In his new film, director Raoul Peck envisions the book James Baldwin never finished – a radical narration about race in America, using the writer’s original words. He draws upon James Baldwin’s notes on the lives and assassinations of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. to explore and bring a fresh and radical perspective to the current racial narrative in America.
“One of the best movies you are likely to see this year.”
– Manohla Dargis, The New York Times
- Peter Bradshaw’s Guardian review here
Above: Young Radford/Darcus (left) and in later years (right)
The death, yesterday, of Darcus Howe, reminds us of just what an important figure he was. He was a follower of the Caribbean intellectual and Marxist CLR James (to whom he was in fact related), and also a British advocate of the Black Panther movement. Later, of course, he gained fame as an affable but still sharp and highly political TV presenter (‘The Devil’s Advocate’, etc), who memorably and with great humour once took on Bernard Manning (!) … and ended up befriending him.
The trial of the nine arguably represents a high point of the Black Panther movement in the UK, showing the power of black activism and the institutionalised police prejudice. But what prompted the backlash of black British people against the police, leading to a virtual show trial at the Old Bailey?
The Mangrove restaurant in Notting Hill opened in March 1968, and quickly become a centre for the black community, attracting intellectuals, creatives and campaigners.
The restaurant was repeatedly raided by police. Although the raids were carried out on the basis of drug possession, drugs were never found and Mangrove owner Crichlow’s anti-drugs stance was well known.
In response the black community and allies took to the streets to protest on 9 August 1970. The demonstration was organised by a small group from The Action Committee for the Defence of the Mangrove and the (British) Black Panthers. This included Frank Crichlow, Darcus (aka Radford) Howe and barrister Anthony Mohipp, secretary of the Black Improvement Organisation.
The protesters were met with a disproportionate police response: There were 150 demonstrators at the beginning of the march accompanied by 200 police.
The police claimed in court that the Black Power movement was implicated in planning and inciting a riot.
Later a Home Office commissioned report from the Community Relations Commission concluded that contrary to the police reports, the violence was not initiated by the marchers but by the police themselves.
The Trial of the Mangrove Nine by Constance Lever, Workers Fight (forunner of Workers Liberty), January 1972
The Old Bailey trial of the Mangrove Nine in 1971 took the fight of Notting Hill’s black community against police harassment right into the nerve-centre of the British legal system.
With the unexpected help of a mainly white, working class jury, the Nine won a partial victory: they were cleared of 25 out of 31 charges — including the serious ones of riot and causing grievous bodily harm. 5 were acquitted and 4 got suspended sentences.
In June and July 1970 the Mangrove Restaurant was raided nine times by the police, supposedly looking for drugs, which they never found. Its licence to stay open after 11pm was revoked when the police lodged an objection. Thereafter, those who ran it were repeatedly dragged into court and accused of serving food after hours.
On 9 August 1970 local black people marched in protest at this police harassment.. Without “provocation” police baton-charged the march. Naturally the marchers fought back. The charges — which were later insisted upon by higher police authorities — arose from this battle.
The harassment by the police bully boys is not accidental. The police must protect the private property system of the wealthy against its victims. To forestall trouble they tend to pick most on those who stand out, who have the rawest deal, and try to terrorise them into submission.
The Mangrove was a community restaurant, one of a network of community organisations. The restaurant and its clientele were harassed so as to stamp out a centre of black consciousness.
The trial itself was not quite what the police had bargained for. The accused turned the trial into an indictment of the police and the system. Three of them, Darcus Howe, Rhodan Gordon and Althea Lecointe, conducted their own defence. They all refused to shut up when told to and rejected the judge’s rulings that statements about police brutality in Notting Hill were irrelevant.
The Mangrove Nine refused to behave as individuals charged with crimes, unsure and apologetic, but acted instead as representatives of a militant black community challenging police and court intimidation. And their community backed them up: every day of the 49-day trial they packed the public gallery to give solidarity.
With these tactics they broke through the hidebound ritual of court procedure and managed to actually talk about their lives and experiences and about their conflict with the police, to the ordinary men and women of the jury.
A majority of the Mangrove jury were workers, and only two of the 11 were black. It is known that the jury divided along class lines, with the middle class members inclined to believe the police and favouring conviction. It seems that some of the workers knew better and simply decided the police were liars. Eventually they compromised on the basis of agreement on acquittal on the most serious charges.
And when the trial ended, 7 jurors joined the Nine to spend 3 hours chatting and drinking like old friends long kept apart.
But only partial victories can be won in the courts. The police and the state retaliate. Within 24 hours of hism acquittal, Rhodan Gordon was rearrested on charges of obstructing and assaulting the police.
What is needed is a drive to mobilise the active support of the labour movement for the struggles of black people. It would be pointless and stupid to deny the widespread racialist attitudes in the labour movement. It is the job of socialists to fight to break this down — not to pretend working class racism doesn’t exist.
It was fortunate for both jazz and the phonograph industry that the emergence of both co-incided: the improvisational music that is jazz was caught in its early days by the phonograph, and jazz repaid the industry a million times over in sales of music that owed its existence to early jazz.
It is generally accepted that the first jazz records were laid down in New York on February 26 , 1917. The band was the Original Dixieland Jazz (or “Jass”) Band from New Orleans, and the records were Livery Stable Blues and Dixie Jass Band One-Step, which were released as the two sides of a 78 rpm record on April 17, 1917 which became a top-seller (and maybe an early million-seller). So far, so good. But at this point, race enters the story and makes matters difficult.
Because the Original Dixieland Jazz Band (or ODJB, as they are known in jazz history) were, indeed, from New Orleans – the recognised birthplace of jazz — but were white and achieved their success in New York. Jazz is, in its origins at least, primarily Afro-American, so surely the fact that the first jazz records were made by five white guys is a practical demonstration of racism, even in the foremost art-form developed by Afro Americans?
Well, maybe: but even disregarding the (unsubstantiated) legend that the black/creole trumpeter Freddy Keppard turned down a recording deal (on the grounds that rivals would steal his stuff) in 1916, before the ODJB recorded, there is no evidence that the Victor Talking Machine Company was motivated by racism when it recorded the ODJB, rather than a black band, for the first time. Where racism does come into the story is the reason the ODJB was such a sensation in New York in the first place. After all, James Reese Europe’s (black) orchestrated ragtime group and Bill Johnson’s Original Creole Band (featuring Keppard), which by all accounts was playing very similar music to the ODJB’s, had both already played New York but not achieved the success that came the way of the ODJB. Gunther Schuller, in his book Early Jazz, offers various explanations before concluding: “Finally, the color lines were undoubtedly still drawn so clearly as to make similar success for a comparable Negro group impossible.”
The spurious race issue has been further exacerbated by preposterous rants over the years from the ODJB leader and trumpet/cornetist Nick La Rocca, claiming that he and the ODJB had “invented” jazz and that black musicians had stolen from them: La Rocca’s racism (or, maybe, to be charitable, bitterness from a Sicilian who was himself the victim of prejudice), has antagonised jazz lovers ever since, and contributed to a general consensus in which the ODJB are down-graded as little more than a novelty act who struck lucky (mainly by dint of being white) and happened to make the first (supposed) jazz records.
Philip Larkin, not often cited as an anti-racist, wrote this about La Rocca’s claims (as repeated uncritically in The Story Of The Original Dixieland Jazz Band, by H.O.Brunn): “Mr Brunn’s thesis that the ODJB ‘invented’ jazz out of a kind of instrumental ragtime is put forward mainly by the staggering trick of completely omitting all reference to contemporary Negro New Orleansperformers such as Bolden, Oliver, Bunk Johnson or Keppard. No reader of this book would suspect that the Negroes had anything to do with jazz at all. Can this be the official Southern view?”
So was the ODJB actually any good, and are its records (still widely available on LP and CD) worth listening to? I have to admit that I can only listen to the ODJB as an exercise in musical archaeology – something that I wouldn’t say about King Oliver’s Creole Band, Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers, Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Sevens, or, indeed, the white New Orleans Rhythm Kings who started recording in 1923 – all these early bands sound fresh and exciting in a way that the novelty-effects and stiff rhythm of the ODJB simply does not (though the Victor records they made in the course of a brief 1936 re-union are a considerable improvement).
And yet … the ODJB was made up of good musicians. Clarinettist Larry Shields was a fine and surprisingly sensitive player, who influenced Benny Goodman and was respected by black and creole contemporaries, while drummer Tony Sparbaro (later Spargo) was a top-rank percussionist who could hold his own alongside the best black drummers of the day (he was also the only member of the original ODJB lineup to say active in jazz after the demise of the group in 1924: he was still playing and recording in the late 50’s). Even the much-scorned La Rocca can lay claim to having influenced the great Bix Beiderbeck; as Richard M. Sudhalter (in his monumental account of white jazz, Lost Chords) writes: “Visiting Bix in 1931, his old friend Dick Turner found him bitter and disillusioned, complaining that life had passed him by, that there was no one on whom he could depend – and that hot music held no further charms for him. ‘Hell,’ he told Turner, ‘there are only two musicians I’d go across the road to hear now, that’s Louis and La Rocca’.”
And talking of the great Armstrong, it’s worth remembering that his early record collection included discs by Caruso, Al Jolson … and the ODJB, whose Tiger Rag made a lasting impression on the young man and was part of his repertoire throughout his career. Louis even went so far as to state (in his first real autobiography Satchmo): “Between you and me it’s still the best” (ie the ODJB version of the tune).
Probably the fairest assessment of the ODJB comes from Gunther Schuller, in Early Jazz: “Still, in a balanced assessment of the ODJB, its best recordings, like Sensation Rag, Clarinet Marmalade, Dixie Jazz Band One Step and Livery Stable Blues, were an infuriating mixture of bad and good, of tasteless vulgarity and good musical intuitions. But beyond the music the ODJB left behind, it held, for better or worse, a crucial place in the formative period of jazz. It fulfilled the role in a manner that was not altogether unworthy.”
Surviving ODJB members Spargo and Edwards on a TV show in Sept 1960
Guest post by Robin Carmody
In response to the letter to the Morning Star (a paper which is, ultimately, little more than the Daily Mail with the ending changed; it peddles the same populist Europhobic nationalism, uses the same pejoratives for its opponents and is just as great an apologist for censorship in theory, and quite possibly more so in practice) which I suspect was written wholly if not entirely by David Lindsay, and which has Neil Clark and George Galloway among its signatories, I am reminded again that whether or not people support universal public funding of the whole BBC – and not just those parts of it considered “100% British” by Daily Telegraph letter-writers and “not sufficiently lucrative” by Rupert Murdoch – is, over and over again, a litmus test for their other views.
(In saying this, I am burning out elements of myself; at various points in my life, a significant traditional-conservative streak has surfaced).
Lindsay, it should always be remembered, believes that the BBC should be funded by an increased but voluntary licence fee (interestingly, considering his endorsement by many as an anti-racist icon, Gary Lineker also thinks this) and should not do Radio 1, 1Xtra etc. In other words, he thinks it should become a long-shadows-on-county-grounds heritage broadcaster, and that petty-racist whingers should be conceded all the ground in the world (even more than they have already, which in itself is far too much) and should define what the broadcaster does entirely on their terms, not on the terms of the whole nation. His plan would be a wet dream to those who resent the fact that the music of the post-1980 black Atlantic is funded on their money and they can’t opt out of it.
Clark, similarly, has endlessly moaned and whinged about hip-hop and its tributaries in Mail-esque language, and has attracted people with similar views, one of whom once told me that I was “a cell in the cancer that killed the Left” because I said he should not have moaned about it in such a way, referred to “the Ecclesiastical Court of the Liberal-Left Inquisition” (language that even the most lurid Mail Online commenter would have been hard-pressed to dream up, and note again that he is using identical pejoratives, identical terms of attack) and accused me of “sanctimonious yoof bigotry” – both a dehumanising Mail-esque spelling and a refusal to acknowledge the fact that he might not even be right on those horrible terms, because many of his opponents are now in their forties and do not like current rap-based music at all.
It’s not hard to see the connection between such attitudes and their apparent endorsement – however qualified – of someone who clearly thinks (and many of whose supporters blatantly, unequivocally, unapologetically think – I knew Obama would inspire a backlash but I never dreamt it would be this bad, and I certainly never dreamt that anti-Semitism in the United States, as opposed to anti-Muslim bigotry in Western countries or anti-Semitism in, say, Poland, would be mainstreamed again in this way; I thought the Jewish influence and presence was far too integrated into the mainstream of American culture and society for that) that the people who invented hip-hop, and continue largely to produce it, aren’t really American.
When people de-Anglicise the very concept and the very form of expression – and, by implication, the people – in such a way, their endorsement of those who dispute its American-ness can hardly be considered surprising. It justifies all my previous doubts and warnings as practically nothing else could have.
Cecil Bustamente Campbell: musician, producer and originator of Ska. Born 24 May 1938; died 8 September 2016
One Step Beyond … and memories of my party-going days …
RIP Prince Buster
Muhammad Ali has lost his last fight, but he went down with the courage that characterised his entire life. He is now mourned and celebrated as the athlete of the century and a hero by the media and politicians in the United States and throughout the world – very often the same people who in the 1960s and ’70s villified him for his opposition to the Vietnam war and for his radical black politics. He died a celebrity, and he richly deserved his fame. But it is a bad habit of our age merely to celebrate celebrity.The late Mike Marqusee‘s Redemption Song (Verso, 1999) is by far the best book dealing with Ali’s social and political significance. Marquesee wrote:
We should look at how his celebrity was established and what it means. And I do not believe that his fame rests only on what he achieved in the ring – although if you are a sports fan you have to be awed by that. More important was what he achieved outside the ring.
We must re-insert Ali in his historical context, and that means principally his relationship to the great social movements of the 1960s. The young Cassius Clay was very much a typical patriotic, Cold War chauvinist. Representing the US in the Rome Olympics of 1960, at the age of 18, he won a gold medal in the Light Heavyweight division. And to commemorate the victory he published his first poem:
To make America the greatest is my goal,
So I beat the Russian, and I beat the Pole.
And for the USA I won the medal of Gold.
A crude start for someone who would travel a long way in the next few years. The key to understanding Ali’s movement away from this unexamined national chauvinism is the impact of the civil rights movement of the first half of the 1960s. In the years between 1960 and 1965, hundreds of thousands of young black people from precisely Muhammad Ali’s background – from working class homes in Southern American cities – took to the streets to challenge Jim Crow, America’s version of Apartheid, and to challenge a century of institutionalised racism of a type we can barely imagine today.
At one point it was estimated that 60% of all black college students from across the South were directly involved in this mass movement. And a terrible price was paid – some were murdered, many were beaten, huge numbers were arrested. It was one of the great battles of our era. Ali was driven by the same social forces which drove his contemporaries into the streets; but he was driven in a different direction. His response to all-pervasive racism was different because – after his Olympic triumph – he met the Nation of Islam (NoI) in the streets of Miami.
Over the next few years, as a promising Heavyweight contender, travelling around the country, fighting his way up the ladder, looking for a title shot, he met many more Muslims. Most famously he met Malcolm X and formed a friendship with him. Through the NoI, this young, quite uneducated man encountered the tradition of black nationalism whose origins go back to the beginnings of the twentieth century and which flourished under Marcus Garvey. Black nationalism had enjoyed a kind of underground existence up to this point and when Cassius Clay encountered the NoI in the early ’60s it was the longest standing, wealthiest, best-organised black nationalist organisation in America (albeit a nationalism of a peculiar kind). Clay kept his interest in the NoI secret – if it had become public he would never have become the Heavyweight champion, he would never have had a chance to face Sonny Liston in the ring and we would not be discussing him today.
He got a title shot in 1964, in Miami, against Liston, who was said to be unbeatable. To the world’s surprise, at the age of 22, Cassius Clay did beat Sonny Liston and became the World Heavyweight champion. Instead of going to a big party at a luxury downtown hotel, as was expected of newly-crowned champions, Cassius Clay went back to the black motel, in the black area of Miami – at that time, effectively a segregated city – and had a quiet evening, without any drink, discussing what he would do with the title he had just won, with his friends, Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, the great gospel and R&B singer, and Jim Brown, a famous US football player who later became an actor. The next morning, after these discussions, Cassius Clay met the press – which in those days was exclusively white and male – and told them, “I don’t have to be what you want me to be, I’m free to be what I want.” In retrospect that doesn’t sound like a big deal, but, at the time it was earthshaking. Firstly because sportstars, and particularly young black sportstars, were expected to be what they were told to be; secondly because what Cassius Clay wanted to be was a public member of the NoI – probably the most reviled organisation in America at the time. And at his side was Malcolm X – probably the most reviled individual in the US at the time. In announcing his embrace of the NoI Cassius Clay was repudiating Christianity, in a predominately Christian country, at a time when Islam was an exotic and little know faith in America. He was repudiating the integrationist racial agenda, in favour of a separatist agenda, at a time when the Civil Rights movement, led by Martin Luther King, for whom “integrationism” was a central shibboleth, was at the height of its prestige and power. So Cassius Clay angered both the white and the black liberals – and, most importantly, he was repudiating his American national identity in favour of another national identity, that of a member of the Nation of Islam, a nation whose borders had nothing to do with the borders of the US.
Up till this time, no black sports star or celebrity had attempted to do or say anything like this without being crushed – as had Paul Robeson and WEB DuBois in an earlier generation. This stand was widely seen as a terrible tragedy for the young fighter. After all, he had the world at his feet and here he was, embracing an unpopular cause, thereby narrowing down his appeal. Or so it was thought. The reality is that by joining the NoI and redefining who he was, Clay was walking into a new world – ultimately presenting himself to an international constituency – which changed what he meant to people all over the world and which changed his destiny inside and outside the ring.
Shortly after the fight he went to New York and was seen everywhere with Malcolm X. But only a week later Malcolm X announced his departure from the NoI, his famous break with Elija Muhammad. Ali chose to stick with the NoI, and renounced his friendship with Malcolm. Why Cassius Clay did this is an interesting question. Malcolm was moving in a more political direction, away from the conservative and quietistic side of the NoI, towards a direct battle against racism. Ali – who had just been renamed as Ali by Elija Muhammad – was looking for a refuge from racism, and that was what he had found in the NoI. Ali was, ironically, trying to avoid political engagement by sticking to close to the NoI and staying away from Malcolm.
But the 1960s did not allow Ali the luxury of avoiding politics. As the years went by he was drawn deeper into political controversy. Ali went to Africa in 1964, at a time when no American sportstar – of any colour – had even noticed that continent’s existence. He went to Ghana where he was greeted by the President, Kwame Nkrumah, famous anti-colonialist and founder Pan African movement. Nkrumah was the first head of state to shake Ali’s hand. It was to be another eleven years before a US President would deign to shake Ali’s hand (since then, of course, they all want to shake his hand). In Ghana tens of thousands poured out to welcome Ali. They chanted his new name. Observers on this trip say that this was the moment Cassius Clay really became Muhammad Ali. Why did so many Ghanaians came to greet him – after all very few spoke English, almost none had access to a television? Why did they come to see Ali? First, boxing was popular there.
The Heavyweight championship of the world was a pretty transparent idea and people were pleased that such an eminent figure had recognised their newly independent country. More importantly, Ali was a an African American world champ who had repudiated his American identity and taken on an Islamic name and embraced his African patrimony. The Ghanaian masses knew that this was something new and exciting. They understood the meaning of this transformation long before it became apparent to American commentators.
The impact of this trip on Ali was tremendous. It was during this trip that Ali came to understand that he was accountable to a broader, international constituency, a constituency of the oppressed, and this new sense of accountability was to guide him over the next turbulent decade.
The test of his new identity came over Vietnam. By early 1966, the US was finding it difficult to impose its will on the Vietnamese and the draft call was expanded; the Heavyweight champion of the world was reclassified as 1A, eligible for military service. Ali was told the news at a training camp in Miami and, badgered all day by the press, he came out with the line: “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.” It may have been a spontaneous remark, but he stuck to it over the following years and even turned it into a poem:
Keep asking me, no matter how long,
On the war in Vietnam, I’ll still sing this song:
I ain’t got no quarrel with no Viet Cong.
At the time the critics asked: what does Muhammad Ali know about Vietnam? Read the rest of this entry »
Things have been a bit depressing for many of us lately, so let me bring a little bit of joy into your lives, courtesy Thomas ‘Fats’ Waller, who was born this day in New York, 1904.
Here is the “Harmful Little Armful” himself in the 1943 film Stormy Weather, also featuring drummer Zutty Singleton, bassist Slam Stewart, Benny Carter on trumpet, Lena Horne and dancer Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson.
Fats died shortly after this was filmed, but you’d never for a moment guess that from the sheer joie de vivre of this performance of his own most famous tune:
Above: trailer for the 1961 film version
Review by Jean Lane (also published in the current issue of Solidarity):
A Raisin in the Sun was written in 1959 by Lorraine Hansberry (1930-1965), the first black woman to have a play performed on Broadway and the inspiration behind Nina Simone’s ‘Young Gifted and Black’.
The play is set in an overcrowded Chicago slum apartment just before the emergence of the civil rights movement. The Youngers, a working class family comprising of grandmother Nena (Mama), her son Walter with his wife Ruth and child Travis, and Walter’s sister, Beneatha, are about to come into an insurance pay-out of $10,000, after the death of Nina’s husband. The potential opportunities that come with it, cause tension.
Walter wants to use the money to realise his dream of self-advancement by investing, along with his old street friends, in a liquor store business. His sister, Beneatha, is studying to become a doctor. She is experimenting with radical ideas new to her family such as atheism. She berates one boyfriend for his assimilation into white culture and is being drawn by another, a Nigerian medical student, into the ideas of black nationalism and anti-colonial independence.
Arguments over the money and the cramped conditions of the Youngers’ lives are exacerbated when Ruth discovers that she is two months pregnant. Her relationship with Walter reaches breaking point when Lena refuses to fund the liquor store idea. Instead, Lena puts a deposit down on a larger house in a solidly white neighbourhood. Eventually Lena relents and gives the rest of the money to Walter to use as he sees fit, with the proviso that he keeps back enough of it to pay for his sister’s education.
A representative of the white neighbourhood, Karl Linder, turns up with the message that they would far rather the Youngers did not move in as they would not fit in, and offers to buy the house from them. With righteous indignation from the family, Linder is sent packing by a Walter now imbued with a sense of confidence, as a young up and coming business man. However, Walter’s friend, Willy, runs off with all the money including that for Benathea’s education. Walter’s chance to prove himself a man deserving of respect again seems far away. To the horror of the three women in his life, he contemplates taking the money from the white man who says that they are not good enough to be his neighbours.
The dashing of the family’s dreams of a better life are reflected in Benathea’s loss of confidence in an independent future for black people. She asserts that nationalism is a lost cause which can only lead to the swapping of white masters for black. Walter finally proves himself to be a man in Lena’s eyes by telling the white man where to go with his money and the family prepare to move into their new home. The play ends leaving the audience aware that many of their troubles as a black family in 1950s America have only just begun.
The title for the play is taken from a poem by Langston Hughes:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore – And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over – like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags Like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
All the emotions expressed in the poem are there in the play, in this production, directed by Dawn Walton, and electrically so. All the political ideas of identity, racism, gender roles and social consciousness are brought refreshingly within the sphere of working-class life.
• The play is on tour around Britain ending in Coventry on 28 March.
From And Still I Rise, by Maya Angelou ,1978.
Source: The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou (Random House Inc., 1994)
…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