I have no new musical piece for today’s American celebration of freedom’s restoration, Juneteenth. I made moves toward one, but things didn’t move fast enough. In my wayward search I’ve been spending more time thinking about the Mid-20th century period 1940-65 that I wrote about a few posts back. During that period the Afro-American art form Jazz moved from being a predominant popular music style (though often performed by non-Afro-American musicians) to a multi-valent art music that intelligently reflected young Black artists, their concerns, and their adaptations.
That transformation is a complex thing, and this’ll be a short post. Early this century Ken Burns’ Jazz made the simplified case that this was a tragic arc. Art-music is something a smaller portion of people listen to, live with, care about. I don’t buy that singular tragic summary any more than I buy the companion theory held by others that the audience’s advancing stupidity is to be blamed instead. I suspect these theories are subject to the downhill-to-hell-in-a-handbasket generational syndrome that is ever repeated throughout time. Not that there aren’t things worth observing, worth reviving attention to, worth taking back out of the toolbox for reuse in these sorts of reverence for the past! After all, I’ve spent a good deal of time in this project drawing attention to and finding worth in early 20th century Modernist poetry. So, moldy figs, check.
I’ve spent a good deal of time this month listening to mid-century Black American Jazz, some of it from the end of that mid-century quarter when “free jazz” was the new thing. It’s not everyone’s cup of expresso-in-a-small-club. In Burns’ Jazz, several of the talking critics had it that these were the vandals that sacked Rome. Last night at dinner I tried to explain Albert Ayler to my spouse, who loves me enough to forgive that.* Want a simple blurb from me now on Ayler? Most people will be unable to listen to many of Ayler’s recordings with pleasure without significantly understanding something of its intent and context. There’s an argument to be made that art should never resort to that. My belief: sometimes one needs to be baffled, needs to ask questions on the parade from ear to heart. In the Jazz documentary, Stanley Crouch (the initial G is silent) would say of a player like Ayler “the emperor has no clothes.” I’d say he’s stripped naked.
Mid-Century was also an era when LP liner notes could be saying something. Here’s a bit written by Steve Young on 1965’s Black Arts/Free Jazz live album “The New Wave In Jazz.” I’m unable to find anything about what happened to this Steve Young.
So, it was Free Jazz in my ear as I approach this month’s American’s celebration of the restoration of freedom. Soon it’ll be American Independence Day. We Americans abundantly like the word freedom. Conceptually freedom is inherently a broad thing. People tore into the Capital crying freedom from votes they wished to disenfranchise. People were beaten on the Pettus bridge crying freedom to cast votes.
So, Freedom’s a broad thing. Freedom is like the meaning of life, self-evident and elusive. I think it’s to find your joy and to help others.
Here is today’s returning meeting of my original music and someone’s poetry, from one of the too-overlooked Afro-American artists of the last decade that was called The Twenties: Gwendolyn Bennett. She just called it “Song,” as broad a title as freedom for a complex thing that is Black American music. You can play it with the player below if you see that, or with this highlighted link.
*I told her I’d just spent the day reading LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka and listening to free jazz from 1965. Poetry and 50-plus-years-ago free-jazz combined will interest a few people, less perhaps than even the small crowd for either of those things by themselves — that’s you folks reading this far — and she’d just spent her day helping sick people. Sing heavenly muses: that I clearly have a higher calling.