Saturday, February 11, 2017

Black History Month, Part Two

"Jazz is one of the most meaningful social, esthetic contributions to America.... it is antiwar; it is opposed to [the U.S. war in] Vietnam; it is for Cuba; it is for the liberation of all people.... Why is that so? Because jazz is a music itself born out of oppression, born out of the enslavement of my people."
- Saxophonist Archie Shepp.

Last week, in my own personal celebration of Black History Month, I wrote about those black musicians who had the greatest influence on my childhood development; specifically about several of the powerfully moving Black women vocalists, particularly Billie Holliday and Sarah Vaughn, and the two giant royals of swing: Duke Ellington and Count Basie. This week I wish to share about those radical innovators I discovered while in High School.

My friend, Gary Conroy, was the one who introduced me to the later, avant-garde work of John Coltrane. Live In Seattle, recorded in 1965 but not released until I was a Freshman in High School in 1971 totally turned my musical world upside-down. I had already been introduced to Eric Dolphy through the work of Frank Zappa. I loved his huge intervals and sharply angular melodies such as in “Iron Man” as well as his amazingly virtuosic fluidity and range on the generally unwieldy bass clarinet as brilliantly shown in the classic “On Green Dolphin Street.”

But nothing in my previous experience – not John Cage, Morton Subotnick, or Karlheinz Stockhausen – had prepared me for the burning intensity of John Coltrane’s late work, inspired both by his study of world music (most significantly the music of Africa and India), his spirituality, and the civil rights and black nationalist movement of the 1960s. The opening track, “Cosmos” already sets the warning: stay with this, and you will be challenged, broken down and rearranged: I remember thinking, “The Beatles were playing ‘She Loves You’ the same year this searingly intense performance was recorded!”

I needed context for this new-to-me music so I read Amari Baraka’s BlackMusic where I heard an angry, erudite voice that a white boy such as I, growing up in Queens, New York had never had exposure to; a voice that gave words to the critique and challenge of the music. Read the linked excerpt to get an idea of what I'm talking about!

After this, I was hooked. I barely listened to any white artists other than Zappa, Beefheart and The Velvet Underground for several years, diving deeply into what Muhal Richard Abrams, founder of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (from which the Art Ensemble of Chicago, among many others, had their formative nourishment) called “Great Black Music.”

During High School, it was the passionate musical expression of the “Free Jazz” movement that dominated my life: Albert Ayler, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, EricDolphy, Art Ensemble of Chicago, and others were who I listened to along with more reading from such books as Frank Kofsky’s Black Nationalism and the Revolution in Music which really made explicit the political and social aspects of the music.  

From the psychedelicized Dixieland roots of Albert Ayler's "Ghosts" and Ornette Coleman's deeply moving "Lonely Woman," which after forty years continues to be among my favorite pieces of music from any genre, to John Coltrane's spiritual expression of "A Love Supreme" and Eric Dolphy's "Meditations on Integration" as well as the Art Ensemble of Chicago's musical "play" depicting the history of Black people in America and Mingus' "Fables of Faubus" which is directed at the racist governor of Arkansas who called out the National Guard to prevent integration in Arkansas schools, please follow the links and remember the sacrifices made by these amazing musical icons. 

To my mind, this music captures a time when real societal change seemed possible. We live now in a time when such a revolution is long overdue; a time when we must do what we can to nurture, what a friend has referred to as “r/evolution.”

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Black History Month, Part One

Let's be frank; it's an expression of the institutionalized racism in our society/culture/nation that we have to even have a "Black History Month." Why the need to specify a month for Black history if there isn't the unacknowledged racist assumption that American history is generally White/European? This is made even more galling by the fact that Black men and women have made perhaps the largest and most influential contribution to American culture, especially music, which is the focus of this blog.

So, with that said, I wish to spotlight some of the Black singers, song-writers, musicians and music-critics that have had the biggest influence on my life. Throughout my life, music has had a central place in my development: my thinking, my emotional and intellectual understanding and my survival (not to sound overly dramatic, but following Nietzsche, I truly believe life withouyt music would be impossible).

This week, I'd like to share about those Black musicians who had the earliest impact on me, from when I was a child listening to Billy Holiday, Sarah Vaughn, Ella Fitzgerald, Abby Lincoln, Della Reese and others that my mother listened to.

Sarah Vaughn's nicknames were "Sassy" and "The Divine One" and indeed her voice could be both sassy and divine -- often in the same song. She may have been my mother's favorite singer, but that may have had something to do with the fact that mom actually sounded a bit like Sarah when she sang "Tenderly" (Vaughan was proud of the fact that she was the first to sing this song, making it a jazz classic forever more) or "My Funny Valentine."

The singer who made the biggest impression on me was, no doubt, Billie Holiday. I was entranced the first time I heard "Strange Fruit," and when my mom explained what the song was about, I cried and then got really angry. I was no more than four or five years old and could not begin to grasp how people could hate anyone just because their skin color was different. Today, writing this post, listening to this song, the tears and anger are still fresh. How is it that we're still fighting against such ignorance and hatred?

I could link to every song Billie sang; she made every song hers when she sang, but just check out the sweet-bitter of "The Very Thought of You.

Mom grew up a "jazzbo," hanging out in jazz clubs, dancing and befriending the musicians. The most famous she befriended was Count Basie, and I can remember her telling me about the parties she attended. She would put on some swing records and attempt to teach me how to dance (she had been a dance instructor for Arthur Murray).

Finally, a very early influence on me was the "Duke of Ellington." I loved him and his music. My mom even supported me in staying home from school to honor him at his funeral in 1974. Here's "Satin Doll" and "Mood Indigo."  There is no way I can mention the Duke and not share something from Ivy Anderson, perhaps the singer best associated with him. This was a song mom would often sing as well: "I've Got It Bad and That Ain't Good."   Just listen to the amazing alto sax work of the incomparable Johnny Hodges. The smooth glissando, a "trademark" technique of Hodges is sensual, sweet and sexy.

These are just some of the Black musicians who made an indelible mark on my 'soul' during my earliest formative years. I owe them a deep debt of gratitude -- as do we all.