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Isn’t It Ironic? The Bad Plus and the Jazz Canon

Surrey With the Fringe on TopThe Bad Plus, who are performing at Indianapolis’ Jazz Kitchen Saturday night, have posted a collective statement in response to some of the reviews they got during their recent swing through the UK. Said reviews often hit upon the Plus’ choice of songbook (Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man,” Blondie’s “Heart of Glass,” Nirvana’s “All Apologies,” etc.) as tired irony, a joke being run into the ground, etc. BP’s sincere and spirited defense is that they genuinely dig these songs and enjoy the challenge of improvising on them as a jazz trio. They state that they generally try to avoid playing music written between 1920 and 1965, though they have a high regard for it; having grown up in a world primarily conversant with pop, rock, and electronica, that is where they choose to make their jazz home. “We believe that artists should utilize their life experience, not turn their back on it,” they say.

That should hardly be a revolutionary statement, eh? And yet in certain quarters of the jazz world, it sort of is. Perhaps it’s “ironic” to discuss this here, on a site featuring programs devoted to the 1945-1990 era of jazz… an era that I think represents a great stretch of achievement for the music. (As does the 1920-1945 era.) And the BP are certainly not rejecting jazz history out of hand… as Ethan Iverson himself and others have argued, jazz in the 1970s and 80s remains in particular an underappreciated realm. I think the Bad Plus and some other modern jazz musicians simply feel that the Great American Songbook has been played, interpreted, and run into the ground. It’s music they respect but don’t especially relate to.

Like other things in this culture, this “conflict” or whatever it is seems rooted in things that happened in the 1960s–and things that happened as a reaction to what happened in the 1960s. The second explosion of rock ‘n roll wrought by the British Invasion and its accompanying “gotta be young, gotta be now” mentality caused an all-but-panicked reaction in the jazz world, inspiring albums that have become sources of mockery–Gerry Mulligan’s If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Join ‘Em and Count Basie’s Beatles Bag are two that come to mind immediately. Some efforts, like the tunes Sonny Criss recorded for Prestige in these years–”Up, Up and Away,” for example–come off pretty well…it’s become rote to slam the door on all 1960s jazz recordings of then-contemporary rock n’ roll songs, but good things were done. Still, the jazz world has been reacting to rock, in one way or another, ever since, in a variety of ways–shamelessly emulating it at times, trying to figure out how to absorb it in ways that complement jazz, or ignoring it altogether in favor of the Golden Age of Song. And that, I think, is at the heart of the BP’s irritation.

So while I agree with the spirit of much of what the Bad Plus said in their post, there’s one big catch–picking out the lyrics of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The Surrey With the Fringe on Top” as their point of ridicule for goofy, irrelevant standards. It’s not that I’m particularly invested in defending that song, or the musical that gave birth to it–Oklahoma! It’s that “Surrey With the Fringe on Top” is simply a car song set in another era, a “hey-baby-look-at-my-wheels” tune similar to what the Beach Boys would write in the 1960s, Prince with “Little Red Corvette” in the 1980s, etc. And just as you can’t necessarily hold certain music sacrosanct because of the era that spawned it without defaulting on the right to use your brain, you can’t necessarily reject songs, or art of any kind, out of hand simply because the historical context and details don’t jibe with your current surroundings. As musician Jim Sangrey points out, most people are looking for a song to simply tell them some kind of story. “Surrey” is part of a story, serving the needs of the musical wherein it resides… apart from it, it’s still a musical vehicle, as it were, a longstanding narrative in American popular culture, whereby our mode of transportation proves our personal worth.

Judy Garland Trolley songNow, as Jim Sangrey also noted, Rodgers and Hammerstein probably wouldn’t have written said surrey/car song unless they’d had to–which brings up another famous “vehicle” song from a musical that might seem goofy or irrelevant by modern/Bad Plus standards (so to speak): “The Trolley Song,” written by Ralph Blaine and Hugh Martin for the 1944 film Meet Me in St. Louis. Here are the lyrics:

Clang ,clang, clang went the trolley
Ding, ding, ding went the bell
Zing, zing, zing went my heartstrings as we started for Huntington Dell.
Chug, chug, chug went the motor
Bump, bump, bump went the brake
Thump, thump, thump went my heartstrings as we glided for Huntington Lake.
The day was bright, the air was sweet
The smell of honeysuckle charmed me off my feet
I tried to sing, but couldn’t squeak
In fact I felt so good I couldn’t even speak
Buzz, buzz, buzz went the buzzer
Time to all disembark,
Time to fall went my heartstrings as we got off at Huntington Park
As we got off at Huntington Park.

With my high-starched collar, and my high-topped shoes
And my hair piled high upon my head
I went to lose a jolly hour on the Trolley and lost my heart instead.
With his light brown derby and his bright green tie
He was quite the handsomest of men
I started to yen, so I counted to ten the I counted to ten again
Clang, clang, clang went the trolley
Ding, ding, ding went the bell
Zing, zing, zing went my heartstrings
From the moment I saw him I fell
Chug, chug, chug went the motor
Bump, bump, bump went the brake
Thump, thump, thump went my heartstrings
When he smiled I could feel the car shake
He tipped his hat, and took a seat
He said he hoped he hadn’t stepped upon my feet
He asked my name, I held my breath
I couldn’t speak because he scared me half to death
Chug, chug, chug went the motor
Plop, plop, plop went the wheels
Stop, stop, stop went my heartstrings
As he started to go then I started to know how it feels
When the universe reels

The day was bright, the air was sweet
The smell of honeysuckle charmed you off your feet
You tried to sing, but couldn’t squeak
In fact, you loved him so you couldn’t even speak

Buzz, buzz, buzz went the buzzer
Plop, plop, plop went the wheels
Stop, stop, stop went my heartstrings
As he started to leave I took hold of his sleeve with my hand
And as if it were planned he stay on with me
And it was grand just to stand with his hand holding mine
To the end of the line

Silly, eh? Holding hands, riding trolleys… it’s so, you know, 1904. And Martin and Blaine thought the same, at least when they set out to write the song–they did not want to write a song about a trolley, because they thought it was a stupid subject. And yet the result–when put across the right away–very successfully conveys the charge of sexual chemistry and sexual experience. If you listen to Dick and Kiz Harp’s version (about seven and a half minutes into this program), the song comes to life with the romantic electricity that’s alluded to in the lyrics. And if “Surrey” is put across with a flirtatious, boasting energy–or with the more wily, understated kind that you hear in Miles Davis’ instrumental rendition–then it’s not irrelevant at all.

What I really want to hear, however, is the Bad Plus doing Syd Barrett’s “Bike.” But that’s just too ironic for words.

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