Following on from similar focuses devoted to Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Schubert and Webern, March 7 will celebrate the great impressionist’s music through recordings dating from the 1930s to the present day.
Performers involved include pianists Pascal and Ami Rogé in a recital from Wigmore Hall (including a two-hand arrangement of Boléro), the Nash Ensemble, and New Generation Artist mezzo Clara Mouriz. There will also be a series of downloads called Ravel Revealed exploring aspects of his life.
Now, of course, there’s a lot more to Ravel than Boléro (my personal favourite is Daphnis et Chloé) but I couldn’t resist bringing you this 1934 film (below) as a foretaste:
Better than Torville and Dean, eh? George Rafters all round!
Above: excerpt from John Akomfrah’s film ‘The Stuart Hall Project’
The death yesterday of Stuart Hall, aged 82, robs the British left of a major intellect, an energetic organiser and a warm, charismatic human being. I should declare an interest: in the early 1970′s Stuart was one of my tutors at Birmingham University (where he was director of the Centre for Contemporary Studies) and, together with Dorothy Thompson in the History department, was instrumental in ensuring that I wasn’t chucked out and eventually obtained a degree (albeit an ‘Ordinary’). So I owe him a great deal: I only wish I’d got to know him better and found out, for instance, that we shared a love of jazz (although, I learned from Desert Island Discs, his favourite musician was Miles Davis, so even that might have generated some disagreement).
So I hope it’s clear that I liked and respected Stuart Hall a great deal, and if the articles reproduced below, in his memory, are quite sharply critical of aspects of his politics (particularly his rejection of the centrality of the working class to the struggle for socialism), that’s because serious, honest people can (or, at least, ought to be able to) disagree and still hold one another in high regard.
Paving the way for New Labour
By Matt Cooper (2013)
Cinema documentary has undergone a renaissance in recent years, with fine examples exploring subjects as diverse as sushi in Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011) and death squads in 1960s Indonesia in The Act of Killing (2012).
Nonetheless, a film about the semi-Marxist cultural theorist Stuart Hall is unexpected. Hall was born in Jamaica in 1932, went to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar in 1952 and was the founding editor of New Left Review (NLR) in 1960. This was a journal which explicitly adopted a “third way” approach between Soviet Communism and social democracy, but was ambivalent about the working class and its revolutionary potential.
After resigning as editor of NLR in 1962, Hall became a leading radical academic joining the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham University in 1964 and becoming its director from 1968 to 1979. Cultural studies grew out of the New Left interest in the culture of the working class, which had largely been ignored by academia, and was part of a rise in a form of academic radicalism that mixed some real insights in an overly abstract and obtuse theoretical carapace and, like the New Left, often had little relationship with real struggles.
The last phase of Hall’s career commenced after 1979, when, despite his earlier rejection of both Stalinism and social democracy, he was one of the key theorists of bringing the two together. Through the pages of Marxism Today (the journal of the right wing of the Communist Party), and his own books, Hall argued that Labour needed to form a new progressive alliance in tune with “new times” where the organised working class was a diminishing force.
The problem with Akomfrah’s film is that it fails to address the development of Hall’s thought. It is strongest on his part in the formation of the New Left, and here hints at the weakness of this approach. While Hall’s co-thinkers were well established in Oxford and London, he reports that he was perplexed by an early encounter with the northern working class in Halifax. Like much else in the film, which is straitjacketed by its choice to use only the words from radio and TV appearances by Hall, this is left undeveloped.
Similarly, the film moves briefly over Hall’s work in the 1970s and fails to communicate what was specific about Hall’s understanding of culture — particularly his work on the moral panic over mugging in Policing the Crisis (1978).
Worst of all, the film entirely misses out Hall’s analysis of Thatcherism in the 1980s and his increasingly pessimistic response about how the left should respond to it.
Strangely, the film includes a clip of the 1984-1985 miners’ strike, but there is no reference to any words from Hall to accompany it. Hall, while clearly sympathetic to the strike, thought it the doomed expression of class struggle that could no longer win. Without any clear sense of transforming society, Hall looked only to create a new more progressive ideology removed from such outdated class struggle. Unwittingly, he was preparing the ground for New Labour (which was more enthusiastically supported by many of his Marxism Today collaborators).
Without much grasp of Hall’s place in the movement away from class politics from the 1960s to the 1980s, The Stuart Hall Project ends up with a fragmented kaleidoscope of images without any clear narrative.
It neither does justice to Hall’s ideas nor shows any critical understanding of them.
“Post Fordism”: collapsing into the present
By Martin Thomas (1989)
Capitalism has changed and is changing. Vast new areas in the Third World have industrialised. The introduction of small, cheap, flexible computers is revolutionising finance, administration, retailing, manufacturing. The majority of the workforce in many capitalist countries is now “white-collar” – but white-collar work is becoming more industrial.
Dozens of other shifts and changes are underway. Which of them are basic? How are they connected? What implications do they have for socialists?
Into this debate has marched the Communist Party’s magazine “Marxism Today”, bearing a banner with a strange device – “post-Fordism”. “At the heart of New Times”, they write, “is the shift from the old mass-production Fordist economy to a new, more flexible, post” Fordist order based on computers, information technology and robotics” (Marxism Today, October 1988). These New Times call for a new politics: in place of the old class struggle, diverse alliances.
There are several issues here. Do the political conclusions really follow from the economic analysis? Is the economic analysis sound? Where does the economic analysis come from? What do the terms “Fordism” and “post-Fordism” mean? Read the rest of this entry »
David Rich has a very good, and very depressing article on Dieudonne and his kind:-
“Making common cause” between Holocaust deniers, neo-fascists, the pro-Palestinian left, and the revolutionary Islamists of Iran is precisely what Dieudonné has spent the past decade trying to achieve. Originally from the political left, he has moved via anti-Israel rhetoric and the fascist Front National (FN) to the establishment of his own Parti Anti Sioniste (PAS, or Anti-Zionist Party). Alongside him in the PAS is essayist and filmmaker Alain Soral, who underwent a similar journey from the Marxist left to the FN before finding a political home with Dieudonné.
There are not many political movements that can embrace the neo-fascist right, the anti-capitalist left, and Iranian revolutionary Islamism. Dieudonné is close to FN leaders—Jean Marie Le Pen is godfather to one of his children—while also attracting fans who consider themselves to be left-wing radicals. He was a guest in Tehran of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and received Iranian funding for a film project. Historically, movements that successfully pulled off this kind of balancing act have tended to rely on anti-Semitism as their glue, expressed through the lingua franca of conspiracist anti-Zionism, and PAS is no different.
Strikingly, for a party that calls itself anti-Zionist, PAS’s political program makes no direct mention of Israel or Palestine. This is parochial, patriotic anti-Zionism, in which Zionism is portrayed primarily as a subversive, corrupting presence in French society.
Radio 4′s The Report had the journalist Helen Grady interviewing Dieudonne’s friends and followers. Sometimes they said “Zionist” where they obviously meant “Jewish” and sometimes they said, “I’m not antisemitic but Jews run everything”. Also, Dieudonne gave them the thrill of saying, or just hinting at, the forbidden. – not just “you don’t say that” but “you can’t say that” because it’s illegal in a state with laws against Holocaust denial. This was interpreted as special treatment for Jews while other minorities are fair game.
I was sorry the reporter didn’t ask them to explain who these Zionists are and what are these utterances that are so dammed by the laws – not that I agree with Holocaust denial laws or anti free speech and expression laws in general. In fact I would like to know how much these laws exacerbate the sense of resentment that is one of the emotional bases of Fascism. Certainly breaking them, or hinting that you were, gave the audience a lovely outsider frisson.
Some of these gagged folk came from immigrant communities – their parents from North Africa say – and they had good words to say of the Front National – at least they’re honest when the rest are hypocrites.
It was your worst gibbering blog thread taking flesh, with hideous whiffs of the 1930s, in all their bizarre irrationality.
Rich concludes with a warning for those who think It Can’t Happen Here:-
. .it would be complacent to assume that Dieudonné’s anti-establishment appeal, expressed through angry, transgressive satire and political stunts, could not find a British audience. The personal followings of Nigel Farage MEP and George Galloway MP demonstrate the appetite in the UK for charismatic, populist anti-politics. .. A Francophone comic with a taste for the surreal is likely to have trouble finding a mass audience in Britain; but his populist anti-politics, carrying a coded anti-Semitism and transmitted via social media, may have better luck in finding an audience..
The anti-establishment comedian who thinks all political institutions are a waste of time is Russell Brand, but to do him justice, he is nothing like as malevolent as Dieudonne, and I can’t see him doing Holocaust jokes or chumming up with David Irving. I can’t see him getting in bed with UKIP either, which is the closest thing here to the Front National. I don’t keep up with popular culture, and there may be obvious candidates for the Dieudonne role that I’ve missed.
Respect was a party that pulled in some of the political groups that are attracted to Dieudonne:- the pro-Palestinian Left and Islamists, and no doubt Holocaust deniers would pop up in such a crowd. Gilad Atzmon would be the obvious entertainer, but he’s not a man of any great charisma or the popular touch. However, it’s hard to think of the neo-Fascist right finding a home there, and Respect is now mostly a fantasy in Galloway’s head.
The death, reported today, of Pete Seeger, reminded me that he publicly broke with Stalinism back in 2007 (some say he’d privately broken with it some years previously).
I wrote the following at the time, in a deliberately provocative style intended to infuriate folkies. Nevertheless, I hope it’s suitably respectful towards a brave and principled man:
Pete Seeger changes his tune: finger removed from ear
I’ve never particularly liked folk music, with its whining three-chord “tunes”, its anachronistic and lachrymose lyrics and the sheer musical incompetence of most of its performers – including the famous ones like Bob Dylan.
Having said that, I have to admit that most of the folkies I’ve met over the years have been thoroughly decent people, often stalwarts of left-wing campaigns, strike-support activity and international solidarity. But for some unexplained reason, these admirable people almost invariably turn out to be Stalinists of one variety or another: what is it about the music or the “scene” that brings this about? Delightful, sandle-wearing, hirsute do-gooders turn out to be apologists for some of the most monstrous regimes and genocidal crimes in human history!
Pete “If I Had a Hammer” Seeger always struck me as the spritual progenitor of the finger-in-the-ear school of folkie Stalinism (the finger being in the ear to prevent the truth about Uncle Joe’s crimes ever being heard): he was (and is) a very good and brave human being, so far as I can judge. Certainly, he had the courage to defy the House Committee on Un-American Activities, rather than betray his friends and comrades, and spent a year in jail as a result. On a less serious note, I’ve also always harboured a sneaking admiration for his legendary attempt to take an axe to Bob Dylan’s microphone cable at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. But still, this admirable figure remained an unremitting, unreconstructed Stalinist [*]…
…Until now. According to Nicholoas Wapshott in the New Statesman, the 88 year-old Seeger says he has “‘been thinking what Woody (Guthrie - JD) might have written had he been around” to see the end of the Soviet Union. In a letter responding to (a) complaint that he had repeatedly sung about the Nazi Holocaust but failed to acknowledge the millions killed in Stalin’s death camps, he (Seeger) wrote: “I think you’re right – I should have asked to see the gulags when I was in (the) USSR”.
So now Pete has written a new song, ‘The Big Joe Blues’, which goes: “I’m singing about old Joe, cruel Joe./He ruled with an iron hand./He put an end to the dreams/Of so manyin every land./He had a chance to make/A brand new start for the human race./Instead he set it back/Right in the same nasty place./I got the Big Joe Blues./(Keepyour mouth shut or you will die fast.)/I got the Big Joe Blues./(Do this job, no questions asked.)/I got the Big Joe Blues”.
According to Wapshott, Pete now acknowledges that, “if by some freak of history communism (I think he really means Stalinism – JD) had caught up with this country, I would have been one of the first people thrown in jail”. So the finger’s well and truly out of the ear. At long last.
Above: despite my prejudice against folk music, I think this is great! Pete with Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee in the mid-60s
* Addendum: BTL comments (below) would seem to confirm that my statement that PS remained “an unremitting, unreconstructed Stalinist” (until 2007) was incorrect. It would also seem to be the case (sadly) that the story of the axing of Dylan’s electric cable at Newport in 1965 is apocryphal.
(Jim has already written on this below, but I want to add my piece.)
Well, can you believe it?. An illiberal piece of policy is advanced by a powerful body, against it comes a petition, a demonstration, media shouting and then the policy is withdrawn. Amazing.
To recap, Universities UK, (UUK) (formerly The Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals of the Universities of the United Kingdom) put out guidelines that allowed speakers at meetings in universities to insist women and men be segregated for “genuinely religious” reasons. Student Rights picked this up. The bloggers you’d expect – Maryam Nazie, Ophelia Benson, James Bloodworth produced angry posts. The mainstream media moved in – Nick Cohen in the Spectator, and Yasmin Alibai-Brown, finely furious, in The Independent.
Imagine the scenario:-
Sheikh Shifty is invited by some ISOC group to speak about Freedom and Justice at the University of Excellence. Sheikh Shifty will only speak if the women sit separate from the men.
Obvious answer – tell the misogynist theocrat to take a hike, in these words,
“I am sorry to inform you that it is against the principles of the University to allow meetings to occur with gender segregation.”
But not in the UUK’s horrible management speak:- .
if imposing an unsegregated seating area in addition to the segregated areas contravenes the genuinely-held religious beliefs of the group hosting the event, or those of the speaker, the institution should be mindful to ensure that the freedom of speech of the religious group or speaker is not curtailed unlawfully
There was a petition and a small demonstration which Channel 4 covered at length.
Then the BBC began to thunder. The Today programme (1:35) on 11th December had a long piece which started with the reporter regretting his old LSE, the one in the 1980s where students were raucous but not so ready to be offended, or offended on the behalf of putative others.
The next day the BBC got Nicola Dandridge, the Chief Executive of UUK, into the Today (2:10) studio. Regular Today listeners recognised the tones with which Justin Webb interrogated her. It’s the one which they use on a duplicitous politician who has no moral leg to stand on - who has, say, been fiddling her expenses. It’s the voice of outraged decency against a moral moron and it was music to my ears, an angry liberal telling off a squirming piece of inconsistency and illogic. (For a biting take down of Dandridge’s muddled defence, I would strongly recommend this.)
“If this is all that Dandridge means – that people have the right to sit where the hell they want and some will sit cliquishly by gender or other groupings, there is no role for Universities and no reason why the situation should ever be addressed in policy.
Worse, “If women want to sit where the hell the want”? IF? What is this world in which you live where women routinely have no desires and sit where they are told without a single thought disrupting the gentle currents of air between their ears?
All women always sit where they want unless coerced or forced. The fact that you can’t acknowledge this openly, that women naturally have desires and preferences, that we make conscious choices here-there-and-everywhere, speaks to a profound sexism whose paucity of respect for a woman’s mind truly challenges the ability of words to express. I can only repeat your own phrase:
If women want to sit where the hell they want
and goggle at your idea that you will only impose segregation in times and places where women have no preferences.
The politicians - Chuka Umunna , Jack Straw, Michael Gove, David Cameron spoke out. Under the threads of their statements in the Guardian commenters were saying, Bugger me, the horrible Tory creeps are right this time. I’d normally be spitting that politicians were interfering in University affairs – they really shouldn’t, you know – but I’m cheering them. If the representative body of the Vice Chancellors and Principals are so bloody clueless, and the NUS are so supine, they need to be kicked.
I think a lot of the response has been visceral. The suffragettes weren’t force fed for this, the women who fought a grinding battle to get entry into English universities shouldn’t be pissed on
So now the UUK has withdrawn gender segreation from its guidelines. It looks like the forces of light have won for once.
Congratulations to those who attended protests and wrote copiously. If only every campaign could be so successful. But what a ridiculous waste of everyone’s time and anger-fuelled action.
Flesh is Grass has a sane, thoughtful piece:-
Women always miss out when public spaces are segregated by leaders and organisers – even if voluntary, it’s a small change in culture, in the general view of what is acceptable. Authoritarians always use the values of open, pluralist societies against those societies themselves, and weaken them incrementally. Let’s stop this.
She also pointed out that feminists like Caroline Lucas, MP, Green Party and Natalie Bennett, Leader, Green Party did not speak out. I read that Caroline Lucas had said it wasn’t a priority. Also there hasn’t been a peep out of that clutch of feminist writers in The Staggers. Polly Toynbee, one of the old-guard Guardian, undid the miserable expectations we now have of her paper, by sticking to her old feminism and atheism. At least they didn’t publish any of their usual apologetics on these matters. The Observer has an editorial and a good piece by Catherine Bennett.
On the other side:-
Well, one is an article which looks like parody in the Huff Po by Camilla Khan, the Head of Communications,(!) Federation of Student Islamic Societies, who tries to wrap this up in a mixture of post-modernism and spirituality. She has managed to use every con-trick word – those words that irritate like berry bugs in a bra cup – “discourse”, “empower”, “nuanced” and “diversity, “
Firstly, the term segregation itself is highly problematic and acts to conflate the reality further. As Saussure theorised on syntagmatic relations, ‘within speech, words are subject to a kind of relation that is independent of the first and based on their linkage,’ and segregation connotes various forms of separation and oppression.
The problem is calling segregation, segregation. If you called it something else it would be fine. Telling Molly when she walks into a room that she can’t sit here because she’s a woman, isn’t segregation, just nuanced diverse empowerment.
Tendance Coatesey has a bit of fun with Khan’s linguistic studies – Saussure is old hat, I understand – but she really should read a bit of Orwell, and note that calling mass murder “liqudation of anti-social elements” doesn’t stop it being mass murder. But whoever has influenced her writing style, it wasn’t Orwell.
Her other con-trick is that very old anti-feminist ploy, that women taking a different (and different will mean inferior) place is a path to spirituality. So the anti-suffragists said that women agitating to take part in public life spoiled their purifying influence and their moral specialness. They were meant for a higher destiny.
As with life, Islam acknowledges that we form different groups who occupy various intellectual and social spaces. Diversity is celebrated with spirituality at the forefront, forming a broad frame of reference which is not always easily comprehensible to those outside of it.
No, I can’t comprehend how her spirituality is so much compromised when she takes a bus, goes to the cinema or sits in her cultural studies class. What about the diversity of those women who don’t want to be herded with other women, and men also. Is that celebrated? (Add “celebrate” with abstract nouns to my list of berry bug words). I think the “diversity” is a pretty damned narrow one.
Second is Shohana Khan. Khan is a member of Hitz ut-Tahrir, the fighters for a Caliphate where apostates will be killed.
Her argument boils down to:- Men and women must be separated because otherwise they will get sex on the brain and not be able to do something.
Rather the concept of separating men and women in public spaces in Islam, is part of a wider objective. Islam has a societal view that the intimate relationship between a man and a woman is for the committed private sphere of marriage, and should not be allowed to spill outside of this sphere. This is because in society, men and women need to cooperate to achieve things in society whether in the work place, in education, in interactions across the public space. Islam firmly believes if the sexual instinct is let loose in this public sphere, it can taint and complicate these relationships. Therefore Islam promotes ideas such as honouring women which are upheld in society, but alongside such ideas specific rules and laws are implemented to help maintain the atmosphere of healthy interaction between the sexes.
And if the woman breaks these rules, eg by not covering her head she’s fair game is she?
I think it has been observed that public school boys for instance, especially in times past, had a highly unhealthy attitude towards women because they weren’t used to them as normal human beings. So you’re talking garbage – and rather prurient garbage at that. Islamists are as sex obsessed as Hugh Hefner.
Now I won’t say I haven’t been at a public meeting and thought a chap in the audience was rather a dish. In fact, political meetings at universities is where many of us met our soulmates – that person who was highly vocal about the need to oppose nuclear proliferation and had lovely grey eyes. The partnerships of couples who fell in love with the shared ideals and the person can be highly productive. The Pankhursts were one such couple. Jennie Lee and Nye Bevan were another. So I can’t deny there is a sexual element at public meetings, as there is in the offices where we work.
But that it should dominate someone’s mind so much that it screws up their ability to act! What’s wrong with them? Knowing how to behave in public is part of growing up, as is concentrating on the matter at hand. The only people offering distractions who should be segregated are those twerps with buzzing mobile phones.
So a victory this time round. End with Any Questions (:38). Shami Chakrabati took what has been a common attitude – why on earth are we even talking about this?
Johnathan Dimbleby: Is there justification for segregation in an educational setting?
Amjad Bashir (small business spokesman for UKIP, Pakistani immigrant, from Bradford): No. The answer is no. Absolutely not. . . All through my life, and my children, my grand children are all mixing, all sexes, whether it’s primary schools, whether it’s secondary schools. whether it’s universities. There is no room. This is England This is the twenty first century. It’s not Saudi Arabia, where women are not allowed to drive, It’s not Saudi Arabia, where they are not allowed to have bank accounts. This is England. We should allow our youngsters to mix and decide their own future. This is the twenty first century. I am against this segregation.
Politicians trying to sound like hep cats are always amusing. And as Anthony Blair Esq eventually found out, they usually end up looking like pillocks.
This is from today’s Times report on Hull winning City of Culture status for 2017:
“Yesterday’s announcement drew attention to the city’s long list of high achievers, although one of them reacted badly when named by David Cameron during Prime Minister’s Questions. Mr Cameron cited Hull’s ‘fantastic record’ in popular music. ‘I remember some years ago that great Hull Housemartins album London 0, Hull 4,’ he said.
“Paul Heaton, lead singer of the band, responded on Twitter: ‘When I took over my pub in Salford, the first people I banned were Cameron and Osborne. That ban still stands.’ He said that the Prime Minister ‘ruined my day’ and rebutted criticism that he had passed judgement without meeting Mr Cameron or the Chancellor. ‘You don’t need to smell s*** to know it stinks,’ he wrote
“Lord Prescott, the former Deputy Prime Minister who served as MP for Hull East for 30 years, responded jubilantly by referring to one of Mr Heaton’s songs. ‘It’s happy hour again!’ he said.”
From the Dockland & East London Advertiser:
Artist ‘censored’ by Tower Hamlets Council at Bangladeshi exhibition
Above: Saif Osami with some of his work at the Brady Arts Centre
By Adam Barnett, Reporter
A Bangladeshi artist has criticised the Council after he was told some of his work was too controversial for public display
Above: one of the pieces deemed “too controversial” by Tower Hamlets Council
Saif Osmani, 32, who was born in Whitechapel, was invited to show his work at the Brady Arts Centre in Hanbury Street as part of a season of Bangladeshi drama and art.
But when Mr Osmani arrived on November 2 he says he was told by a council arts officer that four of his pieces, which combine the Pakistani and Bangladeshi flags, might anger “hardliners” and would not be shown.
Mr Osmani, who lives in Stratford, said: “I was told that due to the political situation in Bangladesh I was unaware of what this series of paintings could trigger with the ‘hardliners’.
“I can’t see why these events happening thousands of miles away have started dictating this exhibition here in the UK.”
Tower Hamlets Council declined to say who its arts officer meant by “hardliners”.
Mr Osmani said the rest of his work was moved to a corner of the room near the toilet and was later hidden by a pull-up banner.
Akhtar Hussain, of art group Avid Art Agency, said: “It is an absolute disgrace that this level of censoring is taking place in the name of political correctness at an event which was supposed to celebrated British and Bangladeshi arts, but instead curtails the content of the art on display.”
A spokesman for the council said: “We are clear that there has been no censorship in relation to this exhibition.
“As with any public space the council does have the right to decide what is exhibited and in this case the pictures chosen were fully discussed and agreed between the artist and a member of the council arts team.”
The exhibition runs until November 22 at the Brady Arts and Community Centre in Hanbury Street.
Assuming that the article is accurate, this would appear to be an outrageous act of censorship. But what exactly are the political motives that lie behind it? And who are these “hardliners” who might be angered by the paintings? Any information from readers would be most welcome.
Felix Dexter 26 July 1961 – 18 Oct 2013
Charlie Higson and Paul Whitehouse pay tribute here
On National Poetry Day, Warsan Shire has been appointed Young Poet Laureate for London.
She’s a very fine writer and a moving performer of her own work:
Also today, Lauren Williams became the new Young Poet Laureate for Birmingham: more about her shortly.
Who says the young don’t care about poetry?
…about jazz and much else…
Above: Murray (left) and friend Ralph Ellison
By Eugene Holley (at npr’s a blog supreme)
An essayist, cultural theorist, novelist, educator and biographer who died on August 18 at 97, Albert Murray spent more than five decades developing his thesis that America is a culturally miscegenated nation. His contention was that blacks are part white, and vice versa: that both races, in spite of slavery and racism, have borrowed from and created each other. In all of his writing, jazz music — derived from the blues idiom of African-Americans — was the soundtrack at the center of his aesthetic conception.
For the Alabama-bred, Tuskegee Institute-educated, New York-based Murray — and his Tuskegee classmate and aesthetic fellow traveler Ralph Ellison, author of Invisible Man — jazz was “the embodiment of the American experience, the American spirit, the American ideal,” he is quoted as saying in Jazz: A History of America’s Music, the companion book to the PBS documentary series for which he served as commentator and artistic consultant. It was the creation of a sepia panorama of black, brown and beige people, partially descended from Africa but fully Euro-American in outlook, character and aspiration.
“The omni-Americans are the Americans. My conception makes Americans identify with all their ancestors.” —interview in American Heritage, September 1996
To fully understand Albert Murray’s jazz aesthetic, a vital part of the worldview he called “Cosmos Murray,” you have to read his first book, The Omni-Americans (1970). The collection of essays counter-states “the folklore of white supremacy and the fakelore of black pathology” as social-science fictions that dehumanize black people as inferior. “American culture, even in its most rigidly segregated precincts, is patently and irrevocably composite,” he writes.
In The Omni-Americans, Murray critiques black authors Richard Wright and James Baldwin for creating clichéd views of black life; Afrocentric romanticism and the separatist tendencies of Black Nationalism; and well-meaning but paternalizing U.S. inner city social programs. Murray’s answer to such folly is the blues: home-grown black music that acknowledges the “essentially tenuous nature of all human existence … through the full, sharp and inescapable awareness of them.” In the subsequent essay collection The Hero and the Blues (1973), Murray celebrates the bluesman as an epic hero who, in his tragicomic lyricism, confronts the difficulties of life through the creation of a resilient art.
“We invented the blues; Europeans invented psychoanalysis. You invent what you need.” —interview in American Heritage, September 1996
Musically speaking, all this leads up to Stomping the Blues (1976). Beautifully illustrated with vivid period photos, LP covers and broadsides of black jazz icons, Stomping represents the zenith of his writing on the subject. Eschewing a bleak sociological approach for affirmative, literary prose, Murray celebrates jazz as the most advanced and comprehensive blues-derived art form, one which ritualistically provides people with “equipment for living.” The music serves as a “stylistic code for representing the most difficult conditions, but also provides a strategy for living with and triumphing over those conditions with dignity, grace, and elegance.” In other words, one does not kill the blues, but one can, by what he called “the velocity of celebration,” stomp the blues to keep them at bay.
In Stomping, Murray portrays African-American musicians like bandleader Duke Ellington, singers Jimmy Rushing and Ella Fitzgerald, and saxophonists Lester Young and Johnny Hodges as courageous blues stompers. Their artistry is “a synthesis of African and European elements, the product of an African sensibility in an American mainland situation.” Musicologically, Murray also examines jazz in its myriad locales, inventions and dimensions, from New Orleans and Chicago to Kansas City and Harlem, and how it grew from a folk art to a fine art, “stylized into aesthetic statement.”
Murray also co-wrote Good Morning Blues (1985), the intimate autobiography of the pianist and bandleader Count Basie. It covers the halcyon days of Kansas City in the ’30s, where Negro territory bands reigned supreme and where Basie — who hailed from the East Coast — transformed his stride-style piano into the rugged, 4/4 swing that characterized the driving Kansas City sound. The Blue Devils of Nada (1996) features more impassioned essays on Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and his friend, collage artist Romare Bearden. Jazz and the blues also color his quartet of semi-autobiographical novels, starting with Train Whistle Guitar (1974), a coming-of-age chronicle of a boy named Scooter who hails from Alabama, grows up to be a college-educated bassist and leaves home to find fame in Harlem-like Philamayork.
“Jazz is only possible in a culture of freedom.” —from Jazz: A History of America’s Music
Though Murray was not as well-known as his contemporaries Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin and Toni Morrison, his work not only lives on in his books, but also in well-known Murray-ites. Writer and cultural critic Stanley Crouch, whose long-awaited biography of Charlie Parker will be published in September, is a prominent one. Another is Wynton Marsalis, the celebrated musician and artistic and managing director of Jazz at Lincoln Center; the well-known jazz performance venue was largely built on Murray’s philosophical and musicological ethos. “He’s my mentor, but it’s more than that,” Marsalis told Newsweek. “Stomping the Blues had a profound impact on me in terms of understanding the context of the art form and the society.”
In the 21st century, Murray’s omni-American idea — that the U.S. is a composite nation of culturally multiracial people — still deeply resonates in today’s browning, globally connected world. He used jazz to shine a light upon these lesser-seen pockets of American culture — the ones that he believed unite us all.
Guardian obit, here
Fascinating interview with Murray at The Ralph Ellison Project, here