Ain’t No Jazz In Writing

He had nothing of the clerk in him and all writers need something of the pettiness of the clerk, the diligence of the proofreader.

How do I begin this? As always I don’t know, but what I do know is that I have, for the first time in my life, been so affected by a piece of writing that it has started a fire in me. It starts with a claim by Geoff Dyer. He stated something that attempted to counter everything I have hoped for in writing, to discredit writing in such absolute terms as to make it obsolete. There is irony in this as, in the very same creation that holds this assertion, he has in a way disproven that exact claim. That claim is that somehow Jazz is greater than any other form of expression and that writing will forever be a petty endeavor, the product of contrived minds.

Geoff had come to my weekly seminar to discuss his book, But Beautiful, and field the usual questions, all polite and quotidian inquiries into the purpose and process of that seminal Jazz book. For the hour and a half before he joined us I had listened as the conversation revolved around the particular strengths of certain passages, the manner in which they had strengthened his supposed argument, and how evocative his writing style was. We were all enchanted by his writing; in how his fictive tale of the Jazz greats had managed to reach beyond the normal scope of criticism to capture the spirit of what the music was. People were happy.

But, despite the explicit purpose of the class being the analysis of the varying forms of criticism, I found myself stuck on one passage in particular that had little to do with what we were supposed to be examining. In the afterwards, almost an afterthought in fact, Geoff threw writing under the bus and stated that the only genius achievable was in Jazz. It was here that he made the aforementioned claim that writing is hindered by the necessity to edit and review, thus robbing it of any actual worth as a means to express the actual reality of being human.

I managed to build up the courage, in the awkward silence after a question had been satisfied, to ask him to elaborate on that passage. In his book he had used Mingus as an example, harping on how this beautifully belligerent man, whose music belted out of his every pore, was unable to transfer his genius to paper, arguing that the sole reason was because writing lacked the ability to capture that same purity of being as Jazz. To put it bluntly, this one example, this one passage, pissed me off. Pissed me off enough to make me underline the offending lines and scrawl “fuck you” beside it, as childish as that may sound.

And the response I got from Geoff when I asked him about that passage didn’t quite change my sentiment. Even his physical reaction to my question left me wanting. I vaguely remember, as I struggled to formulate my question from my trembling words, his sly, almost arrogant grin as he realized what I was touching on. It seemed to me that this was something that had been asked before and that he didn’t quite know how to defend it, and the answer I got about how Jazz’s penchant for improvisation gave it the truthful quality that no other art form could reach sounded practiced, canned, without soul. Very quickly the subject then morphed into something else, not even a specter of what I had initially asked about.

Perhaps he had a genuine point in stating that Jazz’s improvisation was what lent it the touch of humanity that no other art could hope for. But to my ears that argument was as superficial as my internal counterargument that, like the writer’s process of revision, so did individual Jazz songs go through varying forms, moving from initial formulation to the “improvisation” of the varying band members. To me there was hardly any difference between the creative process of writing and Jazz. Nor did I believe that the soul that poured into Jazz was somehow more powerful, more honest, more immediate, than what a writer poured into their work.

Geoff’s belief that writing was incapable of capturing the honesty of the human spirit, that in effect it had been dead on arrival, led me back to his claim that Jazz was also now dead. I would argue that the issue here isn’t that Jazz, and writing, are dead, but rather that people have stopped believing that they can be reincarnated. Hell, it was even stated during the seminar that somewhere along the lines, as an individual becomes smothered in recognition and leveled by age, the pioneering spirit becomes weary and cautious, and therefore what new horizons lie ahead are masked by the clouds of complacency and comfort. This was part of what made me so mad. For so long I had been searching for a means to use my writing to capture what was actually fermenting within me, to find a way to push writing beyond the point at which it stood and take it to new forms of expression, and to not only be told that writing was dead, but to be told that writing was never alive to begin with, incensed me.

I suppose I also found myself aflame because I suddenly knew how to verbalize what I had been feeling and wanting for so long. Through Geoff’s abject denouncement of the purity of writing via the lens of Jazz, I realized that I had the means to speak about what was burning within me. For the past few years I had been telling people that I wanted to capture movement through writing, an incredibly vague and meek attempt at describing what I felt writing could accomplish. And when I provided samples of attempts at this, at pure expressions of being, my supposed compatriots would simply give me horrified deer-in-the-headlights look. I felt demoralized, as if I was somehow not correctly aligned with the world and that what I was feeling was some form of dementia that I would have to learn to subdue. Even after arriving in New York City and beginning graduate classes the feeling lingered.

As I examined Geoff’s book, though, I realized that what I was feeling was mirrored beautifully, almost perfectly, in the stories of the Jazz players he brought to life. It didn’t make sense to me at first, at how I was apparently drawing a parallel between what these musicians experienced and what I yearned for, and then it hit me. But Beautiful isn’t at all about Jazz or the Black American experience, it’s about passion. It’s about the raw passion that drove all of those great Jazzmen to pick up their instruments and quite literally blow the wind out of their own sails. It’s about the nascent passion that burst forth in Geoff himself as he discovered their ecstasy and set him about writing his opus on Jazz. It was about the passion that kept me up until four in the morning mulling over a text because the author had tried telling me that writing couldn’t ever have any Jazz in it.

So this is where I end. I have been set afire by writing that has both paradoxically denounced itself and yet has helped breath new life into the essence of what it assumed was only true to Jazz. I truly hope this great irony is not lost on Geoff.


For the Intermittent Writer


Short books about albums. Published by Bloomsbury.

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