haunt his whole existence.  His opera, “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District”, wouldn’t get him in hot water with the Party for another 5 years.  In 1929, Dimitri was finishing his third Symphony, with a vocal finale either celebrating or satirizing the revolution.  (It’s sometimes hard to tell with Shostakovich).

Dmitri Shostakovich, Symphony No. 3, Opus 20.  “The First of May”

Heading back to where we started, in New York City, the Kern and Hammerstein musical “Show Boat” was in its second year on Broadway.  This was near the birth of a whole new genre, the Broadway musical, something different than opera or light operetta.  It is an entirely different category of musical theatre that has reached millions of people.   One of the biggest hit tunes of “Show Boat” is “Ol Man River”

Kern and Hammerstein, Show Boat, “Ol Man River”

Broadway_Melody_posterIn the world of motion pictures, both sound and technicolor were now available for films, ending the career of more than one silent movie star.  1929 was near the beginning of the “Golden Age of Hollywood”, where the major studio system dominated the production of movies.  The Academy Award for Best Picture in 1929 went to “The Broadway Melody”, the first time the award was given to a sound movie.  One of the popular tunes to come out of that movie was “You Were Meant For Me”

The Broadway Melody, “Your Were Meant For Me”

This has been just a handful of things that could be heard around the world in 1929.  The selection of examples is of course weighted to the stuff I am familiar with, but that is my privilege because it’s my blog.  Please feel free to share your favorite examples of music from 1929 by posting your comments.

Swing, Swing, Swing

Swing, Swing, Swing

One of the great inspirations for this blog is the Duke Ellington quote:

“There are two kinds of music. Good music, and the other kind”

Another great Duke quote is from the title of one of his compositions:

“It don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing”

Swing bands, dance bands, big bands were at one time America’s popular music.  This was a special time in the history of Jazz music.  Rock and roll was not born yet, and swing held the attention of the dancing youth of the States.  Racial segregation was an unfortunate fact of life in the time of the swing bands, so you have recordings of bands made of predominantly (or exclusively) white musicians, and recordings of bands made of predominantly (or exclusively) black musicians.

Fletcher Henderson

Fletcher Henderson

One of the great things about music is, it doesn’t care what color you are.  It doesn’t care if you are rich or poor, blind or sighted, tall or short, or anything else about you.  Music only cares about music; is it Good music or bad.  Fletcher Henderson is one of the great musicians of the swing band era. He wrote and arranged some of the best played, and widely heard music of the time.  Henderson led a big band of his own that was fairly successful in the 1920’s, playing some written arrangements as well as “head-arrangements” that the band just knew from memory.  One of the tragic elements of the Fletcher Henderson story is the fact that Fletcher was not as  good a businessman as a bandleader.  He was, however, a genius as an arranger and composer.  Listen

Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, “King Porter Stomp”

Benny Goodman

Benny Goodman

Financial hardship in 1934 caused Fletcher to sell some of his arrangements to Benny Goodman, for use in his big band.  Goodman was always very upfront about where he got his arrangements from, but achieved much greater financial success than Henderson ever did.  Part of this could be attributed to Goodman leading a predominantly white band in an era of racial segregation, and part could be attributed to Goodman’s shrewd business sense.  In 1939 Henderson became the staff arranger for the Goodman Orchestra for a time.

Benny Goodman Orchestra, “King Porter Stomp”

Chick Webb

Chick Webb

596 Lenox Avenue (in the New York neighborhood of Harlem) was the location of the Savoy Ballroom.  Back in the day, the absolute king of the Savoy Ballroom was the leader of the house band, Chick Webb.  An absolute fireball on the drum set, Webb was a man of small stature who suffered from spinal tuberculosis as a child.  He was a giant of the drums, and led his band with fire and energy that few musicians could match.  The Savoy had a no discrimination policy about race, and anyone could get in as long as they could dance.  Two big bands often met in cutting contests, playing in turns to determine who was the best on that night.  Few could match the energy of the Chick Webb orchestra, which also used quite a few Fletcher Henderson arrangements.

Chick Webb Orchestra, “King Porter Stomp”

It is truly fascinating to me to be able to compare these bands on the exact same arrangements by the great Fletcher Henderson.  Here are three versions of “Stompin at the Savoy”:

Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, “Stompin at the Savoy”

Benny Goodman Orchestra, “Stompin at the Savoy”

Chick Webb Orchestra, “Stompin at the Savoy”

Duke Ellington

Duke Ellington

Of course, hearing these three great bands is only scratching the surface of the variety of sounds of swing bands in the 1930’s.  The Cotton Club in New York housed the Duke Ellington Orchestra for a number of years.

Duke Ellington Orchestra, “Jungle Nights in Harlem”

Count Basie

Count Basie

Kansas City sent us a deeply swinging, bluesy sound in the way of the Count Basie Orchestra

Count Basie Orchestra, “Swinging the Blues”

As far as I am concerned, you will always find Good Music as long as you follow the swing.