This post was inspired by Stravinsky’s Poetics of Music Lesson Three – The Composition of Music (Amazon affiliate link)
“Far from implying the repetition of what has been, tradition presupposes the reality of what endures. It appears as an heirloom, a heritage that one receives on condition of making it bear fruit before passing it on to one’s descendants.”
We often use terms like ‘traditional’ and ‘mainstream’ to label certain culture bubbles. We label ourselves, we label other people and then we bicker about who is more meaningful and relevant. We even started a jazz war over it!
Really, such distinctions are meaningless; any idea created and being put to use at this instant is nothing but a reflection of now.
People who claim to be living in or repeating the past are fooling themselves. People who label those ideas as ‘traditional’ are giving in to that lie. You will never be able to recreate the causes and effects of past ideas. 1900’s ragtime is gone; we’ll never find it again.
However, ideas will endure. They just get fragmented, distorted and blended with other ideas along the way. Those fragmented, distorted and blended ideas give rise to new, original ideas. Even if you claim that you steal your ideas, you’re still creating something new because its causes and effects would be considerably different.
Thus, a modern-day performance of Scott Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag is a modern-day creation. It is just as current, meaningful and relevant as any other modern-day performance because 1) it originated from the mind of a living modern-day human being and because 2) new ideas are being passed on to other human beings, creating more new ideas.
The word ‘traditional’ refers to a lineage of ideas. In this sense, yes, a performance of Maple Leaf Rag is certainly traditional. But everything is traditional, just as everything created at this instant is mainstream. You can’t escape it: Jazz is about the tradition just as much as it is about the mainstream.
So why make such distinctions? They cancel each other out!
Let’s forget about those labels. Jazz is about the individual. We should celebrate that.
Further Reading: T.S. Elliot’s Tradition and the Individual Talent (Link)