By Ajay Heble

The most recent schism inside the warring Baltic states that make up the landscape of much of present-day jazz, involves the neo-conservatives verses the experimenters.

Neo-cons, characterized by their champion, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, insist that the music must follow a set of rules and regulations that includes a background in the blues and the necessity of swinging every time a musician plays. Experimenters, among which can be found some of the readers of this magazine, are less doctrinaire. Their playing and compositions welcome other influences, and they aren’t obsessed with producing the “correct” note every time.

As you can tell by his title, Ajay Heble, an associate professor at Ontario’s University of Guelph as well as the founder and artistic director of the highly praised annual Guelph Jazz Festival, falls on the later side of the equation. But the existence of his book pinpoints another conundrum that must be faced now that the music has finally been deemed legitimate by the populace at large. Academics have set their sights on jazz as a proper field of study, so much so that many volumes of theory and critical compendia are crowding jazz histories, biographies and musical analysis on library and bookstore shelves

In his book, Heble is conscious of some of the problems inherent in trying to graft highly complex academic theory onto what is essentially a non-linear, mostly non-verbal music, which is above all concerned with the expression of feelings and emotions. That he often succeeds in melding the two within this tome confirms his skill; that some of the points are submerged beneath the murky waters of specific academic jargon reveals the problems inherent in this approach.

In many ways, the writing in the book resembles the streets of Manhattan. Wander too far away from your beginning point on most New York streets or avenues and you’ll end up in a completely different neighborhood. It’s the same way with the prose here. For instance, a perfectly lucid — for the layperson — description of the talents or methods of a certain musician or a key recording will suddenly turn a metaphoric corner and become lost in a thicket of academic prose. Alternately, an obtuse statement or theory buttressed by a snowfall of dense, numbered references and specific conceptual words and phrases whose meaning is buried in the cement of research paper foundations, will unexpectedly appears transparent when a real life example is introduced.

From the beginning, Heble states that “(l)anding on the wrong note … can be a politically and culturally salient act for oppressed groups seeking alternative models of knowledge production and identity formation”. He works to implement his thesis in specific chapters dedicated to such important artists as the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Sun Ra, John Zorn and Charles Gayle, plus discusses the topics of women in jazz, understanding the autobiographies of several important jazz figures, and jazz’s interaction with popular, mainstream culture. Perhaps it’s too large a banquet to try to consume at one sitting.

Although he writes a couple of times that in retrospect he regrets not having personally interviewed different musicians while researching the book, his suppositions and conclusions rely on secondary sources. Additionally, he often attempts to have jazz and its practitioners conform to the philosophies of prominent academics such as Jacques Attali, Theodor Adorno and Edward Said, even if they never examined the music itself, or in Adorno’s case were openly hostile to it. Just as one performer’s musical parody can be taken as a heartfelt tribute by another, so some of Heble’s conclusions can occasionally be seen as too pat or certain.

When the prose can be deconstructed that is. Words such as “adumbrating”, “intentionalist, “fixity” and “situatedness” — to take a few at random — stud his writing the way flatted fifths define bebop solos. None of these words are part of the average non-academic’s vocabulary, and there are times when even having a standard collegiate dictionary by your elbow won’t illuminate some of the points or sentences. Heble also indulges in the academic affectation of referring to LPs and CDs as well as books and articles as “texts”.

That’s why the most illuminating parts of the book involve performers like Gayle, who Heble has seen play, or Heble’s experience in trying to balance popularity and innovation when booking acts for the Guelph Jazz Festival.

Bringing the experience from his day job as an English professor to this thesis, he’s most convincing — if contentious — when doing a textural analysis of the autobiographies of Charles Mingus, Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington. Insisting that “it would be foolish to simply take what [musicians] say at face value” he relates the so-called truth in fiction expressed in these biographies to improvisers “discovering rewarding sonic possibilities in what … might have been deemed ‘mistakes’ or ‘wrong notes’.”

However, when he posits that Ellington deliberately not mentioning social and racial problems in his autobiography is “best understood through an analysis of the text’s absences”, he seems to be deliberately ignoring the score in front of him. This interpretation of deliberate absence can be especially disputatious since all three cited volumes were either ghost written or heavily edited.

Moreover, wrenching incidents, performances and/or compositions from their historical contexts to make a point doesn’t make a theoretical supposition any more correct than an already accepted interpretation. For example, in dealing with a later, very accessible CD recorded by the Art Ensemble, he seems to tie himself into theoretical knots trying to see it as expressing political dissonance even as it while reaches out to a larger audience.

Another overall deficiency of the book is that despite his real life experience with the Guelph Jazz Festival, Heble has written a volume that deals with avant-jazz as it was, not as it is now. By relating most of his examples and theories to how atonal, improvised music grew out of, and was accepted or not by the African American community, he seems to have not taken into account the fact that 21st century jazz or improvised music is more universal.

Europeans and North Americans of all backgrounds now play a prominent role is so-called left-field jazz, a situation that his Festival has acknowledged in its bookings. Furthermore many neo-trad performers who today follow the lead of Marsalis are Black musicians proud of their background. This disconnects the link between Black consciousness and performers of “wrong notes” or avant-sounds, which appears to be taken for granted by many writers and in places within this book.

With the depth of scholarship and musical smarts Heble has displayed in Landing on the Wrong Note, the hope is that he will create another volume that will try to resolve some of these contradictions. When that happens, if, he doesn’t see it as a sell-out to the popularizers, perhaps he could also use a little more reader-friendly prose.

— Ken Waxman