JAZZ country

Ralph Ellison in America


Copyright © 2001 Horace A. Porter
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-87745-777-0

Chapter One

Jazz Essays Ellison on Charlie Christian, Jimmy Rushing, Mahalia Jackson, and Lester Young

... Pat Marino. He was the big shocker for me when I found out he was only seventeen years old and I saw what he could accomplish. He was one of the first guitars I saw when I came to New York, and he had no big name. He was like myself. He had just come to New York to work.... And I walked into the nightclub. It was in the middle of Harlem, and here was a young Sicilian boy with his sunglasses on, standing up reading the music on the floor.... And, when they let him take a solo, I mean, he lifted that song up off the ground and turned it every way but loose. And I said, "Boy, this is an example of what's going on in New York City! I better hurry up and get out of here." I didn't realize that he was really an exception. All the other players who had big names at that time, I would watch them.... I would steal a few things off of everybody and turn it around and make it comfortable for me. And pretty soon it all started coming together. -George Benson, in Talking Jazz by Ben Sidran

The Solo Voice of Charlie Christian's Guitar

In his introduction to Shadow and Act (1964), Ralph Ellison explains how growing up in Oklahoma City inspired him to become a "renaissance man." He maintains that he cannot provide a precise genealogy of his ideal renaissance man, but assures us that he "shared it with a half dozen of my Negro friends." Perhaps the source was a "transplanted New Englander," "some book," or "idealistic Negro teacher." He consistently holds up his native Oklahoma to prove a point concerning both his own background and the country as a whole: "One thing is certain, ours was a chaotic community, still characterized by frontier attitudes and by that strange mixture of the naive and sophisticated ... that mixture which often affords the minds of the young who grow up in the far provinces such wide and unstructured latitude, and which encourages the individual's imagination - up to the moment 'reality' closes in upon him - to range widely and, sometimes, even to soar."

To Ellison, the Oklahoma jazz musician personifies the ideal renaissance man. He writes: "We hear the effects of this [attitude] in the southwestern jazz of the thirties, that joint creation of artistically free and exuberantly creative adventurers, of artists who had stumbled upon the freedom lying within the restrictions of their musical tradition as within the limitations of their social background, and who in their own unconscious way have set an example for any Americans, Negro or white, who would find themselves in the arts." Such musicians are renaissance men in the sense that they construct or invent themselves, just as they - through instinct and practice - become jazz virtuosos. They succeed both because of and in spite of racial prejudice or "the limitations of their social backgrounds." Ellison's phrase, "freedom lying within restrictions," crystallizes the musicians' relationship to their developing art form no less than to their exploitation of the ambiguities of their social situation. Put another way, they invent forms and expressions of both personal and artistic freedom. They improvise as they go along. Given their dedication to jazz, Ellison says, "whatever others thought or felt, this was their own powerful statement, and only nonmusical assaults upon their artistic integrity ... were able to compromise their vision."

The jazzmen's music possessed unimpeachable authority. Nevertheless, given various laws and customs, the musicians were sometimes subjected to racial prejudice and discrimination. But they did not view themselves as victims. Neither did boys like Ellison. Ellison says that he and his boyhood friends absorbed, as if by cultural osmosis, certain jazzmen's renaissance ideals of freedom and personal fulfillment. The jazz guitarist Charlie Christian was one of these friends. Although Christian died young, Ellison saw his life as an example of American possibility. In "The Charlie Christian Story," an article he wrote in 1958 for the Saturday Review, Ellison also corrects certain mistaken notions about jazz and jazz musicians and begins to clarify the history and significance of jazz. Ellison had (in 1955) already written "Living with Music," a short essay published in High Fidelity. He had also published "Richard Wright's Blues," a review of Wright's autobiography Black Boy (1945) and one of his two blues-related articles (the other is a review essay on Blues People, 1964). He later published five other essays on jazz artists and jazz-related themes for Saturday Review and Esquire. His last published jazz-related article, "Homage to Duke Ellington," was written in 1969 for the Washington Star on the occasion of the composer's seventieth birthday. Themes developed in the later articles, such as the Ellington homage, are foreshadowed in Ellison's first articles, "Living with Music" and "The Charlie Christian Story." Occasional pieces on musicians or jazz clubs, like New York's Minton's Playhouse, set forth his ideas about the workings of jazz.

Ellison's essays are some of the first to provide a thorough cultural analysis of the origins and aesthetics of jazz. But several black writers and critics of an earlier era had commented presciently on the music. Alain Locke, a Harvard- and Oxford-trained philosopher and the first African American Rhodes Scholar, published his seminal anthology of essays, fiction, and poetry by and about Negroes, The New Negro, in 1925. He included an essay by J. A. Rogers (a notable journalist who wrote for the Messenger and the Amsterdam News) called "Jazz at Home." In it Rogers says that jazz "ranks with the movie and the dollar as a foremost exponent of American modernism." "The true spirit of jazz," Rogers writes: "is a joyous revolt from convention, custom, authority, boredom, even sorrow - from everything that would confine the soul of man and hinder its riding free on the air.... And that is why it has been such a balm for modern ennui, and has become a safety valve for modern machine-ridden and convention-bound society. It is a revolt of the emotions against repression."

In his later book, The Negro and His Music (1938), Locke devotes three of thirteen chapters to jazz. Locke's work anticipates some of Ellison's own ideas. For example, in his chapter "From Jazz to Jazz Classics: 1926-1936," Locke writes: "Much of the musical superiority and force of jazz comes from the fact that the men who play it create it. In the typical Negro jazz band, the musicians compose as a group under the leadership of a conductor who is also a composer or at least an arranger. The music comes alive from the activity of the group, like folk music originally does, instead of being a mere piece of musical execution."

Ellison read Locke's work and was influenced by it. But when Ellison began publishing his essays, he was nonetheless a pioneer of American cultural studies. He criticized early jazz reviewers, critics, and historians, and corrected various simplistic interpretations of jazz: "We know much of jazz as entertainment, but a mere handful of clich��s constitutes our knowledge of jazz as experience. It is this which leads to the notion that jazz was invented in a particular house of ill fame by 'Jelly Roll' Morton, who admitted the crime himself; that swing was invented by Goodman about 1935; that T. Monk, K. Clarke, and J. B. 'D' Gillespie invented 'progressive' jazz at Minton's Playhouse in Harlem about 1941." He addresses, for example, the apparent mystery surrounding certain jazz musicians' backgrounds. Those from the South, the Southwest, and the Midwest, where, as he explains, "jazz is part of a total way of life" are sometimes presented as though they found their horns and voices in the big cities: "The jazz artist who becomes nationally known is written about as though he came into existence only upon his arrival in New York.... Thus we are left with an impression of mysterious rootlessness." He demonstrates how misleading such characterizations can be when he discusses Charlie Christian's background. And he repeatedly takes issue with those journalists and sociologists who interpret American culture in terms of reductive categories - "culturally disadvantaged," "culturally deprived," and "culturally marginal."

"The Charlie Christian Story" is a pointed example of Ellison's overall vision of American culture. Christian stands in as Ellison's alter ego; the guitarist, too, is a representative of the "wild" state of Oklahoma. He is an African American from an impoverished background, and a musical genius. Christian's life, like that of other jazz musicians, is a Horatio Alger story but one with a tragic end. "The wooden tenement in which he grew up," Ellison writes, "was full of poverty, crime and sickness. It was alive and exciting, and I enjoyed visiting there, for the people both lived and sang the blues." Although Christian "spent much of his life in a slum in which all the forms of disintegration attending the urbanization of rural Negroes ran riot," Ellison points out that Christian's family circumstances did not negate rich musical experience. Ellison tells us: "Before Charlie was big enough to handle a guitar himself he served as a guide for his father, a blind guitarist and singer. Later he joined with his father, his brothers Clarence and Edward (an arranger, pianist, violinist and performer on the string bass and tuba), and made his contribution to the family income by strolling with them through the white middleclass sections of Oklahoma City, where they played serenades on request. Their repertory included the light classics as well as the blues." At the Frederick Douglass School, the public school Ellison and Christian attended, "Harmony was taught from the ninth through the twelfth grade" and there was an "extensive and compulsory music-appreciation" program.

Ellison demonstrates convincingly how Oklahoma City - though far removed from Harlem and its famed Harlem Renaissance - was a wonderful place for any boy dreaming of becoming a jazz musician. In his essay "Homage to Duke Ellington," he tells of Ellington's bringing his "great orchestra" to Oklahoma City. Ellison, along with Christian, saw the orchestra's glamorous performance, heard Ellington's fascinating rhythms and the singing of Ivy Anderson and Ethel Waters. Christian also heard Lester Young, the tenor saxophonist who became the famous "Prez." "The most stimulating influence upon Christian," Ellison notes, was a "tall, intense young musician who arrived in Oklahoma City sometime in 1929 and who, with his heavy white sweater and blue stocking cap and up-and-out-thrust silver saxophone, left absolutely no reed player and few young players of any instrument unstirred by wild, excitingly original flights of his imagination." Young "upset the entire Negro section of the town."

"The Charlie Christian Story" hints at some of the themes Ellison spells out five years later in "The World and the Jug" (1963), his controversial exchange with Irving Howe. Ellison makes clear that he, like Christian, found in Oklahoma City inspiring models and a nurturing environment despite the grim reality emphasized by certain journalists and sociologists. He and Christian escaped into music and literature. They were not alone even in segregated Oklahoma City. Other black children could also read, play music and sports, and imagine worlds elsewhere.

"The Charlie Christian Story" also reveals Ellison's expertise as a jazz critic. He points out that Christian escaped a "tension" some early jazzmen faced: "He [the early player of jazz] feels a tension between his desire to master the classical style of playing and his compulsion to express those sounds which form a musical definition of Negro American music. In early jazz these sounds found their fullest expression in the timbre of the blues voice, and the use of mutes, water glasses and derbies on the bells of their horns arose out of an attempt to imitate this sound." Younger musicians, of the 1930s, seeking recognition beyond their local black communities, tried to cast aside "those nonmusical features which came into jazz from the minstrel tradition." Ellison is keenly aware of how musicians such as the Mills Brothers (who duplicated with their voices the sounds of certain musical instruments) and Louis Armstrong exploited the minstrel tradition while creating technical innovations. But the younger musicians' negative response to the minstrel tradition, in addition to the tension between classical techniques and the eclectic innovations of early jazz, led, Ellison believes, "to many of the technical discoveries of jazz."

Some of the advances were in accordance with the inherent aesthetics, the "cruel contradiction," implicit in the jazz tradition. Ellison sees a revealing relationship between the musician's sense of his own performance and that of the group: "For true jazz is an art of individual assertion within and against the group. Each true jazz moment (as distinct from the uninspired commercial performance) springs from a contest in which each artist challenges all the rest; each solo flight, or improvisation, represents (like the successive canvases of a painter) a definition of his identity: as individual, as member of the collectivity and as a link in the chain of tradition. Thus, because jazz finds its very life in an endless improvisation upon traditional materials, the jazzman must lose his identity even as he finds it."

Reducing the Chaos of Living to Form: The Affirmative Voices of Jimmy Rushing and Mahalia Jackson

"The Charlie Christian Story" is merely one example of Ellison's ongoing commentary on the relationship between jazz and American culture. Ellison's other essays seek to rescue the jazz tradition from shallow mythology, inaccuracies, and stereotypes. He sees in jazz culture an affirmation of life beyond the jazz musicians' expression of the inherent dignity of true style. In "Living with Music," Ellison says that "the driving motivation" of jazz artists is "neither fame nor money": "I had learned too that the end of all this discipline and technical mastery was the desire to express an affirmative way of life through its musical tradition ... when they expressed their attitude toward the world it was with a fluid style that reduced the chaos of living to form." The lives and music of Christian and Jimmy Rushing simultaneously represent the transformative power of jazz and the definitively American milieu which gave rise to their complex fates.

Ellison's good friend Jimmy Rushing was already an Oklahoma City celebrity during Ellison's boyhood. Rushing, who eventually became nationally known as the lead singer for Count Basie's band, had, like Ellison, studied music at Douglass High School. For a time, Rushing was also a member of Oklahoma's most notable dance band of that era, the Blue Devils. In "That Same Pain, That Same Pleasure," Ellison says: "I knew Jimmy Rushing, the blues singer, who then was not quite the hero ... he is today after years of popular success. But for us, even when he was a very young man, ... Jimmy represented, gave voice to, something which was very affirming of Negro life, feelings which you really couldn't put into words." Rushing was also a colorful character. He was a short man whose girth, increasing with his age, led to his being known as "Mr. Five by Five," the title of his most popular recording.

In his homage "Remembering Jimmy," Ellison celebrates Rushing's vocal talent and the cultural significance of his singing. In Rushing's voice, he hears a sound that recalls memories of his own early life: "On dance nights, when you stood on the rise of the school grounds two blocks to the east, you could hear it jetting from the dance hall like a blue flame in the dark; now soaring high above the trumpets and trombones, now skimming the froth of reeds and rhythms as it called some woman's anguished name." But Rushing sang about something larger than his own personal circumstances, something beyond the confines of Oklahoma City: "For Jimmy Rushing was not simply a local entertainer, he expressed a value, an attitude about the world for which our lives afforded no other definition. We had a Negro church and a segregated school, a few lodges and fraternal organizations, and beyond these there was all the great white world.... Yet there was an optimism within the Negro community and a sense of possibility which, despite our awareness of limitation (dramatized so brutally in the Tulsa riot of 1921), transcended all of this; and it was this rock-bottom sense of reality, coupled with our sense of the possibility of rising above it, which sounded in Rushing's voice."


Excerpted from JAZZ countryby HORACE A. PORTER Copyright © 2001 by Horace A. Porter. Excerpted by permission.
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