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.
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.
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.”