December 4, 2002
Arts and Entertainment
AFTER PLAYING A piece by Cuban songwriter Silvio Rodriguez during his set at the recent San Francisco Jazz Festival, tenor saxophonist Charles Lloyd stepped to the microphone to explain that the tune originally came with lyrics. Then he mumbled a rapid-fire, indecipherable stream of consciousness that touched I think on the winds of war and the illusory nature of divisions based on nationality, race, and religion. Impressionistic and poetic, so old-school you could call it beat, it epitomized the sort of authentic bohemianism that's been all but purged from jazz.
And it was perfectly in tune with the vibe of Shuffle Boil, "a magazine of poets and music" published three times a year out of Berkeley. David Meltzer and Steve Dickison tapped the title of a relatively obscure Thelonious Monk composition for their newsprint zine because it evokes the kind of unpredictable roiling mix they envisioned between its glossy black-and-white covers writing ("more prose than poetry") mostly about jazz, mostly by poets. They sure as hell weren't going to call it So This Is Jazz, Huh? or Down Home with Homey, by way of Wynton Marsalis.
When I picked up the premiere issue of this magazine that takes Monk, with his "mystifying silences," as its icon, I half expected the musty smell of 45-year-old Gauloise smoke and espresso to waft from its pages, the way the latest Ralph Lauren scent pour homme might drift from Maxim or Rolling Stone. When I noticed that the feature Q&A between poet Clark Coolidge and drummer Joe Dodge (Dave Brubeck Quartet, 1953-56) went on for page after page and would be continued in the second issue! I cringed at the prospect of a hipper-than-thou neo-moldy figism that ensconced a holy grail of bebop and free jazz on the altar in place of the New Orleans trad jazz of the original '50s "moldy figs."
As often happens when one looks deeper into anything, I discovered I was wrong. Mostly. I still feel like I should be wearing a beret when I thumb through the second (summer 2002) issue and see faded photos of Cannonball and Nat Adderley, Jackie and Roy, Stuff Smith, and Tony Scott. I fret about my inadequate hipster credentials when confronting Shuffle Boil's list of contributors, which includes John Weiners, Anne Waldman, Amiri Baraka, and Jimmy Giuffre, among others. But I've found myself spending hours pouring over Shuffle Boil's 72 pages an interview with Marilyn Crispell; a tribute to Fred Hopkins; a page of "Moondoggerel"; reflections on Don Cherry, Morton Feldman, and artist Bob Thompson; poems to Joey Ramone and John Lee Hooker; a letter from flautist-composer James Newton about his copyright battle with the Beastie Boys. And I remember coming away invigorated in contrast to what I'm left with after the often dispiriting 20 or 30 minutes I typically commit to an issue of Down Beat.
Posture is part of it. In Down Beat's November cover tribute to Lionel Hampton (1908-2002), after speculating that the late vibes giant may be the last jazz musician granted a front-page obituary by the New York Times, John McDonough goes on to say that Hamp's "career came of age just as jazz moved to the centerstage of American popular music. That was a very long time ago, and such a time may never come again." It's almost as if the Down Beat authorities are apologizing for their own existence. (Given a cover-bulleted feature on "Smooth Jazz at 25," maybe they should.)
In the mild manifesto introducing issue no. 1, Shuffle Boil editors Meltzer (a beat-era veteran poet and editor of 1995's Reading Jazz, which argued that the music was "mythologized, colonialized, demonized, defended, and ultimately neutralized by white Americans and Europeans") and Dickison (director of the Poetry Center/American Poetry Archives at San Francisco State University) declare, "One justification for such a venture as this modest magazine might be just this: not the expert, but the listener. That music is possible continues to be the prime inspiring force." In issue no. 2 they continue: "Part of the possibility is to find out what happens if music gets addressed apart from official, i.e., commercial music-criticism, circumstances." They encourage poets, writers, artists, and musicians "to write about the music (jazz or otherwise) that is immediate to them in the moment or provoking essential transformation in their past."
I'll continue to browse Down Beat (and Jazziz and Jazz Times) for timely information and profiles, but I already feel myself counting on Shuffle Boil for the love of music mediated only by the love of language.
'Shuffle Boil' is available for $5 a copy in local book and record stores. For a subscription ($12 a year, $20 for two years, $50 for life) write to 1605 Berkeley Way, Berkeley, CA 94703 (checks payable to David Meltzer or Steve Dickison), or go to www.spdbooks.org.