Saturday, 12 June 2010

Ralph Ellison and All That Jazz

Thanks to Howard University professor Robert G. O’Meally who wrote the first doctoral dissertation on Ralph Ellison, we now have a handy guide to that black writer’s obsession with American jazz, “Living with Music: Ralph Ellison’s Jazz Writings” (The Modern Library, 2002).

We learn that he went to Tuskegee because his talent on the trumpet got him a much needed scholarship even though he had to ride the rails to get to Alabama. (He really want to attend Fisk in Nashville because of its musical rep.) He was not disappointed when he found the great composer William L. Dawson on the Tuskegee faculty. And he shyly tried to connect with Duke Ellington making a courtesy visit there, but it wasn’t until he moved up to New York that Langston Hughes took him up to Duke’s apartment in Harlem.

He was thrilled that the Duke remembered their brief meeting back in Tuskegee. Ellison cherished his early Oklahoma City contact with great jazz performers like Jimmy Rushing and Charlie Christian. But as opinionated as he often was, he couldn’t stand be-bop and was fairly nasty in his putdowns of Miles Davis. So when Hunter College medievalist and jazz historian invited me to the first Newport Jazz Critics Symposium in 1958, I was thrilled to learn Ralph would be there.

My luck had begun in 1956 when I got a Ford grant in New York City to assess the way English teachers should deal with new media, especially television. Lou Forsdale up at Teachers College, Columbia had wangled Marshall McLuhan down from Toronto to psych up his troops. I eagerly contacted the funky Canuck because his prescient essays in the Catholic layman’s weekly, “Commonweal, (these appeared in 1950 as “The Mechanical Bride: The folklore of Industrial Man”, a book that had turned me on to media criticism. (I failed in my attempt to write a dissertation on McLuhan: he was too goofy to be taken seriously! My doctoral advisers said Nyet.)

So it was a consolation to do face to face with the prophet who was not yet honored in our backward country!) That Marshall Stearns could specialize in medieval culture and be the greatest jazz critic in America was more than academic consolation. By 1958, after I had moved to Penn with a Carnegie grant, I was pleased to join their palaver in Newport.

As we settled in for our first dinner at the Viking Hotel, who should arrive but Mahalia Jackson! I expressed my reverence for her art by letting her eat the last chicken dinner! And she had the last (and perhaps final) word as the jazz symposium chairman S.I. Hayakawa, that semanticist always eager to give everyone the floor, saw Mahalia at the back of the auditorium at the closing session of the conference. “What do you make of our symposium, Mahalia?” She paused, and then shyly declaimed,” I don’t knows what you all’s been talking about, but I shore do love jazz!”

I felt equally puzzled when I ran into Ralph in the press room that first Sunday, after having taken a morning constitutional along the shore among all their fancy summer retreats. To break the ice, I blathered on a a bit about the paradox about a down to earth jazz festival taking place among so many uppity Americans. Ellison blew his top, assuming I had been laying on him a raggedly old 1930’s Marxist bleat of the kind he first went for and then railed against. My pal Jerome Shipman listened to his somewhat hysterically twitting me for what I wasn’t saying. Ellison had writer’s block alright. But he never thought before he fumed.

Take Miles. Ralph wrote to his pal Albert Murray (these letters form one of the more interesting parts of this pastiche of an anthology) "I finally saw that Chico Hamilton with his mannerisms and that poor, evil, lost little Miles Davis, who on this occasion sounded like he just couldn’t it together. Nor did Coltrane help with his badly executed velocity exercises. These cats have gone lost, man.”(p.245.)

My beef with Miles that night was the way he was beating up on his girlfriend. (Fate had booked into room next door!) I have remorse every time I wonder whether I ought to have turned him in. Even though I read often enough later on that he often resorted to gratuitous violence.

Heh, It’s “Invisible Man” that counts. He writes with passion about “real” jazz and what he construes as the failed changes. It’s a treat to read his many faceted contacts with America’s greatest esthetic innovation.

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