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.”