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The Smithsonian Institution’s Object of the Day, November 13, 2019: Art Blakey’s Drumstick

Art Blakey’s Drumstick, 1947-1990, Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Peter Bradley

“Let the punishment fit the crime.”
-Art Blakey

Art Blakey, Stoker of Modern Music

During an interview published in a 1978 issue of Modern Drummer, Art Blakey (1919–1990) asserted, “It doesn’t matter what kind of instrument the drummer has. It isn’t the instrument, it’s the musician…I got the fundamentals and rudiments down pretty good. There’s no technique or anything. I don’t think it has anything to do with the stick, ‘cause most of the sticks that come out today are crooked.” Later, in 1986, Blakey relayed the surprised reactions he received from some musicians after they confronted his “unconventional” (read: “not classically trained”) way of playing: “You know, like in England, the guys was there from the symphony orchestras, and the great drum teachers was there, and I was playing. They said, ‘Well, you play so unorthodox,’ I said, ‘Well, what is orthodox? Whether I play orthodox or not, I get results’.” When asked to elaborate on what specifically was so unconventional about his playing, the drummer responded, “Oh, the way I’ll pick up my sticks, or the way I’ll do something. There’s no certain way to do it; you don’t hold the sticks a certain way.” Even a quick listen to his 1973 drum battle with Ginger Baker, throughout which he alternates using a traditional grip and a matched grip, convincingly demonstrates the power of “unorthodox.”

For a drummer often credited for the development of hard bop—an R&B-, blues-, Latin-, and gospel-inflected extension of the bebop jazz strain rhythmically pioneered by drummers like Max Roach, Kenny “Klook” Clarke, and Chick Webb in the 1940s to 1960s—Blakey’s disinterest in technique (or at least conventional conceptions of technique) seems somewhat counterintuitive. But perhaps it shouldn’t. After all, “bop,” along with whatever prefixes or qualifiers appended to it, was an industry and fan term for what practitioners typically called “modern music” (or just “music”). And as a self-taught musician honing his skills in the Depression era, it should not be surprising that, for Blakey, abandoning traditional notions of technique or “right” and “wrong” became a precondition for exploration, a liberation of sorts. During wartime, as Blakey recounts, “[Y]ou just couldn’t get no sticks. We played with chair-arms, and it sure did swing, man.” And for all his innovative spirit, swing remained at the heart of his craft.

The stick pictured above, even if just as sufficient as any other in Blakey’s estimation, played a role in transmitting that feeling of incessant drive, motion, explosive power, subtlety, dynamic contrast, and, most importantly, swing. Although it would be going too far to assume that Blakey considered drumstick type to be completely fungible, there is some evidence to suggest that he used different models at different times across his career. Advertised as being “reproduced exactly from his ‘60s model stick,” Bopworks’s Art Blakey Centennial Edition stick is an 8D with a length of 16” and width of .530”. This can be contrasted with the stick made for him by Gretsch—one of his sponsors for a time—which was a 1A. Classification systems vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, so it is hard to know the exact differences. With a height, width, and diameter of 15 7/8”, 5/8”, and 5/8”, respectively, the stick featured here approximates Bopworks’s commemorative stick in size, and its triangular tip presents another commonality.

The drumstick as shown here is well worn, particularly in its tip, shoulder, and upper shaft. As a right-handed drummer, we might speculate that this stick, with its gradual tapering and numerous nicks and gashes, was used for striking crash or ride cymbals. As the foundational time-keeper, replacing the kick drum’s danceable four-on-the-floor pattern, rhythms on the ride accommodated the modernists’ breakneck speeds, unconventional phrasings, and general fluidity. However, any such conjecture is likely futile, as Blakey’s exploration of “extended techniques” was part of his innovative spirit. Expounding upon the drummer’s time playing with Thelonious Monk around 1947—a collaboration that helped solidify the transformation from swing proper to modernist reaches—Burt Korall explains in his Drummin’ Men: The Heartbeat of Jazz—The Bebop Years that, “Blakey plays two basic roles: time player and interpreter-commentator. He adds both reason and the unexpected to the music. Using all the elements of the set, snare, tom-toms, the bass drum, the rims, the drum’s shells, the cymbals—all parts—the hi-hat cymbals and hi-hat stands, and even the sounds of the drumsticks themselves, he simultaneously defines Monk and himself.” One wonders how many “smokin’ press rolls”—Blakey’s common way to introduce soloists, as can be heard at 2:08 of the live recording of Bobby Timmons’s now classic “Moanin’” below—were executed on this drumstick.  

Bobby Timmons’s “Moanin’,” Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers (drums: Art Blakey, trumpet: Lee Morgan, tenor sax: Benny Golson, piano: Bobby Timmons, bass: Jymie Merritt), ca. 1958-1959.

Regardless of time, personnel, or style, Blakey always sought to bring out the best in those with whom he shared the bandstand. Conceiving of his drumming more as a method through which to enliven others than as conduit for flashy drum solos—though there is no paucity of the latter, to be sure—one of Blakey’s greatest contributions was his ability to accompany, to facilitate, to empathize. In more than one interview, Blakey contends, “Let the punishment fit the crime”; when he played briefly for Duke Ellington, he “played Ellington,” and when he played with Monk, he played Monk “responsively and responsibly.”

Blakey’s impressive career has been well documented, if at times imprecisely relayed by the drummer himself. From the tale of his being forced at gunpoint in 1934 to move out from behind the piano to behind a drum set (to make way for Erroll Garner), to his work in New York City with Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra from 1939 to 1941, to his time with Billy Eckstine’s band between 1944 and 1947 (playing with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie in 1944), to his brief stint studying religion and philosophy in Africa in the late ‘40s (around which time he adopted the Muslim name Abdullah Ibn Buhaina, or just “Bu” to friends), to eventually taking leadership of his own ensemble, The Jazz Messengers, for roughly 35 years. But across all accounts of Blakey’s life, there is one constant: his vehement drive to accompany and support young, talented jazz musicians. The list of formidable young players who developed their own musical voice as one of Blakey’s Messengers include Johnny Griffin, Freddie Hubbard, Jackie McLean, Lee Morgan, Curtis Fuller, Bobby Timmons, Wayne Shorter, Wallace Roney, Benny Golson, Wynton Marsalis, and Keith Jarrett, to name just a small selection.    

Blakey’s success in accessing “the guts of the human soul” was fueled by a profound sensitivity to the desires and abilities of the musicians with whom he worked and the audiences he took care to entertain. If the drumstick here could tell a story, it would be just as much about the musicians it stoked to greatness as it would be the great musician who wielded it.   

 This post was produced through a partnership between Smithsonian Year of Music and RILM with its blog Bibliolore.

Written and compiled by Michael Lupo, Assistant Editor, Répertoire International de Littérature Musicale (RILM).

Bibliography

Blakey, Art. “Art Blakey”, Reading jazz: A gathering of autobiography, reportage, and criticism from 1919 to now, ed. by Robert Gottlieb. (New York: Pantheon, 1996) 205–213. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1996-23592]
Art Blakey, the dedicated and influential drummer, talks about his start, his career, and his ideas in this excerpt from a long interview recorded in 1976 in Jazz spoken here (1992). (editor)

Blakey, Takashi Buhaina, ed., “Art Blakey”, Art Blakey Estate, http://www.artblakey.com. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2015-82562]

Giese, Hannes. Art Blakey: Sein Leben, seine Musik, seine Schallplatten (Schaftlach: Oreos, 1990). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1993-12184]

Goldsher, Alan. Hard bop academy: The sidemen of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers (Milwaukee: Hal Leonard, 2002). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2002-9125]
Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers was one of the most enduring, popular, reliable, and vital small bands in modern jazz history. Blakey was not only a distinguished, inventive, and powerful drummer, but along with Duke Ellington and Miles Davis, he was one of jazz’s foremost talent scouts. The musicians who flowed seamlessly in and out of this constantly evolving collective during its 36-year run were among the most important artists not just of their eras, but of any era. Their respective innovations were vital to the evolution of bebop, hard bop, and neo bop. The multitude of gifted artists who populated the many editions of the Jazz Messengers are critically examined. In addition to dissecting the sidemen’s most consequential work with Blakey’s band, profiles are offered of everyone from Wynton Marsalis to Terence Blanchard to Hank Mobley to Wayne Shorter to Horace Silver to Keith Jarrett to Curtis Fuller to Steve Davis. Over 30 interviews with surviving graduates of Blakey’s hard bop academy were conducted, with many speaking at length of their tenure with the legendary Buhaina for the first time. (publisher)

Gourse, Leslie. Art Blakey: Jazz Messenger (New York: Schirmer Trade Books, 2002). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2002-47104]
In the 1950s, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers introduced hard bop, a blend of bebop, blues, gospel, and Latin music that has defined the jazz mainstream ever since. Although Blakey’s influence as a drummer and bandleader was enormous, his greatest contribution may have been as a mentor to younger musicians such as Wayne Shorter, Freddie Hubbard, Lee Morgan, Jackie McLean, and Wynton Marsalis. Leslie Gourse chronicles Blakey’s colorful life and career, from his hardscrabble childhood in Pittsburgh to his final years as an international jazz icon. (publisher)

Havers, Richard. Blue Note: Uncompromising expression—The finest in jazz since 1939 (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2014). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2014-11338]
Purveyor of extraordinary music and an arbiter of cool, Blue Note is the definitive jazz label—signing the best artists, pioneering the best recording techniques, and leading cover design trends with punchy, iconic artwork and typography that shaped the way we see the music itself. The roster of greats who cut indelible sides for the label include Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Bud Powell, Norah Jones, and many more. Published for Blue Note’s 75th anniversary, this volume is the first official illustrated story of the label, from its 1939 roots to its renaissance today. Featuring classic album artwork, unseen contact sheets, rare ephemera from the Blue Note Archives, commentary from some of the biggest names in jazz today, and feature reviews of 75 key albums, this is the definitive book on the legendary label. (publisher)

Hentoff, Nat. “Jazz Messengers: Jazz Messengers blazing a spirited trail”, DownBeat: The great jazz interviews—A 75th anniversary anthology, ed. by Frank Alkyer. (New York: Hal Leonard, 2009) 52–53. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2009-23860]
An interview with the group published in the 22 February 1956 issue of DownBeat.

Howland, Harold. “Art Blakey: The eternal jazzman”, Modern drummer 2/4 (October 1978) 16–23, 39. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1978-20471]

Korall, Burt. Drummin’ men: The heartbeat of jazz—The bebop years (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2002-8511]
Biographical sketches based on interviews with drummers of the 1940s through the 1980s, tracing the transition from swing to bebop, and highlighting some of the most innovative musicians. These include Jo Jones, Sidney Catlett, Lou Fromm, Billy Exiner, Denzil Best, Irv Kluger, Jackie Mills, J.C. Heard, Rossiere “Shadow” Wilson, Kenny “Klook” Clarke, Max Roach, Stan Levey, Art Blakey, Roy Haynes, Shelly Manne, Don Lamond, Tiny Kahn, Philly Joe Jones, Mel Lewis, Ed Shaughnessy, Art Taylor, and Ike Day.

Mathieson, Kenny. Cookin’: Hard bop and soul jazz, 1954–65 (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2002). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2002-18555]
Examines the history and development of hard bop and its offshoot, soul jazz. Hard bop was the most vital and influential jazz style of its day, and today remains at the core of the modern jazz mainstream. Drawing on bebop and the blues for its foundation, filtered through gospel, Latin, and rhythm-and-blues influences, hard bop was notable for the instrumental virtuosity it required and the elaborate harmonic structures it was built upon. The founding fathers of the form are profiled, Art Blakey and Horace Silver, along with Cannonball Adderley, Donald Byrd, Lou Donaldson, Grant Green, and J.J. Johnson. (publisher)

Monson, Ingrid T. “Art Blakey’s African diaspora”, The African diaspora: A musical perspective, ed. by Ingrid T. Monson. Garland reference library of the humanities 1995 (New York: General Music Publishing Co., 2000) 329–352. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2000-8650]
Illuminates the principal political, religious, and musical contexts through which Art Blakey’s travels to Africa and his African diasporic musical explorations of the 1950s might be interpreted. Unraveling his relationship to the African diaspora necessitates exploration of three contexts pertinent to understanding the relationship of African American music and culture to Africa in the mid-20th century: anticolonialism, pan-Africanism, and Islam from the 1920s through the 1940s; African independence, Afro-Cuban music, and religion in the 1950s; and the indefinite nature of musical signification. The masterful disjunction between what Blakey said about his relationship to Africa and African music and what he actually played reveals the complex pathways through which music has mediated and continues to mediate the African diasporic experience. (author)

Rosenthal, David H. “Conversation with Art Blakey: The big beat!”, The black perspective in music 14/3 (fall 1986) 267–289. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1986-4417]

Squinobal, Jason John. West African music in the music of Art Blakey, Yusef Lateef, and Randy Weston (Ph.D. diss., University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, 2009). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2009-48924]

Discography

The Jazz Messengers. Moanin’. The Rudy Van Gelder edition. CD (Blue Note Records 724349532427, 1999). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1999-61955]

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Filed under Instruments, Jazz and blues, Performers

Jon Higgins and Karnatak music

Jon B. Higgins first encountered Karnatak music as an undergraduate at Wesleyan University in 1962. He was awarded a Fulbright scholarship in 1964 to begin study in India, and was granted an unprecedented third year extension based on the seriousness of his efforts. His first public appearance at the Tyāgarāja ārādhana at Tiruvaiyaru in 1965 was the beginning of many successful concerts to follow.

Over the next 20 years he distinguished himself as an accomplished performer, earning a sizeable and appreciative audience both in India and North America. He began teaching in 1971, finally settling at Wesleyan in 1978, where, along with his many administrative responsibilities, his singing and his interest in South India remained a constant preoccupation.

His interest and love for Karnatak music was a passionate one that fed into the strong belief that the best way to understand a music—either to talk or to write about—is to know it well from the inside.

This according to “Jon B. Higgins (1939–84)” by Tanjore Viswanathan (Ethnomusicology XXX/1 [winter 1986] pp. 113–114).

Today would have been Higgins’s 80th birthday! Below, one of his studio recordings.

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Filed under Ethnomusicology, Performers

The Smithsonian Institution’s Object of the Day, September 8, 2019: Patsy Cline’s Performance Outfit

Hilda Hensley (maker), Patsy Cline’s Costume, ca 1958, National Museum of American History.

Patsy Cline: Icon and Iconoclast

Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts producer Janette Davis made herself clear: for the show on January 21, 1957, “Walkin’ After Midnight” was a better choice than “A Poor Man’s Roses (Or a Rich Man’s Gold),” and a sleek, blue linen, sheath dress was preferred over country western attire. That evening, the plucky and ambitious Virginia Patterson Hensley of Winchester, Virginia—Patsy Cline to her listening public—uncharacteristically put aside her pride and did what was asked of her, singing the song she once disparaged as “nothing more than a little old pop tune.” Had she not, there may have been no thunderous applause to guarantee her landslide victory on the televised talent contest and no rush for the label Decca to release a recording of the song that would climb to number two on Billboard’s “Hot Country” chart and number twelve on the “Hot 100” (pop) chart. In short, Patsy Cline the country western singer may not have become Patsy Cline the country-pop crossover star.

It is hard to overstate the incredible power that television had, particularly in its early years, to catapult the career of a performer like Cline. According to the advertising trade publication Sponsor, about half of all homes in the United States with a television watched Godfrey’s show, which was the fifth most popular of the week. Cline was not only heard by millions that night, but also seen by millions. Although a recording artist’s dress had always been essential in constituting a persona, television significantly amplified its ability to construct celebrity.

Across her career, Cline adopted at least three styles of dress that reflected her background, the different performance contexts available for country music, and changes being made within the genre itself. At a time when producers, arrangers, and sound engineers were developing what would be called the Nashville sound—replacing steel guitars, fiddles, nasal roughness, and regional dialects with more commercially viable string arrangements, background vocal quartets, and rhythmic grooves—Cline found herself negotiating the lines between the honky-tonk roots she held dear and an industry bent on expanding country western’s markets. Cline preferred to project “traditional” country markers of authenticity, and particularly in the early years of her career was able to toggle between the fringed cowgirl outfits her mother Hilda made for her (for early stage shows and TV performances) and the “barn dance” look, which relied on an imagined conception of life in the rural American West. To these two options were added the more pop-friendly, form-fitting cocktail dresses prevalent in the early 1960s. As Joli Jensen notes in her contribution to the collection of essays, Sweet Dreams: The World of Patsy Cline:

Patsy Cline embodied the tension between down-home and uptown country music…That tension was obvious visually as well as aurally, where hillbilly, cowboy, and pop visual markers all mix together. Pictures of the Grand Ole Opry stage include performers in business attire (men) and dressy little suits (women) standing in front of wagon wheels, hay bales, and other barn dance signifiers, with cloggers in petticoats and banjo pickers in dungarees. This disjointed visual quality mirrors the contradictory effort, during the period, to find a commercially successful sound that could stay country but still cross over and appeal to a wider audience.

Although we should be suspicious of clear sonic distinctions between “country” and “pop,” there can be no doubt that an artist’s look carried important signifiers. Unlike the wardrobe choice imposed on Cline for her break-through debut on Godfrey’s television show, the pink performance outfit featured here, made by Hilda in around 1958, was fashioned in the barn-dance mold. However, the inclusion of five hand-stitched, rhinestone-adorned, “record” patches, each containing a (modified) title of a Cline recording, illustrates the kind of contradictions pointed out by Jensen above. Clearly shown in the photograph above, “Come On In” and “Poor Mans Roses” sit atop the shirt’s left and right shoulders, respectively. “Stop the World” appears at the bottom of the suit’s left pant leg, “Yes I Understand” is affixed to the right, and “Walking After Midnight” takes its position on the outfit’s back. The point is that we have a costume that is at once country and modern, traditional yet boastful, rural and urban. The patches, as an overt method of promotion, betray a sense of (gendered) humility that would have fed into the concept of respectability so important to the middle-class aspirations of many 1950s Winchester natives. But at the same time, they epitomize the striving for upward class mobility that characterized much of the decade as a whole.

The outfit also points to the rise of the disc as a medium through which to encounter music in the postwar era. After World War II, it was no longer necessary for the United States to restrict the commercial production of shellac, the material required for the construction of the record. Once records were again mass produced and displayed for all to see in jukeboxes, their prominent role as a means through which to disseminate country music could not be denied. Cline’s patches not only advertised her music, but also laid bare the most profitable medium through which it could be brought to the consumer.

Patsy Cline was simultaneously a country western musician and a pop star; the first female solo country artist to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, and the recipient of a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Despite her untimely death, her lasting impact is, in no small degree, due not only to the songs she brought to life in her recordings and live performances, but also to the personas she projected. Both icon and iconoclast, Cline’s images remain as emblazoned on the history of American popular music as the record patches sewn on her suit.

This post was produced through a partnership between Smithsonian Year of Music and RILM with its blog Bibliolore.

Written and compiled by Michael Lupo, Répertoire International de Littérature Musicale (RILM).

Bibliography

Cline, Patsy. Love always, Patsy: Patsy Cline’s letters to a friend. Comp. by Cindy Hazen and Mike Freeman (New York: Berkley Boulevard, 1999). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1999-5126]

Gomery, Douglas. Patsy Cline: The making of an icon (Bloomington: Trafford, 2011). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2011-24682]

Patsy Cline remains a much beloved singer, even though she died in 1963. By 1996, Patsy Cline had become such an icon that The New York Times Magazinepositioned her among a pantheon of women celebrities who transcended any single cultural genre. The making of an icon is a cultural process that transcends traditional biographical analysis. One does not need to know the whole life story of the subject to understand how the subject became an icon. This book explores how Patsy Cline transcended class and poverty to become the country music singer that non-country music fans embraced, going beyond a traditional biography to examine the years beyond her death. (publisher)

Hofstra, Warren R., ed. Sweet dreams: The world of Patsy Cline. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2013). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2013-8235]

Jensen, Joli. “Patsy Cline, musical negotiation, and the Nashville sound”, All that glitters: Country music in America, ed. by George H. Lewis. (Bowling Green: Bowling Green State University, 1993) 38–50. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1993-10704]

A brief survey of the life and career of Patsy Cline (1932–63), whose career spanned a transitional period in country music—the developing “Nashville sound” of the early 1950s. Her recording sessions reveal the search for a commercial country sound, combining pop with country. Her struggle to maintain a country definition demonstrates the defining power of music as a cultural form. (Judy Weidow)

_____. The Nashville sound: Authenticity, commercialization, and country music (Nashville: Vanderbilt University, 1998). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1998-8200]

A history of country music. Emphasis is placed on the late 1950s and early 1960s, when the growing country music industry developed what has become known as the Nashville sound. The style was less twangy, softer, lusher, and more influenced by pop music than the country music styles that preceded it. The sound sparked debates about whether country music had “sold out.” The notion of country music’s authenticity in relation to charges of its commercialism is examined, and the development of the countrypolitan Nashville sound is explored in detail. (Terry Simpkins)

Jones, Margaret. Patsy: The life and times of Patsy Cline (New York: Harper Collins, 1994). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1994-2174]

Nassour, Ellis. Honky tonk angel: The intimate story of Patsy Cline (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1993-3776]

Patsy Cline, the beloved country singer, soared from obscurity to worldwide fame before her life tragically ended at age 30. After breaking all the barriers in the Nashville boys’ club of the music business in the 1950s, she brought the Nashville sound to the nation with her torch ballads and rockabilly tunes like “Walkin’ After Midnight,” “Crazy,” and “I Fall to Pieces.” Earthy, sexy, and vivacious, she has been the subject of a major movie and countless articles, and her albums are still among the top five best-sellers for MCA almost 30 years after her death. In the end it is her music, a standard feature on jukeboxes from Seattle to Siberia, that prevails and keeps on keeping on. Patsy’s colorful and poignant life is explored in intimate detail by a veteran of The New York Times, Ellis Nassour. She is remembered in Honky Tonk Angel by the country stars who knew and loved her, among them Brenda Lee, Roger Miller, Loretta. Lynn, George Jones, Jimmy Dean, and Ralph Emery. With an introduction by the late Dottie West, a complete discography, and many never-before-published photographs, Honky Tonk Angel lovingly re-creates the life of an American legend whose music lives on forever. (publisher)

 

 

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Filed under Mass media, Performers, Popular music

The Smithsonian Institution’s Object of the Day, August 13, Grand Wizzard Theodore’s Turntables

Two Vestax PDX-2000 turntables

In the years between the invention of the phonograph and the rise of digital audio, aural playback devices were considered to be a one-way form of communication. The media they played back was fixed and finalized, ready for passive consumption. As the inventor of the needle drop, and the primary innovator of “the scratch,” Grand Wizzard Theodore helped to shift this mindset by lifting the stylus out of the entrenched path of the groove—dropping it down on other parts of the record, shifting its direction into reverse and back again, slowing down its motion and speeding it up. Based in part on his innovations, freed from the shackles of a non-responsive medium, DJs could suddenly respond to their live audiences in real-time, and in particular to the body language of dancers, bringing pre-recorded music back into the ebb-and-flow of oral tradition.

Granted, long before the birth of hip hop, there were a handful of avant-garde composers who willfully subverted the “fixed object” status of sound recordings. Seeking to break with tradition, composers like John Cage and Pierre Schaeffer took recorded artifacts and playback devices (radios, record players, etc.) and tried to turn them into experimental musical instruments. Still, the first wave of hip hop DJs did something unique in comparison. Unlike the avant-gardists, DJs like Grand Wizzard Theodore, Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, and Afrika Bambaataa kept the groove going even after they removed the needle from the groove. Their music was danceable despite being experimental. It flowed even though it was built on rupture. It could be just-as-if-not-more-funky than the source materials it was built on. And it all began with the reinvention of the wheel—that is, the “wheels of steel”, i.e., two turntables placed in mutual musical dialogue. In taking this object out of its familiar “groove” and dropping it into another one, the record player was made amenable to an entirely new cultural and aesthetic matrix.

In the first video below, Theodore demonstrates his needle drop technique, and in the second video, he describes the genesis of the scratch. The origin story of the second video is well-known by now: After his mom reprimanded a young Theodore for playing his music too loud in the house, he stopped the turntable manually and held the record in place. Nudging the record impatiently back and forth with a rapid motion, he waited for his mother to leave the room. The sound that was inadvertently produced led eventually to the distinctive, futuristic-sounding rhythmic and timbral effect of the scratch, a sonic innovation added to the DJ’s arsenal. But it was an innovation achieved on an old and familiar technological device being used to play (for the most part) old records.

Record scratching is now part of the familiar sonic vocabulary not just of hip hop but also of electronic dance music, ranging from big beat anthems to melancholy trip hop tracks, and also mainstream pop hits like Hanson’s “MMMBop” as produced by the Dust Brothers. In taking an object once viewed as the very antithesis of “creative,” with the record player as delivery mechanism for “canned music,” and showing that in the right hands it could be just as flexible and adaptable as a standard musical instrument, a revolution of sorts was begun. And so it’s fitting that scratching itself has been adapted in so many musical settings over the years.

In the book Hop-Hop DJs and the Evolution of Technology, Andre Sirois describes DJ culture as being “founded on the notions that text and technology are manipulable.” When “hip hop DJ culture uses consumption as the starting point for production,” it “create[s] the meanings/uses of texts and hardware rather than accepting what is created by industries.” Through this “manipulation and…re-coding of recorded sound technology,” the DJ “undermines the read-only ideology of sound reproduction encoded into vinyl records and turntables,” an ideology derived “from more than 100 years of standardization and the exploitation of intellectual property rights by corporations” is subverted. There’s an obvious political dimension to this argument, where an object can be used and consumed in a way that undermines the underlying power relations through which it was created, distributed, and sold. But the object, and the conditions of its production, must be bought and “bought into” before this subversion can take place—resulting in a kind of consumerist double-consciousness that may likely have special resonance for many people of color (consider, for example, how the name “Grand Wizzard Theodore” borrows a white supremacist title only to subvert it).

This resonance has been seized upon in hip hop, in particular, when it comes to the turntable-as-object. As the stylus moves across the spiraling groove of the vinyl record, both linear and repetitive, it enacts a form of movement that echoes Black American history, where progress in civil rights has been repeatedly offset by the reincarnation of past travesties, reborn in new guises. On a more mundane level, it also echoes the back-and-forth interplay between consumption and production in hip hop, the disembedding and reembedding of found sounds in the music, the push-and-pull of rhythmic syncopations that define the music and its funky forebears, and the fuzzy line between innovation and repetition that’s at the heart of the creative process. These and other circular structures, movements, and aesthetics have long played a central role across the multiple pillars of hip hop: from call-and-response vocal interplay to the DJ riding the wheels of steel; from looped breakbeats to emcees battling in a cypher; from dancers’ uprocking and downrocking, executing headspins and backspins, to the rounded bubble letters of graffiti artists; and finally, in the very name of hip hop itself (“When you say hip, I say hop!”). There could be no better visual metaphor for all of this than Grand Wizzard Theodore’s turntables—objects than helped spawn a whole new process of music-making, a process rooted in the give-and-take interplay between music-as-artifact and music-as-oral-tradition.

This post was produced through a partnership between Smithsonian Year of Music and RILM with its blog Bibliolore.

Written and compiled by Jason Lee Oakes, Editor, Répertoire International de Littérature Musicale (RILM).

Bibliography

Chang, Jeff. “Needle to the groove: Snippets from an omnidirectional history”, The record: Contemporary art and vinyl, ed. by Trevor Schoonmaker. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010) 116–119. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2010-24934]

Recounts the accidental invention of “the scratch” by Bronx DJ Grand Wizzard Theodore, going on to survey the DJ’s power to conjure alternative worlds of space and time–worlds where sound, not geography or chronology, binds the universe. These worlds, however, are endangered by the culture industry and its ownership (in many cases) of the sonic raw materials used to transform time and space, a claim to ownership that is constantly and creatively subverted by collectors, crate diggers, and DJs. (Jason Lee Oakes)

D’Arcangelo, Gideon. “Recycling music, answering back: Toward an oral tradition of electronic music”, Proceedings of the International Conference on New Interfaces for Musical Expression (Hamamatsu: NIME, 2004) 55–58.[RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2004-42094]

Outlines a framework for understanding new musical compositions and performances that utilize pre-existing sound recordings. In attempting to articulate why musicians are increasingly using sound recordings in their creative work, the author calls for and shows examples of new performance tools that enable the dynamic use of pre-recorded music such as record scratching and sampling. By using two variable speed turntables connected by a mixer, hip hop DJ began blending recording songs in seamless continuity. Blending and mixing gave way to scratching, or backspinning a record in rhythm. This gave DJs a way to put more of their own musical selves into the playback, featuring their rhythmic skills. Grand Wizzard Theodore is attributed with inventing scratching in 1975. Similar practices emerged concurrently in the New York art world around the same time in the work of conceptual artist Christian Marclay. If recorded sound creates fixed musical experiences that sit in our memory like non-biodegradable plastics, then the digital sampler is a kind of music recycling machine that breaks down, digests and processes these memories for reuse. This points the way to a new form of give and take in creative influence. The sampler has been a first step in re-establishing the process of call and response, familiar from oral traditions, in the all-electronic medium. (author)

Jam, Billy. “Creator of the scratch: Grand Wizzard Theodore”, Hip hop slam. Accessed August 9, 2019. http://www.hiphopslam.com/articles/int_grandwizardtheo.html [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2010-24934] [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2001-46832]

An interview with the hip hop DJ credited with the invention of the scratch. For someone who lives for scratch music, visiting legendary DJ Grand Wizzard Theodore (GWT)–the creator of the scratch–at his Bronx, New York home could only be compared to an Elvis Presley fan making a pilgrimage to Graceland to visit the King of rock ‘n’ roll in his day. Like many of the great pioneers of hip hop that created the genre on these Bronx streets three decades earlier, GWT was not rich from a culture that he helped shape and form. But unlike many of his contemporaries from hip hop’s seminal years, who are embittered by the fact that they live in comparative poverty/obscurity while contemporary “hip hoppers” are making millions off something they created, GWT is not at all bitter. In fact he is a warm and humble man who is gracious to be a part of a cultural movement that he never thought would spread from the streets of the Bronx to every other corner of the world. (author)

Katz, Mark. Groove music: The art and the culture of the hip-hop DJ (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2012-1126]

It’s all about the scratch in this book about the figure that defined hip hop: the DJ. Today hip hop is a global phenomenon, and the sight and sound of DJs mixing and scratching is familiar in every corner of the world. But hip hop was born in the streets of New York in the 1970s when a handful of teenagers started experimenting with spinning vinyl records on turntables in new ways. Although rapping has become the face of hip hop, for nearly 40 years the DJ has proven the backbone of the culture. Here the author (an amateur DJ himself) delves into the world of the DJ, tracing the art of the turntable from its humble beginnings in the Bronx in the 1970s to its meteoric rise to global phenomenon today. Based on extensive interviews with practicing DJs, historical research, and personal experience, a history of hip hop is presented from the point of view of the people who invented the genre–from the 1970s beginnings of DJ Kool Herc and Grand Wizzard Theodore, to 21st-century Concertos for Turntablists and Academies of Scratch. More specifically, the author focuses on what he calls the “performative DJ”: those who not only select recordings but manipulate them in real time for audiences. Interviews are included with figures such as Grand Wizzard Theodore (the man credited with inventing turntable scratching) and DMC-winning turntablist DJ Qbert. DJs step up to discuss a wide range of topics, including the transformation of the turntable from a playback device to an instrument in its own right, the highly charged competitive DJ battles, the game-changing introduction of digital technology, and the complex politics of race and gender in the DJ scene. (publisher)

Sirois, André. Hop-hop DJs and the evolution of technology: Cultural exchange, innovation, and democratization (New York: Peter Lang, 2016).

Smith, Sophy. Hip-hop turntablism, creativity and collaboration (Farnham: Ashgate, 2013). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2016-3575]

Armed only with turntables, a mixer, and a pile of records, hip hop DJs and turntable musicians have changed the face of music. However, whilst hip hop has long been recognized as an influential popular culture both culturally and sociologically, hip hop music is rarely taken seriously as an artistic genre. This book values hip hop music as worthy of musicological attention and offers a new approach to its study, focusing on the music itself and providing a new framework to examine not only the musical product, but also the creative process through which it was created. Based on ten years of research among turntablist communities, this is the first book to explore the creative and collaborative processes of groups of DJs working together as hip hop turntable teams. Focusing on a variety of subjects–from the history of turntable experimentation and the development of innovative sound manipulation techniques, to turntable team formation, collective creation and an analysis of team routines–the author examines how turntable teams have developed new ways of composing music, defining characteristics of team routines in both the process and the final artistic product. This author also introduces a new turntable notation system and methodology for the analysis of turntable compositions, covering aspects such as material, manipulation techniques, and structure, while also outlining the impact of individual musicians such as Grand Wizard Theodore, Grandmaster Flash, DJ Flare, and DJ QBert. (publisher)

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Cathy Berberian and pop art

 

In the 1950s and 1960s the musical avant-garde developed a new type of vocal composition that incorporated everyday vocal sounds, such as gestural utterances or expressions of affect, into aesthetic parameters. Cathy Berberian took center stage in this development thanks to the extraordinary range of her vocal capabilities; she inspired numerous composers to write in this emerging style, and was herself engaged in the creative process.

Berberian’s composition Stripsody (1966), a sounding glossary of typical onomatopoeia of comic strips, can be understood as a musical pendant to the paintings of pop artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein.

Her creative process was closely intertwined with input from the Italian semiotician Umberto Eco, who was a close friend of Berberian and her former husband, the composer Luciano Berio. Eco encouraged her to create a composition out of her interest for comic onomatopoeia, and he acquainted her with the Italian artist Eugenio Carmi, who created the first visual transformation of her vocal glossary.

The connection to pop art, however, is not restricted to the aesthetic approach; in form and content, Berberian and her Stripsody relate to pop art characteristics on several levels: (1) with her appearance, performances, and image, Berberian stylized herself as a pop icon; (2) with Stripsody, she took exactly the same path that Umberto Eco described in Apocalypse postponed, from avant-garde music through pop art to comic strips; (3) several components of Stripsody allude directly to typical popular themes that can also be found in the works of contemporaneous pop artists; and (4) the work directly quotes comics that enjoyed pop-icon status.

This according to “Musical pop art: Cathy Berberian’s Stripsody (1966)” by Marie Louise Herzfeld-Schild, an essay included in Music and figurative arts in the twentieth century (Turnhout: Brepols, 2016, pp. 150–65).

Today is Berberian’s birthday! Above and below, performing Stripsody.

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Captain Beefheart’s “Trout mask replica”

 

The release on 16 June 1969 of Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band’s Trout mask replica, a double album comprising 28 stream-of-consciousness songs filled with abstract rhythms and guttural bellows, dramatically altered the pop landscape.

Yet even if the album cast its radical vision over the future of music, much of its artistic strength is actually drawn from the past. Beefheart’s incomparable opus, an album that divided (rather than united) a pop audience, is informed by a variety of diverse sources. Trout mask replica is a hybrid of poetic declarations inspired by both Walt Whitman and the beat poets, the field hollers of the Delta Blues, the urban blues of Howlin’ Wolf, the gospel blues of Blind Willie Johnson, and the free jazz of Ornette Coleman.

The album was not so much an arcane specimen of the avant-garde, but rather a defiantly original declaration of the American imagination.

This according to Trout mask replica by Kevin Courrier (New York: Continuum, 2007).

Today is the 50th anniversary of Trout mask replica’s release! Below, a lively and informative introduction to the album.

BONUS: A detailed analysis of Frownland, the album’s first track:

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Benny Goodman goes classical

 

Benny Goodman was only 28 years old when he reached the pinnacle of his career, bringing his big band to Carnegie Hall in January 1938.

Joseph Szigeti, who took an interest in jazz and admired Goodman’s playing for its expressiveness and technical proficiency, was present at that tremendously successful historic concert. That same year, he suggested the idea to Goodman to underwrite a commission for a short concert piece by Bela Bartók for clarinet, violin, and piano, with virtuoso candenzas in the vein of the violin rhapsodies.

Bartók completed the piece in September 1938, and Goodman returned to Carnegie Hall a year after his famous jazz concert with the premiere of two movements of Bartók’s work. The reviews of the sound recording of Contrasts, made during the composer’s visit to the United States in the spring of 1940, were unequivocal in their praise of Goodman’s performance.

This according to “Bartók: Kontrasztok, Benny Goodman és a szabad előadásmód” by Vera Lampert (Magyar zene: Zenetudományi folyóirat LIII/1 [február 2015] pp. 48–65).

Today would have been Goodman’s 110th birthday! Above and below, the 1940 session.

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Maldita Vecindad and activism

 

La Maldita Vecindad y los Hijos del Quinto Patio (usually referred to as Maldita Vecindad, or La Maldita, for short) produces music that is frequently categorized as fusion, due to its blending of rock, ska, reggae, and punk with traditional Mexican styles like danzón and bolero.

Deeply rooted in the working class, Maldita Vecindad is a pioneer of the rock en español movement, and its easily recognizable fusion rock—as well as the pachuco fashions favored by the members—have helped it to become one of the most influential groups of contemporary Mexican rock music.

From the group’s beginnings in the wake of the 1985 earthquake that devastated Mexico City, Maldita Vecindad’s members have drawn on their fame to make their fans more aware of leftist ideas and social causes, including the need for actively participating in relief efforts following the 1985 quake, political campaigns, and raising consciousness about HIV and AIDS. The group’s motto is paz y baile (peace and dance), a perfect combination of social message with ritual.

This according to “Maldita Vecindad, ritual, and memory: Paz y baile” by Lori Oxford, an essay included in Sounds of resistance: The role of music in multicultural activism (Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2013, pp. 355–72).

Below, Maldita Vecindad performs in 2014.

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Girija Devi and ṭhumrī

 

In an interview, the Hindustani vocalist Girija Devi recalled how some performers of khayāl—the dominant North Indian classical tradition—looked down on ṭhumrī, which was considered a light-classical tradition.

“The new khayāl establishment appeared to create a climate of opinion in which the ṭhumrī and its allied genres were regarded as either easy to master, or otherwise inferior.”

“This bothered me immensely, so I decided to match the competence of khayāl vocalists on their home turf, and challenge them to match me on mine. I worked very hard on my khayāl, and performed it more widely and consistently than any other Benares vocalist in recent times. I make it a point to perform a khayal at every concert, and it consumes almost half of the duration of my recital. After that, I perform a few semi-classical pieces.”

“In the khayāl we get to the root of the raga’s melodic personality, and elaborate upon it according to the established presentation format. In the ṭhumrī we get into the emotional depth of the poetry, and express it as musically as we can. I was brought up in a family with a very deep involvement with literature, particularly poetry, so I handle poetry in ṭhumrī with sensitivity.”

Quoted in “Girija Devi: The queen of Benares” by Deepak S. Raja (Sruti 250 [July 2005] pp. 41–50).

Today would have been Girija Devi’s 90th birthday! Above, performing in 2015; below, performing the ṭhumrī Babul mora in 2014.

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Pete Seeger’s legacy

 

Pete Seeger essentially created the folk revival movement in the United States—carrying on the work of Woody Guthrie and helping to spawn the careers of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, among others—while also linking this movement to political protest and iconoclasm.

As a result of his anti-war crusading and open Communist leanings, Seeger was a central target of the infamous HUAC witch hunts, and was widely blacklisted and condemned. In the process, however, he ended up inventing the college circuit and becoming the cornerstone of the 1960s folk revolution.

Galvanized by the 1998 tribute album Where have all the flowers gone?, the late 1990s and 2000s saw a reawakening of interest in Seeger’s music and cultural legacy, which included Bruce Springsteen’s album-length We shall overcome: The Seeger sessions.

This according to “Voice of America” by Phil Sutcliffe (Mojo February 2007).

Today would have been Seeger’s 100th birthday! Below, his iconic 1968 broadcast of Waist deep in the Big Muddy; the antiwar song was censored by CBS when he taped it for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in 1967, but the following year the network caved to pressure from the show’s hosts and allowed it to be aired.

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