|Real Village Voice #32
"Do you remember when I visited your apartment in the East Village,
back in the '80s?" asked my friend, the Finnish music critic.
We were eating Spanish food in a restaurant during an intermission
in the music at the 22nd annual Tampere Jazz Happening.
Tampere is a small city in the center of Finland. It was the birthplace
of Finnish industry in the 1800s, is still home to Finlayson, a textile
company, and the headquarters of Nokia, the cell phone maker, is in
a nearby town. Tampere is located between two lakes. It has two colleges,
a state-of-the-art concert hall, and one long avenue of fashionable
shopping. On the dark, cold, rainy autumn weekend when the Tampere
Jazz Happening takes place, it is full of downtown type people. They
came this year to hear bassist William Parker's ensemble with dancers
and a video, violinist Billy Bang's gritty quintet, electric pianist
Uri Caine, the Bad Plus piano-bass-drum trio, German tenor saxophonist
Peter Brötzmann's Chicago Tentet with dueling baritone saxophonists
Ken Vandermark and Mats Gustafsson, and a range of hard-core Scandanavian
jazz players. I am told a large part of the audience drives here from
Helsinki, which is two hours by car to the south. Other listeners
come from Lapland, where the reindeer live in the north, and Finnish,
Swedish and Norweigan locations. Approximately 5000 people of all
ages come to this three-day festival. They drink, and listen intently.
I was sitting across from Jussi Niemi, who slept on the floor of my
bachelor apartment more than 15 years ago. I hadn't talked to him
since then. He is my age, and like me, since we met years ago he has
married and become a father. He said he thinks about writing a book.
We had just sat in a very hot sauna bath for half an hour, and we
each had drunk a beer.
"I remember looking at your record collection", Jussi continued.
"I thought you were only into abstract, intellectual jazz. But
then I saw all these blues records, and rhythm and blues and soul
albums, and old New Orleans music. That's when I thought we had a
lot in common, because I love all that music, too."
What good is abstract, intellectual jazz if it isn't grounded somehow
in blues, and rhythm, and soul? How can you dig Henry Threadgill,
Anthony Braxton, Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor, John Zorn, and similarly brainy
players, if you don't sense the passions of Jelly Roll Morton, early
Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Mississippi delta guitar demon Robert
Johnson, Chicago's Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, pianists Otis Spann
and Professor Longhairnot to mention Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding,
Jimi Hendrix, Al Green, James Brown and George Clinton?
It is possible to listen to blues, rhythm and blues and soul musics
and never learn to like music that doesn't have a single clear melody
line, or constant pulse. But I am a bit suspicious of people who claim
to be deep into the heaviest improvisers and composers, yet don't
respond to the founding fathers and mothers of popular music of the
African American tradition. That is one reason I wonder about Wynton
Marsalis: he says pop, rock, soul and blues isn't worthy of serious
attention. I have always disagreed.
And here was a Finnish journalist announcing he came to trust me only
when he saw I liked that stuff. He told me too many of his younger
fellow citizens thought the blues was loud drinking music, without
subtlety. I said that problem exists in the US today, too. That's
why the recent seven-film series about the blues produced by Martin
Scorsese, shown on public television and sold as DVDs, was so important,
even though the films were flawed. The plots wander, they aren't all
informative, there is no attempt to tell the history of the blues
the way Ken Burns tried to tell the history of jazz. But there is
great performance footage of delta bluesman Son House, Detroit boogie
guitarist John Lee Hooker, famous B.B. King, little-known J.B. Lenoir,
and a lot of others. The flaws are forgiven.
"Jussi", I told my buddy, in my most severe real village
voice, "the book you write should be called 'Funk for Finns'".