Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Jumpin' at the Woodside

Rediscovered this gem from the Count Basie Orchestra after reading about the legendary band in Baraka's Blues People. Baraka stresses the use of riffs and the rhythmic innovations of Basie in advancing jazz outside of the confines of the commercialized big band sound of the Swing Era. Basie, in a sense, becomes a reassertion of the Black roots of swing in an era when it was diluted by the mainstream bands. There is an impeccable swing in Basie's music, as well as an obvious nod to the blues, so one can see why Baraka thought the way he did. 

Monday, January 20, 2020

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Blues People: Negro Music in White America

Amiri Baraka's Blues People is a fascinating read on the socio-cultural context of African American music as it pertains to the place of Black Americans in US society. While mostly centered on the blues, the text examines Black music from its African origins and the shouts, hollers, and spirituals of pre-Emancipation to the avant-garde jazz of the 1960s. While it owes much to its era and the impact of Herskovits can be strongly detected in the early chapters, it shows how the Afro-American developed a distinct music in their American context. So, regardless of how one feels about the accuracy of claims of African origin or retention, Baraka, like Gunther Schuller, presents a plausible theory of the ways in which the African past lingers in Black music.

It's an ambitious work that relies on a paradigm of double consciousness as seen in music, as well as certain sociological assumptions or conclusions about social stratification of Blacks and the question of assimilation in relation to the evolution of musical styles. Personally, I find Baraka's dismissal of ragtime problematic (ragtime's more serious composers and performers did look to African American folk traditions, not just marches or the American popular song) , as well as some of the assumptions about the black middle-class as devotees of assimilation (perhaps a result of his reliance on the seminal study of Frazier), but he is generally quite persuasive. Some may take issue with his attitudes on the literature of the Harlem Renaissance and gender dynamics in Black America, too.

The "blues continuum" concept for understanding Black music after the rise of radio and "race records" is an interesting way of understanding the continued links connecting country blues, urban blues, jazz, and R&B, not to mention the reaction and counterreactions that characterize the rise of of bebop, R&B, and avant-garde jazz. The cleavage between the Black masses and the bourgeoisie of the race are also interesting dynamics to consider in terms of the transformation of jazz in the 1920s and 1930s. Gunther Schuller's study of jazz includes some of these insights, but not quite in as forceful a manner as that of Jones, although the former certainly includes greater musicological insight and analysis.

Baraka brings to the table a deeper understanding of the blues as it pertains to African American culture and identity than Schuller, however. He also demonstrates why it is that jazz in particular, of all the blues-influenced forms of Black music, could appeal so widely and become flexible enough to absorb all kinds of influences so that whites and middle-class blacks could become innovative in it. For that reason, Blues People should continue to be read as a study of music as a way of understanding Black America and the social context of its music. Jazz aficionados have much to learn from this, in spite of its shortcomings. 

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Chicago Breakdown

An excellent band consisting of Earl Hines and Louis Armstrong playing Jelly Roll Morton's "Chicago Breakdown." The two seem to push each other to greater heights, perhaps a glimpse of the best of 1920s jazz in Chicago. 

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Fats Waller: This Joint Is Jumping

This short documentary includes some very informative interviews with the son of Fats Waller and others who knew the jazz musician well. Born in New York, he mastered the stride piano style of the 1920s, part of the trio of great New York stride pianists of the decade (Willie the Lion Smith, James P. Johnson, and Waller). Although much of his appeal seems to be due to his playful performance style and persona, he has left jazz a few unforgettable standards. "Jitterbug Waltz" is a personal favorite. 

Tuesday, January 14, 2020


After finally reading the libretto for Scott Joplin's opera, Treemonisha, one can see the limitations of Joplin's attempt to create an opera entirely on his own. Joplin wrote the libretto and score, and while the music is fantastic, the actual story is quite thin. In short, one year after the US Civil War, an infant Treemonisha is found under a tree at a plantation managed by Ned and Monisha, who adopt the child as their own. Fast forward several years later, and Treemonisha is the only educated person in her isolated, all-black community (she is also the only one who does not speak in "dialect"). Conjure men, who prey on the ignorance and superstition of the community, peddle their magic wares and, after Treemonisha stands up to them, kidnap her. 

She is saved by Remus, a man she taught, who dons a scarecrow costume to frighten the conjurers just as they're about to throw Treemonisha into a wasp's nest in the forest. The rest of the men in Treemonisha's community capture the conjurers, and just as their about to punish them, Treemonisha persuades them to not beat or kill them. She forgives Zodzetrick and his cohort, and the community nominates her as a leader. This is basically all that happens, with the exception of some musical scenes featuring a ring shout, Parson Alltalk (just talking, an ineffective figure in the community), corn huskers, cotton pickers, and miscellaneous additional scenes. Some of these appear to have no relevance to the plot, but they provide opportunities for songs and dances associated with black folk culture in the South.

Alexander Berlin's biography of Joplin suggests the character of Treemonisha or at least her surroundings were inspired by one of his wives, Freddie. Berlin and Rick Benjamin contextualize the opera in the context of Joplin's exposure to classical music, black musical ambitions of the era, and the political message of Treemonisha. Intriguingly, the opera is critical of organized religion as represented by Parson Alltalk, although Treemonisha is a deist of sorts. Obviously critical of the conjure men, who are inexplicably frightened of a man dressed as a scarecrow, Joplin seems to reject African-derived religious or folk traditions and the organized black church while suggesting rational, assimilation of Western education would lead the black community onward in progress. 

Yet, Joplin seems to enjoy drawing on black folk music and ragtime, incorporated into the opera. The Negro, it would seem, should embrace the best of Western knowledge but retain traditions into the future, creating a distinctly black art aesthetic that can stand beside Wagner, Dvorak, or Verdi. To reach that lofty goal, however, required leadership by the educated of the race, including women, like Treemonisha. As a "Black Athena" of her community, she will become the spark for general education and uplift of their Arkansas plantation. Of course, Treemonisha's mysterious appearance suggests mystical, supernatural conditions of the "insider-outsider" who can lead her community out of darkness and isolation. It would be interesting to compare this opera with Freeman's Voodoo.

Monday, January 13, 2020

Mournful Serenade

Jelly Roll Morton's "Mournful Serenade" sounds eerily similar to Duke Ellington's "Mood Indigo," an excellent example of the blues informing Ellington's tonal jazz compositions. Morton's number, of course is more obviously rooted in the blues with growling trombone and the New Orleans sound.