[Dixielandjazz] Washboards, Record-scratching, etc.(was Listening to other music)

Charles Suhor csuhor at zebra.net
Mon Mar 29 14:08:22 PST 2004

Picking up a point from an earlier thread, I think that there's a good
comparison between record-scratching and washboard-playing. Both can be a
real part of music in their own contexts, even though neither was invented
a  musical instrument.

Take it a step farther-- can't ANYTHING become part of a improvisational
musical performance, in the hands of an alert player? The old "spasm bands"
made noises on home-made instruments that connected with people in city
streets. It's not too great a leap from there to today's free improvisation
groups that work with improvised sounds, not strictly in the jazz genres,
on all kinds of traditional, makeshift, and invented instruments.

Once a month I jam with such a group that includes amateurs, professionals,
and weekenders playing electronic sound-generators, saxes, violins,
guitars, percussion, etc. It's a new kind of fun, similar to jazz because
it's improvisation. Yet it's very different because the players don't work
from a base of songs but from "prompts" that suggest how to begin, then
everyone listens and plays off each other, developing, contrasting, or
whatever,  with intuition as the only guide.

Writing about this makes it sound like some sort of intellectual trip but
it's the opposite in practice. The amateurs actually are a big advantage
because they make sounds that seasoned players don't think of. (Does this
parallel the Africans' new approaches to tone, scales, on the instruments
they found in America?) To avoid playing my stock ideas on drums, I never
bring a set but instead use combinations that have a lot of potential for
sound-making that I haven't explored. A favorite is a big Samsonite
suitcase that has all kinds of bass sounds, higher sounds, a washboard-like
plastic section, etc.

This is "playing other kinds of music," and then some, but it feels like
the jazz spirit. The sounds are often what you'd call cacophony but there
are lyrical moments too, especially in "pass around the room" prompts and
trio improvs that, say, call for near-echoing of another player.

It reminds me of avant garde/free jazz in many ways, except that jazz
sounds are only a small part of the noises that players draw on. Also like
avant garde jazz, it's more fun to play than listen to, and more fun to
listen to in the moment of creation than on a recording, and it isn't much
fun at all to re-hear most of what's played, except for the very best. For
my part, I've found great musical surprises on Ornette Coleman records, but
I seldom re-listen to them because the act of creation seems to have burned
itself out in the first playing. I have a feeling that I know why this
isn't true of the Hot Fives, Wild Bill, Bird, or Monk, but I've jammed at
the keyboard long enough here.

Charlie Suhor

More information about the Dixielandjazz mailing list