Workshop 2: Nicholas Gebhardt, After the event: listening to Miles Davis’s “My Funny Valentine”
Nicholas Gebhardt (Lancaster University) opened his presentation by explaining that in it, he intends to provide a few thoughts on jazz improvisation and what it offers us in terms of thinking about the nature of artistic events. Gebhardt argued that perhaps more than any other aspect of music today, improvisation has particular significance for how we explain or account for changes in musical experience, across all the forms of contemporary music: not just jazz, but also within classical, electronic, experimental, modernist, pop, rock, and non-western music as well. He claimed that the reason for this is that as a way of thinking about musical forms, improvisation poses fundamental questions about the process of deciding what to play — that is, what counts for us as music in any given social situation — and how to organise or shape musical events.
Furthermore, Gebhardt illustrated that as a type of musical practice, improvisation highlights issues to do with the production and distribution of music as a commodity, as well as questioning the social relationships and structures upon which musical creativity depends. In terms of an example, Gebhardt explained that one of the principal aims of jazz modernism, beginning with bebop in the 1940s, was to focus attention on the performance itself: on achieving a new complexity and intensity through greater emphasis on melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic experimentation with the whole form. This meant a long process of redefining NOT ONLY what these forms were, BUT what jazz events meant, where they took place, how performers and audiences related to one another, as well as the values ascribed to them. Above all, he pointed out, it involved conceiving of jazz as primarily a listener’s art (rather than as dance music) and foregrounding improvisation as jazz.
As an initial starting point for a discussion, Nicholas Gebhardt suggested that how we understand the role or place of improvisation in music and what we take improvisation to mean involves us in a set of claims about what happens during a musical performance and what we expect from musical events. He added that the foregrounding of improvisation as jazz from the 1940s makes explicit an important claim: that jazz performances are unique musical events unlike any other (improvisation here making all the difference).
To clarify his argument, Gebhardt focuses on two recordings by the Miles Davis quintet (Miles Davis on trumpet, Wayne Shorter on saxophone, Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass and Tony Williams on drums) made over consecutive nights in December, 1965, at the Plugged Nickel jazz club in Chicago. The recording is of the Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart song, “My Funny Valentine,” from their 1937 Broadway music, Babes in Arms. Davis had recorded the song in the studio in 1956, on the LP Cookin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet and over the next nine years, it featured frequently in his public performances. Hence, Gebhardt played to the audience of the workshop the opening bars of Frank Sinatra’s recording from 1953, which was largely responsible for establishing the song as a ‘standard’ for jazz musicians.
Thereafter, Gebhardt argued that without going into what is a complex history, it is enough to say that between 1920 and the late-1960s, various forms of popular song—blues, ragtime tunes, lyrical ballads, novelty songs, and songs from Broadway or Hollywood musicals—were the primary media for the most important jazz improvisations, from Louis Armstrong to John Coltrane. There was, then, nothing unusual about Davis’s decision to incorporate “My Funny Valentine” into his band’s repertoire; jazz players created the conditions for their art in their handling of the movement from popular song to improvisation and back again. Consequently, Gebhardt played opening sections of tracks 5 and 6, so that the participants could hear how Davis and his band shape this movement, a decade after Sinatra’s hit recording.
Nicholas Gebhardt continued in claiming that Rogers and Hart’s song has become little more than a sketch, a barely perceived outline, hinted at only in the brief introduction by the pianist, Herbie Hancock, followed by Davis’s voice-like trumpet rehearsing the opening lines… “My funny valentine [long pause] sweet, comic valentine...” and, after that, we hear only fragments of melody, rhythmic phrases, a couple of chords repeated, interspersed between long stretches of improvisation by each of the performers. Familiarity with the song, as well as with Davis’s interpretation of it, means that a full statement of the song’s melody and harmony is by now unnecessary. In their place were a series of abstract phrases, constant changes in speed and tempo, bent notes, half-formed motifs. There is no replaying of the melody, and the endings remains unresolved…piano/drums-bass
Consequently, Gebhardt illustrated how writing about an earlier live recording of “My Funny Valentine” from 1964, the jazz journalist Nat Hentoff wrote that Davis’s performance “…demonstrates definitely that no matter how often you may have heard a song, a major jazz improviser can nonetheless disclose dimensions previously unsuspected by you, let alone the composer.” (Nat Hentoff, liner notes, My Funny Valentine, Columbia Legacy, 1995). And Davis’s biographer, Ian Carr, suggests that with “My Funny Valentine” the trumpeter had “taken the technical and emotional exploration of standard song structures as far as possible before they disintegrated completely and metamorphosed into something else.” (Ian Carr, Miles Davis: the definitive biography, London: HarperCollins, 1998:196).
Nicholas Gebhardt suggested that now there is no doubt that what was happening was some kind of ‘breakdown’ in the set of conventions upon which jazz players had relied for their understanding of what it meant to improvise on and with a pop standard and, consequently, in the concept of jazz. He continued in arguing that it remains to say why this happened when it did and why these recordings of Davis’s have come to symbolise just such a breakdown of conventions without, for all that, symbolising the end of jazz itself (which was certainly not the case for a number of other jazz performers at this time).
Concomitatnly, Gebhardt offered a couple of suggestions to guide the workshop’s discussion:
1. The period during which Davis recorded this song coincided almost exactly with the first great phase of rock and roll – 1954-1964. The great tradition of popular song writing—characterised by composers and lyricists such as the Gershwin brothers, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Lorenz Hart, Richard Rogers, Oscar Hammerstein and many others—on which jazz players relied for their understanding of improvisation and which had sustained their art for several decades, was disappearing; to be replaced by new types of popular song—rock and roll, soul, rock, heavy metal, punk, disco and so forth. Davis’s foregrounding of improvisation as jazz thus took place under new and difficult conditions for jazz players. Not only were the record companies losing interest in supporting jazz, as audiences began to find new interests and respond to a new set of musical experiences, but the heightened individualism and immediacy associated with jazz improvisation was increasingly being questioned, both from within and outside of the jazz community.
2. These recordings were marketed to and approached by listeners as ‘live’ recordings, a concept which was crucially meant to distinguish them from the studio recording. The implicit assumption was that studio recordings were potentially open to manipulation and thus to a kind of repetition or standardisation in a way live recordings were not; that with the live recording of an improvisation, listeners were present to the event itself in its purest form.
Thereafter, Gebhardt illuminated that the significance of Davis’s conception of jazz as improvisation, beginning with his 1959 recording Kind of Blue and culminating with his famous jazz rock recordings of the late-1960s and early 1970s, was to challenge such a distinction by refusing it altogether. He emphasised that neither the music produced in the studio nor the ‘live’ recording was any more likely to secure jazz’s identity or relevance; what mattered was the way in which the performers experimented with the conditions within which an improvisation took place—the state and relations of the band, the musical forms on which the improvisation relied.
In conclusion, Nicholas Gebhardt stated that these recordings of “My Funny Valentine” were thus essential to re-conceptualising jazz as an art form in which improvisation was the event. He closed with a quote from the art historian Michael Fried who, in a discussion about how modernism works, writes that “…modernist painting, in its constantly renewed effort to discover what it must be, is forever driven ‘outside’ itself, compelled to place in jeopardy its very identity by engaging with what it is not.” (Michael Fried, “How Modernism works: A Response to T.J. Clark,” Critical Inquiry, Number 9, 1982:226). Gebhardt finished his presentation with an acknowledgement that there seems no better description of Miles Davis’s approach to jazz than this.
Debate following Gebhardt’s presentation was dominated by two queries: what makes so-called ‘great’ art and what is the impact of the recording on the improvised music.
Firstly, improvising as freeing was considered within the great art scope. Here the modernistic movement in art and its relationship to science were discussed. Consequently, the explicit connection between the kinds of things happening in painting and other musical traditions was uncovered and debated in terms of structural changes. Finally, it was agreed that it is the task of a critic or historian to connect what is going on in these small events to much larger historical structural changes that are taking place.
Secondly, it was questioned whether the recording makes justice or injustice to the improvisation. Concomitantly, the ambivalent role in scientific recordings was pointed out and the dialectical movement between uniqueness and repetition was considered. Further, some claims for improvisation independent of listening after the event were made in terms of the historical dimension of understanding about one’s experience. It was concluded that it is uniqueness that draws us to the recording in the first place.