by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
The film was The Cry of Jazz, a 1959 production by KHTB in Chicago (the initials sound like call letters, which lead me to presume this film was made for TV — the grainy black-and-white in which it’s shot makes it look like a local TV production of the period) which is one of the legendary jazz movies because it’s the earliest film of the marvelously talented and eccentric pianist/composer/bandleader Sun Ra. Born Herman Poole Blount in Birmingham, Alabama on May 22, 1914 (he claimed to be related on his mother’s side to Elijah Muhammad, whose birth last name was Poole), he had been working as a professional musician since 1934 when he declared himself a conscientious objector to avoid the World War II draft (he was arrested and tried, but later freed and served out the war doing logging work in Pennsylvania). In 1946 he made his recording debut with blues singer Wynonie Harris, playing a hot piano solo on a song called “Dig This Boogie” that, like Jimi Hendrix’ solo on Jayne Mansfield’s record “Suey,” had little or nothing in common with his later style but certainly showed he knew his way around his instrument.
At some point he either genuinely became convinced that he was actually an alien from the planet Saturn or adopted that as a gimmick, and in the late 1940’s (after briefly working as an accompanist for Coleman Hawkins and jazz violinist Stuff Smith) he settled in Chicago, living and working there until 1961 and forming the first lineup of his own band, the Arkestra (he would sometimes lengthen the name with modifiers — “Myth Science Arkestra,” “Solar Arkestra,” “Astro-Infinity Arkestra,” “Intergalactic Research Arkestra” — but the “Arkestra,” with its pun on Noah’s Ark and the word “orchestra,” would remain constant), featuring many musicians who would work with him for decades: tenor saxophonist John Gilmore (who’s prominently featured in The Cry of Jazz and was a major influence on John Coltrane), alto saxophonist Marshall Allen, baritone saxophonist Pat Patrick (Sun Ra loved the dark sound of the baritone sax so much he would sometimes use two of them) and drummer Ronnie Boykins.
He made his first album as a leader for the short-lived Transition label in 1956, originally called Jazz by Sun Ra and reissued by Delmark Records (a Chicago-based company that was mostly a blues label, though it recorded a fair amount of jazz), in the 1960’s as Sun Song. His second album for Transition, Sound of Joy, wasn’t released until 1968 — Transition went out of business before they could put it out and it only got released when Delmark got the tapes at the same time they arranged to reissue Sun Song. Sun Ra got the message loud and clear: he couldn’t trust that his music would be released by recognized companies — either the majors or the standard jazz labels like Blue Note, Riverside and Prestige — so he became the first musician to launch an ongoing D.I.Y. label, Saturn Records. (Every singer-songwriter and punk band who sells CD’s at their live shows owes a debt to Sun Ra for blazing that particular trail.)
At first Sun Ra’s music sounded pretty much like you’d expect a young African-American pianist/arranger/composer/bandleader’s music to sound in the 1950’s, with obvious influences from Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus, but he later developed a unique style rooted in his obsession with outer space, writing song lyrics with science-fictional themes, dressing his band members in flamboyant costumes designed to make them look extraterrestrial (at a time when most mainstream jazz musicians performed in Brooks Brothers suits and ties!) and putting on a heavy-duty show that ultimately got him rediscovered in the early 1970’s and won him a cult following among rock fans. (The fact that Sun Ra had been the first major jazz musician to play synthesizers and electric keyboards also helped his cred with the rock crowd. His Wikipedia page also credits him with being the first bandleader to use two bassists, and the first to use electric bass, but he wasn’t; Duke Ellington used two bassists through much of the 1930’s and Stan Kenton debuted an electric bassist, Howard Rumsey, in 1941.) Sun Ra died in 1993, but the Arkestra continued after his death, first under the leadership of John Gilmore, then after he died under Marshall Allen’s direction — and the Arkestra still performs and has an official Web site, http://www.elrarecords.com/.
The Cry of Jazz was the brainchild of one Edward O. Bland, who had written a book called The Fruits of the Death of Jazz and based the movie “in part” on the book. He directed it and co-wrote it with Nelam Hill and Mark Kennedy (imdb.com lists a fourth writer, Eugene Titus, who isn’t credited on the film itself), and judging from the title of the book on which it was “in part” based, the film was designed to propagandize for Bland’s frankly weird ideas about jazz, its history and its likely future — or “futureless future,” to use one of his favorite phrases. It opens as a meeting of a jazz club is breaking up, and the club’s secretary, Alex Johnson (George Waller), is finishing writing the minutes. The club members are hanging out with each other and doing a bit of breeze-shooting before they go home, when one of the white women there makes a passing remark that rock ’n’ roll is jazz.
Alex, who’s African-American — though this film was made when “Negro” was the accepted non-pejorative way to refer to Black people, which really dates it — tears into her and starts giving her and the other club members, both Black and white, a long lecture about the history of jazz and how it’s intimately entwined with the history of racism. Jazz historian John Litweiler said that The Cry of Jazz “argues that this African-American art music, having by then achieved its heights of expression, was doomed to extinction because of its basis in the debased harmonic structures that the white man had imported from Europe.” The movie is actually considerably more argumentative and racialist than that: its opening point (it’s narrated by Waller throughout, sometimes in dialogue with the other characters and sometimes in voiceover — and though the voice is clearly the same, the acoustics of the recordings are different enough that the switches between dialogue and voiceover jar) is the one that’s been made more recently by Wynton Marsalis and other racialist jazz musicians and critics: that jazz is not primarily but exclusively African-American, that no white musicians have made any unique aesthetic contributions to it at all, nor have any Black musicians been at all influenced by white ones.
Waller’s character puts it bluntly that whites who played jazz have merely been playing “follow the leader” — which makes me wonder which Black “leaders” Bix Beiderbecke, Django Reinhardt, Artie Shaw, Stan Kenton, Gerry Mulligan and Lennie Tristano, to name just a few, were following. (Some racialist jazz commentators make Django a sort of “honorary Black” because as a Gypsy he had to deal with similar discrimination.) It also ignores the influence of white musicians on Black ones — like Frank Trumbauer and Jimmy Dorsey on Lester Young and Benny Carter, or Bix on Rex Stewart — certainly jazz is primarily an African-American form (in the literal meaning of that term because it is uniquely a product of the experience of African-descended people in the United States), and the paths of influence have generally run from Blacks to whites instead of the other way around, but they have gone the other way around at times. The second part of The Cry of Jazz is an odd attempt to analyze jazz in terms of a tension between freedom and restraint — between the freedom to improvise and the restraint of the chorus structure and the underlying harmonies that repeat again and again, chorus after chorus — which Bland and his co-writers analogize to the experience of Blacks under American racism, which simultaneously promised them freedom and delivered discrimination and second-class status.
The film uses the musicians’ term “changes” — meaning the changes in the underlying chord that mean the notes an improviser can play and still remain within tonality must also change — but it uses it both in the plural and in the singular (I’ve never talked to a musician, nor read an interview with one, in which he or she ever referred to a single chord as “a change”) — and as part of this discussion Bland gives us a précis of the history of jazz through New Orleans, swing, bebop and the new music of “The Sun Ra” (yes, his name is preceded by the definite article whenever it’s heard, and his closing credit lists him as “Le Sun Ra” — oddly, when he legally abandoned his birth name, Herman Poole Blount, what he actually changed it to was “Le Sony’r Ra”), though Sun Ra’s music is so idiosyncratic that the examples sound like none of those styles, but rather Ra and the Arkestra members’ unique “spins” on historical jazz forms. (In the “New Orleans” segment, the opening and closing collective counterpoints sound right but Julian Priester’s trombone style sounds like nothing either a New Orleans trombonist would have played in the early days or a Dixieland player could have got away with in 1959.)
The third segment — in which Alex Johnson shocks the members of the jazz club by saying that jazz is dead and, as he has done all movie, defending that point in a mean, hectoring style that basically says, “I’m right, and if you don’t agree with me 100 percent you’re an idiot and I don’t have to have anything to do with you” (not that different, come to think about it, from the way Right-wing talk radio hosts talk) — explains that the reason jazz is dead is that the Negro is being freed from racism and therefore the tension between freedom and restraint at the heart of jazz is no longer necessary, and Blacks will go on to create a new classical music that won’t use any of the musical language of jazz. At least I think that’s what he was saying — though Bland’s visuals (including some extreme close-ups of cockroaches running around a ratty apartment and what appear to be stock shots of buildings burning in race riots) arouse much less of a sense of hope than the script does and the ultimate message could be considerably darker.
What’s odd about The Cry of Jazz is that though the film was made in 1959 it seems (except for the use of the word “Negro”) to be an artifact from a decade later, with Alex Johnson’s character coming off as a prototype of a Black Power militant telling the do-gooder whites who are a lot less anti-racist than they like to think themselves to fuck off and leave the liberation of Black people exclusively to Black people themselves. It’s also interesting to note that the film’s prediction of “the death of jazz” did indeed come true, though hardly in the way Bland and his co-authors thought it would. For another decade jazz sustained itself as a creative music by getting rid of precisely those “restraints” — the chorus structure and the repeated harmonies — Bland was criticizing, and his featured performers, Sun Ra and the Arkestra, were among the leaders in that. They, along with Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, found new ways of playing jazz that didn’t involve repeated harmonies and blurred the distinction between choruses. What eventually happened to jazz is that as rock ’n’ roll, a form The Cry of Jazz denounced as beyond the pale, developed, it took over from jazz as the music of the “hip” young; college campuses, which had once been important venues for jazz performers, hosted rock acts instead, and eventually jazz and rock came together to form “fusion music.”
The principal founder of “fusion” was Jimi Hendrix, who came out of the rhythm-and-blues guitar tradition but extended his music by drawing on jazz —indeed, I would argue that just as Earl “Fatha” Hines was so influenced by Louis Armstrong that his playing was called “trumpet-style piano,” so Jimi Hendrix was influenced by John Coltrane so much (and likewise his white drummer, Mitch Mitchell, patterned his playing on Coltrane’s drummer, Elvin Jones) his playing could have been called “saxophone-style guitar.” But the initial creativity that drove Hendrix and the early pioneers of fusion (like the white British guitarist John McLaughlin, who in a way got catapulted to the top of the fusion world by Hendrix’s death) soon got leached away and “fusion” turned into a sterile, middle-of-the-road music aimed at the lowest, or at least next-to-lowest, common denominator. Jazz today is little different from classical music — an ossified museum piece, whose original creators and innovators are venerated while its living practitioners are seen as little more than live record players (the owner of Dizzy’s jazz nightclub in San Diego reported that one of her friends said he never came to the club because “everybody I like is dead”), reproducing styles that were fully developed by others before they were born. The ascendancy of someone like Wynton Marsalis, an excellent technician who can imitate virtually any other trumpeter in jazz history but has little or nothing to say on his own, is a sign of what’s happened to jazz and how as a creative music it’s dead even though you can hear live jazz in just about any of its major styles.
The Cry of Jazz is a weird movie, terrible by any normal aesthetic standard, and frustrating in that if Bland had just shot a 35-minute performance film of Sun Ra (whose music’s vitality and power mocks the pretentiousness of everything else in the film) he’d have ended up with a film both more important historically and more entertaining, but also endlessly fascinating in the conversations provoked by its wrong-headed but ambitious forays into dealing with jazz history, racism and the connection between the two — which is real enough (how could it not be?) but hardly at the level of one-to-one correspondence postulated in the film: when the script argued that bebop was developed out of the historical frustration that Blacks weren’t allowed to serve in World War II as anything other than mess boys (not true, by the way; there was a lot of racial discrimination and prejudice in the U.S. military but it wasn’t that bad), Charles totally lost his patience with this film and I just heard it as one more idiotic attempt to draw a direct parallel between racism and jazz — ironic, since it’s largely because of American racism that jazz exists at all.
It was the effect of the sudden imposition of racial segregation in the 1880’s and 1890’s throughout the American South that ensured that jazz would be born when (the 1890’s) and where (New Orleans) it was. It’s no accident that the Plessy v. Ferguson case which legitimized “separate but equal” (in theory; separate and highly unequal in practice) came from Louisiana, or that the plaintiff, Homer Adolph Plessy, was only one-sixteenth Black (he was picked as a test case by the railroads, who didn’t want the extra expense of maintaining separate cars for white and Black passengers). Louisiana in general and New Orleans in particular was filled with proud mixed-race Creoles, who did not self-identify as Black, regarded their homeland as Europe rather than Africa and pursued European culture, including European music — until the segregation laws thrust them into the “Black” category. Jazz came from the clash between the European music of the Creoles and the African-derived music of the New Orleans Blacks; that’s why it took the form it did, why it combined European and African styles in the unique way it did, and why African-American popular music didn’t divide into the sophisticated ragtime of Scott Joplin versus the primitive country blues the way white American popular music divided into Broadway and Tin Pan Alley pop songs on one side, and the hillbilly and bluegrass that fused into country music on the other. — 10/22/11 and 10/23/11