“Radiohead in Dixieland” by Levone


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Foster Theodore Mr. Matherne Assignment 6 26 November 2008 “Radiohead in Dixieland” The first uniquely American musical art form, Jazz, which has developed and evolved for over a century, has drastically influenced the musical landscape across cultures throughout the world. Jazz encompasses a myriad of more specific genres that exhibit elements synonymous with each other such as rhythm, syncopation, and instrumentation. Artists like Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway helped to popularized big band jazz, Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie helped to develop bebop, and clubs like Preservation Hall in New Orleans worked to revive Dixieland jazz. From the United Kingdom to New Orleans, Louisiana, elements of jazz can be found in contemporary popular culture. British rock band, Radiohead’s “Life in a Glasshouse” contains many elements reminiscent of Dixieland jazz that fit squarely within the context of African-American music. Dixieland jazz originates from the style of jazz performed in New Orleans which features collective improvisation as its distinctive factor from other forms of jazz. This earlier form of jazz came to fruition around the turn of the twentieth century. The term originated from the Original Dixieland Jazz Band which recorded in 1917 (Robinson). This style is markedly different from big band jazz which featured soloists improvising with other instruments simply providing changes in the chord. Instead, each artist’s improvisation adds melodies and countermelodies contributing to the overall effect of each instrument’s sound interweaving with each

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other in a precise manner.

One jazz musician describes the music as each player having a clear

and defined role however, “to [the] untrained ears sounds like a strident mishmash” (Smith 36). The aforementioned “strident mishmash” references polyphony, which is created by multiple musicians improvising at the same time. Dixieland jazz peaked in the 1920’s and slowly lost popularity to newer jazz forms that evolved such as bebop. New Orleans style jazz had almost completely been lost until 1961 with the opening of Preservation Hall in New Orleans’ French quarter. The hall came about when Grayson Mills traveled from California to New Orleans to record the older Dixieland jazz musicians in a rented art gallery. Its popularity happened by chance when through word-of-mouth, “A group of interested jazz fans responded with promises to help organize the hall” (Suhor 179). Although the hall gained popularity, its primary source of income was based on patron donations that varied. The advent of Preservation Hall symbolizes the revivalist movement in New Orleans to revive and preserve Dixieland jazz. However, one pressing issue remains with the revival movement being that, “the generation of musicians who saw the evolution of jazz in its earliest years is slowly passing away” (Suhor 181). Also around this time the terms Dixieland jazz and traditional jazz were first being used to describe the New Orleans style of music founded in the early twentieth century. It is important to understand the differences and similarities between Dixieland jazz and traditional jazz. Grove Music Online defines Dixieland jazz as, “A term applied to the jazz played by white musicians of the early New Orleans school, but sometimes also to New Orleans jazz as a whole and often to the post-1940 revival of this music (also known as traditional jazz)”(Robinson). Understanding this definition within the context of the arrival of Preservation Hall in 1961 is crucial to understanding the nostalgic attitudes towards traditional jazz.

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Therefore, the contemporary use of traditional jazz is specifically in reference to white musicians who appropriated the New Orleans style of music. The post-1940 revival certainly influenced traditional jazz trumpeter Humphrey Lyttelton who is the featured artists in Radiohead’s “Life in a Glasshouse”. The British rock band formed in 1988. Their early music can be described as, “a melodic re-articulation of the quiet-loud sonic structures of American grunge music” (Buckley). While their earlier work brought them much acclaim because of its American grunge appeal, their later albums would prove to be drastically different and experimental. For example, their 1997 album Ok Computer was hailed as a “seamless and daring album in the progressive rock tradition that was both inventive and melodically affecting” (Buckley). Radiohead’s music continued to evolve using more electronic music devices and non-traditional rock band instruments like the Ondes Martenot and harmonium. Following with their experimental approach, Radiohead produces “Life in a Glasshouse”. Radiohead placed “Life in a Glasshouse” as the final track of their album Amnesiac, released in 2001. The song opens with a twenty second strain of ambient sound leading to a syncopated piano rhythm which drives the song from start to finish. Shortly after, lead singer Thom Yorke enters with the lyrics with a sound reminiscent of blue notes, popularized by jazz and blues artists such as Bessie Smith. Blue notes occur when the singer bends the note from pitch to pitch instead of distinguishing the two notes. While Yorke and the piano resonate, a clarinet and trombone quietly improvise underneath the voice. They all crescendo into a break when the B section begins with Lyttelton’s blaring trumpet followed by the chorus in the ABAB format. This B section features Lyttelton, the trombonist and clarinetist improvising underneath the chorus creating polyphony. The track follows this cycle twice until a crescendo brought on

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by a drum set reaches the climax of the song featuring classic Dixieland improvisation by the trumpet, trombone, and clarinet backed by a crash cymbal on every downbeat. The dramatic ending is capped by Yorke’s line “There’s someone listening in” and a short phrase of improvisation by Lyttelton. Radiohead is known for their cryptic lyrics that contain metaphors with recurring themes such as anti-consumerism, anti-globalization and feelings of alienation. Yorke is the primary writer for most of Radiohead’s lyrics. “Life in a Glasshouse” opens with “Once again / I’m in trouble with my only friend”. Throughout the song it is never clear who neither the speaker nor the friend that Yorke frequently references. The first A section ends with “Don’t talk politics / And don’t throw stones / your royal highnesses”. Given these lyrics, a political statement is present taking into account the title, “Life in a Glasshouse”. While Yorke could be satirizing the government, the media is also a common target for his lyrics. In that aspect, Yorke is satirically saying that the media does not focus on the politics present in their lyrics but simply upon their daily lives. At the time of the recording Lyttelton was seventy-nine years old indicating that his traditional jazz sound derives from the post-1940 revival of Dixieland jazz. The all white instrumentation for “Life in a Glasshouse” also further places the song within the traditional jazz genre. One book describes the song as, “a neat subversion of the Dixieland jazz funeral lament”(Paytress 63). The song has a somber overtone indicative of New Orleans brass bands which were associated with funeral processions that featured, “slow, solemn hymns or dirges that were played on the way to a burial” (Schafer). Brass bands of that time featured musicians, “[that] played loudly and made use of harsh timbres and wide vibrato” (Schafer). The harsh

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timbre mentioned parallels Lyttelton’s entrance into every B section in the song, often loud enough to overshadow the group. Jazz has a cross-cultural impact upon the musical landscape of the world and Radiohead’s “Life in a Glasshouse” is a prime example. All of the performers for the song are British and White; however, they are playing music created by African-Americans in the Southern United States that originated nearly a century before the 2001 recording. The evolution of this song is especially unique coming from the Dixieland past of the 1920’s to the revival in New Orleans and abroad in the 1960’s and finally to Radiohead’s unusual use of traditional jazz artist Humphrey Lyttelton in the twenty-first century. This song emphasizes the importance of African-American music and how it has influenced countless artists and genres since its inception.

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