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Kalamu ya Salaam's information blog

FAT FREDDY’S DROP

 

18March2019–Today I received an email from my friend Mahmud Rahman. He wrote:

Some 13 years ago when I passed through New Orleans, my friend Kalamu Salaam shared his discoveries of New Zealand music with me. He introduced me to the work of Fat Freddy’s Drop. On the drive to work today, one of the songs came up in my mixtape. Written for a different context, it speaks aptly today. “Hope for a generation, just beyond my reach, not beyond my sight”

Compared to the USA, New Zealand is a small, island nation in the South Pacific, adjacent to Australia. Kiwi country has been in the news lately because of a racist murder spree that left 50 people dead.

The indigenous people of New Zealand are the Maori and though they are no longer the majority, and certainly not in charge politically or economically, the Maori have had a profound cultural impact, especially in terms of music.

In addition to native culture, musically reggae, R&B, and hip-hop are popular influences. Here are a double-handful of classics from New Zealand. I honor and salute them. Thank you Mahmud for inspiring me to share some of their up-full music.

 

 

 

 

>https://afropunk.com/2019/03/carnaval-brazil-black-protest-political/

In New Orleans we celebrate Mardi Gras/Carnival, and, as with every musical cultural development indigenous to the United States, there is a black thing going on, even when we don’t recognize the black cultural and political essence of and/or influence on American celebrations. In most cases, our musical expressions are too often reduced to entertainment–partying for the sake of partying. While there is certainly nothing wrong with having a good time, or as we say, “let the good times roll/laissez les bon temps roulez,” nevertheless, it is important to keep in mind that there is a seriousness in the midst of the mirth.

Here, from Afropunk, is a good report on the biggest Mardi Gras of all: Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro– the mother of all Mardi Gras street processions. Enjoy!

 

 

 

INVENTORY / ON BEING 52 (part 1)

Music by David Linx, Pierre Van Dormael

 

James Baldwin – narration

David Linx – vocals, drums, percussion

Pierre Van Dormael – guitar

Michel Hatzigeorgiou – bass

Deborah Brown – vocals

Viktor Lazlo – vocals

Steve Coleman – alto saxophone

Slide Hampton – trombone

Jimmy Owens – trumpet, fluegelhorn

Pierre Vaiana – tenor saxophone

Diederik Wissels – piano

 

 

JAMES BALDWIN: The Preacher Poet

 

I would like to use the time that’s left to change the world,

to teach children or to convey to the people who have children that

everything that lives is holy.

—James Baldwin

 

-1-

James Baldwin voiced us—articulated black experiences with a searing intensity that frightened some and enraptured others of us. Even if you could not read, once you heard Baldwin you were convinced of the power of words. His ability to move air was such that the vibrating oxygen Baldwin set in motion spoke to us as surely as if the words had issued from our own mouths.

 

Baldwin’s sermons (and that’s what his words were, instructions for living) entered us, vital as breathing.

 

Baldwin’s breath proclaimed what it meant to be flesh, and black. He told us of the here and now, told of barbarians who feared life in others and feared those who truly lived to love rather than to conqueror.

 

Baldwin spoke of racist hatred for black people, telling us that their hatred was but a mask for the intense hatred they felt for themselves and the sordid, twisted mess they had made of their own lives.

 

The gritty texture of Baldwin’s voice testified to the realities of black life, the ups, the downs, the terrors, as well as the hard-won tenderness found in our usually brief but nonetheless frequent stolen moments of exquisite and redemptive love. He was no romantic, but oh how he loved. He loved us all and gave his all in the love of us.

 

Indeed his very behavior posed the quintessential question: if not for the opportunity to love, what are we living for? Certainly not labor and toil, nor riches and fame, which we can never take with us when we inevitably exit the world; If we do not love our selves and our children, what will our living matter in the future? And if we do not understand that everyone’s child is our child, then how whole can we be as a human being?

 

When I was younger, when I thought I had a taste for anger, a yearning for retribution, I was always mystified and sometimes even miffed by Baldwin’s insistence on love. Now I am older, directed by the wisdom of age: sooner or later, most of us grow tired of fighting but we never tire of love.

 

What was bracing about Baldwin was his insistence that we be humans regardless of how inhuman our tormentors might act, and as Baldwin so eloquently reminded us, their behavior was an act, most likely a ruse to mask their fear of us, or worse yet a lie to camouflage their fear that they were not what they tried to make us believe they were; they were not gods, conquerors, lords and such. No. They were merely what we all are, human beings trying to survive and prosper.

 

It is easy to think of Baldwin as an Old Testament prophet, raining down fire and brimstone. He was, after all, a professional evangelist as a teen. It is easy to think of Baldwin as a Shakespeare in and of Harlem since his command of language is now legendary. But it is wrong to reference Baldwin solely from outside of black culture. Think of this black voice as a life-force, as the sound of us, as the sound of living, as a drum. A drum, an insistent beating drum whose rhythm was synchronous with our own heartbeats.

 

The fullest appreciation of James Baldwin the writer is not understood until James Baldwin the voice is heard. Only once your heart was moved by the way this man moved words could you fully understand the power he brought to us who were told time and time again, in a million ways, day, night and seemingly always that we were totally powerless, or at least powerless to prevent first our enslavement and now our ongoing oppression and exploitation.

 

The power Baldwin brought to us was a clear-eyed recognition of world realities, we, just as everyone else, were the range of behaviors and emotions, memories and dreams that it means to be human, and as such our task was to be the best human we could be, which best necessarily meant the embracing of other humans. You are a human and you must embrace other humans is a powerful message to give to those who have been taught otherwise.

 

And this fire to be wholly human that Baldwin breathed into our lives was no mere mental exercise. Baldwin went far, far beyond thinking because he spoke with a passion for life, a passion to get the most out of life even as he admitted that as we struggled on inevitably we would err, we would make mistakes, we would fail from time to time, even backslide, and knowingly do wrong, after all we are humans and that’s part of what humans do, but Baldwin would remind us as long as we are alive we have the opportunity, indeed we have the obligation to correct our mistakes and to strive to be better than we have been.

 

Baldwin was telling us: grow up. Of course, you’ve been done wrong and you’ve done wrong. We all have. We all have been done wrong. We all have done wrong. Grow up, face life. All the wrong in the world does not mean that you and I can’t do what’s right.

 

And ultimately, while James Baldwin the writer is important, James Baldwin the human voice is equally important, especially now that the technology exists so that we can all hear him, we can all experience the ways in which he manipulated human sounds of communication. In other words, the fullest appreciation of James Baldwin the writer is not totally understood until James Baldwin the voice is heard.

 

Baldwin was full of passion and the very fire light of life. To reduce him simply to books is to miss the music that this man made of words.

 

Thus, if you think you know James Baldwin, if you think you love our literature and you have never heard him deliver the word, and you do not have his spoken word CD, then you don’t really know the breadth and depth of James Baldwin.

 

-2-

Between September 19, 1986 and September 18, 1987, James Baldwin spent a year working on a spoken word CD with producers/composers/musicians David Linx and Pierre Van Dormael. Recorded in Brussels, Brooklyn and New York City, A Lover’s Question (Label Beu, Harmonia Mundi) is a masterpiece of merging words with music: a precursor to what is now a popular artform.

 

The producers succeed in more than providing a sonic backdrop for the words; they actually composed orchestrations that both complemented and mirrored the intent and expression inherent in Baldwin’s delivery of his complex poems. The success is then on three levels: the poems are phat, the music is tight, and the musicians respond with an exhilarating verve that let’s you know they too were giving their all, giving their love and not simply going through the changes to get paid.

 

Aside from a brief musical introduction and an elegiac solo rendition of Thomas Dorsey’s “Precious Lord” on which Baldwin talk-sings the famous gospel composition, there are only three poems on this CD. One poem, “The Art of Love,” features operatic vocalist Deborah Brown and is done as an art song, an interlude between two poetic suites.

 

The two-part “A Lover’s Question” continues in the vein of the Fire Next Time. Baldwin questions the citizens of his birth nation as to their desire to hate: “Why / have you allowed / yourself / to become so grimly / wicked?” and “No man can have a / harlot / for a lover / nor stay in bed forever / with a lie. / He must rise up / and face the morning / sky / and himself, in the / mirror / of his lover’s eye.” As Baldwin knew, true love is always honest even though honesty is seldom an easy fact to live with in a land where lies and commerce replace truth and reciprocity.

 

The concluding number is the three part opus “Inventory / On Being 52” and it is the introspective Baldwin fingering his own wounds (some of them self-inflicted). He does not flinch as he cross-examines his own life and realizes the terrible costs of his mistakes, the terrible beauty of embracing both the terrors and joys of being human. Baldwin manages in a stream of consciousness style to encourage us to live the good life, suggesting that the good life is a different life from the life/lie that too many of us live. Baldwin encourages us not simply to march to the beat of a different drummer, Baldwin tenderly implores us to be different drummers.

 

Tap out the real rhythms of life with our every footstep in the dark, our every embrace of what we and others are and can become. Reject the ultimately tiresome and ephemeral wisdom of materialism / accept the rejuvenating life-cycle rhythm of the earth. Thus Baldwin says “Perhaps the stars will / help, / or the water, / a stone may have / something to tell me, / and I owe a favor to a / couple of old trees.”

 

“Inventory / On being 52” is a deep song, but then, as he says, “My father’s son / does not easily / surrender. / My mother’s son / pressed on.” Every young poet needs this old man’s CD in their collection, this compass of compassion, this example of the passionate heights the spoken word can attain. If you as a poet do not know A Lover’s Question then you do not know the full history of your own human heartbeat.

 

-3-

James Baldwin. His life, his teachings, his commitment, his words embody one of the great paradoxes of the contradictions of life—and regardless of misplace beliefs in idealism, in an eternal anything, in a person being solely and only one thing or another, regardless of our worship of the false idol of ideas and dualism—experience teaches us, all life, every life is contradictory. In fact, to be alive is a contradiction, is a fight against death, literal death, symbolic death, the death of compassion, the death of our own humanity in terms of how we relate to others and the world we live in.

 

Life is a contradiction, and as such, isn’t it wonderful for us to realize that one of the most insistent prophets, preachers and poets of love was a queer, black man standing against the homophobia, standing against the misogyny (and surely hating women also means hating the earth), standing against the racism, and all the other -isms endemic to the place and time within which Baldwin was born.

 

James Baldwin. Clearly modeling for all of us what it meant to be a man, and more importantly what it meant to be human and live in a time of institutional war and inhumanity.

 

I love James Baldwin.

 

—kalamu ya salaam

 

[The first version of this essay, essentially most of part 1, was originally published in Mosaic Literary Magazine, Spring 1999. The second version of this essay, part 1 & part 2, was originally published as part of the booklet accompanying the 1999 reissue of James Baldwin’s A Lover’s Question.]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

DO RIGHT WOMEN:

Black Women, Eroticism and Classic Blues

 

 

Lil Harden Armstrong with King Oliver’s Creole Band, San Francisco, 1921

1.

 

         I’m going to show you women, honey,

              how to cock it on the wall.

         Now you can snatch it, you can break it, you can

              hang it on the wall

         Throw it out the window, see if you

              can catch it ‘fore it fall

                  –Louise Johnson

 

     “I fantasize spanking you. What sexual fantasies do you have?” an ex-lover intoned into the phone receiver.

     As she spoke I remembered a time when we were in one of those classical numeral positions and at a peak moment I felt the sharp smack of her bare palm on my bare butt–not in pain nor anger, but surprisingly, for me, I remember a tingle of pleasure, the pleasure in knowing that I had been the catalyst for her, a person of supreme sexual control, going over the edge.

     After I hung up, I admitted to myself that like many males my main fantasy was to be sexually attractive to and sexually satisfying for thousands of women. I “fantasize” sexually engaging at least a quarter of the women I see, ninety percent of whom I don’t know beyond eyeing them for a moment as I drive down some street, spot them in a store, in an office building, in line paying a bill, or walking ahead of me out of a movie.

     I remember in one of my writing workshops in the fall of 1995 I shocked a room of young men by declaring that sexual expression among male homosexuals represented the fullest flowering of male sexuality. Some reacted predictably from a position of virulent homophobia and others were just genuinely skeptical.

     I explained that if he could, assuming that there were no restraints and that it was consensual sex between adults, then the average American male would engage in promiscuous sex every time they felt aroused–which undoubtedly would be often. A major brake on our promiscuousness is the unwillingness of women to cooperate with male socio-biological urges.

     I asked one of the more skeptical homophobes in my workshop, “haven’t you seen a woman today you wished that you could get down with, a woman whom you didn’t know personally?” He smiled and answered “yeah, on my way to class just now.” After the laughter died down, I told him that this is indeed what often happens with gay sex precisely because there is no restraint other than desire and safety.

     American male sexuality is, among other characteristics, a celebration of the moment. Our fantasy is immediate sexual gratification with whomever catches our fancy. Most of the time we deny, transfer, repress, or misrepresent these fantasies. However, in popular music we forcefully articulate the male desire to wantonly enjoy coition with women. Thus, these 90’s rap and r&b (“rhythm and booty”) records about rampant sex with a bevy of willing cuties is not just adolescent, post-puberty fantasizing but rather is an accurate projection of ethically unchecked and socially unshaped male sexuality–a sexuality which projects the male as the dominating, aggressive subject and the female as the pliant (if not willing) object of consumption.

     Here is a significant cultural crossroads. I hold no truck in prudish and/or puritanical views of sex; while I abhor pornography (the commidifying of sex and the reifying of a person or gender into a sexual object), I am opposed to censorship. The status quo would have the whole debate about the representation of sexuality boil down to either reticence or profligacy. The truth is those extremes are not different roads. They are simply the up and down side of the status quo view which either come from or lead to the objectifying of sexual relations. Objectifying sexual relations is a completely different road from the frank articulation of eroticism.

     Within the American cultural context, this difference is nowhere as clearly presented as in the early, 1920’s woman-centered music known as “Classic Blues.”

 

 

Ma Rainey and band

2.

 

     You never get nothing by being an angel child,

     You better change your ways and get real wild,

     I want to tell you something and I wouldn’t tell you no lie,

     Wild women are the only kind that really get by,

     ‘Cause wild women don’t worry, wild women don’t have the blues.

                  –Ida Cox

 

     Known today as “Classic Blues” divas, these women married big city dreams with post-plantation realties and, by using the vernacular and folk-wisdom of the people, gave voice to our people’s hopes and sorrows and specifically spoke to the yearnings and aspirations of Black women recently migrated to the city from the country. While many women took up domestic and factory work, the entertainment industry also was a major employer of Black women. In Black Pearls author Daphne Harrison sets the stage:

 

     Young black women with talent began to emerge from the churches, schools, and clubs where they had sung, recited, danced, or played, and ventured into the more lucrative aspects of the entertainment world, in response to the growing demand for talent in the theaters and traveling shows. The financial rewards often out-weighed community censure, for by 1910-1911 they could usually earn upwards of fifty dollars a week, while their domestic counterparts earned only eight to ten dollars. Many aspiring young women went to the cities as domestics in hope of ultimately getting on stage. While the domestics’ social contacts were severely limited, mainly to the white employers and to their own families, the stage performer had an admiring audience in addition to family and friends. (Harrison, page 21)

 

     The Classic Blues divas who emerged from this social milieu were more than entertainers, they were role models, advice givers, and a social force for cultural transformation. Ma Rainey is considered the mother of the Classic Blues. “She jes’ catch hold of us, somekinaway.” scripts poet Sterling Brown in giving a right on the money description of the cathartic power of Ma Rainey’s majestic embrace which wrapped up her audience and reared them into the discovery of self-actulization’s rarefied air. “Git way inside us, / Keep us strong” (Brown, pages 62 – 63). Birthed by these women, we became our selves as a people and as sexually active individuals.

     Twenties Classic Blues was the first and only time that independent African-American women were at the creative center of Black musical culture. Neither before nor since have women been as economically or psychologically “liberated”.

     In a country dominated by patriarchal values, mores and male leadership (should we more accurately say “overseership”?), Classic Blues is remarkable. Remember that although slavery ended with the Civil War in 1866 and the passage of the 15th amendment to the Constitution, suffrage for women was not enacted until 1920 with the 19th amendment. The suffrage movement, which had been dominated by White women, was also intimately aligned with the temperance movement, a movement which demonized jazz and blues.

     Black women were a major organizing and stabilizing force in and on behalf of the Black community between post-Reconstruction and the Twenties. Historian Darlene Hine notes:

 

     The second period began in the 1890s and ended around 1930 and is best referred to as the First Era of the Black Woman…black women were among the most active and determined agents for community building and race survival. Their style was concentrated on internal developments within the black community and is reflected in the massive mobilization that led to the formation of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs that boasted a membership of over 50,000 by 1914. … Black women perfected a “politics of respectability,” a “culture of dissemblance,” and a cult of secrecy and silence. (Hine, page 118-119)

    

     But a curious dynamic has always animated Black America–while those who hoped to assimilate, to be accepted and/or to achieve “wealth and happiness” strove for and advocated a “politics of respectability” the folk masses sang a blues song a la Langston Hughes’ mule who was black and didn’t give a damn, if you wanted him, you had to take him just as he am. In other words, the blues aesthetic upsets the respectability applecart. And at the core of the blues aesthetic is a celebration of the erotic.

     I content that this is a major cultural battle. Eroticism is the motor that drives Black culture (or, more precisely, drives those aspects of our culture which are not assimilative in representation). Whereas, polite society was too nice to be nasty, blues people felt if it wasn’t nasty, then how could it be nice.

     As James Cone notes in his perceptive and important book The Spirituals and the Blues:

    

     It has been the vivid description of sex that caused many church people to reject the blues as vulgar or dirty. The Christian tradition has always been ambiguous about sexual intercourse, holding it to be divinely ordained yet the paradigm of rebellious passion. Perhaps this accounts for the absence of sex in the black spirituals and other black church music. … In the blues there is an open acceptance of sexual love, and it is described in most vivid terms… (Cone, page 117)

 

     Many of us are totally confused about eroticism. Most of us don’t appreciate the frank eroticism of nearly all African-heritage cultures which have not been twisted by outside domination (e.g. Christianity and Islam). Commenting on “Songs Of Ritual License From Midwestern Nigeria” African Art Historian Jean Borgtatti notes:

 

     The songs themselves represent an occasion of ritualized verbal license in which men and women ridicule each other’s genitalia and sexual habits. Normally such ridicule would be an anti-social act in the extreme… In the ritual context, however, the songs provide recognition, acceptance, and release of that tension which exists between the sexes in all cultures, and so neutralize this potential threat to community stability. (Borgatti, page 60)

    

     The songs in question range from explicit and detailed put-downs to this lyric sung by a woman which could be a twenties blues lyric.

     When I Refuse Him

     When I refuse him, the man is filled with sorrow

     When I refuse him, the man is filled with sorrow

     When my “thing” is bright and happy like a baby chick, it drives him wild

     When my “thing” is bright and happy like a baby chick, it drives him wild

 

My argument is that socially expressed eroticism is part and parcel of our heritage. In the American context, this eroticism is totally absent in the “lyrics” of the spirituals (albeit not totally suppressed in the rituals of black church liturgy). On the other hand, Black eroticism is best expressed and preserved in the blues (beginning in the early 1920s) and in its modern musical offshoots.

     Erotic representation is another major point of divergence. Euro-centric representations of eroticism have been predominately visual and textual whereas African-heritage representations have been mainly aural (music) and oral (boasts, toasts, dozens, etc.). The eye sees but does not feel. Mainly the brain responds to and interprets visual stimuli whereas the body as a whole responds to sound. Moreover, textual erotic representation invites and encourages private and individual activity. E.g. you are probably alone reading this–if not alone in fact certainly alone in effect as there may be others present where you are reading but they are not reading over your shoulder or sitting beside you reading with you. Moreover, you most certainly are not reading this aloud for general consumption. If you do read it aloud it is probably a one-to-one private act.

     Aural and oral erotic representation, on the other hand, require a participating audience, become a ritual of arousal. Music, in particular, is not only social in focus, music also privileges communal eroticism. Thus, whereas text encourages individualism and self-evaluations of deviance, shame and guilt; musical eroticism encourages coupling, group identification and self-evaluations of shared erotic values, sexual self worth and pleasure.

     Finally, within the African-American context, sound is used as language to communicate what English words cannot. The African American folk saying, “when you moan the devil don’t know what you talking about” contains an ironic edge that goes beyond spiritual commentaries on good and evil. The White oppressor/slave master, i.e. “the devil,” does not understand the meaning of moaning partly because of intentional deception on the part of the moaners but also because English lexicon is limited. Moans, wails, cries, hums and other vocal devices communicate feelings, moods, desires and are the core of blues expression. This is why the blues is more powerful than the lyrics of the songs, why blues lyrics do not translate well to the cold page (when the sound of the words is not manifested much of the true meaning of the words is lost), and why blues cannot be accurately analyzed purely from an intellectual standpoint. Moreover, erotic desires, frustrations and fulfillments–the most frequent emotions articulated in the blues–are some of the strongest emotions routinely manifested by human beings.

     In the 1920’s mainstream America was nowhere near ready to acknowledge and celebrate eroticism. Thus, as far as most Americans were concerned, a frank and explicit expression of eroticism was shameful. This social “shame” became the singular trademark of the blues. Moreover, the identification of sexual explicitness with the blues was so thorough that sexually explicit language became known as “blue” as in “cussin’ up a blue streak” or the kind of “blue material” which was often “banned in Boston.”

     Within the context of American Puritanism and Christian anti-eroticism, it is important to note that “blue” erotic music was first brought to national prominence not by men but rather by women. This privileging of feminine sexuality was an unplanned result of the newly developed recording industry’s quest for profits. When “Okeh Records sold seventy-five thousand copies of ‘Crazy Blues’ in the first month and surpassed the one million mark during its first year in the stores” (Barlow, page 128) the hunt was on. Recording and selling “race records” (i.e. blues) was like a second California gold rush. There was no aesthetic nor philosophical interest in the blues. This was strictly business. Moreover, during the first years of the race record craze, because race records were sold almost exclusively to a Black audience there was less censorship and interference than there otherwise might have been. Black tastes and cultural values drove the market during the twenties. There were both positive and negative results to this commercialization.

 

     On the positive side of the ledger, the mechanical reproduction of millions of blues disks made the music far more accessible to the public in general, and black people in particular. Blues entered an era of unprecedented growth and vitality, surfacing as a national phenomenon by the 1920s. As a result, a new generation of African-American musicians were able to learn from the commercial recordings, to expand their mastery over the various idioms and enhance their instrumental and vocal techniques. The local and regional African-American folk traditions that spawned blues were, in turn, infused with new songs, rhythms, and styles. Thus, the record business was an important catalyst in the development of blues that also facilitated their entrance into the mainstream of popular American music.

     On the other hand, the transformation of living musical traditions into commodities to be sold in a capitalist marketplace was bound to have its drawbacks. For one thing, the profits garnered from the sale of blues records invariably went into the coffers of the white businessmen who owned or managed the record companies. The black musicians and vocalists who created the music in the recording studios received a pittance. Furthermore, the major record companies went to great lengths to get the blues to conform to their Tin Pan Alley standards, and they often expected black recording artists to conform to racist stereotypes inherited from blackface minstrelsy. The industry also like to record white performers’ “cover” versions of popular blues to entice the white public to buy the records and to “upgrade” the music. Upgrading was synonymous with commercializing; it attempted to bring African-American music more into line with European musical conventions, while superimposing on it a veneer of middle-class Anglo-American respectability. These various practices deprived a significant percentage of recorded blues numbers of their African characteristics and more radical content. (Barlow, pages 123-124)

 

     When the depression hit and Black audiences no longer had significant disposable income to spend on recordings, the acceptable styles of recorded blues changed drastically.

 

     The onset of the depression quickly reversed the fortunes of the entire record industry; sales fell from over $100 million in 1927 to $6 million in 1933. Consequently, race record releases were drastically cut back, field recording ventures into the South were discontinued, the labels manufactured fewer and fewer copies of each title, and record prices fell from seventy-five to thirty-five cents a disk. Whereas the average race record on the market sold approximately ten thousand copies in the mid-twenties, it plummeted to two thousand in 1930, and bottomed out at a dismal four hundred in 1932. The smaller labels were gradually forced out of business, while the major record companies with large catalogues that went into debt were purchased by more prosperous media corporations based in radio and film. The record companies with race catalogues that totally succumbed to the economic downturn were Paramount, Okeh, and Gennett. By 1933, the race record industry appeared to be a fatality of the depression. (Barlow, page 133)

 

     The Classic Blues divas founded and shaped the form of Black music’s initial recording success in the twenties. By the thirties women were completely erased as cultural leaders of Black music. While there was certainly an overriding economic imperative to the cutback, there was also a cultural/philosophical imperative to cut out women altogether.

     There was no precedent in either White or Black American culture for women as leaders in articulating eroticism. This significant feminizing of eroticism was predicated on an unprecedented albeit short-lived change in the physical and economic social structure of the Black community converging with a period of massive national economic growth and far reaching mass media technological innovations in recordings, radio, and film.

     Despite optimal economic and technological incentives, the twenties rise of the newly emergent Classic Blues diva was no cakewalk, not only because of the virulence of class exploitation, racism and sexism but also because of cultural antagonisms. Regardless of race, there was an open conflict between the blues and social respectability. The self-assertive, female Classic Blues singer was perceived as a threat to both the American status quo as well as to many of the major political forces seeking to enlarge the status quo (i.e. the petty bourgeoise-oriented talented tenth).

     Moreover, unlike many post-Motown, popular female singers who are produced, directed and packaged by males, Ma Rainey, Ethel Waters, Ida Cox, Alberta Hunter, Sippie Wallace, and the incomparable “Empress” of the blues, Bessie Smith, were more than simple fronts for turn-of-the-century blues Svengalies. Yes, men such as Perry Bradford, Clarence Williams, and Thomas Dorsey were major composers, arrangers, accompanists and producers for many of the Classic Blues divas; and yes, these women often were surrounded and beset by men who attempted to physically, financially and psychologically abuse them, nevertheless the Classic Blues divas were neither pushovers nor tearful passive victims.

 

Emerging from southern backgrounds rich in religious and folk music traditions, they were able to capture in song the sensibilities of black women–North and South–who struggled daily for physical, psychological, and spiritual balance. They did this by calling forth the demons that plagued women and exorcising them in public. Alienation, sex and sexuality, tortured love, loneliness, hard times, marginality, were addressed with an openness that had not previously existed.

     The blues women accomplished this with their unique flair for dramatizing their texts and performances. They introduced and refined vocal strategies that gave the lyrics added power. Some of these were instrumentality, voices growling and sliding like trombones, or wailing and piercing like clarinets; unexpected word stress; vocal breaks in antiphony with the accompaniment; syncopated phrasing; unlimited improvisation on repetitious refrains or phrases. These innovations, in tandem with the talented instrumentalists who accompanied the blues women, advanced the development of vocal and instrumental jazz.

     Of equal significance, because they were such prominent public figures, the blues women presented alternative models of attitude and behavior for black women during the 1920s. They demonstrated that black women could be financially independent, outspoken, and physically attractive. They dressed to emphasize their symbolic importance to their audiences. The queens, regal in their satins, laces, sequins and beads, and feather boas trailing from their bronze or peaches-and-cream shoulders, wore tiaras that sparkled in the lights. The queens held court in dusty little tents, in plush city cabarets, in crowded theaters, in dance halls, and wherever else their loyal subjects would flock to pay homage. They rode in fine limousines, in special railroad cars, and in whatever was available, to carry them from country to town to city and back, singing as they went. The queens filled the hearts and souls of their subjects with joy and laughter and renewed their spirits with the love and hope that came from a deep well of faith and will to endure. (Harrison, pages 221-222)

 

     Never since have women performed major leadership roles in the music industry, especially not African-American women. The entertainment industry intentionally curtailed the trend of highly vocal, independent women. Most of the Classic Blues divas, it must be noted, were not svelte sex symbols comparable in either features or figure to White women. The blues shouter was generally a robust, brown or dark-skinned, African-featured women who thought of and carried herself as the equal of any man. America fears the drum and psychologically fears the bearer of the first drum, i.e. the feminine heartbeat that we hear in the womb.

     Bessie Smith and her peers, were sexually assertive “wild” women, well endowed with the necessary physical and psychological prowess to take care of themselves. Actively bisexual, Bessie Smith belied the common “asexual” labeling of stout women, such as is suggested by Nikki Giovanni in “Woman Poem”

 

     it’s a sex object if you’re pretty

     and no love

     or love and no sex if you’re fat

         (Giovanni, page 55)

 

     “No sex” was not the reality of the Classic Blues divas. Yes, many of them were then and would now be considered “fat” but they were far from celibate (by either choice or circumstance). Or, as the sarcastic blues lyric notes:

 

     I’m a big fat mama, got meat shakin’ on my bones

     A big fat mama, with plenty meat shakin’ on my bones

     Every time I shake my stuff, some skinny gal loses her home

 

     In recent years the best description of the liberating function Blues divas served for the Black community is contained in Alice Walker’s powerful novel, The Color Purple. Walker’s memorable and mythic character Shug Avery is an active bisexual blues singer a la Bessie Smith. Shug instructs the heroine Celie in the recognition and celebration of herself as a sexual being:

 

     Why Miss Celie, [Shug] say, you still a virgin.

     What? I ast.

     Listen, she say, right down there in your pussy is a little button that gits real hot when you do you know what with somebody. It git hotter and hotter and then it melt. That the good part. But other parts good too, she say. Lot of sucking go on, here and there, she say. Lot of finger and tongue work. (Walker, page 81)

 

Shug then instructs Celie “Here, take this mirror and go look at yourself down there, I bet you never seen it, have you?” The blues becomes a means not only of social self expression but also of sexual self discovery, especially for women.

     In a life often defined by brutality, exploitation and drudgery, the female discovery and celebration of self-determined sexual pleasure is important. Thus the blues affirms an essential and explicit reversal. We have been taught that we are ugly, the blues celebrates our beauty and this is especially true for Black women.

 

     I lie back on the bed and haul up my dress. Yank down my bloomers. Stick the looking glass tween my legs. Ugh. All that hair. Then my pussy lips be black. Then inside look like a wet rose.

     It a lot prettier than you thought, ain’t it. she say from the door.

     It mine, I say. Where the button?

     Right up near the top, she say. The part that stick out a little.

     I look at her and touch it with my finger. A little shiver go through me. Nothing much. But just enough to tell me this the right button to mash. (Walker, page 82)

 

     The major characteristic of the Classic Blues is that the vast majority of the songs were sexually oriented and nearly all of the singers were women. In his major study of Black music, LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) notes:

 

     The great classic blues singers were women… Howard W. Odum and Guy B. Johnson note from a list of predominately classic blues titles, taken from the record catalogues of three “race” companies. “The majority of these formal blues are sung from the point of view of woman… upwards of seventy-five per cent of the songs are written from the woman’s point of view. Among the blues singers who have gained a more or less national recognition there is scarcely a man’s name to be found.” (Jones, page 91)

 

Jones goes on to answer the obvious question of why women dominated in this area:

 

     Minstrelsy and vaudeville not only provided employment for a great many women blues singers but helped to develop the concept of the professional Negro female entertainer. Also, the reverence in which most of white society was held by Negroes gave to those Negro entertainers an enormous amount of prestige. Their success was also boosted at the beginning of this century by the emergence of many white women as entertainers and in the twenties, by the great swell of distaff protest regarding women’s suffage. All these factors came together to make the entertainment field a glamorous one for Negro women, providing an independence and importance not available in other areas open to them–the church, domestic work, or prostitution. (Jones, page 93)

 

     Ann Douglas, in her important book Mongrel Manhattan In The 1920s, Terrible Honesty identifies the twenties as a period of (quoting from the dustjacket) “historical transformation: blacks and whites, men and women together created a new American culture, fusing high art and low, espousing the new mass media, repudiating the euphemisms of outdated gentility in favor of a boldly masculinized outspokenness, bringing the African-American folk and popular art heritage briefly but irrevocably into the mainstream.” Douglas believes the birth of modernism required the death of the white matriarch.

 

     “The two movements, cultural emancipation of America from foreign influences and celebration of its black-and-white heritage, had for a brief but crucial moment a common opponent and a common agenda: the demolition of that block to modernity, or so she seemed, the powerful white middleclass matriarch of the recent Victorian past. My black protagonists were not matrophobic to the same degree as my white ones were, but the New Negro, too, had something to gain from the demise of the Victorian matriarch.”  (Douglas, page 6)

 

Such anti-matriarch sentiments directly clashed with the reality of female-led Classic Blues.

     We are forced to ask the question: does the freedom of the Black man require the destruction of the Black woman? To the degree that the Black woman is a matriarch, a self-possessed and self-directed person, to that same degree there will inevitably be a conflict with the standards of modern America which are misogynist in general and anti-matriarchal in particular.

    

     Thanks to the revolt against the matriarch, Christian beliefs and middleclass values would never again be a prerequisite for elite artistic success in America. Nor would plumpness ever again be a broadly sanctioned type of female beauty; the 1920s put the body type of the stout and full-figured matron decisively out of fashion. Once the matriarch and her notions of middle-class piety, racial superiority, and sexual repression were discredited, modern America, led by New York, was free to promote, not an egalitarian society, but something like an egalitarian popular and mass culture aggressively appropriating forms and ideas across race, class, and gender lines. (Douglas, page 8)

 

     Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, et al may seem to contradict Douglas’ thesis but actually the disappearance of big, Black women from leadership in entertainment is proof that Douglas was correct in her assessment of modern America. Among Black people, the Black matriarch continued to reign in the arenas of church, education and community service. However, to the degree that Black people adopt modern American ways to that same degree our culture inevitably becomes “masculinized”     and “anti-matriarchal.” This is inevitable because, as Douglas’ book demonstrates in great detail, American modernism is based on the refutation of the woman as culture bearer. Yet culture bearer is precisely the role that the Black woman fulfills.

     “The blues woman is the priestess or prophet of the people. She verbalizes the emotion for herself and the audience, articulating the stresses and strains of human relationships” (Cone, page 107) proudly proclaims theologist James Cone, a Christian man who had sense enough to sus out the potency of blues priestesses, a potency which is overtly sexual but which also made strong social, political and economic statements (e.g. “T.B. Blues” by Ida Cox decrying poor health conditions and “Poor Man Blues” by Bessie Smith condemning class exploitation).

 

Bessie Smith

3.

 

     There’s a new game, that can’t be beat,

     You move most everything ‘cept your feet,

     Called ‘Whip it to a jelly, stir it in a bowl’,

     You just whip it to a jelly, if you like good jelly roll

 

     I wear my skirt up to my knees

     And whip that jelly with who I please.

     Oh, whip it to a jelly, mmmmmm, mmmm

     Mmmmm, mmmm, mmmmm, mmmm

              –Clara Smith

 

     In western culture the celebration of dignity and eroticism does not and can not take place simultaneously. From Freud’s theories of sexuality which focus for the most part on penile power to the church which goes so far as to debase the body as a product of original sin, there is no room for the celebration of eroticism, and certainly no conception whatsoever of the female as an active purveyor of erotic power. To me, the blues is clearly an alternative to Freud and Jesus with respect to coming to terms with our bodies.

     James Cone correctly analyzes this alternative.

 

     Theologically, the blues reject the Greek distinction between the soul and the body, the physical and the spiritual. They tell us that there is no wholeness without sex, no authentic love without the feel and touch of the physical body. The blues affirm the authenticity of sex as the bodily expression of black soul.

     White people obviously cannot understand the love that black people have for each other. People who enslave humanity cannot understand the meaning of human freedom; freedom comes only to those who struggle for it in the context of the community of the enslaved. People who destroy physical bodies with guns, whips, and napalm cannot know the power of physical love. Only those who have been hurt can appreciate the warmth of love that proceeds when persons touch, feel, and embrace each other. The blues are openness to feeling and the emotions of physical love. (Cone, pages 117-118)

 

     Moreover, the fact that Freud’s theories find their first popular American currency in the 1920s at the same time as Black women’s articulation of the Classic Blues suggests an open contest between widely divergent viewpoints. The Classic Blues offered an unashamed and assertive alternative to both the traditional puritanical views of sexuality as well as alternative to the new Freudian psychological views of sexuality. Bessie Smith and company were battling Jesus on the right and Freud on the left.

     The puritans with their scarlet letters projected the virgin/whore (Mary mother vs. Mary Madaglene) dualism. For the most part, Freud either ignored the psychology of women, thought they were unfathomable, or else projected onto them the infamous “penis envy.”

     The period between the Civil War and World War II is the birth of American modernism. It is also the period when the bustle (an artificial attempt to mimic the physique of Black women) was a fashion standard. While it is not within the purview of this essay to address the question of how is it that Black buttocks become a standard of femininity for white society, it is important to at least mention this, so that we can contextualize the battle of worldviews.

     Freud proposed the “id” as the controlling element of the civilized individual. The purpose of Black music was precisely to surmount the “id.” The individual looses control, is possessed. This trance state is a sought for and enjoyed experience. Rather than be in control we desire to be mounted, i.e. to merge with and be controlled by a greater force outside ourselves. Blues culture validated ritual and merger of the micro-individual into the social and spiritual macro-environment. In this way blues may be understood as an alternative conception of human existence.

     In a major theoretical opus on the blues, Blues and the Poetic Spirit, author Paul Garon argues

 

To those who suggest that the blues singers are ‘preoccupied’ with sexuality, let us point out that all humanity is preoccupied with sexuality, albeit most often in a repressive way; the blues singers, by establishing their art on a relatively nonrepressive level, strip the ‘civilised’ disguise from humanity’s preoccupation, thus allowing the content to stand as it really is: eroticism as the source of happiness.

     The blues, as it reflects human desire, projects the imaginative possibilities of true erotic existence. Hinted at are new realities of non-repressive life, dimly grasped in our current state of alienation and repression, but nonetheless implicit in the character of sexuality as it is treated in the blues. Desire defeats the existing morality–poetry comes into being. (Garon, pages 66-67)

 

     Musicologist/theologist Jon Michael Spencer takes Garon’s argument deeper when he comments in his book Blues and Evil:

 

Garon was seemingly drawing on the thought of the late French philosopher Michel Foucault, who said in his history of sexuality that if sex is repressed and condemned to prohibition then the person who holds forth in such language, with seeming intentionality, moves, to a certain degree, beyond the reach of power and upsets established law. Sex also might have been a means for “blues people” to feel potent in an oppressive society that made them feel socially and economically impotent, especially since sexuality inside the black community was one area that was free from the restraints of “the law” and the lynch mob.

 

     In essence, the Classic Blues as articulated by Black women was not only a conscious articulation of the social self and validation of the feminine sexual self, the Classic Blues was also a total philosophical alternative to the dominant White society.

     In this regard two incidents in the life of Bessie Smith serve as archetypal illustration. The first is Bessie Smith confrontation with the Ku Klux Klan and the second is Smith’s confrontation with Carl Van Vechten’s wife. The Klan is the apotheosis of racist, right wing America. Carl Van Vechten is the personification of liberal America.

     In Chris Albertson biography of Bessie Smith he describes Smith’s July 1927 confrontation with the Klan that occurred when sheeted Klan members were attempting to “collapse Bessie’s tent; they had already pulled up several stakes.” When a band member told Smith what was going on the following ensued.

 

     “Some shit!” she said, and ordered the prop boys to follow her around the tent. When they were within a few feet of the Klansmen, the boys withdrew to a safe distance. Bessie had not told them why she wanted them, and one look at the white hoods was all the discouragement they needed.

     Not Bessie. She ran toward the intruders, stopped within ten feet of them, placed one hand on her hip, and shook a clenched fist at the Klansmen. “What the fuck you think you’re doin’?” she shouted above the sound of the band. “I’ll get the whole damn tent out here if I have to. You just pick up them sheets and run!”

     The Klansmen, apparently too surprised to move, just stood there and gawked. Bessie hurled obscenities at them until they finally turned and disappeared quietly into the darkness.

     “I ain’t never heard of such shit,” said Bessie, and walked back to where her prop boys stood. “And as for you, you ain’t nothin’ but a bunch of sissies.”

     Then she went back into the tent as if she had just settled a routine matter. (Albertson, pages 132-133)

 

     Bessie Smith was not an apolitical entertainer. She was a fighter whose sexual persona was aligned with a strong sense of political self-determination. This “strength” of character is another reason that singers such as Bessie Smith were widely celebrated in the Black community. Furthermore, Smith not only was not intimidated by the right, she was equally unimpressed with the liberal sector of American society, as the incident at the Van Vechten household demonstrates. Along with his wife Fania Marinoff, a former Russian ballerina, Carl Van Vechten (“Carlo”) was the major patron of the Harlem Renaissance. Albertson describes “Carlo” as an individual who “typified the upper-class white liberal of his day.” (Albertson, page 138)

 

     Van Vechten loved the ghetto’s pulsating music and strapping young men, and he maintained a Harlem apartment–decorated in black with silver stars on the ceiling and seductive red lights–for his notorious nocturnal gatherings.

     His favorite black singers were Ethel waters, Clara Smith, and Bessie. (Albertson, page 139)

    

     Van Vechten persistently sought Bessie Smith as a salon guest. She resisted but finally relented after continuous entreaties from one of her band members, composer and accompanist Porter Grainger, who desperately wished to be included among Van Vechten’s “in crowd.” Smith finally agreed to make a quick between sets appearance. Bessie exquisitely sang “six or seven numbers” taking a strong drink between each number. And then it was time to rush back to the Lafayette Theatre to do their second show of the night.

 

     All went well until an effusive woman stopped them a few steps from the front door. It was Bessie’s hostess, Fania Marinoff Van Vechten.

     “Miss Smith,” she said, throwing her arms around Bessie’s massive neck and pulling it forward, “you’re not leaving without kissing me goodbye.”

     That was all Bessie needed.

     “Get the fuck away from me,” she roared, thrusting her arms forward and knocking the woman to the floor, “I ain’t never heard of such shit!”

     In the silence that followed, Bessie stood in the middle of the foyer, ready to take on the whole crowd.

     “It’s all right, Miss Smith,” [Carl Van Vechten] said softly, trailing behind the threesome in the hall. “You were magnificent tonight.” (Albertson, page 143)

 

     What does any of this have to do with eroticism? These are examples of Black womanhood in action accepting no shit from either friend or foe. Blues divas such as Bessie Smith were neither afraid of nor envious of Whites. This social self assuredness is intimately entwined with their sense of sexual self assuredness. As Harrison perceptively points out, the Classic Blues divas “introduced a new, different model of black women–more assertive, sexy, sexually aware, independent, realistic, complex, alive.” (Harrison, page 111).

     These blues singers were eventually replaced in the entertainment sphere by mulatto entertainers and chocolate exotics, Josephine Baker preeminent among them. Significantly, the replacements for Blues divas were popular song stylists who aimed their art at White men rather than at the Black community in general and Black women specifically. The replacements for the big, Black, Classic Blues diva marked the consolidation of the modern entertainment industry’s sexual commodification, commercializing and exoticizing of Black female sexuality.

     Although entertainers from Josephine Baker, to Eartha Kitt, to Dianna Ross, to Tina Turner all started off as Black women they ended up projected as sex symbols adored by a predominately White male audience. In that context, sexuality becomes, at best, symbolic prostitution. The Black woman as exotic-erotic temptress of suppressed White male libidos is the complete antithesis of Classic Blues singer. The Classic Blues singer did not sell her sexuality to her oppressor. This question of cultural and personal integrity marks the difference between the sexual commodification inherent in today’s entertainment world (especially when one realizes that the major record buying public for many hardcore rap artists is composed of White teenagers) and the sexual affirmation essential to Classic Blues.

     Another important point is that Classic Blues celebrated Black eroticism based in a literal “Black, Brown or Beige” body rather than in a “white looking” mulatto body. When we look at pictures of Classic Blues divas, we see our mothers, aunts, and older lady friends. Indeed, by all-American beauty standards most of these women would be considered plain (at best), and many would be called “ugly.”

     For example, Ma Rainey was often crudely and cruelly demeaned. Giles Oakley’s book The Devil’s Music, A History of the Blues quotes Little Brother Montgomery “Boy, she was the horrible-lookingest thing I ever see!” and Georgia Tom Dorsey “Well, I couldn’t say she was a good-looking woman and she was stout. But she was one of the loveliest people I ever worked for or worked with.” Oakley opines

 

     She was an extraordinary-looking woman, ugly-attractive with a short, stubby body, big-featured face and a vividly painted mouth full of gold teeth; she would be loaded down with diamonds–in her ears, round her neck, in a tiara on her head, on her hands, everywhere. Beads and bangles mingled jingling with the frills on her expensive stage gowns. For a time her trademark was a fabulous necklace of gold coins, from 2.50 dollar coins to heavy 20 dollar ‘Eagles’ with matching gold earrings. (Oakley, page 99)

 

     I’m sure the majority of Ma Rainey’s female audience did not fail to notice that Ma Rainey resembled them–she looked like they did and they looked like she did. There is no alienation of physical looks between the Classic Blues singer and the majority of her working class Black audience. Physical-appearance alienation of artist from audience is another byproduct of the commodification of Black music.

     What started out as a ritual celebration of openly eroticized life was transformed by the entertainment industry into mass-media pornography–the priestess became a prostitute. Albertson’s citing of  a colorfully written Van Vechten assessment of a Bessie Smith performance clarifies the difference between Bessie Smith performing mainly for Black people and subsequent “Black beauties” (including the famous Cotton Club dancers and singers) performing almost exclusively for Whites. Van Vechten not only points out the literally Black make up of Smith’s audience, he also points out how Black women identified with Bessie Smith.

 

     Now, inspired partly by the powerfully magnetic personality of this elemental conjure woman with her plangent African voice, quivering with passion and pain, sounding as if it had been developed at the sources of the Nile, the black and blue-black crowd, notable for the absence of mulattoes, burst into hysterical, semi-religious shrieks of sorrow and lamentation. Amens rent the air. Little nervous giggles, like the shattering of Venetian glass, shocked our nerves. When Bessie proclaimed, “It’s true I loves you, but I won’t take mistreatment any mo,” a girl sitting beneath our box called “Dat’s right! Say it, sister!” (Albertson, page 107)

 

     The implication of such example is psychologically far-reaching and explicitly threatening to male chauvinism, as Harrison explicates:

 

…the silent, suffering woman is replaced by a loud-talking mama, reared-back with one hand on her hip and with the other wagging a pointed finger vigorously as she denounces the two-timing dude. Ntozage Shange, Alice Walker, and Zora Neale Hurston employ this scenario as the pivotal point in a negative relationship between the heroine/protagonists and their abusive men. Going public is their declaration of independence. Blues of this nature communicated to women listeners that they were members of a sisterhood that did not have to tolerate mistreatment. (Harrison, page 89)

 

     That these women–big, black, tough, non-virginal, sexually aggressive–were superstars of their era is testimony to the strength of a totally oppositional standard of human value. Their value was not one of physical appearance but one of spiritual relevance. And make no mistake, at that time there was no shortage of mulatto chorines and canaries–Lena Horne, archetypal amongst such “All-American beauties.” Nor was there an absence of White male sex-lust for exotic-erotic mulattoes. The difference was that during the twenties there was an unassimilated Black audience which self-consciously embraced/squeezed the blacker berry, i.e. the Classic Blues diva.

     The Classic Blues diva was an extraordinary woman whose relevance to a Black audience has never been approached, not to mention matched. William Barlow’s assessment is fundamentally correct.

 

     The classic blues women’s feminist discourse grappled with the race, class, and sexual injustices they encountered living in urban America. They were outspoken opponents of racial discrimination in all guises, and hence critical of the dominant white social order–even while benefiting from it more than most of their peers. They identified with the struggles of the masses of black people, empathized with the plight of the downtrodden, and sang out for social change. Within the black community, the classic blues women were also critical of the way they were treated by men, challenging the sexual double standard. Concurrently, they reaffirmed and reclaimed their feminine powers–sexual and spiritual–to remake the world in their own image and to their own liking. This included freedom of choice across the social spectrum–from political to sexual resistance, from black nationalism to lesbianism. Like the first-generation rural blues troubadours, the classic blues women were cultural rebels, ahead of the times artistically and in the forefront of resistance to all the various forms of domination they encountered. (Barlow, pages 180-181)

 

     At the essential core of the Classic Blues was a throbbing, vital eroticism, an eroticism that manifested itself in the lifestyle and subject matter of the Classic Blues divas. Although we can analyze in hindsight, the ultimate manifestation of blue eroticism is not to be found nor appreciated in intellectualism but in its funky sound which must be experienced to be fully appreciated. Once again, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple is exemplar in portraying the importance of the blue erotic sound–an eroticism best articulated by Black women.

 

     Shug say to Squeak, I mean, Mary Agnes, You ought to sing in public.

     Mary Agnes say, Naw. She think cause she don’t sing big and broad like Shug nobody want to hear her. But Shug say she wrong.

     What about all them funny voices you hear singing in church? Shug say. What about all them sounds that sound good but they not the sounds you thought folks could make? What bout that? Then she start moaning. Sound like death approaching, angels can’t prevent it. It raise the hair on the back of your neck. But it really sound sort of like panthers would sound if they could sing.

     I tell you something else, Shug say to Mary Agnes, listening to you sing, folks git to thinking bout a good screw.

     Aw, Miss Shug, say Mary Agnes, changing color.

     Shug say, What, too shamefaced to put singing and dancing and fucking together? She laugh. That’s the reason they call what us sing the devil’s music. Devils love to fuck. (Walker, page 120)

 

————————

WORKS CITED

 

Albertson, Chris. Bessie. Braircliff: Stein and Day Paperback, 1985 (Originally issued 1972)

 

Barlow, William. Looking Up At Down. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989

 

Borgatti, Jean. “Songs Of Ritual License From Midwestern Nigeria” in Alcheringa Ethnopoetics (New Series Volume 2, Number 1). Dennis Tedlock and Jerome Rothenberg, editors. Boston: Boston University, 1976

 

Brown, Sterling A. The Collected Poems of Sterling A. Brown. Michael S. Harper, editor. Chicago: TriQuarterly Books, 1989

 

Cone, James H. The Spirituals and the Blues. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1972

 

Douglas, Ann. Terrible Honesty. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995

 

Garon, Paul. Blues & The Poetic Spirit. New York: Da Capo Press, 1975

Giovanni, Nikki. The Selected Poems of Nikki Giovanni. New York: William Morrow, 1996

 

Harrison, Daphne Duval. Black Pearls, Blues Queens of the 1920s. Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1990

 

Hine, Darlene Clark. Speak Truth To Power. Brooklyn: Carlson Publishing, Inc., 1996

 

Jones, LeRoi. Blues People. New York: Morrow Quill Paperbacks, 1963

Oakley, Giles. The Devil’s Music, A History of the Blues. New York: Harvest/HBJ book, 1976

 

Spencer, Jon Michael. Blues and Evil. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1993

 

Walker, Alice. The Color Purple. New York: Pocket Books/Washington Square Press, 1982

 

 

GUARDING THE FLAME OF LIFE

The Funeral of

Big Chief Donald Harrison Sr. (1933 – 1998)

 

 

It was a summer day in December (1998). The sky was clear, high, an almost pastel blue dotted by mere wisps of clouds. The shine of the sun bounced beaming off the white of the church building facade. Coming around the corner, brother man pushed a blue shopping cart that held a yellow fifty-gallon trash can with an ice pick stuck on the top perimeter of the plastic container. Dude had a fist full of dollar bills in his left hand. I knew what he was doing. He was selling beer.

 

“Yeah. Probably that old cheap Budweiser,” my good buddy and internationally-exhibited visual artist Willie Birch wisecracked. About three-quarters of an hour later, the vendor had acquired a couple of cases of Lowenbrau in the bottle; had them stashed on the bottom rack of the grocery buggy now improvised into a moving beer kiosk.

 

I spied a man in brilliant yellow shirt — it does injustice to the shirt to call it yellow, just as it does injustice to the sun to call it hot. The man was standing still, no breeze was blowing but his shirt looked like it was moving. The hue of the deeply mellow, vibrant yellow fabric was so intense that it made gold-dust jealous. Turns out, as we talk, the brother reminds me we graduated from high school together.

 

Then Roger Lewis, a founding member of the Dirty Dozen Band, walked up holding his baritone sax. New Orleans musicians have a tradition of resplendent cleanliness — as in mean, clean and beautifying the scene. Roger’s sartorial eminence was such that just the hipness of his presence was musical. He stood on the sidewalk with a slight rearward lean, angled just enough to let you know he was hip and not so much that he looked like he was posturing or calling undue attention to himself. I heard strange and wonderful melodies in his insouciant stance, a bluesy riff in the way he unhurriedly unfurled a slow smile when I walked up to congratulate him on maintaining impressively high standards of beauty vis-a-vis male attire.

 

But before the praise song to Roger was fully out of my mouth, nightclub bouncer and renown gospel singer Joe Cool strolled by in a righteously pressed walking suit. The trouser hem draped softly over the tops of a pair of mustard colored, burnished, kid-glove leather kicks that looked so comfortable he could have worn them on his hands — as I dapped him I bent down and commented, “look at that,” pointing with my chin to his lovely loafers, “leave it to you to give them something to look at when they bow down.” Joe Cool has a beautiful grin when he is pleased.

 

Moments earlier, across the street I had seen our consigliori relaxing on the stoop next to one of Treme’s most responsible business people (as they were incognito I will not divulge their 9-to-5 identities but I will say they were not visiting, this was their resident neighborhood and everyone who passed them spoke and were spoken to). The three of us were passing pleasantries for a minute when up pops union organizer and environmental racism activist Pat Bryant dress in a black suit, looking like a Baptist preacher. In response to my ribbing about his get-up Pat joked he had a Bible in his back pocket. With a straight face I asked, “what caliber?” He just smiled and showed us neither Bible nor gun. After giving me a conspiratorial glance, Pat said something to our mutual  counselor-friend about the low nature of lawyerly work. The attorney calmly parried, “Like Booker T. said, it beats working in the sun.” Yeah, that made sense; we knowingly head nodded. Pat leaned toward the counselor to discuss a personal matter, I bid them adieu and re-crossed the street to the church.

 

Back standing next to Willie, I surveyed the scene. Shimmering and shimmying down the street a block away you could see the feathered form and also hear the drums of new style Mardi Gras Indian, Fi-Ya-Ya. The distance but distinct sound cut through the cacophony of the crowd. Seemed like there was a couple of hundred people milling around the St. Augustine’s front entrance at the corner of Gov. Nichols and St. Claude.

 

Fi-Ya-Ya in all his Indian glory had his headgear on. The mask fitted over his head like a knight’s helmet, or like one of them old paper mache, black and white, skeleton skulls like, well, like community activist/professional agitator Randy Mitchell wore. Randy was belligerently waving a black, pirate-like flag and daring anyone to take a picture of his copyrighted costume.

 

As I turned to take in Fi-Ya-Ya’s arrival, another advertisement for African inspired, colorful splendor stepped softly around the corner. A man whose face I recognized from secondline parades, strode confidently through the crowd, his head cocked upward like a rooster squinting at dawn sky. He had on a black pin striped suit, a blood red silk handkerchief gushed out of his breast pocket, and he was crowned with a white Stetson hat. His spotless skypiece had a small feather stuck in the side that made peacock feathers look dull. I ran up to him, “man, ain’t no use in looking for the sun, cause you the only thing shining!” He waved at me good naturedly and laughed.

 

Earlier I had been inside the church for the musical tribute section but when the mass portion kicked in, the Indian drumming and chanting that was going on outside piqued my interest. Their sharp shouts and sounds that were unignorable as spear stabs periodically pierced the quiet of the church sanctuary. Seemed like the drums were calling me by name. And that’s how I came to be outside greeting a plethora of cultural stalwarts such as Greg Stafford, the Young Tuxedo Brass Band leader/trumpeter and founding member of the Black Men of Labor marching club. Greg was resplendent in white from head to toe, including a tall conical African-inspired headpiece.

 

While waiting for the body to be released from the church services many of us passed the time by greeting and hugging each other while reminiscing about good times and other great second lines. We were patient. Regardless of what was or was not going on inside, we knew Donald Harrison Sr. would be delivered over to us for a final procession to the burying ground.

 

(So far I have not talked about the women — there were a couple of sisters so fine that when they strolled through the crowd, men stopped talking and just stood with their mouths gapped open. A little later when my wife Nia came outside and started hugging me as she leaned against my shoulder, Willie started babbling about how beautiful Nia was. With every syllable, Nia’s smile got wider and wider. I know that the significance of this interlude of describing the beauty of the women is loss on some people, but at the risk of being misunderstood, I say to you that where ever there is no deep and profound appreciation of women and music, beauty and dance, in such absence you find a general pallor and dullness to existence, an existence that opulence and ostentatious sex only makes more sad. In any case, as clean as all the men were I described above, apply the splendor of their appearance to the pulchritude of the women.)

 

Inside the church Fr. LeDeaux had said, there is something in us that celebrates life, celebrates through “music and dancing.” He said that: music and dancing. A Catholic priest conducting a mass lauds the centrality of “music and dancing” — obviously this priest is a Black man (and I don’t mean biologically, I mean culturally).

 

The church is decored with the usual artifacts of Christianity, but closer inspection reveals banners proclaiming the Nguzo Saba (the seven principles). Moreover, high up in the balcony, taking up the top wall, instead of a traditional cross there is what looks like a ten to fifteen foot ankh.

 

The ankh is a traditional African icon — for those who would want me to specify that the ankh is Egyptian, I suggest that you miss the point that Egypt is African, or at least originally was before euro-centric scholars with cultural axes to grind kept trying to point to Greece to explain the science and culture of North Africa. Anyway, there, in St. Augustine Caholic church, the largest religious icon was an ankh.

 

The ankh represents not simply life in the abstract but also the male and female principle of life in balance. The shape of the ankh has the ovary over the phallus — the circle (actually an upside down teardrop, the pear shape of the earth itself), or female, sits atop, the rod, or male.

 

Also, unlike most churches which have the pulpit at one end of the church, in St. Augustine the altar is in the middle of the congregational seating and what had originally been the dais and choir area was now where the musicians performed.

 

Need I tell you that this is a Black church? St. Augustine Catholic church is one of the oldest churches in the city and was build based on money raised by “gens libre de colouer” — free men of color — and by contributions from enslaved Africans who made money from trade and handicraft sales. Moreover, St. Augustine is located in Treme, which is the oldest continuously existing African American neighborhood in the United States.

 

For an hour before the formal funeral mass, there had been jazz and Mardi Gras Indian drumming, dancing and singing. Trap drummer Shannon Powell and djembe master Luther Gray traded funky pre-funeral licks. Bassist Chris Severin held down the bottom. Milton Batiste bested the younger trumpeters with some absolutely, hideously awe-inspiring trumpet flourishes that favored all the tones that hang around and in between but never at the center of the tempered scale — although, I must say that “Twelve” (aka James Andrews, bka Satchmo of the Ghetto) was right up under Milton with some trumpet wah-wah effects he made by sticking his hand in and over the bell of his horn as if his flesh were a rubber or metal mute. The two Willies (Willie Tee and Willie Metcalf) played the keyboards like balaphons, that uniquely African mixture of melody and percussion. And only son, Donald Harrison Jr. was out front with saxophone — he was on alto, his prettiest voice. And there were plenty more hornmen and drummers coming and going, including the ever effervescent vocalist/trumpeter Kermit Ruffins.

 

At the end of the musical tribute section I was called on to deliver a poem. I recited “Spirit & Flame.” Much of what I said was chanted, some was not even in English but, nevertheless and unfailingly, most of the people understood every sound I uttered.

 

On one side of the church sat All For One Records founder and former musical director for Sonny & Cher, Harold Battiste dressed in a formal length, black, white-embroidered top of African finery; his elderhood sagely complemented by the upside down halo of his magnificent white wisdom-beard. No one has made as significant an all-around contribution to New Orleans music as has Battiste who is prolific producer, composer and arranger in jazz, rhythm & blues, gospel, and pop music.

 

On the other side of the church, the Big Chief of the Yellow Pochohantas and a man who has masked for over fifty years, Tootie Montana and his wife and chief sewing partner, Joyce Montana sat side by side. They could wear sackcloth and look regal. Throughout the services people walked up to Big Chief Tootie and paid almost as much respects to him as to the Harrison family. Though Donald Harrison Sr. was widely acclaimed for his intellectual prowess and historical insight into the significance of Indian culture, Tootie Montana is considered the most accomplished Mardi Gras Indian suit designer.

 

After my threnody, members of Chief Harrison’s gang shake tambourines and sing over the coffin, offering a last testament of fidelity to the principles and beliefs of their Big Chief. Also on hand to pay their respects were a number of other Indian chiefs, including some who are from rival uptown gangs.

 

A veritable who’s who of Black street culture slow marches up and down the church aisle for the last viewing of a man, who perhaps more than any other, argued for full recognition of the cultural significance of Mardi Gras Indians — a calling which significantly his children and grandchildren have actively taken up. His oldest daughter Cherice Harrison-Nelson teaches Mardi Gras Indian culture in the public schools and in community workshops. His son, Donald Harrison Jr. is a professional jazz musician who has constantly records Mardi Gras Indian music and his grandson Brian Nelson has become a Mardi Gras Indian chief. Though, thankfully, his work continues on, undoubtedly Donald Harrison Sr. will be missed.

 

These services are unlike Catholic funeral services anywhere on this continent. The presiding priest both sings and preaches as legendary blind pianist Henry Butler plays in accompaniment. A trio of women read scripture. The highpoint is Donald Harrison’s instrumental rendition of Amazing Grace. Predictably, this is truly a memorable New Orleans funeral.

 

Unfortunately, but also predictably, there were too many cameras (a couple of photographers had been requested by the family, but most were uninvited). Used to be you would only see the small, hand-held deals, now there are camcorders and video crews with ungainly boom cranes and artificial lights. All of this despite two big signs posted on the church’s front door “no camera’s inside.”

 

Most of the picture taking was futile. No matter what they shot with, none of those pictures could show you the spirit swirling around this gathering for the send off of Big Chief Donald Harrison, the Guardian of the Flame. Only the human soul can appreciate the profoundness of the spirit. A machine at best captures but a pale reflection. If you really want to make a memento of such moments, you should go and osmose the spirit through your pores, inhale the bouquet of real emotions and deep sentiments.

 

After over an hour of church services, the second line finally began. For a block or so, I slipped inside the eye of the procession, pranced just behind the trombones, saxophones at my side and trumpets nappying up my kitchen with corkscrew tones blown at the back of my head. We proceeded up Ursulines past where James Black used to live (I believe it was his mama’s house), where, when brother Black had passed on, the hearse stopped in front the door and the coffin was pulled out and literally thrown up in the air in ritual salute.

 

Earlier I had hovered at the heart of Indian drumming and chants as we prayed in our own secular way for Big Chief Donald Harrison’s safe journey to the ancestor realm. I am not an Indian nor a musician, but these are my people. I was here to bear witness with the vibrancy of my being, with my tongue chanting and body dancing, with my soul intertwined in celebratory resistance shout with all the others of us all in the street — no building, no structure, no coffin, nothing could contain us. This is why we don’t die, we multiply. Every time the butcher cuts one of us down, the rest of us laugh and dance, defying death. It’s our way of saying yes to life, saying fuck you to death and his nefarious henchmen, poverty and racism.

 

The funeral of Big Chief Donald Harrison raises two important questions. First, when does spectacle overtake ritual and, second, in light of the significance of the transition of this particular Big Chief, where do we go from here?

 

From the beginning in Congo Square on down to the jazz funeral of today, there have always been two kinds of audiences: those of the culture who came to make ritual, to affirm and renew; and those who came to witness (a few to gawk) and be entertained. Both audiences understood something powerful was going on, which is why they both were there/are here.

 

The ritual participants came, some literally looking like they wore whatever they had worn to work yesterday or maybe even whatever they had worn when they fell asleep slumped over a bar table at three o’clock this morning; or, then again, they came like that fierce sister who wore a circular feathered, multicolored hat about which to say it looked like a crown belittles the splendiferous figure she cut every time she bobbed her head, don’t mention when she would turn and smile.

 

The ritual participants were the beaters of wine bottles and the bearers of babies on their hips. They were those who raided deep into the hearts of their closets to come out with their hippest threads and they were those who just heard the commotion, threw open their front doors, rose up off stoops and porches, and ran to add to the assembly because in the marrow of their being they “feel to believe” they are “called” to join in. These often nameless and generally uncelebrated (outside of their turf communities), these indispensable spiritual emeralds are the standard bearers of street culture. They came.

 

These are the ones who would have been dancers and not just onlookers in Congo Square — the musicians, the singers, the hip swingers, hollering until hoarse, and then shouting some more. These are the people whose existence in and of itself affirms the dynamic of the African way of knowing and celebrating life.

 

The others, the onlookers were there to be touched by the profundity of the ritual — and while they are welcome to watch, we must understand that no matter what they think of what they see (or what they write or how many pictures they print up and put in books), the onlookers are an appendage and ultimately not even necessary for the functioning of this culture.

 

Sometimes there are clashes between these two audiences, sometimes there are mergers. These two groups of people are connected in time and place, but are separate in culture and condition. Harrison’s funeral makes me pause and ask: when does the spectacle of it, when does the gathering of onlookers, gawkers (especially the wanna-be sly cultural vultures — and you know who you are), when does this press of outsiders become so critical that they color, no, they mar the beauty and integrity of the proceedings?

 

It wouldn’t be so bad, if the non dancers would step to the rear and sit quietly or move out the way, and walk on the sidewalk, but no, some of them are so bold as to want to be up front and personal. And please do not misunderstand this as a veiled referenced exclusively to so-called “white” people. There are a number of Negroes who show through and come back into the hood only when someone dies, and then only for a moment — don’t blink your eyes or you will miss them. Like Dorothy, sometimes I wish I could click my heels and make all of them go away. Forever.

 

African American culture has always had to function under the scrutiny of outsiders, however, the mix is becoming so disproportionate that you can’t hardly feel the heat of the Black fyah because of the damp of so much chilly water.

 

Sometimes Donald Harrison (both Donald the father and Donald the son) and I would talk about these and other matters.  In fact, more and more the nature and preservation of our culture is becoming one of the major topics of conversation wherever the culture bearers gather. Regardless of whether we are misunderstood, there are a significant number of us who will never liquidate our Blackness to indulge in indiscriminate integration, particularly integration of all things Black into anything White. Donald Harrison Sr. could hold court for days about this.

 

Big Chief Harrison was a studious man, who read voraciously, and thought deeply about being and the meaning of life. I shall not attempt to put words in his mouth, nor to project my own sentiments through him. We need only tell the truth about him. We need only note that he gave name to the “Guardian of the Flame.”

 

What fyah was it that he wanted to keep burning?

 

The people outside the church was sparking like flint stones clacking against the hard rocks of our place and time. Mayor Marc Morial was inside expressing condolences. Outside Ferdinand Bigard had dressed his son in a Friday night, negroidal-red Indian suit. Donald Harrison, Sr.’s body was resting inside the coffin inside the church. Outside Indians were scurrying back and forth, chanting in the street. The fire was outside — also inside to a significant degree, but mainly outside — in the hearts and soul of the people who sang and danced during the musical tribute and retreated to the street to wait out the formal religious part of the funeral.

 

People do not want to talk about this cultural separation of church and street, especially since the street is the more celebrated. Perhaps, such celebratory discourse sounds sacrilegious and most of us who write and publish in mainstream organs are either Christians or are very reluctant to do anything that might be construed as anti-Christian, but facts is facts. Those who maintain the street culture of New Orleans are mainly blues people who are often very spiritual but who are not necessarily very religious.

 

Yet, the street folk don’t deny the church it’s place in the community. A significant section of the Black community goes to church, and most Black people, be they Christian or not, believe in “God,” but spiritual beliefs on one hand and strict adherence to Christian doctrine on the other are two different concepts. This African-based spirituality sans Christian religiosity is the difference which demarcates the Black blues people from their fellow Blacks in the community. Moreover, the blues people are generally the marginals of society, the most impoverished materially, but, at the same time, they are the richest in terms of cultural creativity and integrity, and particularly in terms of African retentions (both conscious and unconscious).

 

New Orleans would be a piss poor place to live were it not for the presence and culture of the Black poor/blues people of New Orleans. The people who don’t own a pot to urinate in nor a window to throw it out of (over sixty percent of them are renters!), these are the people whom Donald Harrison spoke of, with and for. These were the people who marched with him on Mardi Gras day. These and another element: the conscious brothers and sisters, kin and kind, who might work at City Hall or for the School Board but who dress out at appropriate occasions and shake their backfields like a saucer of Jello in the hands of a four year old. It is the poor and the conscious elements who align themselves with the poor who keep New Orleans Black culture alive — the ones who will dance at the drop of a hat and can’t imagine life without music.

 

This is what Donald Harrison asked us to keep alive, and this mission speaks directly to the second question: where do we go from here?

 

The best way to preserve New Orleans culture is to support the people who make the culture. Open doors for them. If you live or work in the big house, then throw food and resources out the window, pass on strategic information. But do it as a religious offering not as a material acquisition or purchase. Make your sacrifice and then go home. Let the spirit carry on. Let those who make music and dance, those who sing and chant, let them be and do what they gotta do without the interference of outsiders of whatever color who have a vested interest in becoming experts on what they have never and can never produce: a culture as vibrant and exultant as New Orleans street culture.

 

There is room for all at the table, but if you can’t cook, get out the kitchen. Make whatever contribution you can and where you can’t, get out the way and give the dancers room to do their thing.

 

Whether onlooker or participant, the passing of Big Chief Donald Harrison Sr. speaks to us, encourages us, cajoles us — we must carry on: support New Orleans culture. Guard the Flame with the seriousness of your life, because that is precisely what the flame is: life. The flame is all about the joy and celebration of life. Be a guardian of life. Regardless of how cold it does or does not get, let the fyah burn full up!

 

___________________

 

SPIRIT & FLAME

(for Big Chief Donald Harrison)

 

            you think this a costume?

            you think this a ball?

            you think this a lark?

            just for the fun of it all?

 

            Hoo Nan Ney!

 

the ancestors are enriched / our lives had been made stronger / the flame has purified us / if only / for a moment / the moment / of his flashing / his flaming / his wit / his anger / his upholdance of the legacy / of resistance / intelligence / seriousness / sun seriousness / hot pepper / cayenne colors / the shout of life in the face of whatever / the cultural tourists are calling themselves today / they / will be at the funeral / but who marched with him / when he was alive / who carried the flame / in their mouths / stepped in the sun then / when / no cameras were allowed / who waved hard high / the banner in their hearts / what men and women / sons, daughters / & lovers / who manifested / the dance walk of black shine / guarding the flame of our time / beaconing  bright / terrible / and badder than that / on our good days / in our wild ways / when nobody can’t tell us nothing / not a goddamn thing / and we sing / and we shout / and we act out / black & red / african culture / of many colors / don’t take no trail of tears to his coffin / donald harrison does not need your pity / your moans / about what we gon / do / now that he gone / the fire is not out / if you continue to carry the flame / if your are guardian / if you are in the groove / conscious of who / & what  we are / & all we come from / don’t cry / don’t you moan / stand tall / walk proud / let every waist wind up / let every foot kick forward / let every mouth shout / let every eye shine / don’t bow down / go forth unbended / don’t bow down / in sorry sorrow / you never saw him sad / as a negro / hoping to become white / by committing cultural suicide / he said feed the fire / keep the burning / grab some knowledge / be a scholar / know yourselves / honor your mother / honor your father / love your people / all they been / and had to be / while working through the slaughter / moving forward / keep on dancing / beat the drum / the drums of life / sing the songs / of who we are / follow his example / don’t bow down / stand up straight / and guard the flame / the dark flame / of black fire / black fyah i tell you / fyah / & flame the spirit of struggle / spirit & flame / big chief / donald harrison / fayh chief / guardian / guardian of the flame / guardian of the flame / be a guardian / of the flame / the flame of life / shine on

 

—Kalamu ya Salaam

from Be About Beauty (2018 – UNO Press)

 

“I would say the most important thing is to honestly examine and confront what’s going on in our society, and to examine it with a ruthless honesty, with ourselves, with our audiences, with our critics, with our students. What can we do, how can we make it better? And the same value applies to the art of it, I don’t see art as separate from values.” – John O’Neal, aka Junebug Jabbo Jones

 

 

All people have stories, we just have to figure out how to get them heard.

 

We don’t have to wait for God/ot. Godot ain’t coming and god leaves it up to us to decide when and how we speak, what we have to say, and ultimately, if anyone hears us.

 

A baby cries. For attention. For food. For care/cleaning. But, ultimately, for the therapy of touch, which is inherent in dealing with all of the aforementioned. After all language is a way not just of communicating but also a means of connecting, of touching both literally (via sound waves)  and figuratively (via meaning and expression).

 

When John O’Neal, Doris Derby, and Gilbert Moses founded the Free Southern Theatre (FST), 1963, in Jackson, Mississippi, one of their thoughts was to bring theatre to those who had no theatre. Decades later, each in their own way, recognized that sharecroppers and field workers; mothers of nine tending a family and fathers drifting down some lonesome road or more likely husbanding forty acres and singing baritone on Sunday in the five-member, four-part harmony of their gospel jubilee ensemble; not to mention epic, day-long Saturday bull-jiving sessions out front of the general store for the menfolk, and weekend quilting sessions for the ladies. All of that and more of that was our theatre of sorts, our ways of making art out of the mundanities of our daily lives.

 

John O’Neal quickly recognized the beauty of our being how-so-ever and who-so-ever we make of our passage on and through the various pieces of earth we call home. Whether tragedies, comedies, or both, we had theatre, just had to figure out how to formalize making art out of our existence.

 

Born September 25, 1940 in Mound City, Illinois, John Milton O’Neal, Jr. earned a BA degree in English and Philosophy from Southern Illinois University. Shortly after graduating he joined the freedom movement and worked as a SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) field secretary in Georgia and Mississippi. In 1964 he worked with the SNCC Freedom Summer Project in Mississippi and in 1965 moved FST to New Orleans. After years of touring and performing throughout the country and abroad, FST formally closed in 1980 with a production of O’Neal’s play “Don’t Start Me To Talking Or I’ll Tell You Everything I Know: Sayings From The Life And Writings Of Junebug Jabbo Jones.” The production gave birth to both the character Junebug as well as to Junebug Productions, which O’Neal retired from in 2011. John O’Neal made his transition February 14, 2019 in New Orleans.

 

One of O’Neal’s most important and enduring concepts is the “story circle.” After FST productions the audience was encouraged to give comments. O’Neal noticed the disparity between various respondents, some of whom barely spoke and others of whom went on and on. Believing in what SNCC called “participatory democracy,” O’Neal developed a technique to ensure that everyone spoke and was listened to. He asked people to sit in a circle and tell a story based on their own experiences. Eventually guidelines were developed including a three-minute time limit and a story with a beginning, a middle and an end that was something a person either participated in, witnessed, or was directly told about. The story circle is a way to build community and mutual respect regardless of the speaker’s educational background and social status.

 

John O’Neal was not only a gifted story-teller, he was also a guide who helped everyone to recognize the importance of their own stories.

 

 

NOW HEAR THIS!

spokenword tribute

Adrinda Kelly’s video of Kalamu’s reading at the Oretha program has all but the very end. You can catch the flavor of the words and music.

=============

 

Mister Bill called and asked me to write a poem for Oretha, to be presented in a tribute in her honor by The New Orleans Jazz Orchestra on February 22, 2019 at their building located on the corner of Martin Luther King and Oretha Castle Haley Boulevards. Oretha Castle Haley (July 22, 1939 – October 10, 1987) was an iconic New Orleans civil rights veteran and community activist whom Bill Rouselle and I had known and been led by.

MING THE MERCILESS—OUR FIELD GENERAL

 

We knew her as Ming The Merciless

Our nom de guerre for Oretha Castle Haley

Who fiercely led us into battle, often

Against foes we didn’t know secretly opposed us

 

When I was but a handful of years out of short pants

I was the eleventh-grader sitting in at Woolworth’s

Under Ming’s guidance, an ardent warrior against segregation

Ask Mr. Schwegmann, whose lunch counter we confronted

At his new store off Chef Menteur & Paris Road

Along the Industrial Canal in the vast Ninth Ward

The future home turf of the SOUL Civil&Silver Rights organization

Eventually co-led by the Weasel (Sherman Copelin)

And the Bear (Don Hubbard), a CORE veteran,

It took the cunning and brawn of the two of them to match

Oretha’s insightful social and political maneuverings

Schwegmann’s heavy, brown paper supermarket bags

Were much sought for a politician’s slogan or smiling face

As those shopping bags were familiar to many a voter as well

As to school students who religiously used them

To cover their textbooks—some of us even drew big, bold

Purple and crimson declarations of love

Full of intertwining red hearts and roses

As in Alfred loves Angela on those beige bags

 

The major avenue for Black retail shopping, Dryades Street

Was renamed Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard in her honor

But long before the name change she was already

Seeing around corners most of us didn’t know

We would have to turn in the course of our long march

Toward long sought political freedom and economic equality

 

Ming declared public education a major battlefield

A fight we ultimately loss in the new millennium

When New Orleans no longer has any public schools left

Under the democratically elected school board’s direction,

The rapacious bandits of privatizing education

Are making a killing commandeering the charter movement

And essentially foreclosing one of only two

Major political/economic foundations of our Black Community

—Containers on ocean-going ships

Destroyed the longshoremen’s union, indeed, I literally

almost cried when I saw the ILA (International Longshoremen’s

Association Hall) falling beneath a wrecking ball, after all

That auditorium was where we Blacks held civic meetings

And proms, concerts and dances, were Otis sang a simple song

And the Royal Dukes of Rhythm played complex big band

Arrangements for our dancing and listening enjoyment

But beyond the merriment stood an institution that

Literally supplied both money and manpower for our

Sixties and Seventies uprising that not only led to numerous

Gigantic gatherings: sports activities, and a plethora of

Conclaves, conventions and exhibitions from the Sugarbowl and

Superbowl to gun shows and automobile roundups

But also supplied economic incentives and a cornucopia of

Money making opportunities, especially for Superdome Services Inc.

A purveyor of maintenance, janitorial, and event staffing

Headed by the Weasel and the Bear, the duo had moved

From political brokerage to economic development

 

Between the school teachers and the longshoremen

And all the institutions that were thereby supported,

From corner stores to mansions in the newly developed

New Orleans East, where else could we go, where else

Were we welcomed, where else could our community

Grow, thrive and develop? Where else in or near New Orleans?

 

That’s why many of us reluctantly but nonetheless valiantly

Took on the overthrow of the all-white school board

That educator Mack Spears first integrated, not insignificant

Considering that the Crescent City was the birthplace of

SCLC, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference

And Ming made us young knuckleheads understand the

Significance of controlling our own education and the myriad

Of opportunities associated there with, long term strategy

Was Ming’s forte, anyone could win a dustup or even a mayoral

Election, she taught us to go beyond just winning a battle

When there was a protracted struggle to overcome, which is why

Ming was a leader in championing public healthcare,

Saddle-up warriors she commanded and led the charge

Championing public and affordable healthcare and medications,

A battle that sooner or later we all needed to wage

Whether as patient or advocate, or both

 

Ming was on it, her dulcet tones gently, and when necessary,

Forcefully waking us up to our responsibilities and opportunities

Ming The Merciless was, is and always will be a major inspiration

For me and countless other New Orleanians woke and aware

Of what time it really is and what we ought to be doing

To confront evil and advance all that it

Good and righteous in this world

 

All hail Ming The Merciless

All salute Oretha Castle Haley

A woman at the forefront of struggle for

Truth, justice and a truly egalitarian American way

 

Mister Bill called and asked me to write a poem for Oretha, to be presented in a tribute in her honor by The New Orleans Jazz Orchestra on February 22, 2019 at their building located on the corner of Martin Luther King and Oretha Castle Haley Boulevards. Oretha Castle Haley (July 22, 1939 – October 10, 1987) was an iconic New Orleans civil rights veteran and community activist whom Bill Rouselle and I had known and been led by.

 

 

MING THE MERCILESS—OUR FIELD GENERAL

We knew her as Ming The Merciless

Our nom de guerre for Oretha Castle Haley

Who fiercely led us into battle, often

Against foes we didn’t know secretly opposed us

 

When I was but a handful of years out of short pants

I was the eleventh-grader sitting in at Woolworth’s

Under Ming’s guidance, an ardent warrior against segregation

Ask Mr. Schwegmann, whose lunch counter we confronted

At his new store off Chef Menteur & Paris Road

Along the Industrial Canal in the vast Ninth Ward

The future home turf of the SOUL Civil&Silver Rights organization

Eventually co-led by the Weasel (Sherman Copelin)

And the Bear (Don Hubbard), a CORE veteran,

It took the cunning and brawn of the two of them to match

Oretha’s insightful social and political maneuverings

Schwegmann’s heavy, brown paper supermarket bags

Were much sought for a politician’s slogan or smiling face

As those shopping bags were familiar to many a voter as well

As to school students who religiously used them

To cover their textbooks—some of us even drew big, bold

Purple and crimson declarations of love

Full of intertwining red hearts and roses

As in Alfred loves Angela on those beige bags

 

The major avenue for Black retail shopping, Dryades Street

Was renamed Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard in her honor

But long before the name change she was already

Seeing around corners most of us didn’t know

We would have to turn in the course of our long march

Toward long sought political freedom and economic equality

 

Ming declared public education a major battlefield

A fight we ultimately loss in the new millennium

When New Orleans no longer has any public schools left

Under the democratically elected school board’s direction,

The rapacious bandits of privatizing education

Are making a killing commandeering the charter movement

And essentially foreclosing one of only two

Major political/economic foundations of our Black Community

—Containers on ocean-going ships

Destroyed the longshoremen’s union, indeed, I literally

Almost cried when I saw the ILA (International Longshoremen’s

Association Hall) falling beneath a wrecking ball, after all

That auditorium was where we Blacks held civic meetings

And proms, concerts and dances, were Otis sang a simple song

And the Royal Dukes of Rhythm played complex big band

Arrangements for our dancing and listening enjoyment

But beyond the merriment stood an institution that

Literally supplied both money and manpower for our

Sixties and Seventies uprising that not only led to numerous

Gigantic gatherings: sports activities, and a plethora of

Conclaves, conventions and exhibitions from the Sugarbowl and

Superbowl to gun shows and automobile roundups

But also supplied economic incentives and a cornucopia of

Money making opportunities, especially for Superdome Services Inc.

A purveyor of maintenance, janitorial, and event staffing

Headed by the Weasel and the Bear, the duo had moved

From political brokerage to economic development

 

Between the school teachers and the longshoremen

And all the institutions that were thereby supported,

From corner stores to mansions in the newly developed

New Orleans East, where else could we go, where else

Were we welcomed, where else could our community

Grow, thrive and develop? Where else in or near New Orleans?

 

That’s why many of us reluctantly but nonetheless valiantly

Took on the overthrow of the all-white school board

That educator Mack Spears first integrated, not insignificant

Considering that the Crescent City was the birthplace of

SCLC, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference

And Ming made us young knuckleheads understand the

Significance of controlling our own education and the myriad

Of opportunities associated there with, long term strategy

Was Ming’s forte, anyone could win a dustup or even a mayoral

Election, she taught us to go beyond just winning a battle

When there was a protracted struggle to overcome, which is why

Ming was a leader in championing public healthcare,

Saddle-up warriors she commanded and led the charge

Championing public and affordable healthcare and medications,

A battle that sooner or later we all needed to wage

Whether as patient or advocate, or both

 

Ming was on it, her dulcet tones gently, and when necessary,

Forcefully waking us up to our responsibilities and opportunities

Ming The Merciless was, is and always will be a major inspiration

For me and countless other New Orleanians woke and aware

Of what time it really is and what we ought to be doing

To confront evil and advance all that it

Good and righteous in this world

 

All hail Ming The Merciless

All salute Oretha Castle Haley

A woman at the forefront of struggle for

Truth, justice and a truly egalitarian American way

 

 

It’s just a chair. Sitting, silently in the front room.

 

A legacy passed on to me from Harold through Vera’s people at Community Book Store, where it was deposited in storage until I got around to picking it up.

 

Harold Battiste. Born October 28, 1931. Died June 19, 2015. After producing a handful of regional hits, Harold left New Orleans and landed on the west coast and eventually became the musical director for Sonny and Cher, including their onstage appearances and their nationally televised program. Harold was also the producer of early releases by Lee Dorsey and Dr. John. I knew of Harold because of “New Orleans Heritage – Jazz: 1956-1966,” a 1976, 3-Lp box set of New Orleans music he had produced.

 

On one of his visits to his home town, Harold and I hooked up for dinner. That meal initiated a thirty-plus-year relationship, which intensified shortly thereafter when Harold returned home for good. In a local publication, Offbeat Magazine, I wrote about our friendship. The essay contained the line “Buddha and son,” referring to Harold and me.

 

My elder son Mtume and I were visiting Harold one day and the topic of Sam Cooke came up. I already knew that Harold and Sam had been close. Had already heard the story of how Harold helped Sam by anonymously arranging Sam’s first major R&B hit, “You Send Me”—subtly suggesting Sam didn’t need to repeat ‘you send me’ over and over. Perhaps use ‘you thrill me’ for one verse, and some other words.

 

That 1957 session had been almost a throwaway that Harold did as a favor for legendary producer Robert “Bumps” Blackwell. Harold was uncredited for that work. He said back then ghost arranging was no big thing. The record companies, the A&R people, and the musicians didn’t give it a second thought. Harold got the gig because he could arrange for voices. Bumps had hired a choir but at the end of the planned portion of the session there was no music for the choir to sing on this new song that Sam had. And, well they had some spare studio time, why not give it a shot.

 

Harold had told me many other stories. Indeed, I was a close reader helping Harold finalize his 2010 book, “Unfinished Blues…Memories of a New Orleans Music Man”. We worked on a follow-up book. That manuscript was completed but never published.

 

Although Harold was full of surprises and observations, he was unusually reticent and self-deprecating. On one occasion, I told Harold how much I admired Sam Cooke’s signature song, “A Change Is Going To Come.” In an off-handed manner, Harold informed me he played piano on that track. I knew Harold tickled the ivories but, even though there was a piano in the front room of Harold’s apartment, I mainly heard Harold blowing dulcet tones on his alto saxophone, which invariably was Harold’s instrument of choice when he played in the New Orleans nightclubs.

Harold’s relationship with Sam Cooke was as a musical collaborator and close friend. I knew of Sam Cooke because of his recordings, and later because of the videos on YouTube. When I saw the Netflix special that focused on Sam as a serious artist, I recalled that Harold had wondered why Sam, of velvet voice and matinee-idol handsomeness, had a penchant for some off-kilter tastes in people and situations. I, of course, had no response nor any conjectures about Sam’s idiosyncrasies, nor about Sam’s untimely and grisly murder. I simply believed that everybody has a skeleton in their personal closet, a side of themselves that is seldom revealed. The more popular one becomes, the more difficult it is to contain or restrain non-conventional behaviors.

 

Typically, when going by Harold, I would sit in the well-worn, red leather chair next to Harold’s desk but this time because I had my son with me, I motioned with my head for Mtume to sit. A little later while we were talking for over an hour dissecting, opining and shouting out our favorite Sam Cooke memories, Mtume said something about Sam Cooke’s perceptiveness. Harold in his soft voice, quietly dropped a bomb on the young man. “You’re sitting in Sam’s chair.”

 

Later, Mtume told me he had nearly jumped out of the chair when Harold said that. So many memories, so much meaning was literally beneath Mtume’s butt.

 

Sometimes a chair is not just a chair.

 

–Kalamu ya Salaam
24 February 2019

 

 

JAZZ 101

 

1. – buddy bolden’s blues legacy

 

they said i’m crazy

but they still play my crazy

blue black shit today

 

we came from farm land, cane field and cotton country, outta rice paddies and satsuma groves, following the river both down and up to the city to try to set up home where a newly emancipated man could live at least halfway free and a woman didn’t have to be some man’s mule just to raise her family.

 

we brought with us the profound sense of betrayal as the retreat of federal troops was masked by the hoods of nightriders, fellows whose daylight faces we all knew. the hard hoofs of horses announcing the flaming torches flung through the paneless windows of our one-room rural homes. the no work for smart negroes and very low pay if you were dumb enough to accept what little was offered.

 

we had fought the civil war. we had survived the bewilderment of emancipation and now when we should be free we woke in the mornings and found ourselves harvesting strange fruit. we were the blacks with the blues. the unlettered ex-slaves whose agrarian skills offered no protection in the hinterlands and no employment in the cities. but caught between the busted rock of reconstruction’s repeal and the hard space of being put back into a semi-slavery place, we had no choice but to move on down the line. thus we came to the crescent seeking at least a shot.

 

everywhere we touched down we created settlements. st. rose, luling, boutte, kenner—the first mayor was a negro. carrollton—we built parks and celebrated with sunday picnics, and on into uptown new orleans creating all those neighborhoods: black pearl (aka “niggertown”), hollygrove, zion city, gerttown and what we now know as central city.

 

no matter how hard big easy bore down on us, urban exploitation was still a bunch better than constantly falling behind on the ledger at the general store, owing more and more every year, barely enough to get by. in the summertime chewing sugar cane for supper and maybe catching a catfish for sunday dinner. in the winter time making turtle soup to last the week if you could catch a turtle and always beans and beans, and more beans. somehow, even though we still had beans and beans and more beans and rice, it just seemed that red beans and rice was nice, nicer in new orleans than it ever was in the country and besides there was plenty fishing in new orleans too, in the canals, in the river, in the lake, in the bayou, in fact, more fishing here than in the country. so although the city never really rolled out a welcome mat, our people nevertheless still managed to make ourselves at home.

 

we found some work on the streets and in the quarter, but mostly made work cooking, carrying and constructing shit. some of us groomed horses, a healthy portion of us worked the docks. we eked out a living, gradually doing better and better. and it was us country-born, farm-come-to-city black folk who indelibly changed the sound of new orleans, who brought the blues a blowing: loud, hard, and without pretense, subtlety or any genuflecting to high society, these blues that were just happy to have a good time and were equally unashamed to show the tears of pain those country years contained, how the hard times hurted we simple, unassuming people who both prayed and cursed as hard as we worked, we who were not afraid of a good fight and never hesitant about enjoying a good time each and every opportunity we got to grab a feather or two out of the tail of that ever-elusive bird of paradise.

 

we were the fabled blues people who brought to the music a vision no one else was low enough to the ground to see. and no one should romanticize us. we were hungry, we were illiterate, disease-ridden, and totally unprepared for urban life, moreover often we were live-for-today-damn-tomorrow merciless in the matter-of-fact way we accepted and played the dirty, limited hands that life dealt us.

 

ours was a brutal beauty. a social order where no child remained innocent past the age of four. where the sweet bird of youth had flown, long gone well before twenty-five arrived. where somebody calling your mama a whore was just an accurate description of one of the major lines of work. where your daddy could have been any one of five men you saw for a couple of days through a keyhole when you were supposed to be sleep, but were up trying to peep what it was that grown folks did that kids were not supposed to do.

 

our people brought an unsophisticated, raw sound that cut through all pretensions and gutsily stripped time down to the naked function at the junction of hard-working folks careening into saturday nite let’s get it on. and of course by any standard of social decorum, we were uncouth and so was our blues, but it was this blues produced by we blues people that turned-out the music floating around new orleans, tricked it into something the world would soon (or eventually) celebrate first as jass (with two “s’s” as in “show your ass”) and then as jazz (with two “z’s” as in “razzle, dazzle” keep up with us if you can).

 

it was our don’t give a shuck about which way is up as long as we have a moment to get down.

 

our red is my favorite color morning, noon and night.

 

our play it loud motherfuckers let me know you deep up in there.

 

our this ain’t no job and you ain’t no boss so you can’t tell me shit about when to start, when to stop, or how nasty i get.

 

our if i drop dead in the morning ‘cause i done partied all nite then just go ahead and dance at my funeral pretty baby.

 

our i’d rather play it wrong my way than right the white way cause they way may be correct but it sure ain’t right.

 

it was this attitude, these blues, which turned new orleans music into something worth spreading all over the world. and it was we who were the roux in the nouveau gumbo now celebrated as crescent city culture.

 

it was our crude but oh so potent elixir that raised the ante on the making of music, it was our brazen red-hot, blue sound and the way the first creators acted when they screwed up their lips to produce the untutored slightly tortured host of notes which made the cascade of ragtime rhythms sound tame. we simple but complex characters who have been consistently overlooked, undervalued, and our social background scarcely mentioned in all the books (where do they think we uptown blacks came from and what do they think we brought with us?); we who were persecuted by the authorities worse than negroes singing john brown’s body lies a smoldering in the grave at intermission during a klan rally; it was us black heartbeats and our defiant music that made the difference.

 

and, yes, we had to be more than a little crazy to challenge the aural status quo the way we did, so, it is no surprise that buddy bolden, the preeminent horn player cut from this cloth, was an insane black man whose ascendency to the throne just made it easier for the odorous forces of the “status crow” (as caribbean scholar/poet kamau braithwaite calls it) to pluck bolden from the top of the heap and heave him into a mental institution and keep him there for almost thirty years, wasting away until he died.

 

they may have silenced our first king but they could never silence our sound. and regardless of what anyone says or does, nearly a hundred years later, no matter whether they admit it or not, know it or not, like it or not, it is the bold sound of black buddy conjuring some raw, funky blues in the night, layering his tone on whatever was a given song’s ultimate source. this neo-african gris-gris is the sonic tattoo marking the beginning and making up the essence of the music we now call jazz.

 

 

 

2. jelly’s boast (backed up in writing)

 

i started jass with

latin tinged, cafe colored

keyboard handicrafts

 

 

if buddy bolden—or someone black like that—started jazz then how could ferdinand lementh “jelly roll” morton fix his mouth to boast that he “invented jazz in 1903”? simple, my man was the first to write it down, to figure out where and how the notes go when put on paper just so a musician trained in the reading of music but untutored in the ways of the raucous folk could play these wild new sounds or at least a rough approximation, or at least play the heads, the melodies.

 

and while a lot of folks like to claim that jelly’s skill was because of the creole in him most of those same folks know nothing about the deep draughts jelly drank from the brackish bottom of the blues’ most funky well. jelly had songs that could make a prostitute blush and a pimp hide his face in shame. storyville wasn’t no conservatory and jass wasn’t no waltz. jelly knew this. he knew about the blacks. he knew about the whites. and especially about everything that went down in between. like all good blues folk he also had a mean streak, that cut-you-if-you-stand-still and shoot-you-if-you-run temperament necessary to survive saturday nights in the roughest parts of town.

 

no doubt it was because of jelly that the story freely circulated that jazz was born in a brothel, specifically the cathouses of storyville. but all that’s said ain’t necessarily so. sure, jelly played jazz there, but  just cause jelly played for tricks and whores that don’t mean that’s where his songs came from. the music was actually made outside elsewhere and later on brought inside those doors. which is not to take nothing away from jelly because figuring out how to write it down was no mean feat, especially those lusty sounds his brothers uptown would just let rip, day after day and night after night, pouring their sacred souls into the secular atmosphere. jelly would listen, and listen, and grin, and hold those sacred riffs inside his jaws and against the crown of his mouth and later spit out onto paper those notes which a bunch of others had written in the air. i’m not saying jelly wasn’t original, i’m just saying a good scribe can always write more than he or she individually knows, especially when they are present at the creation and have the initial shot at drafting up tunes taken down from the motherlode.

 

given the mixed nature of jelly’s pedigree and his back-a-town, alley-crawling cravings, he was able to create music for all occasions. music for right now if you were ready to get it on and music for later after all the squares were gone. music colored by what jelly suggestively called the spanish tinge.

 

and what was this latin tinge that jelly so glowingly spoke of? was it african rhythms run through the backyard of the caribbean? one critic talks vociferously about the arab influence—what he maybe means is the moorish number that spain slyly claimed as an original contribution, or mali’s twist on the islamic prayer chant—arab influence, huh? arab sounds altered by contact with african souls and soil, and rearranged caribbean stylee (which “stylee” is just africans in the west reinventing our ancient selves). that mambo, that rumba, merengue, clave, son and so forth. those pentatonic scales, modes, falsettoes and nasal drones. yeah, it’s all arab straight from the heart of africa. jelly knew, that’s why he said the tinge in the latin rather than the whole roman enchilada.

 

anyway, as much as he wrote and as important as his compositions are, in the final analysis we remember jelly because jelly didn’t forget the import of what he heard, because jelly found a way to write without emasculating the music’s swagger, without perfuming the funk, without covering the flesh in a veil of false modesty.

 

we remember jelly because jelly accurately remembered us. and lord, lord, lord even if he had never written a note, just one quick listen will confirm how marvelously potent his playing was. that mr. jelly, mr. jelly, he sure could play that shit.

 

 

3. the beauty of bechet

 

sax moans river strong

spurting song into the sea

of our aroused souls

 

the cornet and its first cousin the trumpet were the first solo instruments of jazz, the first horns to carry the tone of defiance, slicing the air with the gleaming sassiness of a straight razor wielded with expert precision on someone who was dead but didn’t know it yet (the hit was so quick that the head fell off before the body knew it had been cut). these brass siblings were the hot horns that caught the feel of august in the sun, a hundred-pound sack shading the curve of your aching back. especially the trumpet with its ringing blare which could be heard cross the river on a slow day when somebody in algiers was practicing while a bunch of other bodies was sweating, toting barrels and lifting bales on the eastbank riverfront.

 

the second brass voice was the nasty trombone. you stuck stuff up its filthy bell. it was not loud but was indeed very lewd. a toilet plunger its regular accessory. of course you had drums and some sort of harmony instrument, a string bass where available, a tuba, sousaphone, banjo or even a piano in certain joints.

 

now the reed of choice was the clarinet. long. slender. difficult to master. the snakelike black reed. and that was the basis of your early jass bands.

 

everybody had a part. bechet was a clarinetist. an excellent clarinetist. extraordinary even. but no matter how well he sucked on that licorice stick he could never get it up the way he wanted it. get it to make the sound inside bechet’s head. until he heard the sound of the soprano saxophone. the fingering was similar so he was familiar with covering and uncovering the holes. familiar with the right stiffness of reed and the just tough enough strength of embrochure. what the soprano saxophone did was enable him to challenge the trumpet—just ask louie armstrong or give a listen to clarence williams and his blue five when bechet and louie took turns walking them jazz babies on home.

 

this mytho-poetic orpheus sired by omer soaked his reeds in mississippi muck and washed down the horn’s bell in bayou goo.

 

what bechet did was press the humidity of crescent city summers into every quivering note he played with a vibrato so pronouced it sounded like a foreign dialect.

 

what bechet did was alter the course of history, the clarinet faded after bechet switched and the saxophone became the great horn of jazz. sure there were a couple of great trumpets in years to come (little jazz, fats, dizzy, brownie, and, of course, miles) but none of them turned the music around like the saxophonists did, like bechet, like bird, like trane not to mention hodges, hawkins and the prez, and the list can go on and on. the point here is that bechet was the one, the first, the progenitor of a royal succession that is all but synonymous with jazz as an instrumental music.

 

and what was even more incredible back in the twenties and thirties was bechet’s sense of africa as source and blues people as the funnel through which the source sound was poured. bechet speaks of that specifically. in bechet’s autobiography he goes on for pages (pgs. 6-44 out of 219 pages of text) talking about his grandfather who danced in congo square, overlaying the legendary bras coupe (a runaway, maroon warrior of the early 1800s) story onto the life story of his grandfather handed down to bechet through bechet’s father, thereby insuring that the statement of resistance was made, the resistance that fuels the internal integrity of our music.

 

bechet was an early african american griot. one of the first to consciously understand the music he played so well. to articulate the ancestral worship implicit in the call and response. or as bechet describes the music: “It’s the remembering song. There’s so much to remember. There’s so much wanting, and there’s so much sorrow, and there’s so much waiting for the sorrow to end. My people, all they want is a place where they can be people, a place where they can stand up and be part of that place, just being natural to the place without worrying how someone may be coming along to take that place away from them.” in brasil they call this feeling “saudade,” this longing to be whole again, this we know that we were whole once and with all our being quiver with an anxiety, an almost unbearable longing, to be whole again, this hope—dare i say this optimism colored by the reality of the blues—that, yes, someday, someway, we will be whole in some soon come future.

 

like a mighty river which never ceases to flow and which has seen it all before, bechet’s sound was an ever unfurling cornucopia of lyric delight, its alluvial melodies inundating us, fertilizing our spirits, rendering us both funky and fecund.

 

bechet’s music was brazen, was brilliant, was growling sun bold. startling in its intensity. powerful in its keening. knowing—he was a philosopher of sorrow, was both intimate with hurt as well as on a first-name speaking terms with joy. while life had its ups and downs, bechet played it hard at both extremes and always with a sparkle of hope shining irrepressibly behind and through whatever tears temporarily clouded his eye.

 

all of that, all of his life, his individual self and his people’s birthright, all was played through the bell of bechet’s horn, so strong and unmistakable. unmissable. one listen and you got it. the force hit you. you felt it. bechet. bechet. he seemed to be that special sound you had been waiting all your life to hear.

 

 

4. freddie keppard, (unfortunately) fooling his self

 

keeps a handkerchief

cross my horn / don’t record a

lick—they won’t steal me

 

freddie was not the first and certainly was far from the last to think he could avoid being used by opting not to belly up to the capitalist roulette wheel of commercialization, not to get bumped to the curb by the pick-and-roll of economic exploitation combined with technical innovation. everytime the man comes up with a new machine, invariably the new machines end up being, among other things, another cash-generating tool—and all in the name of progress and progressiveness.

 

but paradoxically beyond the obvious remunerative inequities and the misplaced hosannas to pretenders posturing as kings, the real rough side of the mountain is the inevitable further behind we fall if we refuse to use what little opportunity the new technology presents. when we decline to play we are ignored, when we do play we are exploited; but at least when you play you get a hearing even if someone else’s echo of your sound makes more dough than do you the originator.

 

moreover, it was the technology of being heard that enabled jazz to spread its wings. the music could never have flown worldwide were it not for recordings, were it not for musicians everywhere being able to “hear” what these wild new sounds sounded like. our music could not be explained with words or written down with symbols, had to be eared to be appreciated. contradictions abound, were it not for the technology the music would not have spread and simultaneously the technology was used to exploit—a nutshell synopsis of african american relations to the modernist means of production. 

 

of course, some of us, saw the downside coming so we attempted to duck. working with the limited vision that we oppressed people often manifest, somehow freddie thought he could lessen the impact of cultural appropriation by refusing to play the game. fat chance. which is why few jazz fans know the name freddie keppard. don’t even know what instrument he played, when or where, or why he should be known.

 

the lesson of brother keppard is a hard dose to swallow but when you are on the black unskilled-labor end of america’s 20th-century economy you don’t have many choices. you can throw a hankerchief up over your shit if you want to, attempting to hide the specifics of your fingering, how you do the things you do, you can petulantly sit in the corner with your face to the wall while the parade marches past, you can even bark out curses at the seemingly endless procession of white rip-off artists, but as the poet said centuries ago, the dogs who hang in the camp may bark but the caravan moves on.

 

and though freddie keppard was the uncrowned king of new orleans trumpet playing in the wake of buddy’s incarceration and oliver’s departure, nonetheless his name is seldom mentioned in the chronology of jazz trumpeting precisely because he was eclipsed by nick larocca and crew who were wise enough not to pass up the opportunity to play their sincere but nonetheless insubstantial versions/revisions into a rca victor machine thus assuring themselves the “we-was-here-first claim”—the original dixieland jass band in 1917 was the first to record a jazz record while freddie keppard stood on the sidelines, smiling as he stuffed his handkerchief back in his pocket. you see, after one listen to the pale cacophony recorded by odjb, freddie was confident that they never were able to capture even an approximation of his sound. he won the authenticity battle but loss the jazz war. pale though they be, we know what larocca sounded like. and keppard, well he’s just a footnote fanatics and academics point to. time and time again, the truth marches on: even when we can’t win, even when the deck is stacked and our getting hustled is a foregone conclusion, even then if we don’t play, we’re worse off than if we play and lose. in the long run, our only chance is to play, to keep on losing until we win because if we don’t play for sure we will never win.

 

 

 

 

 

5. the singing of a king/

oliver’s telegram

 

STOP—my horn so strong

i call louie to chi with

just a sixteenth note—START

 

 

the reason jim crow was so violent is that, after world war one, black folk refused to go silently back into what segregationists euphemistically called “their places.” instead we prefered to believe that any space we wanted to inhabit was our own, territory we had a right to, and didn’t really want to be up next to some cracker no way, just wanted a sweet spot we could inhabit in peace, but it was not to be. but by then we were fighting for our rights (or like when the sheriff tried to close down a garvey gathering in new orleans with the words that wasn’t no mark-us gra-vee going to speak here tonight, he was silenced by the uprise of black folk, arms in hand who insisted on their right to hear marcus mosiah garvey—and mr. garvey did speak that hot night in new orleans, thank you).

 

it was in this atmosphere that the “idyllic” southern scene, which never really was as romantic as popular culture portrayed, revealed its true colors: red, white, black and blue, as in beatings, lynchings, and assorted mayhem, as in we black and were fire driven by recalcitrant whites who by dint of terror herded us into tightly policed, economically exploited, physically oppressed, and psychologically damaging, blues-hued, segregated communities under social siege—especially intelligent black men, most of whom had never seen the inside of anyone’s school but who could figure, invent, innovate, create, construct, organize, rearrange, tend and grow with the best of anyone on the planet except they, these intelligent ex-slaves, were seldom allowed to demonstrate their innate capacities, thus geniuses were fated to empty spitoons, carry rice sacks and spend three quarters of their lives behind the butt end of a mule or on the working end of a shovel or, if they were women, the limited choices were: wet nurse, clean and cook for a pittance, or lie to some white john about how long his little was. except if one could play music. in which case the music gave you wings, actually was a ticket to ride, a way out of jim crow’s den of inequities. so people who might have been professionals of all sorts had they had the opportunity to pursue those professions, picked up horns or mastered drums, learned to do amazing feats with guitar string and a pocket knife or literally rewrote piano literature, gave new meanings to musical entertainment and captivated the entire planet with a dazzling display of aural inventiveness that significantly upped the ante on what was considered quality entertainment as well as what was possible in the realms of melody, harmony and especially rhythm—i mean how did armstrong play that horn like that, not to mention he sang an entire song without words. wild!

 

so the singers, dancers and especially the musicians were the first african americans to routinely travel thereby getting the then rare chance to check out the world scene. these men and a handful of women became the most famous people in their communities unrivaled by any other profession—including doctors and college professors, plus, they were overwhelmingly working class, didn’t need anybody’s sheepskin to certify that they knew what they knew, only needed to be able to blow that thing, sing that swing, or step lively while kicking up their heels properly keeping time with their feet, only needed to be themselves. yet, make no mistake, this self they were was not a simpleton who just happened to have a good voice or an ear for melodies. no, we are talking innovation at a level which no one previously conceived. (i mean, for example, nude dancing been around since there was human skin, but it took josephine to consider wrapping her black hips in the phallic curves of a couple of dozen yellow bananas and shaking that thing in such spherical sensuous ways that even the legendary lovers of gay paree tripped, flipped and damn near fell head over heels in love with a brownskin cutie who, without so much as working up a sweat, coolly demonstrated two dozen more ways of playing with a yo-yo.)

 

looking in the rearview mirror we sometimes get a backwards view. we think louie was loved because he was a clown but if we only knew. wasn’t a hornplayer no where around—especially not euro-trained—who could even so much as carry mr. armstrong’s horn case to a rehearsal for a pick-up gig not to mention engage in no out-and-out cutting contest. we forget that louie taught america how to both swing and sing at the same time, how to scat on the one hand and go to the core of the lyrics on the other, not to mention how to jump bar lines with melodic phrasing whose trapeze-like gambits from note to note left others stumbling along like they had two left feet and had never experienced the thrill of trilling a g over high c.

 

the beautiful people called the twenties the jazz age because nothing else gave you the full feeling of being alive like black music did. and though they pretended paul whiteman was the king, beneath the skin everyone knew who the real creators of jazz were. worldwide these originators were in demand, and, as the history of america has always demonstrated, whenever and wherever there is a demand backed up by dinero, the supply shall definitely roll forth.

 

thus these colored troubadours swiftly moved from city to city, scoping out what was new and getting the down-low on the economic, political and racial picture in every place to which they might go. soon musicians started coming back home wearing clothes no one there abouts had ever laid eyes on before, with tall tales recounting command performances regaling kings and things, or swinging round the clock on ocean liners crisscrossing the seven seas, and not to mention jamming in countless places where english wasn’t even spoken. and of course these ambassadors of swing picked up on a variety of wild ideas about possible lifestyles. yes, they changed the world with their music but they were also changed by their contact with worlds they had never imagined.

 

and while it is true that each frog is acclimated to the waters where he was born, still, given the jim crow realities of the twenties, our people were always ready to jump and, as a profession, the musicians were the first out the pot. indeed, that was one of the reasons for learning to play in the first place, i.e. to get the opportunity to blow town and get paid at the same time. nice work if you could get it and back then the most certain way for the average negro to get it was to be into the music, which is why when king oliver wired the invite to louie there was no hesitation in armstrong’s step as he packed his grip preparing to split. how else could a poor, uneducated, but highly intelligent black man get to see the world?

 

armstrong, and countless others, came from a call and response culture and when opportunity knocked, these folk were wise enough to immediately answer the door, the same door beside which a packed travel bag was usually kept at the ready just in case such an unanticipated but nonetheless highly appreciated chance might roll by and allow an ambitious person with musical talent a chance to make a strategic exit.

 

given the realities of poverty, jim crow, and the general hard way to go handed out to people of color, it is easy to understand that jass didn’t just slip reluctantly out of town but rather cake-walked away singing a simple song: if you don’t believe i’m leaving, count the days that i’m gone. in fact, leaving town was a sign of this music’s intelligence.

 

 

 

 

 

6. nick larocca’s secret diary

 

anglos give dagos

money and fame for playing

negro’s music—wow

 

i’ll make this short and sweet: back in the days, new orleans anglos didn’t like “niggers” and wasn’t too particular about “dagos.” had italians living in the same neighborhoods with negroes, thus the many corner stores with retail establishments at the front door and living quarters either just behind or just above the one-room store. which is not to say that italians and negroes were viewed as one and the same or that the two got along fabulously with each other, but rather which is to say that the grey space between black and white was far broader than is often recognized, especially in retrospect when people now considered white are talked about as though they were always considered white. in fact, in some quarters, rather than the descendants of the romans, the italians were considered at best as “dirty whites” who had been mixed with blacks via hannibal crossing the alps, and thus, in the good old color struck usa, it took a couple of generations and unrefusable offers from the mafia for italians to be integrated as whites into the segregated black/white duality of american society.

 

in any case the reason there were so many italians and jews involved in early jass is not simply because the music was their creation but rather because the music was the music of the outsider, and to a significant extent italians and jews were outsiders, especially as far as the upper reaches of twenties american society was concerned. while the italians and jews wanted to assimilate, they also celebrated difference, hence the predominance of blackface among this sector of a society which overall celebrated whiteness pure as the driven snow. think about it. what would cause someone who is on the periphery to risk access to the interior by going further out and painting their face black or playing music blackly?

 

don’t say i got the answer, but do say, at least i got the question. in any case, the important point to consider is that of all the branches of black music, jass was the one that whites (both anglos and wannabes) were more comfortable embracing. or should i say, jass was the form they were more able to embrace. (max roach jokes that frank sinatra’s first claim to fame was that he could snap his fingers on the beat and sing at the same time, just like black singers, and it didn’t matter how he sounded he could do it and thus is lauded as one of the great singers of all time except of course if you compare him to the authentic sounders of his time. think of a sing-off between sinatra and nat king cole.)

 

the white embrace of jass was significant. unlike the other forms of black music which were less flexible, jass was so malleable that literally anyone could play it, not necessarily well and certainly not in innovative ways that moved the music forward, but anyone could play it nevertheless and thus, unlike blues which took several decades for most whites to emulate, or various forms of gospel which are yet to be mastered by whites, jass gladly made room for the whole of humanity within its sounding.

 

Q: how were we repaid for creating a form which every human could use to sound their existence?

 

A: with so-called scholars, a few musicians, and a bunch of fans claiming that whites created or co-created jass. thus, when the odjb cut those first victor jass sides, the question of creating and innovating was effectively conflated and confused with emulating and manufacturing. we provided the recipe, they made the bread. but then again this is america, and that was the jass age.

 

 

 

 

7. the grimace behind armstrong’s grin

 

they turned my birth place

into jail space—don’t bury

me in new orleans

 

new orleans can be an extreme case of domestic abuse, like they say, don’t take it, leave, don’t hesitate, ready or not pack your shit, don’t even think about going back, cause they don’t really love you, not them control freaks who think they are kings and you are a feudal peasant in blackface, folk are in denial about new orleans when you hear them say: it’s bad but not that bad, like as if he’s a good man and you know how hard they are to find, nephew just gets a little upset sometimes and smacks you around but he loves you, really, really do, really? don’t believe the hype.

 

louie knew. from the front gate to the back door armstrong had it straight, he was hip. home was where the heartbreak was. he had seen his father disappear; could have played hamlet looking for a ghost. had seen his mother tricked. had witnessed the best sound of an earlier generation sent across the lake to be housed with the mentally deranged—an enraged black man circa the teens and twenties was not insane, anger was a healthy response to what was being laid down. but anger and seven cents still wouldn’t get you on the front of the bus. behind a screen is where you sat if you were black. louis wasn’t no tom which is why he refused to be their token even after his spirit was gone: “when i die don’t bury my body in new orleans” is what he said and meant, and since louis has passed on and his wishes were fulfilled, i.e. he is buried elsewhere, since then there are some new faces in higher places, a darker hue holds the whip, plots the comings and goings of how the system systematically shits on the unstrong, the unknown, the poor without a pot to piss in and have to pay rent to a landlord for the window out of which they throw it. your eyes may roll, your teeth may grit, but none of the real power will you git. not in new orleans, not until there is some change for truth. it may sound like i’m preaching but i’m not macking, i’m just steady facting about the way she blows down round the gulf coast in a heavenly slice of hell some people call the most fun you can have anywhere in america you go to new orleans you ought to go see the mardi gras cause there ain’t much else hanging heavy in the air except the exhaust of used red beans and ricely yours and mine twenty-four hours at a time, big easy be steady bumping shit to the curb as they hustle every harry, dick and john out of whatever money they got cause the winners down here ain’t no saints and sinning ain’t no crime. and if you don’t know what i mean you better ask somebody cause new orleans may be big and easy but if you want to get ahead you’re better off leaving cause they’re most glad when you’re dead so a funeral they can hold, an image they can unhold uncontradicted by the reality of poverty and exploitation, the bayou is a cesspool and nobody comes through the slaughter without some stank clinging to their clothes.

 

new orleans may be the cradle of jazz but it’s also the tomb, they bury musicians here. louie knew, that’s why he flew to chi and vowed to be someplace else when he died. don’t bury me in, shit here is so low they got to bury you above ground, even while you still walking around trying to figure out your next move, which is why they razed louie’s pad, made the move to build a bigger jail, it’s called public housing for negro males. and if it sounds like i’m bitter it only means you just got a little taste of the special sauce, stale bread, po-boy seasoning in louie’s red hot wail. but then again, maybe it’s the bitter that makes the sweet so strong. whatever. no matter how you slice it, there ain’t but one way to do it and that’s to do it as best you can. morning, noon, midnight and dawn, can’t we all just get along? hell no, not in new o. where it’s legal to gamble but the majority ain’t got much to bet with or on, except the vicious ways we kicking our rolling songs, crazy cooking our deep-fat fried food, and trying to hit a home run with the slim end of a very short stick. just like in bid whist you got to play the hand you was dealt cause that’s all you got to fan with. some folks have ways and means, other folk got songs and dreams. and that’s the way it comes and goes way down yonder in new orleans. some of you might wonder what all this has to do with jazz, well it’s like louie armstrong says, if you have to ask, you’ll never really know. why was we born so black and blue? well our mamas birthed us black and the white folks made us blue, what else is left but to do what you got to do. throw me something mister they beg in the streets, but if you know like i know you best get your ass in the ring and swing like louie. you’ll never see the forest unless you climb down out of the trees, live your life the way you wanna, just don’t get buried by new orleans.

 

–kalamu ya salaam

from the book BE ABOUT BEAUTY