Category Archives: Jazz and blues

Jazz and unexpected stimuli

Creativity has been defined as the ability to produce work that is novel, high in quality, and appropriate to an audience. While the nature of the creative process is under debate, many believe that creativity relies on real-time combinations of known neural and cognitive processes.

One useful model of creativity comes from musical improvisation, such as in jazz, in which musicians spontaneously create novel sound sequences. A study used jazz musicians to test the hypothesis that individuals with training in musical improvisation, which entails creative generation of musical ideas, might process expectancy differently.

Researchers used EEGs to compare the brain activity of 12 jazz musicians (with improvisation training), 12 classical musicians (without improvisation training), and 12 non-musicians while they listened to a series of chord progressions. Some of the examples followed typical Western chord progressions, while others followed atypical ones.

Jazz musicians had a significantly different electrophysiological response to the unexpected progressions, indicating that they had an increased perceptual sensitivity to unexpected stimuli along with an increased engagement with unexpected events.

This according to “Jazz musicians reveal role of expectancy in human creativity” by Emily Przysinda, Tima Zheng, Kellyn Maves, Cameron Arkin, and Psyche Loui (Brain and cognition CXIX [December 2017] pp. 45–53).

Below, the Miles Davis Quintet plays Wayne Shorter’s Nefertiti, a work often cited for its use of unexpected chords; above, Davis, Shorter, and Herbie Hancock in 1964.

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Filed under Curiosities, Jazz and blues, Science

Mose Allison and “Parchman Farm”

In November 1957 Mose Allison recorded what would became his most celebrated and requested piece: Parchman Farm, a wickedly clever blues written from the viewpoint of an inmate at the infamous Mississippi State Penitentiary. But by the mid-1960s Allison had ceased performing the song, reportedly disturbed by audience reactions to it.

The adverse reactions were prompted by the song’s surprise ending, where the seemingly sympathetic prisoner-singer suddenly declares “I’m a-gonna be here for the rest of my life, and all I did was shoot my wife.”

Such responses to a song whose title evokes the Jim Crow South, and whose author is a white performer whom many listeners have assumed to be black, are worthy of closer scrutiny. In addition to its surface appeal, Parchman Farm possesses subtextual layers replete with complex, troubling questions about race, gender, and power, particularly as these manifest in popular discourses about blues.

Allison returned to the topic in 1964 with New Parchman, which offers an implicit critique of the ideology informing the 1957 work.

This according to “One Parchman Farm or another: Mose Allison, irony, and racial formation” by John Kimsey (Journal of popular music studies XVII/2 [2005] pp. 105–32).

Today would have been Mose Allison’s 90th birthday! Above, recording in the mid-1960s; below, the original Parchman Farm and its sequel.

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Filed under Jazz and blues

Dizzy Gillespie, cultural ambassador

In early 1956 Dizzy Gillespie was playing with a small group in Washington, DC, when he received a call from Adam Clayton Powell, who asked him to stop by his office the next day.

Gillespie arrived to find a group of reporters waiting, and Powell made a statement to the press: “I’m going to propose to President Eisenhower that he send this man, who’s a great contributor to our music, on a State Department sponsored cultural mission to Africa, the Near East, the Middle East, and Asia.”

Although Gillespie had a stellar international reputation, the proposal was daring: the U.S. South was in wide disarray over segregation, and the suggestion that a black man should represent the nation abroad was bound to be highly controversial.

Nevertheless, in February of that year the State Department announced a ten-week tour of South Asia, the Near East, and the Balkans by Gillespie and a group of some 20 people—in Gillespie’s words, “an American assortment of blacks, whites, males, females, Jews, and Gentiles.” The U.S. government wanted to send a signal that bigotry was waning at home, and, again in Gillespie’s words,

“They [foreign audiences] could see it wasn’t as intense because we had white boys and I was the leader of the band. That was strange to them because they’d heard about blacks being lynched and burned, and here I come with half whites and blacks and a girl playing in the band. And everybody seemed to be getting along fine. So I didn’t try to hide anything. I said ‘Yeah…we have our problems but we’re still working on it. I’m the leader of this band, and those white guys are working for me.’ That’s a helluva thing.”

This according to “Jazz strategy: Dizzy, foreign policy, and government in 1956” by Scott Gac (Americana IV/1 [Spring 2005]).

Today is Gillespie’s 100th birthday! Above, playing for snakes on the tour in Karachi, Pakistan; below, World statesman, an album recorded with the historic touring group.

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Filed under Jazz and blues, Politics

Thelonious Monk’s syntactic dissonances

Thelonious Monk has long been celebrated for his playing as much as for his compositions, but his pianism continues to occasion critical unease; a defensiveness is detectable in discussions of his technique even today.

Considerations of Monk’s playing tend to avoid or finesse peculiarities that raised questions about his ability in the first place; these include the jarring dissonances that strike some listeners as mistakes. An examination of his dissonance usage suggests two analytic categories: timbral dissonance and syntactic dissonance.

Monk’s 1968 solo recording of ’Round midnight exemplifies his use of syntactic wrong-note dissonances. Neither errors nor merely facets of Monk’s tone, their significance is bound up with their wrongness: They make sense because they sound wrong in a meaningful way, as significations on musical norms.

This according to “The right mistakes: Confronting the old question of Thelonious Monk’s chops” by David Feurzeig (Jazz perspectives V/1 [April 2011] pp. 29–59).

Today is Monk’s 100th birthday! Above, in 1969; below, the recording in question.

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Filed under Jazz and blues, Reception

Faulkner and blues

Although the story of blues was never his direct subject, William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha chronicles obliquely address the processes through which mainstream America embraced, dismissed, romanticized, adapted, and came to respect blues and other forms of traditional and popular music.

From the scenes of white people dancing to an African American band in Soldiers’ pay through the country blues guitarist emerging out of the flood in Old man to the symbolic engagement with a broad multicultural tradition of popular song in The mansion, Faulkner’s writings reflect shifting social attitudes toward southern roots music.

This according to Yoknapatawpha blues: Faulkner’s fiction and southern roots music by Tim A. Ryan (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 2015).

Today is Faulkner’s 120th birthday! Above, the author with Billie Holiday in 1956; below, Charley Patton’s High water everywhere, a recording linked to Old man.

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Filed under Jazz and blues, Literature

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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Filed under Black studies, Jazz and blues, Popular music

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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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Jazz and blues, Performers

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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Filed under Jazz and blues, Performers

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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Filed under Jazz and blues, Performers, Resources

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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Filed under Black studies, Jazz and blues, Performers