ChickenBones: A Journal
for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes
There is a wonderful scene in the film where Langston Hughes poem Trumpet Player is
recited while a myriad of black and white photographs flash pass accompanied
by some of the best trumpet rifts recorded by Blue Note
Jazz on DVD
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Blue Note: A History of Modern Jazz (VHS Doc)
By Amin Sharif
It seems only a few years ago that PBS stations across the nation offered their groundbreaking series on jazz. While controversy simmers concerning the value of the series to jazz history, there can be little doubt that for most of America Ken Burns documentary was their first real introduction to the subject. Perhaps, the most pertinent criticism, among many, launched at the PBS series, was that it did not give enough attention to the modern jazz movement.
Ken Burns seemed to emphasize the social and artistic cohesion that early jazz fostered among blacks and white Americans. Thus Benny Goodmans swing (jazz) was placed on an equal footing with bebop. It was this kind of equalitarian effort to make jazz palatable to all those white folks out there in vanilla television land that left hardcore, mostly black, devotees of jazz wanting.
This is not to say that jazz did not, in fact, bring diverse elements of American culture together. Jazz is, after all, Americas only classical and original art form. But, if one does not acknowledge the black grief and anger, as well as genius, that brought jazz forth, then he is playing the music short. And, here is the rub with Ken Burns.
He is, in the main, a great storyteller and commentator on Americana. But jazz is so complex and organic a subject that even the most accomplished jazz historian would have difficulty rendering a truthful and complete vision of Americas musical art form. It would have been better, perhaps, for Burns to portray a single chapter of jazz history than to attempt to make such a comprehensive statement.
In contrast to the PBS series on jazz, Julian Benedikts earlier documentary (1996) about the legendary Blue Note jazz label is a much less ambitious but more focused approach to jazz. It is an impressive and high stylized chronicling of Alfred Lion and Francis Wolfs uncompromising effort to record the best jazz musicians of the 40s, 50s, and 60s.
It was in these decades that the modern jazz (i.e. bebop, the cool school, new music, etc.) took hold and the Swing era began to wane. Blue Notes music was, as its founder Alfred Lion, puts it without commercial adornments. Even without a prior knowledge of what Blue Note was about, one can derive from this statement a serious commitment to the music rather then to commercial success or musical fads. Lions statement would be almost an anachronism in the hyper-commercialism that exists within the music industry today.
But not only was Lion committed to the music, he also possessed a deep respect for the jazz artists that he recorded. Benedikt makes this point, in poignant fashion early on, by utilizing a story told by Francis Paudras concerning the great jazz pianist Bud Powell and Lion. It seemed that Paudras had gone to hear some of the greats of bebop play at a club. Max Roach and Charlie Parker were among the luminaries who were performing on this date.
Paudras relates that on this occasion how Bud Powell out played all of them. But, then for some reason, Powell began ghost playing, moving his fingers as though he were playing a composition without touching the keys. As no music was being played, the audience grew impatient and then outraged.
They pulled Powell away from the piano and threw him out on the pavement. Powell, who was famous for his eclectic behavior, hid under a car like a cat according to Paudras. It was then that Alfred Lion came on the scene, talked Bud out from under the car and took him home with him.
One has only to contrast this portrayal of Lion and Bud with that of Barry Gordy and his stormy relationship with the Funk Brothers in another fine documentary, Standing in the Shadow of Motown, to understand how unusual it was for black musicians to be respected by those who owned recording labels. It is clear from this documentary that Gordy had little or no respect for the musicians that played the background music for almost every significant Motown hit from the Temptations Aint to Proud to Beg, and My Girl, to Marvin Gayes groundbreaking effort Whats Goin On.
Only rarely were the Funk Brothers ever listed on any of Motowns albums. And, only now, with the release of Standing in the Shadow of Motown do we know how great their contribution was to the Detroit Sound. Perhaps, even more pertinent to our discussion, would be the relationship that Herb Lubinsky, owner of Savoy Records, had with such artists as Jimmy Scott. For decades, Lubinsky treated Scott with total disregard for his talent or humanity. When the great Ray Charles sought to release an album he produced with Scott, Lubinsky took extraordinary measures to make sure that it never reached the public.
It is Benedikts eye for the interlocking relations between all members of the Blue Note family such as Bud Powell that makes this documentary unique and compelling. Then, of course, there is all that Blue Note music. From Cassandra Wilsons sultry cover of Blues Master Skip James 32-20, to a searing Sonny Rollins saxophone rift, and Freddie Hubbards powerful solo on Cantaloupe Isle, this documentary is definitely about the music. But, then, there were nearly 1,000 Blue Note albums to choose from in making and producing a soundtrack for this documentary. And, what is incredible about the Blue Notes recordings is that ninety-five percent of the music was and remains some of the best jazz ever put on wax.
We have just mentioned that it is the interlocking relationship between Lion and the artists that makes this documentary so compelling. But just as compelling is Lions relationship to his second wife Ruth, and his lifelong friend Francis Wolf. Anyone who knows anything about jazz has seen the signature black and white photographs of jazz artists taken by Wolf. Using the simplest of lighting, signal flash, and always a black background, as photographer William Claxton explains, was the technique that Wolf used to achieve his astonishing photographs.
Taj Mahal states that Wolf gave a kind of royal treatment to all the artists that he photographed. There is an especially moving portrait that Wolf took of a young Bobby Cranshaw that I especially like in the film. Bobby is shown standing alone with his arms wrapped around his instrument (bass) as though it were his favorite loverwhich is precisely what any instrument is for any great musician.
Like Lion, Francis Wolf was born in pre-World War II Germany. For the post baby boom generation, Germany is only known today as the birthplace of Nazism. But the Germany that Lion and Wolf grew up in was entirely different. Berlin, Germanys capital, was a vibrant international and multi-cultural city long before Hitler came to power. Germans were, for example, in the vanguard of the early film industry.
In fact, the first great, albeit racist, American film (A Birth of a Nation) was partly made in response to the groundbreaking cinematic movement in Germany. And it was this exposure to international culture, especially early jazz, which allowed Lion and Wolf to recognize the genius of Art Blakey, Jimmy Smith, and a myriad of other jazz geniuses. Wolf would be Lions constant companion in the shaping and documentation of modern jazz. In fact, he would outlive Lion by nearly a decade.
Ruth Lion was Alfreds second wife and through interviews with her we have another testament to how committed to jazz her husband was. Ruth states that for Lion nothing was as important as the music. For more than eleven years, Ruth pursued Alfred and in the end finally married him. There is not a hint of bitterness in her voice as she talks about being Lions second great love. Instead, only her joy and laughter come through on the screen.
Undoubtedly, Ruth is one of those exceptional women who understand that great artists must go where there muse takes them. The few moments that Ruth appears on the screen are some of the best in the entire documentary. It is Ruth who gives us a sense of Lions revolutionary social vision. Alfred was the first placed pictures of black artists on the album cover, Ruth states. This was at a time when other jazz labels used innocuous picture of pretty white girls on the album covers to make the music more palatable to white audiences.
I have said that Benedikt offers us a much more honest and stylized look at jazz. There is a wonderful scene in the film where Langston Hughes poem Trumpet Player is recited while a myriad of black and white photographs flash pass accompanied by some of the best trumpet rifts recorded by Blue Note. In these rifts, as in all of Blue Notes recordings, there is a deep appreciation of the blues. Jazz lover Maurice Cullez is one of many European luminaries who appear in the documentary. Cullez states that there was always a blues feel to Lions recording. And, it was this bluesiness that set Blue Note apart from many other jazz labels.
Blues is, in fact, the organic link between the early jazz styles of Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet and the modern jazz we hear today. Hip-Hop is the only African-American music style that does not take the contribution of the blues seriously. The sampling of jazz by Hip-Hop artists is really no more than a secondhand attempt to connect their music to the great reservoir of black music. But, sadly, jazz sampling is about as far as these young artists are willing to go. You will never hear any of todays rappers sampling the works of Son House, Muddy, Leroy Carr, or Muddy Waters. Why should they? Many of them dont even know who these Blues geniuses are.
There are those that make the argument that the Hip-Hop generation cannot be compared to any previous historical era. This may be so. But what is not taken into account is that black folks have always been confronted with unique historical realities. Slavery and Segregation were a thousand times more trying on the souls of black folk than anything currently faced by hip-hoppers. Yet they have chosen to express their anger in a manner that is at worst degrading and at best irrelevant to their circumstance.
If hip-hoppers are angry, so what? In this documentary Marion McClinton states that bebop was created by black artists who were as angry, if not more so, than todays generation. McClinton paraphrases Barakas Dutchman when speaking of the bebop genius Charlie Parker. If Parker had killed the first ten white people he saw, McClinton affirms, he would have never had to play a note of music.
And here is where distinct differences arise between Hip-Hop artists and their predecessors; the former artists do not know how to transform their anger beyond simple sound and fury. They do not understand or even recognize the alchemy of the blues. In its earliest form, the blues was the enslaved Africans first act toward freedom. It was the naming of this grief and anger-more importantly the transformation of these emotions that makes the blues central to black aesthetics.
Without the blues, Hip-Hop will always stand outside of the aesthetics of African-American creativity. This may be why so many so-called Hip-Hop scholars hold a somewhat disrespectful attitude toward the Civil Rights Movement. It was this movement, more than any other, in American history, which stood for the transformation of grief and anger into conscious creativity. Perhaps, when faced with such creativity, the Hip-Hop generation sees one of their shortcomings.
D.J. Smash, who also appears in this documentary, is one of the Hip-Hop generation that has begun to acknowledge that his peers are woefully ignorant of their past. It was during a trip to England that he discovered European youngsters dancing to the music of jazz artists. Smash admits that he was taken aback at the fact that white kids a thousand miles away knew more about jazz than he did. There is a kind of they know something that I dont realization in Smashs voice that belies an amazement that others can find a validity in jazz that is absent in the minds of nearly all black American youth.
But hopefully, Smash is out there wising his generation up about jazz. And, with a deeper appreciation of jazz, they may move on and re-discover the blues as well.
It was not just the suggestion of the blues that made Lions recording special. It was also the way that Lions packaged his albums that made Blue Notes recordings priceless. Cover art came about when Columbia Records developed the 20-minute LP. These LPs (i.e. long playing albums) revolutionized the recording industry. But they also required a different method of packaging.
Blue Note was exceptionally lucky in recruiting Reid Miles as their cover artist. Miles was a remarkably gifted man whose cover designs gave Lions albums a sophisticated look. Many of the covers were small masterpieces of daring, sometimes even edgy, modern art that fully complimented the music inside. There are many jazz fans that have diligently collected these album covers over the years. D.J. Smash, who inherited his fathers collection of Blue Note recordings, states the he often takes out a recording just to look at the cover.
Yet what is surprising about Reid was that he wasnt even a jazz fan! Reid simply appreciated the opportunity afforded him by Lion to create fantastic art. But, if the invention of the LP allowed Lion to develop unparalleled cover art, it also nearly cost him his company. Blue Notes entire library of recordings had been done on a 12-minute format. The LP meant that all of Lions recordings were now obsolete. The result was that he almost sold the company. Thankfully, Lion did not. For, he was soon to meet and record first Art Blakey and then Jimmy Smith. After these recordings, modern jazz would never be the same.
Art Blakey was especially close to Lion. They were like brothers, Ruth Lion declares. Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers are as legendary as any group in jazz. Their Night in Tunisia remains one of the most recognizable tunes in jazz long before Chaka Khan covered it in the seventies. The volcanic drive of the Messengers rhythm section led by Blakey was reminiscent of Chick Webbs equally explosive swing band and was a constant trademark of the many versions of the group.
But changes in front men, whether on saxophone or trumpet, only added various shading to the style of the group. The Messengers always played some of the best jazz of the modern era. The Blue Note documentary includes an astounding videotape of the Messengers playing Moanin with Freddy Hubbard (considered by many to be the heir-apparent of Dizzy Gillespie) on trumpet and the great Ron Carter on bass. Freddie is playing full out and is a joy to the ears. And one can clearly hear Carter thumping away in the background.
Perhaps the greatest contribution Blue Note made in jazz was the recording of the musical genius Jimmy Smith. Forever, Jimmy Smith will be appreciated for bringing the complexity of the organ on to the jazz scene. With the organ, Smith invigorated modern jazz with a different kind of down home blues voicing. Lion was so impressed with Smiths ability on the organ that he was ready to abandon Blue Note and become Smiths road manager according to his second wife Ruth.
This, if true, would be exceeding high praise for Smith. Placing this to one side, there is no doubt at all that Jimmy Smith revolutionized modern jazz with Lions help. What is ironic about todays jazz scene is the near total lack of respect accorded to Smith. Jazz fans almost never rank Smith with the likes of Miles or Trane. What they fail to take into account is that Miles and Trane had the examples of Armstrong and Parker to guide their development.
But there was no precedent for Smith to follow. Jimmy started from scratch with only his own talent and taste to guide him. It is stated in this film that Smith rented a warehouse and practiced for an entire year to develop his signature style. Whether this is entirely true is hard to tell. But what Jimmy put on wax for Alfred Lion was nothing short of incredible.
But Lion was always looking for new talent. He recorded Thelonius Monk when other labels refused to do so. He passed over the eclectic behavior of Bud Powell and early on recognized his genius. Clifford Brown, Freddie Hubbard, Jay Johnson, Horace Silver, Dexter Gordon, and hundreds of others musicians were allowed to make their mark in the jazz world through the help of Alfred Lion.
Assisting Lion in this monumental work was an outstanding recording engineer named Rudy Van Gilder. It was Rudy who made sure that Blue Note sound came through in all its power and elegance on every disc. There is a point in the film where Rudy is asked a question about Blue Notes achievements.
Van Gilder states, in almost mathematical terms, how Lion was after an elegant solution to the problem of recording modern jazz. This view of elegance is not simply a feature of modern jazz. Astrophysicists also see elegance as a feature embedded in our own universe. That Lion seemed to have discovered its application in jazz shows again just how far ahead his thinking on the subject had come.
Todays Blue Note is no longer in the hands of geniuses like Lion, Wolf, Miles, or Van Gilder. It was sold by Lion decades ago. Cassandra Wilson says that the emphasis of Blue Note is no longer on instrumentalists. Vocalists are now what the label features most. That may be so, musical taste change. But for me Blue Note will always be the older, more elegant and visionary, as portrayed in Benedikts documentary. But whoever you areyoung or old, black or whiteyou owe it to yourself to see this masterpiece if given the chance. Dig you latter.
P.S. Check out my review of Ken Burns Special on Jack Johnson in late January!
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From The World and Africa, 1965
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update 3 July 2008