The Question of Authorship: “Conception”

Lewis Porter, pianist-composer, academic, and author, has posted a lengthy tribute to George Shearing on his blog, “You Don’t Know Jazz!”, which can be found at the website of WBGO, 88.3 FM, Newark.

Shearing figures in a number of episodes in WAIL: The Life of Bud Powell — none too favorably — and Lewis takes particular exception to the one in which I quote a number of eyewitnesses as saying that Powell, and not Shearing, is the proper author of the tune “Conception” — which is registered as, and has been on all recordings credited to, Shearing.

Here’s Porter’s blog entry on Shearing:

http://www.wbgo.org/blog/you-dont-know-jazz-with-dr-lewis-porter-george-shearing

I responded to his blog in a ‘comments’ area that’s provided below his writing. But, in slightly edited form, I’ll post my response here:

Lewis:

You base much of your opinion, that Shearing wrote “Conception”, on the way that you hear the piece. You know music, and you have listened hard to the piece, and have made a musicological analysis — one where the conclusion fits your pre- , er, Conception.

But I have now, over more than fifteen years, witnessed hundreds of musicological discussions — granted, in miniature — at the jazz-research listserve. And it is the rule and not the exception that two experts (whether skilled musicians, instructors, or professors of music) don’t agree on what they hear in a given passage. Often, they don’t even agree on the notes that comprise a given chord — where both have listened to the same take of the same version of the same tune on a record.

I just don’t believe that having expertise on keys, time signatures, tempos, chords, etc. gives one the final word on who wrote a piece of music. There are just too many variables — music, as we know, is all around us, affecting us in ways that we aren’t fully conscious of. Where did you first hear a certain passage — can you always recall? When you write what you think is an original musical phrase, isn’t it possible that, on reflection, you realize that it came from someone else — or from somewhere else, even if you know not by whom or where?

The matter of origins, in whatever discipline, is extremely problematic. Where were the first blues played or sung? Who wrote the earliest sonnets? Are we sure that we know who the first painter was to experiment with geometric shapes on the canvas?

If Shearing published “Conception”, isn’t it possible that some of it, maybe the germ of the piece, he’d gotten from Powell? And if he was known in the clubs to copy, in his set, the solos of whomever he played opposite, what makes you so sure that he didn’t lift phrases of “Conception” from Powell, who was playing it — even if just fooling around with it before people entered — in Shearing’s presence?

Miles Davis, in a 1958 interview, admitted that “Swing Spring” was based on an idea that Powell used to warm up with in the early Fifties. While Davis built on what Powell had played, he had no problem in ascribing the idea to its originator –- that is, as far as he knew; it might have been in the air for longer.

My conclusion, in WAIL: The Life of Bud Powell, is not my conclusion but that of four or five significant eyewitnesses: Al McKibbon and Buddy DeFranco both played with Shearing in the very era under discussion. McKibbon was also playing with Powell at this time; DeFranco appeared opposite Powell. Gil Melle was in the clubs all of the time c. 1950, and he said that Shearing was a copycat; Claude Williamson said the same thing.

Why would all of these people who, from my experience with them, appeared to have little else in common, make this up? They were all in agreement: The germ, if not the entire, written-out piece, was Powell’s. If the way that they stated it in my book was peremptory, or smacked of a certain finality, they were trying to redress a wrong: The idea, to their thinking — and they knew both musicians’ ideas intimately at the time; that’s crucial to this discussion — deserved to be attributed to Powell and not Shearing.

It’s universally understood that music evolves, and that all composers build their works in part from that of other composers — no one creates entirely ex nihilo.

If Miles Davis played around with “Conception”, wasn’t he more likely to have lifted some of the idea from Powell, whom he was associating with nightly (and from whom he also got what he titled “Budo”), rather than from Shearing, whom he probably did what he could to avoid?

Finally, Lewis: You base your analysis on what you hear, and you sound very final about it: No question, you’re saying, I hear Shearing all over “Conception”.

I based what I wrote on the testimony of those who were there, hearing both artists play nightly. There’s much that happened then, in the moment, that no amount of sheet music — and listening, sixty years after the fact; even expert listening — can trump. I have no reason to think that I know better than those who were there, playing on the bandstand and hanging out with each other backstage, and elsewhere.

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