My program notes for our Jazz Gallery hits tonight and Saturday:
People are always asking me why I call this band “Secret Society” — I guess as opposed to the uninspired monikers big bands are more typically saddled with, e.g., “The [Composer’s Name] Jazz Orchestra,” the “New Jazz Composers Collective Large Assembly Workshop Ensemble Project,” etc. There are two reasons.
One is that it is difficult to think of any musical style that is further from the mainstream zeitgeist than contemporary big band jazz. This is music that practically by definition lives at the margins of the margins, invisible to the outside world, existing only because of an implicit compact between a handful of obsessive-compulsive composers (most definitely including yrs trly), incredibly generous musicians, sympathetic/indulgent venues, and you in the audience, who no doubt have your own reasons for enabling this staggeringly inefficient method of music-creation.
Two is that I sometimes like to think about what jazz today must look like to people who are not already such hardcore jazz fans that they find themselves attending a contemporary big band performance. I think it would look pretty strange. I think they would hear a lot of prodigiously talented musicians who have devoted themselves in increasingly specialized ways to an arcane and mysterious musical practice. I think they might believe themselves surrounded by an audience primarily made up of a select group of devotees who alone have been entrusted with the secret to decoding this inscrutable art form. That being the case, the name Secret Society is my own small attempt to make a virtue of jazz’s tendency toward obscurantism. Or at least, to enjoy a little private joke about it.
It is customary at this point to mention that jazz wasn’t always so marginal. It was, for a few years last century, extremely popular. So much so that pretty much everything you heard on the radio involved a big band of some sort. In those pre-amplification days, if you wanted a band that could fill a ballroom with its sound, what you needed was a very large group with lots of saxophones and brass instruments. Some of those groups played jazz and some were merely jazzy, but big bands basically ruled popular music for about a decade. Of course, they eventually dropped out of view, doomed by technology, changing popular taste and the economic impossibility of keeping a band together.
But what if they hadn’t? What if the big band had remained the standard vehicle for popular music? What if every time you turned on the radio, everyone from T-Pain to Rihanna to Katy Perry was backed by a big band? What if Animal Collective and Vampire Weekend and MGMT all had 13-piece horn sections? What if the Rock Band video game came with a whole bunch of trumpet and saxophone and trombone controllers? I am not saying this would necessarily be a desirable situation. But it is fun to think about. At least, it’s fun for me to think about. And my music for Secret Society essentially comes out of me imagining what a jazz big band would sound like in an alternate reality where big bands were still widely popular (instead of a curious anachronism), and where jazz was still on speaking terms with other musical genres.
Finally, I should say that it is a sincere honor to be included in the Jazz Gallery Large Ensemble Commissions Series, in the company of all of the amazing composers also being featured. I am very excited to hear the new music they will be presenting later this season, and I hope to see you all in the audience for these shows. We can exchange secret handshakes.