Saturday, November 12, 2016

God Loves Black Sound

A Great Day in Harlem indeed!
Now, I'm not trying to advance some racially-motivated proposition about what's real jazz or not jazz because I'm just not interested in that argument. The reality is – lots of great American Music has come from black, white, hispanic, asian and everybody in the mix of the great diverse democratic experiment we call the United States. Every ethnicity has contributed – even continental Europeans! I am thinking of the great jazz musician Josef Zawinul in this case. Sometimes the people outside the US have a more advanced appreciation of our art form than “we” do. But, of course, we're all “WE” in the larger sense of the word. I don't like categories much. Or labels. Except on food products maybe – in that case I want to know what's in that can!

Anyway, one of the great musicians of the 20th century who hated labels made the proposition I borrowed for the title of this post. That would be Rahsaan Roland Kirk. 
 I wish I could say I got to see and hear him live, but I was too young to have that chance before he left the planet at the (younger than me now) age of 42 in 1977. Having listened to and enjoyed his music since I was a teen-ager I am amazed by what he accomplished in his short life. His sheer intensity of being comes rocketing out from every recording he ever made. There is no wasted time on a Rahsaan album. For those who want to know more, there are currently two good sources (with a third on the way):
  1. John Kruth's biography “Bright Moments” and
  2. A new documentary film “The Case of the Three-Sided Dream” by Adam Kahan 
The third I alluded to is a new scholarly biography that has been an ongoing labor of love from writer May Cobb. Check her blog here:

The other night I was listening to one of Rahsaan's less-heralded albums – his last for Atlantic Records: Other Folks' Music. I really wanted to hear the one original compositon of his on the album called “Water For Robeson and Williams” which is the leadoff track, but like most vinyl adventures I kept the platter spinning. There are beautiful versions of other writers' compositions here in a very straight-ahead bag that any lover of true music can dig. 
 I was thinking of how, if Rahsaan had lived, what would he be doing musically? His life's work of pushing boundaries in music, while cutting edge in the 60s and 70s, would fall out of fashion, at least in the commercial sense by the 80s into the present. Would Rahsaan have decided to make some coin playing to squares with some smooth jazz? I kinda doubt that. Yet, I think he would have been the perfect person to bridge those worlds between “smooth” and “cooking” jazz. I like to think he also would have been honored at the White House much in the way Sonny Rollins was not too long ago. It would have been an appropriate gesture.

Before Rahsaan I was listening to Lee Morgan's first four albums as a leader – at the tender age of 17 and 18! Lee Morgan would be one of the most prolific musicians in his also short life (murdered in 1972 at the age of 33!). Morgan was also a co-conspirator of Rahsaan's in the legendary “Jazz and People's Movement”. 
  Unfortunately, Morgan's musical brilliance was tempered by his notoriety as a tough person to get along with. He certainly isn't alone in that club – it's big one. And that got me to thinking too – what is it with musicians and artists who can produce such beautiful heartfelt work yet be hard on those around them in their personal lives? I don't see it as an excuse, but I think artists like Lee Morgan, if they work at it, can reach such fantastic heights of expression in their art that it is impossible for average, day to day relationships to run smoothly since it takes a different kind of energy to maintain them. Add to that any critical appreciation for the art in question and how could any human relationship hope to compete with something like that? In other words – artists can easily fall in love with their art since it delivers in ways most normal human relationships simply can't. Or, when artists spend all their energy on developing their art, that is energy and time taken away from the (always considerable) energy used to maintain a healthy relationship – even with non-significant others!
 Now, though I have an abiding love for jazz, the title of the post looks beyond even this (quite diverse) category. The contributions of African and African-descended peoples all over the world to all the genres of music is a well-documented fact. It pains me when some uninformed folks neglect to seek beyond the kinds of musical figures that get more media attention, even today! I think it is still true that saxophonist Kenny G. holds the “official” Guinness Book record for holding a note on his instrument (via the technique of “circular breathing”). Yet, Rahsaan Roland Kirk performed a much longer held note back in the 1970s – I spoke directly with one eyewitness to this event who confirmed its happening. And the Guinness Book people snubbed Rahsaan back in those days. Indeed, the goal of the “Jazz and People's Movement” mentioned above was to get not just more jazz on television, but more African-American performers of all genres of music on television in general. Now, of course, this was in the times of the three major networks and a handful of local channels in any given market across the country. This was well before cable TV and BET and what we have access to today. (Is this why we have such obvious political division in the US for the last 25 or so years? More choices – less “mass” culture? Just a thought.)

The reality is – blues, soul, jazz – these are the bedrock ingredients to American Music. Without these contributions there is an absence of authenticity – at least in terms of identifying what American Music is. The beautiful flowering of sophisticated artistry from these streams of creativity has been preserved from the most primitive-sounding 78 rpm discs to the so-called “disposable” 45 rpm “singles” - mainly on compact disc and digital downloads. Yet, finding original LPs in good condition from the 1950s through the 1970s can be a challenge since folks PLAYED the records because they had GOOD MUSIC in those grooves. In what I can only figure to have been a purge of some sort I hit THE MOTHERLODE at a local thrift store a few months ago. There were piles of great blues, jazz, soul and folk music – I broke into a sweat because I knew I would have to walk out with an armload and I DID! Finding this stuff in any condition is tough, but these must have come from someone who loved the music and took care of their records too. Here's a sampling of what came in the door:

 Too many great albums to critique here. Honestly, I could only advise anyone who chances upon such an opportunity to acquire records of this stature for not a lot of money to do so without hesitation. Of course, there are some favorites I've played so far. Even though I'd only heard the popular hits from Etta James before, hearing entire albums convinced me of her greatness even further. Why she isn't thought of in the same league as Ray Charles (maybe if she'd done some Pepsi commercials?) I can't fathom.

But hey – don't take it from me. I'm nobody, really. Instead, get a cup of coffee and sit down to listen to Phil Alvin from The Blasters. They once did a great song called “American Music” - and he tells the story in this clip and lots of others too about how much the blues and R&B still means to him. His enthusiasm is catchy! The love he feels for this music seems to be the animating force of his life's work. Listen to Uncle Phil!
 And here's a fine performance of The Blasters doing “American Music”. 
 There's more to come from the soul and R&B bag down the line. Until then........keep listening and seeking! Bright Moments!