During my nearly three decades as a music journalist I was devotedly open minded. No genre was beneath my contempt. I was equally fascinated by the opportunity to write about mainstream phenomenon like N’Sync as I was personal favorites like Stereolab. But there was one thing I unequivocally despised: nostalgia. I hated the idea of music being a device to recall some earlier time in one’s life. Music to my thinking was by its very essence in the present. It should relate to whatever was going on in that moment. To assign music to a role as the soundtrack of a fond memory was in my mind to commodify it. Music deserved better; I considered part of my job to insure that it got its due.
And it was my job, well for nearly three decades, but now that I write about music less, I’m more willing to take time and listen to things that aren’t the latest releases, so sorry Jenny Scheinman and Mischief and Mayhem, Robert Glasper, Theo Bleckmann, Henry Threadgill and others. If the spirit moves me, I might listen to something else instead of your stellar new recordings. And it was during a phase of indulging those something elses that I made my detente with nostalgia.
About a month ago, WKCR-FM, was engaged in its annual Duke Ellington birthday marathon. It was a Sunday, and I usually listen to the Sunday morning trio of programs, Morning Ragas, Amazing Grace, and The Moonshine Show, as my background noise (yes, ragas, gospel and bluegrass I was raised to have eclectic tastes). However that Sunday they were playing Duke, and I was enraptured as so many of their selections were from the ’60s and even the ’70s, not necessarily the most widely loved part of the maestro’s catalog. But albums like Money Jungle, The Drum is a Woman, and especially Afro-Eurasian Eclipse have great significance to me. They were the first Ellington recordings that I pilfered from either my parent’s or my siblings collections and “Eclipse” was the first Duke recording that I bought at the age of 13.
I still recall the stoner at the record store telling me “hey little man if you’re getting into Duke, there’s lots more to hear.” Unfortunately my family moved out of our hip Chicago neighborhood to a Dallas community that didn’t even have a record store, much less one with counterpeople eager to turn kids onto Ellington.
I listened to the Ellington broadcast all afternoon as my setting changed from home where I did administrative work for the food shop I help manage to moonlighting gig at a wine shop where I’m the Sunday/Monday shopkeep. The memories alone were cool, but what moved me more was the music. I always felt that my first Ellington recordings had been my training wheels for the deeper richer stuff elsewhere in his catalogue, but listening to these recordings sometimes repeatedly (‘KCR would do well to use a master playlist during its birthday celebrations), I heard a bracing modernity creep into the Duke’s trademark elegance. At that point in his career, Ellington had bushels of laurels to rest on but he wasn’t. He was restlessly trying to integrate what he heard in that moment with his current sound. In hearing the music again, I heard what I loved about Elllington as a teenager and what I loved about it now. I think found myself in a parallel quest to Duke’s with my own professional life.
I wrote off the Ellington experience as a product of Duke’s greatness. Then six days later, it happened again. This time it was Saturday night and I was getting home from a long busy day at the market/cafe where I manage the cheese, charcuterie and beer departments. I stared at the pile of new discs that awaited my attention and didn’t know where to begin so I pulled up an internet radio station and searched for Robert Ashley’s Perfect Lives, which to my delight the station had in its entirety.
Ashley’s opera was one of the first that I encountered after hearing the groundbreaking Phillip Glass/Robert Wilson work, Einstein on the Beach. I first heard Einstein in college and frankly, it was great music to drop acid with but I was never convinced that it achieved its full potential. To me, it opened the door for contemporary commentary in an operatic setting but refused to go further. Not Perfect Lives. It was a proudly contemporary work with a smug, inquisitive and engaging voice providing tons of commentary and stylistic innovations. I stumbled onto it during the summer separating junior and senior year. I was sharing a sublet from a Professor with a classmate who was an avid classical music fan. Daily we debated which movement of Perfect Lives would function as our soundtrack. For a pair of 21 year olds looking to find our voice articulated in the larger world beyond campus, it was beyond thrilling to find it in this innovative opera.
While visions of that old sublet in Morningside Heights came to mind, so to did a renewed appreciation of Ashley’s vision. It seemed as current as the dinner I was preparing. Small wonder that nearly 30 years after its original release it was reworked into Vidas Perfectas in a production sponsored by Ballroom Marfa among others.
These two listening experiences didn’t just take me back, they connected the dots from me then to me now, and in doing so I found some ideas and directions as to what happens next. I don’t know if that’s what always happens when people hear “Tracks of My Tears,” or “Layla,” but I know from first hand experience that it’s possible. So I’ll save my unequivocal disdain for other targets.
Martin Johnson used to write about music for a living; now he writes about music because it makes him feel a little more alive. His work is still occasionally published in the Wall Street Journal.