Since I am the Crossover Kid and I go there, I have had the good fortune of doing quite a bit of traveling so I can do a bit of storytelling. Let me relate to you a shard of me that is a chip off my dad’s block. It is the love of jazz music. I wish to do so in the context of what I have learned and forgotten as the Blues Aesthetic, something I am tending to turn back to and evaluate from my current perspective as a level headed Stoic that actually turns belly laughs.
You see I just heard a story from a new friend about his coming of age as a student of the alto sax. It was a personal encounter with the legendary Clark Terry who came to sit in. I immediately thought of two things. The first was all of the dreams and excitement I felt raising my son whose musical talent was outstanding at the highschool level. The second was that I know almost nothing about Clark Terry. In fact, I had only recognized the name from a stunning album I heard over the weekend called The Alternate Blues. Don’t walk, run and get this recording.
The leaders of the school of the Blues Aesthetic are the quartet of Stanley Crouch, Wynton Marsalis, Albert Murray and Ralph Ellison. When I first encountered the writing and thinking of Albert Murray it all sounded elementary and commonsense. At that point in my life it didn’t quite seem possible that I would sense any mass barbarity that might foreclose the possibilities of the arts, much less the motivations deep within the values of the America I knew to pursue the arts. With Crouch, I marveled at his willingness to knock heads with the kind of brawling bravado a street epistemology demanded. Who else had the temerity to knock Spike Lee off of his pedestal as the voice and vision of our generation? It turns out that my own experience with the Watts Poets was quite enough to understand his aesthetic counterpunching as the likes of Quincy Troupe went to great lengths to both excoriate Crouch and idolize the Crips of Los Angeles.
It was Wynton Marsalis that hit me foremost as the sort I had been raised to be. Constantly mastering. Constantly performing. Constantly explaining and teaching. He was a major facet in the artistic diamonds I coveted as my youth dreamed of unlimited possibilities. Beneath all that was the manifest milestone of Ralph Ellison whose Invisible Man had been hailed as the greatest American novel of the 20th century. Having read that book in my early youth there wasn’t much I recalled of it, but I would come back to its prologue over and over. “Once I saw a prizefighter boxing a yokel.” All of his subtleties aggregate to matters of life and death, of missed opportunities to wrestle with truth and its inevitable consequences when men of disciplined virtue find themselves in conflict with blinded fools.
I don’t know that I know the Blues Aesthetic, but I have a sense that we are a part of each other, expressed without citation and reinforced unconsciously. In the same way we are only infrequently aware of and rarely in command of our own heartbeats, we still manage our ways through affairs of the heart. The undeniable heart. So we deal with the undeniability of the blues here in America; here in our tragic, comic lives. We live without reference to that thing in our soul, until one day you’re driving on the freeway in rapture to a swinging beat. You don’t know why, you just know. This is what music is supposed to sound like. All I have is a hyperlink to it. A session captured from 1992. Well that’s what the interwebz say.
My father played Nancy Wilson, The Four Freshmen, Frank Sinatra, Count Basie, Mancini’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Prokofiev’s Peter & The Wolf when I was very young. Those were the album covers I remember. I was in my second year of college before somebody told me that song was John Coltrane playing Giant Steps. I knew it, but I didn’t know that I knew it. Ten years later when Bill Laswell’s Hallucination Engine slipped into Naima in the ninth minute of the eighth track it took a hundred plays until I realized what I was hearing. I never had the need to name it. It was just a part of me that worked.
Something about the music doesn’t always get into your pants and it doesn’t always get into you head. Grasping at that watermelon seed might be futile. You can taste it, eat it and swallow it down but it never bears fruit. You shit it out without knowing what parts of it nourished you. But today I’m at the opening of a cavern of daylight. Who knows how long I must hike down to its quiet pools. It’s jazz and I know it goes deep, but I don’t know which turns it will take. I just know that I’ll be finding myself again down there, and I’ll be finding us all down there.
If you ask me I’ll tell you “roadhouse blues”. Some of my favorite experiences are at the honky tonk bars on Bourbon Street where musicians I’ll never know would play rocking blues licks with those incomprehensible ways they configure the fingers on their left hands and then whammy with their right, throw their heads back and shake them slowly. Across and down is Preservation Hall and the crowd is afraid to walk in there, with their 24 ounce frozen drinks, flip flops and glow balls behind their teeth. Jazz is sometimes complicated and serious. Sometimes it gets so innovative that you’re not sure it’s jazz. Somebody once said of Cecil Taylor that he was a percussionist with 88 little drums. I just know that when jazz musicians turn blue, they are capable of bringing alive a sublime pipeline to whatever combines our senses into the hardware underlying the soul. I am at home in that roadhouse.
I know you Americans understand this one way or another. It’s deep in us somewhere or another. For some of us it has names and tags through which we can quickly bring to the surface in our mutual communication. For many of us it’s in our souls, unnamed and often unnoticed until it breaks through like a fog cutting daybreak. There is beauty in the art that both communicates and transcends suffering. That is what the blues means to me at its best. It doesn’t need words. I leave you with the transcendent voice of Sarah Vaughn.
I don’t know what words I will find to carry me through making sense of those selections of the blues will be representative of suffering and transcendence that is uniquely American and shared by us all consciously or otherwise. Maybe none will do justice to what has been recorded before this moment. At the very least, I can point a finger. This.