Friday, December 24, 2004

To What Purpose

Except to Be (3)

Though I respect the intensity of my students who feel otherwise, I can't much admire the poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay, which seem to me more serious about the poet's pose in the world than about either the world or herself. Her "Spring" — "To what purpose, April, do you return again?" — says: You won't catch me getting taken in by this rebirth crap, knowing as I do, from my history of hurt, how . . . etc. "I know what I know," one line congratulates itself.

Yet that famous opening line holds something fundamental to poetry, not because of its attitude or its attitudinizing, but because of its absurdity. The ideal Logical Positivist — indispensible joker — will object that, even given the poetic fiction of seeming to address a segment of the calendar, questioning its intent and motives misapprehends such fundamental distinctions as the one between sentience and insentience, and above all the incomparability of time (which goes by, one hour per hour, no matter what you think or want) and creatures in time, which go on as they can, until they don't. The poem begins from, and can't do without, and replaces at the center of our consciousness that created it, an opposite conviction. If we can't question April, what can we question? If we can't question April, who can?

So I don't dismiss Millay's premise. I miss her taking it more thoroughly on its own terms. To do that would have led her into myth. The rest of the poem would wonder through that myth, not keep distracting itself and us with veiled references to past disillusionments. She ends by comparing April with Ophelia — if only she had gotten there first and gone on, not saved it for the end. To April's Ophelia, whose Laertes? Polonius? Hamlet? Could the poet have ended up as Gertrude instead, wary and pitying and doomed?

Friday, December 17, 2004

Fake Book

Vill Ex (2)

Few people in the general public — say, the roomful at this moderately upscale soiree — seem to notice that the jazz group in the corner represents a minor miracle. It came to be here perhaps by way of the hostess’ niece’s phone call to her friend the bass player, who asked around and got numbers for a pianist, a drummer, and an alto saxophonist. The musicians have never met before. This should be a problem. A smooth, finished sound is even more important to functional background music than to explicitly adventurous concert performance. That smoothness demands what we loosely call “professionalism,” but at least it seems logically to require a certain amount of rehearsal.

What allows them to produce the effect without its apparently necessary precondition is a fake book, which is a collection of “standards” — which here simply means tunes or kinds of tunes the musicians think the partygoers want or expect to hear. The fake book displays one tune per page: not representing it, as in published sheet music, by a vocal part accompanied by a piano reduction of some real or notional orchestral arrangement; epitomizing it, instead, in a single line of melody with a sequence of chord changes written above it.

The Oxford English Dictionary seems not to have heard of the phrase fake book.* In this context, “fake” isn’t the adjective people might take it for, meaning “ersatz” or “imitation,” as in “fake cream” or “a fake Vermeer”; no original object exists which the collection quite copies. Rather, “fake” is a verb, and a fake book is a book which allows the musicians to fake it. What they are “faking” is a question which the OED evades by means of a special definition for this sense of the verb: “Of jazz musisicans: to improvise. Colloq.” Are they (to seek help from other definitions) “feigning or simulating” something? They are a jazz group, no matter how new and transitory, not a simulaton of one. Are they “concealing the defects” of something, like a horse one wants to sell? Possibly, though if the group is so superlative that there are no noticeable defects, the term ought then to lose its force, but does not.

“Fake” as a name for the defining activity of jazz musicians has been part of English at least since 1926. OED’s first exemplary quotation refers specifically to the situation in which there is a written but incomplete score, from which certain instrumental parts must be inferred without benefit of notation. To fake is to extrapolate. By the time of the next quotation (1933), the reference seems to be to much more pervasive structural improvisation, on the standard jazz model in which the written framework of performance is confined to that single melodic line with harmonic progression which eventually gets collected in fake books.

Back then, the jazz group often was treated as a mimicry: it imitated a non-jazz band, one that performed “hot” music from a written score, like Paul Whiteman’s. This wry attitude toward their own art characterized jazz musicians themselves for decades; thirties and forties players would speak of their individualized instrumental voices as deviating from “legitimate” tone, contrast their work with “serious music,” and call the group’s intonation “close enough for jazz.” All this changed when the music began to take itself seriously, a process that began with bebop and reached a kind of apotheosis in John Coltrane’s dedication to his art in the late sixties.

Now, of all the fake books the jazz world has seen since between the World Wars, none has had the longevity or primacy of The Real Book. Delicious title. We don’t know — I don’t know — who made it or who still occasionally distributes it. It seems to have been first put together in the mid-seventies. It’s a curious cultural artifact: on the one hand blatantly illegal (no royalties have been paid for the tunes), sold out of the trunks of cars; on the other hand, essential for any working jazz musician, who is expected to “know The Real Book” as a pre-requisite for work in any pickup group.

Like a Rolex in reverse, The Real Book is so meritorious that legal imitations of it abound. A Dadaist could photocopy one of these, then point to the copy sitting on a music stand and, to distinguish it from a photographic or memory image of it, call it a real fake fake Real fake book.

*Not true, as Forthright ( points out; but OED puts the phrase under the noun "fake," not the verb — wrongly, I think.