Brad Mehldau: Ideology, Burgers and Beer

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By Tom Deja

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Brad Mehldau meditates on artistic principles-dogmatic and otherwise.

When I was first living in New York in 1989, a bunch of us musicians used to head over to the Corner Bistro in the West Village after the gig around 2:00 a.m. for their character-building half-pound burger and draft beer, accompanied to music from one of the best jazz jukeboxes in Manhattan. I think it was the drummer Joe Farnsworth who thought up a ridiculous but irresistible kind of word game that we often played there. The idea was to think of pairs of jazz musicians throughout history with the same first name or last name, pit them against each other and then pick the greater player.

Around the table we would go, taking turns as one person would formulate a pair, and then the rest of us would choose our favorite. Examples would be: Elvin Jones or Joe Jones? Wynton Kelly or Wynton Marsalis? Paul Chambers or Paul Gonsalves? (There was one night when this doubled as a drinking game. The rest of the table had to go bottoms up if someone could think up an adjacent last-name/first name two-gender pair-Shirley Scott or Scott Henderson?) As the night wore on and the dollar-drafts kept flowing, the game usually degenerated into random pairings that spread out into all realms of culture-Greg Brady or Greg Osby? Lonnie Plaxico or Loni Anderson? Keith Jarrett or Keith Moon? Then it became a typical Gen X affair, and we got a kick out of yoking the jazz musicians and pop-culture figures together as an end in itself.

The game had a certain purity precisely because of its inanity. How could you choose one person over another in an arbitrary pair like that? It was impossible! Joe was always there to remind us, though, of the simple conditions of the game: "You have to choose one." Another rule that was almost always enforced: After you make your choice, own it with no apologies or explanations. Likewise, no one else was allowed to comment on your pick any more than a monosyllabic groan or grunt. It was onto the next person immediately. The effect was sublimely ridiculous-a rapid-fire barrage of written-in-stone value judgments against the absurd backdrop of matching first and last names.

The subtext of the game was that making comparative value judgments always smacks a little of the absurd. "Player X is more important in jazz history than Player Y," is a "substantive" statement, following legal and political commentator Stanley Fish's gloss on that word. This kind of statement implies that further debate is redundant and worthless, although, alas, not everyone will grasp that implication. A real-world analogous statement is, "Every unborn child should have the right to life." Fish's point is that you don't waste your time trying to argue against this kind of belief or reach a consensus with the person voicing it. If you disagree, your best tactic is to put your own view forward just as unapologetically, and lobby even stronger for its application.

How analogous are political and aesthetic substantive claims? In our game, we were poking fun at the overblown seriousness that surrounds aesthetic judgments. We were being contemptuous of the political tone of these "who's the greatest in the history of jazz?" discussions. Why all the gravity? You'd get someone proclaiming that Wes Montgomery was the end-all on guitar, everything after him was shit and these new players today were desecrating the legacy of jazz guitar. It wasn't so much the statement itself; it was the tone-all the tragic resignation of a Trotskyite who saw his original dream go up in smoke. I mean, we're not talking serious world affairs that will affect humanity here. It's just music! Right?

On one particular night, though, we fell into one of those dead-end "who's better?" discussions. Lapsing into grave, weighty tones, we became the butt of our own joke. The pair in question was Sonny Rollins and Sonny Stitt. It was a perfect specimen of the game: apples and oranges, completely useless and ridiculous to pick one over the other. Regardless, the majority of the group went with Rollins, but a few chose Stitt. This was one of the few instances where we broke our no-explanations rule. A long, protracted discussion followed over just what the criterion for everyone's choice was.

My camp maintained that Rollins beat out Stitt. Undoubtedly, he's one of the greatest improvisers that jazz has ever had. His winning greatness for us, though, was his double attribute: Not only are his improvisations so inspired, but Rollins' solos often have a compositional logic that compels you to listen in a different manner. He pioneered that approach on the classic "Blue Seven" from Saxophone Colossus. There's an organic way in which the motifs generate themselves out of each other. His opening melody drifts seamlessly into the solo; it's all one large idea. Rollins wasn't just blowing an inspired improvisation. He was building an edifice, erecting something that would stay standing through time because of the internal logic holding it together. To cement our argument in favor of Rollins, we dropped the big "P" word: profound.

The other guys maintained that Stitt was the greater because he was just a player-pure, unadorned great bop. As the discussion went on, it turned out that the whole "compositional" approach, represented by a host of icons including Thelonious Monk himself, lacked greatness for these guys. My camp was outraged, seething. What the heck did they mean? We had a strange feeling of disorientation, like on a Twilight Zone episode -were they the same musicians we had just been gigging with? Who were they, if they couldn't get with Monk? Or maybe they were just trying to be provocative.

We quit the name game at that point and got all serious. The binary here was more compositional player vs. just a blower. Example: Monk vs. Bud Powell? Their answer unflinchingly: "Bud." Note that the word just was not pejorative for them. On the contrary, to be just a blower, albeit on an inspired level, was what jazz was all about.

Bird personified that. Those solos on live records like Bird With the Herd, when he sat in with the Woody Herman Band, or a record like One Night in Washington, are dangerously, menacingly good. "Just blowing" was what made jazz more punk than any punk rock band could ever be. To be able to blow a solo like Bird-profound, gripping, full of urgency and beautiful mortality-but to do so, like him, with the casual ease of someone standing at a bus stop-well, now that was something that might be called great.
That ease couldn't be hindered by compositional elements, because "composition," was, in their line of argument, anathema to jazz. It was everything that Bird was escaping from; it was what made his music so free and joyous. A Bird head like "Anthropology" was something that came more out of his improvisations. It was pasted together almost as an afterthought from the most inspired bits of his solos.

Building too much compositional logic into your solo was a flaw for the Stitt camp-an affectation that got in the way of the flow. It implied pretentiousness and an overly apparent intellectualism that wore thin and didn't stand the test of repeated listening. Bop was Mecca for the Stitt camp, and Bird was the prophet. Their favorites followed in his footsteps through the hard-bop era: noble, unaffected players who were usually more obscure, like Tina Brooks, Ernie Henry or Bill Hardman.

Monk's improvisations were informed by his compositions; Bird's compositions were informed by his improvisations. In that assessment, they couldn't be more opposite, and lumping Monk in willy-nilly with a "be-bop revolution" is misleading to a point. He has a very different kind of genius than Bird-more a composer's genius. One might put him in a lineage that includes Duke Ellington.

But that would also be limiting. Monk, like Sonny Rollins, was also an incredible improviser who soloed with that same "waiting at the bus stop" nonchalant greatness as Bird. His solo on "I Mean You" may refer to the melody of the song, take it apart and reconstruct it. But that was within the context of an improvisation, one that had the same killer casual profundity of Bird. Monk was certainly not getting caught in the net of his own compositional logic; he was just being a genius.

These guys were stubborn, though, and wouldn't back down; neither would we. We finally sulkily "agreed to disagree." A distinctly ideological strain had infected the discussion, killing our buzz.

In politics, ideology is dangerous-from 20th century examples down to the present "Washington consensus." Ideology pastes what appears to be a thought-out argument onto a substantive claim that is more animalistic than logical in nature: "Because of facts A, B, and C, we should all band together in a tribe and demonize those other people." Ideology uses logic selectively, in a sneaky, backhanded manner. Its aim is that we actually suspend our sense of logic and, with it, our moral radar. Then we'll be in mute complicity with what's to come.

Musical ideology is similar in that it asks us to suspend our aesthetic judgments and acquiesce to its claims. It collects facts and interprets them broadly in the same manner: "You cannot dig this music as much as that music because...."

Why do we often identify practitioners of jazz ideology as conservative? It's because of the parental, Old Testament ring to their utterances. Those utterances are analogous to the quasi-religious words of the Bush administration, spoken to us as if we are children who still believe in Santa Claus. Because of the specious, ideological tone, though, we cannot trust this parent and do not look up to it. We don't like being told what to enjoy musically anymore than we like being told what constitutes being patriotic.
There's another kind of musical ideology, though, that's more self-imposed and private. I can identify it in myself, although it's hidden under a veneer of it's-all-goodism. I think many of us carry around some kind of ideology about jazz to varying degrees, because its marginalized status in American music stokes our partisan fury that much more. (See: Ken Burns documentary.) This kind of ideology bothers me because it's intractable. Some outside authority hasn't imposed it on me; it's my own personal dogma. Is it perhaps steering my whole aesthetic sense covertly, calling the shots from behind a curtain in the shadows of my Id?

For instance: Is my lack of enjoyment of most of what's called pop music these days simply because it sucks, or is it because I'm unwittingly locked in the grips of a musical elitist ideology? Maybe I'm missing something vital; maybe I've become the proverbial old fart! Where does the ideological baggage stop and the real pleasure begin? Is there a hard line between the two, or are they all mixed up in each other? Perhaps they're not entirely severable.

I have music that I love, and ideology is a weapon that I might use to defend and argue my love, which is tempting but absurd. After all, how do you defend a gut level emotion? What's more, why would you? Kierkegaard writes wisely, "To defend something is to disparage it." It's the mantra of the high road. If you love something, you should be all quiet and spiritual about it, not needing to justify it, right? Wrong! How could we survive without the bitchy, bickering fun of polemics?

Maybe we get defensive over our various musical loves because they define who we are. Love is exclusionary. You can't love everything, all the time. That goes for a critic or layman, and also for musicians. When you build your identity as a player, you do so in part by excluding a bunch of other identities, at least temporarily. That process of exclusion is determined by the gut, not the intellect. It's tied up in the murky morass of subjectivity-early musical and nonmusical experiences, innate personality traits, etc.
We laid that process of exclusion bare as we played the name-game. The arbitrary humor of the game was a salve, a way of keeping our own self-irony lest we lapse into ideology like we did that one night. At the end of the day, we all dug Sonny Stitt and Sonny Rollins both. It was a name pair that just shouldn't have been uttered in the first place.

Whatever the case, I've discovered something great about listening to music and playing it. You may necessarily exclude great chunks of music in the process of building up your aesthetic. You can always surprise yourself later on, though, when music that you weren't initially ready for reveals itself to you in all its beauty.

If only our government would surprise itself and us in the same way. At its present course, it is opting for the exclusionary course, guarding its belief with a desperate, violent love, full of folly. It is truly disparaging the thing it defends.

Originally published in December 2003

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