Friday, October 29, 2010

Not ooftah much

Showing some jazz documentaries (for lack of prepared lesson plans) in the Chorus class for which I substituted, I took these notes & quotes, as I often do, despite having no historical research in progress. Here, some thoughts:

+Upon preparing for his Soviet Union tour as a cultural ambassador, and amidst the Little Rock Nine incident, Louis Armstrong decided to cancel at the last moment, expressing contempt for Eisenhower's indifference to the blatant, unconstitutional prejudice ensuing there in Arkansas. "It's getting almost so bad a colored man hasn't got any country," he said. Of course, whenever mentioned on radio, television, or in the press, his status as a whimsy, delightful old singer-trumpeter man retains the untroubling sheen it had back then (for whites and, in their bewilderment, for blacks). We can observe the same significance for the dixie and ragtime genres as well: fun, easy, sounds nice in the background, but, mostly, requests no urgency. Again, the fetishized nature of MLK Day is an easy pill because all one really has to know is that Dr. King gave some weighty (but for our purposes, triumphant, agreeable) speeches, had "A Dream," and now the stratified society and opportunities are no more. (Phew!) Dab that brow, we're all living in an anybody's world without race-catering or predesignated modes of living, working, etc. We can look back and think, "Yep, I heard you loud and clear. Now please, let me continue unmolested by pleas for socio-economic reconfiguration."

+I'm interested in how one of the commentators described "Strange Fruit," when sung by Billie Holiday (though Columbia wouldn't dare record it, for fear of a wholesale boycott the South), as "the first protest song." Now, of course the very Orleans-Creole, slave-hymn roots of the Jazz/Blues genre included (just as poetic/allegorical) protest content. I won't make a huge fuss about his comment, except to say that a "defining" moment in any cultural history must somehow exist purely in terms of audience. Heaven only knows how popular such protest hymns (disguised, hidden from "my Massa") were to however many pre-Emancipation African-Americans there were. Of course, their history is somehow unrecorded and supposedly distinct from ours. The good-hearted commentator probably meant it was "the first protest" song to be composed and presented in such a way the white majority would find attractive tonally, yet disturbing and offensive subtextually. (We only need a futile scan of the numerous "Greatest Hits" volumes of Holiday's repertoire to notice this. "Strange Fruit" isn't there). It is, indeed, a beautiful, beautifully sad song:
Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Pastoral scene of the gallant South,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh!
Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.
(as Dylan put it, "Now's the time for your tears.")

+Finally, during the Coltrane chapter in episode nine of Ken Burns' JAZZ, Wynton Marsalis describes Jazz in the only way it (as a sprawling category of disparate genres and influence(e)s) can be described:

"Jazz music is existence music. It doesn't take you out of the world, it puts you in the world. Makes you deal with it... It's not a religiosity of 'thou must,' but of 'this is!'"


  1. Those lyrics are so eerie and sad. I would love to see that performance you watched.

  2. ps- I believe there is an error in your "about me" on the first line. ;)