The Function of Education Is to Teach One to Think Intensively and to Think Critically

Selma is wonderful! Highly recommended. I saw it yesterday at BAM with a packed house. So, so good. Kudos to my man Jason Moran for the score; however the real revelation for this viewer was David Oyelowo as Dr. King.  Tom Wilkinson as LBJ was terrific too. When Oyelowo and Wilkinson were onscreen together it was simply electric. Now I need to catch up with the other work of director Ava DuVernay.

Recent reading includes two books especially relevant to MLK day:

Carl Van Vechten was multi-talented and prolific novelist, partier, photographer, and critic. He turns up everywhere when considering New York City in the 20’s and 30’s. Emily Bernard has focused on the most controversial part of his legacy in Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance: A Portrait in Black and White.

The blurb from Elizabeth Alexander on the back of the book couldn’t be better:

An intrepid scholar, Bernard dives right into the waters of racial misunderstanding, political incorrectness, and unfettered love that drove Van Vechten’s career. This is a passionate, dead-serious exploration of and meditation on nothing less than negrophilia and its cultural yield.

I knew Bernard previously thanks to her superb essay “Teaching the N-Word,” where she mentions frequently using Van Vechten’s 1926 novel N–r Heaven in class. In A Portrait in Black and White Bernard has the opportunity to unpack N–r Heaven and its perennially provocative title in detail. It is simply a fascinating analysis.

Besides Van Vechten, I learned a lot more about James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and many other major figures of the Renaissance. I can fake my way through a discussion of black jazz of this era but I still have a lot of homework to do about fiction, poetry, and the visual arts. Thanks to Bernard I’m more intrigued than ever.

Read Bernard’s post on her relationship to Van Vechten and the genesis of this book at Yale Press.

Ed Berger does jazz history a special service by getting to know his heroes while working on biographies that end up being unusually definitive. I was impressed by Berger’s big book on Benny Carter; now we have Softly, with Feeling: Joe Wilder and the Breaking of Barriers in American Music. Berger showed a final copy to the trumpet player shortly he died last year.

Wilder was a superb musician, someone of whom the phrase “could play anything” almost sells the matter short. Interestingly, in the book Wilder himself says that he was a more natural classical musician first, that playing jazz was more of an acquired study.

This is rare admission to make. Herbie Hancock told me the same thing in conversation once, but I didn’t really believe him, as Hancock has done so much with so many forms of black dance music in a manner that seems as natural as breathing. In Wilder’s case, this claim scans as more likely, at least in sense that his hard-to-find classical recital on Golden Crest is simple and perfect, not to mention that he spent his whole life in the studios, on society gigs, in Broadway pits, and even doing the occasional orchestral performance. (Apparently the exposed trumpet part in Petrushka was a Wilder specialty.)

It is easy to regret that there is not enough Wilder in free-wheeling jazz blowing sessions. Berger highlights the 1956 quartet date with Hank Jones, Wendell Marshall and Kenny Clarke Wilder ‘n Wilder, especially a long and groovy “Cherokee” with impeccable taste, charming melodic invention, and sovereign chops. 

But Berger also makes it crystal clear that playing jazz was just part of Wilder’s story. Breaking of Barriers in American Music lives up to its title as Wilder helps integrate the Armed Forces, Broadway, staff orchestras, and symphonic orchestras.  I was especially impressed with Berger’s research in the long chapter “A Dream Realized: Return to Classical Music (1964-1974),” much of which concerns Wilder only indirectly.

Read Berger’s 2001 profile of Wilder in JazzTimes.

Blacks in classical music is a troubled topic, then and now. Last week on Twitter, saxophonist and composer Steve Lehman referenced a worthy essay by George Lewis, “Improvised Music after 1950: Afrological and Eurological Perspectives.”

Lewis, a brilliant man, is really on to something.

In developing a hermeneutics of improvisative music, the study of two major American postwar real-time traditions is key. These traditions are exemplified by the two towering figures of 1950s American experimental musics–Charlie “Bird” Parker and John Cage. The work of these two crucially important music-makers has had important implications not only within their respective traditions but intertraditionally as well. The compositions of both artists are widely influential, but I would submit that it is their real-time work that has had the widest impact upon world musical culture. The musics made by these two artists, and by their successors, may be seen as exemplifying two very different conceptions of real-time music-making. These differences encompass not only music but areas once thought of as “extra-musical,” including race and ethnicity, class, and social and political philosophy.

Lewis than goes on to bash Cage for not appreciating jazz. This lovely bit is really the heart of the matter:

John Cage’s critique of jazz-well presented in his 1966 interview with the jazz critic Michael Zwerin-is of relatively little value as music criticism but may serve us well here as a textbook example of the power relationships that Fiske has recognized. In response to Zwerin’s query about his thoughts on jazz, Cage replies, “I don’t think about jazz, but I love to talk, so by all means, come on up” (Zwerin 1991,161).

To this African-American observer, situated in the 1990s, the interview should perhaps have ended there. From a 1960s perspective, however, we are in the presence of power, as two white males prepare to discuss “the trouble with black people” without, in the declining days of American high media apartheid, having to worry about a response. Even on a subject to which he freely admitted his lack of attention, Cage’s opinion was apparently deemed sufficiently authoritative, by the structures of media power that decide such things, for the interview to continue and, finally, to be published and reprinted.

I have two problems with Lewis’s essay. The first is the same that I have with his essential book A Power Stronger than Itself: The A.A.C.M. and American Experimental Music: a strange lack of discussion about rhythm. To me, all the true virtuosos of jazz (or Afrological or BAM or anything else you prefer to call it) are virtuosos of rhythm almost before they are virtuosos of anything else. At the very least, when separating jazz and classical players at an audition where they have to play both musics, inevitably the jazz cats will be able to play the notes of whatever classical piece (as long as it’s not too hard) but the classical cats won’t be able to play any uncomplicated jazz with the right kind of beat.

George Lewis can swing on his trombone. I’ve heard him do it! So I don’t know why he avoids the words “rhythm” or “swing” in his eight paragraphs about Bird and bebop. With all due respect, surely the Langston Hughes origin story about bebop, that it comes from

…The police beating Negroes’ heads . . . that old club says, ‘BOP! BOP! . . . BE-BOP! . . . That’s where Be-Bop came from, beaten right out of some Negro’s head into them horns.

is simply less accurate than that those accents come from ancient, exceedingly complex and intellectual Afro-Cuban drums.

But maybe Lewis is acting like some of his elders, not telling the truth about how the music gets made to protect the secrets from getting out. (I understand that discretionary attitude, although of course I wage postmodern warfare on it weekly from my outpost here at DTM.)

The other thing that bothers me about Lewis’s essay is the general conceit of comparing Charlie Parker to John Cage. I respect Cage, of course, but the idea of putting him next to Bird is simply ridiculous. Bird is so much greater. Cage isn’t even fit to shine Bird’s shoes.

Still, it’s good — especially on MLK day — to have Lewis remind me that this opinion may not be so obvious in all circles, even in spheres usually considered to be moderately informed about music.

On a lighter note, my wife Sarah Deming dug up the retro local access madness of Star and Buc Wild, the “Universal Playerhaters,” which she called “the best TV show ever.”

Six parts from 1999 are on YouTube. It’s totally genius. My man is quiet Buc Wild, who says little (he’s usually eating) yet somehow complements every moment perfectly. Big ups also to the tasty set. Part 4 is a good entry point, although all the clip contain comedy gold. (NSFW?)