Charlie Parker’s three improvisatory choruses in Parker’s mood(1948) can be viewed as one statement; the first is introductory, the second climactic, and the third provides a summary by repeating previous material.
Analyzed as a Schenkerian series of layers, the piece progresses in complexity from the background to the foreground. Parker’s palette of resources includes the blues scale, stock blues melodic figures, bebop-style scale runs, arpeggiated figures derived from substitute progressions, idiosyncratic articulation, and a historic tradition of improvisation.
This according to “Parker’s mood revisited” by Kwatei Jones-Quartey (Annual review of jazz studies X  221–35; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 1999-13483.
Today is Charlier Parker’s 100th birthday! Below, the recording in question.
The Jazzomat Research Project takes up the challenge of jazz research in the age of digitalization, opening up a new field of analytical exploration by providing computational tools as well as a comprehensive corpus of improvisations with MeloSpyGUI and the Weimar Jazz Database.
The volume Inside the Jazzomat: New perspectives for jazz research (Mainz: Schott, 2017; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2017-48411) presents the main concepts and approaches of the ongoing project, and includes several case studies that demonstrate how these approaches can be included in jazz analysis in various ways.
“It’s about a woman trying to get through a concert performance, which I know something about, and she’s doing it at a time when her liver was pickled and she was still doing heroin regularly.”
“I might have been a little judgmental about Billie Holiday early on in my life, but what I’ve come to admire most about her—and what is fascinating in this show—is that there is never any self-pity. She’s almost laughing at how horrible her life has been. I don’t think she sees herself as a victim. And she feels an incredible connection to her music—she can’t sing a song if she doesn’t have some emotional connection to it, which I really understand.”
“One wonderful thing for me is there are tons of recordings of Billie that I’ve been listening to and watching, even audio of her talking about certain songs, so I have a lot to draw on.”
Quoted in “Audra McDonald to return to Broadway as Billie Holiday” by Patrick Healey (The New York times 26 February 2014; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2014-89300).
Today is McDonald’s 50th birthday! Below, excerpts from her Tony Awards performance.
In an interview, Ornette Coleman discussed the musical philosophy and compositional/improvisational method that he called harmolodics.
“Harmolodics is a base of expanding the melody, the harmonic structure, the rhythm, and above all the free improvised structure of a composition beyond what they would be if they were just played as a regular 2-5-1 structure, or if they were played with the concept of a melody having a certain arrangement to know when to start and stop.”
“If a word means something else in another language, and it’s spelled and sounds the same, that’s very harmolodic. So, when you’re able to play like that, it expresses what sounds could be if they weren’t programmed to represent a certain territory. It has to do with what you base a concept of unity on. Unity in Europe comes from shared territories, not like America where unity is created out of shared conditions.”
“Harmolodics doesn’t change something from its original state. It expresses the information a melody has within its structure without taking it apart to find out why its sounds that way.”
James Reese Europe was a composer, conductor, and organizer of the Black community. A pioneer in jazz, he led the Clef Club Orchestra and other organizations in New York, and during World War I his 369th Infantry Regiment “Hellfighters” band was among the first exporters of jazz to Europe.
While he was perhaps the most famous and adept practitioner of American jazz in Europe during the 1930s and 1940s, the Manouche guitarist Django Reinhardt was an outsider—both culturally and geographically—to the U.S. jazz scene. For this reason, scholars have had difficulty placing him securely in American jazz history.
Reinhardt only visited the U.S. once, in 1946, as a guest of the Duke Ellington Orchestra. A recording made during that tour, A blues riff, presents a complex musical negotiation of contrasting musical and cultural values. What is heard in this performance is not just a debate over what notes to play when, but over what the philosopher Henri Lefebvre called representational spaces. The task of locating Reinhardt in jazz history requires a new theoretical appreciation for the material importance of space and place in the shaping of musical performance.
This according to “Negotiating A blues riff: Listening for Django Reinhardt’s place in American jazz” by Andrew Berish (Jazz perspectives III/3 [December 2009] pp. 233–64).
Today is Reinhardt’s 110th birthday!
Above, Reinhardt in 1946, the year of the recording; below, the recording itself.
The legacy of Roy DeCarava, particularly his collection The sound I saw: Improvisation on a jazz theme (London: Phaidon, 2001), illuminates how his photographic method, both in individual photographs and in the way they are sequenced, absorbed jazz technique and mimicked jazz performance.
DeCarava’s aesthetic can be seen as both a distinctively black aesthetic and a profoundly inclusive one. His unflinching but caring eye is cast over the debris of the ghetto as well as the ecstasy of the jazz solo, and it observes the cramped but welcoming dark of the metonymic Harlem hallway.
This according to “‘And you slip into the breaks and look around’: Jazz and everyday life in the photographs of Roy DeCarava” by Richard Ings, an essay included in The hearing eye: Jazz & blues influences in African American visual art (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009, pp. 303–31).
During an interview published in a 1978 issue of Modern Drummer, Art Blakey (1919–1990) asserted, “It doesn’t matter what kind of instrument the drummer has. It isn’t the instrument, it’s the musician…I got the fundamentals and rudiments down pretty good. There’s no technique or anything. I don’t think it has anything to do with the stick, ‘cause most of the sticks that come out today are crooked.” Later, in 1986, Blakey relayed the surprised reactions he received from some musicians after they confronted his “unconventional” (read: “not classically trained”) way of playing: “You know, like in England, the guys was there from the symphony orchestras, and the great drum teachers was there, and I was playing. They said, ‘Well, you play so unorthodox,’ I said, ‘Well, what is orthodox? Whether I play orthodox or not, I get results’.” When asked to elaborate on what specifically was so unconventional about his playing, the drummer responded, “Oh, the way I’ll pick up my sticks, or the way I’ll do something. There’s no certain way to do it; you don’t hold the sticks a certain way.” Even a quick listen to his 1973 drum battle with Ginger Baker, throughout which he alternates using a traditional grip and a matched grip, convincingly demonstrates the power of “unorthodox.”
For a drummer often credited for the development of hard bop—an R&B-, blues-, Latin-, and gospel-inflected extension of the bebop jazz strain rhythmically pioneered by drummers like Max Roach, Kenny “Klook” Clarke, and Chick Webb in the 1940s to 1960s—Blakey’s disinterest in technique (or at least conventional conceptions of technique) seems somewhat counterintuitive. But perhaps it shouldn’t. After all, “bop,” along with whatever prefixes or qualifiers appended to it, was an industry and fan term for what practitioners typically called “modern music” (or just “music”). And as a self-taught musician honing his skills in the Depression era, it should not be surprising that, for Blakey, abandoning traditional notions of technique or “right” and “wrong” became a precondition for exploration, a liberation of sorts. During wartime, as Blakey recounts, “[Y]ou just couldn’t get no sticks. We played with chair-arms, and it sure did swing, man.” And for all his innovative spirit, swing remained at the heart of his craft.
The stick pictured above, even if just as sufficient as any other in Blakey’s estimation, played a role in transmitting that feeling of incessant drive, motion, explosive power, subtlety, dynamic contrast, and, most importantly, swing. Although it would be going too far to assume that Blakey considered drumstick type to be completely fungible, there is some evidence to suggest that he used different models at different times across his career. Advertised as being “reproduced exactly from his ‘60s model stick,” Bopworks’s Art Blakey Centennial Edition stick is an 8D with a length of 16” and width of .530”. This can be contrasted with the stick made for him by Gretsch—one of his sponsors for a time—which was a 1A. Classification systems vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, so it is hard to know the exact differences. With a height, width, and diameter of 15 7/8”, 5/8”, and 5/8”, respectively, the stick featured here approximates Bopworks’s commemorative stick in size, and its triangular tip presents another commonality.
The drumstick as shown here is well worn, particularly in its tip, shoulder, and upper shaft. As a right-handed drummer, we might speculate that this stick, with its gradual tapering and numerous nicks and gashes, was used for striking crash or ride cymbals. As the foundational time-keeper, replacing the kick drum’s danceable four-on-the-floor pattern, rhythms on the ride accommodated the modernists’ breakneck speeds, unconventional phrasings, and general fluidity. However, any such conjecture is likely futile, as Blakey’s exploration of “extended techniques” was part of his innovative spirit. Expounding upon the drummer’s time playing with Thelonious Monk around 1947—a collaboration that helped solidify the transformation from swing proper to modernist reaches—Burt Korall explains in his Drummin’ Men: The Heartbeat of Jazz—The Bebop Years that, “Blakey plays two basic roles: time player and interpreter-commentator. He adds both reason and the unexpected to the music. Using all the elements of the set, snare, tom-toms, the bass drum, the rims, the drum’s shells, the cymbals—all parts—the hi-hat cymbals and hi-hat stands, and even the sounds of the drumsticks themselves, he simultaneously defines Monk and himself.” One wonders how many “smokin’ press rolls”—Blakey’s common way to introduce soloists, as can be heard at 2:08 of the live recording of Bobby Timmons’s now classic “Moanin’” below—were executed on this drumstick.
Bobby Timmons’s “Moanin’,” Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers (drums: Art Blakey, trumpet: Lee Morgan, tenor sax: Benny Golson, piano: Bobby Timmons, bass: Jymie Merritt), ca. 1958-1959.
Regardless of time, personnel, or style, Blakey always sought to bring out the best in those with whom he shared the bandstand. Conceiving of his drumming more as a method through which to enliven others than as conduit for flashy drum solos—though there is no paucity of the latter, to be sure—one of Blakey’s greatest contributions was his ability to accompany, to facilitate, to empathize. In more than one interview, Blakey contends, “Let the punishment fit the crime”; when he played briefly for Duke Ellington, he “played Ellington,” and when he played with Monk, he played Monk, in the words of Burt Korall, “responsively and responsibly.”
Blakey’s success in accessing “the guts of the human soul” was fueled by a profound sensitivity to the desires and abilities of the musicians with whom he worked and the audiences he took care to entertain. If the drumstick here could tell a story, it would be just as much about the musicians it stoked to greatness as it would be the great musician who wielded it.
Written and compiled by Michael Lupo, Assistant Editor, Répertoire International de Littérature Musicale (RILM).
Blakey, Art. “Art Blakey”, Reading jazz: A gathering of autobiography, reportage, and criticism from 1919 to now, ed. by Robert Gottlieb. (New York: Pantheon, 1996) 205–213. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 1996-23592] Art Blakey, the dedicated and influential drummer, talks about his start, his career, and his ideas in this excerpt from a long interview recorded in 1976 in Jazz spoken here (1992). (editor)
Blakey, Takashi Buhaina, ed., “Art Blakey”, Art Blakey Estate, http://www.artblakey.com. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2015-82562]
Giese, Hannes. Art Blakey: Sein Leben, seine Musik, seine Schallplatten (Schaftlach: Oreos, 1990). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 1993-12184]
Goldsher, Alan. Hard bop academy: The sidemen of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers (Milwaukee: Hal Leonard, 2002). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2002-9125] Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers was one of the most enduring, popular, reliable, and vital small bands in modern jazz history. Blakey was not only a distinguished, inventive, and powerful drummer, but along with Duke Ellington and Miles Davis, he was one of jazz’s foremost talent scouts. The musicians who flowed seamlessly in and out of this constantly evolving collective during its 36-year run were among the most important artists not just of their eras, but of any era. Their respective innovations were vital to the evolution of bebop, hard bop, and neo bop. The multitude of gifted artists who populated the many editions of the Jazz Messengers are critically examined. In addition to dissecting the sidemen’s most consequential work with Blakey’s band, profiles are offered of everyone from Wynton Marsalis to Terence Blanchard to Hank Mobley to Wayne Shorter to Horace Silver to Keith Jarrett to Curtis Fuller to Steve Davis. Over 30 interviews with surviving graduates of Blakey’s hard bop academy were conducted, with many speaking at length of their tenure with the legendary Buhaina for the first time. (publisher)
Gourse, Leslie. Art Blakey: Jazz Messenger (New York: Schirmer Trade Books, 2002). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2002-47104] In the 1950s, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers introduced hard bop, a blend of bebop, blues, gospel, and Latin music that has defined the jazz mainstream ever since. Although Blakey’s influence as a drummer and bandleader was enormous, his greatest contribution may have been as a mentor to younger musicians such as Wayne Shorter, Freddie Hubbard, Lee Morgan, Jackie McLean, and Wynton Marsalis. Leslie Gourse chronicles Blakey’s colorful life and career, from his hardscrabble childhood in Pittsburgh to his final years as an international jazz icon. (publisher)
Havers, Richard. Blue Note: Uncompromising expression—The finest in jazz since 1939 (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2014). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2014-11338] Purveyor of extraordinary music and an arbiter of cool, Blue Note is the definitive jazz label—signing the best artists, pioneering the best recording techniques, and leading cover design trends with punchy, iconic artwork and typography that shaped the way we see the music itself. The roster of greats who cut indelible sides for the label include Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Bud Powell, Norah Jones, and many more. Published for Blue Note’s 75th anniversary, this volume is the first official illustrated story of the label, from its 1939 roots to its renaissance today. Featuring classic album artwork, unseen contact sheets, rare ephemera from the Blue Note Archives, commentary from some of the biggest names in jazz today, and feature reviews of 75 key albums, this is the definitive book on the legendary label. (publisher)
Hentoff, Nat. “Jazz Messengers: Jazz Messengers blazing a spirited trail”, DownBeat: The great jazz interviews—A 75th anniversary anthology, ed. by Frank Alkyer. (New York: Hal Leonard, 2009) 52–53. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2009-23860] An interview with the group published in the 22 February 1956 issue of DownBeat.
Howland, Harold. “Art Blakey: The eternal jazzman”, Modern drummer 2/4 (October 1978) 16–23, 39. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 1978-20471]
Korall, Burt. Drummin’ men: The heartbeat of jazz—The bebop years (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2002-8511] Biographical sketches based on interviews with drummers of the 1940s through the 1980s, tracing the transition from swing to bebop, and highlighting some of the most innovative musicians. These include Jo Jones, Sidney Catlett, Lou Fromm, Billy Exiner, Denzil Best, Irv Kluger, Jackie Mills, J.C. Heard, Rossiere “Shadow” Wilson, Kenny “Klook” Clarke, Max Roach, Stan Levey, Art Blakey, Roy Haynes, Shelly Manne, Don Lamond, Tiny Kahn, Philly Joe Jones, Mel Lewis, Ed Shaughnessy, Art Taylor, and Ike Day.
Mathieson, Kenny. Cookin’: Hard bop and soul jazz, 1954–65 (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2002). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2002-18555] Examines the history and development of hard bop and its offshoot, soul jazz. Hard bop was the most vital and influential jazz style of its day, and today remains at the core of the modern jazz mainstream. Drawing on bebop and the blues for its foundation, filtered through gospel, Latin, and rhythm-and-blues influences, hard bop was notable for the instrumental virtuosity it required and the elaborate harmonic structures it was built upon. The founding fathers of the form are profiled, Art Blakey and Horace Silver, along with Cannonball Adderley, Donald Byrd, Lou Donaldson, Grant Green, and J.J. Johnson. (publisher)
Monson, Ingrid T. “Art Blakey’s African diaspora”, The African diaspora: A musical perspective, ed. by Ingrid T. Monson. Garland reference library of the humanities 1995 (New York: General Music Publishing Co., 2000) 329–352. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2000-8650] Illuminates the principal political, religious, and musical contexts through which Art Blakey’s travels to Africa and his African diasporic musical explorations of the 1950s might be interpreted. Unraveling his relationship to the African diaspora necessitates exploration of three contexts pertinent to understanding the relationship of African American music and culture to Africa in the mid-20th century: anticolonialism, pan-Africanism, and Islam from the 1920s through the 1940s; African independence, Afro-Cuban music, and religion in the 1950s; and the indefinite nature of musical signification. The masterful disjunction between what Blakey said about his relationship to Africa and African music and what he actually played reveals the complex pathways through which music has mediated and continues to mediate the African diasporic experience. (author)
Rosenthal, David H. “Conversation with Art Blakey: The big beat!”, The black perspective in music 14/3 (fall 1986) 267–289. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 1986-4417]
Squinobal, Jason John. West African music in the music of Art Blakey, Yusef Lateef, and Randy Weston (Ph.D. diss., University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, 2009). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2009-48924]
The Jazz Messengers. Moanin’. The Rudy Van Gelder edition. CD (Blue Note Records 724349532427, 1999). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 1999-61955]
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“Beale Street Blues has been widely exhibited in post-WPA years, particularly in the last decade [1976–85]. Becker’s wonderfully jumbled composition, with its askew, disordered lines, suggests the melancholy dissonant notes of the trumpet player in his rather down-and-out surroundings.”
– Harriet W. Fowler, University of Kentucky Art Museum
“The twelve-bar, three-line form of the first and last strains, with its three-chord basic harmonic structure (tonic, subdominant, dominant seventh) was already used by Negro roustabouts, honky-tonk piano players, wanderers and others of their under-privileged but undaunted class from Missouri to the Gulf, and had become a common medium through which any such individual might express his personal feelings in a sort of musical soliloquy. My part in their history was to introduce this, the “blues” form to the general public, as the medium for my own feelings and my own musical ideas.”
– W.C. Handy, composer of “Beale Street Blues”
Whether coincidental or not, there are some interesting parallels between W.C. Handy’s “Beale Street Blues” (1916) and Fred Becker’s wood engraving on cream wove paper (1937–38). Both are defined by a dynamic sense of motion, “wonderfully jumbled compositions” mixing various artistic elements and cultural antecedents, a product of parallel and perpendicular vectors, which taken together lead the viewer or the listener into unexplored, new territories.
Fred Becker’s Beale Street Blues depicts a musician alone in his room—if not a cheap hotel or flophouse given the looks of his surroundings—captured in a moment of intimacy. He sits on an unmade bed, one bare foot propped up on a chair strewn with tossed-aside clothing, the other foot pointing toward the empty bottle of gin on the floor next to his one remaining glass of alcohol, playing his horn in a state of deep repose, or drunkenness, or despair, or all of the above (it’s impossible to say). The immediate impact of this despondent musician sitting alone in a disheveled room brings to mind the school of social realist art—a prominent style in Depression-era America—but mixed with some abstract elements that are clearly not aiming for “realism,” such as the cubist-like illogical angles of the walls and their Lego-like disorienting wallpaper pattern.
While the viewer obviously cannot hear the music being played, there’s something here that suggests a talented musician whose time has come and gone (and perhaps never “came” in the first place). One can easily imagine the beautiful sounds being produced in the room with no one to hear them, swallowed up within the tough, unforgiving environment that many musicians (and other workers) faced in the midst of the Depression. There’s also a notable contrast between the trashed room and the sense of composure of the trumpet player, his inward gaze indicating he is lost in the music, in sorrow, in alcohol, or some combination thereof.
Fittingly, this was a work produced for the Federal Art Project, also simply known as “the Project,” a division of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration (WPA)—a governmental relief program that’s never been equaled before or since—and his larger New Deal ideology. The WPA employed some three million Americans, only about 2% of those through the Federal Arts Project, which supported artists across various mediums. Despite being educated at relatively elite institutions such as the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles—Becker was born in Oakland and raised in Hollywood, where his father worked as an actor in silent films—the artist was commissioned by the Graphic Arts Division of the Program in 1935. This is also around the time he began creating realist/surrealist works with jazz musicians and other urban scenes as his primary subjects.
Becker’s employment at the WPA ended in 1939. It’s almost surely not coincidental that this was the same year that many Project artists came under attack by conservative political operatives, accused of spreading Communism to the masses through their art. Never before had public art been so widely disseminated in the United States, outside the sway of elite institutions that gauged their worth and in large part selected the audience for Art with a capital ‘A’. Although some viewed the social progressivism of the artworks produced by Project artists as a boon for artists and for the general public alike, others saw a form of propagandistic art where, in the words of art historian Harriet W. Fowler, “politics created it and politics permeated it.”
After Fred Becker lost his commission, he went on to a successful career, ultimately ending up on the faculty of the Fine Arts Department at the University of Massachusetts. He also shifted his artistic style notably, exchanging the social realism of the 1930s for more abstract expressionist tendencies. Whatever the motivations for this shift may have been is impossible to say. But, quoting again from Fowler, it’s notable that,
[F]rom the standpoint of art history, the rise of abstract expressionism and other abstract art movements beginning in the late 1940s made some Project art look passé indeed. For many critics in those later decades, New Deal art, with its socially-minded mix of Art Deco, surrealism, Bauhaus, Mexican and Renaissance influences appeared studied, naïve, or just plain boringly academic—a “dropout” in the progress of art.
This brings us directly to W.C. Handy’s “Beale Street Blues” and to the blues in general. The blues is a form that rejects the hegemony of unilinear development—notions of the “progress” of art were closely related to the social Darwinism also popular in some quarters at that time—in favor of a more circumnavigational model. Rooted in musical techniques such as call-and-response, repetition and variation, overlapping polyrhythms, and musical themes not as ends-in-themselves but rather as the basis of improvisational exploration, this model creates a space of uninterrupted flow, cyclical time, and relatively equitable sharing of power (whether among musicians, between musicians and audiences, or between various spheres of musical influence).
More than just a mix of “black” and “white” elements, the African-American blues incorporated influences ranging from field hollers to Tin Pan Alley, from African musical retentions to European ballads, from the use of the “Spanish tinge” in general to the use of Cuban habanera rhythms more specifically. Although arrangements and individual performances vary, in almost all versions, the crux of W.C. Handy’s “Beale Street Blues” is the pivot from the conventional four-line, 16-bar ballad stanzas organized in linear, squared-off fashion heard in the opening of the song—“You’ll see pretty Browns in beautiful gowns / You’ll see tailor-mades and hand-me-downs / You’ll meet honest men and pickpockets skilled / You’ll find the business never closes ‘til somebody gets killed’’—to the 12-bar blues AAB structure. Here the first vocal phrase is repeated before closing with a new rhymed line that sets the first line in new perspective, accompanied by a cyclical chordal progression and melodies that make prominent use of non-chord tones that lie outside the established tonality of chords.
Notably, this musical pivot in “Beale Street Blues” is aligned with a perspectival shift in the lyrics, obviously composed to reflect the double-consciousness at the heart of the early blues and the musicians who created the music. The early stanzas of the song describe a touristic gaze, taking in the wonders of Memphis’s Beale Street (the historical black district of Memphis and ultimately the center of blues culture in the city) from an outsider’s perspective. The opening lines of Handy’s original composition compare Beale Street to iconic tourist destinations in the USA and in Europe (“I’ve strolled the Prado, I’ve gambled on the Bourse”) before concluding that the listener should “take my advice, folks, and see Beale Street first.” The first section of “Beale Street Blues” provides a dualistic depiction of Memphis and the Beale Street district (see the “pretty Browns” stanza quoted above) that recognizes both “honest men” and murderers as a part of the cultural mix.
The last line of this section concludes with the following lyrics, the first of which is still well-known thanks to the 1974 James Baldwin novel that quotes it and the well-regarded 2018 movie version of his novel: “If Beale Street could talk, if Beale Street could talk / Married men would have to take their beds and walk / Except one or two who never drink booze / And the blind man on the corner who sings the Beale Street blues.” The song then takes a literal perspectival shift, where the singer takes on the voice of the “blind man on the corner” who sings “I’d rather be here than any place I know / I’d rather be here than any place I know / It’s going to take the Sergeant for to make me go.” At the same time, the music shifts noticeably to the 12-bar blues chordal pattern and to a melody that makes heavy use of the blue notes that define the genre perhaps even more than the familiar chord progression. The representation of double-consciousness provided by W.C. Handy here could not be much more literal, where the singer inhabits the voice and the persona of another singer being observed in the song.
As Nick Bromell describes in his article, “‘The Blues and the Veil’: The Cultural Work of Musical Form in Blues and ‘60s Rock,” “Blue notes wouldn’t be possible, wouldn’t have any meaning, without the strictness with which musical pitches are treated in Western playing style and in the Western scales. Blue notes violate the distinctiveness of individual, discrete pitches, just as the so-called blues scale violates the principle of major/minor tonality. Like hip language, the blues signifies on an established musical language.” Through the use of both “bent” notes that violate the discrete boundaries of “consistent” pitches idealized in Western music, and the setting of flat 3rds, 5ths, and 7ths against the major key established by the harmony, these blue notes are a striking and resonant representation of double-consciousness as first defined by W.E.B. Du Bois.
In a way this is reflective of the city of Memphis itself as depicted by W.C. Handy. Memphis has long stood as a crossroads of the American South. The birthplace of revolutionary American businesses such as FedEx, Holiday Inn, and Piggly Wiggly (the first self-service grocery store), Memphis is synonymous with the mobility, flexibility, and cultural interchange that defined postwar America. But, on the other hand, it’s the central urban outpost of the Delta region of the American South, and as such, a repository for much more long-standing American traditions and for the most rural, and the most Southern lifeways of the rural South. Accordingly, it was also the urban center of the rural Delta blues, which bubbled up with the help of songwriters like W.C. Handy who brought the music to a much broader audience.
The son of former slaves, his father had gained status through his career as a preacher. Handy was formally-trained in music and culturally distant from the Delta blues. Raised in northern Alabama, and against his father’s advice, Handy left home, still a teenager, and led a peripatetic existence for a number of years as he tried to make it as a musician. Somewhat ironically, it was through playing in a minstrel show that he eventually found his way to being a respected professional musician. But it was during his briefly homeless period in St. Louis that he made his most important musical connection, albeit fleeting. In his autobiography, Handy describes encountering a street musician in St. Louis:
A lean, loose-jointed Negro had commenced plucking a guitar beside me while I slept. His clothes were rags; his feet peeped out of his shoes. His face had on it some of the sadness of the ages. As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings of the guitar in a manner popularized by Hawaiian guitarists who used steel bars. The effect was unforgettable. His song too, struck me instantly. “Goin’ where the Southern cross the dog.” The singer repeated the line three times, accompanying himself on the guitar with the weirdest music I had ever heard.
Through this brief encounter, “the blues” as we know it today was born; born at a crossroads, but not the Devil-and-soul-selling crossroad widely associated with the blues. Handy later moved to the cultural crossroads of Memphis and rearranged the music he heard by the destitute musician. Perfectly timed to the technological transition precipitated by sound recording technology—blue notes really need to be heard rather than read off the page—he published the first blues-music sheet music and created a triumvirate of geographically-centered blues standards (“Memphis Blues,”“St. Louis Blues,” and “Beale Street Blues”) that would transform the blues from an obscure, local form of music-making to a world-spanning and world-transforming musical revolution.
Written and compiled by Jason Lee Oakes, Editor, Répertoire International de Littérature Musicale (RILM).
Becker, Fred. “The WPA Federal Art Project, New York City: A reminiscence”, Massachusetts review 39/1 (spring 1998) 74–92. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 1998-47387]
Briggs, Ray Anthony. Memphis jazz: African American musicians, jazz community, and the politics of race (Ph.D. diss., University of California, Los Angeles, 2003). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2003-10637]
A chronological ethnography that reconstructs the history of the Memphis jazz tradition, identifies key musicians and individuals associated with it, and contextualizes the musical activity within a social-political framework, namely Jim Crow politics and the dismantling of legal segregation. The Memphis jazz community was, in part, shaped by the same social, political, and economic forces at work within the African American community at large, particularly legal segregation, which proved to be a significant factor in the livelihood of the jazz community, and at times worked as a galvanizing agent among African American musicians who honed their skills on Beale Street and other locales designated for Memphis’s African American citizens. In addition to the extramusical elements of the Memphis jazz heritage, individuals who have contributed to the music on a regional, national, and international level are also discussed. The Memphis jazz community has produced a number of renowned performers who have gone on to international recognition within the jazz tradition. A brief survey of artists who have carried the Memphis jazz heritage to the attention of jazz fans around the world is also included. (author)
Bromell, Nick. “‘The blues and the veil’: The cultural work of musical form in blues and ’60s rock”, American music: A quarterly journal devoted to all aspects of American music and music in America 18/2 (summer 2000) 193–221. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature with Full Text, 2000-8321]
Originally, the blues form was an expressive version of what W.E.B. Du Bois, in a famous passage from The souls of black folk, called the “veil” in reference to the African American experience. The blues form performed a different kind of cultural work as it was absorbed into rock and roll of the 1960s and heard by white audiences. The specific formal features of the blues are understood to be blue notes, call-and-response structure, blues licks, and a tension inherent in the paradigmatic blues chord progression. These traits and their relationships to lyrics are observed in two different blues styles: classic blues (illustrated with Ruby Smith’s recording of Fruit cakin’ mama) and Chicago blues (illustrated with Muddy Waters’s recording of Willie Dixon’s (I’m your) hoochie coochie man). (Julie Schnepel)
Cantwell, Robert. If Beale Street could talk: Music, community, culture (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2009-22]
Demonstrates the intimate connections among our public, political, and personal lives, and explores the vernacular culture of everyday life in order to understand the cultural ecology of the contemporary world. The examination shows how cultural practices become performances and how performances become artifacts endowed with new meaning through the transformative acts of imagination. It traces, for instance, how a blues song becomes a blues recording and enters a collection of blues recordings, joining other energies, both creative and exploited, both natural and human, that represent the residues of modern life and culture. Points of departure range from the visual and the literary—a photograph of Woody Guthrie, or a poem by John Keats—to major cultural exhibitions, such as the World’s Columbian Exposition or the Smithsonian’s Festival of American Folklife. (publisher)
Chametzky, Jules. “Introduction to Fred Becker’s WPA graphics”, Massachusetts review 39/1 (spring 1998) 69–73. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 1998-47388]
Fowler, Harriet W., and Sophia Wallace. New Deal art: WPA works at the University of Kentucky—University of Kentucky Art Museum, August 25–October 27, 1985 (Lexington: University of Kentucky Art Museum, 1985). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 1985-28412]
Handy, William Christopher (W.C.). Father of the blues: An autobiography (New York: Macmillan, 1941). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 1941-249]
The author’s blues compositions—Memphis blues, Beale Street blues, St. Louis blues—changed American music forever. Here William Christopher (W.C.) Handy presents his own story: a vivid picture of American life now vanished. The versatile musician grew up a sensitive child who loved nature and music; but not until he had won a reputation did his father, a preacher of stern Calvinist faith, forgive him for following the “devilish” calling of black music and theater. Handy tells of this and other struggles: the lot of a black musician with entertainment groups in the turn-of-the-century South; his days in minstrel shows, and then in his own band; how he made his first $100 from Memphis blues; how his orchestra came to grief with World War I; his successful career in New York as publisher and songwriter; and his association with the literati of the Harlem Renaissance. Handy’s remarkable tale reveals not only the career of the man who brought the blues to the world’s attention, but provides a unique vantage point over a wide scope of American music–from the days of the old popular songs of the South through ragtime to the birth of jazz. (publisher)
Ryan, Jennifer D. “Beale Street blues? Tourism, musical labor, and the fetishization of poverty in blues discourse”, Ethnomusicology: Journal of the Society for Ethnomusicology 55/3 (fall 2011) 473–503.[RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2011-5464]
Examines discourses of authenticity concerning the blues venues in Memphis, particularly those of Beale Street, one of the country’s largest and best-known districts for blues tourism. The case of Beale Street invites a thorough examination of the authenticity discourses surrounding blues and the potential damage they can cause. The views held by Memphis musicians require that we rethink blues performance not as an idealized music but as a professional endeavor. In this article, the author argues that dismantling these discourses requires that we reconsider music as labor. She sets the views of Memphis musicians as a counterpoint to some of the most common discourses about them. She traces the transition of Beale Street from a vibrant African American commercial district to a tourist destination, and then examines in detail the most common treatments of blues authenticity, tracing their origins to discussions of essentialism in black music and to an emphasis on authenticity in folklore studies. She turns to the lives of Memphis musicians with an examination of their views on playing in Beale Street. The conclusion reconsiders these musicians as working professionals, an idea at odds with the expectations of the mythical bluesman. This approach reveals the lasting and pervasive nature of authenticity discourses and their incompatibility with an understanding of music as labor. (author)
Wechsler, James. “Fred Becker and experimental printmaking”, Print quarterly 10/4 (December 1993) 373–384. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 1993-28755]
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Pekar, author of the autobiographical comic series American splendor,
was also a jazz fan, an obsessive record collector, a prolific jazz critic, and
a tireless supporter of experimental music; he often worked these enthusiasms
into his comic strips.
These comic-book treatments of jazz can be viewed as
extensions and developments of his prose criticism in publications such as The jazz review
and DownBeat. In
these comic strips, Pekar was experimenting with the form of jazz criticism
itself, and was developing its language and impact.
This according to “Comics as criticism: Harvey Pekar, jazz
writer” by Nicolas
Pillai, an essay included in The Routledge companion to jazz studies
(New New York: Routledge, 2019, pp. 433–41).
Today would have been Harvey Pekar’s 80th birthday! Above, Robert Crumb’s depiction of Pekar and himself for an American splendor cover; below, a promo clip for Harvey Pekar’s world of jazz.
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