The pool’s not been what I’d hoped. This is one of the ways that Mercury Retrograde has manifested locally of late, prompting in me a sense of frustration and postponement, despite my knowing that we’ve performed our planting ritual, seeds and seedlings are in the ground, things are growing. Similar processes are afoot intellectually as I continue my wanderings. In my readings, I’ve been moving crabwise among many books at once. Robin D.G. Kelley keeps it surreal with his book Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination. Thelonious Monk appears near the book’s finale. Kelley went on to write a book on Monk. Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original. Thumbing through the latter book’s index, I land upon “Monk, Thelonious: drugs taken by,” hoping to encounter word of Monk’s relationship to psychedelics, as he’s known to have done mushrooms with Allen Ginsberg and Timothy Leary. Monk came to the psychedelic sacrament a seasoned pro. Reports suggest he was unimpressed. Monk had been arrested years prior for marijuana possession. Police rolled up on him after a Sunday night gig in June 1948. He liked to smoke reefer when he played, and other players in his groups relied on drugs and alcohol to keep up. The meeting with Leary occurred in January 1961. Three years later, Monk appeared on the cover of the February 28, 1964 edition of Time magazine. The cover story’s author Barry Farrell wrote, “Every day is a brand-new pharmaceutical event for Monk: alcohol, Dexedrine, sleeping potions, whatever is at hand, charge through his bloodstream in baffling combinations.”
The Ramsey Lewis Trio rouse me midafternoon with their “Blues for the Night Owl.” More to my liking, though, is Expansions, a 1975 LP by Lonnie Liston Smith & the Cosmic Echoes.
“Expand your mind…to understand…” sings Lonnie’s brother, flutist Donald Smith, on the album’s opener. This LP and another (Jerry Butler’s The Sagittarius Movement) arrive bearing reference to Sagittarius. “Lady Sagittarius.” Let us thank her, as Smith does, “for her Earthly Guidance.” Here I am, meanwhile, at semester’s end, students and I grappling with Philip K. Dick’s downer dystopia A Scanner Darkly. Chapter 15 is for me the book’s nadir, as the book’s third-person narrator recounts the thoughts of cop character Mike Westaway. Mike manipulates others, justifying these actions by claiming that the people he handles — characters like the book’s protagonist Bob Arctor — are already dead.
Grieving as I wander in sadness amid old records in my basement, or, while kneeling, I collect Crayola crayons and plastic mixers off the dining room floor. Frankie enjoys tossing these from boxes and jars. She also likes to make us pick up after her with her sippy cups. These she chucks from her high chair, big grin on her face, squealing with delight. I listen to Charlie Parker’s The Verve Years (1950-51) in the basement after she falls asleep. This has been my pattern of late. While listening, I read statements by a group called The Unseen Hand. On their website, the group offers retreats for those in need of its care. “The Songs of Creation,” they write, “are to humans what migration pathways are to monarchs or whales, warblers or the continents. They return us to true: true sound, true north, the position of prayer.” The group seems to be the work of alchemist-acupuncturist Laura Clarke Stelmok. Her words appear on the liner notes to Battle Trance’s Blade of Love, an album of tenor saxophones as opposed to Parker’s alto. Searching the stacks, I happen upon Jan Hammer’s The First Seven Days. I awaken to the album’s mid-1970s synthesizer wizardry by about Day 3, amid a track called “Oceans and Continents.”
Bored by what follows, though, I wander off into the stacks and peek at Kenneth Burke’s Language as Symbolic Action, interest piqued by the latter’s chapter on “Kubla Khan.”
Voices overheard through a wall scoff at and belittle; members of a circle seduce one another with words. Why do I continue to lean in? Do I sense among these voices a proud knowing? Do I think that by listening in, I might learn? Experimenting with that possibility, I place on my turntable a gift from my father — a copy of Sun Ra’s The Magic City. My father trained as a jazz percussionist, and told me a story a few nights ago — the night prior to the record’s appearance in the bins, in fact — of a show he played in the early 1970s. A band of his shared the stage with African percussionist Babatunde Olatunji. Several tracks on The Magic City were recorded live at Olatunji’s loft in New York in Spring 1965. Let us learn of this remarkable happening, part of what critic Paul Youngquist calls “the Arkestra’s wonder years,” 1965 and 1966. Youngquist calls The Magic City “a miracle of musical invention” (A Pure Solar World, p. 182). Let us lie on a couch with our heads in the sun as we listen. Timpani, ride cymbal, bass, and piano: together with horns, these ride “Cosmic Eye,” the first song on the album’s B-side. Cacophony clears the way. Music of this kind helps us breathe, airs us out like laundry on a line.
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.