Thursday, December 5, 2013

Life in a Square of Cardboard


Yesterday’s 8th grade jazz history lesson began with me showing a 12-by-12 blank square of cardboard. “This changed my life,” I proclaimed and I believe I had their attention. A little more banter and then I turned it around. It was the album cover (just the front—the back had been torn off) of Joshua Rifkin playing Scott Joplin rags. I told the story of the 1971 Thanksgiving dinner at my college where someone was playing this album. Thoroughly enchanted and intrigued by music unlike any I had ever heard, I went and bought some of Joplin’s piano music. In addition to some F blues I had been fooling around with, my entry into the world of jazz piano began.

From my personal story to Joplin’s story of success, dissolution, fall into obscurity, rise to fame a half-century later with Joshua Rifkin’s album and the movie The Sting. From Joplin’s story to the greater story of the emergence of ragtime and its influence musically (Joseph Lamb, Eubie Blake, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” Debussy’s “Golliwog’s Cakewalk,” Stravinsky’s “Ragtime” and on to why it wasn’t quite jazz yet (no swing, all notes written and composed without expectation of improvisation, no blues, etc.). From there to the greater story of Queen Victoria’s death two years after Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” topped the sheet-music sales, the shift in atmosphere as her libertine son Edward helped unleash white culture from its prudish and proper ways. How ragtime was the soundtrack of youthful freedom, folks looking to black culture to learn how to loosen up, get in touch with their hips and learn how to party beyond the upraised pinky holding the teacup.

Back to Joplin’s music, me playing the Maple Leaf Rag on the piano in his style and then loosening it up with a Jelly Roll Morton version that was swinging, with a more percussive touch and some improvisation. And now on to Mr. Ferdinand La Menthe Morton, his life in New Orleans, the Plessy vs. Ferguson case that pre-dated Rosa Parks by some 60 years that ended in the Jim Crow laws, throwing educated Creoles like Jelly Roll together with the black folks from the Mississipi Delta. One group helped the other learn instrumental technique and how to read music, the other shared the soul of the blues and improvisation and now the roots of jazz were fully nourished and prepared to flower into a genius named Louis Armstrong. To be continued next week.

In one 45-minute period, music, history, biography, culture, personal anecdotes, politics, aesthetics, film, architecture (Victorian and Edwardian houses in San Francisco). On one hand, open to critique as TMI for any coherent understanding, on the other, a model lesson of how all things are interconnected. Not only isn’t it enough just to play jazz without knowing its history, but it’s a lost opportunity to show how that history started things in motion that changed and evolved through time to become this present moment. How they continue to affect the way things are, how we think, who we are and what different choices we might make as to who we will become if only we knew. And though a significant part of my jazz history class uses my personal DVD collection and Youtube to help make that history come alive, this class was taught via the ancient art of storytelling, aided by the technology of a piano.

And most importantly, a square of cardboard. 

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