June 07, 2008

A glory of Miles Davis

Radio 3 is one of the great institutions of England- this evening I was listening to a great program on Miles Davis. They were discussing Davis's Carnegie Hall concerts in 1962. One anecdote though interested me in a more than musical sense- amongst my many failings is that I do not understand music as much as I should- and that was that it was often incredibly difficult to get Davis to record anything. The point was not that Davis abjured publicity- if your profession is playing instruments in front of people, you can't be shy! But that his concentration was on the music and not on the crowd around him, or notionally around him at their gramophones and in their houses.

Its an interesting thing- and I suppose constitutes a really important question that we often lose sight of. There are a hierarchy of pleasures. Davis felt them in the right way- music first and then publicity. Others today seem to feel them in another way round- with publicity and fame overtaking the pleasure of making music- the far end from Davis is populated by someone like Paris Hilton whose interest in music is purely notional. The question that we have to think about is whether its worth assigning a value to what someone feels as the keener pleasure: is a civil servant's joy in his job as praiseworthy if he enjoys analytical argument, working for the public or the money and security. Its probable that he will enjoy all three- but the hierarchy that he sets between them tells you a lot about his priorities in life.

And that really is the point here- the reason why we can condemn Hilton and exalt Davis is not merely their respective musical skills but also their sense of what is important in life. Fame is ultimately something that whilst attractive is meaningless and fuels competition and a desire for further acquisition. It is in that sense very similar to money- it is a good which is emulative- I know I am famous if I am more known than x, I know I am rich if I am richer than my friends (the great example of that principle recently was Alex on the apprentice who said he was successful because he was more successful than those he knew!) The point is that emulation is a natural and productive desire- but it is hard to think of it as a morally good desire. Contrast that to a passion for something- when I am passionate about something I seek out those who are also passionate and, though partly I wish to be known as 'the' expert, partly also I want to have someone to share my love. As love is a good, and it drives the passion- for history, cars, wine, football, dresses or jazz- and makes the passion an instrument to the creation of friendship so is the pursuit of the passion a good. That is why ultimately the musician who cares more for the music or as much for the music as s/he cares for the fame, is preferable to the musician who cares more for the fame than for the tunes.


James Hamilton said...

"As love is a good, and it drives the passion- for history, cars, wine, football, dresses or jazz." Pick any five.. What was it Larkin said about "After Pound! After Picasso!" and Jazz going from Lascaux to Jackson Pollock in 30 years? I spent the summer of 1991 trying to become a Miles fan. But I do like the way he inspired this from the great poet:

"My readers (of his jazz criticism).. Sometimes I wonder whether they really exist. Truly they are remarkably tolerant, manifesting themselves only by the occasional query as to where they can buy records: just once or twice I have been clobbered by a Miles Davis fan, or taken to task by the press agent of a visiting celebrity. Sometimes I imagine them, sullen fleshy inarticulate men, stockbrokers, sellers of goods, living in thirty-year-old detached houses among the golf courses of Outer London, husbands of ageing and bitter wives they first seduced to Artie Shaw's 'Begin the Beguine' or the Squadronaires' 'The Nearness of You'; fathers of cold-eyed lascivious daughters on the pill, to whom Ramsay MacDonald is coeval with Rameses II, and cannabis-smoking jeans-and-bearded Stuart-haired sons whose oriental contempt for 'bread' is equalled only by their insatiable demand for it; men to whom a pile of scratched coverless 78s in the attic can awaken memories of vomiting blindly from small Tudor windows to Muggsy Spanier's 'Sister Kate', or winding up a gramophone in a punt to play Armstrong's 'Body and Soul'; men whose first coronary is coming like Christmas; who drift, loaded helplessly with commitments and obligations and necessary observances, into the darkening avenues of age and incapacity, deserted by everything that once made life sweet. These I have tried to remind of the excitement of jazz and tell where it may still be found."

James Hamilton said...

Sorry! Larkin's Lascaux-to-Pollock took fifty years, not thirty as I originally claimed. Slower downloads back then, clearly.