Flying Start turns up in the bins, the second album by the Blackbyrds, the group Donald Byrd assembled while the head of Howard University’s Department of Jazz Studies in the 1970s. Curious, I look up info on the department — the first of its kind, established in 1970 “to preserve and perpetuate jazz through instruction, performance, and research.” From there, I’m off reading about a Beatles song released in 1968 called “The Inner Light,” the lyrics of which, written by George Harrison, paraphrase a portion of the Tao Te Ching.
Then onto the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at Stanford University, as described by Stewart Brand in his 1972 piece for Rolling Stone magazine, “Spacewar: Fanatic Life and Symbolic Death Among the Computer Bums.”
I’m having lunch this week with the poet Nathaniel Mackey. Excited by the thought of our conversation, I play Kenny Dorham’s “Blue Bossa” and begin Mackey’s Blue Fasa (2015).
Words going as music goes. Mackey is writing two intertwined, ongoing serial poems, both mythologically conceived. I’ve been invited, in other words, to share a meal with one of the greatest and most accomplished of living poets, a Winner of the National Book Award for Poetry. I’ve read some of the early sections of the first of Mackey’s serial poems, Song of the Andoumboulou. I haven’t yet explored the second, a work called Mu. In the preface to Blue Fasa, Mackey writes, “the long song, the long poem, particularly the serial poem, culls and extends a field of sympathetic resonances, lingering while moving on by way of recursiveness and feeling-with. To borrow a phrase from Rahsaan Roland Kirk (whose album Boogie-Woogie String Along for Real also pertains), it wants to be a vibration society. This has been and continues to be the practice of Song of the Andoumboulou and Mu” (xi). Dwelling upon Mackey’s words, I decide to build a playlist. Trance-inducing chants. “To pull the song,” Mackey says, “is to be taken over by it…to be taken over and taken afar” (xiii).
Les McCann & Eddie Harris wow a live audience with their cover of Gene McDaniels’s “Compared to What” at the Montreux Jazz Festival in June 1969.
The moment finds itself reproduced, resonating through countless lifeworlds. The single alone sold over a million copies, and appears on several soundtracks. Gene McDaniels was kind of an odd dude, though, referring to McCann as his “degenerate friend” on YouTube and Twitter before passing away in 2011. His work sometimes creeps me out, actually, much of it operating with a mysterious, vaguely esoteric air: puppet master, glint in eye, etc. McDaniels retired soon after the song’s success, spending his final years living as a self-described “hermit” somewhere in Maine. His politically charged albums of the early seventies, however, remain towering achievements. During this brief but potent stint, McDaniels reinvented himself as “the left rev. mc d,” a persona so radical it drew the ire of the Nixon administration, causing Ahmet Ertegun to drop McDaniels from Atlantic Records after the release of his album Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse in 1971. What about me: where am I at, how do I refocus? The command comes, “Go outdoors,” and it is good. Worlds of images, illustrated figures: around one a mix of life, plentiful, joyous, multitudinous.
Sarah and I rode up to Camden Town last night to see Soweto Kinch perform one of my favorite albums, Pharaoh Sanders’s Karma, at the Jazz Cafe, in honor of the album’s fiftieth anniversary. It was a stunning night, the music heady enough to generate “eyeball movies” all on its own — eidetic glyphs and pulsing pyramids — without need of any chemical assistance. Yet the show’s good vibes didn’t last long. I slept poorly throughout the night, waking several times from panic-filled dreams, one involving an angry giant pushing a cabin off its foundations, causing the structure to tumble down a ravine. Within a few hours of this dream, Facebook announced its plan to launch a new global currency called Libra. In the hours of the morning before the key fit the lock, however, I wandered out by bus and by train into the suburbs of South London to view an exhibition called “Brilliant Visions: Mescaline, Art, Psychiatry” at Bethlem Museum of Mind.
“Space is the Place” plays at a low volume, at the back (as opposed to front and center) of my thoughts, though in fact it’s one of the most bracing performances I’ve ever heard, while I reflect on my mixed feelings toward my discipline’s fondness for jargon.
Don’t get me wrong: I like it when my colleagues gather and talk texts. But I prefer birds whistling from treetops. Along with assists from the other elements of human and nonhuman nature, the evening orchestra performs its polyphonic improvisation — with me there to observe and to listen in surround sound in the hollow of a glade. Through these acts we teach each other. As we pull together, we expand each other’s capacity to sympathize and finally to love. I am describing an effort to bring about a fundamental change in “reality” itself, which is to say, in ideology.
“Do you hear a robin?” I overhear my niece asking her sister in the next room. Let us resolve to learn something new. Listen to Lee Konitz’s “Sunflower” and drink a Martini.
“The essential irony here,” wrote LeRoi Jones in response to “cool jazz” players of the 1950s like Konitz, is that “when the term cool could be applied generally to a vague body of music, that music seemed to represent almost exactly the opposite of what cool as a term of social philosophy had been given to mean. The term was never meant to connote the tepid new popular music of the white middle-brow middle class. On the contrary, it was exactly this America that one was supposed to ‘be cool’ in the face of” (Blues People, p. 213). Fair enough — but let us not make “existing to cast judgment on others” our middle name. Get out there, swept up in the joy of common, everyday, familial being with others. ‘Tis the season. Imagine in the circle of an eye a triangle of power. With one’s hands, weigh a series of geodes and prisms. Go for walks in a snow-covered neighborhood. Exchange presents. Sit by a fire. Recognize “modernity” as a trope that signals the emergence of the condition to which it refers. Those who use this term come to occupy an alternative temporality — a “temporal structure,” as Fredric Jameson explains, “distantly related to emotions like joy or eager anticipation,” where time fills with promise (A Singular Modernity, p. 34). The term generates an electrical charge, a feeling of intensity and energy. Think of it as a shock doctrine, a shock to the system, an electrification of consciousness.
In a first attempt to name what I find exciting and distinctive in the work of Will Alexander, I land on describing the latter’s “A Cannibal Explains Himself to Himself” as a venture into pan-Africanist poetic cosmology. How do I arrange into the structure of my course on “Hippie Modernism,” I wonder, a sampling of that constellation of black radical art and politics leading from Sun Ra and Alice Coltrane to Will Alexander? Surely this has something to do with the Nguzo Saba and Ron Karenga’s substitution of “Trippin” in place of “jazz.” (“Trippin,” he writes, “is our word for what white boys and others call jazz. In line with our obsession with self-determination which demands new definitions and nomenclature, we reject the word jazz, for jazz is taken from the white word, jazzy, i.e., sexy, because that is what he thought our music was. We call it Trippin because that is what we do when we play it or listen to it.”) Trinidad’s steelbands, exploding forth from speakers one hundred panmen strong, awaken in me a desire to read Michael Denning’s Noise Uprising: The Audiopolitics of a World Musical Revolution. Listening to calypso recordings contributes to what Denning would call a project of “cultural decolonization” — a transmission from beyond the English-speaking auto-encyclopedic veil. The National Geographic text that supplements the recording teaches that Africans recorded their history in the arts, including song, dance, and culture, not in writing. Social conditions and injustices find expression in calypso music’s informative and militant song form. From calypso, I leap to the East Village of John Coltrane’s “Africa,” and then call it a day.