Archive for the Music Reviews Category

Melting The Sun!

Posted in Guest Commentators, Music Reviews with tags , , on April 20, 2014 by playthell

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 Chris Pendergraft of space rock band Echocosmic

Cosmic Salvation Songs

Down around the back of a former iron foundry in east Oakland’s post-industrial wasteland, if you can find the door and know the secret knock, it is possible of a Friday evening to catch the lyric melancholy and faster-than-light travel of the band EchoCosmic at play. Synching digital beats and mixing board effects with live instruments, these musicians bring well-honed skills and a constant quest for meaning to their music.

In 1997 a quest for meaning through music produced Root Beer, the early band in which brothers-in-music Chris Pendergraft and Mike Blodgett began to work together. Through the writing and performance of the band’s signature protest rock songs, Mike Blodgett’s guitar style developed lyric eloquence, with bright sprays of descending sounds arcing like brief light pulses in the cold and indifferent openness of deep space.

Inherent in the name Echocosmic is the powerful sense of great distance and vast lapses of time.  Cosmic is defined as: the whole universe;immeasurably extended in space or time; vast; harmonious.   All of these elements have a place in the band’s compositions.  The word echo comes to us from the mythological Greek nymph who pined away for the beautiful, indifferent Narcissus until only her voice remained. With this etymology, it is no wonder that the echo carries an implicit sense of melancholy.

But an echo also relates to sound in a manner of interest to music-makers; it is uniquely produced by reflecting sound waves from a surface, where the returning sound may be only a fragment of the original.  And herein lies the heart of the matter, for in the songs of Echocosmic we hear the report of the interstellar traveler, returning across inhuman distance and still more inhuman time.

 These songs are evocative of struggle, mourning, and memory, chronicling the birth of black holes or the explosive nirvana of a star going nova.  ”Red Shift” with its desending chords and cascading shower of deep notes, feels like we are listening to the recorded end of some ancient civilization or an entire planet, perhaps as viewed by an anguished alien race of future spacefarers.

A red shift refers to a change in light wavelengths, moving toward a slower, cooler portion of the spectrum. The sun is a frequent, even baseline reference in space rock, and Echocosmic heeds this tradition.  Another of their songs is meant to communicate the point of view of bacteria colonizing a sun: in the heat of the solar flares, the space bacteria awaken, grow and make a new home.

In 1968, Set the Controls For the Heart of the Sun came out on the album Saucerful of Secrets by Pink Floyd, pioneering progressive rock’s shift toward what would be termed “space rock;” their solar fires and deep cold space attracted the attention of people ranging from NBA Hall of Fame star Dennis Rodman to Exorcist movie star Linda Blair.

Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun is a ten minute extravaganza of “out there” sound which builds to a violent end that actually comes, impossibly, as a climax. This distinctly disciplined approach to a pulsing momentum with abstract sound became a genre that encompasses much of Echocosmic today.

 Drummer Eric the Mover
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 Keeps the rhythm out there!

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 Mike Blodgett
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Lead Guitar, a Sonic Space Cadet
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 Merging technology and Music
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Powering their Space Odyssey

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Their Rehersal  Space is Also a Recording Studio

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 Which Blodgett built to Free the Band from the tyranny of record companies
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East Bay Artist Susannah Israel and Ray Heywood

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Are Mesmerized by the Music

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 Text by: Susannah Israel
Photos by: Playthell Benjamin
April 20th 2014
Oakland, California

Praise Songs for a Master Musician

Posted in Cultural Matters, Music Reviews, You Tube Classics with tags , , , , , on April 8, 2014 by playthell
MODELE ARMSTRONG
Louis Armstrong: His horn and voice changed the world of music

A Fitting Tribute to a Great Artist on the Centenary of his Birthday

On the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Louis Armstrong a celebration in his honor was held at Columbia University, one of America’s most distinguished institutions of higher learning. Titled The Artistry of Pops: Louis Armstrong on his 100th Birthday,” three of the nation’s most outstanding intellectuals and artists – Robert O’Meely, Stanley Crouch and Wynton Marsalis – conducted an ancestor veneration ritual in memory of Louis Armstrong, a great American original.

Robert O’Meely is a Professor of English at Columbia, Director of the Institute for Jazz Studies and a serious Jazz scholar who wrote an important book on Billy Holliday; Stanley Crouch is the nation’s premiere Jazz critic and biographer of Charlie Parker; and Wynton Marsalis is Artistic Director of Jazz at Lincoln Center – the most important Jazz performance and education venue in the world – and leader of the internationally renowned Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, an aggregation of great musicians who can play every genre of jazz without accent.

It is a certainty that almost anyone who takes the time to view this video will be greatly enlightened by the experience.  My certainty lies in the fact that I was enlightened by it and I have been writing about Jazz for over 20 years and have published essays about the music in some of the most prestigious journals in the English language.  The video begins with an opening address by Dr. O’Meely, rich in eloquence and erudition, it paints a complex portrait of Louis Armstrong that demolished the stereotypical view of him as a simple minded entertainer and borderline clown.

What emerges from Professor O’Meely’s succinct but learned lecture is a compelling portrait of a great artist who changed western music and won devotees among musicians and music lovers all over the world.  We learn that the ability to play and instrument and also sing well enough to have a lasting influence on both arts is a very rare feat; the province of genius.  Yet, he tells us, this is precisely what Louis Armstrong did.

       Pop’s Armstrong Singing
                         Louis Armstrong singing
Recording with the magnificent Ella Fitzgerald

Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitgerald

                    One of Pop’s many artistic “children”

In his professorial fashion Dr. O’Meely cited a scholarly text to provide evidence of the influence of Louis Armstrong on the major singers who dominated American jazz and pop music for most of the twentieth century and set the standards many singers still emulate. The Book, “Pops Children,” lets us hear it from the horses’ mouths through the author’s interviews.  Among those who pay homage to Pops as an artistic inspiration and guide are Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughn, Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald, Lady Day, et al.

O’Meely’s lecture was the ideal introduction to Louis Armstrong, because he enumerates the many facets of Armstrong’s interests and talents and defines the elements that characterize his style and innovations in western music. Although he teases us with glimpses of Armstrong’s multi-faceted personality and varied interests, he reminds us they are laboring under the tyranny of the clock and thus must confine their discourse to the matter of music.

Despite the fact that he is a Professor of English Dr. O’Meely is a fine music critic.  Like Crouch and Marsalis he is a protégée of the novelist, essayist, musician Ralph Ellison, and Albert Murray, the recently departed Harlem sage and blues philosopher whose masterpiece, “Stomping the Blues,” is a canonical text on Afro-American music…especially Jazz. Thus O’Meely’s analysis is well informed by a broad knowledge of the history and nature of artistic creation and innovation, and his discussion of Louis Armstrong is conducted within the comparative context of all great art.

As a literary man beguiled by the blues in its many splendored guises, Dr. O’Meeley conjures up the memory of Professor Sterling Brown, a Harvard educated pioneer blues poet and longtime Professor of English at Howard University in Washington, who had jazz musicians play for his class live and who is called out by name as the hippest intellectual in the nation’s capitol in Ledbelly’s famous song “Washington is a Bourgeois Town.”  

It was Professor O’Meely who was called upon to make the keynote speech at the dedication of the monumental statute “Invisible Man,” created by Elizabeth Catlett, outside of Ellison’s residence on Riverside Drive, not far from Columbia’s campus. Unlike Sterling Brown, O’ Meely does not need jazz musicians to play for his class because just a few blocks down Broadway from campus is Jazz at Lincoln Center, where the greatest Jazz musicians in the world perform nearly every night.  O’Meely is immersed in the Jazz milieu being centrally located in the Jazz capitol of the world he has seen it all, which makes him an ideal critic fully equipped to evaluate the place of Louis Armstrong in American music.

I got a taste of the depth of his erudition when we debated an essay on music and literature written by Albert Murray in a seminar at the Sorbonne in Paris.

Debating the Learned Professor O’Meely at the Sorbonne
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        A Joint Meeting of the US and European Associations of American Studies  

At the conclusion of his learned commentary on the character and contributions of Pops Armstrong, Professor O’Meely turned the floor over to Stanley Crouch and Wynton Marsalis after reading their impressive bonafides to the audience, calling them “two of the smartest people talking about Jazz.” Crouch was introduced first to tumultuous applause, but when Wynton walked on stage, trumpet in hand, the crowd went wild.

In an extended discussion Crouch compared the heroism of people who invent major movements in art or intellectual ideas to those in classical Greek mythology, and Wynton dazzled with his in-depth knowledge of the art of trumpet playing and the history of its development in the USA. As always, his lecture became a “show and tell” when he would demonstrate his point on the trumpet.

This video is a wonderful portrait of Pops which require no further comment, since we have the film. However it is impossible to overstate the importance of the work that O’Meely, Crouch and Marsalis are doing by institutionalizing Jazz in elite, well funded, American cultural and academic institutions such as Lincoln Center and Columbia University.

It is both fitting and proper that this effort should be led by Afro-American artists and intellectuals.  Jazz is, after all, Black America’s gift to the nation and America’s gift to world culture.  Look, listen and learn about one of the greatest artists and most interesting American men of the 20th century, the trumpet virtuoso that invented both the extended Jazz solo and a distinctly American approach to singing… the Jazz song.

Pops At Carnegie Hall with Kate Middleton 1947
Louis_Armstrong_and_Velma_Middleton,_Carnegie_Hall,_New_York,_N.Y.,_ca._Feb._1947_
                      A Sartorial Trend Setter Always sharp as a Tack
The Axe with Which Louis Conquored the World!
Louis Arnstrongs trumpet presented to him by King George V of England in 1933
This Trumpet was a gift from King George V in 1933
Double click on link to see the video Tribute
http://youtu.be/G0X24dJHYq4 

Playthell Benjamin

Harlem, New York

April 4, 2014

Is Hip Hop Art?

Posted in Cultural Matters, Music Reviews with tags , , , , , , on March 16, 2014 by playthell
Barack, Byonce and Jay Z
Chilly B, Honey B and Jay Z…..Holla!

Response to A Friend’s Comment on Hip Hop

The first thing I saw when I switched on my Facebook page this morning, which has now become a daily ritual, was a post from my friend Eric Wattree, a learned scribe from the left coast who is also an accomplished jazz musician. The post was a video clip of Quincy Jones presenting Emily Bear, a young white female of rare musical gifts – Quincy pointed out that she has composed several pieces for symphony orchestras – but since this was the Montreux Jazz Festival she was performing jazz piano on this occasion.

The clip was accompanied by the comment “Are we going to become the first culture in the history of mankind who are incapable of playing what we created?”  I thought it a curious comment, since I did not find her particularly impressive as a Jazz pianist.  She reminded me more of Philippa Duke Schuyler, the daughter of Afro-American writer and the blond Texas heiress and artist Josephine Cogdell, who had been selected as a coveted Sennett Bathing Beauty. Phillippa was not only performing the masterworks for piano in European classical music as a child, but showed such promise as a composer by nine years old she was seriously compared to Mozart at her age by American professors of music.

And had it not been for the racism and snobbery that characterized the attitude of the European Classical music community toward Jazz – An Afro-American complex instrumental Music that is now regarded as classic American art – I have no doubt that Phillippa would have mastered Jazz piano too.  After all, she lived on Sugar Hill in Harlem, which was home to many great black jazz musicians, including Duke Ellingon and Andy Kirk, whose wife was a great pianist that gave Charlie Parker his first gig when they lived in Kansas City.  Mrs. Kirk was a fabulous piano teacher who taught generations of Harlem kids to play.

Phillippa Duke Schuyler

 Phillapa Scuyler III  - editd copy

 A Musical Prodigy Performing her Compositions
 Phillippa Schuyler around Emily Bear’s Age
Phillapa SchuylerA world class virtuoso pianist and composer!

When he went on to  observe that “scatching a record is not art,” it became obvious that Eric is alarmed by the wholesale intoxication with Hip Hop beats by young folks – you hear them everywhere, even in the cadences of black marching bands –  and he is responding to the sad possibility that there will come a time when young black musicians will be unable to perform the complex art of Jazz, a genre of instrumental music which in order to perfom properly requires virtuosity from everybody in the band.

The possibility that this grand achievement of Afro-American culture could be lost to future generations of black musicians is cause for alarm….but how real is this fear? After giving his comments a moment’s reflection I thought: My man needs to chill out; things are not nearly so dire regarding the supply of outstanding young black Jazz musicians. I wondered if his pessimism comes from the fact that he lives in LA, because here in the Big Apple there is no paucity of great young black Jazz musicians.

It’s not the absence of black musicians that’s the problem in New York, it’s finding a black audience! By virtue of the heroic efforts of Wynton Marsalis and the magnificent Jazz at Lincoln Center program, there is now a curriculum to guide music teachers in formally teaching the essential techniques of jazz performance available upon request: And its free!

Before Jazz at Lincoln Center got off the ground the great singer/bandleader Betty Carter hosted conferences that brought gifted young jazz virtuosi from all over the country to study and perform at her Jazz workshop at the Majestic Theater in Brooklyn, under the sponsorship of the Brookly Academy of Music.   I covered one of these conferences for the Sunday Times of London, and it was published under the title “School For Cats,”  which can now be read on this blog

One of the revelations in this essay is that all of the most gifted young jazz musicians also loved HipHop.  Pianist Cyrus Chestnut liked playing on rap tracks and Adonis Rose, who was the drummer with the brilliant Jazz pianist Marcus Roberts, told me he had just finished playing behind some rappers and he loved it as mush as playing with Roberts! Hence I concluded that young Afro-americans musicians love both Jazz and Hip Hop equally….its a generational thing.

Adonis Rose

Adonis Rose II

A Young Master keeping the tradition alive!

Eric is right that scratching records is not making music in the traditional sense of playing an instrument, but scratching records is only a part of what hip hop MC’s do -there is the art of sampling records and creating unique beats, often creating entirely new songs.  And some of them can rap!  Many outstanding old school jazz masters not only recognize, but admire, the achievements of Hip Hop artists. A couple ot years ago I heard Grady Tate – the most widely recorded drummer in history – being interviewed at the Jazz Museum in Harlem, which is creating a priceless audio-video museum of jazz history.

When asked about hip hop in a room full of jazz heads, mostly middle aged and older, Tate had this to say: “I think the most innovative thing happening in recorded music today is hip hop.” A collective gasp of shock and disbelief went up in the room, but he continued: “I believe that certain people are genetically programmed to play music.”

He explained how he became a musician because he went to a high school with a great music program which even supplied the instruments – like the school I went to – then he pointed out how many inner-city kids were robbed of that opportunity because the philistine businessman and accountants that control school boards that fund education cut out formal musical instruction, school marching bands and orchestras. In response to this bleak musical predicament they created a new way of making music: HIP HOP

                                Grady Tate: Master Percussionist and Jazz Virtuoso
Grady Tate
He became a musician because of his high school music program

As a drummer he loves their beats, and as a Shakespearian actor with a degree in English literature he loves many of their clever rhymes and free verse poetry set to those beats. Tate went on to further explain that these young black and Hispanic kids in New York – the real home of Hip Hop – have not only created an art form which is now practiced around the world, but when he is touring he makes a point of checking them out, and he has discovered that the themes in their rhymes address local realities and concerns.

For instance, when I interviewed the Editor of Cuba’s first Hip hop magazine and radio programmer, he told me: “Hip hop is the true voice of young Afro-Cubans!” Then he proceeded to show me how young Afro-Cubans were setting the poems of Nicholas Guillen, the great Afro-Cuban Poet Laureate of Cuba, to rumba beats and reciting them over the beats. In other words, it is the specific lyrical content that determines the character of a particular rap.

Like Ragtime music, which is now universally recognized as a great art form, but in Scott Joplin’s time was regarded as “Whore house music.” And that, as Scott Joplin complained at the time, was due to “the bawdy lyrics” that so often accompanied the music. That’s why Joplin wrote Treemonisha, a full scale grand opera set to ragtime music, in order to demonstrate the nobility of the form. Hip hop is a very versatile form and has the power to affect human sensibility in myriad ways….it depends upon the artist!

Scott Joplin
Ragtime_Piano_SCOTT_JOPLIN__sheet Music
 Composed a Ragtime Opera to prove nobility of the music

And contrary to conventional wisdom about all rap lyrics celebrating murder, mayhem and debauchery, Hip hop mogul Russell Simmons never tires of pointing out: the “positive poets” have found the greater success. For instance Queen Latifah, Will Smith, LL Cool Jay, Puffy, et al. I started writing about hip hop from its inception here in New York.

I was friends with Joe Robinson, the owner of Sugar Hill Records, who recorded the first Hip Hop group, The Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” before anybody had made a rap record. When I first met Joe, the epitome of an old school gentleman gangster, he was in the Rhythm and Blues business but was an avid Jazz fan. However he was in business to make money; so he let the market dictate his business decisions – which is to say he was always looking for the big hit….and that was not going to happen recording jazz acts. Alas, the jazz acts that made money i.e. Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Quincy Jones, the Jazz Crusaders, et al were already signed to major labels.

Joe was indifferent to what these young people were inventing  – it was just a “product” to him – but  I, like Grady Tate, Max Roach and Quincy Jones, dug what these kids were doing from the git go. And I wrote about the virtues and vices of this new popular art form in: The Village Voice, New York Daily News, Sunday Times of London, Guardian Observor of London, Source Magazine: “The Bible of Hip Hop,” Spin Magazine, etc.  Grady Tate made one more important point about Hip hop artists in comparison to some of the greatest figures in modern Jazz: The jazzmen were so high on dope they didn’t know where their money went! While hip hop artists smoke Wisdom Weed and control millions!!!!All True!!!

Russell Simmons

Russell and Obama

With President Obama; you’ve come a long way baby!

Russell Simmon’s house on Long Island is the biggest mansion on the East coast – including those of the 19th century Robber Barons like Cornelius Vanderbilt Mansion on the famed Fifth Ave “Millionaire’s Row.” and among his guests are Bill and Hillary Clinton. According to a CBS 60 minutes report Jay Z heads a billion dollar business conglomerate; which means has made more money than Mitt Romney, and Mitt started life in a Michigan Mansion while Jay Z started in the Marcy Projects in Brooklyn. See: Is Jay Z a Better Businessman than Mitt?”at:  https://commentariesonthetimes.wordpress.com/?s=jay+z.

Will Smith turned down a scholarship to MIT to pursue a hip hop career, and he has gone from rap music star, to television star, to movie super star. He and his wife Jada were replaced as the number one power couple in Show business by Jay Z and Beyonce. Ice Cube is a for real movie mogul who has the wherewithal to greenlight his own movie productions, and Sean P Ditty Combs has gone from a local producer of rap concerts in New York City to a businessman with a fortune estimated to exceed 500 million dollars!

                                                        P Ditty

Sean Puffy coombs (2)

 Playing it to the MaX

He owns apartment buildings on the posh upper side of Manhattan, is an award winning designer of formal men’s evening wear, and played the complex starring role in A Raisin in the Sun on Broadway, to critical acclaim from both professional critics and the seasoned actors in the cast. Jay Z and Beyonce, next to their Friends Barack and Michelle, are America’s most popular power Couple and also talented performers. And they replaced Will Smith and Jada Pinkett in that role.  In hip hop the rappers come from all stations in life and what they share in common is their love of bustin a rhyme over dope beats while they tell a story about the gritty realities of life.

                                                            Will and Jada
                 Will Smith and Jada IIII                     
Hollywood Power Couple
Jay Z and Beyonce

Byonce and Jay III

America.s most popular power couple

Hip Hop is the first truly Afro-American popular musical form that manages to speak straight-up to all of the issues that concern them personally and Afro-Americans in general. The blues, for all of its profound insights into the human condition, developed in the deep-south where a black man could lose his life for telling the truth as he knew it, especially if he did so with the irreverence and total disregard for white sentiment as these rappers.

Hence the blues is replete with complex metaphors and allusions, while the rappers “keep it real.” The range of beats, vocal “flows,” technical innovation in the recording studio, and the lyrical content range from the trite and vulgar to the profound – the entire range of human personality and experience. One need only listen to the raps of Oakland’s “Too Short” and compare them to the lyrics – and superb studio work – of Ohene of Philadelphia.

Too Short is a specialist from the ghetto who tells tawdry tales his fans call “straight gutter,” while  transcendent poetry that profoundly addresses the complexities of global black experience in the 21st century are the stock in trade of Ohene – and both do what they do with high style and panache. I am including clips of both these artists so the reader can hear for themselves what I mean.

Too Short!

Too Short

Livin his Short Guy Dreams?

In Too Short and Ohene with see a sharp contrast in Hip Hop styles i.e. the purposes to which this performance vehicle is put: the images and values it projects.  And we can see how much musical talent and general intelligence shapes the character and complexity of their product.  As in all things talent, character and intelligence will distinguish one performer from another and in the case of Too Short and Ohene the difference could hardly be more dramatic.

The two performances I have attached below will demonstrate the polar opposites of their concerns and musical skills, yet both are legitimate representations of the Hip Hop genre. In two Short’s “I’m a Player” we get yet another tour through the twisted life of a wannabe ghetto pimp.  His descriptions of a desirable relationship with women are bizarre; a third rate Mack’s rap – I’ve heard much better from real Macks I’ve known – that sounds more like war than love.

Too Short brazenly puts all of his pathologies on display: There is no shame in his game.  It does not take a psychiatrist to recognize these lyrics as the creation of a man with a strong Napoleonic Complex – aka Short guy inadequacy syndrome – and a deep fear of being dominated by women.  After all, he looks like a chocolate version of Mr. Peanut and was grew up poor to boot.

We can be sure that he was not the ideal lady’s man, but he became one by persistence and astute observation of female character and desire.  Among the things that he no doubt discovered is that seduction is a game, and persistence, self-confidence, a quick wit – i.e. knowing what to say outta yo mouth at the right time – are more powerful weapons than good looks in this game.  When you add the elements of fame, money and the ability to back up your boasts in bed to the mix, you have the makings of a formidable ladies man.

It seems to me that despite his successes this fear of being “chumped” by women remains, and it is the source of his super macho pimp daddy demeanor; his stone cold Playa attitude.  Yet every time I see one of these rappers coming on all hard I wonder if it’s real or they have swiped somebody else’s story.

Is this guy  for Real?

Too short II

……..Or just another Perpetrator?

Inevitably, when I am wondering if somebody’s street cred is real, that chilling video by Eazy E, “Real Motherfuckin G’s!” always comes to mind.   In this video they call out Dr. Dre, Snoop Dog and the whole “Death Row Records” crowd – a label that everybody in the record business thought of as cold blooded killers, especially the 300 pound giant who ran the company, Suge Knight. But Eazy E and his crew called them “Studio Gangstas,” i.e. great pretenders, “actors,” perpetrators with no respect on the streets, and dared them to “step to some real motherfuckin G’s!”

The sincerity of the challenge is clear in the video; it is the sonic equivalent of a drive by shooting….a point that they visually portray at the end of the video.  Gangsta Rap is California’s contribution to Hip Hop, and when murder and mayhem is your theme…”keepin it real” is an invitation to disaster.

Eazy E

eazy E II

A Real Cool Killer? Or Avatar of US Gun Culture

That’s the tradition which spawned Too Short…except his raps wisely concentrate on fuckin more than fightin….the war between the sheets rather than the war in the streets.  Yet the lessons to the youth are just as destructive….if not more so.  It is from fucked up relationships such as those portrayed in Too Short’s raps that produce the psychologically damaged kids who grow into the monsters that wreak havoc on our communities and put all young black males in American under suspicion.

A lot of people who promote this music because of its enormous popularity among teens and young adults of all races and classes, try to deny that this is the consequence of these compelling narratives set to hypnotic beats and seductively spouted by ghetto speakcians, skilled motor mouths who prize the spoken word over the written word.

Ohene: Artistic King of Hip Hop!

Ohene I

 His words are sonic balm that heal the spirit

While being no less committed to the spoken word recited over funky beats dance oriented beats, Ohene – whose name is the traditional title of Ashanti warrior Kings – has completely different concerns and is an accomplished musician who loves jazz.  One need only listen to this track below “Big Things, Y’all Can’t Stop this Music!” to hear this.

The record comes on swinging hard and Ohene’s voice replaces the traditional horn improvising over the rhythm section rapping in the phrase that suggest instruments “I’m the undisputed rap coach!” he declares, throwing out the traditional challenge to sucka MC’s who might be feeling froggish and contemplating stepping to him lyrically by flowing over weak beats.

He quickly warns “My chat is in sync with the syncopation of Max Roach / Imagine Bird with his sax folks / Theolonius Monk with his third hand…..” Ohene continues to extol the prowess of black Jazz greats until he reaches a point where he announces “Playing piano like my dad.”  At this point the performance goes from brilliant to sublime as he begins to play the piano.

To accompany yourself on piano while singing is difficult even if the song is Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, but to play rhythmically complex Be-bop riffs on the piano while singing lyrics you have written to it is off the charts of measurable difficulty.  It is a spiritual communion expressed as musical artistry.

The aesthetic achievement of this performance ranks with the very best that has been achieved with voice, lyrics and instrumental composition.  Lyrically Ohene’s raps reveal him to be a man of vision and gravitas who, like Richard Wagner, seeks to elevate a nation of people with his songs.  While the track attached below celebrates the heroism of Afro-American jazz musicians, Ohene has written poignant narratives about all phases of life in contemporary American society.

As a serious researcher into Hip Hop’s roots, Ohene, who teaches a course on the art of Hip Hop at Temple University,  employs all the beats in the evolution of the genre and he uses them like an alchemist constructing foundations of rhythmic sounds upon which to build edifices of thought in words like “love is the ultimate truth in any culture.” In raps like “Nobody is Fighting…I just Don’t Understand,” which is a call for Pan-African resistance to the forces that would destroy us, and is also appended to this text below.

Hence to sum up the difference in the Hip hop styles of Ohene and Too Short, who represent polar opposites in rap music, suffice it to say that the former presents an enlightened vision of human possibility designed to inspire “the better angels of our nature,” as Abraham Lincoln once put it, thus providing the kind of hope and inspiration that can elevate a nation, while Too Short appeals to the worst in us….and preaches a gospel of decadence and debauchery that can only lead to tragedy.  As in Hip Hop – So in Life!

Hip Hop Ladies: All Hail the Queen!!

Queen Latifa II

Her Sharp Tongue and Regal Presence Empowred Girls of all Ages!

Like Jazz, Hip Hop is a predominantly black male art, but there are some outstanding female stars.  And none shines brighter than Queen Latifah.  While some female rappers seek to answer the males with raps that are just as down and dirty – like Roxanne Shante, Foxy Brown and L’il Kim – the Queen mostly kept her rhymes clean.

With a keen intellect and razor sharp wit she sassily took on the misguided macho misogynistic posturing that characterized so much of male rap.  A physically imposing woman with a fearless demeanor, she “represented” for women with Raps like “Ladies First.”  She was a culture hero to many girls of all backgrounds, my daughter included, and she went on to become one of Hip Hop’s biggest stars bar none.

The Queen as Glamour Girl

Queen Latifa

Tall, Tan, Thick and Fine

While Foxy Brown and L’il Kim are big stars in the Hip Hop world they have never been able to break through to a more general audience because of the raunchy image they chose.  Hence while there is no question that L’il Kim’s “Don’t Want Dick Tonight” is a wonderfully composed and performed rap, it is too risqué for general audiences.

Latifah’s style on the other hand will play everywhere; that’s why she went on to become a bonafide star in television and movies. She made big women fashionable when she was selected as a spokesmodel for Cover Girl cosmetics.  As I write she is hosting her own syndicated daytime television talk show.  Queen Latifah, a Rapper from New Jersey, has marketed her brand world-wide.  Eve, a rapper from Phily, rose from being a hair dresser to stardom and was the first female rapper to have her on television sitcom.  But she has not shown the staying power of the Queen.

Some Final Observations

Hip Hop is the closest that Afro-Americans have come to producing a song poetry that approaches the profundity that is common fare in the art of Calypso. see https://commentariesonthetimes.wordpress.com/?s=long+live+calypso. As to whether or not Hip Hop is art, I would say that its record of success in speaking to the hearts and minds of people around the globe, by virtue of the product Hip Hop producers and performers create in the studio, there can be no question that it is great commercial popular art at its best.

I however do believe that there is a distinction between fine art and commercial art, and that its merit on the scale of artistic achievement and cultural importance can be graded. But it is an objective that is exceedingly hard to achieve, for to succeed at this one must be broadly learned in the art forms under discussion, and objective enough in one’s approach to privilege an unpleasant truth over confirming one’s prejudices.

Many smart and sincere people have failed this test – like the musicians in the high German church who were convinced that Bach was ruining sacred music. Given the volatile emotions surrounding hip hop we will certainly not resolve the question as to what constitutes fine art here – so profound a question is clearly beyond the scope and ambition of this essay….Hence we will simply let our statement stand as is….

To hear Ohene double click on link below


Too Short
I’m A Player
 
Eazy E

http://youtu.be/vQNLEhVAXSg

Real Motherfuckin G’s
Queen Latifa: Ladies First

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hLB5bUNAesc

See Emily Bears Performance

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5JpACC1_jP8

****************************
Playthell G. Benjamin
New York and San Francisco
March 2014

Dr. Lateef’s Spirit Dances with Ancestors

Posted in Cultural Matters, Guest Commentators, Music Reviews on December 25, 2013 by playthell

yuseflateef6_300

 The Master with his Horn

The Legendary Musician and Composer Steps off at 93

          At the close of his autobiography, Yusef A. Lateef, the renowned musician, composer, and Grammy Award-winning recording artist wrote, “My life has been a series of ‘warm receptions,’ and, after a while, it becomes difficult to separate them, to determine which was most rewarding and heartwarming.”  Lateef’s thousands of admirers will ponder now about which of his concerts and recordings were most rewarding for them in his highly productive life.  Lateef, 93, died Monday morning at his home in Amherst, Massachusetts.

Lateef, a versatile artist of global influence, made his transition peacefully, according to his wife, Ayesha Lateef.

“My dear husband was himself an extension of warmth and love towards others,” his wife said. “He saw every human being with the utmost value and respect. He approached all of us as he did his music, with enthusiasm, imagination and longevity.”

While Lateef chose to define his music as autophysiopsychic, that is, “music from one’s physical, mental and spiritual self,” his critics and fans heard him as the embodiment of jazz and the blues, and that expressive quality, however termed, placed him among the finest performers and composers of his generation.

A Hard Swinging Tenor Man!
Yusef II
Blues and the Abstract Truth

Born William Emmanuel Huddleston on Oct. 9, 1920 in Chattanooga, Tenn., he moved with his family to Detroit in 1925, settling in the heart of the city’s storied Paradise Valley.   It was about this time that his father—for an unknown reason—changed their surname to Evans.

Paradise Valley was basically the entertainment enclave of “Black Bottom,” where the city’s black population was centered, and where William Evans (he changed his name to Yusef Lateef in 1948 and became a member of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community and for the rest of his life he remained a devout Ahmadi Muslim fulfilling requirements including the lesser and greater pilgrimage to Mecca) was immersed in a vibrant culture where a profusion of music was part of the daily routine.

He introduced Exotic New Instruments….
 Yusef Lateef-flute-bmboo
To the Art of Jazz
And made them sing the Blues
YUSEF LATEEF - Basson And Swang them too!

At Miller High School, he fell under the tutelage of John Cabrera and joined such illustrious future jazz immortals as Milt Jackson.  But it was a local saxophonist, Lorenzo Lawson, who most impressed and influenced him to set aside the oboe and drums and focus on the tenor saxophone.

Soon, he was so proficient that he had the first chair in Matthew Rucker’s Band, and given the band’s prominence, Lateef’s reputation reached across the city and all the way to Chicago where he was now a member of Lucky Millinder’s big band.  In 1948, along with his adoption of Islam, he joined the Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra, which included an array of world class musicians such as James Moody, J.J. Johnson, Ray Brown, Kenny Clarke, and the amazing Cuban conga drummer Chano Pozo.

Diz, Chano Pozo and James Moody
Dizzy and Chano pozo
Playing Rebopped Cubops!

By 1951, Lateef was back in Detroit with his first wife Sadie, a daughter Iqbal and a son Rasheed.  In no time at all he was back in the swing of things performing with a number of groups and at several of the top clubs in town.  Among the stellar leaders who requested his presence was guitarist Kenny Burrell.  When bassist Alvin Jackson, Milt’s brother, assembled a quartet, Lateef was featured on tenor saxophone and flute, which he had begun studying at the Larry Teal School of Music.  The group, including pianist Barry Harris and trombonist Kiane Zawadi (Bernard McKinney) was the house band at the Blue Bird Inn, a legendary jazz spot on Detroit’s Westside.

The Joint was Really Jumpin!
blue bird inn It’s what’s inside that Counts

Lateef was fronting his own ensemble by 1954 and began a five-year stint at Klein’s Show Bar.   Now with a steady gig he had to relinquish his job at Chrysler.  With Hugh Lawson (and sometimes Terry Pollard) on piano; Curtis Fuller on trombone; Ernie Farrow on bass; and Louis Hayes on drums; for two years the band worked six nights a week and became one of the most popular groups in the city.  So popular, in fact, that jazz writers began to spread the word.  They were extended a contract by Ozzie Cadena, a producer at Savoy Records, and their first album was “Jazz Mood.”  A succession of albums would follow, alternately between Savoy and the Prestige labels, and it was during this phase that Lateef was able to introduce an assortment of unusual instruments normally heard in various ethnic cultures.

“Where one relaxes on the axis of the wheel of life”
Cannonball Adderly
Great Virtuosos like Cannonball Adderly anointed audiences in Detroit’s clubs

From a veritable academy of musicians who were in and out of his ensemble during the nights at Klein’s, Lateef sharpened his musical knowledge which was bolstered even further by the classes he took at Wayne State University.  But by 1959, he was ready for a new scene.  “I had done about all I could in the realm of music in Detroit,” he wrote.  “There was a scarcity of clubs during this period and to make ends meet I took a part-time job unloading banana trucks. Whether you were a writer, painter, or a musician, it wasn’t a good time to be in the city.”

The Big Apple was the only option for him and by the early sixties Lateef was a regular at jam sessions, recordings, and concert dates with such notables as John Coltrane, Charlie Mingus, percussionist Babatunde Olatunji, and numerous homeboys such as Lonnie Hillyer, Donald Byrd, and Sonny Red.  But Lateef’s stature grew exponentially during his tenure with Cannonball Adderley’s band, and it provided him with additional experience to form his own ensemble by 1965.

Yusef and Cannonball
cannonball-with-yusef-lateef Masters of the Horns: Original voices on Alto and Tenor Saxes

Holding a band together while attending the Manhattan School of Music was challenging, but Lateef was equal to the task, earning his master’s degree and continuing to record at a phenomenal pace.  Under contract at Atlantic Records where producer Joel Dorn gave Lateef the latitude he needed to express the full extent of his artistry.  His “Gentle Giant,” recorded in 1971 was among his most memorable dates and featured bassist Bob Cunningham, drummer Tootie Heath, and pianist Kenny Barron.

Nothing was more eventful for him in the early seventies than his meeting and marriage to Tahira at Chicago State University.  Winning her hand and defending his dissertation were momentous occasions and the birth of his son, Yusef in 1975, completed a trifecta of jubilation.

From 1975 to 1980, Dr. Lateef studied in Africa, mainly in Nigeria where he undertook the mastery of the Fulani flute.  In addition to his research and teaching obligations, he was commissioned by the government to compose a symphony and to write a book based on his research.  Seeking new musical spheres after Africa, he embarked on a series of concert dates with Eternal Wind, an advanced group of younger musicians that included Charles Moore, Frederico Ramos, Ralph “Buzzy” Jones, and Adam Rudolph.   “Yusef was so open and accessible,” Rudolph recalled during a recent interview.  “There was always this love, peace and freedom about him.  And you could feel all of this through his music, which defined him in the same as Picasso’s art or Miles Davis’s music defined them.  We’re evolutionists, he would tell us and we have to keep on stepping.”

Invisible Wind
Eternal Wind
The Vehicle through which Yusef produced autophysiopsychic Sounds

 And stepping Dr. Lateef did, thanks to Eternal Wind and the tireless Rudolph.  Even so, there was time for teaching and composing, to say nothing of his other artistic ventures into writing and painting, and running his record and publishing company, FANA Music.

His beloved wife Tahira passed in 2009, Dr. Lateef later remarried  Ayesha, and his final days were as fruitful and productive as ever, and he leaves a remarkable legacy of cultural achievements.

“I daily and nightly thank Allah for continuing to bless me and to allow me to bring love, peace and joy to the world,” he wrote.  And that love, peace and joy resonates with all the conviction his formidable talent could command, and all we have to do is to listen to his music.

Dr. Lateef  is survived by wife Ayesha, his son also named Yusef Lateef, his grand-daughter Iqbal, and great grandchildren.  Funeral arrangements are in the planning stages.

The Master Sonic Alchemist left a healing sound….
Yusef images (2)

………A Gift that keeps on Giving

*****************

To watch Ahmad Jamal and Yusef Lateef
 Double Click on this link

http://youtu.be/X8DGIqgRF7Q

To Hear Yusef Perform “Stella by Starlight”
Double Click On Link Below

 http://youtu.be/X__EJMqQn5Q

By Herb Boyd

Special to Commentaries on the Times

The Blues Philosopher’s Last Chorus

Posted in Cultural Matters, Music Reviews with tags , , on August 24, 2013 by playthell

Albert Murray

The Literary Lion in his Den

 Life as a Fully Orchestrated Blues Statement

Albert Murray was not only one of the most original thinkers in American letters during the 20th century, he was also a tutor to a couple of generations of American intellectuals trying to understand their country and its culture.  For many intellectuals and artist making the trek up to Mr. Murray’s apartment in Lennox Terrace, the experience was like a religious devotee making a pilgrimage to a sacred shrine to sit at the feet of a holy man, or like the seekers of wisdom and truth who sat at the feet of Plato in ancient Greece.

Some of the most illustrious names in Literature, Art, Music and cultural criticism have found their way to this book laden temple of learning.  Professor Murray was Harlem’s senior sage.  He was 97 years old when he danced to his last blues chorus, and his status was unassailable.  In fact, Mr. Murray’s shoes are so hard to fill we will probably have to dip them in gold, hang them in an honored spot on a wall of heroes, and leave the position of Senior Sage open for the foreseeable future.

While I am not certain that I could define a philosopher in language that would satisfy the academic guardians of the canon, like Supreme Court Justice when asked to define pornography: “I know it when I see it.” Since the subject of this panegyric, Professor Murray, was a master of language who was also devoted to improvisation and therefore no slave to convention, I shall feel free to take liberties in defining what I mean by philosopher in reference to him.

For me a philosopher is one who contemplates the deeper meaning of things and finds hidden connections between phenomena that escape the rest of us, with the ultimate aim of defining reality.  While the common lot of us look upon the world and our obvious predicament and ask why?  Philosophers dream of things yet unseen and ask why not?  Albert Murray was always opening our eyes to hidden truths that revealed new possibilities.

I was first introduced to his ideas by Larry Neale – the distinguished poet, essayist, editor, and teacher of literature at Yale.  And it changed the way I saw the world in important ways.  I remember well the first time he mentioned Mr. Murray to me.  I was living in an apartment in midtown Manhattan, thirty two stories above Broadway.  I was a Professor on leave from the University of Massachusetts, and was managing the Great singer Jean Carn.

A friend of mine, Tanya, a tall fine blond lady who could bust some moves like a Soul Train hoofer, was grooving to Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everyday People,” when Larry told her that she was not white.  He said her whiteness was a great American fiction, a superficial matter of pigment.  I was shocked at his announcement because the alabaster beauty was as white as any white person that I ever saw.   But Larry went on to explain that she was a cultural mulatto, and Omni-American!  And he held up a copy of Mr. Murray’s book.

Tanya: I thought she was white
Karen-picas editLarry Neals aid she was a Cultural Mulatto…An Omni-American

Larry was such a serious intellectual and devoted teacher he died of a heart attack while presenting a lecture.  He was the sort of person who would slaughter his own sacred cows in deference to a greater truth.  This is what happened when he encountered the writing of Professor Murray.  A founding father and avatar of the Black Arts movement of the 1960’s, who along with Amiri Baracka, aka Leroi Jones, co-edited Black Fire, the seminal anthology of the early writings produced by the Black Arts movement, it was no easy task for Larry to accommodate the ideas in Mr. Murray’s book.

An unsentimental and uncompromising literary critic, Professor Murray cavalierly dismissed most of the writing produced by the Black Arts movement as aesthetic mediocrities….and some as literary atrocities.   And he irreverently referred to the lot of us black cultural revolutionaries  as, “the Bam Bam Boom Boom Brillo Head Crowd.” In a startling commentary on a reading of works by some of the Black Arts luminaries he attended in Greenwich Village, Mr. Murray denounced their works as little more than public temper tantrums devoted to ostentatious racial exhibitionism of questionable literary merit.  But he reserved his most caustic criticism for the largely white, affluent, artsy fartsy audience who applauded wildly and treated the performers as cultural heroes.

He concluded that with “friends” like this the black artists was doomed to mediocrity, and he placed them even lower on the scale of reliable friends than white boxing managers.  For even if one assumed that the rumors of financial exploitation of boxers under their management was true, Mr. Murray argued: “at least they were trying to produce world champions!”  The profound truth of this revelation hit me like a ton of bricks and I carefully devoured the rest of the essays in his remarkable wide ranging eclectic collection of essays, the “The Omni-Americans,” his first book.

I was hooked on Mr. Murray’s learned, unique, and insightful commentaries on life, literature, the essence of artistic creation and its implications for society, as well as his penetrating iconoclastic views on politics: cultural and otherwise.  But what I loved most about Mr. Murray was his quiet assumption that Afro-Americans were the hippest and most stylish people on earth.

This is the Black America Mr. Murray Referenced

diahann-upper-crust-blacks

“Duke Ellington’s “Satin Doll”

This is most apparent in his discussion of the “fakelore of black pathology,” and “the folklore of white supremacy,” a bogus intellectual construction that compelled white editors to privilege any story of black pathology over a tale of black heroism.  A rule that is still all too true, as is evidenced by the muted attention being given to Antoinette Tuff, a black female bookkeeper who talked down a white male armed with an AK 47 and 500 rounds of ammunition that had begun to shoot up an elementary school in Georgia.  Ms. Tuff talked the gunman into laying down his weapon and lie on the floor until the police came to arrest him.  An although not one person lost their life, Ms. Tuff has yet to receive the kind of media adulation a white woman who had talked down a black gunman would have received.

Mr. Murray was an indefatigable defender of Afro-Americans against those who would attempt to play us cheap by portraying us as something less than what we are.  He constantly pointed out that humanity is no less complex and fascinating in a black skin than in a white skin.  Disproving that myth was a major impetus for his novels: Train Whistle Guitar, The Spyglass Tree and Seven League Boots. 

One of the most interesting aspects of Mr. Murray’s critique of the study of Afro-Americans is his dismissal of the way sociologist have approached the subject.  Referencing them as mere “statistical survey technicians” he has called their method “an elaborate fraud.”  In order to demonstrate his point he critiques two studies that were considered the state of the art, one by a white social scientist and one by a black.  An American Dilemma, a massive study conducted by the distinguished Swedish social economist, Dr. Gunnar Myrdal, and Dark Ghetto, written by Social Psychologist Kenneth B. Clarke.

Both of these scholars were prominent in their field. Kenneth Clarke, the first tenured Afro-American scholar in the City University of New York, was world famous as the result of his “Dolls” study.   This study was appended to the NAACP brief in the landmark Brown v. The Board of Education case in which the Supreme Court ruled that segregated schools were “inherently unequal,” and it was credited by many with swaying the Judges’ decision.   Dr. Myrdal, who headed what was the most massive research project on Afro-Americans in history, was chosen not only because he was a distinguished social scientist – since there was no paucity of able social scientists here – but also because he came from Sweden, a country with no black/white racial problem.

They funders of the study reasoned that Myrdal would be more objective writing about the volatile race problem in the US than an American scholar by virtue of his background. The result was a text of nearly a thousand pages that was roundly hailed as the final word on black life in America. Professor Murray was unimpressed with the results of both studies and emphatically dismissed them.  He said the most obvious thing about Dark Ghetto was that it was “written by a Negro who hates himself.”

Murray observed that things in Harlem could not be as grim as Clarke described them “even if half the residents robbed the other half every night.”  He took a similar position on Claude Brown’s bestselling novel “Manchild in the Promised Land,” which was being widely acclaimed as the real story of what life was like in Harlem.  Mr. Murray said it was no such thing!  He said it was merely the story of what it was like for one Negro who grew up in Harlem “and evidently had a hard time doing so.” The book told you nothing about “what it was like to be the Society Editor of the Amsterdam News,” or “one of the people who ran the most complex mass transportation system in the world.”

As for Mr. Myrdal’s “landmark study,” Murray thought it had been a great waste of money if the objective was to help us understand black life in America.  His indictment of the study was spurred by the fact that nowhere in those hundreds of pages filled with numbers and sociological jargon, no one thought to ask what was the meaning of the blues among black Americans, who invented the art form and based the great American art of Jazz on its deeply moving changes?

This question reflected Mr. Murray’s conception of art and its function in human society.  His view was summed up in his contention that “an art style is the refinement and elaboration of a lifestyle.”  If this assumption was true, then the question of the meaning of the blues in Afro-American culture was no picayune consideration. Mr. Murray thought it was critical to understanding the amazing grace that Afro-Americans had shown during the long night of racial oppression.  He would go on to answer this question in the text that I consider his magnum opus: Stomping the Blues; and many critics believe is the best book ever written on Afro-American music –this writer included.

Bill “Count” Basie
Count Basies Band-singer JimmyRushing1943
Master of the Fully Orchestrated Blues Statement

In this text Mr. Murray waxes philosophical about the meaning of the blues and corrects some widely held misconceptions.  The most pervasive of which is that the blues is sad music.  He skillfully dispels this myth by exploring the origins of the concept of blues by dividing his quest into “The Blues as Such” and the “Blues as Music.”  Mr. Murray shows that while the blues as such is a feeling of sadness and melancholy, and can be traced back to the idea of “blue devils” in Elizabethan England, the blues as music is the antidote to the blues as such.  Hence when viewed in its proper cultural context, the “down home Saturday night function” i.e. a dance party held among Afro-Americans in the south, the blues becomes a music of celebration.

Black musicians played the blues to chase away the blues as such; they “stomped the blues.” This is the meaning of the title of Mr. Murray’s text: Stomping the Blues.  He pointed out that there are several ways of dealing with the blues as such.  One could commit suicide, turn to alcohol  and drugs, or get sharp and go out dancing to a blues band.  His central point throughout this amazing text is that contrary to conventional wisdom the blues is a music of affirmation not resignation – as both the Black Nationalist activist/intellectual Mualana Karenga and the revolutionary black psychiatrist Franz Fanon had concluded.

This was the basis of his criticism of both the portrayal of black life in Richard Wright’s Native Son and the nihilism that characterized so much of the rhetoric of black radicals in the 1960’s.   Murray thought we relied far too much on the grim pessimism of the sociologists – who were mostly square white boys who knew little of real life and could be taken off for everything they had by any fourth rate Harlem hustler once they stepped outside their class rooms – rather than rely on the wisdom of the blues.  He pointed out that the blues sensibility was the antithesis of the “sack cloth and ashes” view of life.  While the blues admits “life is a low down dirty shame” we have to keep on swinging.

Through his eyes musicians became heroes and “blues idiom dancing,” his description of typical Afro-American popular dance, was a heroic exercise.  For Mr. Murray, the ability to dance gracefully is a core value of Afro-American culture; it is so widely shared that it is disgraceful to be awkward on the dance floor.  The importance he placed on this as a signature of ones integration into the Afro-American cultural idiom is clearly demonstrated in his essay on Gordon Parks, a brilliant multi-talented Afro-American contemporary.

In his description of Gordon Parks upon their first meeting as young men he describes Park’s talents and concludes with the comment “and he was graceful on the dance floor.”   But when he describes Gordon Parks later in life, after he had become enormously successful and was lionized by white society, Murray notes his many successes then comments wryly: “But he was no longer graceful on the dance floor.”

Albert Murray’s writing was a revelation to me, and many other black intellectuals who took the time to carefully read him.  He offered new perspectives on many levels and prompted us to rethink a lot of our ideas.  For instance he considered the description of Harlem and other black communities as “ghettos” to be erroneous, the result of “too much pillow talk between black intellectuals and their Jewish lovers.”

He thought that Malcolm X’s preachment about the white man convincing Afro-Americans to  hate our looks  was nonsense, and said all one had to do was watch “American Negroes” on the dance floor to see that it wasn’t true.  He said that Afro-Americans who were good looking knew that they looked good, and those who thought they were ugly probably were.

Blues Idiom Dancers
Jazz Dancers 
The Elegance Albert Murray Witnessed

He also thought Malcolm’s contention that house slaves were more impressed with the master than field slaves ignored the fact that it was the house slaves who saw the masters for the flawed creatures that they were, because they were all up in their business i.e. no man is a hero to his butler.  And he pointed out that it is déclassé intellectuals that lead revolutions because ordinary working people don’t spend their time thinking about the things one has to think about in order to organize a revolution.  That is the province of the intellectual.

Although I would come to have my disagreements with Mr. Murray, sometimes about culture but mostly about politics, and even argued with him personally on the value of sociology, accusing him of throwing the baby out with the bathwater….I regard his presence among us as a blessing, and his literary legacy a benefaction.

His collaboration with Count Basie on his autobiography “Good Morning Blues” provides us a look into the world of the Jazz musician and the evolution of the big band that is unprecedented, and his intellectual repartee with the great visual artist Romare Beardon, even naming some of his master works, along with his critical role in the founding of Jazz At Lincoln Center – a seminal event in the history of American culture, is further evidence of Mr. Murray’s widespread influence on American civilization.  Mr. Murray has been justly showered with many accolades in recognition of his singular contribution. I believe we are not likely to see his kind again. For the elements so blended in him that such a man may come along once in a century.

A career Air-Force officer and a refined gentleman, an intellectual of great depth, a prolific writer and iconoclastic thinker, a professor and philosopher, an epicure, elegant dresser and graceful dancer, a devoted husband and good father, and pater-familias to a tribe of intellectuals and artists who are shaping the culture of the world.  When one considers that he taught literature and military aviation, was a novelist and essayist of distinction, an equally able and insightful critic of literature, music and the visual arts – all of which he wrote highly original treatises on – we are compelled to place him among the modern renaissance men.

Mr. Murray was an exemplar of a type of black southern gentleman that is fast fading from the scene.  He was cut from the same cloth as my Uncle Jimmy Strawder, who also danced and joined the honored ancestors just days before Mr. Murray played his out chorus.  Both were men from small southern towns, Mr. Murray from Nkomis Alabama, Uncle Jimmy from St. Augustine  Florida.  Both men grew up during the era of American apartheid, when the ruling ideology was white supremacy, and although life in their birthplace was really a low down dirty shame they kept on swinging for a nearly a century – Jimmy Strawder for 90 years Albert Murray for 97!

One could say their lives were like “fully orchestrated blues statements,” a term Mr. Murray coined, in that they were complete and left nothing to be desired.  They were “Killer Dillers;” handsome hep-cats who dressed to the nines and strutted their stuff like peacocks on the dance floors of elegant ball rooms that were all the rage in their youth; places with names like the Savoy Ballroom, Grand Terrace and Paradise Lounge.  This is where the fabulous big bands like Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Earl “Fatha” Hines, Cab Calloway, Chick Webb, and the International Sweethearts of Rhythm played the fully orchestrated blues statements Mr Murray wrote so insightfully about, music played at “the velocity of celebration.”

Duke Ellington and his Orchestra
Ellington
“America as She Was Swung!

The fact that one gets no hint that “Fatha” Hines and his great orchestra was playing for dancers at the elegantly appointed Grand Terrace, a scene so hip Al Capone came by to dance to the music, in Richard Right’s wildly acclaimed novel Native Son, which was set in Chicago during this era, is one of Mr. Murray’s most potent grievances against the text.

Mr. Murray would become a military officer and a writer, Uncle Jimmy became a military officer and would have become a writer if Columbia University – to their everlasting shame – had not turned him away after congratulating him on his distinguished war record as a decorated combat officer, and his outstanding performance on the entrance exam, part of which he took in Latin, with the cold announcement” ‘Columbia College already has its quota of Negros.”

As I noted in my eulogy to Uncle Jimmy: “If white Americans who survived the Great Depression and fought World War II can be considered “The Greatest Generation,” men like Uncle Jimmy and Professor Murray” are the greatest of The Greatest Generation!   Thus I bid these good men… officers and gentlemen, hail and farewell.

Playthell and Professor Robert O’Meely of Columbia at Sorbonne
Me and Robert O'Mealy
Analyzing the influence of Mr. Murray on Wynton Marsalis, Virtuoso trumpeter
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Double Click to see the Basie Orchestra Swing!
http://youtu.be/hHMYhajNtNg
A fully Orchestrated Blues Statement
Double Click to Hear Duke Ellington and his Orchestra!
http://youtu.be/NW1mGHABhgU
Duke plays his classic compositions
************
Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
August 23, 2013

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Afro-American Jazz and Black South Africans

Posted in Cultural Matters, Guest Commentators, Music Reviews with tags , , on August 19, 2013 by playthell

 Hugh Masekela

Hugh Masakela: A South African Original

 

 On the Transformative Power of Black Jazz

Growing Up in Mantzi I have been Fortunate enough to come from a Township of Soweto that in the early sixties and all the way to the rule of the ANC had electricity and telephones in our community.  Why is this important?  I grew up with uncles who were playing 78 rpm dicks on a gramophone, and we gradually upgraded to what was called Pilot FM radio (big and huge like caskets which contained a turntable and a FM radio.  Eventually we came to be exposed to Hi Fi systems in the late 1960’s and 70’s and graduated to more sophisticated name brands like Marantz and the like.

Music was the driving force in the evolution and American Jazz was one of the most powerful influences that we were exposed to.  Our elders, uncles and big brothers collected all of the great artist such as Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and all the seminal figures Playthell Benjamin cites in his essay “Wynton Marsalis and the Great American Art, as the produced this music. And we sought to get in their favor by our recognition and approval of the importance of their treasure troves of LP vinyl Jazz albums.

Furthermore, we were living amongst musicians who played Jazz and formed big bands here in Mzantsi; we were also imbibing a lot of South African Jazz that embodied all the diversity characteristic of South Africa in its sound.  As we grew older we extended our listening and appreciation of the music by forming Jazz Clubs in the late Sixties whilst still in high school.

Our weekends were spent getting together bring new vinyl recordings we might have bought on Friday, and sample it with other members.  If they could not identify the record one was made Jazz Appreciation King for the day and it lasted the entire week until we met again.  Exposure to American Jazz was very important for us and it affirmed and solidified our beliefs that we were not mere “Kaffirs” (niggers) who were backward in all we did or were – African American Jazz told us, that those who looked like us, that those who looked like us, were the best in the world in this art form.

The Great Edward Kennedy “Duke Ellington”
Duke+Ellington - paragon of elegance 
Composer, Pianist, Bandleader, Paragon of Male Elegance
Dollar Brand
Dollar Brand
South African Pianist, Composer

This told us too, that we are the better people in the world, just from the Jazz perspective.  We imbibed art forms and so forth from our African American brothers, but Jazz was paramount in entrenching and embedding beliefs about ourselves.   Some of us went as far as to walk, talk, and dress like our Afro-American brothers.  Others named themselves accordingly.

As we became more mature and refined in our understanding of the wide world of Jazz, we began to travel overseas to Jazz concerts all over the states, Canada and Europe.  This expanded our horizons beyond the brutal apartheid world of South Africa.  We became well marinated in the Jazz Milieu, which knew no national boundaries because of the recording industry.  What has all this to do with Wynton Marsalis, the subject of Playthell’s recent essay?  Everything!

Playthell’s analysis of the heroic role of Wynton in the advancement of Jazz as a vibrant art form supports the fledgling arguments of those among us here in South Africa, who have been insisting that Wynton has advanced Jazz beyond what the hard core Jazz classist here in Mzantsi think of a real Jazz, in fact they insisted that Wynton was not playing Jazz at all.

Wynton Marsalis

0827969262023
The Most Versatile Trumpeter in the World

I think the fact that he came from the Baroque side of classical music was lost to these detractors here for they knew nothing about the fact that Wynton had become the Master Jazz/Trumpeter /Composer/Innovator of the art and literally lifted and elevated Jazz into the 21st century.  They just couldn’t wrap their minds around that fact.

I also suspect that they have lost touch with what Wynton was doing and saying, and hung on to the old ways of understanding Jazz.  Wynton blew some of us away when he merged modern Jazz with African drummers on the same stage.  We were amazed and fascinated as we watched his rehearsal sessions with these Africans, especially the way that he was able to show the similarities and the origins of Jazz as an African art form.

Conducting the performance of Congo Square
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The Lincoln Center never witnessed anything like it!

Soul to Soul

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The Rhythmic circle remains unbroken

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The drum choir blended perfectly with the band

This edified us and lifted our long held beliefs that the music we were listening to called Jazz had melodic signatures which can be found in our own traditional songs and Jazz music here in Mantzsti.  Playthell’s essay “Wynton Marsalis and the Great American Art,” is for me and Jazz Aficionados of kindred spirit, is so filled with erudite analysis about the art of Jazz and Wynton’s role in preserving and advancing the best of the tradition, that I feel compelled to post it on all the African sites I have access to.

There are some pretentious self- proclaimed Jazz gurus and avid fans who cannot accept anything new in Jazz.  Not since Babatunde Olatunji took his “Drums of Passion” orchestra to Carnegie Hall – industrialist Andrew Carnegie’s gift to New York City and the art of music –has anyone achieved that.  Wynton, however, took it a step further; many levels higher in fact, by merging both ensembles – African American musicians and a choir of African master drummers – on the same stage as part of one group.  To me it was one of the things Wynton did that silenced the howling jazz dinosaurs in the Appreciators here in Mzantsi.

THE GOAT

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 Greatest of All Times!

I concur with all that Playthell wrote about Wynton Marsalis….and then some.  I have learned so much from reading this article that I immediately went over to my collection of Wynton’s records and have been following on some nuggets he doled/dropped in the essay.   This kind of study will upgrade one’s understanding, appreciation and listening skills; enabling you to better grasp the techniques Wynton is employing to make such marvelous music.  I am happy to have found Playthell’s article, for it confirmed what we had long believed.   Jazz is an African art form and it resonates loudly with us here in Mzantsi and wherever it is played.

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Double Click to see Dollar Brand 

http://youtu.be/FSPq4AZ2GAI

Double click to see Dollar Brand in a clearer video

http://youtu.be/UcBHhkw8_fQ

Click to see Hugh Masakela  perform tribute to Mandela

http://youtu.be/h9JTuaC-x2Q

Double Click to see Wynton conduct Congo Square with Orchestra and African drums 

http://youtu.be/sKmaWqKV5aA

Double Click to hear the Winston “Mankunzu” Ngozi Quartet

http://youtu.be/Rt-rlAHEE0M

 

Skhokho Sa Tlou

Mzantsi, South Africa

August 19, 2013

 ** All Photos of Wynton and Congo Square Concert 

by: Frank Stewart, official photographer for JALC

Wynton Marsalis and the Great American Art

Posted in Cultural Matters, Music Reviews with tags , , on August 18, 2013 by playthell

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 Conducting his innovative suite “Congo Square” with Ghanaian Drummers

 I have written about Jazz in the New York Daily News, The Sunday Times of London, The Guardian- Observer of London, he Village Voice et al.  And I have major essays anthologized in books.  I have also covered the New York Jazz scene on WBAI FM.  I have written about Wynton in all these venues and interviewed him on radio. I am about to put those interviews online. I have also appeared with Wynton and Ellis in a lecture/demonstration on Jazz and wrote the program notes for Jazz at Lincoln Center Concerts.  Hence I have firsthand knowledge of the jazz milieu and I have paid close attention to Wynton’s career.

The Jazz scene in New York had become so dismal by the late 1970′s that I published an essay despairing over the future of the art form – See: “Will Jazz Survive: Notes on the State of the Great American Art ” in the Freedomways Reader – because the last commercial jazz station in New York, WRVR, had suddenly gone off the air.  I wondered how the tradition could survive if the jazz community in the Mecca of Jazz couldn’t even sustain a single radio station devoted to this quintessentially American art. How could you produce new stars if young musicians couldn’t even hear the music on the radio?

Then I heard this young trumpet player from New Orleans perform with the Herbie Hancock VSOP orchestra…and my spirit danced.  I knew he was going to be the next big thing the anointed one – having seen all the great innovators from Pops Armstrong to Freddie Hubbard live, I felt qualified to make the judgment – and history has proven me right…as it often does with my political prognostications.

Later I heard Wynton play the classical trumpet; a magnificent art that most jazz fans no know nothing about and many jazz musicians can’t play….I was amazed.  As a failed trumpeter I understand the technical requirements for performing the masterworks by the great European composers.  I know what embouchure is; I understand the difficulties of triple tonguing and circular breathing; I know how hard it is to achieve great intonation, and the complexity of fingering.  All of which a trumpeter must master in order to play the European classical repertoire. Yet Wynton makes it look so easy people who have no hands on experience trying to play the trumpet are clueless as to the degree of difficulty involved.

It’s not surprising that music for the trumpet is so difficult in European art music, especially the Baroque music Wynton is so fond of; the trumpet is, after all, their instrument.  I am presently writing a piece about Wynton’s influence on the great young classical trumpeters.  Most people will be shocked to discover how many of the principal trumpeters in the great symphony orchestras were inspired and tutored by Wynton’s performances.

Yet the classical trumpet is Wynton’s second language on the horn.  He is first and foremost a jazz trumpeter, who was raised by Ellis Maralis – a great pianist who is so devoted the art of Jazz piano that he named his son after a piano player, the marvelous Wynton Kelly, who was of Jamaican background – and he was tutored in the art of jazz by Alvin Bastise, a New Orleans clarinetist who is a master of Jazz and European classical music.

I watched as a member of the New York media as Wynton became the most sought after musician /commentator for the art of Jazz by virtue of his unique “skill set” as a bilingual trumpet virtuoso who was also a serious student of the history of Jazz and European art music; he was erudite, articulate, charming and funny.  Plus he was good looking and a fabulous dresser: he was a television producer’s dream! That’s how it happened; the role was thrust upon him even as other’s would have given anything to play the role.  That’s the real reason for all the hatin.

Much of Wynton’s style on and off the stage  came from his tutelage under the great writer Albert Murray, author of the single most important book on Afro-American music: Stomping the Blues,” and whom Duke Ellington said was “The hippest cat I know.”  In 1996 I presented a paper at a conference on Afro-American music held under the auspices of the European and US Associations of American Studies at the Sorbonne in Paris exploring this relationship titled: “The Influence of the Writings of Albert Murray on the Musical Compositions and Sartorial Style of Wynton Marsalis.  But the point is that for all of these reasons I have cited here, i.e. his myriad virtues, Wynton became a favorite of television producers and hosts: And it is the best thing that ever happened to Jazz.  In fact, I believe Wynton’s advocacy for the form as artist and advocate resurrected classic acoustic jazz – which is the highest expression of the art form.  And I am prepared to argue this point with anyone!

Wynton Conducting the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra

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A Master of his Trade

As a former history professor and co-founder of the first degree granting, freestanding, black studied department in the world – the WEB DuBois Department of Afro-American Studies at U-Mass Amherst, which awarded full Professorships in black music to Jazz Masters Max Roach and Archie Shepp – I know something about the history and cultural development of Afro-Americans, and I would argue that the Jazz at Lincoln Center program here in Manhattan is the most important cultural development in the history of black America!

And it definitely would not have happened without Wynton Marsalis.  In order to get a Jazz department in the Lincoln the first task was to convince the Princes and Powers at the Lincoln Center – the world’s greatest performance emporium – that Jazz was an art form worthy of inclusion in a cultural warehouse that was stocked with classical European arts: Ballet, Grand Opera, Chamber Music, and the New York Philharmonic.  Wynton was the ideal person to sell them on the artistic merit of Jazz precisely because he had won Grammy’s for the best Jazz and Classical instrumental performances – an incredible feat that no other musician in the world has repeated!  And they bought what he was selling to the tune of 150 million dollars.

That’s why Congressman Jerry Nadler, who represents the district, said on opening day of the 150 million facility – “If Yankee Stadium can be called The House that Babe Ruth built, then Jazz at Lincoln Center will henceforth be known as the House that Wynton built.”  As for the criticism of other musicians: I say bring them on!!!!!!  Like the late great Sugar Ray Robinson I love a good fight, although, I must confess, that thus far they wither like snow balls in the sun when they cross swords with me on this question.  However I would like to conclude this little discourse with the following observations about musicians and Wynton.

All of those I have heard criticize him are clearly his inferiors as musicians and promoters of the music.  I could name names but I won’t….unless my veracity is called into question …but I’d rather not go there because my intention here is to set the record straight about Wynton not rag on other musicians.  But if properly provoked I’ll sing like a canary.  For the moment I a representative anecdote that is characteristic of what I found investigating the gripes of Wynton’s critics among musicians will suffice.

There was this very well know jazz trumpeter who used to dog Wynton’s playing; said it didn’t have enough ‘grits’ or some such inexplicable foolishness.  So Wynton issued a challenge for him to come down to Lincoln center during a concert and “cut my head,” which is Jazz parlance for engaging in a competitive duel called “cutting sessions.”  After the challenge was issued Wynton told me “That joker ain’t gonna show up…I’ll bet money on it.”  He seemed so sure about this prediction that I hesitated to accept a wager that at first looked like easy money.  So I declined the offer and instead asked him how he could be so sure the other trumpeter wouldn’t show.  “Because he can sell all the Woof tickets he wants out in the streets,” said Wynton, “but he and I have practiced together and he knows the truth!”  As Wynton predicted the dude punked out!

The affect that Wynton has on other trumpet players reminds me of the way flute players responded to Hubert laws when he first showed on the scene, another ambidextrous musical genius.  Hubert scared everybody to death and it resulted in people saying dumb stuff like “his tone is too pretty,” or “he does not make enough mistakes” or “he plays like a machine.”  I recognized it as the baseless slander of jealous peers back then, and the criticism I have heard of Wynton today does not rise above that level in my estimation.  THEY ARE ALL JEALOUS HATERS!!!!!!!!!

The World’s Greatest Trumpeter?
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Gerald Wilson Thinks So!

However let me conclude on the upbeat.  While Wynton has his detractors he also has many ardent admirers among musicians.  Dr. Billy Taylor, the Dean of musician/critics, loved the ground Wynton walked on and considered him the best hope for the music’s survival and growth.  He told me that because of Wynton’s efforts to promote the music to a wider audience many of the musicians who criticize him are working more than ever.

When I wrote a big feature story for the Sunday Times of London on Betty Carter and the jazz youth festival she was hosting at the Majestic Theater and Brooklyn Academy of Music titled “School For Cats,” all of those brilliant young musicians – which included such virtuosi as pianist Cyrus Chestnut and drummer Adonis Rose – told me that one of the main reasons why they were seriously playing Jazz was because “Wynton came to my school and gave a talk on Jazz.”

At the time Wynton was in a little feud with Miles Davis, whom Wynton tells us in the interview with David Frost was his major influence.  I asked the Empress of Swing, who had seen and heard them all, what she thought of the beef.  “Miles is just jealous!” she said.  “I knew Miles when he was Wynton’s age and has never been the trumpeter that Wynton is.”

Maestro Wilson Conducting JALC Orchestra
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A Swinging Octogenarian

When I interviewed the legendary bandleader/arranger/composer Gerald Wilson – who also happens to be a trumpeter of long standing – I asked him what he thought of Wynton’s playing. He said without a moment’s hesitation: “Wynton Marsalis is the greatest trumpeter in the world!    One of the virtues of writing in this new digital medium that is not enjoyed by writers in print publications is the ability to create multi-media presentations.  Hence by virtue of You Tube I can demonstrate Maestro Wilson’s Claim.

I have selected two performances by Wynton Marsalis: a classical European composition and a wholly improvised jazz performance.  Both performances were chosen because of the technical demands on the artist, which require the highest level of virtuosity in each genre.  The extent of the difficulty an artist must overcome is the measure of their mastery of the horn.  In the first video Wynton performs “The Carnival of Venice.”  When the great composer of martial music John Phillip Sousa formed the US Marine Corps band he billed it as “The greatest Brass Band in the World!”

The brook of fire trumpet and cornet players had to cross in their auditions was to perform the Carnival of Venice,” a composition that contain myriad pit falls into which a hapless player will be devoured.  It is a piece that demands mastery of all the elements of trumpet performance.  The second video features Wynton playing Cherokee at break neck speed.  It was the composition that those who aspired to share the bandstand with the elite players had to perform, often in a jam session when all eyes were on you.

Whereas in European art music all solos are composed, with improvisation allowed only in cadenzas, a kind of extended ornament, in jazz extemporaneous coherent musical statements is the rule.  This demands the ability to create music at the speed of thought.  Thus the more complex the musical statement – which must be negotiated within the restrictions of complex harmonic changes and polyrhythmic pulses – dictate the level of virtuosity required to perform it.   To the untutored ear it may all sound the same but, as a matter of fact, they are vastly different.

Check them out, and you need not be highly tutored in musical performance in order to recognize the Genius on display here. And you will lose any desire to argue with Maestro Gerald Wilson when he declares: “Wynton Marsalis is the best trumpeter  that I have ever heard and I played with all the greats,” So there!  You have it from the lips of the Gods….I say fuck the haters!!!!!

 

He is the best that I have ever heard and I played with them all!!!” So there!  You have it from the lips of the Gods….fuck the haters!!!!!

Me and Dr. Robert O’Meely Droppin Science at the Sorbonne

Me and Robert O'Mealy

Exploring the relationship between Wynton and Albert Murray 1996
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Double click here to see Wynton Perform Carnival of Venice  
http://youtu.be/0-jDld11jhw
This video has a million and a half views!
Double click here to see Wynton perform Cherokee
http://youtu.be/9OtZrIjQuwA
Double click to see Wynton interviewed by David frost 
http://youtu.be/mFNIvo-tx2s
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Text by: Playthell Benjamin

All photos by: Frank Stewart – except pic from the Sorbonne

August 17, 2013

At The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame!

Posted in Cultural Matters, Music Reviews with tags , , , , on May 20, 2013 by playthell

              rock-and-roll-hall-of-fame-2013-15-1024     Q!  Still On the Block Droppin Science

 Rockin into History

The Rock and roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony was a remarkable evening by any accounting.  It was an evening of moving speeches, joyful reveries and reflections on the lives and works of the goddesses and Gods of American popular music; music that won hearts and influenced musicians around the world.  The argument about what represents art, and what’s mere commercial trash, is a long and tortuous one and I harbor no conceit that I can resolve it here; although I do believe that it is possible to distinguish between the two.  The problem is that few among us possess the combination of intelligence, taste, objectivity, technical knowledge and open mindedness to pull it off.  And even fewer are capable of recognizing when one succeeds or fails at it.

Hence engaging in such speculations are risky business; therefore I shall seek refuge in Duke Ellington’s axiom: “There are only two kinds of music: good and bad.”  I always took Duke to mean that each genre of music should be evaluated by its own standards, and by that measure there is greatness in every type of music.  Since this was the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction fete, the artists who performed were the crème de la crème of the Rock/Rhythm & Blues/Rap world.  And they really rocked the house!

There were several intoxicating highs and magic moments throughout the evening, as living legends were showered with extravagant panegyrics, then told their stories and thanked their fans for the love and support even as they were thanked for the memories.  All of the inductees had provided the background sounds to which their fans choreographed the drama of their lives.  Priceless memories of halcyon days and bright moments are enshrined in their melodies and verse; a song poetry that engages life’s triumphs and tribulations, the literature of the masses.

There were so many great songs sung on this occasion, and so many stellar performances, the choice of any act for special praise is almost as much a matter of personal taste as artistic merit. That said, my favorite performances were Jennifer Hudson’s tribute to the great disco diva Donna Summers; the tribute to Bluesman Albert King by the virtuoso blues guitarists John Mayer and Gary Clark Jr.; the reunion jam by hard rocker inductees Heart; Public Enemy, who were also enshrined in the Hall, brought the noise and reminded us when Hip Hop was attempting to address serious issues.

Usher’s evocation of Michael Jackson’s performance of Rock With Me was superb, and inductee Randy Newman’s performance of his marvelous song poetry while holding down the piano chair in the band, was beyond category.   Although songwriter Carol King can’t really sing – not when compared to real singers such as Jennifer Hudson – like her fellow tunesmith Bob Dillon, the power of their songs carry the performance.  And in any case she is Carol King, a living legend in the business of music, so her appearance of itself was a highlight of the evening.

Jennifer Hudson! 
28th Annual Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame Induction Ceremony - Show
Rockin the House

Heart!

28th Annual Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame Induction Ceremony - Show

They broke the Gender barrier in Hard Rock
 John Mayer and Gary Clark Jr. Stomping the Blues
28th Annual Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame Induction Ceremony - Show
Albert Kings Legacy Lives on

 Added to the great musical performances were some moving oratory; both in the nominating speeches and the responses of the Inductees.  Among the standouts from a torrent of eloquent tributes was the pioneering lady guitarist from Heart, whose induction speech recalled the limited employment possibilities for women when she began her career.  She summed it up by saying “women weren’t expected to rock,” and celebrated the vast distance women had traveled over the last half century.

A silver haired Randy Newman’s speech was riddled with self-deprecating humor while tossing a few barbs at the arbiters of popular music that decide who is worthy of induction in the Hall of Fame by suggesting that he had begun to believe that he would have to die to get in.   Cheech and Chong were outrageously funny in their induction speech for the legendary Producer Lou Adler, pointing out that he produced the greatest rock and roll stoner movie of all time, “Up In Smoke,” and promoted the path breaking June 1967 Monterey Music Festival that presented white acts like Janice Joplin and the Grateful Dead, to black acts such as Rhythm and Blues star Otis Redding, and Jimi Hendrix, the father of electric rock guitar.

A stunningly beautiful Kelly Rowland, groomed and decorated to the height of fashion, offered impassioned praise songs in behalf of Donna Summers’ induction that was one of the evening’s brightest moments.  Spike Lee and the legendary artist/activist Harry Belafonte both gave moving speeches on behalf of “Public Enemy,” the first Rappers to be enshrined in the Hall.  Spikes’ remarks were thoughtful and told us how he selected Chuck D. to write the signature tune for his innovative movie “Do The Right Thing.”  Chuck D. responded with a thoughtful and moving speech, in which he addressed all those who disparage Hip Hop as art even as he expressed deep gratitude to those who chose them for induction.  Clearly he saw it as a vindication for Rap music as a genre.

Public Enemy Brings tha Noise

28th Annual Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame Induction Ceremony - Show

But Are They Real  Revolutionaries?

Despite the usual eloquence and intelligence of Harry Belafonte’s remarks, he quickly transgressed the boundaries of legit compliment and lapsed into hyperbole as he declared the group “revolutionaries.”  I don’t know how much Harry really knows about the group, but I was writing about the Rap scene at the Village Voice when they burst upon the scene in the 90’s and addressed that claim at the time.

Some people had begun to argue that Rappers were the new spokesmen for black people, the 90’s counterparts of 1960’s leaders such as student protests leaders Stokley Carmichael and H. Rap Brown. And they pointed to Chuck D. and his rapid exhortatory style as evidence or their claim.  Some even compared them to Dr. King and Minister Malcolm X.  I thought such talk was dangerous folly at the time and I am even more convinced today.

To begin with the sixties leaders were involved in actual struggle, organizing people to empower themselves against vicious foes who demonstrated on numerous occasions that murder was an acceptable method of suppressing their efforts to induce change through peaceful struggle.  And the SNNC organizers worked for subsistence wages in the most violent areas of the south.  And leaders like Malcolm and King spent many years studying – in theory and practice – preparing for their leadership roles in a movement that changed the most powerful nation in the world – and they were both murdered on the job.

To refer to Public Enemy as “revolutionaries” is to cheapen their sacrifice.  Harry should have known better, as a performing artist himself he should know that most writers of protest songs are working from inspiration and intuition, rather than an in-depth understanding of the problems they sing about.  And they are clueless as to how to go about solving them.

The apex of the evening for me was the induction of Quincy Jones.  In an elaborate introduction by Oprah Winfrey – in which she pointed out that not only had Quincy produced the two biggest selling records in history – Michael Jackson’s Thriller and We Are The World, which featured the biggest acts in the business – Oprah reminded us that Quincy has been nominated for the Grammy 71 times and won it 27 times, the most in the history of the prestigious award.  Then Quincy walked humbly to the stage.

Since he is used to making his statements with music, Quincy’s remarks were simply and to the point.  Yet despite the absence of oratorical flourishes, no statement uttered on this evening prolific with verbal extravagance was more moving or weighted with gravitas.  He began with a tongue in cheek signification about finally being discovered after nearly 70 years in the music business.  Then he became deadly serious as he told us how he grew up in a Chicago neighborhood where Al Capone’s gang operated and constantly finding the bodies of murder victims lying about.

He assured us that he was heading for a similar fate, the grave yard or prison, although he was only eleven!  Then one night while participating in a burglary he stumbled across a piano.  He sat down and pressed the keys and it changed his life.  At that moment he decided that he wanted to learn how to play music.  It was obviously the best decision he ever made because his mastery of music rewarded him with a fairy tale life that took him all over the world and it seemed like he spoke to everybody twice.  It was a gift that never stopped giving.

The highpoint of this extraordinary testament to the magic power of music came when pointed out that his greatest lessons came from masters like Duke, Ellington, Count Basie, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and his brilliant contemporary and life-long friend Ray Charles.  Quincy Jones went on to excoriate the music critics and cultural historians for not giving these great master musicians their props, despite the fact that their contribution to 20th century music is second to none.

He looked into the camera and declared to the world that he is certain a hundred years hence historians will correctly view them as America’s version of Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, et al.  Then Quincy told the surprised audience, who had come to worship at the altar of “Rock and Roll,” that everything they do comes from gospel, blues, and Jazz which is the basis of the world’s most popular music – whatever name they choose to call it.  To which I uttered a hearty “AMEN!”

 Back In The Day

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The Master at Work!

 Quincy and Michael

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They Made History!

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Playthell G. Benjamin

Harlem, New York

May 20, 2013

Vilaida Snow: Forgotten Genius!

Posted in Cultural Matters, Music Reviews with tags , , on May 14, 2013 by playthell
       imagesCAT5TY0B
A virtuoso trumpeter / conductor who performed with the greatest male bands

This Lady Could Do It All!

In her memoir about the world of American show business doing the golden age of Hollywood, the famous actress Maureen O’Hara said the producers were always looking for performers who were “triple threats,” meaning they could sing, dance and act.  However she forgot to mention the fact that the performer also had to be white.  This is the only logical explanation as to why Valaida Snow was not the greatest star of the era, for she was a triple threat and more.  None of the white stars of the Hollywood musical extravaganzas could match her talent.

In his book “The World of Earl Hines,” one of a series of books by the indefatigable British Jazz historian Stanley Dance, in which Jazz musicians tell us in their own words about their life and work, there are some poignant descriptions of Valaida Snow told by the great pianist and bandleader Earl “Fatha” Hines.  One of the greatest figures of twentieth century American music, a major innovator on the piano, and a seminal figure in the development of the modern complex Afro-American instrumental art music popularly known as “Jazz,” Hines performed in every type of venue imaginable.  Thus he is as reliable an eyewitness as we are likely to find; an unimpeachable source.

“Valaida was very versatile and very musical” Hines recalls.  “She could sing, dance and produce a show.  She could play trumpet, violin and piano…She had all the physical attractions one could want in a girl, and she made a heck of an impression.  All this came out after she had begun working at the Sunset, and I thought she was the greatest girl I had ever seen.”  Hines went on to describe her performance, “In her act she had seven different pairs of shoes set out front, and she’d do a dance in each of them – soft shoes, adagio shoes, tap shoes, Dutch clogs, and I don’t know what else, but last of all Russian boots.”  Hines went on to tell us: “She’d do a chorus in each, and on on the tap number she tapped just like Bojangles.”

Now, that’s a hell of a claim, since Bill “Bojangles” Robinson was unquestionably the greatest tap dancer in the world at the time…and arguably is the most influential figure in the history of tap dancing.  All of the great masters in the complex Afro-American art of rhythm tap dancing – whose complex rhythms influenced some of the greatest drummers in the jazz tradition, as Professor Jacqui Malone ably documents in her seminal text “Steppin on the Blues” – pay homage to Bojangles as the patron saint of their art.  Including the peerless Sammy Davis Jr.  And since Earl Hines played for Bojangles’ many times – often as his sole accompaniment since “Bo” didn’t really like to use drummers because they often interfered with the complicated rhythms he was tapping out – Hines had an intimate knowledge of Robinson’s art.

Hence when he compared Valaida’s performance to Bojangles, this was no picayune matter: it was nothing less than a sensational compliment.  And he is not the only one who was astonished by her dancing skills.  “Louis Armstrong had a fit when he saw her,” Hines tells us. ‘”Boy I never saw anything that great’ he told me.  She broke up the house every time.” Hines said.  However Louie Armstrong grew up in the flourishing show business world of New Orleans and had worked in Chicago, and New York, not to mention the countless performances he had played in every section of the country; so he had seen plenty!

A Dancer’s Dancer
imagesCAXHTLGF
No ordinary Hoofer

Hines had witnessed all the major acts in American show business strut their stuff – white and black – but since most of the biggest white acts were employing Afro-American cultural forms as the basic ingredients of their act, once you saw the black acts you had seen the state of the art.  This had been true since the end of the 19th century, but even before that, ever since the rise of black faced minstrelsy performed by white Americans in burnt cork during the 1840’s and becoming the most popular form of theatrical performance throughout the balance of the 1800s, but minstrelsy was mostly parody of black culture.

By the turn of the century, with the rise of Ragtime music and the Cake Walk, Afro-American music and dance reigned supreme.  That’s why the presence of famous white performers at black performance venues was common fare and is mentioned in virtually every account of the period.  In a fascinating reflection on the 1890’s contained in his classic memoir of blacks in New York City, Black Manhattan, James Weldon Johnson describes the rich creative milieu at the Marshall Hotel – a black owned hotel and nightclub located in the “Tenderloin District” on the West side of Manhattan in the 50’s.   This area was also known as “Black Bohemia” because so many Afro-American artists resided there. Performers of all kind stayed at the Marshall, especially musicians, and they performed in the club.  Hence Johnson tells us that white performers were always in the audience “looking for Negro stuff” to incorporate in their acts.

So thorough was the wholesale pillage of Afro-America’s cultural storehouse by white performers seeking material for their blackface “coon shows,” that the great Afro-American vaudevillian team, Bert Williams and George Walker, billed their act “Too Real Coons,” when they got together in San Francisco during 1893. Although they were on the other side of the continent they encountered the same situation as that described by Johnson in New York.

A great poet, lyricist, librettist, lawyer, and diplomat who would become the first black Executive secretary of the NAACP, Johnson was no ordinary witness.  An early twentieth American Renaissance Man, Johnson, in collaboration with his composer brother J. Rosamond Johnson and Bob Cole, a gifted tunesmith and choreographer, wrote a series of musical revues that contributed to the formation of the Broadway musical, and were also among the principal creators of the American popular song with hits like “Under the Bamboo Tree” and patriotic songs such as “Rally round the Flag Boys.”  As a savvy lawyer as well as a creative artist, it is not surprising that James Weldon was also a founder of ASCAP – American Society of Composers Authors and Publishers- the principal agency that protects the royalty rights of musicians today.

And the evidence of Johnson’s charge of white cultural pilfering is everywhere.  From Paul Whiteman being acclaimed the “King of Jazz” in the 1920’s, to Bennie Goodman being promoted as The King Of Swing, in the 1940’s, to Elvis Pressley being declared the “King of Rock and Roll” in the 1950’s and 60’s, to John Travolta and the Bee Gee’s becoming the “Kings of Disco,” to Slim Shady being dubbed the Master poet of Hip Hop.

What all of these acts have in common is that they built acts based on Afro-American cultural ingredients, yet they made more money than the black creators because of institutionalized racism – which throughout the 19th century and most of the twentieth century, barred black acts from performing in many of the most lucrative venues.  This allowed white performers to get away with performing mediocre versions of Afro-American -Acts to all white audience that had never seen the real thing…and get fabulously rich and famous doing it.

This fact does much to explain why the most talented female performer of the period is a forgotten figure in the history of American performing arts.  Although she was a big star in her time in the black community, she never received her just recognition in the world of American show business at large.  And she is still denied her proper place in the American cultural pantheon, due to a general ignorance of the role of race in shaping American popular culture abetted by cultural and gender chauvinism practiced by Euro-Americans males and men in general.  Hence Valaida suffered from a double whammy: racism and sexism.

When we consider the fact that Valaida Snow was as good a singer as a dancer, plus a virtuoso on several instruments that have nothing in common – string, brass and keyboard – she was arguably not only the greatest woman performer in American show business…but the greatest performer of her time male or female.  Her versatility was astounding.

Valaida as Headliner

valaida_37_music_cover_web

 Master of Several Arts

Earl Hines tells us:

“After the Sunset closed she went on the road and was in several big shows. The last time I saw here before she came back to Chicago again, she was with Nobel Sissle and Hubie Blake in a show called “Rhapsody in Black.”  They had about thirty musicians and she conducted the whole band in the first part of the show.  Then she had her own spot, and after that she did a number with the Berry Brothers.”

Musicians like Sissle and Blake, and dancers such as the Berry Brothers, were among the best in American show business.  The fact that Valaida was performing with them is further evidence of her multi-talented genius.

Sissle and Blake in 1926
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They wrote and performed all kinds of Music including Broadway shows

Nobel Sissle and Hubie Blake were great song writers who penned hit songs, at a time when the music business was in transition from an industry largely based on the sale of sheet music to one based on record sales.   And many of their most popular tunes originated in Broadway musicals they wrote.  For instance the tune “I’m Just Wild about Harry” was introduced in their hit Broadway musical “Shufflin Along” in 1922, and became so popular that it was adopted as Harry Truman’s campaign song in his run for the presidency almost thirty years later.  And the Berry Brothers was one of the premier tap dance acts.  Insofar as show business was concerned, Valaida was “moving in high cotton” as the old folks used to say when I was a boy in Florida.

 Sheet Music for….

I'm_Just_Wild_About_Harry_1b

The Smash hit
 The Berry Brothers

THE BERRY BROTHERS 

 A Fabulous Dance Team

Although Valaida Snow was excluded from exhibiting her talents in many venues because of her beautiful tan skin by people suffering from “Whiteitis” – a bizarre malady that makes white people believe that the earth and all its bounty belongs exclusively to them, – there was a large black audience and she worked all the time entertaining them on the TOBA circuit.  Again Earl Hines informs us “When the show finished Ed Fox got in touch with her and had her come to the Grand Terrace.”

This was a premiere nightclub in Chicago, a fabulous place that catered to an Afro-American audience, but Earl “Fatha” Hines’ orchestra was the house band and therefore people of all races and ethnicities who love great music was drawn to the spot….just as they had been draw to the music and posh ambience of the  “Cabaret Du Champion,” the fabulous Chicago Nightclub owned by Jack Johnson, the first black heavy-weight champion of the world, a generation earlier.

Earl “Fatha” Hines
Earl+Hines
Virtuoso Pianist and Bandleader

The great music also attracted Al Capone and his gang, who secretly took control of the club.  Big Al loved the band and “Fata” Hines paints an intriguing portrait of his relationship with the famous Italian Gangster. “Along with so many of the bad traits people said Al Capone had, he had some good traits, too.  He used to run a restaurant twenty fours a day where poor people could get free meals, and he took over real estate where these same poor people could move in and live.  He used to come by the club at night, and if I met him at the door he might put his hand up and straighten my handkerchief, and there would be a hundred dollar bill.  Or he might give me a handshake and put a twenty dollar bill in my hand.”  From Hine’s descriptions here damned if Big Al don’t sound like Robin Hood.

A Contemporary Billboard
Grand-Terrace-Earl-Hines-Poster
The Greatest Jazz Pianist In America?

This is the world that Valaida Snow entered when she took the gig at the Grand Terrace.  And she was a smash!  Fatha Hines tells us “I can’t remember who was headlining, but she came next after a great dance couple from Cuba.  She was what we call an ingénue then, in front of the chorus.  She sang The Very Thought Of You, and that kind of thing.”   Hines was also impressed by her ability to deliver a song in character.  “I always remember, too, how she used to sing Brother, Can you Spare a Dime She would come out all raggedy and wearing an old cap on her head.  During the Depression she would break people up with that song.”

Anyone who has listened carefully to Yip Harbrough’s clever, biting and cynical lyrics cannot fail to recognize its sharp critique of the callous greed of the plutocrats.  And the insightful observer can readily discern a class consciousness in the perspectives of Capone and Hines – the gangster and the artist.  It seems clear that both were poor boys struggling to survive and thrive in a country with a rich ruthless chauvinistic WASP ruling class, who held lower class Italians in slightly less contemot than Afro-Americans, the best way they could.

And like jazz fans of all backgrounds, Capone dug Hine’s band.   As it turns out, Valaida was not just a great performer at the Grand Terrace, but she quickly rose to producer of the show, which required her to bend both the gangsters and macho male musicians to her will.  And she manipulated them as skillfully as she manipulated the keys of her trumpet.

After spending the summer months on tour with Valaiada Snow, Earl Hines was captivated by her talent and beauty and marveled at her polymorphic guise once they were back at the Grand Terrace. “When we came back,” Hinds recalls, “they were having trouble with producers and directors. ‘Valaida,’ Fox  said ‘do you know anything about producing’ ‘sure’ she said. ‘I can put the show on for you.’”  I guess Ed Fox,  the owner of record, had seen enough of her versatility to suspect that she might be capable of doing anything in show business.

So Fox took a chance.  “After all,” says Hines, “she could dance and she could sing and she knew what to do.  She put that show together herself.  She saved him an awful lot of money, too, because whenever a new show went on there had to be a lot of new arrangements for it.  She was so talented she picked out numbers from the bands book that could be used, memorized them, and hummed or scatted them to the chorus.  Then when we came in the rehearsals were very short, because the girls already knew the band’s routines.  Bubbling over was one of the numbers she produced.  Beer and wine had come back after prohibition, and that was the inspiration for the song.  She always knew what she wanted and nobody could fool her.”  In reading Hine’s reminiscences about Valaida, one should remember that these extravagant accolades are coming from a great artists working at the apex of show business.

Despite living in a country whose ruling ideology was white supremacy, enduring constant insults intended to enforce the myth of white superiority, and barred from displaying her genius in the major entertainment emporiums of her native land, Valaida was nevertheless a star in her world “behind the veil” as Dr. Dubois described the segregated world of black America, and she lived like one.  “She had a Mercedes and a chauffeur,” says Hines, “and she used to send him to pick me up and take me home…She used to dress luxuriously and look very, very glamorous.  She was just a beautiful and exceptionally talented woman.”

Valaida As Featured Trumpet soloist
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A Beautiful and Exceptionally Talented Woman

As an instrumentalist Valaida Snow was top shelf, a bonafide member of the Jazz virtuosi that shaped the art during the first half of the twentieth century.  Indeed her virtuosity was seemingly preordained.  Born into a family of musicians in Chattanooga Tennessee in 1903, she showed an early talent for music.  Hence aside from the three instruments she was playing when Earl Hines met her – piano, violin and trumpet – her mother taught her to play the cello, mandolin, banjo, harp, accordion, clarinet and saxophone.  She was a gifted musician indeed.

Her broad knowledge of music and not only propelled her to the top ranks of instrumental performers during a golden age of show business before television when people went out to see live performances, and before the disco replaced the dance hall bands with recorded music.  It was a period when there were more famous instrumentalists than singers.  Hence you had to be sharp on your axe or you would be cut from the band in the Darwinian world of the Jazz orchestra.

The great William “Count” Basie describes the cut throat competition among musicians for chairs in the great bands of the era in his autobiography “Good Morning Blues,” written in collaboration with Albert Murray, a brilliant writer and jazz critic who danced to those bands in his youth.  To illustrate the point Basie tells a story about being slightly late to the band stand and hearing another guy playing his butt off in his piano seat.  He didn’t have to listen long to recognize that his goose was cooked; he went right over to the club owner and asked for a job as a valet parking the cars of the guests.

Valaida Conducting the Boys

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The Lady who Swings the Band

Thus in assessing Valaida Snow’s musicianship it is enough to know that during her career she played with the Fletcher Henderson, Count Basie and Earl Hines, and along with Blanche Calloway – whose pioneering career I shall examine in a future essay – was the first woman to conduct a male orchestra, to recognize her outsize talent as a musician.  She was so admired by her fellow musicians she was featured as a soloist with major white bands on occasion.

Had it not been for the racial taboos and gender discrimination of American society at the time, those bands might well have been fighting over her.  After all, aside from being beautiful and could sing and dance, she was so good as a trumpet soloist her nickname was “Little Louie” because she had a big sound like Louis Armstrong  – the father of jazz trumpet, who called her “the world’s second best trumpet player.”

Although for most of her career Valaida performed in black nightclubs and theaters like New York’s Apollo, Chicago’s Regal, the Howard in Washington and the  Earl theater in Philly; the so-called “chittlin circuit.”   She also appeared in Broadway shows, like “Chocolate Dandies,” written by Sissle and Blake, where she was also required to act.  And like many great Afro-American performing artists, her friend Josephine Baker topping the list as the toast of Paris – she was a sensation in Europe as an instrumentalist and in Musical theater.  She even hung out socially with European aristocrats.

A tragic event occurred in her life during one of her many European forays in the early forties that shattered Valaida’s career.  While concertizing with her all-female orchestra in Denmark, she was arrested by the Nazi’s on morals and drug charges and sent to Wester-Faengle, concentration camp for two years during 1940-42.  Incredibly, Valaida was the victim of the motion of history; she was caught up in the swirl of world events.

As a sexually liberated black female jazz musician who appeared to be batting from both sides of the plate, liked getting high and playing around with white girls; she was viewed as a menace by the NAZI Gestapo - those murderous thugs entrusted with enforcing the objectives of the Third Reich.  And for blond Aryan women the Nazi objective for them was to produce pure Aryan warriors to serve the Thousand Year Reich.  Thus they dispised any sign of lesbianism or race mixing.

It appears that Valaida was oblivious to the political situation she was in.  Although it is hard to imagine how that could be so naive, the great Afro-American novelist John A. Williams imagined it in marvelous detail in “Clifford’s Blues,” his gripping and insightful novel about a gay black American jazz instrumentalist and singer who gets arrested on morals charges – drugs and homosexuality – and sentenced to imprisonment in a concentration camp.  (  see my review under the “book Review” section )

Williams uses this story to explore the entire question of sex, race and culture in Nazi Germany.  It is such a finely told tale that I would recommend it to anybody who would like to experience vicariously what Valaida’s experience might have been like.  Clifford, whose story is the raison d’etre of this finely realized novel, was having such a great time in Weimar Berlin – where cocaine could be purchased from the newspaper vendors, gay nightclubs flourished, and his black complexion only enhanced the attractiveness of his talent.  Cliff was the toast of the gay scene in Berlin and everybody wanted a piece of his dark meat.

Hence when he saw those crazy guys in brown shirts running around the place harassing Jews he was just glad that for once it wasn’t black people getting the shaft and went about his business.  It wasn’t until he was nabbed by the Nazi’s that he really notice how much things had changed for a gay black musician playing inferior “jungle music” in Germany.  This tale bears such an uncanny resemblance to Valaida’s story that I am compelled to wonder if that’s where John A. Williams got the idea.

Like Clifford, I’d bet Valaida was equally clueless about the political situation in Denmark at the time – since this had been one of the most sexually and racially liberal countries in the world before the Nazi invasion.  It is the ultimate irony that in liberal Denmark Valaida should encounter, and be victimized by, a master race theory the Nazi’s imported from the US – a consequence of Adolph Hitler becoming obsessed with the racial theories proffered by American Eugenicist Madison Grant, in his racist tome “The Passing of the Great Race.” At some point she must have recognized the similarity between the Nazi attitudes toward Jews and the attitude of the white south toward her on people.  That’s why she, and millions of other Afro-Americans, fled the south.

Valaida’s experience in the Nazi concentration camp wrecked her physically and psychologically; she was never the same performer again.  Already in middle age, she was unable to fully retrieve her artistic prowess, although she continued to perform in various venues until the 1950’s, when she toured with a group called “The Honey Drippers,” who were pioneers in a new music that would soon sweep the world: Rhythm & Blues.  On May 30, 1956, while in New York City, Valaida finally danced and joined the musical Gods.

Watch Valaida in Perform in a French movie

http://youtu.be/DjUe_uRt0PU

Watch her perform on a soundie

http://youtu.be/9btbAUV2raE

View and interesting video on Valaida Snow
http://youtu.be/r6e7ye-fiJA
check out Valaida with the Duke ellington Orchestra sing caravan and taking a trumpet solo
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uj2N18ZfZAY&feature=share&list=RD02r6e7ye-fiJA
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Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York

May 14, 2013

The Boss Backs Barack!

Posted in Music Reviews on October 19, 2012 by playthell

 

Two Powerful Voices

 On the Power of Art in Politics

The fact that singer/songwriter Bruce Springsteen has cast his support behind President Obama is no picayune affair; notwithstanding the attempts of some pundits to dismiss it’s importance.   When “The Boss” sings “We must care for our own;” then stands before a multitude of screaming admirers, looks into the cameras, and tells millions of listeners around the country: “I believe President Obama feels this in his bones!” it matters.

It could even sway white workers to vote for the President in Ohio, where the president already enjoys a commanding lead.   And Bruce is paired with former President Bill Clinton, the wildly popular Elder Statesman of Democratic politics, who is a master political strategist and spell binding orator. But nothing has the power to move people’s emotions like music.

For centuries poets and philosophers spouted lines of wisdom and truth over the strumming of lutes.  The greatest of these became famous troubadours and traveled from town to town spreading joy and enlightenment.  Even in a culturally crass era like today, when our society is moving to the rhythms of a clockwork world, and there seems no place for poets to be somebody, Bruce Springsteen, the Poet Laureate of popular song, is still packin em in everywhere he goes.

It is self-evident that he’s saying something that touches the souls of the people, because unlike jazz or European classical music, which showcase the art of the instrumentalist, popular song is word driven – especially after the rise of the politically conscious song/poets of the 1960’s, led by Bob Dylan.   Bruce has paid the cost to be “The Boss” by writing a stream of songs that combine spiritual depth and intellectual gravitas in such a way that even his ideological enemies find them irresistible as campaign fighting songs – songs that could inspire their partisans to action.

The Republicans made that mistake with Born in the USA, and the Clinton camp made the same mistake during the last Democratic primary campaign.   Chris Christy, the governor of Bruce’s home state, has all but prostrated himself before the The Boss in an effort to get him to perform at some event in his behalf.  I can recall no instance, now or in the distant past, when a powerful politician has so shamelessly genuflected before a poet!  Not even Sweet Willie Shakespeare was so honored.  This is because everybody wants a Bruce Springsteen Song as their rallying cry.

The power of music to move the masses is well understood by students of transformative movements, smart politicians too. That’s why every time a reactionary regime with totalitarian tendencies comes to power in the world they either ban or attempt to control the music.  This is true whether the regime is guided by religious imperatives such as the Islamic governments of Iran and Afghanistan – which banned music from the airwaves – or the German NAZI’s, whose policy was to use all art forms and celebrate artists so long as their art served the objectives of the Third Reich.

Thus film maker Leni Refinsthal and composer Richard Wagner both found favor as heroes of the Reich.  Refinsthal made the classic documentary The Olympiad, which documented the Berlin Olympic Games, and the propaganda film the changed the world: Triumph of the Will.  In the works Richard Wagner, such as The Ring Cycle, Hitler found a model of the pre-Christian warrior nation whose love of war and conquest found expression in the Nazi Party.  Such is the power of great art to promote political ideals.

Hence the clever ad-men who conjure up campaign propaganda try and snatch sound bites from Springsteen songs even if their overall themes and basic philosophy are ideologically opposed to their candidate’s platform. So rich is the musical offerings in his oeuvre.  That’s why it’s a very big deal that the Boss backs Barack!

Making his Plea for the President

He believes President Obama stands with the people

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Playthell G. Benjamin

Harlem, New York

October 19, 2012

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