Jazz 59

Miles Davis: Kind of Blue, the biggest-selling jazz record in history.

Pay special attention to the spaciousness in the sound, and the minimalist approach to the solos.

Charles Mingus: Mingus Ah Um.

Pay special attention to the virtuosity of the solos and to Mingus’s compositional and arranging genius.

Ornette Coleman: playlist of all the tracks on The Shape of Jazz to Come.

Pay special attention to the balance between absolute freedom and “controlled chaos.”

Ornette Coleman’s style would come to be called “free jazz.” Some critics linked his sound with the struggle for civil rights. Nevertheless, as one critic put it:

The free jazz movement sprang from musical sources, not social forces. . .were there free jazz players who made music to express anger over civil rights struggles? Yes. . . Did [all of them] abandon [traditional jazz] chord changes because of the civil rights-related anger? No. The free-form approach came first. Were there avant-garde musicians who protested via music without abandoning preset chord changes? Yes. Charles Mingus was one (for instance, “Original Fables of Faubus,” with lyrics about Orville Faubus, the segregationist governor of Arkansas.

Nevertheless, pianist Mal Waldron, who played with Mingus

was . . . eager to embrace the new freedoms [of free jazz]. As [Waldron] saw it, they went hand in hand with being a black musician in the era of civil rights. The bar lines in a song were, he recalled, like “going to jail for us.” “We were talking about freedom, and getting out of jails…. So everyone wanted to escape from that.”

UPDATED, SEPTEMBER 2019:

The Sounding Out! blog is publishing a special series on the 60th anniversary of Mingus Ah Um. Check it out here.

What is Hip?

A playlist/watchlist/reading list to accompany your reading by Scott Saul from his book Freedom Is, Freedom Ain’t: Jazz and the Making of the Sixties.

  1. Oscar Brown, Jr.: “But I Was Cool”
  2. Lenny Bruce:
  3. Norman Mailer’s essay “The White Negro,” published in Dissent in 1957.
  4. One of the “jazz” excerpts from Jack Kerouac’s beat novel, On the Road:

    Boom, kick, that drummer was kicking his drums down the cellar, and rolling the beat upstairs with his murderous sticks, rattlety-boom! The pianist was only pounding the keys with spreadeagled fingers, chords, at intervals when the great tenorman was drawing breath for another blast – Chinese chords, shuddering the piano in every timber, chink and wire, boing! The tenorman jumped down from the platform and stood in the crowd, blowing around; his hat was over his eyes, somebody pushed it back for him. He just hauled back and stamped his foot and blew down a hoarse, laughing blast, and drew breath, and raised the horn, and blew high, wide, and screaming in the air.

    Dean was directly in front of him, with his face lowered to the bell of the horn, clapping his hands, pouring sweat on the man’s keys, and the man noticed, and laughed in his horn a long, quivering, crazy laugh, and everybody else laughed and they rocked and rocked; and finally the tenorman decided to blow his top and crouched down and held a note in high C for a long time as everything else crashed along and the cries increased and I thought the cops would come swarming from the nearest precinct.

    kerouac

    (Kerouac in 1959.)

  5. A cinematic portrayal of the same scene from the 2012 film On the Road:
  6. A Youtube playlist of all the music mentioned in the book.
  7. Cab Calloway singing “Minnie the Moocher’:
  8. Mezz Mezzrow, “Blues in Disguise”:
  9. More on Mezzrow: “The Original Rachel Dolezal was a Jew Named Mezz Mezzrow.”
  10. Miles Davis, Birth of the Cool complete album:

Authenticity, part III: White Tears

whitetears

As you know by now, White Tears is the story (among other things!) of Seth, a young, white, college-educated sound engineer, who accidentally records a line from an old blues song while picking up ambient sounds in Washington Square Park. His business partner Carter, the scion of a wealthy family whose riches come from running private prisons and black ops sites, engineers the recording to make it sound vintage and posts it online, claiming it’s actually a historical recording by Charlie Shaw, a blues musician from the 1920s whose name Carter claims to have randomly made up. Soon, however, a record collector contacts them to tell them that Charlie Shaw was, and perhaps still is, a real person. So the novel is a kind of a ghost story, as well as a commentary on black music and the ways it has historically intersected with the overlapping systems of race, class, privilege, and criminal justice in America.

Hari Kunzru, an Englishman of Pakistani descent, says of his novel, “This is a book about absence,” raising the questions: Why were some black artists from the past recorded, and not others? Why are some black musicians remembered, and others forgotten?

In the video linked above, Kunzru speaks of moving to the United States around the time of Barack Obama’s first election:

The moment of false hope . . . for a post-racial America, the idea that we could just forget all this stuff and consign it to history, and then the realization that actually this history still poisons public life in the U.S. to an unbelievable degree . . . I was quite shocked by that . . . I wanted to bring my own experience, because I am an outsider, but I have a particular history with those questions here [in England]. My history is all about empire and dealing with that . . . There was a moment when . . . this romanticized idea of American history was very big in the hipster culture . . . [White Tears is also] a story about wealth and inheritance, and inherited money, and what . . . rich young people, whose parents have done whatever to make [their] money, come to New York in order to convert [financial] capital into cultural capital.

What does Kunzru mean by “cultural capital”?

Read this fascinating interview with Kunzru on the research he did on the histories of blues recording and record collecting.

And read this essay by Rishi Nath in Africa Is A Country, which suggests that the real ghost whose presence hovers over White Tears is . . . that of Biggie Smalls.

The line of the song that Seth inadvertently picks up in the first chapter of White Tears is “Believe I buy me a graveyard of my own.” Kunzru may be referring to this song, “Furry’s Blues,” by Walter “Furry” Lewis:

And possibly also to this country blues song:

Incidentally, in 1976, Joni Mitchell wrote a song about cultural appropriation in which Furry Lewis features, “Furry Sings the Blues.” Mitchell does not excuse herself from the sin of appropriation:

Old Furry sings the blues

Propped up in his bed

With his dentures and his leg removed . . . 

Old Furry sings the blues

You bring him smoke and drink and he’ll play for you

lt’s mostly muttering now and sideshow spiel

But there was one song he played

I could really feel . . . 

Old Furry sings the blues

He points a bony finger at you and says

“I don’t like you”

Everybody laughs as if it’s the old man’s standard joke

But it’s true

We’re only welcome for our drink and smoke . . . 

W. C. Handy, I’m rich and I’m fey

And I’m not familiar with what you played

But I get such strong impressions of your hey day

Looking up and down old Beale Street . . . 

Furry sings the blues

Why should I expect that old guy to give it to me true

Fallen to hard luck

And time and other thieves

While our limo is shining on his shanty street

Old Furry sings the blues

In White Tears, the B-side of Charlie Shaw’s “Graveyard Blues” is given as “The Laughing Song” (see p. 230). This is a reference to “The Negro Laughing Song,” a popular song from the days of minstrelsy. As Kunzru describes it,

The genre of the laughing song comes from the 19th-century. These songs start with a black performer singing about the racist things white people say when they see them. Then the song dissolves into rhythmic laughing. It’s the laughter of somebody who is trying to diffuse a potentially violent situation. There is such a horror to the laughter. The laughter is a window into what it felt like to be a black man on the street at sun down in the south during segregation. 

The lyrics of the song, consisting only of “Ha ha ha,” take up almost four entire pages near the end of the novel. The narrator, Seth, describes the sound as “hollow, forced, mechanical . . . the sound of a body undergoing discipline . . . the most terrifying sound I had ever heard.” As Kunzru explains in the interview excerpted above:

I specified to the publisher that I wanted it to run as spread so that the reader turns the page and has “ha ha ha” on the left and right side. To me that is the heart of darkness, or the heart of whiteness, in the book. It’s the kind of horror that can’t be described and just exists in this contentious laughter.

A remaster of the original 1891 recording of  “The Negro Laughing Song” by George W. Johnson:

Another suggested playlist for the book is here.

georgegrella1

As you know, I love this book. On the other hand, my brother, the music critic George Grella (above), who wrote this book about Miles Davis, said about White Tears on GoodReads:

This is a terrible book.

. . . Nothing against the ambition, which boils down to the question of authenticity, what it is and the dangers of pursuing it to the utmost level of purity. The vehicle is old-time American music, from poor Southern musicians, mostly black and mostly blues players, recorded in the 1920s on labels like Paramount. The characters who carry this are Seth (the protagonist) and Carter, buddies from college who use Carter’s family money to start a recording studio. They in turn are paralleled by the story of an older record collector and the obsession of one of his colleagues. Both pairs are connected through what is essentially an imaginary song from a pseudonymous musician, Charlie Shaw.

Kunzru is woefully unprepared to execute this task. The self-conscious quality of his research is painfully embarrassing throughout: the author picked up details of audio engineering, musicians’ names, song titles, and serial numbers, without ever picking up any understanding of the subject. He seems to have never heard the music in question, or it seems to have never penetrated his understanding—he comes off as the collectors themselves, obsessed with the completeness and quality of the physical object and not much interested in the art it contains. Seth and Carter somehow find themselves caring only about old acoustic recordings without ever seeming to find anything in the music that matters to them as human beings (that Kunzru name checks some well-known music writers who are features of the upper middle-class white bourgeoisie and can’t hear African-American music past Beyoncé is a tell).

This all turns into an overwrought potboiler of sex and murder, with a heaping condescension of the young white man finding, through violence and tragedy, the authentic feeling of being a young black man deep in the Jim Crow South. This is a terrible kind of slumming, Kunzru arguing that Seth has achieved this experience through writing that is nothing more than gazing at (and never putting the needle down on) the shellac grooves on a 78 side. The prose itself has the earnest, focussed, affectlessness that is everywhere now, spawned from countless MFA programs, and that is professionally smooth, bland, and that allows the author to disavow any specific meaning. That is dishonest, and the foundation of this deeply dishonest book.

Fighting words. What do you think?