On Race and Music Part 2 (Field Recordings: The Caucasian Storms)

All of the above is written as a way of approaching my new musical project, in which once more I flail against the growing depths of my own anonymity (because for what other reason would I have to keep writing and recording music?).

In the early stages of this (essentially American Song)  project and in its rationales,  I toyed, as I often do, with the racial questions invariably raised by the sources of the music I find most interesting – jazz, gospel music, ragtime, 1920s and 1930s pop standards, the blues, black and white hillbilly song, and what I will call, for want of a better term, Minstrel Pop (early song forms characterized, in some cases, by certain ideas of vernacular lyrics as crossed with minstrel conventions and by relatively simple folk-derived harmonic schemes, with diatonic or even near-modal melodies). I also toyed for some time – and am still toying – with a theme related to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a novel for which I was especially enthused after reading the actual text and then the praises heaped upon it by blackintellectuals like W.E.B. Dubois. Imagine my liberal surprise when some of the African American musicians I contacted to perform on the recording were, shall we say, less than enthused by the idea of participating in something named for this servile-by-image token of American literary history.

I quickly found out that my original project title, Visions of Uncle Tom (which I did indeed intend with multiple cultural and racial and political associations and ironies) was fraught with sociological and political dangers. I though at the time that it was a good  title (and still do, along with the original subtitles which were: “In the Time of Abolitionist Minstrels or: The Condescension of the Abolitionists.” The latter was taken from the novelist and poet Paul Beatty’s cynical take on the ways in which whites have always told blacks how and what they should be feeling from a personal and sociological viewpoint). So, though I did not reject the title outright (and am still internally debating ways in which I might make use of  it) I found myself re-thinking, not the project itself but the basic way in which it will be presented.

I soon realized several things. Unlike with, say, Julius Hemphill, who wrote a piece for the dancer Bill T. Jones called Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin, my options were potentially limited in racially defined ways – obviously, it is much different for a white guy to throw the name Uncle Tom around than it is for an African American. No big surprise there, as with other forms of either negative  or what is perceived as negative terminology.  As I contemplated how to proceed, and started gathering a large cast of musicians to record the music, several important things occurred to me.

1)    For white people, racism is like original sin; no, it’s not LIKE original sin, it IS original sin. Just as the theological concept of same says that you are born with the sin of the ancients, so are all white people brought into the world with the history of American racism as something to be borne, not so much as burden but as reality, asa constant that involves privilege, actions, assumptions and language. Is this atruly post-racial society? It is not now and will not, I am convinced, be so in my lifetime (I am 58 years old).  Whites still regularly do and say things which carry the assumption of privilege and superiority, and I am making no exceptions here, though of course there are, as Don Byron once said to me “different degrees of racism.” It is something a lot of people struggle with, but the key world is struggle.  Things have gotten a lot better, but in a truly post-racial world, there would be no NEED to struggle, and Newt Gingrich would not be seen, on television, contrasting English as “the language of prosperity” with Spanish as “the language of the ghetto.”


2)    One of the reasons  (or really a prime motivation) for the rise of various Black Arts Movements of the last 50 years or so is a sense that African Americans have spent too much time allowingthemselves to be defined by whites, and in white terms. This has happened socially (concepts of looks and beauty, for example) and behaviorally (part of the mystification of black culture, from the 1600s on,  is related to white wonderment at the  apparent lack of expressive inhibition in the practices of black music, dance and language), the freedom therein being constantly measured against certain Western (read: white) standards of sound, form, and decorum.  But the key term here is Western – because much critical theory, or at the least critical response to black art, is couched in terms that are inevitably related to the background of the writer who, in probably the majority of cases (though thankfully this has changed significantly over the years) has been white. So although one might argue that we don’t really need to pick between Western and Non-Western theory (an area in which, anyway, I am way out my depth) and that the important thing is simply strong and educated critical standards, the result is the same: self-determination, as a cultural response to either poor or non-comprehension, has animated the creation of African American improvised music for many years, from the AACM to the St. Louis collectives to the Loft Movement of the 1970s to the mushrooming of independent labels in the 1970s and 1980s. The best (and even many lesser) white critics have come to understand and adapt to this, to realize that they need a deeper and broader intellectual range in order to properly deal with the full scope of the music, both black and white, of the post-modernist 20th and 21st century (though certainly, and this is related to where I am going with all of this, some African American performers of a more nationalist bent might argue thatjust as someone on trial is entitled to a jury of his peers, the African American artist requires an African American critic to accurately understand the sources of his or her art. Though I don’t think this is really a prevalent or dominant opinion).

So basically one important and relevant problem is and was a frustration, on the part of African American artists in all forms, at having their lives mediated through the experiences of white people. And I certain agree that, while this is a hugely complicated subject, it is also a legitimate concern, born out by the millions and millions of words of poorly composed criticism that have poured out of various on and off-line publications through the years (and though I would argue that under-qualification is not exclusively a racial problem, I do recall reading some of the older record reviews in Downbeat, from the 1950s in particular, and cringing at certain almost bizarrely self-righteous white critics who seemed regularly to be saying in essence, in response to new music:”why didn’t these guys ask me first? I know where the future of jazz is and how to get there!”)

And yet….and yet, this form of mediation, of lives as seen through the eyes of others, contains more than the germ of something potentially more interesting, of a possible basis for something, maybe, a little bit new. So I got to thinking, one day  – well, if this (black life as mediated through white experience) has been prevalent, to the point of being racially oppressive and of provoking hostility, is there a way I  turn the concept around and use it in a more creative and constructive (and personal) way? And then I realized, that, in my life, at least, such a thing has been happening for many years. While I can honestly say that I have never fetishized blackness in the sense in which the term has commonly been used, I have, from the age of 14, at the very least, idolized  hundreds, maybe thousands ofblack  musicians – but not for their blackness, or by reason of racial or sexual envy, or even from a sense of white-suburban alienation, as the theorists of fetishization might posit. I admired them for the most innocent of reasons, for the ideas they expressed, the sounds they were able to produce through physical  performance and composition. I mean, give me break. Bird wasn’t a junkie stud to me when I was 14 and just beginning to listening to him, Sonny Rollins was no stereotypical, omniscient, all-powerful black man, Bud Powell was, and always has been for me, much, much more than a symbol of racial torment, Monk was no racialized carnival freak, and Louis Armstrong was anything but a shell/minstrel man. These people were to me (as with many others I wouldmeet and listen to over the years) simply the great artists of our time, the people I admired and then, as I got into  music more deeply, analyzed.

But there was something else I suddenly realized, and which speaks ironically to some of the things I have felt the need to worry about with my new project and its Uncle Tom implications – if black musicians fretted at having their lives seen through white eyes, as having their ways mediated through white experience, what was there to say for the prime cultural influences on my own life? Who were James Reese Europe?  Lester Young? Son House? Duke Ellington? Sonny Rollins? Charlie Parker? Jelly Roll Morton? Dickey Wells? Rosetta Tharpe? Sister Mamie Forehand? Arizona Dranes? Jimi Hendrix?  Bessie Johnson? Bud Powell? Lil Green? Anthony Braxton? Mamie Smith? Sonny Clay? Utah Smith? Julius Hemphill? Ironically or not, these were black men and women through whom my life was mediated, great artists who not only changed my entire outlook but governed a great deal of my personal actions and attitudes, who effected my work, altered my whole personal orientation, and who refocused my entire life in ways that were not only personally demanding but technically and  intellectually unforgiving. All of which attracted, no, consumed me, not, once more, by reason of their so-called “blackness” but by way ofthe things they were able to create, by their monumental personal achievements. Which was, however and of course, paradoxically, as we so well know, closely and maybe irretrievablerelated to their blackness, depending on how we define the term (and if this were an internet post, here I would place one of those little smiley symbols).

What, I thought, if I tried organizing  a musical project in which I reversed the charges?  What if I tried to show how my life has and would and will look as seen through the mediation of African American musicians and other African American cultural figures (with maybe a stray white person dropped here and there, as long as it was thematically consistent)? The result is what you may soon hear, compositions that are essentially my own re-working of other texts, in the best (I hope) Brechtian sense. They are re-creations, but not like those kind you see on cheap documentaries. They are more like new paintings done over the originals, not tributes, and not merely references, but attempts to re-do things in my own image, to manage my own life as it has emerged in the shadow (shade?) of American and, more specifically, African American music.

(Though of course I retain the right to detach my personal self from the results as necessary, to create myself, to paraphrase Rimbaud, as the other, to define a new persona for myself that might be called, after the trends of certain kinds of literature, from Handke to Robbe Grillet to Beckett, “the impersonal I.” But that is another matter).

So herein we see all that is me, through minstrelsy’s complicated contradictions; through the “corruption” (all of my own doing) of ragtime; through the unpredictable flow of Sun Ra, the stop-start melodicism of Anthony Braxton, the blinking harmony of Duke Ellington, the melodic density of Charlie Parker, the folk sophistication of Blind Boone, the constantly resolving and then re-built tensions in the music of Bud Powell; the determined if somewhat indeterminate modernism of Paul Whiteman (who, not-so-incidentally, employed and paid well the African Americans William Grant Still and Don Redman and who, anyway, had a great and lasting orchestra); through Varese (who encountered Charlie Parker in Greenwich Village in Bird’s last days and whose composition Ionisation debuted the same night as works by William Russell, who was the man who re-discovered Bunk Johnson), Bix and Trumbauer (who both followed and effected the great black jazz players of their day),  the cultural night vision of Ma Rainey and her travelling shows, the showbiz soul/subtlety of Joe Jordan, the tents and circuses of early black music, the flailing delta blues of Son House and Charley Patton, the hillbilly songs of the great white/black Diaspora of the South, through Jelly Roll Morton as filtered through Julius Hemphill’s conscious extension of certain Southwestern sonic and melodic traditions; by way of the great black minstrel Ernest Hogan, through the ides of storefront gospel as heard through the shrill moans of Bessie Johnson and Arizona Dranes – and then a few odds and ends of less determinate (if sometimes paler) origin, the gently zig zagging songs of Arthur Russell, Yoko Ono’s accidental artistry, Iggy and the Stooges’ post-blue and neo-punk, pseudo-artsy narcissism,  Paul Goodman’s delicately oppositional poetry,  and, of course, my constant, my hoodoo/voudon gal and zombie hunter, Zora Neale Hurston.