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Suite History, Part 2: Michael McGerr On Black History And Jazz

More of the full-length Night Lights interview with historian Michael McGerr about extended jazz works that depict the history of black America.

Michael McGerrHistorian and Indiana University professor Michael McGerr is a man whose scholarly knowledge and personal enthusiasms are infectiously wedded. In Part 2 of this Night Lights interview, Michael talks about the influence of Duke Ellington’s ambitious Black, Brown and Beige suite and the civil-rights movement on later composers who undertook extended black musical histories as well. (You can read Part 1 here.) Michael is a guest on this week’s show, Suite History: Jazz Composers and the African-American Odyssey:

DBJ: What sort of precedent did Black, Brown and Beige set for other African-American jazz composers, going forward?

MM: Ellington made it much, much easier to write political music. Not right away—he did not have many companions. You can see music often as quite a copycat business—you know, just as in 1967 there were all these rock bands that wanted to do their own version of Sergeant Pepper…there are not many jazz musicians, certainly not many bandleaders in the 1940s and into the 1950s who were ready to assay what Ellington had done. And, at the same time, the civil-rights movement wasn’t quite there yet. There are very few recordings in the 1940s and early 1950s by jazz musicians that are willing to go out on the racial limb that Ellington had already gone out on repeatedly. But when the civil-rights movement really takes hold, progressively from the late 1940s down into the late 1950s, then you begin to see this influence. I often think of that Clark Terry piece, “Serenade to a Bus Seat,” about the Montgomery struggle and Rosa Parks. It’s one of the first moments where you see a jazz musician saying, “You know, I can play to this.” And then certainly you have people like Oliver Nelson and Afro-American Sketches who are inspired by that. But it’s interesting to me, the lag time… Ellington was way out in front, and you get the feeling that African-American musicians writing about civil rights by the early 1960s are reacting more than leading. Which is not a putdown of them…

DBJ: That’s really interesting, because speaking of Oliver Nelson’s Afro-American Sketches, that was composed and recorded in 1961, and according to his own liner notes, he entered the project reluctantly, and somewhat at the behest of Prestige’s A and R man—because, he said, he was “put off by the lack of honesty in a lot of Afro-jazz LPs on the market” at the time. But obviously, he had to have been thinking, I think, of Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige—it just seems to me that (it’s) almost like J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, you know, sort of this monumental text in its field—

MM: Absolutely.

DBJ: –that how could anybody writing in its wake not be aware of it, not—

MM: Sure. Oliver Nelson absolutely knew Black, Brown and Beige. In fact, one of his last albums, the title is a play on that—it’s Black, Brown and Beautiful. I think, in fact—for someone like Oliver Nelson, who really had aspirations as a composer and an arranger, who ultimately was more important, really, as a writer than as a player, Ellington was a tough act to follow. I do think in that sense Ellington was beyond category, and it was difficult to occupy that place. Nelson, interestingly, was an especially politically engaged man…was known for it, was closer to politics than musicians tended to be. He did that later album in 1967, The Kennedy Dream, which is an almost surprising choice in ’67, to be producing a tribute to a white politician. This is just, what, a year and a half away from James Brown doing “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud.” If I’m remembering correctly, Oliver Nelson did orchestrations for James Brown—

DBJ: Soul on Top.

MM: Yeah.

DBJ: A big-band album. And it’s (the Kennedy tribute) coming a year after the start of the black power movement. That is very interesting, because even though the Kennedys remained popular icons in the African-American community, yeah, that he would do an album for Kennedy…He did do an album, or a suite, for Martin Luther King later on, too, but it was after King had died.

MM: It’s too simplistic, but you almost get the feeling that jazz was not the official music of the civil-rights movement…that much social activism in the late 1950s and early 60s was instinctively centered around folk music and a kind of folk-blues tradition. And that’s why you have songs such as “We Shall Overcome,” which seems so emblematic of certainly what the King phase of the civil-rights movement was about. Jazz was surprisingly peripheral to that.

DBJ: Yeah, and then in the late 1960s it does seem like soul music supplants it to some extent.

MM: I think so. And again, it’s too simple—we’re talking in big building blocks here, but it’s more musically radical musicians, innovators such as Archie Shepp, free-jazz players who seem to be the ones who tap into Black Power more readily. Think of the Attica piece that Shepp did…

DBJ: Right, exactly.

MM: …and there are critics who argue that there’s a very close relationship between the radicalism of the black nationalist, black power movement on the one hand and what they saw as the revolution in jazz music, the free-jazz movement inspired by Coltrane and Albert Ayler and Archie Shepp…

DBJ: But you know, it’s interesting, because I don’t think that—the free-jazz movement, and I could be wrong here, I may be overlooking something … I can’t think off the top of my head of any of the free-jazz musicians attempting something similar to what Nelson and Ellington had done with Afro-American Sketches and–certainly they’re concerned with the same themes, but they don’t seem to be prepared to address it in that kind of a scope.

MM: I think that that’s true. Ellington and Nelson had a couple of advantages; one is musical, that they worked in forms—big-band, what would later be called mainstream music, more or less—that lent itself to longer themes, more ordered statements, to a kind of readily-heard coherence for an audience, that could make it possible to take a set of themes about black history or black activism and put them to music. Coltrane and his followers struggled with what form would be like in free jazz. When you think of that famous Coltrane record Ascension, which to some people is just two sides of cacophony on one LP record….so I think there are formal problems that the free-jazz movement had, but also I think there’s a matter of political temperament. Ellington and the civil-rights movement were trying to locate African-American civil rights in a long sweep of black history, whereas the black power movement , for all of its emphasis on an African past, emphasized the moment and confrontation in the here and now, in a way that was different—and I don’t think somehow lent itself to the same kind of long-term reflection that Ellington had sustained.

DBJ: There is one musician who’s somewhat associated with the 1960s free-jazz school, who later on subsequently undertakes a project that kind of eclipses Black, Brown and Beige in scope, and that’s John Carter. He did the Roots and Folklore: Episodes in the Development of American Folk Music suite, which he wrote and recorded throughout the 1980s. And it’s a five-album suite—I mean, it’s a good, probably-200 minutes worth of music. And yet this work, which is just sweeping, and obviously has to be looking to Black, Brown and Beige as a precedent as well, but seems to go well beyond it in terms of what—at least, how much musical time he’s devoting to his structure—it’s hardly known outside the world of jazz aficionados…and even within the world of jazz aficionados it’s perhaps not all that well known. And that’s just interesting to me in that in the 1980s, when you would think that there’s more receptivity for that kind of project, that it just basically commercially goes nowhere. And obviously he wasn’t—never had anywhere near the public profile that Ellington did, and perhaps that’s part of the difference. But I’m wondering if you think there are any other reasons why that particular project seems to kind of languish only in the minds of real devoted jazzheads.

MM: I think that by the 1970s and 1980s, jazz music had obviously passed its commercial prime. The kind of balance that Ellington could find, back in the ‘40s, of having great popularity and yet being able to do musically challenging things that could be commercially viable—that was long gone. Jazz music was on its way to trying to survive largely within a framework of acceptability, as America’s classical music, which is what Wynton Marsalis was up to with Blood On the Fields. You had to be tapped into that kind of mainstream cultural apparatus, I think, to get the music heard. Carter went in an opposite direction that was much more communally rooted—which was one of the legacies of the Black Power movement; you think of the beginnings of the Black Panthers in Oakland, and then as they moved and emerged elsewhere, their style was to be very much rooted in the needs of the culture of the local community. And you can see Carter’s music as a survival of that communal impetus; but that was a hard road to hoe.

DBJ: Concerning something you just brought up, Wynton Marsalis’ Blood On the Fields, which was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1997—the prize that Ellington was so infamously denied. How does Blood On the Fields compare to the works that preceded it? And what do you think of it as a body of work , in terms of comparing it to Black, Brown and Beige?

MM: I think Blood On the Fields is a fascinating piece of music. Marsalis is so embedded in controversy that it’s really hard for any of us to strip it all away and hear him for the musician that he is—or maybe that he isn’t. Marsalis is also working at a particularly difficult point in time, it seems to me, and doesn’t quite get credit for what he’s done. He’s writing at a time when black activism has a history, and has a heritage—and in a new way that isn’t simply commemorating a slave past as he does here, and I don’t mean that that’s simple…but as also having to deal with the 20th-century inheritance of black struggle in the cause of freedom. And it means that Marsalis has to be backward-looking in a certain way, in time, and I think for critics, that’s too easily tied to their sense that he’s backward-looking musically, that he’s going back to a pre-free jazz, pre-1965 kind of happy medium of late-swing and bop and hardbop…and that’s not entirely fair. He’s reflecting, I think, the very difficult political position of the African-American freedom movement by the 1980s and 1990s. It’s interesting—the most publicly-politicized stands that Marsalis first took really was with Hurricane Katrina—well after he’d felt it was safe to try something musically. And his latest records have a harder edge—From the Plantation to the Penitentiary, he has that rant at the beginning about capitalism, which is fairly ironic, when you’re taking subsidies from corporations in order to be able to perform at Lincoln Center.

(Many thanks to Professor McGerr)

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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