Well, here we are again…

I am going to speak a lot about music this evening – specifically, about jazz and even more specifically about that swing without which it don’t mean a thing.

[This is the text of the talk I gave to the Creative Writing MA students at Birkbeck on June 17th, 2014 – put up here at their request.]

Swing-focus was not my original plan; what I first thought I would do (in this lecture) was investigate four of the new aesthetic qualities that entered into or overtook the world, during the twentieth century. (Aesthetic qualities – by which I mean, the new ways art had of being good, of surprising and delighting, of being dug.)

These four new aesthetic qualities were swing, funk, soul and the quality that some contemporary music has but which doesn’t seem to have a single noun that’s also a verb: swing music swings, funk music is funky or has the funk, soul got soul, but hip-hop is hype or is swag or is lots of other things people can’t quite agree on, yet.

Another new aesthetic or, perhaps in this case, cultural quality – another new thing that I could have talked about is cool. Cool has a fascinating and simultaneously very public and very obscure history. In some ways, it seems to me, the story of the twentieth century is the story of the rise and rise of cool. But although that’s a story that will effect how what you write is read, or isn’t read, it’s not one that I can go into now.

I’m not going to speak about cool, mainly because I think it’s a fault in writing to have, as a major aim, being cool. It can try to be hip, which is another thing altogether, because that can involve a quest for newness that’s invigorating. But the quest for cool involves radically limiting your range of emotional expression.

On this, the defining words come from Cameron Crowe’s film Almost Famous, and are – I’m pretty sure – ones he wrote down in his notebook whilst on the midnight phone to Lester Bangs. That’s how the scene plays out, with Philip Seymour Hoffman as the moral guardian of rock’n’roll, laying it down forever.

‘The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone when you’re uncool.’

So, I’m avoiding cool, because it can be bad for you. And I’m not giving equal time to funk, soul and the unnamed quality – although I think they’re all extrememly important – because you can apply what I say about swing to them as well.

All of these new aesthetic qualities emerged from music, popular music – and, as I said, I’m going to be talking quite a lot about jazz.

Now, I’m aware that the moment someone does this, talks about or even mentions jazz, there are a number of people who have to suppress the urge to flee the area.

Jazz is a music that, in the first half of its existence, was unprecedentedly good at making friends and that, in its latter half, has become uniquely gifted with the capacity to turn stomachs, turn off minds, lose arguments. If you don’t like the sound of it, you just don’t like it. All those brass instruments, doing different things at the same time. Chords that don’t really seem to want to settle anywhere or commit to anything. Or, even worse, bloody George Benson smugly doo-doo-dooing along the very same blue notes he’s playing on his sweet smooth Ibanez guitar. Singlehandedly, I think, George Benson put jazz into a credibility coma. When you add in Kenny G, Candy Dulfer, Prince’s jazz noodlings, very late Miles Davis, Radio 2’s jazz programming, Jazz FM (..and smooth smooth jazz), Jamie Cullum, Robbie Williams in a lounge suit – if you add these things together, it’s clear that jazz has become a kind of cultural bile. And countering this by asserting the importance and allure it once had – the cultural honey it was in 1927 or 1961 – doesn’t work either. So, I’m going to ask you, if you’re in the jazz-despising camp, to do some mental translation. When I say ‘jazz’, you’re going to have to hear ‘art’ or ‘writing’ or ‘stuff about art that applies to your writing directly and extremely intimately’.

When I am deciding what to talk about, in my summer lecture, I think most of all about what we leave out of our MA classes – the things we don’t, usually because we can’t, cover. Because it’s too impractical, abstract, advanced, idiosyncratic. So, in the past, I’ve talked about Sensibility and Souls. Things beginning with S. And there is a deep continuity from one lecture to the next. I took a bit of a detour last year, speaking about Sympathy or Sympathetic Central Characters. But there’s a lot in my thinking is about Swing that comes from what I was trying to say about first Sensibility and then Soul.

To be exact, I ended the Sensibility lecture by saying, perhaps a little mystifyingly to most of the audience, ‘Examine your unique relation to time and examine how you express it in words.’

If you want to develop your unique sensibility – in other words, become a writer worth reading, then ‘Examine your unique relation to time and how you express it in words.’

This referred back to a sentence a little earlier in the lecture, ‘A person’s Sensibility stems from a person’s unique relation to time, of which we have very few maps.’

I am partly taking jazz as my subject because – it seems to me – it is the best example there is of us being able to perceive the unique relation to time of dozens of geniuses – thanks to this relation having been made into sound and made into a gift. What’s important is that this is a live relation to time. Most jazz recordings made prior to Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew (in 1970) don’t involve much overdubbing or post-production. It’s a one-take artform, even if the artists got fifteen goes at that take. We hear, by and large, what we would have heard had we been in the room – at that time, in that ongoing moment. And the recordings we’re lucky enough to possess give us a chance to re-enter those moments, again and again, alongside those geniuses. You can’t rub linen elbows with Chekhov as he performs ‘Lady With a Lapdog’ onto the page but you can, second for second, get close to Charlie Parker as he nails ‘Koko’.

I’m going to invoke a few of these time-presences here; this is The List: beginning, as it has to, with Louis Armstrong before doubling back to call up King Oliver, but also the unrecorded Buddy Bolden, and the many more what ifs, then stepping aside whilst acknowledging the mind-altering lyricisms of Scott Joplin and Jelly Roll Morton and Bix Beiderbecke, before moving on, always on, through the miraculous Django Rheinhart, to Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson, Count Basie, all the big names, and then the perpetual breaker-of-hearts that was Billie Holiday and the central-for-more-things-than-can-be-estimated Lester Young, next Coleman Hawkins, then into the period of my Art Saints with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie (who I wish I could love as much as he deserved), Charles Mingus (who I am scared to love), Thelonius Sphere Monk (who I love beyond expression), Miles Davis (who I admire but sort of hate), Chet Baker (who I know I shouldn’t really admire) and – chief of all my Saints – John Coltrane. Glancing back, I realize the many I’ve missed: listing them would be wearying.

(And some of you are still hearing ‘jazz’ – hearing George Benson singing smugly along with his guitar, or hearing me insisting that bile really tastes of honey.)

But, after conjuring all those spirits, I need to take one moment to say to them, directly – Thank you – and to you, directly: I have learned at least as much about art and how to make it from these presences as from any left-behind words of any writer. I have also learned – from them – more about my writing and what it lacks, and writing as an art and what it lacks – than from any other teachers.

(Please don’t go out of this lecture thinking it means, ‘Toby likes jazz,’; it means, ‘Jazz – whether I like it or not – changed what art does and is. If I want to have anything at all to do with art, I’m going to have to think about why Toby likes jazz.’)

Mine isn’t a controversial List. I’m not arguing that landmark figures are unimportant, or that obscure ones are central. But I hope that what I hear in these artists, when I listen closely enough to them – what I perceive in their particular relations to time – I hope that what I hear is my own, and that it is my time’s relation to theirs, my sensibility’s relation to theirs.

One thing to be said at this point, and expanded upon later, is that it’s no accident that almost all of these artists were African-Americans, were mixed-race or black. There is a cultural shift occuring here, a vast one, and it’s to do with an Africanization of American culture and with a subsequent Americanization of world culture. American culture was Africanized though popular music, ragtime, jazz, blues, soul, funk, hip-hop. The ‘jungle rhythms’ that it’s now embarrassing to admit that Ellington included in his repertoire at the Cotton Club, leading to the incessantly repetitive beats of rock’n’roll – this is quite a different thing to the many musics you’ll find in Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music or to the horrendous hoedowns of Aaron Copeland’s ‘Appalachian Spring’.

Perhaps some of you don’t like jazz because its time doesn’t fit with yours. It may be that you feel more comfortable within regular, programmed beats; or within the broader flow of the symphonic; or with folk’s disguised hurdygurdying. I’m not trying to convince you to like jazz. And I don’t need to make the cultural case for jazz, either. I think it’s unarguable, though you may disagree. I just need to point out, for the sake of my argument, that jazz is the clearest example of the relation of the sensibilities of genius to time because it is a one-take artform. If you listen to Glenn Gould playing Bach’s Goldberg Variations, from either 1955 or 1981, you will hear another genius-time relation, but it is a post-produced one.

Your own writing is post-produced; that is, you rewrite it. You go back in to the time of a particular sentence and try to make it a better time. You take the time of one sentence, over there, and cut’n’paste it in-between the different times of two other sentences, over here. And these small changes hopefully improve your writing overall, and improve you as a writer. Most of what we say in the MA is about this edited relation to edited time. But what I’m talking about this evening comes before and goes beyond that. In the beginning, there has to be a first draft and, to get back to my title, this is where the swing comes in.

One of the things I say most often in class is that it’s impossible to retrofit excitement.

If you want a takeaway idea, something to note down, it’s that your first drafts need to swing – however crudely – because you can’t stitch together that kind of freedom and flow from bitty notes. You need to establish on the page a basic relation to time that gives you the opportunity, also, to be funky, have soul. If you lack these qualities, they will be missed.

So, here, I am really talking to the you that writes your first drafts. The you that performs your relationship to time onto the page. Writing courses, very much concerned with outcomes, are a little embarrassed about this live aspect of making literature. But given the limited length of a human life, you need to become better at writing things that can stand first time. It’s possible to be a Flaubert, a god of post-production. Most novelists, however, have to make a compromise with mortality. The novel is, in my eyes, a form founded on compromise: I have this amount of life left. I am not going to spend all of it writing one perfect novel, and possibly leaving it three-quarters complete. Instead, I am going to write it in adequate prose – that is, I am going to write it in a medium that often gestures towards the effects it wishes to achieve rather than achieving those effects by mimetic or invisible or seemingly magical means.

What do I mean by this? I mean that prose will say, ‘There was a vast crowd of people running down the street’ rather than, in some way, making you feel all of those people individually. If a painter wanted to achieve the same crowd-effect, they would have to paint a hell of a lot of legs. Prose writers don’t have to do legs; they generalize in a way that encourages the imaginations of their readers. You (the writer) say a crowd, they (the readers) do the legwork.

Novels are very often comprised of well-phrased gestures towards effects language is unable to arrive at, inhabit or mimic. Prose says, ‘I will not attempt to solve all the problems of verbal art in this sentence – I will defer that, and in the deferring will come a story. The shape that my language leaves behind, of what it might have been, that will be the art.’

Some of the compromisers-with-language are amazing word-organizers: Henry James, Virginia Woolf, Samuel Beckett, Saul Bellow, Muriel Spark, David Foster Wallace. But they all, I think, realise that what they are doing isn’t the pure attempt of poetry to be what it is. Prose points to a poetry that is elsewhere, in the embodied world. Prose is gestural, significant; poetry attempts to embody – leaving Yeats’s dancer and dance inseperable.

It is almost impossible to get a sense of what a unique relation to time might be without experiencing that relation live. And this is where jazz recordings, in the absence of being able to be in a room where John Coltrane – with no tapes running – is five feet away, preaching his particular truth; this is where jazz can be a way of thinking writing.

There are infinite lessons to be learned from an artform that – before your ears – exists as both composition and performance; as idea, first draft and publication.

This is not to figure jazz as somehow instinctive or primitive. When you are translating, as I’ve asked you to, my saying of ‘jazz’ into a saying of ‘art’ or ‘writing’, there is – I think – an exact equivalent to those stages of development jazz musicians used to call woodshedding or getting your chops together or paying your dues.

If you are an experienced reader, it’s possible to tell whether a writer has properly woodshedded their prose, whether they have got their verbal chops together, whether they have put in the tens of thousands of words that add up to paying their dues. Because – and this is where we really get to it – because their prose will have started to swing.

Which brings me to James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. I asked you to read this mainly so that you would read a single section, the one on the difference between white music and black music. (This is from pages 42 to 43.)

“This is the freedom that one hears in some gospel songs, for example, and in jazz. In all jazz, and especially in the blues, there is something tart and ironic, authoritative and double-edged. White Americans seem to feel that happy songs are happy and sad songs are sad, and that, God help us, is exactly the way most white Americans sing them – sounding, in both cases, so helplessly, defencelessly fatuous that one dare not speculate on the temperature of the deep freeze from which issue their brave and sexless little voices. Only people who have been ‘down the line’, as the song puts it, know what this music is about. I think it was Big Bill Broonzy who used to sing ‘I Feel So Good’, a really joyful song about a man who is on his way to the railroad station to meet his girl. She’s coming home. It is the singer’s incredibly moving exuberance that makes one realize how leaden the time must have been while she was gone. There is no guarantee that she will stay this time, either, as the singer clearly knows, and, in fact, she has not yet actually arrived. Tonight, or tomorrow, or within the next five minutes, he may very well be singing ‘Lonesome in My Bedroom’, or insisting, ‘Ain’t we, ain’t we, going to make it all right? Well, if we don’t today, we will tomorrow night.’ White Americans do not understand the depths out of which such an ironic tenacity comes, but they suspect that the force is sensual, and they are terrified of sensuality and do not any longer understand it. The word ‘sensual’ is not intended to bring to mind quivering dusky maidens or priapic black studs. I am referring to something much simpler and much less fanciful. To be sensual, I think, is to respect and rejoice in the force of life, of life itself, and to be present in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread.”

(And, I hope I don’t need to add, to be present in the writing of sentences. To be present and to be swinging, funky, soulful.)

I also gave you The Fire Next Time to read because it is political, full of rage, written by someone black about being black, and entirely relevant to this year as much to the year it was written. But, for the immediate purposes of this lecture, I’m going to have to speak a little more about James Baldwin.

And, briefly, about myself. One of the main reasons I came to thinking about swing is that I have been writing a novel whose first person narrator is black – a Ghanaian called Joseph. Now, it’s not at all that Joseph – because he is black – can instinctively swing (‘to be present in all that [he] does’, to have a unique and satisfying relation to time); in fact, that’s entirely his problem. Joseph does anything but swing – in his body movements, in his sexuality, in his whole life.

In writing the novel, which is called My Mother’s Seven Spirits Demand Justice, I have thought a lot about and through James Baldwin. And this talk is largely the result of that thinking.

I first read The Fire Next Time probably fifteen years ago.

For me, Baldwin’s simple statement, ‘White Americans seem to feel that happy songs are happy and sad songs are sad, and that, God help us, is exactly the way most white Americans sing them…’ was – the first time I read it – a revelation. He had managed to hit on exactly the reason why I liked the music I liked, and was the person I was.

Far more than you can’t retrofit excitement, the thing I say most often in class is Never do one thing at a time; always do two or three things at once. Some of you will have heard this, repeatedly. There is no such thing as ‘a descriptive passage’ or ‘a section of dialogue’. If you describe a table, you are deepening our knowledge the characters associated with that table, and preparing a scene much later that takes place at the table, and using language rhythm-wise and sound-wise in ways which tells us about far more than the table, and probably doing many other things as well. But, more than this, what I have been trying to say, again and again, is what James Baldwin manages to say.

Don’t write white.

Don’t write happy sentences that are happy, or sad sentences that are sad.

Don’t write happy stories that are happy, or sad stories that are sad.

Don’t write happy novels that are happy, or sad novels that are sad.

Instead, write something ‘tart and ironic, authoritative and double-edged’ – or treble or quadruple edged.

Or find your own tone that is complex, alive, gripping, whatever.

In practical terms, I am trying to warn you off writing in a way that comes across – to agents and publishers, who are very sensitive to these nuances of authority – to readers, who wouldn’t necessarily be able to express this but will instantly be able to find something else to read or do – that comes across as devastatingly old-fashioned. Devastatingly, meaning you won’t stand a hope of getting published.

You may disagree, and say there are still plenty of successful books written where happy is just happy and sad sad. And you may be right, but I don’t believe any truly significant prose has ever been written in imitation of an idealized previous version of what prose should be. Every great writer tries to push language to say things it hasn’t quite been able to say before. This definition goes as much for P.G.Wodehouse as for James Joyce.

And now I’m coming to something like the heart of my argument, but several strands need to be brought together, and it’s difficult to keep them all live. So, say it like this: however much you might hate George Benson’s smug singalong jazz, you have been fundamentally formed by new aesthetic qualities that entered the world via black music – swing, soul, funk.

And, however much you might not like listening to jazz itself, you are definitely not listening to, say, German oompah music from 1910 or British parlour songs from 1888. We listen back to early recordings and find the whole thing laughably stiff, sexless, emotionally banal. Those voices that just sing the notes, exactly as they were written! Those instruments with frozen spines!

Which isn’t to say that there isn’t still a lot of triumphant whiteness in music. The banal ‘I’ve got a dream’ sentiments of Glee, for example.

But generally, I think, we now demand art that has the qualities of swing, soul, funk. If they are missing, they are missed.

Which is to say, in large, that Western Culture has become an attempt towards blackness – or, at least, toward the incorporation of virtues which (that horribly encapsulating phrase) Music of Black Origin brought to the table.

So, it isn’t that you like Louis Armstrong’s scatting, it’s that – beyond the classical world – Louis Armstrong’s approach to time, time as expressed in words sung over music, has changed what we find bearable. Stick to the bar lines, come in purely on the notes (not sliding up or down to them), don’t try to establish your own swinging relationship to an implied melody behind the melody you are actually singing, and you will sound like the choristers at the start of The Rolling Stones’ ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’. You will sound like an out-of-touch joke. Out-of-touch because out of touch with the moment in which you are living.

This is why, in the quotation I’ve been saving up for this point, ‘It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)’.

The swing title of Ellington’s song is, strictly speaking, wrong in lots of ways: it is grammatically incorrect – ‘don’t’ for ‘doesn’t’, ‘ain’t’ for ‘hasn’t’; it puts the conclusion before the statement; it presumes familiarity with rather than helpfully defining ‘swing’ – that swing. You know, that.

What it suggests is a radical shortcut to the truth.

At its most extreme, this form of address leads to speakers repeatedly throwing the question back on their listeners, rather than making any statement, ‘You know what I’m sayin’?’, ‘You get me?’, ‘You know?’, ‘Innit?’, ‘Like… like… like.’

But at the level of this title, and in the way it influences contemporary writing and speech, it is about immediacy and connection. It’s about being real.

As an experiment, why don’t we take that title back through time, and turn it into what a BBC voice would have made of it in 1927. In other words, let’s make that title completely grammatically correct, completely white?

“Unless it possesses the quality colloquially known as ‘swing’, it will be meaningless.”

Isn’t that ridiculous? Didn’t it lose your attention halfway through, because it was doing one thing at once?

“Unless it possesses the quality colloquially known as ‘swing’, it will be meaningless.”

There are still things to be achieved in this cast of prose, but it’s essentially pastiche – as Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day was pastiche. It is what Cyril Connolly, in The Enemies of Promise, called ‘the Mandarin Style’. It used to be the way politicians spoke in the House of Commons, but no longer. Even they have abandoned this register.

I met a Parliamentary reporter, one of those superfast stenographers who work for Hansard – taking down every word spoken in even the most obscure Parliamentary Committee. When I asked him whether there were still any great old-fashioned rhetoricians in the House of Commons – speakers who, whatever the content of their speech, employed Mandarin style – he said there were only two, and both had recently gone off. One was Michael Gove who, he said, spoke entirely in classical Hansard style, but whose speeches had declined catastrophically in quality since he entered the cabinet and could no longer attacking the Right Honourable Gentlemen from the opposition benches; the other good speaker was Michael Berkow, now limited to barking ‘Order! Order!’ from the Speaker’s Chair.

The Mandarin voice was the voice of the BBC, of government. The Mandarin voice spoke from position of disinterest, over and aboveness; it seemed to say I am summing up the question, from outside time.

This tone, we don’t go along with any more (for better and worse). All speakers, we know, are embedded in time along with us. There are no grandees of existence, no magnificoes beyond the moment. To convince, you need to be down with us, getting dirty in our milliseconds. We need to know you’ve lived. As Walt Whitman put it, with great swing, ‘I am the man; I suffered; I was there.’

Which, as the epigraph to James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, brings us right back to him.

In my favourite answer to any question, ever, Baldwin was once asked by a television interviewer: ‘Now, when you were starting out as a writer, you were black, impoverished, homosexual – you must have said to yourself, “Gee, how disadvantaged can I get?”’

Baldwin’s eyes go gleeful as he listens to the question, and then he replies, ‘No, I thought I’d hit the jackpot.’

The audience laughs. The interviewer says, ‘Oh great.’

Baldwin continues, ‘Because it was so outrageous, you could not go any further – so, you had to find a way to use it.’

I would not use Baldwin as an instance of a totally successful, swinging writer. Giovanni’s Room, if you’ve read it, is an astoundingly stiff book; the sentences feel agonized into square shapes. More flowing, but still not as delightful as some of Baldwin’s non-fictional prose, is Another Country. His best-known short story, ‘Sonny’s Blues’, gets closest to swing – because it is trying to be what it is about; an apparent failure-in-life who, on the stand, can swing. We’ll come back to ‘Sonny’s Blues’.

Maybe it’s time to be a little more formal in defining swing. When I posted about this on Facebook, I got answers almost immediately from two professional musicians.

One, Oliver Coates, a wonderful cellist, said, ‘It’s interesting – the missive to a “classically” trained orchestra to “swing” means simply converting straight quavers into triplets. It’s simplified to a purely mathematical thing.’

The other, the multi-instrumentalist Martin White, said, ‘For me, as a composer, “swing” is a dry technical, music-specific matter of triplets and syncopation, so I can’t really relate to the synaesthestic way of applying the concept to another medium, unless perhaps its in the rhythm of the prose.’

When I’m listening to jazz, I’m sure that I am often hearing straight quavers converted into triplets. But I’d like to bring in a couple of quotes that, directly or indirectly, will help me define swing as I’m using it – in relation to writing.

The first is from Keith Richard’s autobiography:

‘One of the first lessons I learned with guitar playing was that none of these guys were actually playing straight chords. There’s a throw-in, a flick-back. Nothing’s ever a straight major. It’s an amalgamation, a mangling and a dangling and a tangling thing. There is no “properly”. There’s just how you feel about it. Feel your way around it. It’s a dirty world down here. Mostly I’ve found, playing instruments, that I actually wanted to be playing something that should be played by another instrument. I find myself trying to play horn lines all the time on the guitar. When I was learning how to do these songs, I learned there is often one note doing something that makes the whole thing work. It’s usually a suspended chord. It’s not a full chord, it’s a mixture of chords, which I love to use to this day. If you’re playing a straight chord, whatever comes next should have something else in it. If it’s an A chord, a hint of D. Or if it’s a song with a different feeling, if it’s an A chord, a hint of G should come in somewhere, which makes a 7th, which can then lead you on. Readers who wish to can skip Keef’s Guitar Workshop, but I’m passing on the simple secrets anyway…’

The second quote leads directly on from this. It’s from Meg Greene’s, Billie Holiday: A Biography. But the important quote is the one within this.

‘Although Holiday always denied that she was a blues singer, her style, strongly influenced by Bessie Smith, was grounded in the blues tradition. Horn players, such as trumpeter Louis Armstrong, also influenced Holiday’s singing. Armstrong was among the first to develop improvisation and scat singing. According to jazz critic and historian Stanley Crouch, “Armstrong, like Bessie Smith, was a master of inflection, capable of coming down on a note in almost endless ways, to the extent that one tone could jab, bite, simmer, dissolve, swell, yelp, sizzle, or grind.” Holiday always credited the development of her singing style to both Smith and Armstrong, stating in one interview that “I got my manner from Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong, honey. I wanted [Bessie’s] feeling and Louis’ style.”’

I hope you can see the kinship here. Richards says the negative side, that ‘There is no properly.’ And Stanley Crouch says the positive, that Armstrong was ‘capable of coming down on a note in almost endless ways.’

We are here, between nothing (‘no’) and infinity (‘endless’). We exist in time, and express ourselves in arts that manipulate others’ experience of time. Even paintings do this. We can do this with predictable regularity, which seems to me likely to become boring and say little, or we can surprise and delight by playing truant from the proper.

How do you achieve this in writing? I said earlier that I was really talking ‘to the you that writes your first drafts. The you that performs your relationship to time onto the page.’

So, now I’d like to say some useful things to that you. I’m going to speak about being a jazz musician, which you can translate as you please.

In order to master an instrument, you first need to do it dutifully – you need to obey the rules and play the foursquare scales. You need to begin slowly; impatience will be punished by having to go back and unlearn bad habits. Often, you’ll need to be stupider than you are, slower than you can be. Stories of Mozart sitting down at the keyboard and just being able to play won’t help. You need to find a way of enduring being bad. Then, after a while, a certain fluidity will enter your playing. You’ll make mistakes, but there’ll be moments in between the mistakes where it seemed to happen without you doing very much. Then, you’ll have a basic mastery of your instrument: you’ll be able, most of the time, when you’re not pushing it too much, to get it to do the things it does for most other people. You will be a competent player. And this is an easy level to get stuck on, because becoming more and more competent can seem to go on forever. Your playing can become smoother and smoother – the playing of a session musician (a bad session musician) who hits all the notes with technical correctness but doesn’t need to emotionally connect. Eventually, you’ll get to the point where the issue is not the instrument but the expression. What do you have to say, now that the technical means of saying it are within your compass? You’ve heard people saying similar stuff before. All this is very familiar. And the familiarity of it may be your downfall. You can’t learn by other people’s mistakes. You have to have the gumption to make them yourself; you have to have the ego, the lack of ego, the anger, the mischief, the sadness and the scrupulousness to be bad in a good way. Then, when the time comes, because all this has been woodshedding, you will have the chops, you will have paid your dues. The fingers will do, and out-do, what the mind and soul require of them. To get to this beyond-competence, you’ll need to take the kind of risks with time that Louis Armstrong did when he started scat singing. You’ll be able to dance along the edge of your own internal precipices; you won’t freeze at the drop – you’ll treat the narrow ledge as roof, the rope as floor. In other words, you’ll swing. You’ll delight in your disobedience to how things formally should be done. Those looking on will see daredevilry, but you’ll know the height is irrelevant. You’ll will wish you could go higher. All art is and has to be a high-wire act. And the risks have to be almost beyond the capacity of the performer to cope with, to bear. But by making your art in a swinging way, you’ll be doing the highest thing art can do – appearing to create energy from nothing, appearing unconstrained by time.

Most of what I try to teach is, in a very indirect way, the ability to cope with the arrival of the moment: people are listening, people are watching – what are you going to do with that? Are you going to delight them by play with their relation to time, or are you going to entertain them momentarily (by failing) and then lose them entirely (by being predictable).

It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing).

I’d like to end, because I haven’t given any before, with some examples of swing and non-swing.

A lot of the influence of jazz happened in the 1950s. You had the publication of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road – originally written during the 1940s. One writer who took on the idea in his own particular way was Saul Bellow. This is the opening of his first novel, The Dangling Man.

‘There was a time when people were in the habit of addressing themselves and felt no shame at making a record of their inward transactions. But to keep a journal nowadays is considered a kind of self-indulgence, a weakness, and in poor taste. For this is an era of hardboiled-dom. Today, the code of the athlete, of the tough boy – an American inheritance, I believe, from the English gentleman – that curious mixture of striving, asceticism, and rigor, the origins of which some trace back to Alexander the Great – is stronger than ever. Do you have feelings? There are correct and incorrect ways of indicating them. Do you have an inner life? It is nobody’s business but your own. Do you have emotions? Strangle them. To a degree, everyone obeys this code. And it does admit of a limited kind of candour, a closemouthed straightforwardness. But on the truest candour, it has an inbitory effect. Most serious matters are closed to the hard-boiled. They are unpractised in introspection, and therefore badly equipped to deal with opponents whom they cannot shoot like big game or outdo in daring.’

In his Paris Review interview, Bellow addressed the turn in his writing.


You mentioned before the interview that you would prefer not to talk about your early novels, that you feel you are a different person now from what you were then. I wonder if this is all you want to say, or if you can say something about how you have changed.


I think that when I wrote those early books I was timid. I still felt the incredibly effrontery of announcing myself to the world (in part I mean the WASP world) as a writer and an artist. I had to touch a great many bases, demonstrate my abilities, pay my respects to formal requirements. In short, I was afraid to let myself go.


When did you find a significant change occurring?


When I began to write Augie March. I took off many of these restraints. I think I took off too many, and went too far, but I was feeling the excitement of discovery.

And here’s the famous opening to Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March – restraints removed.

‘I am an American, Chicago born – Chicago, that sombre city – and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent. But a man’s character is his fate, says Heraclitus, and in the end there isn’t any way to disguise the nature of the knocks by acoustical work on the door or gloving the knuckles.’

If you were to ask me who are the contemporary writers who, in their own way, swing, I would say – Junot Diaz, Ali Smith, Niall Griffiths, ZZ Packer.

But I would like to end with James Baldwin, and with most of the end of James Baldwin’s, ‘Sonny’s Blues’. This, it seems to me, means a thing:

[You can download the PDF, and read from page 145 ‘We went to the only nightclub…’ to page pg 148, ‘..filling the air with the immense suggestion that Sonny speak for himself.’

Sonny’s Blues


2 thoughts on “Swing

  1. Pingback: STORGY MONTHLY MASTER – Interview with Toby Litt | Literary Short Story Magazine

  2. Pingback: What is Literature? | tobylitt

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