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.