Creating The New Music

Concerning Ragtime, composer William Bolcom has said that “the classic music style of any given culture is the one that defines its basic language in a form that that culture can naturally accept as its own.” This is not only true for ragtime, but also the blues, the shouts and the spirituals and, of course, Native American music. Everything else is essentially from outside the country; however this does not mean that “everything else” is to be disregarded and rejected.

Of course, expressing a full range of emotions in music–having access to a complete palate of music colors and tonal shadings–is what makes a music great. It’s what makes it human. The music can be mystical and ethereal, or light and airy and in pastel shadings. Or in deep, dark, heavy oil colors, or somewhere in between.

The term “Funk” is just like “jazz,” like “ragtime” itself, or like “swing,” a cheap name slapped on a form of expression in order to sell it. Before the early sixties “Funky” meant filthy, low-down, smelly, degenerate. The word was rehabilitated by “funky soul” jazz musicians ca. 1960 (mostly from middle-class backgrounds) and by James Brown, whose music, coincidentally, drew heavily not only on gospel and postwar urban blues but also on swing and early jazz. James Brown’s music was multilayered and multifaceted, though certainly not on the same level as Thelonious Monk or Duke Ellington.

Many who were touched by his music only heard the funk element and nothing else. In fact most popular black music after 1970 (and certainly after 1980) had become increasingly narrow in its range of emotional expression. It became increasingly slick, sterile, superficial and repetitious, frequently even mindless. Today “funk” (besides homicidal rage) has become the only element in “black music” that one generally picks up on when one listens to it, and it is not even good “funk”–it’s worse than the corny pseudo-funk of vintage porn clips of Seka and Long Dong Silver.

Why the obsession with just this one (watered-down) ingredient? Because it’s easy, number one. It’s easy to fake. Of course, you can’t fake the funk, but untold millions of listeners these days can’t tell the difference between Hersal Thomas, George Clinton and rapper DMX. Millions of listeners these days would prefer DMX because in their minds (regardless of their racial, ethnic, or national background) he represents “authentic black music.” DMX could not even play his own skin-flute but such is the power of multinational corporate persuasion, most listeners don’t give two shits; their minds have already been made up concerning “authentic black music.”

To pop-culture squares, both DMX, Tupac and their ilk are “acceptably” black. To the Afro-Futurists and Afro-Surrealists Sun Ra is acceptably black because the Dionysian element in his music appeals to their rococo sensibilities, forgetting that Sun Ra himself scoffed at the very idea of people needing more freedom. “People need more discipline,” he said.

In reality, Sun Ra was a bit of a reactionary. He was lukewarm (to say the least) about Black Power and even about the Civil Rights struggle that preceded it. There is evidence that he was in fact a Republican or that his political sympathies lay in that region. (He was from Birmingham, after all.) As an anti-authoritarian leftist I realize that discipline is important but truthfully, people need to learn how to walk that tightrope between freedom and discipline, and not just in art.

Count Basie, Anthony Braxton, Duke Ellington is “stuff white people like.” And if white people like it, it isn’t “black” anymore. “The brothers ain’t into it,” people (mostly black themselves) will say. And the dutifully cowed black listener will listen to Florence Price or James Scott or Julius Eastman in private, lest his black peers label him a “coon” or a “honky.”

“Authentic black music,” “real” black music (in the minds of most listeners) must always be limited in its range of expression, always stuck in the night club, no matter where it finds itself. Even in Carnegie Hall or the Berlin Philharmonie, “real black music” must always carry the stink of the fucking night club, the cathouse, the strip joint, across the railroad tracks in Funky Butt Hall or the Bucket of Blood. “Funk,” even the good stuff (to be perfectly honest) impresses in the minds of those people (who wish to sell, listen to, jack off to, screw to or appropriate black music) that our music is just cheap, tawdry shit to jack off to, made by a bunch of black-faced, comic opera buffoons who are naturally happy or naturally enraged or naturally sad–all just one emotion, incapable of expressing a entire range of human emotions.

In Tha Funk, all we are left with is shit-brown, or as some ignorant coolie fuck somewhere in China called it, NIGGER-brown. People love Tha Funk because not only does it make us want to fuck, or eat, or shit, or gouge out some asshole’s nipples with a gimlet but also because it subconsciously reinforces in our minds that the niggers who made this Funk are just that–niggers.

Today’s American musician would have you think that The Funk is everything. It isn’t. The Funk always was and always will be what it is–an ingredient. When you make a fucking stew, you don’t just add hot sauce and nothing else. Who wants to eat a bowlful of hot sauce?∗

Better yet, let’s just ask the basic question: what is “funk,” anyway?

Duke Ellington described it when he placed his fingers down on a few keys and produced a dissonant chord. “That’s us,” he said. A funky chord is produced on piano by playing an F-major over a B-major note, for instance. But the trick is not to overuse it, or be so obvious with it. The Funk is something that should emerge organically.

Here in Berlin, I receive several invitations to jazz concerts and ignore the bulk of them. Usually it’s because these days, I simply don’t have the time. And when I do have the time I’m selective with whom and where I’m going to spend it. Hint: it may be at Speichers, but it won’t be at Edelweiss or the Yorckschlossen, because all I’m going to hear is the same old tired “funk.”

Very, very few musicians here are doing anything ground-breaking. It’s “nice” to see that young kids in their twenties and thirties are back into “jazz”¹ but virtually none of them have brought any new energy to the table. Whether they are mindlessly trudging their way through post-bop cliches or chug-chugging away on their banjos at various night-spots in Berlin (or Paris, New York, Amsterdam, for that matter) it all sounds the same, and it is extremely painful in the end to hear yet another tired-ass rendition of “Indiana” or “As Time Goes By.” Do we really need to hear “Indiana” again? Or, at the very least, do we need to hear it just the way Eddie Condon played it back in 1940?

The various Shout bands of the United House of Prayer have already given these so-called “jazz” musicians ample clues as to where they can take the music next–and typically, the “jazz” world has all but ignored them. When they do listen to the UHOP bands it is merely to ape their instrumental lineup (and honestly, I strongly doubt if the jazzers ever did that: the various street jazz bands one sees in urban America are just bland imitations of the worst of the New Orleans brass bands, most of which sound nasty). Very well, then: it is the jazz world’s loss.

Out of all the musicians playing today bands such as The Lively Stones have developed (over a period of four or more decades) a uniquely successful synthesis of early big-band territory jazz (think Luis Russell, Alphonso Trent, Zach Whyte, Cecil Scott’s Bright Boys, etc.) and modern gospel, neo-soul and funk harmonies. The result is some of the most emotionally powerful music currently being played in the United States. Occasionally these bands do get raggedy and repetitious, but they are rarely bad unless they go into the studio and cut commercial CDs (the shout bands have cut extremely few and nearly all of them are quite bad, compared to the almost overwhelming power they are capable of when playing on street corners.) They can roar like a herd of lions or they can be soft, sweet and gentle as lambs. At their best, their music has an almost defiant, earthy dignity, coupled with an impeccable swing that has been absent from “jazz” for untold decades. They are using a far broader palette of emotive expressions than these “jazz” circle-jerkers, who are content to run their fingers up and down their instruments as if they were masturbating rather than making music.

So-called “jazz” musicians are not obliged to keep their heads in their asses and ape Coltrane or Miles Davis for the next two thousand years. Nor are they condemned to some European-infected avant-garde oblivion by reducing the music to a series of deafening shrieks which not even dead people can tolerate. The whole postmodernist shtick of pushing the music forward to incomprehension is an obsession of French intellectuals with no ideas and even less feeling. But of course, feeling isn’t everything.

Some idiots would have us believe that so-called “black music” is all about feeling and rhythm and soul. We have been over this ground a billion times and Anthony Braxton has said it better than I can. To sum it up, the obsession with “black feeling” is implicitly reactionary, even in a revolutionary posture a la Amiri Baraka. Baraka is a writer who I greatly admire (and count as a major influence on my own writing). Yet in his many writings on this subject posited that black music was all about the soul and feeling. Yeah, fine, but what about the intellect? Sun Ra himself would have thought otherwise. Is head music only for Apollonian Europeans (who never existed, when you think about it) and the “soul music” only for Dionysiac (read: emotional and primitive) Africans? Really?

Alain Locke, writing in the 1920s, saw the matter somewhat differently:

The characteristic African art expressions are rigid, controlled, disciplined, abstract, heavily conventionalized; those of the Aframerican—free, exuberant, emotional, sentimental and human. Only by the misinterpretation of the African spirit, can one claim any emotional kinship between them—for the spirit of African expression, by and large, is disciplined, sophisticated, laconic and fatalistic. The emotional temper of the American Negro is exactly opposite. What we have thought primitive in the American Negro—his naiveté, his sentimentalism, his exuberance and his improvising spontaneity are then neither characteristically African nor to be explained as an ancestral heritage. They are the result of his peculiar experience in America and the emotional upheaval of its trials and ordeals. True, these are now very characteristic traits, and they have their artistic, and perhaps even their moral compensations; but they represent essentially the working of environmental forces rather than the outcropping of a race psychology; they are really the acquired and not the original artistic temperament.

The whole “black soul” trope sounds suspiciously like the same crap regurgitated endlessly throughout the 20s, 30s and 40s by slumming whites who thought that Cab Calloway, Fats Waller or the Mills Blue Rhythm Band (in performance mode, that is) were perfect expressions of everything inside the Negro Soul. And we all know that the Black Man’s Soul was and is a White man’s artifact. One can’t create a revolution in the culture while adhering to self-concepts that were fashioned by people who still think that we’re monkeys.

But perhaps at a very basic level the essence of African diaspora music globally is “the same,” and the difference is in the details. Taking Locke at his word (and it seems fair that we should do so) African musical concepts are generally far more rigid than our own. So-called “African music”–to cite one example out of thousands, the music of the Wolof, or that of the Ashanti–has fixed rules. In Ashanti musical ensembles you play your part and if you must deviate you must do it within the context allotted you–otherwise, the musical spell is interrupted. You can’t just play any old goddamned thing that pops into your head and then try and blend it in with the rest.

Of course, such a thing might be entirely possible in New Afrikan music providing one has an intuitive understanding of what is being played. Freedom–but within discipline. Albert Murray and Ralph Ellison said as much concerning real Swing music, which, ironically (because many critics, including Baraka, condemned it as whitified, commercialized and bourgeois–and much of it was, truthfully), comes far closer to the African musical aesthetic than free jazz. So does the music of King Oliver, as well as James Brown. Both were known to be iron-fisted disciplinarians in rehearsals.

The African music is a classical one, like the European, the Asian, the Middle Eastern, or South American. The African American music has a classical side, too, but it is persistently overlooked, largely because it doesn’t really sell. Nobody is really going to buy Leon Bates, Orbert Davis, Reginald Robinson, John Reed-Torres or the Fisk University Jubilee Singers to the degree in which they’ll gleefully gobble up Jay Z’s simple-minded “Story of O.J.” Because the sad truth is that your average African American’s tastes in music are generally just as vulgar, just as tawdry and frivolous as your average white Yank. And that’s because your average African American is just that–a Yank.

Naturally, all of this has to change. Our new music can no longer confine itself mentally to dingy nightclubs and to The Street. We can’t keep on putting out frivolity and trashy, tasteless, corny shit because “everyone is into it,” or because it pays well. Today’s pop music is even worse than the cheesiest disco, worse than 80s synth-driven, obnoxious coked-up New Wave trash. To create the New Music, one has to find the aesthetic strains that bind together the low (so-called “pop”) and the high. Whatever has value in pop music, one can use it and throw the rest in the trash can. Whatever has value in neo-soul, one can use it; whatever sounds that can blend in harmoniously with the new musical stew, it can go in. Otherwise, keep it out.

No audience for the New Music? Find the fucking audience. Forty years ago very very few people wanted to hear Hip Hop. One hundred and thirty years ago ragtime was unknown outside of cheap saloons and bordellos. Today ragtime is our basic musical language and one can’t find a patch of earth on the planet in which hip-hop, the retarded great-great-grandbaby of ragtime, isn’t being blasted from an iPhone.

Yes, that’s right. Hip-hop is essentially ragtime syncopation with words and not notes. John Legend’s “Where Did My Baby Go,” which was enormously popular, is essentially a ragtime song with the rhythm shifted to a “Latin” beat. In fact, it sounds almost as if it had been written partly by Louis Chauvin, Fats Waller and James P. Johnson. You can’t hear this unless you play it stride style on a piano.

The New Music has to be somewhat nationalistic. I hate to say “nationalistic,” but at this point in time we need nationalism in our culture to beat back the fog of a fake neoliberal “multiculturalism,” as well as the fog of pseudo-nationalist “identitarian” racism. We need African American nationalism in the New Music in the same way that Chopin put Polish nationalism (by way of mazurkas and polonaises) in his “New Music.” The aim of Chopin and other European musical nationalists was to break the stifling mold of an increasingly bland, characterless pan-European Classicism in music, in which the folk melodies of oppressed nations such as Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, etc., etc. were almost completely absent. The “Classical” music of Europe reflected the bloated faces and rococo sensibilities of the Hapsburgs, not those of the various peoples under the Hapsburg heel. One anonymous listener made an interesting comment concerning Chopin’s Grand Polonaise: he said that the piece was a conscious expression of the Polish people’s struggle for freedom. I agree.

Our New Music must reflect our own folk sounds and anything else we can incorporate into the Music that gels with the basic folk sounds. The Music must reflect the struggle to liberate ourselves under the dead weight of a fake corporate “international” sound designed to put people to sleep under a fucking ecstasy haze. This pseudo-music we should seek to destroy is the soundtrack of hipsters and the bullshit neoliberal/neofascist/alt-right pseudo-democracy they thrive in like weeds.

And when we make our music, we do it right. Not in a stupid, heavy-handed Commie way, or in a brutalist fascist manner, but in our new classical manner. Classical doesn’t mean wearing a tuxedo and picking up a fucking violin. That is not our classical form. If you don’t like the old “classical” forms then create new ones. You can even utilize Rap, too, but be prepared to shatter every single definition and rule as to what Rap is supposed to sound like. Rap is a painfully limited art form; it doesn’t express much more than junior high school machismo. It’s like a squirt of jism–once it’s out there, that’s that. Even their politics are suspect because of their lousy self-presentation: when Snoop Dogg shits on Donald Dumb-ass, he does it in the same old tired way–as a clownish, comic-opera negro. When Eminem shits on the Orange Honky he is no different: a hip, violent Al Jolson sans blackface.

Snoop Dogg wants to Make America Crip Again. I say: a curse on both your houses–the White House and the Hip Hop House. The Hip Hop House is obsessed with cocaine, money and fat white women. The White House is obsessed with power. Both are dead set upon keeping Black American Music in the lowest and most obscene state imaginable. In their empty heads the minstrel stage is the end-goal for our music; after that, the gas chambers and firing squads will be activated. Even when their “rap” is allegedly radical it still makes the Afro-American look like an ignorant savage. We don’t need this. Get Afro-classical; get back to the roots.

*

 

∗It is not enough to simply sit around talking about how much Rap stinks, or that The Funk is just simple-minded, repetitive droning on one fucking chord, with no real feeling (one can’t fake real funk, you either get it or you don’t. If you don’t get it, don’t play it: play Chopin instead.

(On second thought, don’t play him, either. Or Beethoven. Because in both of these players there is a discernible “proto-funk” or better yet, borderline-funk sensibility: listen to Grosse Fuge by Beethoven or Nocturne in F-Sharp by Chopin. And definitely leave Scriabin’s Vers La Flamme alone.)

¹It was fascinating for awhile to see millennials getting back into jazz, even traditional jazz. Anthony Braxton might see it otherwise, as concomitant with political reaction. The truth is a bit trickier than that. Yes, the return of swing music in the 1990s heralded the disasters of the Bush Regime and worse things to come, and to be honest, not a single one of these goofy bands was playing anything close to what real swing music was; none of them possessed the true musical sensibilities that made the best so-called “big band” music, such as that charted by Don Redman, Benny Carter, Fletcher Henderson, Eddie Sauter, Jimmy Mundy, Melvin “Sy” Oliver, Patrick “Spike” Hughes, Eddie Durham and many others. None of them possessed the musical skills necessary to tackle a difficult piece like “Chant of the Weed” or Coleman Hawkins’ atonal “Queer Notions.” “Stop Kidding,” a notoriously intricate John Nesbit arrangement written in 1928, would be completely beyond the powers of the overwhelming majority of today’s so-called “big bands.”

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The “J” Word: Why “Jazz”?

PART ONE

When I think of the word “Jazz” I am reminded of the music I love the most, which is why I generally have a positive reaction to the word. Not that I have really cared too much about the word in and of itself. It is a very silly word. Actually, it’s stupid and insulting. Imagine someone referring to Chopin’s Nocturne in F-Sharp Major or Beethoven’s Violin Concerto as “fancy-schmancy” or “longhair” music, and you get the idea. Admittedly some of this Music, because it really is cheap, superficial, flashy and overblown for its own sake really does deserve the childish moniker of “Jazz.” Louis Armstrong’s West End Blues, on the other hand, or Miles Davis’s Tempus Fugit, or Sidney Bechet’s Summertime, or Gillespie and Parker’s Groovin’ High (1945) however, simply do not deserve to be categorized by such a word. Many of the greatest practitioners of this music have always detested it. “It’s a nigger word,” railed Miles Davis, in a rare 1980 radio interview. “While (we were) playing in St. Louis, the white folks wouldn’t even listen to so-called ‘jazz’ because they thought of it as niggers fuckin’ and all that shit. So since then, that’s a nigger word, a nigger thing.” Clarinetist and soprano saxist Sidney Bechet considered the word to be superfluous; he preferred to call the music “ragtime” throughout his life. To him Jazz was just “a name the white people have given to the music. There’s two kinds of music. There’s classic and there’s ragtime. When I tell you ragtime, you can feel it, there’s a spirit right in the word…But Jazz, ­ Jazz could mean any damn’ thing: high times, screwing, ballroom. It used to be spelled Jass…”.

Duke Ellington (with whom Bechet played briefly in 1925) himself said as much concerning “Jazz.” The word seems to have rubbed him the wrong way and he used it reluctantly, out of lack of choice for a better word. “By and large, (this music) has always been like the kind of man you wouldn’t want your daughter to associate with,” he once wrote. “The word ‘jazz’ has been part of the problem.”°

Indeed. “Jazz” has the stink of Storyville all over it. Since its closing in 1917 a huge amount of legends and fantasies have grown up around Storyville, fed in large part by the embellishments of musicians who once played in its establishments. For the record let it be known that, aside from solo pianists such as Tony Jackson, Kid Ross or Ferdinand Mouton (or LaMothe or LeMott) no jazz band (nor any other band) ever played in a Storyville brothel: most whorehouses were ill-equipped to house a six or seven-piece band on their premises. Joe Oliver, Freddie Keppard, Manuel Manetta, Edward “Kid” Ory, Johnny and Warren “Baby” Dodds, Lorenzo Tio, Jr., Peter Bocage, Henry Zeno, George “Pops” Foster, Alphonse Picou, Armand Piron, Sidney Bechet and their ilk plied their trade in grungy cafes and dance halls such as Pete Lala’s, The Big 25 or Tom Anderson’s cafe for distressingly long hours and for insultingly low pay. These establishments were often hot, sweaty and stinking of armpits, bad breath, wet farts and God knows what else–which explains why New Orleans’ Union Sons Hall, a popular dance hall among black New Orleanians, was cheekily referred to as the “Funky Butt Hall.”

In any event, the music that the above musicians were shaping between roughly 1890 and 1915 was very rarely, if at all, referred to as “jazz,” let alone “jass.” To Sidney Bechet and Louis Nelson DeLisle, it was always “ragtime music.” To others it was simply “The Music.” The shady origins of the word jazz–indeed, the very cheapness of the word itself–appeared to impress even in the minds of its creators that what they were doing was cheap, dirty, and disreputable–“jungle music,” as Rudy Vallee once insinuated on his radio program. If early jazz musicians plied their trade in ratty joints, it was certainly not out of choice.

“Who draped those basement dens

With silk, but knaves and robbers

And their ilk?

Who came to prostitute your art

And gave you pennies

for your part?”

–Duke Ellington, excerpt from text of Black, Brown and Beige

There are dozens upon dozens of other explanations for the origins of the J-word and all of them are rather ridiculous. Jazz, in 1912, was simply an adjective used to describe something spunky (as was jasm, a word dating to at least 1860) screwy and off-the-wall–the way Portland Beavers pitcher Ben Henderson described his latest (and unsuccessful) method of pitching. As for “jass,” speculations abound as to whether or not it is a derivation of “jaser” (the French verb to jabber on and talk shit) or a reference to the scent of jasmine (which the whores of Storyville allegedly wore) or whether it was simply cooked up by white New Orleans musicians (such as Tom Brown¹) once they made their way out of the South and towards Chicago, San Francisco and New York.

The truth is that “Jazz” was slapped on The Music as a way of selling it to the broader white American mainstream. The earliest known reference to “Jazz” in a musical sense dates from July 11, 1915.  This very revealing article, written by Gordon Seagrove for the Chicago Tribune, features a caricatured “darkie”² alto saxophonist woo-wooing away on his horn. So it is perfectly clear that as early as the summer of 1915 The Music–a potent mixture of blues, ragtime and secularized spiritual harmonies–was already being referred to as “Jazz.” The word was insulting, but it sold the music and helped to get some of these musicians out of Funky Butt Hall. (Note the two Z’s and not two S’s. It is not entirely clear as to how or why Tom Brown, Johnny Stein or Dominic La Rocca came up with “jass.” In my opinion, Jass sounds a lot like Ass–indeed, most of the records put out by the Original Dixieland Jass Band and its many imitators (between 1917 and 1920) sound like “ass,” and certainly not in a good way.)

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Duke Ellington, about 1930. “I am not playing Jazz…I am trying to play the natural feelings of a people”

I have already noted that New Orleanians generally disliked the term. Northerners were not much different. To James P. Johnson and Eubie Blake it was still Ragtime. Ellington’s own preference was for the term Negro Music. “I am not playing jazz,” he stated in 1930, in reference to his musical ambitions, “I am trying to play the natural feelings of a people.” Ellington had once counseled bandleader and arranger Fletcher Henderson on the matter. “Why don’t we drop the word ‘Jazz’ and call what we are doing ‘Negro Music’? Then there won’t be any confusion.” Reportedly, Henderson was not too keen on dropping the “J” word, assuming he himself had ever used it.

Of course, negative reaction to the J-word was not always limited to black musicians.³ Much of this resentment was echoed even by white musicians themselves, such as Red Norvo, who once said in 1944 “I certainly hope it isn’t jazz we’re playing, because jazz to me represents something obnoxious, like that Dixieland school of thought…the musicians it stands for are corny by today’s standards.”

Dave Tough, one of the core members of the white Austin High Gang, eventually gravitated to more modern sounds and remarked of Dixieland that it was “nowhere,” requested by slumming “snobs” on a nostalgic kick in 1940s Manhattan. “Those Dixieland characters come here to live their youth all over again,” Tough railed. “They like to think it’s still Prohibition and they’re wild young cats up from Princeton for a hot time. All they need is a volume of F. Scott Fitzgerald sticking out of their pockets.” Tough dismissed “Hot Jazz” as harmonically infantile, “a bad copy of the music that white Chicago musicians played who were in turn doing bad imitations of the music that they heard from the musicians who came from New Orleans.”

Charles Mingus, in 1969, said: “Don’t call me a jazz musician. The word ‘jazz’ means nigger, discrimination, second-class citizenship, the back-of-the-bus bit.” John Coltrane, a few years before his death, told an interviewer that “Jazz is a word they use to sell our music, but to me that word does not exist.” Anthony Braxton (like the late Ornette Coleman) will tell you the exact same things, and not mince words about it. In fact Braxton is deeply skeptical of many of the current trends in “Jazz,” particularly those inaugurated by the Marsalis Brothers under the tutelage of Stanley Crouch and the late Albert Murray; he sees in the current “Jazz” revival a “freezing” of what was once an innovative and living musical language in stoneª so that it remains locked forever in an American (and in this instance, Southern) past which we ought to have placed far behind us. Braxton assumed that Marsalis’s music was simply a comfortably nostalgic accompaniment to the increasingly toxic racism and reactionary politics of the Reagan, Clinton, and Bush “administrations,” and on a very real level he is right: as pleasant as Marsalis’s music can be at times, it speaks very little–if anything–of our contemporary world; the harshness and dissonance that one can find in his music is the harshness and dissonance of another, simpler time. Sadly, even in that “other time” (say, the 20s and 30s) much of the music did not reflect the temper of that time but simply glossed over it with the phony 23-Skidoo slush of The Clambake Seven or, God forbid, the horror that was the Andrews Sisters.

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Red Norvo: “Jazz…represents something obnoxious”

Today, the most vociferous opponent of the word “Jazz” is trumpeter Nicholas Payton, who has made it his mission to assassinate not merely the J-word but everything else associated with it.† To this end he has promoted the term #BAM, short for Black American Music. “There is no such thing as jazz,” he wrote in April of 2014, completely negating the idea of any sort of “Jazz tradition.” “(A)ny idea of what that might be is false. It’s impossible to build a tradition upon something that was never a designed to be a true expression of a community. The very existence of jazz is predicated upon a lie, just like racism.”

The lie being, of course, not merely that “Negroes” are a simple, funky, sexual, violent and primitive people without a history, without traditions, without art, without minds and so on and so fourth–no point in repeating oft-repeated lies–but also the very lie that any such creature called a “Negro” exists. When Duke Ellington spoke to Fletcher Henderson of the need to create a “Negro Music” he was simply utilizing the current and frankly most socially progressive language of that time. Duke Ellington’s “Negro” was not the Negro of Tom Brown, Stephen Foster, Joel Chandler Harris, or the Original Dixieland Jazz Band nor even, for that matter, Mezz Mezzrow. Ellington rejected that image of the Negro publicly and was even more vehement in his rejection privately: “And was the picture true/Of you? The camera eye in focus…./Or was it all a sorry bit/Of ofay hocus-pocus?”

Ofay hocus-pocus, properly translated, is essentially what mainstream jazz or jass was and quite frankly, still is. Today that hocus-pocus (better known as bullshit) is simply dressed up in the robes or respectability and topped with a tasseled hat. But even the squarest of the super-squares, the rank-and-file men on the street, know that the vast bulk of contemporary jazz is remote, effete, elitist and un-listenable and that the back-asswards racism of many a “jazz classic” make even some of the best of jazz unendurable. Louis Armstrong’s theme song “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South,” for instance–a lovely melody marred by idiotically trite lyrics–was straight Stephen Foster, a fact he himself knew quite well and seems to have performed the tune largely in a satirical manner: On one early rendition of “Sleepy” (from December 1932) he twists the lyrics and sings, “when it’s slavery time down South.”

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Nicholas Payton: “The very existence of jazz is predicated upon a lie”

“To speak of ‘jazz tradition’ is like to speak of ‘racial justice,'” Payton continues. “It’s not possible to have justice within the confines of race because race was specifically designed to subjugate certain people to an underclass so that the “majority” thrives. Injustice is inherently built within the racial construct. There has never been any tradition within jazz other than to ensure Black cultural expression is depreciated and undervalued.”

As a staunch anti-fascist, I  share both Braxton’s and Payton’s concerns about this thing called “Jazz.” I hate to look at The Music–my music–through the ugly prism of politics. Yet at some point such skepticism becomes inevitable.  As much as I enjoy vintage jazz–I have to confess that it is the virtual soundtrack to my life–I see ugly political trends running in tandem with the current enthusiasm for ragtime, “hot jazz” and “swing.” It is a disturbing thought that the music of Blind Boy Paxton, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Craig Ventresco, Reginald Robinson, John Reed-Torres and innumerable other trad jazz and ragtime bands both in the U.S. and elsewhere could serve as a musical soundtrack to something else: the rise in far-right nationalism across the globe. Fortunately, it ain’t necessarily so: there is a German swing society located in Berlin which is vociferously anti-fascist and even Socialist in outlook. But I’m afraid that their progressive politics are, generally speaking, not shared by those who enjoy their music.

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NOTES

°‘I was recently held up again at a Dublin street corner by a small crowd who were listening to a young man with a strong North of Ireland accent who was aloft on a little Irish scaffold. / “Glun na Buaidhe,” he roared, “has its own ideas about the banks, has its own ideas about dancing. There is one sort of dancing that Glun na Buaidhe will not permit and that is jazz dancing. Because jazz dancing is the product of the dirty nigger culture of America, the dirty low nigger culture of America.”’ Myles na gCopaleen, from an extract of his Irish Times “Cruiskeen Lawn” columns (1944)

¹Tom Brown (1888-1958) was a tailgate trombonist who brought his band to Chicago in 1915, billing it as “Tom Brown’s Band from Dixieland.” Brown was the brother of pioneering slap-bassist Steve Brown and a pathological racist and anti-Semite who once confided to journalist Al Rose that Europeans and Asians (“them foreigners”) refused to listen to jazz unless “niggers” were playing it, that “niggers” weren’t smart enough to discern any sort of harmony because, well, they were “just niggers.” As a side comment Tommy also noted  that these same “niggers” were riding on previously all-white tramlines, that “dagos” were getting all the good hotel jobs in New Orleans and that “Jews” were taking over Uptown–three notable developments in late 50s New Orleans which disturbed him somewhat.

²Gordon Seagrove, writing in the Chicago Tribune (1915), begins his article by asking a young lady “what is the blues?” The young lady answers, loudly and enthusiastically, “Jazz!”

“A blue note is a sour note,” explains an unidentified Chicago pianist in Seagrove’s article. “(Blue notes) aren’t new. They are just reborn into popularity. They started in the South a half-century ago and are the interpretations of darkies (sic) originally. The trade name for them is Jazz.”

³Much of the resentment on the part of Black American musicians to the word “Jazz” is due to racist assumptions concerning the true nature of The Music. Even to supposedly liberal and sympathetic minds (such as John Hammond or Patrick “Spike” Hughes, himself a superb jazz arranger) jazz was essentially a happy, primitive, supersexual party music where bored upper-class whites violated their sense of propriety by getting drunk, getting high, or giving or receiving a blow job under a cafe table. Leftist jazz critics (such as Rudi Blesh) read into The Music an expression of Negro misery, anger and resentment of the Jim Crow status quo. While this is true to an extent it does not give the whole picture of what The Music is about, and in fact is simply the white left’s paternalistic vision of Black “jazz” as a proletarian, anti-elitist folk music–a vision which is just as limiting as the right-wing “happy darky” caricature of “jazz” music.

ªBraxton: “The whole jazz platform, everything that’s happened since the 1960s in the jazz world, in my opinion, has come about through the liberal sector, and that sector has postulated a concept of “we are with you in communion around trans-African matters,” while at the same time, what they’re really saying is “we’re with you, but you had better follow our concept of what you should be. We’re with you as long as we can say that jazz goes to 1965, and everything after that is not black.” By chopping off the restructural component of the music, what we’ve seen in the last 30 years has been that without the head you start taking from the body, drawing from stylistic influences. From that point, the musicians would start to go further and further back in time; now we’re back to the minstrel period, back to Stagger Lee. But it’s taken for granted in every other community that evolution is a point of fact….

“It is coming out of New York; they brought the South to New York. By Southern strategy in this context, take the blues, for instance. The blues is being posited as the legitimate projection for African Americans to function inside of. More and more, the blues is being defined as an idiomatic generic state as opposed to an infinite affinity state, which is what it really is. The blues, in my opinion, is being used as a way to marshal and limit, or define the parameters, of African American intellectual and vibrational dynamics. With the blues, they can say “this is black music.” If it’s not the blues, if you write an opera, they can say, “oh, this is not black music.” If it’s blues, it can be received and appreciated as consistent with what African Americans are supposed to be involved with.”

Braxton’s concerns about “reductionism” in so-called Jazz music echo Frantz Fanon’s own observations concerning the Moldy-Fygge Jazz junkie’s revulsion towards bebop: “The fact is that in their eyes jazz should only be the despairing, broken-down nostalgia of an old Negro who is trapped between five glasses of whisky, the curse of his race, and the racial hatred of the white men. As soon as the Negro comes to an understanding of himself, and understands the rest of the world differently, when he gives birth to hope and forces back the racist universe, it is clear that his trumpet sounds more clearly and his voice less hoarsely. The new fashions in jazz are not simply born of economic competition. We must without any doubt see in them one of the consequences of the defeat, slow but sure, of the Southern world of the United States. And it is not utopian to suppose that in fifty years’ time the type of jazz howl hiccupped by a poor misfortunate Negro will be upheld only by the whites who believe in it as an expression of nigger-hood, and who are faithful to this arrested image of a type of relationship.” Frantz Fanon, “Reciprocal Bases of National Culture and the Fight for Freedom,” Wretched of the Earth. Bold-face mine.

†As a side note Vijay Iyer, a noted contemporary “jazz” pianist, also dislikes the term “Jazz” and dismisses it as an invention of the American record industry.

If The Elevator Tries to Bring You Down: On Prince and the Horror of the 80s

I wasn’t so sure if I needed to write anything concerning Prince’s life and death, since I felt everything I wanted to say concerning the man had already been said by so many others, and probably better than anything I could reasonably attempt. When I found out about it, I was deeply disturbed by it.

To start with, I was never a fan of his music. At all. He did not operate in my idiom, and still does not. I am a jazz, ragtime, blues and (sometimes) gospel head. I would rather listen to Beethoven’s Violin Concerto than Raspberry Beret, which frankly, I can’t stand. I remember Prince all too well. When he was at his height in the mid-eighties he was also at his most commercial and accessible with hits like 1999, Purple Rain and Kiss. I thought he was very campy and over-the-top.Me and my friends used to make fun of him while most of us dug his music…yet slyly, I found something strangely moving in his music, especially Purple Rain.

All of this is coming from someone who hated 80s music and 80s culture with a passion when he was growing up. And still does, when I think back on it. For it was in the Eighties that I decided to become a writer, a radical and a bohemian. I have not changed.

Many people who never lived through that MTV nightmare called the eighties thinks it was a wonderful time. It was not. Of course seen in retrospect the eighties was a hell of a lot more creative and off-beat than today’s decade. But that isn’t saying much. We have simply fallen so far down the toilet historically and culturally speaking that the Eighties, in retrospect, seems like a cultural height.

May I repeat: it was not.

Personally, I would prefer not to relive the eighties. The music was brittle. The clothes were ugly. The art was nasty. Sex was AIDS and drugs were crack. Politics was even grosser than usual. –Stephen Marche, GQ Magazine, June 10, 2010

You had to have been there, I guess, to see what an ugly, shallow, racist, marginalizing scene it really was. I guess you needed to have a bit of melanin in your skin, too. Celebrities said things on national television that they would not dare say now. Islamophobia? It was normal. Nobody thought anything about it.

The Eighties: described once by Stephen Marche as “the shittiest of decades,” in which the “music was brittle” and the “art was nasty.” All true. Totally true. And the reverse–“the art was brittle and the music was nasty”–summed up the 80s culture even more so. Romeo Void? Please. The late David Bowie? China Girl, Dancing with the Big Boys, etc. etc. Sorry sir, you’re time was up c. 1977 or so. Wham!? Fuck you. Duran Duran? Cyndi Lauper? Boy George and the Culture Club (and all that other slop from England)? Miles Davis’ inauspicious comeback doing some seriously light-weight things in contrast to even his seventies experiments? Art of Noise? UTFO? Ice T? NWA, the negro nightmare that spawned an entire generation of jungle-bunny chest-beating bojangling sambo thugs? Or Ghostbusters, The Other Woman (Ray Parker Jr.–no offense, but I could not stand this motherfucker’s music, not one track: from Jack and Jill to The Other Woman to Ghostbusters, it was so corny that (to quote Mezz Mezzrow) the husks were still on that shit). To think that many people think this shit is hip literally makes me cringe, though it shouldn’t: many people get off on being whipped and shitted on, so what can I say?

The Eighties wasn’t simply the Reagan Era, or the MTV Era, or what the hell have you: it was the age of AIDS. Born in 1967, I remember rubbing my hands with glee at the thought of joining the still-ongoing sexual revolution of 1980-3…and being bitterly disheartened to watch the country to an about-face when it came to carnality in the proceeding years. The freewheeling sexual revolution (which probably never even existed outside of TV and movies and songs) dried up like old prunes, and horny young men like me were left with less than the crumbs from what we imagined was a sexual feast. Mini-skirts were back in but thanks to this hysterically inflated AIDS scare, they didn’t mean shit. According to its creator, Mary Quant, the mini-skirt represented precisely sexual liberation. In the 80s and beyond the mini-skirt represented nothing but a huge middle-finger to those of us who’d hoped we could have some sixties sunshine.

PrinceCab
Prince Rogers Nelson and Cab Calloway: in the tradition of HIP

Michael Jackson. Yes, his death was disturbing, a shock, but one could see it coming; it was just a question of when: would he make it his life’s goal to make himself back into a black man again, I often thought. Michael was universally worshiped and reviled by the same jackasses that made him into a god. But Michael Jackson was corny. Michael seemed, at least, a safely packaged little black eunuch for the masses of people everywhere to drool over–a perpetual Toys R Us kid, the man from Neverland, who never wanted to grow up and subsequently became idolized just for that specific reason, in my opinion: here was a black superstar who seemed not to have any balls, basically safe and tame, until he was suspected of sniffing up young white boy’s butts.

Prince, on the other hand, was a spade of another color. Only an inspired lunatic like Prince Rogers Nelson would dare to walk out on stage with his goddamn hair fried (wearing conks was not exactly popular among black men in the seventies), and with a perm and eyeliner that made him look like a Cuban transsexual. And on top of that, huge hooped earrings, a g-string, fishnet stockings, and spin-off bands like Vanity 6 and Apollonia 6 prancing about on stage singing Sex Shooter and Nasty Girl: the music was not great, but I dug the message. I, who went to an uptight Catholic parochial school, where girls were non-existent, where teachers tried to instruct us on the evils of masturbation, “fornication” and the terror of looking into Playboy and getting sexually aroused and where half the fucking school, it seemed, was on the down-low. When my fellow students tried grabbing my crotch or touching my thighs, I naively thought that this was something that also went on in sexually integrated high schools. It didn’t.

Prince was the only pop idol I recall from that time who, even remotely, had a healthy slant on sex.* With Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, Hall & Oates, Michael Jackson, UTFO and the lot, sex seemed shrouded with the usual American hangups. With Prince it was different. Sex was not evil; it was good, it was healthy. It was a reason for being-in-the-world. Prince sang about erotic cities and I began to dream of Berlin and Bangkok. The square popsters tipped their hats to the AIDS hysteria and sang “That’s What Friends are For”; Prince responded with “Erotic City,” “Kiss” and “Jack U Off.” Subconsciously Prince shaped many of my attitudes toward sexuality, along with Burroughs and Henry Miller. Subconsciously I developed a begrudging admiration for Prince. Prince was one of the few pop idols who I found to be a hepcat in disguise. Maybe he was not too hip in my cynical adolescent eyes–Miles, Duke, Louis, Fletcher Henderson, Charlie Parker, Hawkins, etc. were and still are my musical idols–but even within the brittle nastiness of eighties synth-driven junk music I could still sense Prince as head and shoulders above the majority of them. One could feel his music. Prince put 101 percent into virtually everything he put out.

Even I could not be sure if I really hated Let’s go Crazy or not. I did not “like” it, in the same way that I so obviously liked Potato Head Blues or Shanghai Shuffle. But I knew I didn’t hate it. in fact it was a relief to my ears after the  synth-driven cacophony of Art of Noise or Wham or Men at Work or Romeo Void or some other asshole New Wave shit band–after hour upon hour of hysterically overwrought lyrics and shitty melodies, and almost always backed up by some hideously squawking saxophone: some were so bad they sounded like busted kazoos. Not Prince. Even “When Doves Cry” was like a mild balm to my ears. And I could listen to Purple Rain without sneering because I heard something in his music that I didn’t hear in Wham!: humanity.

You don’t have to like any form of music to hear the humanity in it. Hopefully, the humanity in music and art forms that are not to our taste can lead us to listen a little harder, not dismiss it outright because it uses chord changes that we are not familiar with, because it is in a style we are prone to sneer at, because it is pop music and may well be shot through with silliness and artifice. Sometimes we find ourselves in a position where we are obliged to look and listen past what appears on the surface. With Prince’s music, this is possible. One can NOT say the same for most of Michael Jackson’s work. Unlike Michael Jackson, Prince, even at his most tasteless, mediocre and meretricious, was never corny. Even those songs of his I despise the most are never corny. My ear for music is fairly sharp; I can compose music myself.

Ironically Prince hit his musical peak long after the party died down: say, mid-1990s, when he got fed up with picking Warner Brother’s cotton and scrawled slave on his face–just to let everybody know that the big media party of the previous decade (Graffiti Bridge, Cherry Moon and Purple Rain) was not nearly as fancy-free as MTV made it out to be. For a time he even got rid of his name.

No popular music figure I knew of in that culturally benighted decade–not even the old warhorse Miles Davis, reduced to rehashing Cyndi Lauper and a few of MJ’s less cheesy pieces–could hold a candle to Prince. Prince stood for something else besides the music. As I said, the man did not give a damn what other people thought about him. No man today, let alone a black man, could get away with such shameless gender-bending (and apparently just for the sheer hell of it, since Mr. Nelson was apparently straight). Oh, no. Minstrel rap performers today take great pains to let you know they are “no homo,” to the point where the idiotic phrase has entered the vocabulary. The phrase is as much an insult to heteros as it is to “homos”: if you really weren’t a fucking “homo” you would not need to obsessively remind everyone that you are not. The sexual insecurities of today’s rap-tards is getting old already. They should be lucky enough to live in an age where nobody shits their pants in fear at the sight of a bare buttock. For when I was turning eighteen, today’s crude, ugly parade of mafia strip-club sexuality was unthinkable; a Nicki Minaj or a Lil Kim or Foxy Brown or Miley Cyrus was equally out of the question.

And like Jimi Hendrix, an obvious influence, Prince was very much in the tradition of African-American music. He could play the blues. He was no B.B. King but by my ear he’s authentic and If I Had a Harem is in the sexual boasting tradition (“I got 49 women and only need one more”). In fact his signature tune “Purple Rain” is a mere re-working and updating of two old tunes: “Blueberry Hill” and the traditional “Bucket’s Got A Hole In It”. It takes careful listening, of course, to hear that the chord progressions between these three tunes are nearly identical. Prince in fact operated in the shadows of Jimi, Sly Stone, Little Richard, Esquerita, Cab Calloway, all the way back to old-timers such as Frankie “Half-Pint” Jackson, and possibly even Jelly Roll Morton, Tony Jackson and Louis Chauvin, the three masters of whorehouse piano. So maybe this is why, unlike when I heard of the death of Michael Jackson, I felt deeply troubled that this scrawny little high-yellow kid from Minneapolis, who set the whole musical world on its ear for four decades, ended his life on the floor of an elevator, sick and all by himself. When it is all over, and people stop painting their asses purple in heart-felt tributes to Prince (he has already been cremated!), we will go back to wringing our hands over talentless assholes like Kanye West or Miss Sticky-Fingers Minaj and her escort-service antics. (As I write this, the media is pissing all over themselves about Justin Bieber’s dick–Justin Bieber, the talentless little bimbo-boy who can’t write or sing a decent line about anything–not even himself:

“This past Tuesday night before my show I was picking out an outfit…I was so tired from the past week of endless traveling and gigging that I grabbed my Prince shirt and said fuck it I’m gonna channel the purple one tonight…I didn’t shower after the gig out of pure exhaustion…I went to sleep in that shirt and then I wore it again all day yesterday…today waking up to this news I am truly beside myself…devastated…the last of the greatest living performers…my guitar idol…his connection to ALL his instruments yielded a sexual transcending aura and the world is just less fucking cool without him walking on it… ‘Electric word life — It means forever and that’s a mighty long time — But I’m here to tell you — There’s something else… The after world’ #RIPPRINCE,” Andrew wrote on Instagram April 21.

Sadly, I have to report that Justin Bieber is alive and well and still churning out corny hit tunes like his pals Kanye, Jay Z, Miley Cyrus and all the rest of them. Vanity, who never had much talent, yet oozed a sensuality and eroticism that Miss Kay’s cakes can’t even touch, is dead, too. Mercifully, however, so is the brain-dead and thoughtless Eighties, where no one dared say what they really thought about America’s endless problems. I am starting to feel old. But not that old.

*Sorry, George Michael, but I Want Your Sex didn’t quite cut it.

Bullshit That Gets on My Nerves: Historical Half-Truths, Distortions and Outright Lies (part one)

Bessie-master675
Queen Latifah playing what she thinks is Bessie Smith. From HBO disaster-bio “Bessie.” Note the string-bassist to the left. String-bassists were extremely rare in 1920s jazz and took a back-seat to the more powerful tuba.

“None of us were supposed to know how to read music. They wanted folk stuff. If we could read, we had to pretend we couldn’t. The day before a show opened  we’d get the music. They’d come to the spots after the show and hear us playing the tunes and say: ‘Aren’t they marvelous?'”

–Eubie Blake, They All Played Ragtime

The narrator to this cute little film clip–taken from Robert Altman’s film flop Kansas City–is bullshitting. Virtually ALL this stuff was fucking written DOWN–whether in their heads* or on paper. That’s another stupid stereotype about black musicians–that they were just a bunch of naturally-inspired, naturally-rhythmic darkies who operated by instinct. People like Mezz Mezzrow (as much as I admire his book Really the Blues) were big proponents of this lie. In fact for decades nobody knew that Louis Armstrong’s solo on Cornet Chop Suey was written down NOTE FOR NOTE in 1924 and copyrighted at the Library of Congress that year, a full two years before he recorded it for Okeh!

People need to stop lying about the history of jazz music–black Americans included. The recent HBO disaster “Bessie” is another case in point. In fact the dance hall scenes from “Bessie” are almost indistinguishable from “Idlewild,” another disaster, and Altman’s “Kansas City”. A bunch of loud, rowdy negroes in big hats which, somehow, with the exception of “Idlewild,” they never take off–and which is belied by actual film footage from black nightclubs from that era (naturally, the conk-haired hipsters of the twenties, thirties and forties never wasted a moment showing off their conks in public spaces!). They are always dancing APART and rarely together, and doing the wrong dances altogether:

“Bessie”

Furthermore, the music, with very few exceptions, is bland and toothless, with none of the fire of the old heads such as Charlie Shavers, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Fats Waller, James P. Johnson, and naturally Louis Armstrong, to name a bare handful. The next time they decide to make a jazz film in America they ought to hire some French trad musicians such as what’s left of Charquet and Co. At least they sound more or less like the real deal–unlike these wanna-be boppers in the US who can’t tell the difference stylistically between Sonny Stitt, Marshall Allen and early Benny Carter.

*unwritten arrangements were known as “head arrangements.”