If you were at the James McMurtry show last night in Fall River, Massachusetts, your least favorite intellectually dishonest blogger was there with you. I had forgotten how utterly compelling McMurtry could be live. He doesn’t exactly scream charisma, either on his albums or in his bearing or in his limited singing voice. He’s extremely socially awkward and only interacts with the crowd to the extent that he wants to tell them things. But in this solo acoustic show (the first time I’ve seen him in this format, though this is probably the 7th or so time I’ve seen him), I don’t know that I have ever seen an audience as singularly focused on the performer. Usually there’s some jerks talking, people milling about, whatever. Not last night. It was almost total attention. I guess it’s a combination of his unusual personal intensity (he really seems to start right through you when performing) and the amazing quality of the songs.
True story. In 2005, I was driving back from Las Vegas to Santa Fe. And I was getting really sick. By the hour, I was feeling worse and worse. I suppose I should have had my friend drive, but he hated driving and didn’t own a car. Anyway, by the time we got to Flagstaff I was really struggling and thinking about pulling over for a nap or to have him take over. But he had just purchased McMurtry’s Live in Aught-Three album. The only of his albums I think I had at that point was Where’d You Hide the Body, so I wasn’t all that knowledgeable of his catalog. Anyway, listening to this, struggling to go on, was the first time I ever heard “Choctaw Bingo.” I was so blown away and so amused by this comedic tour de force of a meth family that it picked me right up and I slammed through the rest of that drive and got home OK. I credit it with helping to save my life that night. This is a song that works best electric, but it was highly enjoyable to see last night in any form.
Edward Bland’s 1959 documentary The Cry of Jazz is one of the most remarkable films I’ve ever seen. An early statement of the black nationalism that would become famous in the late 60s, Bland argues in this 30 minute film that only African-Americans have the soul and history to play jazz and that whites need to understand their inferiority in the genre is precisely because of their racist history. It’s an amazing film.
Shot for nearly nothing, The Cry for Jazz has bad acting, cheesy dialogue, and an awesome political point. There’s some sort of jazz club meeting. Whites and blacks are both there. They start arguing about race and jazz. The whites typically eschew any sense that blacks are better at jazz or that they have any responsibility for racial inequality or the legacy of slavery and racism. And for Bland, those two things are inseparable. The rest of the film switches from a narrator explaining the relationship between race and music (along with some quite technical information about the music, not every casual fan would get all the references) and the conversation continuing onto new points. The black characters in the room utter such lines as “The Negro is the only Human American” and “If whites had souls, they wouldn’t have tried to steal the Negro’s.” The legacy of racism creates the suffering that allows jazz to exist, thus “Jazz is the one element in American life where whites must be humble to Negroes.”
At the point of maybe convincing the whites, the lead narrator makes an even more shocking statement–Jazz is dying. Why? Because it can’t contain the black experience. New forms of music are needed, a clear reference to rock and roll. One assumes Bland saw hip hop as the extension of this late in life, but I wonder. And let’s face it, jazz is pretty white in 2013. Not exclusively so. But pretty white.
Who thus was Bland’s choice as the vanguard of the African nationalist music at the time? Why Sun Ra and his Arkestra! First, it’s of course the appropriate choice but who knows how obvious that was in 1959? Second, this is the first known footage of the Arkestra! It’s shot very darkly so most of it is of John Gilmore and you only see Ra’s back. But wow.
The film was quite controversial within the African-American intellectual community. Ralph Ellison hated it. LeRoi Jones, later known as Amiri Baraka, loved it. For a period where assimilationism dominated the civil rights movement, this is quite the forward thinking statement.
Certainly not the best movie I’ve ever seen but judged for its jaw-dropping message and audacity, it’s a must see.
The great free jazz drummer has passed. Here’s a clip of him in possibly my favorite jazz band of all-time, Last Exit, with Peter Brotzmann, Bill Laswell, and Sonny Sharrock. This clip really features Jackson’s work.
I know after watching that, everyone is ready for a nice smooth mellow evening, just like after listening to a little Kenny G. I love Last Exit so much because for all the craziness, Jackson still grounds it in a big blues-rock beat that drives the music like a hammer.
Check this out too:
Mr. Jackson was born in Fort Worth on Jan. 12, 1940. His mother, Ella Mae, played piano and organ at a Methodist church and his father, William, was the proprietor of Fort Worth’s only black-owned record store and jukebox supplier. The saxophonists King Curtis and David (Fathead) Newman were relatives; among the musicians who preceded him at I. M. Terrell High School were Mr. Coleman and the saxophonists Dewey Redman and Julius Hemphill. Mr. Jackson played his first public engagement, with the saxophonist James Clay, at age 15, then worked with Ray Charles’s band in Dallas. In 1966 he went to New York, where he enrolled at New York University. That year he made his first recording, with the Charles Tyler Ensemble, and joined Ayler’s band. His work with Ayler is documented on two roughly recorded but urgently played volumes of “Live at Slug’s Saloon.”
So the same Fort Worth high school produced Ornette Coleman, Julius Hemphill, Dewey Redman, and Shannon Jackson. Huh. Whatever was in the water out there was pretty potent.
If Robert Byrd and his awesome fiddling were still in the Senate, it seems we could solve most of our political problems.
Bipartisanship around mountain music is something I think everyone can get around.
Byrd actually was a quite a good fiddler.
Woody Guthrie summed up the 2013 Republican Party without knowing it.
I was lucky enough to see Robbie Fulks last night at Cafe Nine in New Haven. You should check out his new album. It’s quite good. Here’s an old favorite:
And here’s the lead song of the new album, with a title I think everyone at LGM can support.
For your Saturday night, Louis Armstrong in Copenhagen, either 1933 or 1934 (sources use different dates). This has to be one of the first recordings of live music on film. Sound is pretty good too.
Do you ever wonder what your LGM writers do on Friday evenings, scouring the internet to entertain you? Well this, your daily World War II musical artifact, is pretty much what I do. It goes well with a negroni. As does everything else.
…A film in the same series, “Yankee Doodler” is just a bit more problematic, as music, as racism, and as propaganda. But hey, it stars Fred from I Love Lucy.
Others may have their own choice for the year’s best song, but I don’t know that I’ve heard a song as powerful as Jason Isbell’s “Elephant.” Note: this is not a song that will make you feel happy. It is about cancer. Be warned.
Warren Zevon is ten years gone. A remembrance from last month.
An appropriate song to end this exploration of labor and song is this piece on deindustrialization, Tom Russell’s “U.S. Steel.” I hope you enjoyed this set of labor music.