* Eric McDowell *
Listening to Sonny Clark’s “Cool Struttin’” not long ago, I asked my musician friend how to know if Jackie McClean’s solo (or any saxophone solo) was good or not. He drew a slow breath—deciding how far back toward the basics of theory he’d have to meet me?—and said, “Well, do you like it?” He didn’t elaborate. When I tried to answer his question, I realized I couldn’t. Yes, I’d wanted to like jazz, wanted to be “into it” and to know how to talk about it even. But for some reason I’d passed over that simplest, most obvious and essential approach: I hadn’t been listening, not really. What I mean is, I had put the cart before the horse, wanting to know what I should like without considering what I did like.
Every year around Christmas time Bahamians are divided by the Junkanoo groups they support. I was born into a family of Valley Boy supporters, but in theory I could support any of the main competing groups—Valley Boys, One Family, Roots, Saxons, The Music Makers or The Prodigal Sons. These groups practice all year for the Boxing Day and New Year competitive parades. Those used to be the only mornings there were Junkanoo parades, but now there are performances called rush outs every week in Marina Village on Paradise Island and routinely throughout the summer at the Fish Fry, a once cultural landmark now overrun by restaurants that sell syrupy-sweet strawberry daiquiris and bland peas n’rice on Fiestaware. I do want to be, nor do I try to be a cultural snob, but sometimes I do wonder if anything can belong to a country that shares and bends its land and people so often for the benefit of others. I wonder at one point does the culture become something else entirely, simply a shadow of its former self.
One must soberly ask, in light of the enthusiastic rhetoric that surrounds new forms of postmodern audience participation: are these forms of “agency” designed to empower the listener, creatively or critically, or merely offer the simulated (“technical”) illusion thereof? The mimetic replication of urban and post-industrial noises reinscribes the very determinisms that all art forms both inherit and strive to overcome, and while on a neurological level the ear enjoys assimilating unfamiliar sounds, and harsh noises generated from dissonance, punk, heavy metal or electronic music, can induce an “unpleasing” cerebral pleasure, the sustained withholding of aural pleasure from the listener may be the last insidiously lingering form of 21st century authoritarian “control” of all.
When Cage began experimenting with chance operations in the 1940s, he was looking for a means of stripping intention and taste from the process of creating art. In the Western world, our notion of “genius,” at least as it relates to artists and performers, is generally shaped by a psycho-historical method of decoding biography to discover the seed of ability.
In the arts, repetition put to smart use bears fruit almost instantly. Take a phrase of music or a line of poetry and read it, hum it, then repeat it. Again and again. Crack the circle open and you find a spiral, spinning, a single pattern among many.