Category Archives: Jazz and blues

Afrofuturism and anti-anti-essentialism

In the 1990s the term Afrofuturism emerged to describe a vein of science fiction-inspired art that repositions black subjects in a purportedly race-free future that is nonetheless coded as white. While ostensibly about the future, Afrofuturism in fact works dialectically with an equally overwritten past to critique the reified distance between racialized fictions of black magic and white science.

Three successive concepts— the experimental jazz bandleader Sun Ra’s myth-science, the funk bandleader George Clinton’s P-Funk, and the hip hop artist Kool Keith’s robot voodoo power—track a historical continuity of collapsing fictions of both past and future in Afrofuturist music, reflecting strategic versions of what Paul Gilroy refers to as anti-anti-essentialism. The robot voodoo power thesis thus recognizes in Afrofuturism a dialectical third way out of the double binds and unproductive debates about racial essence and non-essence.

This according to “The robot voodoo power thesis: Afrofuturism and anti-anti-essentialism from Sun Ra to Kool Keith” by J. Griffith Rollefson (Black music research journal XXVIII/1 [spring 2008] pp. 83–109).

Above, Sun Ra in the early 1970s; below, Earth people by Kool Keith (as Dr. Octagon), one of the works discussed in the article.

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Alice Coltrane’s legacy

Critics, historians, musicians, and jazz enthusiasts still debate the identity of the heir to John Coltrane’s musical throne; but his widow, Alice Coltrane, who performed with him from 1966 until his death in 1967, was the one artist who continued his experiments in marrying spirituality with jazz and furthered his explorations of new compositional approaches by introducing African, Indian, and Middle Eastern influences into the genre.

She was the first to develop a jazz harp sound into something more than a curiosity, and her use of non-Western instruments predated similar trends in other genres. The albums that she recorded after her husband’s death serve as documentation of her development as an innovator, and offer an alternative reading of the history and evolution of the free jazz or avant-garde movement.

This according to “Freedom is a constant struggle: Alice Coltrane and the redefining of the jazz avant-garde” by Tammy L. Kernodle, an essay included in John Coltrane and black America’s quest for freedom: Spirituality and the music (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010, pp. 73–98).

Today would have been Alice Coltrane’s 80th birthday! Above, performing in 2006; below, the title track from her last album, Translinear light.

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John Lee Hooker and “Boom boom”

In an interview, John Lee Hooker described the genesis of his 1961 hit Boom boom:

“I used to play at this place called the Apex Bar in Detroit. There was a young lady there named Luilla, she was a bartender there. I would come in there at night and I’d never be on time. Every night the band would beat me there; sometimes they’d be on the bandstand playing by the time I got there. Whenever I’d come in she’d point at me and say ‘Boom boom, you’re late again.’ It dawned on me that that was a good name for a song. Then one night she said, “Boom boom, I’m gonna shoot you down.’ She gave me a song but she didn’t know it.”

“I took that thing and I hummed it all the way home from the bar. At night I went to bed and I was still thinking of it. I got up the next day and put one and one together, two and two together, trying to piece it out—taking things out, putting things in. I finally got it down right, got it together, got it down in my head. Then I went and sang it, and everybody went, Wow!”

“About two months later I recorded it, and the record shot straight to the top. That barmaid felt pretty good. She went around telling everybody ‘I got John Lee to write that song.’ I gave her some bread for it, too, so she was pretty happy.”

Quoted in Working musicians: Defining moments from the road, the studio, and the stage by Bruce Pollock (New York: HarperEntertainment, 2002, pp. 290–91).

According to most sources, today is Hooker’s 100th birthday! Above, recording in 1960, a year before Boom boom; below, a classic performance.

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Svensk jazzbibliografi

Svensk jazzbibliografi is a new online resource that covers writings about Swedish jazz in Swedish and in other languages, in the areas of jazz history; biographies and memoirs; jazz-related literature, photographs, and art; anthologies, essays, and other literature; discographies; and periodicals.

Published by Svenskt Visarkiv, this open-access bibliography was compiled and annotated by the Swedish composer, arranger, and conductor Mats Holmquist.

Above and below, Holmquist in action.

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Reginald Foresythe’s triple consciousness

The pianist, composer, and bandleader Reginald Foresythe occupied a critical location as a black British musician within Anglo-American jazz culture and the African diaspora. Foresythe warrants attention for his highly influential yet neglected contribution to 1930s jazz during a crucial period in which the rapid proliferation and commodification of recorded jazz meant that it increasingly became the focus of searching critique.

In this respect, he stands at a fascinating conjunction of three intersecting critical discourses. First, Foresythe offers an opportunity to reconsider modernist concerns about the form and functions of jazz in social relations as expounded by Theodor Adorno. Second, Foresythe offers an opportunity to develop broader transnational perspectives of jazz’s modernity, derived from his position within the spaces of movement that Paul Gilroy called the Black Atlantic. Third, the double consciousness suggested by such a figuring is further complicated by Foresythe’s sexualized performance as a decidedly camp figure in this arena.

The resulting interplay of such triple consciousness in the person of Foresythe offers an illuminating new way to reflect on how Adorno and Gilroy understood jazz’s role in modernity.

This according to “Camping it up: Jazz’s modernity, Reginald Foresythe, Theodor Adorno and the Black Atlantic” by George Burrows, an essay included in Black British jazz: Routes, ownership and performance (Farnham: Ashgate, 2014, pp. 173-198).

Today is Foresythe’s 110th birthday! Above, entertaining members of No. 325 Wing RAF in Setif, Algeria, ca. 1941; below, The Duke insists from 1934.

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Ella Fitzgerald and “How high the moon”

In 1947 Ella Fitzgerald, already an acclaimed singer of jazz standards, toured with Dizzy Gillespie, immersing herself in the new style known as bebop. Like Dizzy, Ella responded to bebop’s complex harmonies with an infallible ear, and easily translated its fast-moving lines.

Late that year she recorded a deeply bop-inflected version of How high the moon that was based on one of her offhand improvisations. The producer Milt Gabier recalled “We taped it in my office on a little tape machine. We had the arrangement written from that, then she came in and did it.”

Adorned with sly musical references to Charlie Parker, Ella’s playful rendition begins with a straight version of the song before doubling the tempo and switching the lyrics: “How high the moon is the name of this song/How high the moon, though the words may be wrong.” A superb scat improvisation follows that is wholly colored by bop.

This according to Ella Fitzgerald: A biography of the first lady of jazz by Stuart Nicholson (London: Routledge, 2014 [updated edition]).

Today is Ella Fitzgerald’s 100th birthday! Above, Ella and Dizzy in 1947, the year of the recording; below, the recording itself.

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Leonard Chess takes over

Leonard Chess is widely known as the co-founder of Chess Records and as a producer who was tremendously influential in the development of popular music; fewer people know that for one recording session he took over the drum set.

When Muddy Waters and his sidemen were recording for him on 11 July 1951, Waters later recalled, “my drummer couldn’t get the beat on She moves me. The verse was too long.”

“You know, it says…‘She shook her finger in a blind man’s face, he say Once I was blind but now I see/She moves me, man…’ My drummer wanted to play a turnaround there; I had to go another six or eight bars to get it turned around…he couldn’t hold it there to save his damn life.”

With characteristic brusqueness, Chess dismissed the drummer and sat down at the set himself, providing a foursquare thump on the bass drum, two beats to the bar without any frills. In effect, he solved the problem of timing the turnaround by ignoring it.

This according to The story of Chess Records by John Colis (New York and London: Bloomsbury, 1999, pp. 56–57).

Today would have been Leonard Chess’s 100th birthday! Above, Chess around 1970; below, the recording in question.

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Mildred Bailey’s Native American roots

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Despite living in a racially stratified 1930s U.S., Mildred Bailey never sought to hide the fact that she was born into the Coeur d’Alene tribe of Idaho. Rather, it was a source of personal pride that she readily shared with her associates.

Cast within a jazz narrative that left no room for Native Americans, the public image of Bailey as a “white” jazz singer mattered for many reasons—not least, because she exerted considerable influence within the jazz and pop world, pioneering the vocal swing style that countless singers sought to emulate.

Bailey pointed to the Coeur d’Alene songs of her youth as a major factor in shaping her style:

“I don’t know whether this music compares with jazz or the classics, but I do know that it offers a young singer a remarkable background and training. It takes a squeaky soprano and straightens out the clinkers that made it squeak; it removes the boom from the contralto voice, this Indian singing does, because you have to sing a lot of notes to get by, and you’ve got to cover an awful range.”

This according to “American Indian jazz: Mildred Bailey and the origins of America’s most musical art form” by Chad Hamill, an essay included in Indigenous pop: Native American music from jazz to hip hop (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2016, pp. 33–46).

Today is Bailey’s 110th birthday! Below, Thanks for the memory from 1938.

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Eubie Blake’s second act

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eubieblakeEubie Blake enjoyed a rewarding career in the 1910s and 1920s with his lifelong friend and lyricist Noble Sissle, both as the duo Sissle and Blake, the most successful black act of their time, and as songwriters for landmark musicals—most notably Shuffle along (1921), which included their most enduring number, I’m just wild about Harry.

Blake continued to compose songs for revues through the 1930s and 1940s, although none of his ventures reached the level of success that he experienced in the 1920s. But the ragtime revival of the 1950s kindled new interest in his talents, and he began playing and composing ragtime pieces.

In 1969 Columbia issued a two-LP set, The 86 years of Eubie Blake, featuring both his ragtime and his show music (along with a reunion with Sissle), which helped to renew interest in his work. During the last decades of his life Blake had his own record label, and his songs returned to Broadway in the anthology revue Eubie! (1978), which ran for 439 performances. The show’s namesake attended several times and performed a few songs on opening night.

This according to “Eubie Blake” by David A. Jasen, an article in Tin Pan Alley: An encyclopedia of the golden age of American song (New York: Routledge, 2012, pp. 47–48); this resource is one of many included in RILM music encyclopedias, an ever-expanding full-text compilation of reference works.

Today is Blake’s 130th birthday! Below, performing in 1972.

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Stan Getz and bossa nova

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Stan Getz was already a successful jazz saxophone player when, in 1962, Charlie Byrd’s search for a horn with a human voice prompted him to record Antônio Carlos Jobim’s Desafinado.

The recording was such a surprise hit that Getz decided to pursue Brazilian music further, particularly examples of the new bossa nova genre. His subsequent recording of Jobim’s Garota de Ipanema (Girl from Ipanema) became his biggest success, spearheading a brief but notable enthusiasm for Brazilian styles among international audiences. Getz’s breathy, smooth sound and the delicate floating effect that he created proved widely popular beyond the jazz world.

This according to “Getz, Stan” by Jeff Kaliss (Encyclopedia of music in the 20th century [New York: Routledge, 2013] p. 247); this resource is one of many included in RILM music encyclopedias, an ever-expanding full-text compilation of reference works.

Today would have been Getz’s 90th birthday! Above, with João Gilberto in the early 1960s; below, his signature numbers in 1983.

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