Bessie Smith: Back Water Blues

February 9, 2014 at 5:52 pm (jazz, Jim D, music, New Orleans, song, The blues, tragedy)

Extreme weather and flooding having become a highly-charged political issue in the UK. So I thought Bessie Smith’s blues (superbly accompanied by pianist James P. Johnson) about the flooding of New Orleans in 1927 might be appropriate:

This is dedicated to all the people of the ‘Somerset Levels’ who’ve had to suffer so much over the past weeks. I’d also like to dedicate it to Lord Chris Smith of the Environmental Agency, a decent man whose monumentally inept handling of the situation and lack of PR skills are making it increasingly likely that he’s going to be made the scapegoat for this fiasco.

But, for now, let’s just enjoy Bessie’s incredible voice…

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Bobby Gordon: unsung hero of the jazz clarinet

January 18, 2014 at 7:07 pm (good people, jazz, Jim D, music, Soul, The blues)

2014 came in badly as far I was concerned: checking old friend Michael Steinman’s Jazz Lives blog, I saw that Bobby Gordon died on 31st December.

Most of you will never have heard of Bobby, who was an American jazz clarinettist who came on the scene playing Condon-style jazz and swing, just as that style was going out of fashion. Nevertheless, he played some great music and, thinking about him, I realised he’d been on many of my favourite jazz CD’s of the 1980s and ’90′s, with Marty Grosz, Keith Ingham, Rebecca Kilgore and Hal Smith. His clarinet playing reflected his personality: modest, shy, understated, but intense and very, very beautiful. Back in the early 1960′s American Decca hired him to make an album with strings, in an attempt to emulate Acker Bilk’s UK hit  ‘Stranger On The Shore’ : sadly, it didn’t achieve the same kind of sales. The nearest Bobby ever came to fame and fortune was his  time in the 1980′s, accompanying singer Leon Redbone – and even that brief moment of relative success involved an horrific air crash, from which both of them were lucky to survive.

Bobby was one of the many unsung greats of jazz: not many people remember him, but those who do will always appreciate his great soul and blue-tinged sad-happy improvisations. Bobby’s main inspiration and mentor was the 1930′s Chicago/New York clarinettist Joe Marsala, to whom he paid musical tribute on several occasions, including two ‘Arbors’ CD’s (Don’t Let It End and Lower Register). Another influence was Pee Wee Russell and here’s Bobby, in 2010, remembering him on Pee Wee’s Blues:

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Sister Rosetta Tharpe: This Train

January 11, 2014 at 6:43 pm (comedy, jazz, Jim D, religion, Sheer joy, song, Soul, The blues)

Today is Sister Rosetta Tharpe Day.

Here she is, playing and singing ‘This Train’: the sound’s a bit low, so you’ll need to listen carefully. But I’ve chosen this clip because it gives some wonderful glimpses of the Sister’s facial expressions and her great comedic sense – as, for instance, when she gestures towards the piano player at the part of the lyric about “whisky drinkers”:

She could almost make me a believer.

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I Wish I Knew (How It Would Feel To Be Free) – 50 years on

November 12, 2013 at 12:12 am (Anti-Racism, civil rights, history, jazz, Jim D, song, Soul, The blues)

Some readers may have been mystified as to why on Saturday, apparently for no particular reason, I posted a short piece on Billy Taylor’s composition ‘I Wish I Knew (How It Would Feel To Be Free).’

The reason was that today (Nov 12) is the 50th anniversary of the original recording of the tune by Billy Taylor’s Trio. My little post, complete with YouTube clips by Taylor and Nina Simone, was prepared in advance, all ready to go up today. Then I pressed the wrong button and posted it early.

So here, on the anniversary itself, is the original version from Taylor’s album Right Here, Right Now, released early in 1964, but recorded exactly 50 years ago today:

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What Albert Murray taught us…

September 9, 2013 at 3:11 pm (Anti-Racism, black culture, civil rights, culture, intellectuals, jazz, literature, philosophy, posted by JD, RIP, The blues, United States)

…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

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Civil rights music

August 23, 2013 at 7:55 pm (Anti-Racism, black culture, civil rights, democracy, history, jazz, Jim D, protest, Racism, solidarity, song, Soul, The blues, United States)

As we approach the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and that “I have a dream” speech by Martin Luther King, it seems right to bring you some of the music that sustained the civil rights movement in the sixties – and beyond.

This selection is by Nick Morrison of NPR, as are the brief comments:

I Wish I knew (How It Would Feel To Be Free) – Nina Simone

Of the many musicians who used their music to advance the cause of civil rights, Nina Simone was one of the most passionate, most outspoken and most gifted. Although many of her civil rights era songs had their origins earlier in the 20th century, this song was written in 1967 by noted jazz pianist and educator Dr Billy Taylor (along with Dick Dallas), and was recorded by Simone that same year. It quickly became one of the musical mainstays of the movement.

Selma March – Grant Green

The march for voting rights from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., took place in March 1965. Today, some people tend to forget that there were two failed attempts to make the journey earlier that month. The first march ended in bloodshed, while the second was met with a restraining order. That ruling was quickly overturned and, on March 21, Dr King began the historic four-day march. Five months later, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This jubilant instrumental by jazz guitarist Grant Green seems to reflect the jubilation surrounding the Selma march’s completion. A 1965 recording, it also features Harold Vick (sax), Larry Young (organ), Ben Dixon (drums) and Candido Camero (congas).

We Shall Overcome – Larry Goldings

Many people, when asked to name a song that encapsulates the civil rights movement, will pick “We Shall Overcome.” It was, indeed, the movement’s theme song, sung by countless people all over the world. That’s how we often think of the song: large groups of people gathered together, singing it as they struggle against mighty odds. Pianist Larry Goldings, however, gives us a different view of this classic. Accompanied only by trumpeter (actually, he’s on cornet – JD) John Sneider, Goldings turns “We Shall Overcome” into a wistful, intimate and moving meditation.

This Little Light of Mine – Sam Cooke

Folklorist and activist Zilphia Horton did a wonderful thing when she introduced this children’s gospel song to the civil rights movement in the 1950s. Vocalist Sam Cooke did something equally wonderful, and much more amazing. He took this song that people were singing at sit-ins and marches and brought it into America’s toniest nightclubs, putting the music of The Movement in front of an audience that probably didn’t spend much time at sit-ins and marches. Cooke performed this joyful and uplifting version of “the Little Light Of Mine” in 1964 in New York’s Copacabana.

Lift Every Voice And Sing – Hank Crawford and Jimmy McGriff

Picture of Hank Crawford & Jimmy McGriff

[No Youtube clip available, so click here]

In 1919, this song (by James and John Johnson) was adopted by the NAACP as “The Negro National Anthem.” Its resonance in the civil rights movement is indisputable and, like all of the songs in this brief overview, it remains an incredibly moving piece of music today. This soulful instrumental version by alto saxophonist Hank Crawford, with his long-time musical partner and organist Jimmy McGriff, is one of the best. Prepare to be taken to the river.

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You been a good ole wagon…but you done broke down

July 6, 2013 at 1:01 am (engineering, jazz, Jim D, song, The blues, tragedy)

My old Ford Focus served me well for about ten years, and if I’m honest I have to say I gave it quite a thrashing one way and the other. A couple of weeks ago it finally expired with much juddering, wheezing and agonized whining. Something called the cam belt, so I’m told. It buggers up your valves: nasty. And expensive. It would have cost more to repair than the car was worth.

Happily (or so I thought), just at that moment my employer was offering a 2007 Mondeo diesel estate for sale at what seemed a very reasonable price, so I snapped it up. Just one week after buying it, the bloody thing has broken down and I had to be towed home in ignominy late on Thursday night . It’s something called the EGR valve and it’ll cost me over £200 to put right.

Bessie Smith, back in 1925, seems to have had similar troubles with an old vehicle: “You Been a Good Ole Wagon … but You Done Broke Down” she sang, presumably about a much loved but knackered Model T. Why this automotive song should be illustrated by a female backside (albeit shapely), I’ve absolutely no idea:

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Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland

June 25, 2013 at 2:22 pm (black culture, culture, Jim D, music, RIP, song, Soul, The blues)

 Bobby Bland (Robert Calvin Brooks), blues and soul singer, born 27 January 1930; died 23 June 2013

Above: ‘Stormy Monday’ (1962) with Wayne Bennett on guitar

Tony Russell writes (in the Graun):

Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland, who has died aged 83, was among the great storytellers of blues and soul music. In songs such as I Pity the Fool, Cry Cry Cry and Who Will the Next Fool Be, he created tempestuous arias of love, betrayal and resignation, set against roiling, dramatic orchestrations, and left the listener drained but awed.

It was a skill that came gradually. His husky voice was gorgeous from the start, but as a young man he followed BB King – for a while literally, as his valet and chauffeur – and his singing took on a special character only after he began to study the recorded sermons of the Detroit preacher CL Franklin, Aretha’s father. “That’s where I got my squall from,” he recalled. That alchemy of blues and gospel cadences would create one of the most affecting voices in black music

Read the rest, here

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A woman worth remembering

April 17, 2013 at 7:11 am (civil rights, humanism, jazz, Jim D, music, Sheer joy, song, Soul, The blues)

Nina Simone, of course:

It’s a new dawn
It’s a new day
It’s a new life

For me

And I’m feeling good

I’m feeling good
I feel so good
I feel so good 

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Vieux Farka Touré and the music of Mali: “spreading the news of what has happened to us and what is still happening”

February 22, 2013 at 8:08 pm (africa, anti-fascism, culture, Human rights, humanism, islamism, liberation, music, national liberation, song, terror, The blues, Uncategorized)

From Chicago magazine:

By Kevin McKeough

Since the late, legendary Ali Farka Touré first brought the music of Mali to widespread attention in the mid-1980s, the western African nation’s musicians have beguiled listeners worldwide with their trance-inducing guitar patterns and Arabic flavored keening. Tragically, Mali has received more attention lately for the violent conflict in the country’s northern region, which encompasses part of the vast Sahara Desert. After Islamist extremists recently seized control of a large part of the area, including the storied city of Timbuktu, and committed numerous human rights violations, in January France sent soldiers into its former colony to drive out the militants. While the French military has retaken most of the area, the situation remains unstable both in northern Mali and in the south, where the country’s military has deposed two successive governments and reportedly is engaging in harsh repression.

Vieux Farka Touré, Ali Farka Touré’s son and a world music star in his own right, was performing Friday, Feb. 22, at the Old Town School of Folk Music. C Notes contacted Touré, who lives in the Malian capital, Bamako, to gain his perspective of the travails afflicting his country and how he and other Malian musicians are responding.

What are your thoughts about the Islamists’ invasion of northern Mali and France’s efforts to drive them out of the country? My thoughts are the same as everyone in Mali. The invasion of the Islamists was hell on earth. It was a nightmare unlike anything we have ever experienced. We are very grateful to President Hollande and the French for their intervention. For the moment at least they have saved our country.

How have these disruptions affected you personally? I am safe and my family is safe. But there is great uncertainty in Mali today. Nobody knows what we can expect in the next years, months or even days. So it is very bad for the spirit to be living in this kind of situation.

What’s your reaction to the Islamist invaders banning music in the areas they controlled? I was furious. It broke my heart like it did for everyone else. It was as though life itself was taken from us.

You were part of an all-star group of Malian musicians who recently recorded the song “Mali-ko” in response to the conflict. Please talk about the project and why you participated in it. Musicians in Mali play a very important role in society. We are like journalists, telling people what is happening. We are also responsible for speaking out when there are problems, and we are responsible for lifting the spirit of the nation. So that is why we made “Mali-ko.” Fatoumata [Diawara] organized everyone and we all spent some time hanging out in the studio and doing our little parts. It was a very nice project. I’m happy with the result and I’m happy that it got a lot of attention in the United States and in Europe.

Aside from the song, what role do you think musicians can play in responding to the situation in Mali? We can do what we are already doing—we are going everywhere we can around the world and spreading the news of what has happened to us and what is still happening. Equally, we must continue to entertain our people and keep them proud to be from Mali. For Malians, music is the greatest source of pride so we must work very hard to keep that pride alive. Right now it is not easy for people to be proud and have faith.

What do you think needs to be done in Mali? First and most importantly, we need to continue to drive out all the militants from our country. There is no future for Mali with terrorists living amongst us. Period. Also we must move quickly to engage in free and open elections to restore the faith and the legitimacy of our country in the eyes of the world and its people. These two things are the most critical at this time.

Your music resembles your father’s but has its own distinct quality. Can you talk about what you’re trying to do in the music, how and why you combine traditional and contemporary styles? With my music I try not to think very much about what I am doing. I just let myself be open to inspiration and it will take me where I need to go. So I am not thinking “for my next album I must do a song with reggae, or I must do an acoustic album because this will be good for my career” or anything like that. I think all artists are like lightning rods for inspiration and you must be open to it or it will not strike you. If you try to do something artistic it will not be as good as if you just let inspiration decide what you are doing. So my style is just based on what influences me and what inspires me.

For a country with a small population, Mali has produced a large number of internationally recognized musicians. Why do you think the country has so many excellent musicians? This is the mystery that everyone wants to understand. I do not know for sure why there are so many big international stars from Mali. But I know this: We take our music very, very seriously. It is at the core of our culture and it is the definition of Mali as a people. There is no Mali without Malian music. So I think this inspires many young people to try to become musicians. Maybe everywhere in the world has this kind of talent but there is not as strong a push for everyone to develop their talents in music. But honestly, I don’t know. We are lucky for this great richness of talent. That is for sure.

Kevin McKeough is a contributing music critic for Chicago magazine

See also ‘The Hendrix of the Sahara’

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