Musical Space

Musical Space is a look at all things music, by KMUW music commentator Mark Foley. Mark is Principal Double Bass of the Wichita Symphony Orchestra and Professor of Double Bass and head of Jazz Studies at Wichita State University.

He has been a featured soloist with the Wichita Symphony Orchestra, performs extensively as a jazz artist is also an avid bluegrass player. Passionate about promoting new and diverse music, Mark is the founder and music director of the Knob Festival of New Music, a series of concerts held in Fisch Haus Studios every Fall.

The Musical Space commentary airs on KMUW on alternate Tuesdays. Listen here or subscribe to the Musical Space podcast on Apple Podcasts or Google Play. (If you'd like to learn more about ways to listen on demand, read our guide here.)

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All this talk about the one percent got me thinking about Paul Allen, who’s day-gig as co-founder of Microsoft seems to have gone pretty well for him. So,what kind of slant on music would a person have if they were Bill Gate’s business partner?


Today I want to celebrate that most American of inventions: the blue note.

We all know the blue note is important. There's a record label and a jazz club named after it. It's the logo of the St. Louis Blues hockey team. So what's a blue note, anyway? It's the note that defines American music of the 20th century. It's a certain sourness, a clash, a note no European composer would dare use. I have a theory that blue notes come from the harmonica.

I’m worried. According to Nielsen data for 2015, album sales of older music have now outpaced those of new releases. I checked it out; albums made in the 1970s by Fleetwood Mac, AC/DC, Pink Floyd and others made last year’s Billboard top 200 album chart. So, why are millennials buying their grandparents’ music?

I won’t accept this as proof that older music is better. Good music is always being made. And the data aren’t just because of nostalgia; most of these buyers weren’t alive in the ‘70s.

The music business is as sexist as any industry could be. The wage discrimination gap is real, and I don’t need to cite any examples of how horribly women musicians are marketed - just look at any music magazine. For some reason, though, the world of the bass guitar player seems to be a little more egalitarian.

In terms of historical accuracy, movies about musicians almost always get it wrong. Not to say there are no good music films. But music and movies are two different animals, and filmmakers change facts for the sake of the story. Miles Ahead, Don Cheadle’s new film about Miles Davis, is a case in point: unauthentic, but still good.

Music festival season is already underway. SXSW 2016 has already happened, and by June we’ll be in full swing. 

Let’s consider Jon Benjamin’s piano playing on his provocative new jazz album “Well, I Should Have.” This effort follows the time-tested formulas of the genre: traditional arrangements, a world-class back-up band, and high production values. But Benjamin is a comedian, doesn’t like jazz, and, most importantly, doesn’t know how to play piano.

There’s a film documentary of the session; the interaction between his complete failure at the keyboard and the highly experienced and unsuspecting side-men is a bold exercise in confrontational comedy. But it also raises the question: Can a bad musician make good music?

I like it when I get a story from something I’m listening to. Sometimes the story is told by the lyrics themselves, like with a good country ballad. Even better, though, is when there is a backstory. It makes everything much more meaningful knowing, for instance, that Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors album was recorded while both couples in the band were breaking up, or that Beethoven wrote his latest and greatest works when he was completely deaf and could no longer make his living as a performer.

Western pop has occasionally flirted with the music of India; witness the rather faddish infatuation with the sitar in the 1960’s courtesy of rock stars like George Harrison. Indian music was exotic and mystical. It was also intellectually stimulating and beautiful, I must add.

Jimi Hendrix was one of the first musicians I discovered as a pre-teen. Imagine, though, how my younger self was horrified by the song “Hey, Joe,” when he sings, “I'm goin' down to shoot my old lady, You know I caught her messin' 'round with another man.” Then there was Neil Young’s line,  “Down by the river, I shot my baby.” Why would someone sing a song about killing their girlfriend? It wasn’t until later that I figured out Hendrix and Young were continuing the ancient folk tradition of the murder ballad.