On the flight returning to Madrid over Christmas, I was browsing my iPod in search of something to accompany my travels. I finally decided upon the album Duke Ellington & John Coltrane. The balance was perfect — light and playful at times and bold and experimental at others. Upon hearing the Duke’s classical jazz sound and compositions pushed to perfect extremes without going overboard by Coltrane’s soprano sax, I was reminded of a conversation I once had with a ballet dancer about how beauty and freedom can only be found when confined by limits.
The conversation begun when I stepped into a friend’s apartment and found his roommate’s girlfriend sprawled on the floor folding her body over in long exaggerated stretching motions. It was obvious she was a ballerina. Not only was it obvious, it was also annoyingly obvious that she was trying tell me she was a dancer by doing those ridiculous stretches and pliés. Instead of asking her whether she was a “dancer”, as I am sure she would have liked, I inquired whether she had suffered a serious back injury and was required to perform this daily stretching ritual. I lied and told her that I had an aunt who had the same problem.
No, she told me. She was a dancer. So, I asked what kind of dance. She was proud and confident in her response: modern ballet and experimental dance. She was not interested in Classical Ballet. The more contemporary forms of dance allotted her much greater freedom of expression. Then, having absolutely no knowledge whatsoever about ballet or dance, I decided to start a long digression about the subject.
What a shame that she had never been trained to appreciate Classical Ballet. And I elaborated. Classical Ballet was one of the most truly honest art forms for the specific reason that it required strict compliance with a set of fixed and predefined movements. And that the beauty of Classical Ballet was precisely how a dancer was forced to express all of the same emotions and sentiments as in other dance forms and genres but within those very fixed confines. For that reason, Classical Ballet was so much more powerful at transmitting the human condition through physical movements.
Ironically (because I knew nothing about the subject matter), she was totally buying my arguments and was even getting defensive. There just wasn’t that much work out there in Classical Ballet. I finished by declaring that by expressing one’s self within that strict grammar of Classic Ballet, a dancer’s language of movements was truly honest, much more honest than those who danced in gibberish, who hid their defects behind the guise of modernity and a false (and even cynical) claim of freedom. I almost began to believe it all myself.
But, in general, that is exactly how I have always felt about any art form that is, in its essence, avant-garde, surrealistic, or even political. They seem like a gimmick, like something that is temporal and contemporary but will mean nothing over time. Maybe this is why I can never fully enjoy Free Jazz. I want to feel the artist’s struggle with the conditions under which she is confined. Political art can do that only if the underlying message is psychological and centered on the human condition rather than on the specific politics of the day.
And that is how I listened to John Coltrane’s sax accompanying the Duke. He fit within Ellingtonia (the world created by the Duke). Yet at same time he pushed its limits, sometimes the very limits of its form, and sometimes even momentarily puncturing them without ever destroying the whole. It is as if Coltrane were trapped within a tight fitting bubble, covering him like a membrane. You hear him struggling as if to break free, and at times his sax screeches piercing the glossy shell. And then instantaneously, the membrane has healed its puncture wound.
This struggle is pure and is honest. It is what makes the piercing sound true and beautiful. When I first heard Wynston Marsalis define Coltrane as “earnest” in Ken Burns’ Jazz, I thought that Marsalis was talking crap. But on that flight while listening to Coltrane playing to the Duke, I realized how beauty is most honest and most beautiful when it seeks freedom within limits.