Night Lights Classic Jazz

To Dig Or Not To Dig: Jazz And Hip With Phil Ford

The notion of hip has been at the heart of American counterculture since the 1940s, and it’s often included jazz as part of its soundtrack.

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The dustjacket for Phil Ford's book DIG.

Photo: Book cover art

Going underground: Phil Ford unearths the elements of hip culture in his new book DIG.

What is hip? A way of moving? A way of dressing? A way of listening and speaking? A way of thinking? Well, a lot of people might say the answer is the same one that Louis Armstrong supposedly gave when he was asked what jazz is: “Man, if you have to ask, you’ll never know.” On this edition of Night Lights, we’ll investigate the question with musicologist Phil Ford, whose recent book Dig: Sound And Music In Hip Culture explores the highways and byways of the 20th-century American underground, and its eventual assimilation into the cultural mainstream.

Ford traces the origins of hip back to African-American street culture of the 1930s and musician Mezz Mezzrow’s 1946 autobiography Really The Blues. He follows its subterranean passage up into the nascent Beat culture of the late 1940s and the jazz scene of the 1950s, and its absorption into the bright psychedelic light of the 1960s. He also examines the concept of practice, embodied in the life of composer John Benson Brooks, and the guiding jazz principle of improvisation. “In a way,” Ford says, “what this book really is about is an attempt to think of human life in improvisational terms.”

“To Dig Or Not To Dig” features music from Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Lennie Tristano, and others, spoken-word performances by Jack Kerouac and Ken Nordine, and selections from obscure musical hipster tracts such as Fred Katz’s “Zen” and John Benson Brooks’ pioneering sample-collage Avant Slant. Ford provides commentary along the way, decoding and illuminating the language and gestures of hip.

Keep Digging: Further Conversations With Phil Ford

Previous Phil Ford Appearances On Night Lights

Music Heard On This Episode

I'm Hip
Dave Frishberg — Frishberg Classics (Concord, 1991)
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I'm Hip
Dave Frishberg — Frishberg Classics (Concord, 1991)

Notes: 10:01 p.m.

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Basic Hip
Del Close — The Beat Generation (Rhino/WEA, 1992)

Notes: 10:04 p.m.

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The Man From Harlem
Cab Calloway — The Early Years: 1930-34 (JSP, 2001)

Notes: 10:08 p.m.

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Misterioso
Thelonious Monk/Milt Jackson — Wizard Of The Vibes (Blue Note, 2001)

Notes: 10:13 p.m.

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Ornithology
Charlie Parker — Complete Savoy and Dial Master Takes (Savoy, 2002)

Notes: 10:17 p.m.

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Intuition
Lennie Tristano — Intuition (Blue Note, 1996)

Notes: 10:23 p.m.

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San Francisco Scene
Jack Kerouac — Beat Generation (Rhino, 1992)

Notes: 10:28 p.m.

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I Should Care (midpoint music bed)
Thelonious Monk/Milt Jackson — Wizard Of The Vibes (Blue Note, 2001)

Notes: 10:32 p.m.

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So What (excerpt)
Miles Davis — Kind Of Blue (Sony, 2000)

Notes: 10:34 p.m.

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Zen (from Suite For Horn)
Chico Hamilton/Fred Katz

Notes: 10:38 p.m.

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Sound Museum (excerpt)
Ken Nordine — Best Of Word Jazz V. 1 (Rhino, 1990)

Notes: 10:43 p.m.

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Ballad Of The Sad Young Men
Cast — The Nervous Set (DRG, 2002)

Notes: 10:49 p.m.

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Avant Slant (excerpt)
John Benson Brooks — Avant Slant (Decca, 1968)

Notes: 10:56 p.m.

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David Brent Johnson

Born in Indianapolis, Indiana, David Brent Johnson moved to Bloomington in 1991. He is an alumnus of Indiana University, and began working with WFIU in 2002. Currently, David serves as jazz producer and systems coordinator at the station. His interests include literature, history, music, writing, and movies.

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  • slowdream101

    Fascinating, keep up the good work

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