Tag Archive for Amiri Baraka

Jazz and the Library of Congress: Don’t Burn Down the Building

Library of Congress logo1

On July 31, 2014, The New Yorker’s online edition ran a short attempt at humor that played mostly as tragedy in the jazz world. Titled “Sonny Rollins: In His Own Words,” and featuring a photo of Rollins, who is still going strong at 83, it painted a bitter picture of a life “wasted” on jazz, and it came off about as funny as gangrene. Though no one at all familiar with Rollins would confuse this comedic whimper with reality, even before an editor’s note was added to indicate it was “a work of satire,” it will likely strike most readers that it was published with his knowledge and approval, which, it turns out, is not the case—Rollins knew nothing about it, according to jazz writer Howard Mandel’s blog. Credited to an Onion writer who goes by the name of Django Gold, the piece was vilified every which way in the online jazz universe, but, interestingly, it was rarely branded as outright racism. Mandel’s blog attack on the piece, for instance, doesn’t go anywhere near the race issue. Django Gold, judging by the haggard photo on his Twitter and Facebook pages, is a young White guy, as might be expected of an Onion writer; he even tweeted, about a week before the Rollins piece appeared, “so embarrassing when I take my shirt off and I’m the most racially pure guy at the beach,” which, in light of the Rollins fiasco, assumes its own curious racist implications.

Outspoken “Black American Music” bandleader and activist Nicholas Payton, however, took the bull by the horns on his blog: without using the word “racist,” Payton makes it clear that The New Yorker piece is just that. “Blacks have been satirized in the media as Niggers for years,” he notes. “I get that White people and Black people have cultural differences and thus a different sense of humor. Given that to be the case, White people: stick to satirizing those who get your sense of humor. Leave Black people be.” In other words, Mr. Django, Lady Gaga is more your speed.

On the night of August 4, Rollins himself made The New Yorker blunder into a media event on his website with a live interview that opened with his startling admission that he subscribes to MAD magazine. Who knew there was still a MAD and it had a senior readership? He ceremoniously dumped all over The New Yorker for what he perceives as its attack on jazz, as if they’re kicking it when it’s down, and interviewer Bret Primack, aka Jazz Video Guy, led him on by asking if the piece was a symptom of the corporate elite’s attack on free expression. Rollins appeared to agree, equating jazz with freedom, and he and Primack more or less agreed that both were endangered. But Rollins went on to insist that jazz was above politics and economics, as if art and activism were perhaps incompatible. When asked what an individual can do to effect change, he suggested we practice our instruments. Solidarity and collective action did not seem to be the order of the day.

But Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky were name-dropped as “truth tellers” when Rollins was asked what he reads, suddenly introducing the Far Left into the proceedings. Rollins’ environmental activism and his Global Warming album of the ’90s were also mentioned. (Personal reminiscence: I saw Rollins in concert at the Planting Fields in Oyster Bay, on Long Island’s Gold Coast, at the time of Global Warming, and he introduced the title tune by quite seriously telling the audience, “You’ve got to get rid of your SUVs!” Maybe two people clapped.) Somewhere in the course of the interview Rollins’ Freedom Suite was mentioned, when Primack confused it with Max Roach’s We Insist! Freedom Now Suite. Rollins’ parting words, however, were “It’s all good”—this was largely an acknowledgment of the transcendent qualities of art, and while it may not be reasonable to expect Rollins to issue a call to the barricades at this point in his life, the interview seemed a missed opportunity to present something a bit more politically focused in response to The New Yorker‘s provocations. The issue of racism, unsurprisingly, was not broached.

OK, so that’s a bit of Rollins and politics. What does any of this have to do with the Library of Congress (LC)? Well, near the end of The New Yorker piece, quite gratuitously, Mr. Django supplies a perfect federal jazz policy tie-in when he has Rollins say: “Some of my recordings are in the Library of Congress. That’s idiotic. They ought to burn that building to the ground.” As inscrutably humorless as this sentiment may be, it raises the question, What has the Library of Congress done for jazz?

Far too much to detail here, though, like the NEA, it could surely do far more, and unlike the NEA, it’s not laughably underfunded. The LC has a staff of about 4,000 and an annual budget of $750 million. As far as the pinnacle of recognition known as the National Recordings Registry goes—this extremely wide-ranging list of American sound recordings, deemed of sufficient historical or aesthetic importance to merit special LC preservation, was established by an act of Congress in 2000—Rollins is included only in Thelonious Monk’s Brilliant Corners, selected in 2003. Among the “modern” jazz records in the Registry, and it is easy to argue that there aren’t enough of them on a list that has reached 400 recordings, with 25 presently added per year: Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue; John Coltrane’s Giant Steps; Charles Mingus’ Mingus Ah Um; Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come; Dave Brubeck’s Time Out; and Bill Evans’ Complete Village Vanguard Recordings. The inclusion of Herbie Hancock’s 1973 Head Hunters on the basis that it was “his first true fusion recording,” which, though it was “belittled by many jazz purists as ‘pop’ ” has “proved to be influential not only to jazz, but also to funk, soul and hip hop musicians,” is presumably a nod to the LC’s eclectic/populist side—Head Hunters set sales records for a jazz album in its time.

Monk Coltrane Carnegie coverOn a more significant historical/aesthetic note, back in 2005, you may recall, the widely publicized Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall tapes from 1957 were found by chance in the LC’s Voice of America collection—a record that has yet to be selected for the National Recording Registry. But recently the LC was in the news on two occasions not for jazz recordings but for jazz archives of another sort, with a distinctly avant-garde and activist bent: the papers of Max Roach and Eric Dolphy. The five boxes of Dolphy’s papers, donated to the LC’s Music Division by composer/flutist James Newton, will surely shed more light on a career cut tragically short in 1964; Dolphy died at 36, “perhaps too young to settle his reputation,” as Ben Ratliff noted in the New York Times.

Roach, on the other hand, died in 2007 at 83, and though he never completed his memoirs, the LC has acquired, from Roach’s family, “400 linear feet of his life” in the form of “scores and lead sheets, photographs, contracts, itineraries, correspondence, reel tapes and cassettes and drafts of an unfinished autobiography, written with the help of Amiri Baraka,” explains Ratliff in the Times. To cite one small example on the activist front, Ratliff, who had some time to examine the archive, notes: “There is also a one-sentence telegram that Roach sent to Gov. Nelson Rockefeller after the Attica uprising in 1971: ‘Does your belief that prisoners are not human justify the loss of 42 lives?’ ” If this recalls Mingus’ “Fables of Faubus” and “Remember Rockefeller at Attica,” well, the Charles Mingus archive is also available to scholars in the Performing Arts Reading Room on Capitol Hill, along with the collections of Billy Taylor, Gerry Mulligan, Alvin Ailey, Dexter Gordon, Louis Bellson, and Shelly Manne, among others. Ratliff notes that Roach was “archivally minded”; so too is the LC, of course, which often makes for one of the more significant aspects of federal jazz policy, such as it is.

In addition to its archival achievements, the LC also likes to hand out honors in the manner of the NEA—but, ironically, sans cash. The LC’s Living Legends award, established during its Bicentennial celebration in 2000, as the Living Legends site notes, is

selected by the Library’s curators and subject specialists to honor artists, writers, activists, filmmakers, physicians, entertainers, sports figures and public servants who have made significant contributions to America’s diverse cultural, scientific and social heritage. The professional accomplishments of the Living Legends have enabled them to provide examples of personal excellence that have benefited others and enriched the nation in a variety of ways.

If that sounds like a “bipartisan,” as the mainstream media loves to say, celebrity grab bag, it is, and the awards categories are curious, to say the least. Among the political honorees: rabid neocons Madeleine Albright and Jeane Kirkpatrick are Leaders and Statesman, but so is civil rights activist Julian Bond; Colin Powell got his Activists and Reformers award in 2000, before he crashed and burned as part of Dubya’s duplicitous Invasion of Iraq team, and he’s joined by the radical likes of Pete Seeger (a communist!) and Gloria Steinem; the Writers and Artists run the spectrum from (career racist) William F. Buckley to Toni Morrison; and jazzwise, the Musicians and Composers include Dave Brubeck, Benny Carter, Ray Charles, Herbie Hancock, Quincy Jones, and Gunther Schuller, all of whom are also NEA Jazz Masters but for Charles. The unfortunately named and bizarrely grouped Athletes and Entertainers category includes Leontyne Price, Merce Cunningham, and Big Bird from Sesame Street—’nuff said. But among the LC’s dubious award precedents, the Ezra Pound-Bollingen Prize for Poetry scandal cannot go unmentioned. As Jed Perl writes in the New Republic:

Pound is nowadays much less admired than he was a generation or two ago, and it is perhaps difficult to grasp the intensity of the controversy that erupted in 1949 when this man who had done radio broadcasts for the fascists during World War II was awarded the Bollingen Prize by the Library of Congress for The Pisan Cantos, published the year before. Arrested by American troops at the end of the war and charged with treason for the broadcasts he did for Radio Rome, Pound never actually stood trial, but was pronounced insane by government psychiatrists and locked up in St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, where he remained until 1958. That ten of the fourteen Library of Congress Fellows in American Literature voted to give the first Bollingen Prize to a man who had worked for the enemy and was unabashedly anti-Semitic was bound to cause trouble, and the debate raged for some time.

The LC did not continue to host the Bollingen Prize for some time, however; in the face of immense blowback from the media and from Congress, this was its first and last such award, the Bollingen Foundation moving on to the Yale University Library where the prize remains to this day.

 

 

 

Jazzocratic Brubeck: Blue Rondo à la Quirk

Brubeck Jazz Impressions of Eurasia Cover

In 2008, Dave Brubeck was an inaugural recipient of the Benjamin Franklin Award for Public Diplomacy, “the most prestigious honor that the Department of State can bestow on American citizens who are making outstanding contributions to public diplomacy,” according to the State Department’s press release. The release points out that Brubeck has been “declared a ‘Living Legend’ by the Library of Congress,” and goes on to note that 2008 marks the 50th anniversary of his first State Department tour. “We recognize Dave Brubeck for offering a positive vision of hope, opportunity and freedom through a musical language that is truly American,” State trumpets in standard jazz diplomacy-speak.

The award was delivered by then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who got a shout-out in Amiri Baraka’s Poet Laureate of New Jersey-terminating “Somebody Blew Up America”—”Who know what kind of Skeeza is a Condoleeza”—and who was recently back in the news when she declined to speak at the 2014 Rutgers University commencement in the face of student outrage that such an invitation would be extended to one of the architects of the George W. Bush Administration’s disastrous invasion of Iraq under patently false pretenses. Brubeck, who died in 2012, did not live to see this tiny bit of Condi comeuppance, but he was of course around in April 2010 when a Congressional resolution, H. Res. 1283, was introduced by New Hampshire Democrat Paul Hodes, “Honoring and thanking Dave Brubeck for his contributions to American music and cultural diplomacy.” However, it was not enacted, and Hodes, who also wears hats as a guitarist and an entertainment lawyer, lost to a Republican in the 2010 midterms, only to become a 2012 Obama appointee to the National Council for the Arts. Small jazz policy world!

But let’s get back to Brubeck and that first State Department tour, in 1958, whence the logo-crazy album cover seen here, which is the result of a promotional deal between Columbia Records and Pan American World Airways, according to Stephen A. Crist, an associate professor of music history at Emory University, whose research in State Department archives is the basis of the richly detailed “Jazz as Democracy? Dave Brubeck and Cold War Politics,” in The Journal of Musicology, Spring 2009 (linked via the restricted database JSTOR), which in turn is the basis of this post. The tour covered some serious ground: Poland, Turkey, India, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), East Pakistan (Bangladesh), West Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq (in 1958, Iran was a U.S. ally, of course, ruled by the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who was installed by the U.S. and the U.K. after the 1953 CIA-assisted coup that overthrew the democratically elected government of Mohammad Mosaddegh).

According to Crist, Brubeck’s motives for touring for the State Department were a mixture of patriotism, money, and publicity, though money is likely the least of these considerations—he could’ve made more money in other contexts. Brubeck apparently liked to see himself more as an ambassador of peace than a U.S. Cold War weapon, but he quite readily toed the jazzocracy line. Crist notes:

In both the 1950s and the 1980s [when he played a 1988 Reagan-Gorbachev summit in Moscow] it was Dave Brubeck’s settled conviction that performing jazz was profoundly symbolic: it was in essence a musical enactment of the principles of American democracy. Though this notion is somewhat problematic (Do all styles of jazz work this way, even big-band swing and free jazz? Are not some band leaders more “democratic” than others?), it possesses a certain commonsensical appeal. The idea was therefore espoused by many musicians and cultural critics in the 1950s, and it persists to the present day.

Does it ever! Brubeck made a further contribution to the propaganda of jazzocracy, this time on the domestic front, about a month after the tour when he collaborated with New York Times book reviewer Gilbert Millstein on a June 15, 1958 Times Magazine article, “The Beat Heard ‘Round the World.” This is not a reference to the Beat Generation, though Millstein’s chief claim to fame is his Times’ rave review of On the Road in 1957, a huge career-booster for jazz-maniac Jack Kerouac, though, ironically in this context, Kerouac had written in his journal in 1950, “You have to believe in life before you can accomplish anything. That is why dour, regular-houred, rational-souled State Department diplomats have done nothing for mankind. Why live if not for excellence?”

The somewhat less than excellent Times Magazine article was apparently written by Millstein based on an interview with Brubeck, but Brubeck’s is the sole byline. At any rate, in this piece Brubeck rolls out the jazzocratic red, white and blue carpet in support of American Empire . . .

It would be fatuous of me to pretend to correlate [jazz’s] importance with the billions of dollars we have spent to restore nations ravaged by war and in raising the living standards of underdeveloped countries, or the day-to-day spadework of statesmen and diplomats. . . . The United States assumes the most moral role of all internationally. A greater demand is placed on us for human decency than on any other country . . .

. . . and also in support of jazz as a Jim Crow smokescreen (in reference to his integrated band, which included Black bassist Eugene Wright), apparently reading directly from the “Segregation” chapter in the State Department’s classified playbook:

Jazz is color blind. When a German or a Pole or an Iraqi or an Indian sees American white men and colored in perfect creative accord, when he finds out that they travel together, eat together, live together and think pretty much alike, socially and musically, a lot of the bad taste of Little Rock is apt to be washed from his mouth.

Speaking of bad taste, in a reference to Louis Armstrong’s integrated bands, Brubeck says, rather uncomfortably, “Louis symbolizes even more than he understands. He is in life what you find more frequently in fiction—the uneducated American Negro who, through his genius, has overcome all possible obstacles and who is loved universally.” He also trots out the familiar jazzocratic improvisation theme, which privileges jazz above all other arts because “it is being created at the very moment it is played before an audience.” But he does have almost a good word for classical music—he studied with Darius Milhaud, after all. “The conductor of a symphony orchestra must, in my opinion, be a genius to transcend these [fixed] things and bring an element of creativity to what he is doing.”

The piece closes with an irony of epic proportions as Brubeck recounts a moment from his tour.

In Kabul, I was met by an ex-policeman from Berkeley, Calif., Al Riedel, who is helping organize Afghanistan’s forces. He pointed to this huge mountain around Kabul, and at its top a wall. “For 5,000 years,” he said, “people have been fighting over that wall—Tamerlane, Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great, the Indians, the English, who knows who. If a small fraction of what they spent had gone into education instead of defense, that wall would have come down long ago. At best, defense is a temporary thing.”

So’s empire.

 

 

Sunny Murray: Sonny’s Time Now

Sonny's Time Now CD Cover It’s free-jazz drum master Sunny Murray’s date, though he’s Sonny on the cover, featuring Albert Ayler and Don Cherry, and it’s a 1965 Black Arts/New Thing landmark, recorded in Brooklyn. The titles of the compositions, all credited to Murray, tell all: “Virtue,” “Justice,” “Black Art,” which is Amiri Baraka reading the incendiary poem of that title (“Poems are bullshit unless they are teeth”), and, on the 1991 DIW Records CD reissue, a bonus track, “The Lie.”

In this provocative context, the trademark rat-tat-tat of Murray’s snare sounds like nothing so much as a cop insistently knocking on his door. Or perhaps a gangster. In a strangely enthralling 2000 interview Murray, apparently a character if ever there was one, talks at some length about mob influence in the ’60s avant-garde jazz scene, though the interview comes with a disclaimer: “The editors of Paris Transatlantic would like to point out that the content of this interview does not necessarily represent the opinions of the editors, their families, their children, nor their pets; but that the text that follows is a fascinating documentation of the opinions of Sunny Murray . . .” And indeed it is. Two illuminating Murray remarks from this interview, no disclaimer required:

I’d gotten to the point where, as my music changed, I didn’t want to play a lot of beats—I wanted to get more from the beat than just the beat. . . . I consider what I play to be the traditional avant-garde, the roots, and I think nobody understands the difference, the generation gap in the avant-garde. Traditional avant-garde has a kind of swing. We should call it free bop.

And in a 2003 interview with All About Jazz, the expatriate Murray bitterly addressed the issue of America’s lack of support for artists:

[T]he respect and support artists should get, America has never reached that real respect for artists like Europe [has]. America’s always like “You’re wasting your time” or “Why do you play that crazy shit?” But in Europe, they are always . . . appreciative of the artist and the artist’s creativity [and] there’s no age problem. As long as you are playing creatively and with quality in your music you will always work, it’s just a whole different support system. They give an artist social security . . . I get a nice apartment [for] $46 a month, I don’t pay for my doctor or my medicine. These are all attachments in French society that they do for the artists. And that doesn’t exist . . . in America.

In addition to Sonny’s Time Now, the record, there is the 2008 documentary Sunny’s Time Now, the DVD, but as far as I can tell this is available in PAL format only, and, sadly, only its trailer is to be found on You Tube. The director, Antoine Prum, is credited with the film’s politically charged summary on IMDb, which is worth quoting in full:

Retracing the longstanding career of avant-garde drummer Sunny Murray, one of the most influential figures of the Free jazz revolution. Through a series of interviews with key time witnesses as well as historic and contemporary concert footage, it reassesses the relationship between the libertarian music movement and the political events of the 1960s, whose social claims it so intimately reflected. By doing so, it also recounts how the most radical forms of musical expression were excluded from the major production and distribution networks as the libertarian ideal went out of fashion. Beyond its historical approach, the film follows Sunny Murray on current gigs, showing his daily struggle to perpetuate a musical genre which is still widely ignored by the general public. In doing so, Sunny’s Time Now also dwells on the near-clandestine community of aficionados who continue to worship the gods of their musical coming of age, and whose unfaltering support has permitted free improvisational music—of which Sunny Murray is one of the last Mohicans—to live on.

Antoine Prum is a Luxembourger, and his use of “libertarian” here, it’s probably safe to assume, is intended in its more familiar European left-wing connotation, not the far-right brand of libertarianism that’s predominant in the U.S.

Addendum: Sunny’s Time Now can be seen in its entirety on CultureUnplugged.com—a fact I discovered most serendipitously via a post in the Albert Ayler Facebook group. At one point in this marvelous film, German musicologist Ekkehard Jost, author of Free Jazz, says, in reference presumably to European perceptions of the 1960s avant-jazz movement, or perhaps in reference only to its expatriate arm, it’s not completely clear: “The idea was that the American musician might be the avant-garde of international Communism—which was completely ridiculous.” Maybe the rest of the country just hasn’t caught up with them yet, more than half a century later.

Milford Graves: The Quintessential Image

copy-Milford-Kit-Final.jpgThe first night of Vision Festival 18, June 12, 2013, was devoted to celebrating the lifetime achievement, as the festival calls it, of Milford Graves, 72, one of the seminal drummers in the history of free jazz, who retired from the faculty of Bennington College last year, where he taught since 1973. Roulette, a bastion of avant-garde music of all stripes, had moved from Manhattan to Brooklyn not that long ago, and now the Vision Festival had followed, leaving its former home at the Abrons Arts Center on the Lower East Side for Roulette’s new space, a short walk from the Brooklyn Academy of Music and, as it happens, LIU’s Brooklyn campus, keeping me in academic echo-location of my thesis as I worked on the epilogue. I’d been to Roulette a fair number of times prior to this night, and, despite its incredibly reasonable ticket prices, which is not unusual for avant-garde music, it was rarely crowded and never sold out—also not unusual for avant-garde music rooms that aren’t tiny holes in the wall, in my experience.

But tonight was beyond sold out, with people standing up lining the walls, mostly young people—an amazingly inspiring sight at an avant-jazz gig, even if it’s the opening night of the Vision Festival, which traditionally gets the biggest turnout of the week. I had an aisle seat toward the back of the room, hence I couldn’t see the lower part of the stage all that well; I simply couldn’t see Graves’ drum set below the cymbals, and I confess I’d never seen Graves live before or even watched him in a video, so I simply didn’t know about the customized kit. During a break I went up to the stage and was stunned to find the drums seen in the photo—a perfect blend of the avant-garde and Africa, in which Africa, moreover, seems to be making a public address. I knew I had my homepage image.

See this video for a complete performance from this night: the highlight of the evening, the NY HeArt Ensemble, featuring Charles Gayle on tenor saxophone and piano, Roswell Rudd on trombone, William Parker on bass and the poetry of Amiri Baraka. Jon Pareles’ review of the night in The New York Times likened free-jazz drumming to the weather:

His drumming is almost always irregular, his patterns like weather patterns of wind or rain or pressure, ever fluctuating and forever in motion. His attack is light, precise and enveloping, rushing the music ahead with rumbles and taps and whooshing cymbals. His trap setup includes bongo drums for occasional pointed accents, with the bass drum supplying emphatic exclamation points as the music hurtles forward.

In this case, we can embrace climate change.