Invisible American Music

With the exception of Ralph Ellison, John Kouwenhoven and Albert Murray, few major American intellectuals have routinely taken on the subject of jazz. One would think that a music as important to the definition and the achievement of this society would have sparked more than a bit of interest over the years.

The writer David Yaffe reported to me that Ellison himself, on a mid-’60s PBS television program with the jazz critic Martin Williams,observed that one would have thought major critics such as Malcolm Cowley or T.S.Eliot or Alfred Kazin would have had something substantial to say about the music,but they had not.

That Cowley, Eliot and Kazin as well as other intellectuals such as John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren, Lionel Trilling and Susan Sontag have never weighed in on jazz may be our loss, but it may also be an example of how even those we count among our most brilliant scholars are far removed from certain American essences.

Intellectuals of all races, creeds and geographic locations didn’t get it back in the day and they don’t get it now. Much of this has to do, it seems to me,with the subject of the Negro and of the complex ways in which our society has integrated itself above and below ground.

Such prominent intellectuals seem to have been at a loss for the understanding of the Americana that is so broadly interpreted by Negroes from so many different kinds of backgrounds, from the sub-lower class of Louis Armstrong to the middle class of Coleman Hawkins, Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington to the upper class of Miles Davis.

New York intellectuals, most of whom have been Jews,have never come to understand the intersection of Negro life and Negro music,and what it meant for personal expression—a truth that was well perceived by Jewish musicians, Jewish entrepreneurs, Jewish record producers and Jewish club owners.

Southern intellectuals ignored jazz and its reflection of American culture, too—even as they danced the night away and drank sour mash to music filled with Negro notes!—perhaps being too uncomfortable or befuddled by standard racial sentiments beneath the Mason-Dixon line. There was not a Jack Teagarden among them.

Ellison’s insistence on American culture being a Creole culture—a mixture of black, white, red and whatever else—was probably one reason why certain intellectuals have rejected him. But Ellison never shrank from the challenge of understanding how black and white overcame everything in order to make integrated new music from its segregated society. All those intent upon a better understanding of the rich American context out of which jazz arrives would do well to read Ralph Ellison.

His vision of cultural fullness comes through clearly in Modern Library’s Living With Music: Ralph Ellison’s Jazz Writings, edited by Robert G. O’Meally. Though I would argue with the inclusion of certain fiction pieces in the anthology that seem too far removed from the subject of jazz, the collection is indispensable and captures the worlds out of which the makers of the music came. O’Meally’s introduction discusses how well the exceptional Ellison traverses the worlds of literature, jazz and aesthetics.

Living With Music’s companion CD, released separately on Columbia/Legacy, features 16 classic ’30s, ’40s and ’50s jazz songs that, as O’Meally writes in the liner notes,“[echo] the work of Ellison the trumpeter player and composer-in-training who became a writer, and offers Ellisonian equipment for those deciding not only to shun the noise but to live with the momentum implied in jazz music: To live a life that swings.” The CD is worth the price just to hear “Hidden Name and Complex Fate,” the anthology’s concluding track,a Jan.6, 1964 recording of a lecture by Ellison at the Library of Congress. It’s an artful example of Ellison’s epic vision of Negro American life.

I would also suggest that the reader take up Horace A. Porter’s Jazz Country: Ralph Ellison in America, which has a few minor mistakes but examines Ellison’s aesthetic and brings together his work with that of Albert Murray.

Ellison, who was born in 1914, grew up in Oklahoma City. He played trumpet in bands with Charlie Parker’s mentor, Buster Smith, and Ellison saw the young, revolutionary Lester Young and those barnstorming Blue Devils as well as the dance halls where Kansas City swing partially formed.

Ralph Ellison died in 1994. That we have ever had him among us is a great cultural blessing. He lived an American life that swung.

Originally published in July/August 2002

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