It should be clear from the chapter’s opening overview how central such historical investigations are to African-American music, and identity overall. For those interested in a listen to the early examples I ticked off, here is a sequence for your enjoyment and expanded head.
If my writing about Charles Mingus conveyed even one percentile of the intensity his music consistently evoked, that’d be like hitting a grand slam as an author. Here, in the order it is discussed, is a playlist of Mingus rejoicing with spirits.
And just because they’re great:
If you love what you’ve heard, you’ll want to investigate more, like Tijuana Moods, the Mingus piano album, some of the early sides for Debut, the late score Epitaph, and the Town Hall Concert. Mingus lives, baby.
Somewhere, somehow, Max is still making wax. Some of his killer early stuff can be heard on: Charlie Parker on Dial, The Amazing Bud Powell, the McGhee/Navarro Sextet, Coleman Hawkins’ Rainbow Mist, and Miles’ Birth of the Cool. Here are a couple of clips to whet your whistle.
His first work under his own name was astonishingly accomplished, and the Clifford Brown/Max Roach group remains essential. Then there’s Max Roach + 4, Jazz in 3 / 4 Time, and Deeds Not Words from the 1950s.
The central piece of this section, of course, is We Insist! with Abbey Lincoln. Here it is in its entirety.
Percussion Bitter Sweet is very nearly as good, and here is the full record.
Opinions are divided on Roach’s subsequent thematic works. I’m a fan of most of what he released in the 1970s and into the early 1980s. Listen for yourself.
Lincoln’s discography is a bit sparser, but Straight Ahead (1961), People in Me (1973), and a string of top-shelf Verve records in the 1990s (my favorite of which is The World is Falling Down) stand out.
Even more than some of the tenor players discussed in Chapter 2, Archie Shepp has a gloriously full sound that reaches back to jazz’s earliest decades. Don Byas, Ben Webster, Lester Young, and Chu Berry can all be heard, even in his most overtly avant-garde settings. Even before the October Revolution of 1964, that central organizing moment for the New York outcats, Shepp came to most folks’ attention on Cecil Taylor’s landmark albums for Candid in 1960-61 and on the record he co-led with Bill Dixon. Much of what informs my account of Shepp’s narrative engagements with African-American vernacular culture comes from Shepp’s impressive run of albums for Impulse in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Shepp’s more exploratory period in the 1970s won him less critical acclaim, but is perhaps more significant in terms of how it extended his understanding of the multitudes of the music he was investigating.
At the beginning of the section on Asian-American jazz, I describe one of Fred Ho’s late photo shoots, for his Celestial Green Monster big band record. While some of that ensemble’s uproarious, impassioned, subversive music captures Ho’s musical and critical ethos as well as anything he ever recorded, it’s best to start with one of his earliest recordings, 1987’s We Refuse to Be Used and Abused.
There are clear audible links to Mingus, Shepp’s big band records, and other, more obscure large ensemble records, such as those led by sometime Shepp arranger Cal Massey, the works of Horace Tapscott, or Clifford Thornton’s Gardens of Harlem (a lost classic). Hear this even more robustly on Underground Railroad to My Heart, with its blend of traditionals from many cultures and Ho’s fierce charts. The two-part Monkey recordings from the mid-1990s must be heard, and do spare a listen for the Ho composition commissioned by the great ROVA Saxophone Quartet (their catalogue is among the most important of the last quarter-century, beyond doubt) and for the fist-to-the-face of Turn Pain Into Power. And his last decade-plus is filled with strong music, from Once Upon a Time in Chinese America, Snake Eaters, Big Red, and The Year of the Tiger, among others.
Pianist Jon Jang plays with equal conviction but expresses himself in different idioms and tones than Ho did. Almost all of his recordings on the Asian Improv label (which is absolutely central to the music discussed in this section) are worth hearing. But for me it was a string of 1990s dates for Soul Note that really cemented Jang’s power: Tiananmen!, Island Immigrant Suite, and Two Flowers on a Stem.
And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Jang’s extraordinary duets with David Murray on River of Life, recorded at Finney Chapel at Jang’s (and my) alma mater, Oberlin College. Yeo.
Prime Francis Wong can be heard on Great Wall, Pilgrimage, and Gathering of Ancestors.
Of pianist Anthony Brown’s varied work, I’d single out as exceptional the following recordings: Family, Big Bands Behind Barbed Wire, and Far East Suite.
Violinist Jason Kao Hwang has an exceptionally varied discography. His early work with post-loft jazz group The Commitment is finally available once again, and is emotionally intense, very much worth hearing. In addition to his work with the Far East Side Band, I’d single out Edge, Stories Before Within, and his Floating Box opera as especially crisp distillations of some of his views as described in the book.
The many worlds of Sun Ra can be overwhelming for the neophyte. For decades, Ra gigged actively but printed records (mostly on the El Saturn label but once in a blue moon for a major like Impulse or Arista) in small, hand-painted batches available only at shows. It’s therefore almost impossible to overstate the service done for American music by the good people at Evidence Records, who acquired and reprinted the majority of the solar catalogue beginning in the mid-1990s.
To my ears, the best of the early period (when Ra’s Arkestra was still audibly connected to the big band tradition in which he’d apprenticed) are Visits Planet Earth/Interstellar Low Ways, Angels and Demons at Play/Nubians of Plutonia, and Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy/Art Forms of Dimensions Tomorrow.
Other Planes of There nicely captures the transitional period of the mid-1960s, when Ra steered the Arkestra ever outward into more and more cosmic noise. Other records from this period that capture Ra’s sense of the Gnostic past careening into the sonic future are The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra and Strange Strings.
By the dawn of the 1970s, the Ark was seemingly beyond reference and simply shook with the hum of its own strange electricity. For pure sonic freakery, go no further than Black Myth/Out in Space, a titanic twofer from MPS.
Space is the Place (on Impulse) and the soundtrack to the movie of that name are both essential documents of Ra’s vision. Of course, praises be to the good people at Transparency for releasing all of the great live documents, especially Creator of the Universe, whose second disc features recordings of some of Ra’s 1971 Berkeley classes!
Some folks swear by some of the later stuff, like the Disney album or the return to big band materials on Sunrise in Different Dimensions. I’ve always wanted to enjoy these more than I actually do, but they may be your cup of tea. They certainly represent a crucial phase of Ra’s journey back to Saturn.
Of course, constraints of space and logistics prevented a fuller discussion of the range of historically-engaged compositions from across African-American history. At the outset of the “Roots and Folklore” section of this chapter, I surveyed several milestones briefly. Here is your chance to sample them for yourself, and to hear them alongside Ellington, Carter, and Marsalis, as well as others in this chapter.
If it’s difficult to locate Ra in the orbit of one’s listening, Duke Ellington’s range and sheer volume of output make for an even greater challenge. Some of his very earliest compositions reveal his incredible synthesis of musical idioms and a distinctive arranging style. Hear this on some of the sides for Okeh.
But Ducal majesty truly emerges with the Blanton-Webster Band (so named for the linchpin contributions of bassist Jimmy Blanton and the incredibly lush saxophonism of Ben Webster). No one should be without the 3CD set on Bluebird. Just listen to these swoon-inducing tracks.
If you want more of this stuff (and you should), scoop up the amazing live shot from Fargo, ND, in 1940. Back when jazz bands could tour and get people dancing, I can’t imagine the thrill that the Ellington band must have sent through the crowd.
Even in this early period, as I note, Ellington was exploring African tradition and religiosity in his increasingly ambitious song-form.
His first forays into long-form exploration deserve careful attention.
Ellington’s historical range grew along with his compositional advancement.
More Duke to come in Chapter 5.
One of the most satisfying experiences I had in writing this book was describing the musical and cultural significance of the great John Carter. The story is there for you to read, but the music will simply knock you out. There are still copies of Mosaic’s hugely important reissue of early Carter/Bradford tracks with the NJAE.
One hopes that in time, someone will reissue Carter’s important 1970s reinvestigations of African-American vernacular music. (Indeed, I’ve said in print before that Carter is more than deserving of an even larger Mosaic box set. I have some confidence that the good Michael Cuscuna and his colleagues are in agreement, but rights and permissions can be tricky beasts.)
It all comes together in the five-part record sequence after which this sub-section is named (and, alas, it is almost entirely unavailable for listening in any format – hopefully as I update the blog I can add to this section).
This blog allows you to listen to “On a Country Road” and “Dauwhe”:
Finally, there is Wynton Marsalis, whose role as the impresario on Ken Burns’ PBS documentary, Jazz, reflected the imprimatur stamped on him since he first emerged from Blakey’s Jazz Messengers at the end of the Carter administration. But though many take issue with the suited-and-booted curatorial approach to jazz of the “Young Lions,” and while many dismiss Marsalis’ early work as too obviously indebted to the second Miles quartet, there’s a lot of pretty damn good music there.
And Marsalis’ ambitious compositional output since those early, fire-breathing records is equally worthy of admiration, even if there are elements of it that are clearly derivative.
Indeed, many of the passages for multiple vocalists in Blood on the Fields are electrifying.
Time now to turn from narrative strains to the sound of communities being improvised.