Graham Lock, Blutopia

978-0-8223-2440-9_prBlutopia is not the first of Graham Lock’s books I’ve read. I’d gone to the library, having started a Sun Ra kick (transformed, over the read, to an Ellington kick, to Braxton), and found this on the shelf in the section, which unfortunately doesn’t actually have a straight biography on Ra. This worked.

Put briefly, the book relates–out of chronological order, significantly–the work of Sun Ra, Duke Ellington, and Anthony Braxton through their relationships to ideas of the Black past and future. While Ellington might superficially seem the odd man out, I was aware enough of his agenda (“agenda” sounds pejorative, but it’s not) to know that while he comes from a different era he fits with the other two in the sense of taking an approach to music as not only making a bunch of records but making, as do Ra and Braxton, philosophical, ethical, and historical arguments.

An undercurrent in the book involves the general inadequacy of actually-existing critical writing on Black music generally and what we call “jazz” in particular. Critics are generally white and the best-intentioned carry with them a cultural baggage that leaves them prone to misinterpret the music and musicians. Lock as much as any white critic I’ve read successfully self-corrects for his own baggage and given this alone is worth the read. There is a type of anti-racist white person who displays his or her understanding of race, which may be very solid on its own merits, in an attempt, impossible at this moment, to extricate himself or herself from white privilege, or at least from the subjective feelings of guilt it brings. It’s a clever form of the classically white privileged sense of personal purity. Anyway, this really doesn’t seem to be Lock’s motive. Above all, he is moved by the experience of the music and by a sense that his role is to learn from the musicians, for whom he clearly has a deep, genuine respect and, in the case of Braxton with whom he has worked closely over decades, real friendship.

In a nutshell, then, Lock’s point is that none of the three musicians here understood their own music by correlating their work to some European aesthetic, despite the fact that the white critical establishment viewed and continues to view all three precisely through that European aesthetic lens. Sun Ra, then, becomes a kook, if a talented one. Ellington and Braxton both somehow become “less black” in their aesthetic. Ellington’s lengthier work, “Black, Brown, and Beige,” to take an example, becomes an attempt to adopt European symphonic norms in a jazz band setting, while the influence of Stockhausen and Cage on Braxton is overemphasized to the extent that it obscures all other discussion of how his music developed. Lock takes the radical step of suggesting that what these people said about their own work and selves should be taken seriously. “Black, Brown, and Beige,” far from looking to European symphonic models, was to Ellington of greater length than his previous work and more complex in its structure for the simple reason that he was telling a longer and more complex story, that of black people in America. Braxton for his part stresses that his is not an intellectual music but a spiritually functional one, and that his drawing from cosmopolitan sources is an entirely African approach.

I treat myself by getting a book out of the jazz section of the library to read. It’s rare that I don’t plow through it quickly–only when I find the basic argument offensive will I not bother finishing it, and while I will at times disagree with an author it’s rare that I find one genuinely offensive. Lock, though, I knew from past experience and I trusted him. Blutopia did not betray that trust. Truthfully, given the paucity of writers on his particular subjects (save Ellington, and particularly with Braxton), he’s essential reading.

Graham Lock, Forces in Motion: the Music and Thoughts of Anthony Braxton

I had known of Anthony Braxton for decades, but it’s only in the past year or so that I’ve really been able to connect to his music.  Partially, this is because I have a newfound living situation in which I can listen to what I want when I want to.  Bouncing around the internet, I read a post on the man’s work that made me realize that for most of us, digging Braxton or, really any of the avant-garde so-called, is a solitary pursuit, most often on headphones.

The single, blissfully single life affords this possibility.  That’s meant that I’ve gotten back to exploring the “free jazz“–we know the label isn’t ideal–movement of the 1960’s forward.  Lots of late Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler, John Carter–a lot of John Carter–and Ornette of course, though especially Skies of America.  I’d heard much more of the New York school as opposed to Chicago, so opening up to Braxton was something of a revelation: there is a lot more to this music than just “energy.”  To be clear about what we’re dealing with, here you go.  Not exactly the same quartet, but the same year and 3/4 the same personnel:

Lock followed Braxton’s quartet on its 1985 tour of Britain.  The resulting book, Forces in Motion, takes the form of tour diary interspersed with interviews, primarily of Braxton but also of each of the group’s other members, followed by three postscripts on relevant topics.  Lock has other books, and one at the library here, that are more systematic overviews of the music, but this is what it is and the relatively unvarnished text preserves a spontaneity that among other things puts Braxton in a great light.  The man may have a reputation for forbidding music, but personally he’s very engaging with an enormously sweet quality to him.  He comes off as a very, very kind individual.

The takeaway from the book is very simply that it serves as what seems to me an ideal introduction to the deep significance of Braxton’s project.  It’s, for lack of a better word, a spiritual endeavor, among other things, and though he doesn’t put it in precisely these terms Braxton is trying, through sound, to turn back the world-nonsense of these last five hundred years.  As quick as he is to draw influence from white musicians–Braxton is generous even to those, like Phil Woods, who critique him viciously–Braxton demolishes the philosophical, musical, and spiritual underpinnings of white supremacy.

I took a class once in, more or less, critical theory, and the professor really wanted us to understand and engage the ideas at hand.  She assigned a fair amount of Foucault, but mostly from Power-Knowledge, a collection of, mainly, interviews.  She noted that when Foucault just talked, he said what he meant, and it made everything easier.  The same, I can glean from the excepts from Braxton’s Tri-axium Writings, would be true of Braxton.  If you want to really get everything, read the Tri-axium Writings, just like if you really want to understand Marx, you need to read Capital.  That said, Braxton can sum things up and give a person a lot to go forward with.  The book provides this.

Richard Cook, Blue Note Records: the Biography

Richard Cook, in his Blue Note Records: the Biography, doesn’t consider the most important question about his subject: why did what was surely the best label in jazz sustain a long-term relationship with none of the music’s greatest practitioners and release none of its most important records?

To clarify a bit: when I say greatest, I’m talking about people like  Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk (more later), Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and Sonny Rollins.  When I say most important records, I mean things like Kind of Blue, A Love Supreme, Saxophone Colossus, and Brilliant Corners.  These are the crowning achievements of artists who were themselves at the top of their fields.   None of these major statements came out on the best jazz label there was.  That’s fairly astonishing.

I’ll go a little further in my astonishment, too.  Miles is one thing: he got a lucrative deal with Columbia which was something a small label like Blue Note couldn’t match.  Monk later went to Columbia for what was for most critics (myself included) the least interesting phase of his recording career, despite a number of good (by his standards, great by others’) records on the label.  What is interesting is something like Saxophone Colossus, on Prestige, or Brilliant Corners on Riverside.  These weren’t bigger labels than Blue Note, and they  didn’t pay for two days’ rehearsal like Blue Note did, either.  Miles has his great series of quintet records on Prestige, too.  The label as an operation seems to have been less of a quality operation than Blue Note, but the peaks were higher.  Leave Columbia out of it, but the comparison to Riverside and Prestige are on point.

Cook is hemmed in, I imagine, by marketing.  There’s not a huge audience for jazz books, and the obvious audience he’d aim at would be people who are Blue Note obsessives.  I imagine these people listen to Song for My Father (a fantastic record, no doubt) more than they do Mingus Ah Um, or something like that.  I don’t, but I respect it enough.  That said, you won’t sell to that crowd if your thesis is that while Blue Note had high valleys, it had low peaks.

This limitation, that of marketing, we can forgive Cook.  His own limitations, however, are his own.  His judgement often left me alternately shaking my head in confusion or simply aghast.  It’s beyond me, but he goes in on Dexter Gordon, of all people:

Mannerism invades much of even Gordon’s best work…Gordon’s taste for quoting from other melodies in the course of an improvisation could become tiresome and often he would seem to doze on his undeniably impressive tone…(140)

I couldn’t disagree more.  Mannerism is not how I would describe Gordon’s undoubted orthodoxy.  His Blue Note records are the ones that most typify, to my ears, the sound of the label, and indeed its significance.  Gordon was no Rollins, to be sure, but this was a man with much to say.  A student could take a course on Marxism and have a wonderful, even life-changing experience with a fantastic prof who wasn’t Marx.  Gordon is like that, to me.  Few musicians who work through others’ developments have made statements as enduring as Gordon’s.

Cook then indulges–same topic–a habit of what we might call orthodox contrarianism:

…next to, say, Hank Mobley, [Gordon’s] Blue Note work has not worn so well as many would have it. (141)

and

Next to [Ike] Quebec‘s own sessions for the label, Gordon’s albums can sound almost tame. (141)

I am all about giving Hank Mobley his due, who more than any musician I know of was poorly served by his association with Miles Davis, something almost no-one else can claim.  Coltrane was a hard act to follow, etc.  I’ll say that you do score some hipster points with me by pointing that out: if you praise Mobley, you obviously are scratching below jazz’s surface.  That said, it’s not such an uncommon position to be profound in any way.  Worse, as an exercise in judgement, using Gordon as a foil to praise Mobley and Quebec comes off as willful perversity.

This tendency shows more broadly in Cook’s consistent, if subtle, attempts to rewrite hard bop’s place in the broader narrative of jazz history.  To rehearse it for the non-obsessives (no shame in being a non-obsessive), bebop exploded on the scene in the 1940’s.  The 1950’s saw a number of trends, none of which had the feeling of radical newness that the original bop had, despite all kinds of great music made.  Hard bop of the 1950’s, the general line goes, made for a lot of great music but in its solidification of bebop norms was somewhat antithetical to bop’s spirit, which was not about norms.

Making a case for the value of hard bop, Blue Note’s stock-in-trade, at least until the mid-1960’s, is a very legit enterprise, but Cook’s poor judgment kicks in.  Describing a Freddie Hubbard session:

‘Birdlike,’ from that date, shows the telling difference between original bebop and hard bop’s sublimation of the form: over two extended solos, both Hubbard and [Wayne] Shorter annihilate the licks-based improvising of bebop routine…(153)

If it’s routine, it’s not bebop.  It was the hardening of bebop into the hard bop that was Blue Note’s niche that brought routine, though I wouldn’t use the word myself.  Licks are not the source of bop, they became in lesser practitioners the outcome.  Hard bop was not a sublimation of the form, it was the formalization of the sublime, so to speak.  Cook’s problem is that by even engaging in this type of terminology, and more so by getting the stuff wrong, to be blunt, he distracts from the actual music.  I swear to you, I can listen to Grant Green any day of the week, on his own terms, and be very happy.  Trying to pretend he’s Charlie Christian will kill it for me.

It was, to move into Blue Note’s 1960’s output, precisely the formalism of hard bop that got people digging Ornette.  I will here qualify the premise of the question I posed in the first paragraph.  Blue Note did put out one record that stands as one of the true peaks of jazz, and that’s Cecil Taylor’s Unit Structures.  Of Taylor’s two Blue Note releases, I’ll note that I actually prefer Conquistador!, but I’m interested in the pantheon, and Unit Structures is the one in the pantheon.  The problem here is twofold: first, Cecil Taylor is I think without doubt the least popular major innovator in jazz, and second, more importantly, from outside Blue Note’s actual norm.  Alfred Lion recognized the importance of both Ornette and Taylor, and gave them contracts on terms they could take.  Lion was in it for the music, but neither was what we think of as a “Blue Note artist.”

Blue Note didn’t do unadulterated free jazz.  They went in for people who were influenced by it but began from more conventional assumptions, like Andrew Hill–worthy of all accolades, no doubt–or Eric Dolphy, who was the one Blue Note regular (unfortunately, just that one record, Out to Lunch, under his own name) who might have developed to that top level through Blue Note.  Noting this, we have to conclude, though, that Hill was not the equal of Taylor, and Dolphy not of Coltrane.

Blue Note generally didn’t do work with the real innovators.  The exceptions to that rule were that Blue Note would work with people considered commercial poison by more mercenary labels, viz. the early Monk (and they blew it on the marketing) and then, later, Ornette and Cecil Taylor.  Coltrane cut his first fantastic album on Blue Note, but it by no means is on the level of his later, real masterpieces.  Ornette and Taylor had already made their reputations before their arrival on the label, and only Taylor made his signature album on Blue Note.

That said, best label in the business, hands down.  Intuitively obvious, I’d say, almost a categorically imperative obviousness.  No Saxophone Colossus, though.  Cook missed the story.

Amiri Baraka, Black Music

Ornette Coleman

The Alpha and the Omega.  Still playing, too.

I had just read Ben Ratliff’s new book on John Coltrane, and become very, very upset.  Needing a helping hand, I next read LeRoi Jones‘–Amiri Baraka’s–Black Music.

Baraka is less concerned with market demographics than with actually saying something valuable that helps people understand the music in question.  That music, in Black Music, is New York jazz of the late 1950’s and, primarily, the 1960’s.  The latest piece in the book is dated 1967.  In any event, more than anything Baraka focuses on the New Thing, so-called, or “free jazz” once Ornette Coleman put out the album of the same name.

Baraka to be sure is not afraid to take a clear, adversarial stance in what was at the time a very brutal conflict within jazz and jazz criticism over the new music, and while I tend to be much more open to the best of the hard-boppers (and less than the best, too, I’ll say), and while I’ll look at that below, he defends music and musicians worth defending.

Jazz is, Baraka argues not quite explicitly (as my memory serves) but very clearly, a way of being, being free, now.  As circumstances change, so changes jazz.  In hindsight I wonder–surely he has written about it and if anyone knows the citation I’d appreciate it–what he thinks about jazz after Coltrane, not only fusion but the whole Marsalis conundrum as well.  I can surmise the broad strokes but it’s the details I’m after.

He clarifies his project in the first piece, “Jazz and the White Critic“:

In jazz criticism, no reliance on European tradition or theory will help and all.  Negro music, like the Negro himself, is strictly an American phenomenon, and we have got to set up standards of judgement and aesthetic excellence that depend on our native knowledge and understanding of the underlying philosophies and local cultural references that produced blues and jazz in order to produce valid critical writing or commentary about it. (20)

That about sums up my own feelings about how one ought to approach art, or anything else for that matter.  Understanding begins from local conditions and builds out, not from arbitrarily grafting foreign conceptual frameworks onto whatever happens to be the object of one’s inquiry.  Or of one’s conquest: look at the clusterf*** that has been and continues to be the Americas when European social and economic formations were grafted onto these continents after the soon-to-be syphilitic Columbus showed up.

Baraka consistently, whether dealing with true giants like Coltrane, Monk, Coleman, or Cecil Taylor, or lesser-known figures as in an absolutely wonderful piece on the drummer, Denis Charles, one of, to me, the highlights of the book, contextualizes the artists as they exist in their actual contexts, geographically, socially, economically, and culturally.  This is a beautiful, beautiful because it contains truth, stretch of prose:

He [Denis Charles] seems not to be certain, or maybe it’s just the stackup of dreary tenements and beatout folks makes any “success story” seem very very shaky.  And even when Dennis [sic] is working, he knows it’s a very brief shot, and that soon he will be sitting back up on 118th Street without even anything to play on.

But when you see and hear him play, there is no doubt in your mind.  This young man can really smoke…(90)

The liberal white critic would have only written that first paragraph.  The conservative white critic would have written about the Philharmonic and bemoaned the lack of support for “the arts,” despite having heard a publicly-funded, corporate-sponsored performance the night before.  Baraka, however, correctly contextualizes Charles, and by proxy both the New Thing and jazz generally.  Yes, it’s a tough row to hoe, above all because of the hateful context of North America, but doing so is the practice of free existence.

I said I’d touch on this earlier: Baraka has little patience for musicians he feels are stuck in the past, i.e., in formula.  Jazz is, for him, freedom in the present.  I concede the point, and it’s certainly true that we get more from Coltrane than from Cannonball Adderly, toward whom he’s fairly uncharitable.  I am not the biggest fan, either, but I will say that a) a man needs to work and Cannonball worked, and b) there’s a whole lot of hard-bop or more R&B-influenced jazz from the ’60’s that, while not precisely pointing the way forward, or more importantly being truly of the moment, is fantastic and a genuine representation of who the people were who made the music.  Witness “The Sidewinder.”  It’s the genuineness that gets me, that, and Billy Higgins.

Ben Ratliff, Coltrane: The Story of a Sound

I was a bit down one afternoon but found myself in the library, and to be constructive about my emotions I figured I’d check out to see if there were any new jazz biographies on the shelf.  I don’t read any books more quickly than biographies of jazz musicians I love, and Coltrane is near the top of the list.

I had heard the name Ben Ratliff or more likely read it, as he writes for the New York Times.  The book seemed promising enough: not a biography per se but more of a biography of Coltrane’s “sound,” both as it evolved during his lifetime and, in the second part of the book, in its reception after his death.  I will point out that I read the whole thing, something I do not bind myself to do as a rule with books I lose interest in or which upset me.  I read for pleasure, above all.  That said, the only thing that got me through was that I was reading about Coltrane.  In the process, I have cultivated a great antipathy for Ben Ratliff, on par with that I feel for Jon Krakauer.  This is a man who knows a moderate amount, understands little, and apparently makes his living writing for people who know and understand even less.  Like the great standard puts it: “Nice Work If You Can Get It.”

I have no idea where Ratliff went to school, but his references are those of someone educated at a second-rate prep school (just like I was) who has deluded himself that he’s become more real because he quotes Amiri Baraka and Eldridge Cleaver but has, in fact, never questioned the fundamental categories of a canonical Western-Civ. approach to the liberal arts.  He quotes Cleaver, but frames ideas in terms of the opposition between Enlightenment and nineteenth century (see “people who know and understand less,” above) Romanticism:

the rawest, most basic, wildest version of Coltrane, like the decadent stage of the Romantic movement.  (109)

and

“He was a deep, great artist, even if he was a rather sententious man, D. H. Lawrence wrote of Melville in Studies in Classic American Literature.  Lawrence might have been describing the Coltrane of late 1965.  (101)

Gratuitous references are hard for me to take.  I will go on record and say that, despite having gone to a second-rate prep school (as most prep schools are), I have read neither Lawrence nor Melville.  I have a greater desire to read Melville, but I’ve never quite gotten there.  Nor is there anything in the least wrong with reading either one.  The problem here is that Ratliff shows his hand, as if his day job wasn’t enough.  He situates Coltrane’s jazz, that most precious of Black American cultural properties, using white cultural points of reference.  I can’t imagine that Coltrane was ignorant of the details of the Enlightenment, Romanticism, Lawrence or Melville, because one thing the book makes fairly clear and which is also clear from the other biography I’ve read of Coltrane or the cool book I read about A Love Supreme, there was very little of which Coltrane was ignorant.  Equally, and to my point, I can’t imagine that Coltrane would think that Ratliff’s choices facilitate either an intellectual understanding of Trane’s music or an improved experience of the actual music itself.

That said, I am certain that Ratliff’s references facilitate consumption by the type of white people–those with enough disposable income so that they buy his book rather than go about it the socialist way: getting it at the public library–his publishers and he want to target.  This is not to say that one should avoid European cultural points of reference when writing about or discussing jazz.  To be sure, jazz musicians used them all the time.  They did not and do not do so, generally speaking, do so within a strictly European/white American intellectual framework, as does Ratliff.  It’s a demographically forbidding enterprise.

To take it a step further: I get the distinct impression that Ratliff respects Black people as much as he can make money off of their culture, which is to say, not very much, and which is different too than saying he respects Black culture but not, particularly, Black people.  It’s a tangled web he weaves (and there!  I’ve done it myself).

Here are the money quotes:

What was taking shape here was an ugly circle of irritation, based on reductive white-listener notions and reductive black notions of the white notions and reductive white notions of the black-listener notions. (165)

It’s a dead giveaway, for the white liberal “I’m not a racist” racist, to pretend that racism or racially related disagreements are somehow merely based on differing perspectives, a he-said, she-said, or, as they say in Russian, “on skazal, ona skazala”.  You don’t want to make your target demographic uncomfortable in, literally, their own skin, so the New York Times jazz critic has to take this approach, for the job’s sake.  Unfortunately, reality is a different matter.  Nothing related to race is merely the matter of two differing, yet equivalent perspectives.  Nor, not as an aside but as a central point, is it ever a matter of only two perspectives.  But, hey, what better way to get white hipster cred than to feel free to critique Black radical responses–responses!–to white ignorance.  “Those people are so…so…extreme…but I’m really into early ’60’s Blue Note recordings by Rudy Van Gelder.”

Yes, Ratliff has it in for those Black Radicals.  Noting the creation of different community-based organizations for the performance of the new jazz–free jazz, “the new thing,” etc.–Ratliff points to the Collective Black Artists:

…included a biographical sketch of Coltrane which neatly encapsulates the rhetoric of that period vis-a-vis Coltrane, with its righteous, uncompromising tone, its trenchant anger toward critics, its capitalization of the word “Black.” (187)

So, to Ratliff, radical Black critique of the 1960’s and 1970’s is a matter of rhetoric.  I understand that it is rhetorically (in the literal sense of the word) incorrect to dismiss one’s adversary as a mere idiot.  I will say, then, that this approach is idiocy.  Look at the Panthers’ 10-Point Program.  One gets a clear impression from it that, indeed, there are real problems that real Black people faced at the time.  Moreover, and at least as telling, Ratliff takes a to-me-not-at-all-subtle snotty tone toward the capitalization of Black.  We at One Book After Another are in agreement with Diversity, Inc. on the subject.  The capitalization question is an interesting litmus test.  Ratliff wants “black” and “white,” following the same rules, as if in reality Black people (and anyone else who is not white) and white people follow the same rules in the United States.  They don’t.  Hence, for among other reasons, the appropriateness of differing syntax.

Ratliff takes it further and impugns radicals’ motives:

…The members of the CBA [Collective Black Artists] were looking out for themselves…(187)

Since when could Black people in America afford to not look out for themselves?  And since when was looking out for oneself a bad thing, when, in this case, musicians had been systematically shut out by the music industry?  I’m a folkie at heart, and for my money music comes out best when it is as popular–of the people rather than the industry–as can be.  Ratliff, though, disapproves of these Black people who have the gall to take matters into their own hands and produce culture that doesn’t need the approval of white critics like him.  So, like a petulant child, he witholds his approval and passive-aggressively suggests that they, the CBA in particular but by insinuation radicals in general, were at best impure in their motives and at worst were hustling.  Ratliff, to be clear, is wrong, however.  The radicals were the good guys, and Ratliff’s forebears in the industry and media who shut out the radicals were moldy figs.

It is telling, as a final pot-shot, that Ratliff references white musicians to explain the technical aspects of the music, viz.:

Coltrane’s phrasing, [Conrad] Herwig explains, was asymmetrical within an even number of bars…(192)

There are three possible explanations for this tendency, none of them flattering:

  1. Ratliff doesn’t know any Black musicians.
  2. Ratliff thinks that Black musicians intuit jazz because they’re naturally good at it, whereas white musicians have a rational, technical understanding of the music.
  3. Both 1 and 2.

Very, very not cool.

There, I’m done.  To regain my sanity, I read Amiri Baraka’s Black Music after this.  It helped.  Coming soon.