Reclaiming the Spirit of Jazz
by Phyllis Lodge
For those of you who may think this piece is too long, go and talk to bassist Percy Heath. He lit this fire back in January at the IAJE Conference in Long Beach, California. I simply took my cue from it and ran. As I confessed back then, I did not get to take notes, so I am unable to quote Doctor Heath directly, but I can sure speak on the issue he raised. I made reference to it in an earlier piece so I will get to the point. Point is, do you know where this music came from?
To begin at the beginning, my dad, Melvin Lodge, was a local Chicago musician in his younger days. His first instrument was a guitar before he switched to the bass. On the evenings he had a gig, he would come in from work, take a short nap after dinner, then get up, shower and get sharp. Still wearing his stocking cap and his Old Spice, he would buff his shoes to a spit-shine before getting into his jacket, grabbing his instrument and heading for 63rd Street. Chicago’s southside was definitely the place for the music in the 1950’s.
My mom, Rose Lodge, could really sing. She, her sister, my Aunt Pauline and our cousin Genie, all worked as ushers at a place called the Oriental Theater in downtown Chicago. The Oriental featured entertainers like Frank Sinatra, Frank Fontaine and others. Mom and them had friends who ushered over at the Regal near 47th Street who would get them into the shows there that included Miles Davis, Sammy Davis, Jr. Joe Williams, Redd Foxx, Pigmeat Markham and Moms Mabley. There was one guy whose name they forgot, but his act was unforgettable. He did this routine where he would just bring a ladder onstage and play the role of a man who was totally drunk. He would balance this ladder upright in the middle of the stage and begin to climb up one side of it with the ladder being held upright simply by his uncanny mastery of gravity and balance. He would literally climb up one side of the ladder and down the other side, a little at a time, teetering in the air as he rambled on in an intoxicated babble while the audience would all be holding their breath in unison. Talk about a sobering experience.
Many a night my parents along with my mom’s siblings who would come and sit around in our kitchen, singing All The Things You Are, or Get Your Kicks on Route 66 in all the parts. Mom and Aunt Pauline sang the soprano and alto parts while Dad and Uncle Emmett and Uncle Alex sang tenor. Uncle Bob and Uncle Leon would handle the bass parts. Sometimes they would sing spirituals all night. Those were our lullabies.
Members of our extended family were also musicians. Penny Pendleton, christened Uncle Penny was actually my dad’s best friend from DuSable High School, but he and dad were close enough to be brothers. The circle also included a very brilliant, yet laid-back guitarist from Evanston named Bobby Robinson, a highly personable drummer named Chante and occasionally a vibes player named Joe. Uncle Penny was a premier bassist who tutored music for years and coached many of the Chicago vocalists back then. He also played trumpet, piano and was a composer. All three of Uncle Penny and Auntie Myrel’s children were creative, gifted folks. He even named his youngest after Thad Jones! Many a day Uncle Penny would slide through with a new album he wanted us to hear. Everybody would pile into the living room to check it out, because Uncle Penny knew which way the music was going. Pianist Oscar Peterson, especially during the days of the trio with Ray Brown on bass and Ed Thigpen on drums, was always a prime choice. As I began to grow in to the music, I would trot down the street to Uncle Penny’s to sit in his basement where he had all his music, and at his feet where I received at an early age, my primary education in the music known as jazz.
No one could throw a jam session better than my folks could. The whole neighborhood would join the set. Live music and everything! This was beautiful, since the music generally lasted throughout the night, so no one was left at home crying the blues about the music being too loud. Although my sisters (there were five of us by now) and I were generally sent to bed early in the evening, we would secretly sit up and listen to the grown folks clown. Finally we would drift off to sleep, the music filling our dreams. Holidays like the 4th of July would have been inconceivable unless somebody’s stero on the block was blaring Jimmy Smith or Jack McDuff; Ella Fitzgerald, Joe Williams and the Count Basie Band, the Modern Jazz Quartet or Ray Charles or Nancy Wilson . All day long the folks would take turns, starting at typically 11:30 a.m. An unidentified neighbor would spin for awhile. A few hours later, somebody else would don the dee-jay hat, and on and on deep into the night until folks just started falling asleep. My sisters called jazz “holiday music”. The culture was a source of pride and enjoyment. The music was one of the things that made the community what it was. And the community, in turn did the same for the music.
These days the kitchen sets have faded. Dad, Uncle Penny, Uncle Bob, Uncle Leon and Uncle Emmett are all ancestors. Mom rarely sings anymore. Days when she seemed a bit blue, I would slip downstairs at our old house and put on some Coltrane, and she would perk right up. She would come and sit at the top of the basement stairs and listen to “John” blow, You Leave Me Breathless or Lush Life. Sometimes she would bring a beer, and listen, her head tilted slightly toward the sound with a quiet smile. Listening and perhaps reminiscing. And times like this I could recall how my dad used to exclaim in amazement: You used to hate jazz when you were a child – and now look at you! My father predicted that I would someday write about jazz and keep the flame alive. This was years before I knew I was in love with the art form. Nobody knows you better than your parents, I suppose.
Jazz – the one true part of ourselves that is more effectively hidden from us than our Divinity.
I think of how many of the great masters like Max Roach and McCoy Tyner and even Duke and more, viewed the term “jazz” as inappropriate. In a very early interview Frank London Brown conducted with Thelonius Monk, Brown asked Monk where he thought the music was going. Monk promptly responded that he thought it was going to hell. Back then it sounded outrageous, but I suspect Uncle Bubba saw something happening even then. Just the term jazz is such a restriction on the personality of the music that encompasses a broad spectrum of African-American expression. It includes spirituals, gospel, work songs, and blues. This is the gist of what Percy Heath reminded us of in his remarks at the NEA JazzMasters Endowment Concert and it brought folks either to their feet, or tears to their eyes. I experienced both responses. While the term “jazz” may not quite make the grade, fortunately the name itself has not stifled the creative powers of those active custodians who have kept it alive and flowering for the better part of the past century.
Legend has it that the term “jazz” became popular during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s when a trio of black musicians took their talent on the road. They used to travel and perform numerous places throughout the South with their makeshift instruments. Actually they were a washtub turned upside-down with a two-by-four and a string attached to make a bass; a washboard and stick that would keep rhythm and a comb that could be played like a kazoo. The musicians were quite inventive, but that didn’t save them from being a source of amusement to their audiences, earning them the title of the “jack-asses”. The name stuck. Gradually the term evolved into “jassacks” and finally as a result of the natural evolutionary process of language became shortened to jass. Somewhere along the line, “jass” became “jazz”. This story may account for the etymology of the term, but the art form itself has an origin independent of the legend.
Whether you call it “jazz” or “holiday music” like my sisters did, the music itself is an historical marker. I paraphrase Quincy Jones, who once observed that in his day, our history was not found in history books. The great composer/arranger went on to say that the only black people they learned about in school were people like George Washington Carver and Booker T. Washington. Jones reminded us that the history was locked up in the music. To quote the great Bill Smokey Robinson: “I second that emotion”. Today there is an abundance of books on African descendants in this country. Yet it is still the case that the majority of our living history is locked up in this music. It is time to break out the key and open the treasure chest, and the only ocean it sits at the bottom of is the one in our souls. The music known as jazz evolved gracefully out of our bitter experiences here, or as poet and historian Amiri Baraka so aptly describes it in his text Blues People, the music was created “…when African captives became American captives.” Baraka explains to us that the music resulting from slavery became what we now call the blues, which is the “…parent of all legitimate jazz [which] could not exist if the African captives had not become American captives..” (Baraka; African Slaves/American Slaves: Their Music. P17).
The hardship of our ancestors’ collective experience in early America led to the birth of the blues, which led to layers of a series of unique expressions including gospel, spirituals and a wide variety of soul music. I borrow the term layers of… expression from Steve Adegoke and Iqua Colson, two more of our very great music educators. The emergence of jazz is one of the pearls formed as a direct result of our struggle for our true selves. We sang the blues and spirituals to keep from breaking entirely under the dehumanizing strains of being enslaved. The story of the African holocaust and slaver as it existed in this country has yet to be told, but it is forever memorialized in our music. The tragedy of it all is that jazz, as one of the few remaining art forms with its masters still among us, is being revered by people practically throughout the globe. It is, however, retreating in imperceptible degrees from the everyday fabric of African-American life.
The bottom line is this: jazz is synonymous with African American creative expression and culture. It is more than a source of entertainment. It is actually the spirit of a people, specifically black people, and the experiences we have incorporated from the sights and sounds and feelings around us as they manifest on this continent. It is our response to this life here. It is no less African-American than River Dance is Irish, Flamenco is Castillian or Pansori, Korean. Some will insist that it should be called jazz, which means that some of the real music that has grown out of it may not always fit a misperception of what the music really is about. Take for example the term “cool jazz”. What does that really mean? Well, whatever it means, Miles Davis was responsible for the birth of “cool”, but he never called it that. He simply played it.
I can recall one particular journalist who coined the term for John Coltrane of “angry tenor player”. Coltrane’s music was sensitive and beautiful, just like the man. It practically raised him to the status of sainthood. John Coltrane could sound like the sunrise. His saxophone could capture the cleansing fragrance of a summer day, After the Rain. He could echo the anguished wail of millions of black people when four, young black girls were killed by a bomb as they sat in Sunday school during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s. Coltrane’s music reflected his experiences on this continent, and those experiences were not limited to anger.
Trumpet genius Louis Armstrong was one of the parents of jazz. He was influenced by an earlier trumpet personality out of New Orleans named Buddy Bolden. Louis Armstrong, or Satchmo, as he was affectionately called, cultivated a style that was a carry over of New Orleans funeral music, to put it briefly. Respected South African ethnomusicologist, Elkin Sithole taught us at the Center for Inner City Studies in Chicago that Armstrong’s nickname, Satchmo, was a shortened version of the term satchel mouth, referring to the corn that forms on the mouth when one plays an instrument such as the trumpet. I might also mention that funeral music during that time was lively, sprightly and jubilant, since most black folks back then celebrated death as a release from this life. Satchmo (or Pops, which was another nickname of his) fostered a sound that countless people grew to love and appreciate because it was alive and his musicianship was impeccable.
Alto saxophone genius Charlie Parker, the Bird, was so far ahead of himself at 34 years of age when he died, that there are musicians even today who continue to revere the playing style he mastered so early in his tumultuous life. During the height of his career, Parker played like a bird swift in flight. Cuthbert O. Simpkins, MD in his book, Coltrane: A Biography, tells us that a young John Coltrane sat listening to Bird one time with his mouth agape, eyes glazed over in a trance and paralyzed in amazement. Coltrane finally snapped out of his revelry when the cigarette he forgot he was holding, burned his fingers. Another thing Pops, Bird and Trane had in common besides their firm mastery of their art, was that each heralded a new epoch in jazz, and each was a warrior in his own way. Yet, they represent the a slender percentage of the countless giants whose styles created other branches of learning in this musical tree.
Let us talk about Sun Ra for a moment. Rumor has it that Sun Ra once claimed that he was from Saturn. Or he at least felt a great affinity for the planet that takes 33 years to orbit the sun. That is a pretty wide orbit. Sun Ra’s music was as magical as he was. My Aunt Pauline once told me that each part Sun Ra composed and arranged was specifically tailored for each musician in his Space Archestra. Sun Ra wore these incredible, Khemetic (or Egyptian) garments and headpiece whenever he and the Archestra performed. One time when he was performing at the Jazz Showcase in Chicago when I went to hear him, he even sat out in the lobby on the sofa there at the Blackstone, and lectured us front porch style. Unfortunately, I was so absorbed in the talk, I failed to jot any notes. That great wisdom just sits now in the ethers. Sun Ra was very serious about what he created, and his music was an entire chapter of an entire age of existence.
There is also much in a name in this music. The nicknames of many of the musicians are historically significant. Hawk. Dizzy. Prez (or Porkpie Hat). Lady. Rahsaan. The Lion. Uncle Bubba. Fatha’. The Count. Little Esther. Leadbelly. Sassy. Again, Trane, Pops and Bird. Ella, the Queen. Tootie. Fat Girl. These are actual titles that mean something within the context of that individual artist’s musical persona. Even the mere shortening of the name like Trane or Hawk designates a term of endearment. When we say “jazz” to many of our young people, what is it we are really saying to them? They get this fuzzy, hodgepodge of images that prevents them from connecting to the source of this artistic expression unless they have parents or grandparents who listened to it at home. The music itself is still there, and the term is okay for conversation, perhaps. Yet the music goes far beyond this. How do we begin to reclaim it for them as one of the real artistic legacies exquisitely carved for them from our ancient family tree.
Help Was On the Way, for A While Anyway.
One rather lamentable trend today is that so many great musicians are teaching today simply because performance venues are evaporating faster than an evening sun on the horizon. A disproportionate percentage of the progenitors of this music are standing in front of a multicultural classroom, compelled to translate this experience into academic terms. To quote Arsenio Hall: “Hmmm.” Today jazz is primarily played on college campuses or on Public Radio. One interesting rationalization for the limited airplay was that it is “intellectual” music. So why is it used to sell cars? Do you need a degree to drive a car. No, you only need a driver’s license. The music was plucked out of the clubs and transplanted to the universities. Yet the lifeblood of the inspiration of it came from within the black community. McCoy Tyner tells us that that is one of the places he really learned to play, because in the day, black folks would definitely get on you if your chops were flimsy. Our children should be growing up with it within our communities, with fond memories of holiday music. It is in their community that they and the music can nurture one another. It is in their community that they should be able to consume their greens and blues and grow up big and strong. Should our children have to leave the community in order to experience it? What happens if the children are unable to get financial aid? Why can’t Jamal or Shirelle read?
This music was born from within our community life. In Chicago, (and I’m sure that folks in Philly, or St. Louis or Detroit or Brooklyn or the Bronx or Seattle can attest to this type of experience) at 11 p.m every night, most of the teenagers in the city who listened to Herb Kent were all singing the same prayer. This was during the early 1960’s after The Cool Gent’s show of popular rhythm and blues was going off. We knew every word, every note, every nuance and every twist and turn in the melody. Perhaps that was part of the reason we rarely killed one another. It was called Open Our Eyes and it was our ritual, and it worked. This is the reason why it is imperative that we begin teaching the children this music, and teaching them about these musicians. To glance back to the previous paragraph, you do not need to be an intellectual to listen to this music. You only need to hear it. That means somebody has to be playing it on the radio.
The eye and ear opening Betty Carter is no longer here with here her fantastic Jazz Ahead program that she launched in Brooklyn. Ms. Carter cared about whether we learned this music and she groomed a host of trios onstage. The calist/composer/arranger initiated workshops teaching improvisational skills. She was sharing knowledge and you could sit in and learn. There was just one rule, if you had a question and you were a vocalist, you had to sing your answer, in key and in the proper time signature with the trio onstage. T.S. Monk cared enough to have annual percussion competitions. Whether he is still doing this or not matters less than the fact that if he sent five young people to college, that is five more percussionists than we had before. As fate would have it, Archie Shepp has been living abroad. Here is a man whose scholarly acumen in the fine arts, including jazz, will have you feeling as though you should be sitting in a high chair when he begins to teach. Wynton Marsalis is still doing his Jazz at Lincoln Center. The only tragedy here is when I was downtown this past summer when he came to Orchestra Hall in Chicago. The folks were brining their children in droves and buckets. Guess what? I think I counted the black youngsters on one hand.
If all of this sounds like belly-aching to you, then I can tell you were not sitting there in the same row where I was sitting when I attended the IAJE that I have referred to a couple of times during the course of this piece. I had the privilege of sitting with Frank and Cecilia Foster on one side of me, and McCoy Tyner and Percy Heath on the other. To top it all off, Jimmy and Tootie Heath were seated right in back of us with a friend or family member. And of course there was music. There was the Dave Brubeck Quartet and the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra with Dee Dee Bridgewater along with a couple of groups of young people. Suffice it to say that when the music was really “on”, Heath Brothers contributed some verbal asides that were as creative as the music. Woe be unto whomever if they were a little shaky, the ‘Brothers’ had me holding my sides to keep them from splitting. That was how my folks used to listen. That was how a lot of our folks used to listen, because the musician with integrity would have something to say, or he would be run off the stage. Before ‘Bird’ became ‘Bird’, he got onstage and tried to jam with folks over his head and guess what – it was Jo Jones, I believe, who got so angry at him he threw one of his symbols right at his head. Fortunately he missed. You did not fool around when you got up there with the folks.
So this was one of those rare instances where you heard the Brothers responding to what heard, because they know where the music came from, especially when they were cutting their teeth on it. They would grunt with approval if someone on stage really knew how to tell their story, as Von Freeman would put it. They listened with more than their ears. They listened with their hearts and their souls. It is a toss up as to whom I enjoyed listening to most that evening — the musicians onstage, or the musicians sitting behind me listening along with us. All I can say is, without this kind of seasoning from within the true spirit of the listeners, call the music whatever you will – but it won’t mean a thang…
Maybe next time, we’ll say a little bit about tap dancing….
Peace and blessings to ya’…