Black Music: Bringing Atlantis Up to the Top

“What seems to be about to happen is what LeRoi Jones called Unity Music in 1966. It will include the entire range of black music, maybe in one long performance, but pivoting on the drums.”


Black Music: A Special Section

…the rhythm is so hip that it can comple­ment all that intellectual shit that’s been going on, which is cool to a point. 
—George Clinton to Chip Stern

One of the great problems of the develop­ment of jazz over the last 20 years is that the aesthetic battles engendered by the innovations of Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, and John Coltrane took place in a community that was far removed from the sources of the music. In Greenwich Village and the Lower East Side, musicians played for people whose only contact with the rich layers of African-­American culture that the music so often symbolized was through the proxy of bohe­mian social life and interracial romance. As a result, the music frequently sounded very European despite the proclamations about its blackness: The dance rhythms and the ten­sions of syncopation against a pulse were deemphasized; limited tonal vocabularies were often employed; and an abundance of absolute fakes, or players of small talent and much con, justified their ramblings with a fraudulent and pretentious mysticism (if one played as horribly as some of those men did, one should have been praying all the time — ­for talent if nothing else). Under the pres­sures of rejection and hostility a few very good players made use of inept or ignorant musicians, dismissing craft and knowledge as too restricting. Even Coleman, Coltrane, and Taylor sometimes hired musicians who were “avant-garde” only because they could not fulfill the technical requirements of any other jazz style.

Yet at the same time there was an incred­ible confusion over the nature of the black identity. It infested art as well as politics and resulted in a great deal of rather simplistic and ludicrous ancestor worship, intellectual irresponsibility, primitive mask-wearing, and counterfeit militancy that frequently had more to do with renegade dilettante romance than more fascinating combinations of notes, sounds, colors, and rhythms. It proved once again that there is some sort of pendulum within the black arts community that swings back and forth between intellectual ambition and the rejection of intellect in favor of a willed savagery. Of course, as with Duke Ell­ington, an unpretentious melding of the two would not only be ideal aesthetically but would probably achieve what the most intel­ligent of 20th-century people are trying to do: Combine intellect with emotional, spirit­ual, and physical vitality.

The upshot of the confusion, however, was a scorning of intellect in favor of “energy” and a narrowing of stylistic possibilities that resulted from rejecting tempo, meter, har­mony, intonation, repeating form as symbol­ized by the chorus, and even swing as “European.” Consequently, some very talented players were caught saying things as stupid as “You’ll never play bebop better than Bird so why try? Do something new.” At one point, genuine artists such as Ornette Coleman and Archie Shepp were considered old hat or reactionary because they swung, were lyrical, or reminded one of the richness and breadth of the tradition. Not only had the baby been thrown out with the bath water but the tub as well. Thus, the avant-garde received an audi­ence only in Lower Manhattan and Europe. Coltrane alone led a band at the Apollo.

Coltrane had a black following while most of the avant-garde didn’t because Elvin Jones had orchestrated the triplet blues beat into a sophisticated style that pivoted on the boody­-butt sway of black dance. In tandem, Col­trane and Jones created a saxophone and drum team that reached way back to the sax­ophone of the sanctified church shouting over the clicking of those sisters’ heels on the floor and the jingling, slapping pulsation of tambourines. The sound was lifted even higher by the antiphonal chants of the piano and bass played by McCoy Tyner and Jimmy Garrison, whose percussive phrasing helped extend Jones’s drumming into tonal areas. In fact, one could say that both Coltrane and Coleman were the most sophisticated of blues shouters. Yet Coltrane’s fascination with African music gave him an edge, for he was to discover in his own way the relationship between harmonic simplicity and rhythmic complexity held together by repeated figures played on the bass and piano. In fact, one could say that the actual time or the central pulsation was marked by the piano and bass while the complex variations were made by saxophone and drums.

What made Coltrane’s conception so significant was that it coincided with the interest in African or African-related dance rhythms and percussion that has been re­vived at the end of each decade for the last 40 years. One saxophone player even told me that the first time he heard Coltrane, around 1961, he thought that a new kind of Latin jazz was being invented. I recall, too, that during those high school years the mambo and the cha-cha were gauntlets of elegance. Norman Whitfield’s writing at Motown for the Temptations and Marvin Gaye leaned on congas and bongos, and the dance power of the drums came to the fore, sometimes light­ly and elegantly, as in the bossa nova. The very nature of most black African music, which is layers of rhythm in timbral and me­lodic counterpoint, and the exploration of the blues were the sources of the dominant aes­thetic directions in jazz, rhythm and blues, and rock. For the jazz players those reinvestigations of roots called for the kinds of virtuosity developed by Elvin Jones and Tony Williams if another level of polyrhythm was to be achieved; James Brown’s big band, while alluding to Gillespie and Basie, evolved a style in which guitars became percussive to­nal instruments staggered against chanting bass lines, two drummers, and arrangements that were riffish, percussive, antiphonal; rock players began to investigate the electronic textures and contrapuntal possibilities of Point overdubbing.

Point of fact: all of the musics became more complex in one way or another. And they all influenced each other in one way or another. Percussion, multi-layered struc­tures, modality, social consciousness, and mysticism traveled through them all.

But with the death of Coltrane in 1967 and the media dominance of rock, the new jazz began to receive less and less attention. Jazz itself seemed to exist outside the huge dance-­oriented rituals such as Woodstock or the concerts and dances given by men like James Brown. Almost comically in tune with the times, Brown flipped over from “America is my home,” which has one of the great lines — “I got a jet!” — to “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud.” Militancy to dance by.

What was so important about Brown, however, was he had the best band in rhythm and blues and he could out-dance everybody. He had the kind of performance power men like Mick Jagger were looking for, but it never seemed to fall into hysteria or the stiffness blacks associate with white dancers. Yet the way white people were singing and dancing seemed to say more about their actual ambitions than much of the nationalistic political talk in the black community. That is to say, I believe Mick Jagger and all those others wanted much more to enter the world of pul­sating grace and erotic elegance they recog­nized in black music and dance than black people of the same generation actually want­ed to be Africans. Today black people are back to trying to make their way into America. Mick Jagger is still coon-shouting and -­shaking. And if John Travolta, who was laughed at in Saturday Night Fever by many black dancers I know, is not a body snatcher, what is he? Did America ever see Soul Train?

Younger black people in pursuit of identi­ties separate from those of both mainstream and alternate-culture America rejected traditional figures such as B.B. King, Howling Wolf, and others because they felt those mu­sicians had been taken over by hippies, whom they found crude, lame, bizarre, and nasty. It was also true that Chuck Berry’s rhythm was outdated for black dancing — the dominant beats were those of Motown, James Brown, Otis Redding, and Sly Stone. Aretha Franklin reinvented the gospel beat for popular music as Ray Charles had earlier. The phrasing of Marvin Gaye, Smokey Ro­binson, Gladys Knight, Diana Ross, the Impressions, the Temptations, and Dionne Warwick was much more supple than that of the rock singers, suggesting the influence of jazz in the ways they soared through or syn­copated the time.

Sly Stone and Jimi Hendrix became the gods of the black drug culture, which attracted black people who were — unlike sanctimonious nationalists — social adventurers, traveling from white to black circles, learning the language of the psychedelic world and transforming it for their own ends, keeping up with the dances and music of rhythm and blues while embracing the intellectual context of rock musicians’ experiments with electronics. Stone and Hendrix muscled in on that, Stone anchoring himself in the musi­cal blueprints of James Brown’s Live at the Apollo albums and Hendrix in the innate avant-garde high-handedness of the blues guitar tradition, folk to urban. Both worked with an audacity like that of Muhammad Ali or the basketball players who were using “the hang” and turning the game into a high-­speed and illusive African-American dance. For the blacks within the drug culture Hen­drix not only avoided much of the clunkiness of rock but seemed to have conquered the form. “Jimi’s out there castrating those acid­-head white boys,” they used to say. When he died, some told me, “I bet all them white boys — Jagger, Eric Burdon, and the rest of them — are glad he’s dead. It’s like this: the kinds of white boys who get over with white girls because they remind them of nigguhs without the nappy hair and the big lips, they get nervous when the real thing comes around.”

Around that time legend had it that the Funkadelics came on stage naked at Mave­rick’s Flat in Los Angeles. Things were get­ting even looser than Hendrix had set up. Yet, there had been important rumblings in the jazz world as well. Most obvious was Ornette Coleman’s performance at Town Hall in De­cember of 1962, when he combined his regular trio with r&b players for a piece entitled “Blues Misused.” It was recorded, but never released. I have heard it. It predicts the fu­sion era in no uncertain terms. 1962. In 1967, Archie Shepp recorded Mama Too Tight, which was a bow to James Brown, just as Brown’s Super Bad included a tenor saxo­phone solo that seemed a bow to Albert Ay­ler, if not Coltrane.

Then Miles Davis stepped into the game. I consider Filles de Kilamanjaro his last totally masterful recording and “Mademoiselle Mabry,” which is included in the album, an absolute innovation in jazz rhythm that stands alone and has yet to be investigated. It was recorded in 1968, apparently. But, of course, Bitches Brew was his blockbuster and the record that unarguably announced the beginning of an enduring trend. The record never really gassed me, but I found the music on At Fillmore fascinating for it was often phrased with such angularity, suspense, gloom, and wit that it made me think of how Thelonious Monk might have played funk. In retrospect, it was obviously funk not rock, that Miles Davis was scuffling with there.

Most of all, it is clear now that Davis had deemphasized complex melody and harmony in favor of percussion and sound. Almost every piece from those years was too long for my taste, and was usually rough, sometimes brilliant, off-handed, and sloppy at the same time. Still, the sitars, tablas, conga drums, Fender basses, electric keyboards, reeds, and trumpet (first acoustic then electric) came together in very original ways. By the early ’70s, Davis had recreated in jazz-funk lan­guage an African percussion ensemble fleshed out with electric instruments. The master drummer in the African ensemble sig­nals the end of a section and cues the players to change up gears and directions; Davis sig­nals either with his horn or with his raised and lowered arm. (James Brown uses verbal cues.) In Concert is an example, though it is so poorly recorded that the colors Davis was trying to develop don’t come through with clarity.

Since Davis began his experiments, jazz musicians have recorded a great deal of music which has been called crossover, fusion, jazz­rock, and what have you. Most of it is, to my ears, garbage. Not because crossing idioms is a bad idea, but because so few of the players believe in the music, and because, as Herbie Hancock once pointed out, many jazz players have problems playing the more intricate funk rhythms and phrases with any imagination or subtlety. R&b musicians like Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, on the other hand, have done very well with influences from jazz (e.g., the bridge of Wonder’s “Too High” comes from the piano vamp of Duke Ellington’s “Purple Gazelle”).

Nevertheless, there is now a search for a combination of the sophistication of jazz and the fluidity of the polyrhythms that have developed within the black dance world over the last 15 years, or at least since James Brown’s “Cold Sweat.” But we are also in a period of percussion fever. Drums are everywhere and dancers are doing things with the individual parts of the arrangements, not just dancing to the obvious accents, which makes for an extremely intricate array of styles. There is also a reaction against the pretentiously intellectual directions certain wings of the jazz avant-garde have taken recently. Also, more and more jazzmen are beginning to feel as though they are segregated from the black community. The bridge could be dance rhythm.

George Clinton is the man many younger jazz players are listening to now, and Marvin Gaye’s Here, My Dear is often discussed. Clinton is the Sun Ra of funk; his work exemplifies Miles Davis’s observation that things are now so slick an artist can play the entire music of the last decade in a few phrases. In other words, whole worlds of as­sociation can be summoned with the appropriately chosen notes. In a Parliament selec­tion, for instance, Sly Stone will be suggested in one phrase, Marvin Gaye in another; a flash of harmony will recall the Impressions, just as a few grunts on “Anger,” (Here, My Dear) will reinvent in one’s mind the entire arrangement of Sam Cook’s “Chain Gang.” It seems as though the comprehensiveness one hears in the music of Duke Ellington, Sun Ra, Charles Mingus, the AACM, and Arthur Blythe is now coming into r&b.

What seems to be about to happen is what LeRoi Jones called Unity Music in 1966. It will include the entire range of black music, maybe in one long performance, but pivoting on the drums. Jerome Cooper has developed a totally original style of solo percussion that includes simultaneous use of trap drum set, African balafon, and a double-reed Mexican wind instrument. He writes compositions that are the blues and funk another way. In fact, I believe that when Clinton gets wind of Cooper he might use him. Someone will. Ju­lius Hemphill has often worked with those rhythms; “Skin 2” on Coon Bidness and the monumental Dogon A.D. (both on Arista) show more than a little potential. James “Blood” Ulmer has not only created the most original guitar style and system since Wes Montgomery but is now getting ready to ex­tend the possibilities of funk. After having conquered the European orchestra on his own terms, Ornette Coleman is now trying to foment revolution in the world of dance rhythms; Dancing in Your Head and Body Meta show that he is right around the corner from the world George Clinton’s music is implying. David Murray has written a few songs that have the touch of popular hits and his background in funk gives, him command of the idiomatic nuances of the style.

None of this is to say that everybody in jazz will go over to funk, but I do believe that the way in which Marvin Gaye organized rhythms on Here, My Dear‘s “Time To Get It Together” shows that certain r&b musicians have been much more successful than many jazz players in organizing multiple rhythms that sustain the dance groove and the uses of drums, not only for rhythms but colors and contrasting lines, is the key to what is going on now. And wasn’t Charles Mingus’s last great com­position entitled Cumbia and Jazz Fusion?

The reluctant maestro of the Miles Davis school could be Wayne Shorter, while trum­peter Olu Dara seems to have most success­fully expanded on the more viable elements of the Davis style since 1969. In his collaboration with Milton Nascimento, Native Dancer, Shorter managed to maintain lyri­cism, intervallic boldness, great rhythmic au­thority, and swing. Having begun in 1976 what he calls the Okra Orchestra, Dara, who is the adventurous equal of any contempo­rary trumpet player, develops written and improvised music over orchestrated percus­sion, voices, acoustic bass, and electric strings. An album that could set new trends was recorded by Dara for Alan Douglas, but was never released. It was a superb combina­tion of ethnic and popular rhythms with sim­ple or intricate melodies and the vanguard improvising of Dara, Hamiet Bluiett, David Murray, and Arthur Blythe. Blythe’s two newest releases are also central to the discussion. Bush Baby (Adelphi) finds the leader’s alto accompanied by tuba and single conga drum, comprising the most original sounding rhythm section in recent memory. The al­bum is an extraordinary exploration of the blues, of tempo, and of swing, while “Down San Diego Way” (Lenox Avenue Break­down — Columbia) perfectly places modern improvising in a dance situation. It can be danced to or listened to.

I am confident we are on the verge of hear­ing some exceptional music, music that will cut across more lines than ever, and will be much richer than the mechanical get-down music and would-be dancing of motor-booty affairs. As George Clinton says, “The rhythm of vision is a dancer.” I am sure that the new combinations of rhythm will allow jazz to maintain its sophistication and yet be more easily communicated. It is as though what used to be avant-garde is now old hat in cer­tain respects if it does not swing. In musical terms we are moving toward what literary scholar Werner Sollers has called “populist modernism.” I think so, anyway. ■

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 3, 2019

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 3, 2019