John Cleese and Herbie Hancock walk into a bar...
What happens if we place these two men in a room together? What do they say to each other? Do they have anything in common? One is a comedian, and the other a prodigious jazz keyboardist. so they're both performers and entertainers, and I'm sure they share some common ground in that respect.
What has interested me in these two men is a problem they both share. Maybe problem isn't the word. The thing that has these two connected in my mind is that the mediums they use to distribute their works has a strange relationship to the work itself.
There has not been a family dinner, at least in my memory, that has not made reference to Monty Python. It has always been a part of the family tradition, where lines upon lines are recited. It had always seemed to be a kind of code or social convention, where you either knew it, or you didn't. Being able to properly recite 'The Holy Grail' or scenes from 'Flying Circus' seemed, at least to my young eyes, to mean you were in. It should come as no surprise then that I latched onto Monty Python growing up, partly out of curiosity and partly to become one of the guys. I saw all of the movies and television series.
What also comes to mind is the role of jazz music in my life. I had been playing brass instruments since around the age of six, but come sixth grade, I found myself playing the trombone. I was given the trombone with the intention of auditioning for a youth jazz band that played shows in elementary schools around the region. I then played jazz for six years until my graduation from high school, growing fonder and fonder of the improvisational nature of the music. Along with an interest in playing jazz, I became attached to the music of several historic players, Herbie Hancock being the most prominent. It seemed to be something you did, listening to the greats. And these songs played on repeat for weeks at a time.
The question the becomes: What would John Cleese and Herbie Hancock think about my obsession?
When I think about Monty Python, I think about their TV program 'Monty Python's Flying Circus'. This sketch comedy show featured some of the quickest wit and humor that I have ever seen, and produced many of the lines and riffs that would be recited at my family table decades later. What strikes me as strange is that the nature of these sketches seems to be opposed by our relationship to the material. Monty Python exists to me only as a program in the past, to be viewed as I discover it. This means that at any point I can watch and rewatch any scene or skit as I choose. Yet for the actors, these sketches were loosely planned, and featured improvisation, to the point where some were ended by a character running into the shot and explaining that the whole thing has become too silly. By breaking the fourth wall, they show their commitment to improvisation.
It's a large difference from the Monty Python that exists in my family. What would Cleese or Idle think about the canonization of their material? I think the difference between mine and their experience is much greater than the usual performer/audience divide. Monty Python, as it is to them, seems much more loose and fluid. To us, it has always seemed more about imitating and perfecting pre-existing deliveries.
What about Herbie Hancock? Jazz musicians are notorious for their improvisation, often keeping riffs or runs of notes in their pocket, but playing differently in every performance, Would my repetition of one particular performance in a recording bother him? 1973's 'Headhunters' is one of my favorite records, and has received untold hours of play in my house. I think here too, the difference between his and my experience transcends the barrier of performer/audience. To him, the song is not just a recording, where as to me, it is all I have of him and his music.
As someone exploring these works forty years later, it is hard to consider the immediacy of a skit or jazz riff. All we have are the recordings now. They act as artifacts to what was the real and living performances they represent. The thought that these artifacts are less vivid or real than the real thing only makes me appreciate the living thing even more.