Jazz Diplomacy

Fables of Little Rock

Fables+of+FaubusIn 1957, three years after Brown v. Board of Education, things weren’t going so well on the school desegregation front in Little Rock, Arkansas. President Eisenhower was eventually compelled to call in the Army to cross the racist line in the sand in defense of segregated schools that was drawn by Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus. The struggle that would be immortalized in the history of the civil rights movement as the Little Rock Nine was humming with jazz connections, most specifically Louis Armstrong’s, whose reputation for global goodwill had already earned him the nickname Ambassador Satch, even before the launch of the State Department’s jazz diplomacy program. But when Armstrong, on tour in North Dakota two weeks into the Little Rock standoff, broke completely out of his “happy” character and bared his angry soul to Larry Lubenow, a cub reporter at a Grand Forks newspaper, all goodwill hell broke loose. From a 2007 David Margolick op-ed in The New York Times, marking the 50th anniversary of Little Rock:

“It’s getting almost so bad a colored man hasn’t got any country,” a furious Mr. Armstrong told him. President Eisenhower, he charged, was “two faced,” and had “no guts.” For Governor Faubus, he used a double-barreled hyphenated expletive, utterly unfit for print. The two settled on something safer: “uneducated plow boy.” The euphemism, Mr. Lubenow says, was far more his than Mr. Armstrong’s.

Mr. Armstrong bitterly recounted some of his experiences touring in the Jim Crow South. He then sang the opening bar of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” inserting obscenities into the lyrics and prompting Velma Middleton, the vocalist who toured with Mr. Armstrong and who had joined them in the room, to hush him up.

Mr. Armstrong had been contemplating a good-will tour to the Soviet Union for the State Department. “They ain’t so cold but what we couldn’t bruise them with happy music,” he had said. Now, though, he confessed to having second thoughts. “The way they are treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell,” he said, offering further choice words about the secretary of state, John Foster Dulles. “The people over there ask me what’s wrong with my country. What am I supposed to say?”

Armstrong in fact didn’t make that Soviet tour; his first Jazz Ambassadorial jaunt was in Africa in 1960. Also in 1960, the complete version of the Charles Mingus composition “Fables of Faubus” found its way on record on the progressive Candid label, after Columbia rejected the lyrics for 1959’s Mingus Ah Um, on which “Fables of Faubus” appeared only as an instrumental. The Candid candid version, called “Original Faubus Fables,” can be heard here, powerfully supported by documentary footage of the era. Presented in a sort of call-and-response with his drummer, Dannie Richmond, Mingus’ lyrics, as transcribed in Ingrid Monson’s Freedom Sounds: Civil Rights Call Out to Jazz and Africa:

Oh, Lord, don’t let them shoot us,
Oh, Lord, don’t let them stab us.
Oh, Lord, don’t let them tar and feather us!
Oh, Lord, no more swastikas

Oh, Lord, no more Ku Klux Klan
Name me someone who’s ridiculous, Dannie:
“Governor Faubus!”
Why is he so sick and ridiculous?
“He won’t permit us in his integrated schools”
Then he’s a fool.

Boo, Nazi Fascist supremists!
Boo, Ku Klux Klan, with your Jim Crow plan

Name me a handful that’s ridiculous, Dannie Richmond
“. . . [undecipherable] Thomas, Faubus, Russell, Rockefeller,
Byrd, Eisenhower”

Why are they so sick and ridiculous?

Two, four, six, eightthey brainwash and teach you hate.
H-E-L-L-OHello. (p. 183)

“Liberal” Republican oligarch Nelson Rockefeller, incidentally, who had been elected governor of New York in 1958, would turn up again in a Mingus composition in 1975, no lyrics required: “Remember Rockefeller at Attica.” In much the same way that it might seem sick and ridiculous today that Columbia couldn’t abide an aggressively anti-racist sentiment on a jazz record in 1959, Armstrong’s outburst two years earlier, as Margolick relates, resulted in

calls for boycotts of his concerts. The Ford Motor Company threatened to pull out of a Bing Crosby special on which Mr. Armstrong was to appear. Van Cliburn’s manager refused to let him perform a duet with Mr. Armstrong on Steve Allen’s talk show.

Ten years later, in 1967—a year of rampant rioting in America, most notably in Detroit and Newark—Armstrong, in his more familiar super-optimist’s persona, would record the pie-in-the-sky treacle of “What a Wonderful World.”

 

Sonny Rollins: Freedom Suite

Freedom Suite Rollins cover alternateSonny Rollins wouldn’t find himself in the State Department’s jazz diplomacy picture until the comparatively mellow 1970s. In 1958, four years after Brown v. Board of Education, in the early years of America’s jazz war on the Soviets, a record like Freedom Suite was not the stuff of Jazz Ambassadorship. As A.B. Spellman, who is quoted extensively in Ka-ching regarding U.S. jazz policy, says in an NPR interview, part of a series about building a basic jazz library, Rollins here, in a tenor sax-bass-drums trio, is “trying to make a statement about the freedom of his people and about his own musical freedom as well.” Spellman adds, “It’s one of the very first extended compositions for the tenor saxophone. . . . It is the kind of piece that is so well-composed in its improvisation that you cannot tell where the writing starts and the playing ends.”

Unfortunately, the incongruous reverse side of the record, with interpretations of standards like “Till There Was You” from The Music Man, vitiates the disc’s overall revolutionary import. As Bill Shoemaker notes in The Wire, Freedom Suite

is a protest jazz masterpiece, albeit one relegated to a back seat behind works by Charles Mingus, Max Roach, and even John Coltrane by some critics. There are several reasons for this. Despite being inspired by Rollins’ first-hand experience of housing discrimination in New York, it was . . . released before the Civil Rights Movement reached critical mass nationally. Shortly after its release, Rollins famously dropped out, causing the jazz press to scurry around attempting to discover which bridge he practiced on at night. And, most importantly, the sidelong trio performance . . . did not have the militant edge of pieces created just a few years later. Being coupled with a side of politically incorrect waltzes and show tunes arguably dissipated its impact.

Indeed, Rollins’ emphasis on the status quo of jazz standards was brought home, as I note in Ka-ching, when Ornette Coleman made a surprise guest appearance at Rollins’ 80th birthday concert at the Beacon Theatre in 2010, the first time the two had ever shared a stage. This astounding clash of cultures—even though they’re playing a blues, it’s like two worlds colliding—can be heard here.

Yet another world collides with Rollins in David S. Ware‘s version of Freedom Suite, recorded in 2002 and unencumbered by the distractions of other material, even though the CD runs only 40 minutes. Scott Hreha in One Final Note:

Upon realizing that this envisioning of Freedom Suite is twice as long as the original, some potential listeners may assume that the extra padding comes as a result of extensive blowing between the piece’s melodic parameters. However, the opposite couldn’t be truer—Ware has endowed the suite with a beauty of epic proportions that, while it does inject a great degree of musical freedom into Rollins’ conceptual liberation, never relies on aimless meandering to achieve that goal. In fact, the suite’s four movements, added piano and classic sense of interconnectedness recall A Love Supreme as much as Rollins’ original . . .

Shoemaker adds:

Just as Rollins had to rein in his good humor and his propensity to quote corny standards to make a compelling statement, Ware had to be slightly less withering than usual to convey the earthiness of Rollins’ themes. His trademark exultancy prevails, but without turning the materials into scorched earth. Subsequently, he stays true to both Rollins and himself, which is the measure of a healthy sense of tradition.

Though Rollins and Ware are not generally considered overtly “political” artists, protest and exultancy, I contend, are all part of the same healthy—and, one hopes, dangerous—tradition.

Ornette Coleman and Jackson Pollock: Black Music, White Light

Free Jazz CoverFree jazz, the genre, owes its name to Free Jazz, the Ornette Coleman record, recorded in December 1960, whose original cover featured a 1954 work by Jackson Pollock, White Light. Coleman’s music was entirely too far-out to be included in the State Department’s jazz itinerary, but Pollock (who died in 1956) and the Abstract Expressionists were one of the antidotes to Soviet Realism, as the CIA and its secret ally the Congress of Cultural Freedom (classic Orwellian Newspeak!) saw it.

Indeed, the CIA was so deeply involved in the promotion of American culture during the Cold War, it would take a book to sort it out—a book that was even reviewed, not unfavorably, by the CIA itself. Shows like the Museum of Modern Art’s “The New American Painting,” which toured Europe to great acclaim in 1958, were covertly funded by the CIA, which clearly shared cultural apparatchik Nelson Rockefeller’s view that AbEx was “free-enterprise painting.”

On a related vanguard-art note, more than a decade earlier the State Department had organized the notorious debacle called “Advancing American Art,” intended for an extended global tour, featuring the work of, among others, Georgia O’Keeffe, Ben Shahn, John Marin, Arthur Dove, Jacob Lawrence, and Romare Bearden (Lawrence and Bearden were among the few African American artists to enjoy serious recognition in the 20th century). The left-wing tendencies of some of the work and many of the artists—around half of the artists in the show turned up in HUAC records—along with Congressional and media aversion to contemporary art and particularly to its public support, resulted in the retreating of American art, the show being recalled in 1947 as if it were a faulty product. Among the choice philistine remarks of Harry Truman that are associated with the failure of “Advancing American Art” is the immortal, ”I don’t pretend to be an artist or a judge of art, but I am of the opinion that so-called modern art is merely the vaporings of half-baked, lazy people.”

But back to Coleman and Pollock. Here’s Coleman, fully baked and acutely energized, from a New York Observer piece in 2006, at a Pollock show at the Guggenheim:

Ornette Coleman stands before Jackson Pollock’s Number 13 (1949), one of the more poetic splatter paintings, ferociously dense yet airily light. He ponders it for several minutes, tracing his index finger over its subtler patterns. “These don’t look like strokes,” he finally says in his hushed, gentle tone. “They look like signals or messages, like a letter he’s writing in the form of art, like some advanced Braille.” He laughs and looks some more. “It’s not something that you’ve seen before that you can name. It’s something that he created as he did it. The act of creation is the creation.”

The piece goes on to point out that in the liner notes of Coleman’s Change of the Century in 1959, “he described his music as ‘something like the paintings of Jackson Pollock.’ ” Then:

Gazing at Green Silver, another 1949 “all-over” masterpiece, he says, “See? There’s the top of the painting, there’s the bottom. But as far as the activity going on all over, it’s equal.” He pauses and shakes his head, impressed. “It’s not random. He knows what he’s doing. He knows when he’s finished. But still, it’s free-form.”

“I paint sometimes myself,” Mr. Coleman said. “I know what’s behind wanting to paint. You want to touch something you can’t see. This term ‘abstract art’—what it means is something that causes you to see more than what you’re looking at.”

A quote drippingly good enough to eat. However, had Pollock lived, it’s quite possible he never would’ve returned the favor to Coleman. Pollock the jazz fan was a curious case of arrested development: he had no stomach whatsoever for bebop. Among the merchandising associated with the 1999 Pollock retrospective at MoMA was the compilation CD Jackson Pollock Jazz, featuring 17 of Pollock’s favorite cuts from his personal collection of 78s, which makes for a playlist about as fifties-hip as Dwight Eisenhower. As Nat Hentoff noted in the Wall Street Journal at the time of the Pollock show,

“He would get into grooves of listening to his jazz records … day and night for three days running until you would climb the roof!” recalls Lee Krasner about her husband Jackson Pollock’s immersion in jazz in their Springs, Long Island, home. “The house would shake. He thought jazz was the only other creative thing happening in this country.”

Although Pollock was hardly a traditionalist in his own art, his taste in jazz was for the classic New Orleans pioneers, the quintessential swing bands, the blues bards and Billie Holiday. He had no use for such legendary modern-jazz figures as Charlie Parker, who were accused by traditionalist critics of burying the melody, splintering the rhythms and creating dissonance within dissonance.

Pollock, sadly, was apparently not interested in hearing more than what he was listening to.