From Be-Bop To Hip-Hop - The Cry Of Freedom
In 1986, I was invited to Bombay, India, to cover the Indian jazz festivalJazz Yatraliterally a "jazz pilgrimage." Restless in a city that had more to offer than I had bargained for and dazzled by the constellation of musicians who had gathered to celebrate the music of freedom I used to wake up early, then make my way to through the streets of a city that seemed alive with a myriad cultures, finally arrivingalways earlyat the venue of the festival.
Here I remember sitting in the audience, at the edge of my seat as the German small group Association PC, fronted by Alexander von Schlippenbach, stretched its way through Bird's "Donna Lee," then cut into the applause to announce that they were about to be joined on stage by "a special friend." I heard the soft rustling of a dashiki as the tall, bald man, black skin gleaming, glided past me with a pocket trumpet in his hand and strode imperiously onto the stage. Nodding in the directions of the various musicians around him, Don Cherry blew a breathtaking introduction to his composition "Brown Rice," carrying the band gloriously with him as the music moved on.
The energy of that set, the day before, was still buzzing in my head as I flashed my press pass at the gate and entered the on the final day of the jazz festival.
I could hear the music then. It sounded as if the musician was about to launch into a Bud Powell arrangement of "Polka Dots and Moonbeams." I thought I would be transported into the smoky environs of the 52nd Street! Then the music changed to a melody that I was unfamiliar with. Impetuous, quirky... like a Thelonious Monk composition... but the lines were not as jagged. Then an unusual segue changed the melodic line and altered the song altogether. At first I thought the pianist was going to launch into a stride melody, but abruptly the music flew away into a fugue-like structure that sliced back and forth from Bach to Bud Powell! I stood, transfixed by the music, afraid that if I moved up to where I was accustomed to sitting I would disturb the beauty of the moments.
Leonid Chizhik and the "Cultural Attaché"
As he played, Leonid Chizhikfor that was the musician at the pianowas, for that brief period of time, flying high above Soviet repression. He had broken free of the confines and controls of communism and with every phrase and run he played he soared higher, further, magnificently free!
But itlike every moment of beautythe Chizhik "expedition" ended just as abruptly as it began, without my ever knowing what the song was. I did see the pianist get up from the piano stool and walk away to one of the rows of seats in front, just below the stage. Leonid Chizhik, a very large-eyed, slight man, was born in Kischinjev, Moldavia, in 1947. Up until that day in July 1986, I had scarcely heard of him. But then neither had I heard of Vaghif Mustafa Zadeh, the Azeri pianist who had died a few years earlier. And in 1986, Chizhik was then a pianist virtually unknown in the then-Soviet Union (except in classical music circles) despite, I now found out, his mastery of the idioms of the classics and jazz. Not surprising, if you consider what jazz music stood for in the USSR in those years. So I was determined to find out more.
I walked up to the man sitting silently in the chair, now smoking a cigarette, to commend him on the exquisite tune he had played at the sound check and see if I could find out more... I said to Chizhik: "Hello, my name is Raul and I am here to cover the jazz festival. Perhaps..." we could talk a bit more, I wanted to say, but before I knew what was happening, four burly men converged on us.
Chizhik had not uttered a word. Nor was he about to. He satas Cézanne would have preferred his models to dolike an apple! What happened from the on was so frighteningly absurd and Kafkaesque that it continues to play backeven todaylike a piece of expressionist celluloid, in my mind, over and over again.
What did I want? An enormous bush-shirted Soviet gent demanded of me, as I could see Chizhik turning towards me. But I wanted to interview Leonid Chizhik. The big man took me by the arm firmly. "Why don't you go to House of Soviet Culture and meet Mr. Voroviev, Cultural Attaché?" he said gruffly. "He will answer all your questions." But how, in God's name could any Mr. Voroviev, Cultural Attaché answer my questions? I wanted to know what moved Chizhik to play with such soul. And I wanted to know what it meant to meet at the confluence of Brahms and Monk! I had so many questions, but they all dissolved in my throat. So who was this forthright Russian anyway? Chaperone? KGB? Minder of a "dangerous free thinking" pianist?
I remember suddenly feeling like a gray-suited proper noun in a John le Carre novel. And I extended my free and foreign hand to shake his enormous Russian one. Voroviev indeed...! I left the scene bewildered; resigned to an absurd fate. When I turned back for a final look at the scene, I remember seeing Chizhik staring blankly at the empty stage, sitting lifelessly.
Today, I imagine, not so fancifully after all, that he was "instructed" not to speak to any strangerseven one from the brotherhood of jazz. A "Cultural Attaché" would answer all questions directed at and on behalf of Leonid Chizhik! Chizhik did not even look my way. So afraid was he that Big Brother would report him to some chain-smoking official in a gray office in G Block, back in Moscow.
Perhaps, then I could be forgiven a very dark fantasy: Did Chizhik dream of defection? I suppose I would never know. Nor did I ever find out what happened to him after the incident, which I did not fail to report in my article. But he performed brilliantly that night in July of 1986. It was a breathtaking setintroduced by Michael Bourne of DownBeat magazine, who was the Master of Ceremonies at the festivalone song leading into another, traversing the soundscape of from Moscow and Kiev through New York and Chicago. Then, despite his unsung arrival, he departed amid a roar of applause. The darkness swallowed up Leonid Chizhik. I did not hear of him again until perestroika brought down Communism and the USSR. By then Leonid Chizhik had become one of the most influential musicians to come out of the Russian Federation. Today he continues to write and perform all over Europea little less frequently in our part of the world. But I wonder about the years he lost in spreading his message of freedom and peacevia the piano... Just as I wonder about the months Charlie Parker spent incarcerated at Camarillo. I wonder about the time that Miles Davis was beaten and arrested by police. About Billie Holiday and Monk and Trane and Mingus' "brushes with the brutal law.".. about Charlie Haden's arrest in Portugal when he performed with the Liberation Music Orchestra. About Malcolm X and Martin Luther King and Muhammad Ali, being forced to spend time in jail for exercising their rights to freedom... like Stokely Carmichael, Bobby Seale and Eldridge Cleaver and Angela Davis and the Soledad Brothers... I wonder about the dead in VietNam and Iraq!
Well then, I suppose... why go as far as the (erstwhile) Soviet Union to make that point about artistic and cultural ghettoization? Why not come closer home... to the United States of America.
How ironic it seems today that a country, which came into being when the freedom-loving pilgrims settled here to flee persecution, should end up persecuting human beings simply because they were visibly different. A country which fought a long and painful civil war to abolish slavery, that has enshrined the First Amendment in its Constitution, that has honored the leader of the Civil Rights Movement with a holiday, has continued to persecute the black artist surreptitiously, because he demands to be accepted on his own terms? I make the distinction here because the music came from a heart that belonged to Africaas opposed to one that evolved in the chandelier-laden courts of Prussia, Austro-Hungary and France and Italy!
So it was inevitable that the blues and jazzthe outpouring of the black soulshould have a secret dialect: the harmonic and rhythmic cries of freedom in its expression of the artist's attitude towards a society that condemned him only because he was radically different! Throughout the history of Black America, artists have communicated this attitude in the flight to freedom. Blues and Jazz was, and is that cry of freedom. Blues and Jazz was and is the theme of the Underground Railroad. Jazz is bitter funeral beer. You first heard of it when you were growing up to the mythical wail of Buddy Bolden's battered horn. It is the unwritten chapters of America's history. And it, the cry of freedom rising out of the stratospheric solos of Satchmo's trumpet... the heartbeat of love, in the ingeniously layered tones and textures of Duke's compositions.
And in what defined the struggle for freedom through pain and suffering, and triumph and joy of the timefor all timein the magnificent flights of Bird as he blazed his way through "Now Is The Time" and "Billie's Bounce"a true record of the struggle and triumph of the dispossessed, and in the elemental sadness of Thelonious Monk's "Round Midnight." Bop changed everything. Bop begat hard bop and hovered around like a proverbial halo around the dramatic spiritualism of Coltrane. Bop melded melody and harmony seamlessly in Ornette Coleman's apocalyptic shout: "Skies Over America"a wordless indictment of a civilization and its culture being consumed by the very power of its own self-deception. Yet we turned a blind eye and a deaf ear.
We thought we could keep the noise out and we found ourselves locked in with an imaginary barbed wire, locked in our modern Gomorrah. Then Miles Davis' horn let out a wail that never ended and it pierced the sky, refracting back into out hardening hearts as we built our distant land into an impenetrable capitalist fortress, that kept our heart's enemy out, but also kept the fear, suspicion and innate hatred trapped within.
At first in the darker days of segregation and discrimination it had to do with color. Powerful political pundits made damn sure that any change would be loudly proclaimed, yet difficult to discern. And there were numerous incidents that are shocking to talk about even today! Nevertheless to understand where our vanguardthe new and 'real jazz'stands is worth remembering.
Fables of Faubus
In the 1950s Governor Orville Faubus of Arkansas defied the orders of the Supreme Court of the United States to integrate the public schools of Little Rock. When the then-President Dwight Eisenhower dragged his feet in intervening, Louis Armstrong shouted: "The way they are treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell! The president has no guts."
In response to the incident, Charles Mingus wrote one of the first recorded "rap" poems, performed on his 1959 recording of "Fables of Faubus." Mingus and Dannie Richmond were heard by many as they rapped their way through a particularly angry segment of the song:
(Mingus and Richmond)
"Oh Lord, don't let 'em shoot us!
Oh Lord don't let 'em stab us!
Oh Lord don't let 'em tar and feather us!
Oh Lord, no more swastikas!
Oh Lord, no more Ku Klux Klan!"
"Name me someone who's ridiculous, Dannie..."
"Why is he so sick and ridiculous?"
"He won't permit integrated schools."
"Then he's a fool!"
(Mingus and Richmond)
"Booo! Nazi Fascist Supremacist!
Booo Ku Klux Klan - with your Jim Crow Plan!"
"Name me a handful that's ridiculous, Dannie Richmond..."
"Faubus... Rockefeller... Eisenhower..."
"Why are they so sick and ridiculous?"
(Mingus and Richmond)
"Two...Four...Six...Eight...They brainwash you and teach you hate!
Now, here's how the whole thing played outas a case of insidious persecution and a trampling overnot just First Amendment Freedom, but also artistic freedom of expression: The rap from "Fables of Faubus" was deleted completely from the track by the record company for whom Mingus was recording at the time and was, incidentally only restored to the music when Mingus' widow, Susan Mingus released Revenge on her own, eponymous label.
But long before Mingus' memorable duct-taped session there was Langston Hughes, with whom Mingus also recorded the classic 1958 jazz and poetry session, Weary Blues (Producer: Leonard Feather for Verve), not the first, but very possibly one of the finest collaborations within the aural arts. This performancealthough it should not be demeaned with that wordfollowed a long history of storytelling, founded in the most ancient of times in Africa. Music and wordplayed and sung or spokenwas (and still) is one of our first memories from childhood.
Martin Luther King & Malcolm X
We remembered this also when we heard the mighty recitations of poetry of Amiri Baraka and Ted Joans; and the readings of James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright and in the sermons of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X... as much as when we listened to the blues of Leadbelly on "Sometimes I Get A Great Notion" and jazz epiphanies from Buddy Bolden to Archie Shepp on "Steam" and "Attica Blues."
In the 1960s were defining moments in America's history. The assassinations of the Kennedy brothers and the slayings of Dr King and Malcolm X brought America to its knees and haltedpossibly foreverthe progress of the long march to freedom. Oh, I suppose that we are free of the rule of a colonial power, but in the snuffing out of Dr. King's dream and Malcolm X's plan, the most sinister forces of the far right had really triumphed. Against this backdrop, parts of New York revolted. How appropriate for the "revolution" to come to the World Headquarters of Capitalism! The neighborhoods grew poorerthough not in spirit, for in the heat of the sweltering, decaying community basketball courts in the '60s, a new movement was taking hold of the hearts and minds of those who cared, and those who wereto borrow from Franz Fanonthe wretched of the earth!
The Last Poets
Appropriately, as it seemed as if the sun was setting on hope, a group of young artists re-activated audiences, first in the community, and then in the concert halls: Abiodun Oyewole, Umar Ben Hassan, Alifia Pudim, together with the percussionist, Nilajathe Last Poetsreleased their manifesto on Douglas Records. The Last Poets and This is Madness combined the poetry of the resurrection of the senses... of black consciousness with primal Afro-centric rhythms. Both albums contained the most incendiary lyrics and authoritative recitation by the Poets. When the record was first released, the ad in the Rolling Stone foretold of the content of the disc, which was so far ahead of its time that it sounds brand new, even today: "If you're white, this record will scare the shit out of you. If you're black, this record will scare the nigger out of you." It still does today! The Last Poets did not pull any punches, much like Jack Johnson, Sonny Liston and Floyd Patterson! Oyewole, Ben Hassan and Pudim took the blues to a new level, but gone was the influence of country. Songs such as "Run Nigger," "Niggers are scared of the Revolution," "Wake up Niggers" and "When the Revolution Comes" were a wake up call to a society that, tired of being subservient and going nowhere, was beginning to assert itself in an Uncle Tom manner. So the Poets, much like Baraka and Joans before them decided to cold- water-shock the brothers and sisters into a rude, but true awakening.
The Poets warned:
"Time is running out on bullshit changes
Running out like a bushfire in a dry forest
Like a murderer from the scene of a crime
Like a little roach from DDT..."
A warning to wake up, get out of the slumber under the skin, get out and be all that you can be, because that who you were and are... negritude, which as Lumumba said, nobody can "take away from you..."
And rebirth it was. Not just for a (black) society that had become listless, a corruption and a caricature of itself, but it also galvanized a musicjazzthat was becoming, albeit unbeknown to its serious artists, a slave to the industry that was slowly latching on to the myths and the music.
Rap is Born
Rap born thena new dialect in music. But more importantly, the music also inspired a new consciousness in society. The Last Poets also gave voice to a new generation of artists who shaped the music that we know and enjoy today. One of the most definitive performances in rap history was one that Douglas released a few years later: Lightin' Rod's Hustlers' Convention came to be a modern day black "Decameron," with its biting satirical humor and eye-popping imagery. The music by Kool and the Gang, with Julius Hemphill and other jazzmen, sowed the seeds (along with the Last Poets, of course) for the music of Gil Scott-Heron, Public Enemy, Afrika Bambaataa, Melle Mel and many others who flew in the face of adversity. Scott-Heron became The Voice of protest, when he released a slew of albums, supported by tireless touring and recitations through the 70s. His poems, "Winter In America," "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," and "H2O Gate Blues" revealed a fresh new mind and set the tone for a more popular generation of rap artistry. Melding the funk grooves of Sly Stone and James Brown, Scott-Heron brought a new sophistication to the genre. He came to be, with Oyewole, Ben Hassan and Lightin Rod, one of the Godfathers of a generation of rap artists.
Public Enemy, fronted by Chuck D, Flavor Fav and Professor Griff, with Norman (Terminator X) Rogers on the turntables, also added to the repertoire with such definitive classics as "It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back." A new music was born. A new nation was created. The urban landscape of hip-hop was created, and rap became the center of its universe.
It seemed now, like strugglers in the desert had been fulfilled. Dr. Kingalthough not with this level of militancyand Malcolm X; Eldridge Cleaver, H. Rap Brown, Angela Davis and Stokley Carmichael; Amiri Baraka, and Ellison and Wright and Baldwin before them were vindicated. Black arts became the history books of black history. Not as the television, the culture bandits and the music industry would have it.
The love affair with the new self-discovery lasted, like most romances, for a while because the industry moguls discovered that capital could be made of the vast groundswell that was building around rap music and the hip-hop culture. The establishment of white-run music labels and conglomerates began to manufacture the sound. Black entrepreneurs followed suit. More music flooded the airwaves. The "plea"of stellar figures such as Langston Hughes in the '50s, Amiri Baraka in the '60s and the Last Poets in the '70sto "get real" was ignored. Attitudinal posturing took precedence over commitment. The "bling-bling" and "pimp" status became glorified by the so-called, new hip-hop generation to the extent that the real activism in the musical artthe intent to draw attention to a situation that cried out for redress, which was at the core of rapgot somewhat lost. It was like Uncle Tom had been born, more stud-like and stereotypical. A new bravado and posturing began to choke the art. Profanity abounded and this was often taken for an authentic "street image."
This type of music that appears to appeal to commercially minded manufacturers should not be confused with and can never replace the one that is produced by artists, that is explicitly political, sharply critical of the status quoeven that which exists inside black lifeand is self-reflective in the way that only a mature art can risk being. The future of the music depends on this as well as on lyrical skill, narrative complexity, clever rhyming and newer rhythms and a bolder political spirit.
Thus the soul searching was given public expression as all the artistic elements melded together in the music of Tupac Shakur, an artist who has left his mark on the art of rap with everything that the music was first designed to be: lyrical and poetic, strident and forthright and rhythmically fresh.
Tupac was almost a Bird-like figure in the new music. Like Bird, whose music still courses through the veins of artists and aficionados alike, Tupac's voice shoots across the cultural landscape and infuses our spirit with rare intensity. Like Bird before him, Tupac embraced the history of music, operated within its boundaries, yet pushed against them, constantly reshaping the art. His splendid baritone was infused with passion and urgency. As Michael Eric Dyson says in a rather definitive biography, "He narrated his life as a road map to suffering, wrenching a brutal victory from the ghetto he so loved and the fame and fortune that so blessed and cursed him. As a supreme symbol of his generation, he embodied its reckless, audacious liberties and its ominous hopelessness."
From Be-Bop to Hip-Hop
Years ago at the Montreux Jazz Festival, that wonderful ambassador of music, Quincy Jones produced a very unique vision of the human chain that linked music from its pre-historic roots in Africa, through jazz in the '50s, to the hip-hop era we live in today. The concert was entitled "From Be-Bop to Hip-Hop" and featured some amazing improvisation by the likes of Jon Hendricks, Al Jarreau, George Benson, Dianne Reeves, Grandmaster Melle Mel, and a host of other luminaries from the hip-hop generation. The segment began with a scat figure invented by Hendricks, picked up by Jarreau, tossed around between them and George Benson. Throughout the bed of music was a percussive element beat out by a host of drummers from West Africa to the East Coast of America. I wonder whether Jones knew the extent of the impact that this surprising concert had on the audience, myself included. I thought that it was a masterstroke for jazz... no for music as a whole. I was reminded of what Monk had once said decades ago, when he was asked where he thought jazz was going and he answered, something to the effect of: "I don't know where it's going, it could be going to hell for all I know..."
Perhaps not, after all. But I for one am glad that it has gone far, yet come full circle: to where art and life and the politics and sociology of human existence meet. Because I, for one, firmly believe that there can be no art without activism. No diplomacy in poetry just as there can be any music without remembering the triumph of the human spirit over its suffering condition... from be-bop to hip-hop!
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