Expressions of African-American music on CD—and all that jazz

Hallelujah to Bridge Records for its dedicated program of new (and older) releases featuring a wide variety of African-American music. We have three under review here.

In December of 1940 the Library of Congress observed the 75th anniversary of the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution with a series of concerts by African-American performers. We recently reviewed a CD of soprano Dorothy Maynor’s appearance there on Dec. 18. Two days later, a three-part concert took place with segments on Negro Spirituals, Blues and Ballads, and Reels and Work Songs, featuring the Golden Gate Quartet, the singer-songwriter Josh White, and three distinguished commentators, Alain Locke, Sterling Brown, and Alan Lomax. That CD is now also available, and it is one of the most important musical documents of the African-American experience in America, in just under an hour’s length, that you could possibly find.

Given the time restraint with so much material to present, several of the Golden Gate Quartet’s numbers have obviously been tightened up to, in a couple of cases, under a minute’s length. But they are little gems nevertheless. For the record, the quartet consisted of Orlandus Wilson, Clyde Riddick, Henry Owens, and Willie Johnson. At one point late in the program, Alan Lomax announced there’d only be one encore because Mr. Wilson had laryngitis and Mr. Owens was just three days out from appendicitis.

The quartet’s music is heavenly, and Josh White (1915-1969) had a lovely, honeyed tone that stood out expressively over his puckish guitar riffs. It was the first time such music had ever been performed in this elegant, austere concert hall. It is a special gift to have the speaking voices of the three informants, all with carefully scripted explanations about the meaning and cultural background of the songs the audience was about to hear. In particular, Sterling Brown’s word sculpture about the blues is memorable. High school and college oratory competitions should feature this speech as one of the great poetic statements about Black American culture. He spoke of the tragic death of singer Bessie Smith just three years earlier. There’s “a profound blues poem in that,” he remarked—an ode in novelistic form by David Crittendon that has recently been published. He also referred to Washington as “a bourgeois town”—which elicited a hearty round of understanding (and perhaps for some) approving) laughter—not mentioning the songwriter of that particular tune, Huddie Ledbetter, otherwise known as Leadbelly.

The selection of work songs is especially illuminating, and here the lead tenor Henry Owens shines as the singer who calls out direction to a team of railway track layers who must, at the cost of life and limb, coordinate their movements and strength to lift and properly set down each heavy length of rail. Folk tales and recitations round out this section as well, with strong hints that we are hearing the early precursors of rap music. Just using their voices, the singers could establish a kind of orchestral cushion for the solo, establishing pitch and percussion as well as the sounds of train whistles or motors, in what we call today the backbeat. I for one did not realize that the famous tales of Br’er Rabbit (outwitting the dog or fox) have a racialized subtext.

The speakers emphasize the role these musics play in the poverty-stricken lives of their makers—a “social song,” for example, about silicosis, or another, “Trouble,” about life on a prison chain gang, which was censored in its day, as “Go Down, Moses” had also been censored during the time of enslavement. It was notable, and surely not by happenstance, that numbers like this were included in the program, for amidst all the celebration of the 1865 13th Amendment, which banned chattel enslavement, little remarked upon at the time was that it also permitted involuntary servitude as a punishment for crime. Since the abolition of slavery per se, racist justice has sentenced overwhelmingly Black and brown people to brutal work on convict farms, roads and prisons, for even the slightest of infractions—if that. How many times have Black and brown people been picked up for “loitering” and shipped off to years of hard labor, even death, owing to this poison pill in the Constitution!

A few weeks after this concert, the “Gates” “became the first black group to sing at a presidential inaugural gala when they performed at Washington’s Constitution Hall for the [third] inauguration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.” And Josh White soon joined up with the pro-labor, anti-war Almanac Singers.

The program notes are highly informative. This CD belongs in every home and classroom.

Freedom at The Library of Congress (1940)
With The Golden Gate Quartet and Josh White
Bridge Records 9114

Cecil Taylor: Algonquin takes us back to the concert hall at the Library of Congress on February 12, 1999, when the legendary free jazz pianist Cecil Taylor appeared with his 55-minute-long commissioned composition called Algonquin—a tribute to the Native American Nation? Or to the famous celebrity hangout at New York’s Algonquin Hotel?

I call Algonquin a symphony. No one else would, I’m sure, because it’s scored for only two musicians—Taylor, who would turn 70 a month after this performance, at the piano, and Mat Maneri, who would turn 30 eight months later, on violin. Yet the cosmic reach of this work, its four-movement structure and length, the myriad of sound-worlds summoned up in its loosely sketched and mostly improvisatory invention, and the pyrotechnical love invested in its monumental drama, suggest a larger conceit than mere pedestrian words such as “suite,” “sonata” or some vague term like “impressions” or “images” can convey.

Taylor and Maneri met for the very first time earlier that day, when Taylor presented the violinist not with a notated score but with some thematic ideas he was planning to develop, trusting the much younger violinist to keep up with him as an equal partner. The result is simply astonishing. This is free jazz, not a relatively simple matter of laying out a standard and then passing the riff torch from one soloist to the next so each one gets their place in the spotlight. Calling this “jazz” at all is even questionable. Perhaps it’s better to say it’s just music, an aural experience, a free-form phenomenon, an experimental event never to be repeated.

Taylor was sufficiently recognized as a force in American music that the intrinsic assumption here is that what is of aleatoric interest to two masterful musicians to conversationally pursue from split second to split second will necessarily also be of interest to listeners. Another way to express this might be to say that in these two men’s hands, the instruments themselves have been released to gain their fully liberated freedom to articulate what no one else ever asked them to say.

The first, and longest movement, lasting just over half an hour, explores the technical range and rhythmic vitality of the instruments with spontaneous percussive physicality. Surprisingly, about two minutes before the end of this Part One, the music becomes quieter, more contemplative, and ends on a minor third.

The slow Part Two exhibits more of the conversational tradeoff between the two musicians, each respecting and paying attention to the other. The kernel of this movement seems to be an Ur-song, mystical and unknown except perhaps to them, decomposed here into unrecognizable cellular snippets. Part Three gives voice to the violin: Expect no long-limbed Romantic rhapsodies here, of which Maneri surely is capable. It’s all jumpy, erratic, explosive eruptions exploiting the sonar potential of the axe.

In the final, 14-minute-long Part Four, a playful scherzo exudes a jazzy joie de vivre. In this part, perhaps more than anywhere else so far in Algonquin, the concert hall listeners must have felt such gratefulness to be “present  at the creation.” The whole movement is like an extended cadenza, a summing-up coda that signals you’re going to want to stand up and clap and shout when they’ve concluded. You’ve had the privilege of witnessing a true collaboration of musical souls that never was before and never would be again. You might not be quite sure what you’ve experienced over the last hour, but whatever it was, it sounded like nothing you’d ever experienced before, as though the wax had been washed out of your ears, and you could finally hear the voices from another realm and frequency.

The program booklet with bios of the artists also includes an illuminating essay by Bill Shoemaker, who names Taylor “perhaps the most visionary piano virtuoso of the past half century.” He squarely addresses “the intrinsic conundrum in considering Taylor as a composer; especially if you accept Taylor’s premise that he is a composer because he is an improviser. What endures in Taylor’s music defies notation, conventional or otherwise. It begs the question: Is a score that is little more than an outline, and designed only for a single use, as legitimate as one where all aspects of performance are specified, and has been repeatedly performed for years, decades and even centuries? Given the exhilarating energy conveyed through this recording, the answer is surely yes.”

Cecil Taylor: Algonquin
Bridge Records 9146

And we wind up with almost an hour (56 minutes) of unadulterated happiness, a vision of how the world could be if only people like Buddy Collette were in charge.

William Marcell “Buddy” Collette was a Los Angeles native who started off his musical career on L.A.’s famed Central Avenue, whose jazz clubs were among the few spots in town where you could find an integrated crowd. He went on to work with every one of the great names in Big Band jazz and recorded over 30 albums. Photogenic, with a warm, friendly voice, he was also captured on film when a background jazz combo was needed—as in Citizen Kane, Kitty Foyle, and Tom, Dick, and Harry. In 1941’s You’ll Never get Rich, scored by Cole Porter, starring Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth, Collette (then 20) appears on screen playing clarinet with drummer Chico Hamilton. In 1949, Buddy Collette joined the TV orchestra for Groucho Marx’s show You Bet Your Life. The CD program booklet features a gag photo of Collette blowing his sax with a mugging Groucho fingering the keys.

Buddy Collette with Groucho Marx. | From the CD Booklet

Soft-spoken and courtly by nature, Collette was also a social activist all his life. In 1948 he helped found the 60-strong interracial Humanist Symphony Orchestra, and in the following decade he was a leader in the movement to amalgamate the segregated Locals 767 and 47 of the American Federation of Musicians, thus achieving equal employment and benefits for all members. It was in connection with that history that I had the chance to meet Mr. Collette years later, when he was honored by the Southern California Library for Social Studies and History. He performed a memorable flute solo I shall always treasure.

Buddy Collette Big Band in Concert at the Lincoln Theatre is the record of a June 6, 1996, concert in Washington, D.C., presented by the Music Division of the Library of Congress as part of JazzFest ’96. With this invitation, closing in on his 75th birthday, he had the opportunity to reassemble a big band of many of his longtime musical friends and collaborators—including, for one final number on the concert (and the CD), Chico Hamilton on percussion.

The album has eight cuts of his compositions, all professing an unalloyed joy to be alive. The songs follow a certain standard formula—introduction and theme, a set of solo riffs featuring virtuosic playing on trumpet, trombone, flute, clarinet, piano or percussion, and a summation generally with the full ensemble. Each number, though, has its own charm and uniqueness. It should be noted that his 21-member band comprises Black and white, women as well as men.

Collette’s repertoire switches easily from hot to cool. In the latter category, “Mr. and Mrs. Goodbye” is memory-laden and a little nostalgic, while “Blues in Torrance” has a lazy, romantic, floating-down-a-quiet-river mood and a glorious peacock finish. That one is among a set of three (at least) that specifically summon up L.A.-area locales, including also “Jazz by the Bay” and “Point Fermin” from his “Friendship Suite.” Indeed, the whole album is a tribute to his cherished relationships in music with these great talents. Among his soloists are Jack Kelson, Ann Patterson, Les Benedict, Anne King, Nolan Shaheed, Gerald Wiggins, Sr., Alfred Viola, and Ndugu Chancler. As is customary, Collette calls out the soloist’s name as the applause breaks out.

Though jazz has now become an international language, often incorporating thematic elements from many cultures, it’s widely recognized as perhaps the only musical art form originating in the United States, thanks largely to its African-American inventors.

Buddy Collette Big Band in Concert at the Lincoln Theatre
Bridge Records 9096


Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.