Tag Archive for Charles Mingus

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.

 

 

 

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.