Jazz, synchronicty and shamans...

As we prepare for our jazz pilgrimage to Istanbul, Turkey, I am struck at the serendipitous nature of this whole experience. Today shortly after reading in the NY Times of the thousands of Syrians fleeing the oppression of their homeland for Turkey, I came across this speech Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave at the Berlin Jazz Festival in 1964.

God has wrought many things out of oppression. He has endowed his creatures with the capacity to create—and from this capacity has flowed the sweet songs of sorrow and joy that have allowed man to cope with his environment and many different situations. Jazz speaks for life. The Blues tell the story of life's difficulties, and if you think for a moment, you will realize that they take the hardest realities of life and put them into music, only to come out with some new hope or sense of triumph.

This is triumphant music.


Modern jazz has continued in this tradition, singing the songs of a more complicated urban existence. When life itself offers no order and meaning, the musician creates an order and meaning from the sounds of the earth which flow through his instrument. It is no wonder that so much of the search for identity among American Negroes was championed by Jazz musicians. Long before the modern essayists and scholars wrote of racial identity as a problem for a multiracial world, musicians were returning to their roots to affirm that which was stirring within their souls.

Much of the power of our Freedom Movement in the United States has come from this music. It has strengthened us with its sweet rhythms when courage began to fail. It has calmed us with its rich harmonies when spirits were down. And now, Jazz is exported to the world. For in the particular struggle of the Negro in America there is something akin to the universal struggle of modern man. Everybody has the Blues. Everybody longs for meaning. Everybody needs to love and be loved. Everybody needs to clap hands and be happy. Everybody longs for faith.

In music, especially this broad category called Jazz, there is a stepping stone towards all of these.

In a fascinating albeit dense essay, "The Body Electric," by Michael Tucker in his Dreaming with Open Eyes, he writes:

... in a world dominated by the sick imperatives of mass culture... the musician who wants to get in touch with the essence of creativity is set up as a shaman whether or not he/she wants the role or wears the outward trappings... To follow the "daemon" living within keyboards, horns, drums is to define a life as a quest for new and possible form. Within the context of a society where life-shapes are mass-produced the musicians his/her spiritual callings in inventing that technology which permits the odd mutation - the odd man out - the odd-sounding music relieves the strain of being dully ordinary. Hear, in idiosyncratic, idiot (thank you Dostoevsky) and sin... the sin of acting like a fool among those for whom the heart's music is chronic palpitation.  All praise then to all the holy fools of the body electric, as they sing the song of ages: the song of infinite longing, the song of infinite love.

+ think of Monk doing his crazy-ass dance and insisting to the critics "that there are NO wrong notes" even when they thought otherwise.  He could play Bach with the best of them but wanted to go into uncharted waters - and did.

+ think of Hendrix after the first flush of psychedelia had passed and he was free to be a "Voodoo Chile" or musical shaman with his old jazz buddies at the Fillmore.

+ think of challenging, regal, aloof and oh so sweet Nina Simone transforming "Sinner Man" from her tradition or "Isn't It a Pity" from the land of the Beatles.

+ think of "Strawberry Fields Forever" from the land of Lennon or "Yesterday" from the sweeter country of McCartney.

+ think of Alice Coltrane - Dori Previn - Grace Slick - Tina Weymouth - Aretha - Gladys Knight - Big Momma Thorton - Etta James - Phoebe Snow - Maria Muldaur -  Grace Slick - Janis Joplin - Edie Brickell - Lauryn Hill - Sandy Denny - Patti Smith and all the other women who kicked ass in the spirit of Sojourner Truth:  and ain't I a woman?

+ think of Coltrane's "Love Supreme" - Weather Report's "Unknown Soldier" - the Herbie Hancock "Imagine Project" and so many, many more.

Langston Hughes - the poet laureate of Harlem - put it like this and he was every bit a shaman as everyone else in this all too incomplete list, yes?

Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,
Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,
I heard a Negro play.
Down on Lenox Avenue the other night
By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light
He did a lazy sway . . .
He did a lazy sway . . .
To the tune o' those Weary Blues.
With his ebony hands on each ivory key
He made that poor piano moan with melody.
O Blues!
Swaying to and fro on his rickety stool
He played that sad raggy tune like a musical fool.
Sweet Blues!
Coming from a black man's soul.
O Blues!
In a deep song voice with a melancholy tone
I heard that Negro sing, that old piano moan--
"Ain't got nobody in all this world,
Ain't got nobody but ma self.
I's gwine to quit ma frownin'
And put ma troubles on the shelf."

Thump, thump, thump, went his foot on the floor.
He played a few chords then he sang some more--
"I got the Weary Blues
And I can't be satisfied.
Got the Weary Blues
And can't be satisfied--
I ain't happy no mo'
And I wish that I had died."
And far into the night he crooned that tune.
The stars went out and so did the moon.
The singer stopped playing and went to bed
While the Weary Blues echoed through his head.
He slept like a rock or a man that's dead.

Comments

Black Pete said…
Maddy Prior, Kate Bush, June Tabor, the shawomen of Celt...
RJ said…
yesssssssss.... i knew i was leaving somebody out: thank you!

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