Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 29, 2009

The Pittsburgh Collective

Filed under: music — louisproyect @ 6:33 pm

If you’ll recall from my posts on big bands on Youtube, (Swing and Modern,  I am a big fan of this kind of music even though it is fairly difficult to hear nowadays, mostly for economic reasons. So when a cyberpal told me that he would be performing last night at the Jazz Gallery with a twenty-piece band called Pittsburgh Collective, I jumped at the opportunity. I haven’t heard any live jazz in perhaps three years, or much live music for that matter. Since my wife has been very busy working on her dissertation, now being turned into a book, I have tended to stay at home with her even though she is a big jazz fan herself (we met at a jazz club.)

The Jazz Gallery is located in fashionable Tribeca and is a throwback to the loft jazz spaces that were prevalent in the 60s and 70s. Eschewing food and drink, these were places for the hard-core jazz fan. I was rather surprised to see how much interest there is in jazz today since every seat in the Jazz Gallery was filled by the time the band started playing.

David Sanford

The Pittsburgh Collective is led by David Sanford, an African-American who teaches classical music theory and composition at Mount Holyoke. He did a dissertation on Miles Davis and named the group after his home town. The band’s website (http://www.pittsburghcollective.com/) describes it as follows:

Formed in 2003, the Pittsburgh Collective is a twenty-piece big band comprised of top-level jazz, classical and new music virtuosi.  Described with such praise as “a very original, innovative jazz orchestra”, “death star magnitude”, “full-throttle wailing from all sections”, “reaches out of the speakers and grabs you by the scruff of your neck”, and “a powerhouse of some of the most incredible musicians and jazz aficionados you have ever or never heard”, the band extends the Third Stream tradition of Ellington, Kenton, Gunther Schuller, George Russell and Charles Mingus, straddling jazz and classical idioms with a plurality and intensity reflective of the 21st century.  Members of the band come from the Meridian Arts Ensemble, the Atlantic Brass Quintet, Brass Roots, the Manhattan Brass, the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Boston Musica Viva, the New Millennium Ensemble, Urban Sun, and the bands of Ran Blake, Hugh Ragin, Gunther Schuller, Fred Hersch, and ICE, as well as leading their own groups for which they compose and arrange.

I was struck right off the bat by the band’s abrupt shifts in tonality and rhythms, a sort of jazz equivalent of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring”, but with a pronounced rock inflection lent by the band’s electric guitarist and drummer, who unlike most jazz drummers used the drums rather than cymbals to keep time. The effect was “thump-thump, ka-boom” rather than “sheesh, sheesh”. It reminded me a bit of what a Miles Davis-led big band might have sounded like during the “On the Corner”, “Jack Johnson” period except with a lot more complex harmonic structure. For a good example of the sound of the band, listen to the performances on the band’s Myspace page.

The band also played a more mainstream composition called “Women in the Shadows” that Sanford described as being inspired by a photograph by Luke Swank of the same name. Swank was a Pittsburgh photographer working mostly in black-and-white who drew beauty out of the city’s largely extinct industrial landscape. The piece evoked the Gil Evans orchestra of the late 50s and featured some beautiful muted trumpet solos a la Miles Davis.

You can order their CD from Oxingale, the band’s label.

Steel Worker in Foundry by Luke Swank

In addition to hearing some very interesting live jazz, I also had the opportunity to finally meet John Halle, the band’s pianist, and a fairly long-time cyberpal. John teaches classical music theory at Bard College’s Conservatory of Music and like David Sanford and everybody else in the band has superb improvisational chops. I can’t remember exactly when I started corresponding with John, but I imagine that it dated from around the time I took on the role of gadfly to Bard College’s President Leon Botstein.

John Halle

Like Joel Kovel, who was booted by Botstein after one too many articles critical of Israel, John Halle is not a toothless postmodernist or New York Review of Books liberal of the sort that festoons the faculty at Bard and which did not utter a peep when Kovel was fired. He is the real deal. Before John took a job at Bard, he taught at Yale and was active in the Green Party in New Haven. This was at a time when the Greens meant business and their energy helped to elect John as alderman. I conclude with this quote from his article on “Why I Ran: Reflections on a Green Alderman”, which remains very timely in this period of declining faith in President Obama:

The upshot is that I won not in spite of the fact that I was a Green running against an entrenched machine, I won because I was a Green running against an entrenched Democratic machine. And it wasn’t only me; following my first win in July of 2001, in the general election in November we elected a second Green in a predominantly African American ward. A third missed winning by 15 votes. A fourth and fifth garnered 42 and 25 percent respectively. All this was sufficient to create a panic in the Democratic ranks who are, unlike most political activists and political observers, acutely aware of the tenuousness of their hold on power.

The Democrat’s response to our success should have been predictable: rather than triangulating to the right as they have become accustomed to, they were forced to triangulate to the left. This trajectory was charted by the New Haven Advocate’s Paul Bass:

Two years ago, a left-wing Yale music professor made history in New Haven. He won an election as a third-party candidate, the first such victory in generations. He and his party, the Greens, called for publicly funded elections, bike lanes, cleaner air, support for Yale unions–all positions on which Democratic City Hall was either opposed or silent. The Yale prof rode his bike on his new rounds as a city alderman. He was dubbed “Alderman Bike.” The city’s Democratic mayor, John DeStefano, drove around town in his taxpayer-paid Lincoln Navigator SUV.

Fast-forward to fall 2003. Democrat DeStefano has proposed the state’s first municipal public financing (“clean elections”) law. He led a successful fight to block the restarting of the English Station power plant–and broadened it to take on other polluters. He joined forces with Yale’s unions and took on Yale. After Alderman Bike complained, the city hired a cop to chase illegal dumpers full-time and arrest them. City Hall has retrieved and dusted off an old bikeable-city plan; the first of many promised bike lanes has appeared, in Alderman Bike’s neighborhood. And the mayor, running for re-election, aired a commercial showing him riding his bike to work and lampooning mayors who drive luxury gas-guzzlers instead.

While the focus is local, Bass’s observations can be generalized to other cities and to other levels of government. The basic lesson is that the prospect of politics escaping from elite control and the fear that it induces among elites is what forces substantive, as opposed to merely superficial, political concessions from the actors in the two corporate parties who serve elite interests.

I had time to chat briefly with John and asked him how he got involved with left politics. Since he is a bit younger than me, I concluded that it could have not been the Vietnam War. He said that he was not quite a red diaper baby, but having a father in MIT’s linguistics department who was effectively Noam Chomsky’s boss had a lot to do with it. Morris Halle co-authored “The Sound Pattern of English” in 1968 with Chomsky and apparently shares a commitment to social justice as well as a professional connection to cognitive science.

John Halle website: http://www.johnhalle.com/

1 Comment »

  1. I’ve been knocked out lately by the good writing in the U.M. blog. This is another very worthwhile post. Even the comments on the Frederick Seidel piece call for re-reading. Why this upsurge? I’d guess that when politics get mixed up with a writer’s less abstract passions, like music or bikes, he can show his muscle. Or is this only my taste showing?

    Comment by Peter Byrne — October 30, 2009 @ 8:56 pm


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