Thursday, November 30, 2017

Albert Murray - "Stomping The Blues" - 40th Anniversary Edition

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

"Murray is possessed of the poet's language, the novelist's sensibility, the essayist's clarity, the jazzman's imagination, the gospel singer's depth of feeling."
—The New Yorker

"Beautifully illustrated with vivid period photos, LP covers, and broadsides of black jazz icons, Stomping the Blues represents the zenith of Murray's writing on the subject."
— Rolling Stone

"One fine lyrical history of the music. Murray demonstrates the central role of blues/jazz in American culture, telling us about the nature of our past, present and future: which of course is exactly what the blues is."
—San Francisco Review of Books

"A flamboyant, insightful examination and evocation of the sources, styles, and mythologies of blues music."

Jonathan Haidt is a NYU professor of social psychology who specializes in morality and moral emotions.

On November 15th he delivered the 2017 Wriston Lecture to the Manhattan Institute under the title -  “The Age of Outrage: What It’s Doing to Our Universities and Our Country.”

Professor Haidt began his lecture by observing:

“Today’s identity politics . . . teaches the exact opposite of what we think a liberal arts education should be. When I was at Yale in the 1980s, I was given so many tools for understanding the world.

By the time I graduated, I could think about things as a utilitarian or as a Kantian, as a Freudian or a behaviorist, as a computer scientist or as a humanist. I was given many lenses to apply to any given question or problem.

But what do we do now? Many students are given just one lens—power. Here’s your lens, kid. Look at everything through this lens. Everything is about power. Every situation is analyzed in terms of the bad people acting to preserve their power and privilege over the good people.

This is not an education. This is induction into a cult. It’s a fundamentalist religion. It’s a paranoid worldview that separates people from each other and sends them down the road to alienation, anxiety and intellectual impotence.”

In recent years, Jazz, too, has been afflicted by the Cult of the Single Lens which preaches that Jazz was created by Black musicians and appropriated by White musicians. Some go as far as saying that Jazz as a Black Art was stolen by White impersonators.

Those who hold this viewpoint have promulgated a distorted version of the facts that was shaped by ideas that were ideological before they were musical.

But to many scholars, it is beyond dispute that white musicians have been an integral force in jazz from its earliest days. Above all, they maintain that the idea of Jazz as an exclusively black cultural preserve does not stand up to close scrutiny.

Such matters have been loudly argued, even fought over, and doubtless will continue to be hot subjects for some time to come.

More relevant is the question of the music: Does any evidence support the idea of identifiable "black" and "white" styles? Did it ever?

As Richard Sudhalter points out in his seminal Lost Chords: White Musicians and Their Contribution to Jazz, 1915-1945:

“In the early years of Jazz’s evolution, particularly in the 1920s and '30s, there were differences. They came about chiefly because musicians of different races were separated in their day-to-day and professional lives. And it was separately that black and white musicians grappled with the same problems of rhythm, harmony, melodic construction, interaction.

Some of his more extreme views may make Amiri Baraka (a.k.a. Leroi Jones) an unlikely source of valuable insight into such matters. Yet he seems right on target when he remarks, in Blues People: Negro Music in White America:

“Jazz as played by white musicians was not the same as that played by black musicians, nor was there any reason for it to be. The music of the white jazz musicians did not issue from the same cultural circumstances.”

In the context of the early years, the distinction is important. Differences in upbringing, environment, and musical training left white jazzmen (especially those who had little personal contact with black culture and its traditions) more likely to intellectualize, emphasizing matters of harmony and structure.

Performances by black ensembles, above all those of the South and Southwest, possessed, in general, a degree of rhythmic freedom, personal interaction, and often a blues feeling and melodic vocabulary rarely found in music by corresponding white bands. Again, Baraka gets it right:

“The white musicians understood the blues first as music, but seldom as an attitude, since the attitude, or world-view, the white musician was responsible to was necessarily quite a different one.”

But, along with other scholars who follow this line of reasoning, he fails to account for those many major black Jazzmen who feel, and display, little or no affinity for the blues and its "attitude." The exceptions they present, in their very numbers, are a counterargument, which cannot be explained, as Baraka tries to do, only as a matter of "Negroes trying to pretend that they had issued from [white] culture."

More likely, it seems, is an interpretation suggesting that mastery of what came to be called Jazz was not a matter of racial or genetic affinity (always a dangerous hypothesis) but of choice.”

As has been widely demonstrated in Richard Sudhalter’s Lost Chords: White Musicians and Their Contribution to Jazz, 1915-1945, Jazzmen of the pre-World War II decades, black and white, paid careful attention to each other's work, and that the degree to which such mutuality affected individuals varied immensely.

As he states: “Beginning in the 1920’s, individual musicians and ensembles made choices based on what they liked, even admired, incorporating the results in their emergent solo styles. Choice, above all, quickly became the determinant of what and how a man played, how he constructed and developed a solo, addressed the beat. In this context, as noted earlier, certain traits — tendencies and attitudes — can be identified as "white" and "black" contributions to the mix.”

One such “choice” or to revert back to Professor Haidt’s use of the term “lens” is the use of The Blues as a basis for a musician’s approach to Jazz.
[“I was given many lenses to apply to any given question or problem.”]

And since it was first published in 1977, there has been no better description of how Jazzmen who chose The Blues as a lens through which to solve the problems of rhythm, harmony, melodic construction, and interaction needed to play Jazz at the highest levels than Albert Murray’s Stomping The Blues.

If you missed its original publication, the University of Minnesota Press is currently offering a 40th anniversary paperback edition with a new introduction by Murray-scholar, Paul Devlin.

The following from a University of Minnesota media release is very accurate concerning the tone and tenor of Murray’s landmark study of the blues and its relationship to Jazz:

In this classic work of American music writing, renowned critic Albert Murray argues beautifully and authoritatively that "the blues as such are synonymous with low spirits. Not only is its express purpose to make people feel good, which is to say in high spirits, but in the process of doing so it is actually expected to generate a disposition that is both elegantly playful and heroic in its nonchalance."

In Stomping the Blues Murray explores its history, influences, development, and meaning as only he can. More than two hundred vintage photographs capture the ambiance Murray evokes in lyrical prose. Only the sounds are missing from this lyrical, sensual tribute to the blues.”

To carry Professor Haidt’s lens analogy one step further, a reading of Albert Murray’s Stomping the Blues will certainly provide the reader with some clearer views to understand these assertions from Amiri Baraka (a.k.a. Leroi Jones) in Blues People: Negro Music in White America:

“Jazz as played by white musicians was not the same as that played by black musicians, nor was there any reason for it to be. The music of the white jazz musicians did not issue from the same cultural circumstances.”

“The white musicians understood the blues first as music, but seldom as an attitude, since the attitude, or world-view, the white musician was responsible to was necessarily quite a different one.”

It’s one thing to say The Blues, but it’s quite another to understand what is meant by it.

Since it publication 40 years ago, Stomping the Blues has been influential in a number of ways as is detailed in Paul Devlin’s new introduction to the 40th anniversary edition.

Perhaps one of the most helpful insights about what Mr. Murray means by The Blues is contained in the opening paragraph of Mr. Devlin’s Introduction:

"’For Paul, Some fundamentals.’ That is how Albert Murray inscribed my copy of Stomping the Blues. Here is one of his most fundamental points: "You don't stomp the blues like this [pounds fist on table] — you stomp the blues like this [snaps with panache on the afterbeat]." Murray used this example all the time in interviews and on panels in order to illustrate that the blues is "stomped" with elegance, not force; with technique, not power; with joie de vivre, not rage.”

Mr. Devlin’s Introduction also contains many other perceptive and penetrating observations about the book that will help the reader gain a fuller appreciation of its significance. For example, Mr. Murray tells us that:

“Blues music has always been good-time music; its function has been the exorcism of despair."

Mr. Devlin parallel’s this with the work of Andre Malraux when he explains:

“To an extent, this is an application of Andre’ Malraux's argument about the workings of the artistic process: that art, primarily, is a response to art, as explained in his book The Voices of Silence (1953), a monumental, profound, and idiosyncratic analysis of the visual arts that Murray studied for decades, and a work not unlike Stomping the Blues in several ways: poetic, written by a learned critic, yet not shackled by the conventions developed or expected by academic or journalistic critics of the form in question, slow and methodical to start, and difficult to put down once it starts swinging.

Another point Murray considered fundamental was his reorientation of how blues relates to jazz: as a matter of the level of orchestration. Indeed, he argues that the process by which pop tunes and show tunes are recomposed as jazz tunes is "precisely" the process by which the folk blues was extended, elaborated, and refined into jazz. Stomping the Blues is fundamental to his vision of existence and a lens through which to view other aspects of culture. …  It expounds a vision of and for life …  Stomping the Blues endures year after year, enthralling readers new and old while provoking debate.”

In a brief synopsis, Mr. Devlin also details the storied, earlier publication history of Stomping the Blues:

Stomping the Blues was published by McGraw-Hill in November 1976 and was celebrated with a midday "Kansas City Jam Session" in the publisher's landmark headquarters in midtown Manhattan, featuring jazz giants Mary Lou Williams, Budd Johnson, Buck Clayton, Eddie Durham, Oliver Jackson, Bill Pemberton, and Doc Cheatham. What an auspicious beginning: an artist saluted by artists he salutes. Stomping the Blues went on to win ASCAP's Deems Taylor Award for music criticism in 1977. A British edition was published in 1978, and subsequent American editions in 1982, 1989, and 2000. In 2016 it was included in the Library of America's edition of Murray's essays and memoirs ….”

Mr. Devlin offers a broader context as well in which to appreciate the influence and effect of Stomping the Blues as its relates to other of Mr. Murray’s writings, all of which have been published by the University of Minnesota Press, when he notes that:

This edition is a result of a collaboration that began in mid-2009 when I pitched what became Rifftide: The Life and Opinions of Papa Jo Jones as told to Albert Murray, to the University of Minnesota Press [2011]. Since then, working with Murray's literary executor, Lewis P. Jones in, Minnesota has published Murray Talks Music; Albert Murray on Blues and Jazz (2016), a collection of Murray's previously uncollected or unpublished interviews and writings on music (edited by me), and a new edition of Good Morning Blues; The Autobiography of Count Basie as told to Albert Murray (2016), the fourth American edition. Murray Talks Music is a valuable companion to Stomping the Blues. These four books together tell an edifying story about American music and culture in the twentieth century: jazz and the blues as thought and lived; jazz and the blues in theory and practice. Stomping the Blues is the masterpiece that led to the other three….”

In the third and final section of his Introduction, Mr. Devlin offers these comments about the reception and influence of Stomping The Blues:

Stomping the Blues was reviewed extensively. Some of the smartest and most perceptive reviews include those by Gary Giddins in New York, John Edgar Wideman in The American Poetry Review, Robert Fleming in Freedomways, Bob Blumenthal in The Boston Phoenix, Stanley Dance in Jazz Journal, and Greil Marcus in Rolling Stone. ...

Many reviewers understood and appreciated what Murray was trying to do. A few years later Nelson George argued in the Village Voice in 1982 that it should be brought back into print and it soon was. George notes, perceptively, ‘the marvel of Stomping is that Murray manages to be both analytically detached and emotionally involved—criticism's most difficult parlay.’

By the early 1980s, and perhaps beginning with the review of the British edition in the Times Literary Supplement in 1978, a certain number of white jazz critics had started misinterpreting and exaggerating the caption on page 197, in which Murray refers to white jazz musicians as being part of the "third line." Third line does not mean third rate, as several critics have claimed or implied: it simply refers to a physical position in the old New Orleans parades, which Murray then used as a metaphor for closeness to idiomatic sources. ….

Stomping the Blues was probably the first work to articulate the connection between jazz, the blues, and locomotive onomatopoeia (or at least the first to do so cogently and comprehensively). Duke Ellington had been orchestrating stylized locomotives since the 1920s and Murray had been talking with Ellington about this since at least 1951 ….

Stomping the Blues had a marked influence on the development of Jazz at Lincoln Center, which Murray cofounded (see Murray Talks Music). The Preface to the Da Capo Press edition in 2000 frames the book in terms of that influence; it is the only previous dition to have an introductory essay. The Preface was written by Rob Gibson, a performing arts executive who was the first director of Jazz at Lincoln Center in 1991, and in 2000 was its executive producer and director….As of 2000, he writes that Stomping the Blues is a ‘preeminent source’ for people working in the jazz world and that Jazz at Lincoln Center has been able to embody ‘the many ideas that define this treatise.’

Aside from its place in the intellectual foundation of Jazz at Lincoln Center, Stomping the Blues has become a standard text in history of jazz courses, is a foundational text of the discipline of jazz studies, and has been quoted, cited, and discussed in dozens of books and academic articles….

But the reason to read Stomping the Blues today is not necessarily for its influence on Jazz at Lincoln Center, or on jazz studies as a discipline, or because the blues is central to the life of a random person on the street, or can elucidate a crucial response to modernity, but because following the movement of Murray's thought is a valuable experience in itself.  Yet the content of Stomping the Blues is accurate and can be the cornerstone of
an education in twentieth-century music. …”

Mr. Devlin sums up his Introduction with the following exhortation:

“So, if you're buying this book to replace a tattered copy from a history of jazz course, or if you are completing a Murray collection, or if you are discovering Murray for the first time, may it be your discovery of the year, and may rediscoveries be like new discoveries. Happy stomping.”

Paul Devlin
Long Island, New York
April 2017

I would also urge you to read Stomping the Blues because it will afford you with, from the perspective of Professor Haidt, another “ … tool for understanding the world,” -the Jazz World, that is.

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