African Pianism by Ed Bland

 

 


 

CULTURAL FEEDBACK: African and American Export Loop 

As the only African-American composer at this conference and as one of the very few attendees who has earned a living primarily through the profession of composing, I think that I might bring a distinctive perspective to this conference. This view emerges from composing, arranging and producing for the last 40 years in the recording, motion picture, and television industries, in addition to composing my concert music. 

An African-American is the result of many factors. Among them are whatever continuities and discontinuities our ancestors brought with them as they were exported to the New World, and the eradication of tribal distinctions during slavery in a primarily European-American context with  Native American touches. In adapting to a situation that was not made to work for them, African-Americans had to create novel ways of thinking and behaving to transform the situation so they could not merely survive but flourish here. Later cultural/musical manifestations of this thinking resulted in Ragtime, the Blues, Jazz, Rock and Roll, Soul, Gospel, Rhythm and Blues, and Rap and Hip Hop.

 For almost a century, African-Americans have been musically and culturally "blackening" the rest of America through music, clothing, body language, dance, sports, and spoken language. Through the exports of the American entertainment industry, American values and ways get into the brains of the rest of the world. In so doing, we turn the world into Americans through entertainment globalization. Through American global marketing genius, we are "negrifying" the rest of the world. In this context, what is the function and purpose of African pianism, whatever that is?

From the city of Pittsburgh, home of this conference, African pianism spoke in the guise of African-American jazz pianism. Pittsburgh is the home of famous jazz pianists, Earl Hines, Mary Lou Williams, Errol Garner, Ahmad Jamahl (nee Fritz Jones), and Dodo Mamorosa (a white, who was one of the first be-bop pianists). Other Pittsburgh natives include jazz greats, Roy Eldridge, Billy Eckstein, Billy Strayhorn, Ray Brown, and Art Blakey. Lena Horne, Stanley and Tommy Turrentine are rumored to have originated from here.

Before I speak further, I want to introduce myself musically. Thursday night you heard the pianist Mark Boozer perform my "Three Chaconnes in Blue." Tonight you will hear Darryl Hollister perform the same piece. As you all know, the Chaconne, the basic form of the blues and jazz, is a continuous variation in which the "theme" is the scheme of harmonies and their harmonic rhythm. Brahms uses a Baroque version of the Chaconne in the final movement of his fourth symphony. At this point, I would like to play a tape of my piano composition, "Classical Soul." This is a MIDI version I prepared of the Second and Third movements of that work.

 {TAPE OF 2ND & 3RD MOVEMENTS OF "CLASSICAL SOUL." PLAYED} 

In the "Three Chaconnes" and "Classical Soul," you will notice that both are driven by the horizontal demands of the texture, differing from most jazz because there are at least two or three "real" contrapuntal voices. The contrapuntal accent patterns between the lines are reminiscent of those of West African drumming and are the basis of the "swing" found in both works. Both works are dedicated to the piano wizardry of two great jazz pianists, "Fats" Waller and Art Tatum. 

Earlier in this conference, Kwasi Ampene of Ghana gave a paper in which  he noted the Africanisms in the piano music of jazz great Theolonius Monk. One of the observations he made about qualitative differences he found between West African music and Western Art music is that African music is "dynamic" and Western Art Music is "contemplative."

Another quality which I discern in West African drumming and in the better moments of jazz is the prolongation of the present moment aesthetically. In other words, an eternalization of a given aesthetic moment. It is that quality that I hope I realized and maintained in the "Three Chaconnes" and in "Classical Soul." If I was successful, in so doing then I consider that my contribution to this conference.

As noted before, among Pittsburgh's contributions to African-American Jazz Pianism was Errol Garner. I was first introduced to his work in 1943 when I was playing clarinet at a jam session in Chicago. At that time, Garner had copied some of the solos of Art Tatum such as "Get Happy," "Tiger Rag," "Elegy," and others which Tatum had recorded circa 1938 on Decca. I filed Garner's name away and was pleasantly surprised several years later to notice that he had developed his own immediately recognizable voice. In the meantime I was pursuing a performance career as a jazz clarinetist and saxophonist.

Art Tatum was the ideal for jazz pianists prior to the advent of be-bop. In my opinion, Tatum was the most adventuresome of all jazz improvisers. He not only challenged the harmonic and rhythmic limits of the tunes he was playing, but he also challenged, played, and toyed with the formal structure of jazz form. This play was especially evident in his interludes, introductions, and other interpolations. Tatum was the only jazz artist who made form as much an element to be improvised on and with, as the elements of harmony, melody, and rhythm.

Heir to the "swinging left hand" of the stride piano style, Tatum was the direct descendant of James P. Johnson and Fats Waller. Tatum remains the only jazz voice out there who hasn't been emulated yet. A few decades ago it seemed as if Phineas Newborn Jr. out of Memphis would inherit Tatum's mantle, but unfortunately mental illness and death prevented that. In my early teens in Chicago, I was lucky enough to hang out with a posse of pianists (ten years or more my senior) who worshipped Tatum's playing. On the outskirts of this group of pianists was Nat "King" Cole, who was highly regarded as a jazz pianist before he reached fame as a vocalist.

Ellington was the artist closest to Tatum in pushing the envelope of jazz, but Ellington's essays were primarily harmonic, and coloristic via orchestration, coupled with very inventive contrapuntal lines. Aside from the current emulations of Ellington by Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, other emulations existed in the 40s, such as the Dave Matthews Band, the Hal McIntyre Orchestra (Hal McIntyre was at one time lead alto with the Glenn Miller band) and, of course, the band of Charlie Barnet. Other jazz envelope pushers after World War Two were the pianist Lennie Tristano and Bob Gratteinger composer of "City Of Glass," and who at one time arranged for Stan Kenton. 

Prolonged exposure to Tatum and Ellington, coupled with Stravinsky's "Firebird Suite," "Petrouchka," and especially his "Rite Of Spring," led me, to composition and evolving my own musical language. This evolution eventually led me into composing my "Piece For Chamber Orchestra." In order to find my own compositional voice, I had to wade through three canons: Western Art Music; African-American genres such as Jazz, Blues, Gospel, Rhythm and Blues, Gospel and Soul; and West African drumming. Your next introduction to my music will be a recording of my "Piece For Chamber Orchestra," conducted by Alvin Brehm, at one time considered the Heifetz of the double bass and also a composer. The players are the top new music specialists in New York City from the Group For Contemporary Music and Speculum Musicae. Again, the point of this work as in the others of mine that you have heard, is the eternalization of a given aesthetic moment. The establishment and prolongation of what I call an "eternal now."

Upon hearing this work, Dr. Gyimah Labi of Ghana, a composer and ethnomusicologist, asked me where I had traveled in Africa to learn so much about the rhythms of traditional West African drumming. I replied that I had never been to Africa and that whatever I learned about West African drumming was from listening to early Folkways records. 

Gunther Schuller, the American composer, called this work "an amazing tour de force in terms of relentless energy and build up of tension....a fascinating and strong piece." Some of these qualities are an outgrowth of my writing and arranging work in Jazz, Soul, R&B, and Gospel which is the basis for so much Pop music especially in the singing of the first "blue eyed soul singer" Johnny Ray.

A Radical Change In the Economics of the Record Business 

American pop music, which is African-American based or derived, could be viewed as today's global folk music, regardless of whether it is manifested as Ragtime, Blues, Jazz, Gospel, Soul, Rock and Roll, or Rap. In the U.S., the economic growth of the record business is based on the  purchases of young whites. 

In the early 50s, as innovations were made by black artists recording on such labels as Chess/Checker in Chicago and Atlantic in New York, young whites started to purchase those records. While sitting in the offices of Chess records in those early days of my beginning adventures in the record business, after finishing my studies at the University of Chicago, I remember a phone call that Phil Chess got from McKee Fitzhugh, one of the Black DJs in Chicago who played Chess' R&B recordings on his radio show. Fitzhugh commented on how white record buyers were coming to his record store in the black ghetto to purchase Chess records. Among the artists that the Chess brothers were recording at that time in addition to the Doowop groups such as The Moonglows, were Bo Diddley, Howling Wolf, and Muddy Waters. Leonard Chess challenged me to write a blues song. He seemed to think that it would be difficult for me to do what with my college background. I wrote three blues songs and presented the lead sheets to the Chess brothers. At the bottom of each sheet I had the standard copyright notice. Leonard Chess said to me, "We don't do business with people who have copyright on their music."

Records of early Rock and Roll on Chess, Checker, Atlantic, and King records, led to "cover records" (which were sanitized versions of by black artists' songs re-made by white artists). These cover records were marketed by the major record companies. These records were sanitized by removing as much of the irony, satire, play, and sexual references as possible. Elvis Presley was an early example of this phenomena. Many of these early Rock records were exported to England and became the models and inspiration for the songs of the Beatles and Rolling Stones which were exported back to the US in the first British invasion of 1964. 

The rise of many American white blues bands such as the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, the Siegel/Schwall Blues Band, and the Blues Project, paralleled the invasion of British talent. Interestingly enough, I would hire some members of these white blues bands for my recording sessions as they had a better feel for the black musical idioms than did the middle-class black studio musicians. 

Now a few decades later, with the advent of Rap and Hip Hop, the monetary balance of power in the record industry has shifted. Rap is not a musical movement but a poetic one, a 20th-century rebirth of opera. In many ways Rap is reminiscent of the birth of Opera by the Florentine Camerata. Those Renaissance nobles, who were poets, wanted their poems in the forefront with the music that accompanied them very simple, tamed, muted, and in the rear. Likewise the rappers revolted against their elders' interest in Bebop, Coltrane and Miles Davis, because of their perception that the music was too complex, abstract and indirect. The rappers wanted verbal concreteness and power, which they achieved through their poems, accompanied by a primitive sampled musical background. This sampled background served as a counterpoint to the rhythms of their poetic meters. Poetic texts that extolled misogyny, street crime and drugs, were, and still are favored over subtler, more clever poems.

Rappers that I've taught music to and worked with in South Los Angeles consider rapping to be of African derivation. The import of Rap for the economics of the record industry is revolutionary. This is the first time that covers of works or covers of black styles are not desired by young white record buyers. Except for one white artist, Eminem (Slim Shady), all attempts by the record industry over the last 20 years to import white artists into the genre have failed. Why? The young whites reject them. The young whites want the raw ghetto experience as revealed by black artists such as Puffy Combs, Tupac Shakur, Dr. Dre, Snoop Doggy Dogg, etc. 

The feeling among the most powerful in the record industry is that Rock is middle-aged. There are no Beatles or Rolling Stones in the offing. The consumerís money is being spent on Rap and Hip Hop. This puts blacks in a strong economic position in terms of setting up their own record companies and publishing companies that economically dwarf the considerable economic achievements of Motown.

The financial clout of the Rap company Death Row Records was phenomenal before its president was put back in jail. Some of the Rap stars and entrepreneurs have backgrounds in gang life, prison and the drug trade. Regardless of what one thinks of that life-style, it is a good training ground for survival and success in the jungle of the business world.

The Rap entrepreneurs have figured out how to produce, market, distribute, and license their works. This puts them in a strong position vis-ŗ-vis the major labels and is the first time that the economic power has shifted this way in this field. Black American musicians have complained for decades that whites have stolen and co-opted their music and made fortunes from it while they have, with rare exception, only crumbs to show for their endeavors. Finally, because of the young whites' response to Rap, American blacks can totally exploit and own their work if they so desire.

African American Music as Avant-Garde Music 

Since Ragtime, the avant garde in American pop music has been African-American music, for the most part. In all fairness, it must be admitted that both pop and Art music are subject to the ever demanding and evolving standards of artistic excellence. The conceit of Art music is that the only advanced and higher order artistic thinking takes place under its rubric. But who can deny the high compositional thinking of West African drumming, or, for that matter, some of the best Jazz? Ellington's best work compositionally were his miniatures 1939-42 such as "Giddybug Gallop," "Conga Brava," "Harlem Airshaft," and "In A Mellotone." But he was a miniaturist. Chopin was essentially a miniaturist also, but more asymmetrical in his formal thinking. 

The formal rhythmic organization of West African percussive polyphony at the very least rivals much of the structural complexity of Bach, Western Art music, and the so-called Netherlands School, which was achieved by other means. Too often the so-called high status of Art music seems more anchored in class superiority and elitism than in any inherent artistic superiority. Part of the baggage of Art music is its necessity to have prior verbal knowledge about the work before enjoying it. Part of the contempt in which pop music is held by Art Music apologists seems to reside in the fact that pop music needs no prior verbal education in order for the listener to enjoy it. At any historical cross-section, most music lovers would admit that much that parades as music of any kind is dull, deadly, dying, and not of much intrinsic interest, be it Art music, Jazz, Pop, Folk etc. Why not approach each piece of music in terms of its use/enjoyment quotient, be it Ellington's "Giddybug Gallop," Beethoven's "Grosse Fugue," the last movement of the "Hammerklavier Sonata," or Tatum's "Get Happy?" 

Why American Whites Embrace Black Music 

A considerable number of young, decent, sensitive American whites are not proud of the Western way of life. Who could be proud of the bloodiest century in human history, most of it shed by Western countries? Who could be proud of the ending of the pretense about American Democracy and its replacement with the Cold War and the National Security State from 1945 to the present? Who could be proud of the worldwide elimination of the so-called primitive cultures under the guise of Western enlightenment and commercial progress? Who could be proud of a tradition that could entertain the elimination of life from this planet as its right and duty if need be by World War Three? One doesn't need the work of the German cultural historian Oswald Spengler (The Decline Of the West) to realize that the inherited way of life of the West is dying, if not already dead. 

A tradition dies when the youth of that tradition look elsewhere for values and life models. For too many young whites, their inherited world doesn't work for them anymore, in much the same way that America hasn't worked for African-Americans in the four hundred years they've been here. Young whites have turned to African-American models because they sense that the American black has created ways of prevailing in a situation that was never meant to work for them. Perhaps those ways might work for young whites also. I believe that American white youth's interest in black cultural products since Ragtime is a function of the decline in the viability of the Western way of life. Young whites' interest in hearing Bach, Beethoven, Brahms or Mozart has sharply diminished. If you have any doubts, look at the financial sheets of all classical record companies. At best, the youth will listen to Glass or Reich, but above all, they want to hear African-American products. Young whites have turned to black Americans for models and have been doing so all this century. I have noticed that in addition to the mention of Glass, Reich and Cage during these conference sessions there has been considerable interest in applying the ideas of Perle, Babbitt, and Forte in 12-tone theory, serialism, and set theory to African pianism. 

I personally hope that something useful is found in pursuit of those ideas. Another approach I would also like to suggest is that you examine some of the work of Charles Seeger, whom some of you may not know. The American musicologist Charles Seeger examined the attempts to describe musical compositional phenomena in mathematical terms in the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences 1933 "Music and Musicology," in which he notes that there is no law of contradiction in music. As you all know, the law of contradiction is central in the evolution of math and science. Another article by Seeger on the same subject matter appears in the Journal of The American Musicological Society (1960, Xlll, pps 224-261) "On the Moods Of A Musical Logic." For another view of the same subject matter, see David Schiff's article in the Times Literary Supplement, July 2, 1999 (pages 18-19 of the Arts section) on the application of set theory to music. 

Seeger was a seminal figure not only in historical and systematic musicology but in and ethnomusicology. He was also the teacher of the composer Henry Cowell, husband of the great American composer Ruth Crawford Seeger, and father of the famous folk singers, the Seeger Brothers. If I'm not mistaken the American composer Lou Harrison studied with Cowell. Seeger wrote an article entitled "Dissonant Counterpoint" in "Modern Music" published by the League of Composers in 1930. This article served as one starting point for Cowell's book "New Musical Resources." Some scholars consider Seeger's article as the forerunner of serialism theories. The musicological scholarship that accompanies the development of musical work is very needed and important. However, such thinking is ultimately quantitative, whereas artistic thinking is qualitative. Art is thinking in qualities. Africa has been superb at qualitative thinking. Think of its history in both the visual arts and West African drumming. 

In today's global village, the challenge to all of us is the creation of a working balance between the two ways of thinking. Between quantitative and qualitative thinking. This is the human challenge and the challenge of and to the global village and African pianism. Can that challenge be met?  At one time, Africa exported slaves to the New World, perhaps with the African pianism movement it can export musical artifacts at least as significant in their own right as what their New World African descendants have exported to the rest of the world.

Closing Comments 

I would like to close with a few comments about some of the music and presentations I heard at the conference. But before I do, I must extend a heartfelt thanks and appreciation to Mark Boozer and Darryl Hollister, the two pianists who were brave and artistic enough to perform my very wicked "Three Chaconnes In Blue." Akin Euba's "Scene's From a Traditional Life," performed admirably by Mark Boozer, had some real moments of rhythmic interest and dynamic structuring. 

Kwabena Nkeita, who gave the opening presentation at the conference, was represented by some very delicate and fetching piano pieces. Denzil Weale, a South African, who I understand was one of the few non-academics at the conference, showed us what music is about in his very communicative lecture and his communicative "Twosome" and "Suite Sounds Of The Good Ol' South." His was the only work by an African that had a command of the African-American musical syntax. I'm pretty familiar with the work of Gyimah Labi, and have always felt that sooner or later he will emerge with a singular and powerful voice from that continent. What I heard of his at the conference only reinforced that feeling. 

As you contemplate my observations and integrate them into your own reactions to this conference on African pianism, I would like to exit with a final musical statement from my latest CD. This work "swings". It is also an electronic construct that could not be performed by players with acoustical timpani because of performance difficulties. Even if it could be performed by live players the result would be aural mud. 

 

 ED BLAND

 

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