Q. What type of music did you listen to while growing up? Did you play any instruments?
I wanted to play tenor saxophone so badly it hurt, but those things were expensive. We got me a clarinet. This was around fifth grade, before I’d started playing air guitar while listening to my radio.
There had been so little music in the house in my earliest years that I have often wondered where my obsession with music came from. It wasn’t that anyone in the family was opposed to music. My grandmother used to play a little bit of piano; still had one in her living room. (Though what fascinated me about that instrument was that it was a hybrid. It still had the pedals and mechanisms to double as a player piano, and I remember finding some old piano rolls out in the barn.) There was always music on Sundays, mostly hymns. What little music I heard before about age six mostly came over the radio. I don’t recall just when we got the record player; seems to have been around the time T.V. came into our home, or maybe my memory just associates the two devices, in part because there was a lot of music on the T.V. once it arrived: Dinah Shore, Nat King Cole, Tennessee Ernie Ford, and even more church shows with hymns.
When my parents brought the Sears and Roebuck portable record player home, they brought a few LPs along, which remained almost the only LPs till my sister and I started bringing records home. Most of those first records my parents bought for us have been long forgotten, but there was one that had Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture on it. (Side 2 featured Mussorgsky”s Night on Bald Mountain, which made less of an impression on me at the time, though Mussorgsky became a favorite later). The canon fire was clearly one attraction; the melodies were striking. The mixing in (early mashup!) of Russian folk song, “La Marseillaise,” “Oh Lord Save Thy People” etc. fascinated me even on first hearing. But there was something particularly about the structure that I attended to. I listened to that LP over and over for years, still had it when I moved out of the house and into my own first basement apartment (just a block above Dupont Circle). My grandmother had a record of Ravel’s Bolero at her house, and again it was the structure that caught me as much as the haunting melody. It was in C major, 3/4 time, which made it easy for a young ear to catch. It had a sopranino saxophone in it, something I’d never heard before. I remembered that the first time I heard Coltrane play a soprano sax.
But it was mostly Baptist music around our home in the first years. My father was never one for buying records, but each year he bought the annual release of THE LAYMEN SINGERS, a Baptist men’s choral group. I don’t recollect that any of those ever got played more than once. Father was a loyal watcher of the Lawrence Welk show, though not so much for musical as geographical reasons. One of the featured singers for some years was a guy named Joe Feeney, a tenor from, of course, Grand Island, Nebraska. He was likely the first person I ever heard sing “Danny Boy.” Lawrence Welk, like my grandfather, had been born in a sod house, and during my father’s youth Welk was operating out of Omaha, frequently playing around my parents’ region.
These were musical interests I didn’t really share, though the hymn form stayed with me, as it had with Emily Dickinson. Charles Ives in interviews about the evolution of his compositional style used to remember sitting with his father in the park and listening to different marching bands as they practiced and moved about the grounds, playing different songs at the same time. In my case, it was partly the effect of standing in church between my mother, who had a quite pretty singing voice, and my father, who most distinctly did not, as they clashed around the chorus of “Onward Christian Soldiers.”
By the time of our move to Denver, I was growing beyond the Sparky the Firedog show and gravitating towards the pop music stations. Pop radio of the late fifties and early sixties was an odd melange. The initial shock of Rock, with its brilliant conjoining of Rhythm and Blues with Country, had been conquered by corporate music and the powers of Tin Pan Alley had been reasserted. None-the-less, in just a few minutes of airplay the D.J.s might well lurch from The Drifters “On Broadway” to Bobby Bare’s “Detroit City” to a novelty like Ray Stevens’s “Hairy the Hairy Ape.” One of the Djs did a publicity stunt that involved walking on a treadmill at a shopping plaza while a record of The Four Seasons singing “Walk Like a Man” played over and over again. You could hear Lou Christy back to back with The New Christy Minstrels. (Their song “Denver” was popular in Denver – go figure.) Didn’t know it then, but several of these folk were to reappear in different musical incarnations. Take the version of the New Christy Minstrels that was riding the wave of the Folk revival then. One Asian American dude in the crowd went on to replace about three guys in The Association. Gruff voiced Barry McGuire would join the move from Folk to Folk Rock and have a hit with his protest song, “The Eve of Destruction.” (This was the heroic era of “answer records.” Just as “Work with Me Annie” was answered by “Annie Had a Baby, She Can’t Work No More,” McGuire’s “Eve” was answered by a right wing offering from The Spoksemen titled “The Dawn of Correction.”) Kim Carnes was already looking out at the world through “Betty Davis Eyes.” Another horror to be found in the quite near future: the act that had originally toured the previous century as The Christy Minstrels. I was never to know why Randy Sparks would name his California Folk/Pop machine after such a racist predecessor.
My sister was two and a half years ahead of me, so she started bringing records home before I did. There was the inescapable Elvis, Fats Domino, etc. . There were shlock tunes I can still sing to this day. “Johnny Please Wait for Me.” “Patches” – No, not the Clarence Carter weeper you may remember. This was Bobby Vinton singing: “Down by the river that flows by the coal yards / Stands wooden houses with shutters torn down / There lives a girl everybody calls Patches / Patches my darling of Old Shanty town,” which did nothing for my evolution as a poet. Vinton’s Patches, as you might suppose, meets a bad end. This was a strange era in popular song. In just months we had tumbled from the eruption of Rock and Roll to Hollywood making Chuck Berry a spectator to his own life story. In the film Go Johnny Go, Johnny was played by Jimmy Clanton, while Chuck Berry looked on (and played a couple of killer numbers).
About the best that can be said for that time was that I learned to play Ruby and the Romantics’ “Our Day Will Come” on the clarinet.
By the time our record player had been relocated to the East Coast and its basement, I was old enough to do things like fall for the come-ons of mail order record clubs. The Folk boom was still going, so alongside the Peter, Paul and Mary album my sister had, there was now my own Josh White record. (Met him a few years down the road in D.C.) I had an LP of speeches by presidents. I had two LPs of Carl Sandburg reading his poetry and his autobiography. I had the reverberating surf guitar sounds of The Ventures. I got those first two American Beatles albums, one for me and one for my sister. The one I gave my sister was mostly covers, but it was on the Vee Jay label out of Chicago, and it was from the ad materials that came with the record that I ordered up copies of other Vee Jay acts like Jerry Butler, Betty Everett, Gene Chandler and, major discovery for me, JIMMY REED, who played guitar and harmonica at the same time. An idea began to form in my mind.
I was still playing clarinet in the school band (and so met, over in the brass section, the fellow who was to become my band’s bass player and lead male vocalist). But when I looked in the mirror I saw myself as Jimmy Reed, playing a guitar with a harmonica in a rack around my neck. Reed was taller and older than me, but I had ambitions. I didn’t, however, have money. (And couldn’t sing, really.) A fair amount of pleading resulted in a cardboard box with a guitar in it under the Christmas tree. It was a pretty sorry instrument, practically made from cardboard itself. It was painted black, with a big white musical note painted around the sound hole. From Sears, of course. (Well, it may have been Montgomery Wards; who knows after this many years?) That was my only acoustic guitar for the next ten years.
A friend up the street (later our lead guitarist) had a sister too, and that sister had a good guitar. My friend was taking banjo lessons and had a tape recorder and was a near genius at figuring out how to play things by ear, something my clarinet training was no help with, I fear. He began teaching me chords and songs, and we played folk tunes – even wore those striped shirts you had to wear if you were a folk group.
Then things started happening fast.
Things that included B.B. King – Blues Is King – still one of the greatest live recordings of all time. Junior Wells – It’s My Life Baby, where I heard Buddy Guy’s guitar for the first time. Muddy Waters – Real Folk Blues. KinksRollingStonesYardbirds(Clapton first heard in that company) – Lightning Hopkins LPs checked out from the library – James Brown – Live at the Apollo (Live sounded so much better then, even with the crap sound systems we had in the sixties). Any and everything from Memphis.
First trip inside the Howard Theater (which I will write about more fully one day) for a show that gave us Billy Stewart, Charlie and Inez Foxx of “Mockingbird” fame, The Temptations, and Joe Tex singing “You Had Better Hold On” till there was no holding back, all to the accompaniment of a stellar stage band, with an M.C./comedian between the acts.
On February 9, 1964, just months after watching President Kennedy’s coffin go down Constitution Avenue to the capital building, I sat down with 73 million of my closest friends to watch The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show. We all watched Sullivan all through the era. Two years on that’s where I’d catch Richard Pryor for the first time. That’s where I saw Godfrey Cambridge, who was responsible for the only time I ever saw Sullivan completely lose it, when Cambridge, having finished his routine, walked over to Ed and presented him with a plaque designating him an “honorary Negro.” Later still, I witnessed Roland Kirk leading an all star jazz congregation (Charles Mingus, Roy Haynes, Archie Shepp!) that got on air by disrupting the Sullivan taping previously – Kirk’s Jazz and People’s Movement had hit upon a great mode of protest: sitting in an audience before a show taping and suddenly whipping out their instruments and playing where they were. Sullivan’s people had been expecting the group to play Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour,” but instead millions of Americans were treated to Mingus’s “Haitian Fight Song.”
Watching The Beatles in ‘64, though, two things hit me at once. 1) They were playing songs they’d written themselves. 2) Electricity.
I had to have an electric guitar. I thought about electricity more than at any time since that day I’d plugged myself into a wall socket in Denver. There was still a money problem. I saved (uncharacteristic for me) till I could afford the lowest quality instrument on sale in the basement of E.J. Korvettes. This guitar, again, came in a cardboard box. (Couldn’t afford a case for the thing.) Because I didn’t have enough money to buy an amp, it was a couple weeks later before I found out the thing didn’t work. Back to the store and home again with a different one, all white with a big metal plate on the body – only one pickup – strings so high you needed to put your whole weight behind trying to press them to the fret board. My banjo-playing friend up the street had gotten hold of a Gibson SG by then, and helped me dig a hole under the bridge on mine. If you can’t get over on the strings, lower the bridge. That made it moderately easier to form a chord, and that same friend let me plug into the Danelctro amp he had acquired. Eventually I got together enough money for my own amp, from Sears again. By then everybody else in the group were plugged into Fender amps, but as it happened Sears was much better at manufacturing amplifiers than guitars. That Silvertone twin twelve reverb was in fact something that people who really knew how to play liked to use. When Psychedelia arrived I was ready. You could bang the head of your guitar into the head of the amp, setting the reverb into fits, and get a quite nice trippy effect.
On the other hand . . . turned out you could buy a Hohner Marine Band harmonica down at the pawn shop (No, it was not used!) for just 50 cents. I could grab one of our mics, hold it close to my Mississippi saxophone and imagine I sounded like Little Walter. Turned out, too, that I could play that thing. I got much better, much more quickly, playing harp than I was on guitar, which meant I had my own little territory of playing leads in the incipient band.
And then this happened.
One day in the Summer of my fourteenth year, I was sitting in the back seat of the family car when there was a single snare drum crack out of the radio. I brought my head up from the book I was looking at and cocked an ear to the sounds of piano and organ that filled the first couple measures. For the next six minutes I had no idea what else was happening in the world. “Once upon a time you dressed so fine / Threw the bums a dime in your prime / Didn’t you” – This was a far cry from “Patches.” I recognized the voice from some folk music albums my sister played. “You used to be so amused / at Napolean in rags and the language that he used / Go to him now, he calls you, you can’t refuse / . . . How does it feel?”
There had been nothing like it on our radio before. (The closest? Chuck Berry lyrics. “Pay phone – something wrong – dime gone – will mail / Ought to sue the operator for telling me a tale, ahh!” Sheer pop genius.) This was poetry, and it seemed it would never end. (That same year, The Dells would release a song on one of those Chicago labels that made so much of the Blues I listened to. Three years after, Bob Dylan having broken the six minute barrier on pop radio, those same Dells went back to the studio and did that same song over again, but this time it was the gloriously unending “Stay in My Corner” that made us all stay in their corner.
[We were to learn from Bobby Seale of Panther Party founder Huey Newton’s deep political exegesis of that Dylan album, his close reading of “Ballad of a Thin Man.” ‘This song Bobby Dylan was singing became a very big part of that whole publishing operation of the Black Panther paper. And in the background, while we were putting this paper out, this record came up and I guess a number of papers were published, and many times we would play that record. Brother Stokely Carmichael also liked that record. This record became so related to us, even to the brothers who had held down most of the security for the set.“ Amiri Baraka, then at the peak of his cultural nationalist period, was to denounce “the cartoon hippy world of Black leaders digging Bobby Dylan.”]
A revelation. Surrealist poetry could be pop song. My worlds were converging. (And Dylan played harp in a rack around his neck, just like Jimmy Reed, albeit Dylan’s more immediate model was Woody Guthrie.)
By the end of the decade, Gil Scott Heron would arrive to demonstrate that actual poetry could play on pop radio. You didn’t even have to sing.
But in the now, Dylan reappeared at the Newport Folk Festival (so it told me in my newspapers) playing “Like a Rolling Stone” in the company of Michael Bloomfield (dude who played that great guitar part on the record), Al Kooper (he of the organ part that had arrested my attention) with Sam Lay on drums and Jerome Arnold on bass. I recognized that this was pretty much the Paul Butterfield Blues band without Paul Butterfield. (Once I got to see film footage of the event, I saw that Butterfield was sitting on the railing behind the group as they played for Dylan.) Once more, I read, my worlds were jamming into one another. Poetry – Music – it was all one continuum.
That was the continuum I was following when I went to a store intent on purchasing my first ever jazz albums. Once the band had gotten going, playing at dances and parties, I had a little of something I’d never seen before, disposable income. I meant to dispose of most of it in music and book stores.
Giant Music in Arlington; almost as good as Soul Shack; better in a way, in that you could get your instruments and band equipment in the same store where you bought your records. I headed over to the bins marked “jazz” with a definite program in mind.
I had read that John Coltrane had recently died, all too young. I had been told that one Miles Davis was interesting. From one bin I extracted the Sorcerer LP. Maybe I chose that one because of the hypnotizing photo of a woman who turned out to be Cicely Tyson on the cover. Next door in the C bin, I grabbed a copy of Expression for myself (because the liner notes said it was the last thing he’d recorded in the studio) and a copy of Ascension for our tenor sax player. Do I remember thinking that Ascension might be a good name for a poetry series? No, I don’t, because I didn’t. I’m not sure I knew there was such a thing as a poetry series yet.
Sorcerer made me its apprentice.
The back cover featured something that looked like poetry, signed simply “R.J.G.” That would be Ralph Gleason, normally a journalist and music reviewer, here lining hymns after a fashion. “Blowing bubble notes quicker than some ears,” went one line. “Bluesteel fire hard flame white smouldering red,” read another. It was an attempt at poetry that, I came to know, was just the sort of thing people beginning to write poetry for the first time would do. Sad to say, it was also just the sort of thing several more prominent writers would do over the years. (I’m looking at you, Q.T.) Thanks to Dylan, everybody started writing their own songs and wearing their lyrics on their sleeves. This was often not such a good idea. Dylan himself never printed his lyrics on the covers of his albums, but he did print poetry on the album sleeves, lines about characters such as Savage Rose and Fixable.
Ralph Gleason would never be a poet, but Miles Davis was one, and he had surrounded himself with some of the most lyric musicians on the planet. The album kicked off with Wayne Shorter’s “Prince of Darkness.” The same side held Herbie Hancock’s “Masquelero.” I would follow these guys for the rest of my life. Drummer Tony Williams showed up playing a free outdoor concert at San Jose State University not long after I’d started my first tenure track position there. I saw Herbie Hancock again at U.C. Santa Barbara performing his River album. One night at GWU’s Lisner Auditorium, in the middle of a Weather Report Concert, I witnessed a fifteen minute solo performance by Wayne Shorter that I can still hear in memory. Just last year I met Ron Carter in New York. And Miles . . .
Still in the ear All these years From first hearing To this news Miles Whose blues Inhere In rests
So I wrote upon hearing of his passing.
Something profoundly weird happened at the close of Sorcerer, a vocal by one Bob Dorough. It was hard to figure what that was doing there, though the melody was interesting. Not having children, I didn’t know that this same Bob Dorough featured on Schoolhouse Rock in the next decade.
Everything about Coltrane’s Expression was elegiac, beginning with the painting of the musician holding his soprano sax that appeared on the cover. The opening track was the powerful and prayerful “Ogunde,” which found the tenor sax in a particularly meditative mood, his wife, Alice, on piano, with Rashied Ali providing percussion and Jimmy Garrison still on bass from the previous iteration of Coltrane’s group. The wandering flute of “To Be” seemed to be exploring the depths of the infinitive. It was a haunting album throughout
I was a good student, outside the classroom – Studied liner notes as closely as I would read a lyric poem. I followed the leads from the liner notes. After Ascension, doing as I was always to do, I pursued all the musicians in the lineup. (This was harder to do with Miles, who usually didn’t identify his band members on his album sleeves, but it didn’t take long to track them down. They often appeared as the composers credited on the label.) Ascension took me to Archie Shepp, On This Night, with its setting of the words of W.E.B. DuBois. (Am I the only person who went to read DuBois because his writing had been set to music by Archie Shepp?) Other Archie albums featured settings of the composer’s own poetry. Ascension led me to alto saxophonist Marion Brown and his Georgia Trilogy, including the album Geechee Recollections and a track that was a setting of Jean Toomer’s “Karintha” read by poet Bill Hasson. (Marion Brown led me to Sun Ra, and his Heliocentric Worlds; also to some Ornette Coleman, whose plastic sax Brown borrowed at one point.) Ascension led me to Afro-Danish John Tchicai, who proved to be one fourth of the New York Art Quartet, whose album on the eccentric ESP Disk returned me to LeRoi Jones, reading “Black Dada Nihilismus.
Most of all, Ascension propelled my rethinking of what musical (and poetic) structures could be. Where many of my rock and roll friends heard only chaos, I heard a repeating form. (Those years of listening and playing in the school band had trained me to spot an A part and a B part when I heard them.) I showed my friends photos of the musicians in the studio playing in front of music stands, but they didn’t credit the evidence of their eyes. The chart was, admittedly, minimal, but Trane knew what he wanted. (We get a clearer sense of the process now that both studio takes are available for comparison.) Free Jazz / Free Verse – neither was what it was commonly thought to be. Both were the continuous creation of form.
Have I mentioned going to see Jimi Hendrix at the Washington Hilton?
Quickly in the here and now.
I spent much of the intervening years following through on those early discoveries. Blues and jazz remain at the core of everything I do. I still listen to Bob Dylan, and have never blamed him for all the “new Dylans” the record companies foisted on us.
It was a blessing and a curse to have been young at a time when the music seemed to change every fifteen minutes, when each day brought new sounds and technologies, new ways of organizing creation, new ways of disorganizing the cliched into something more interesting. (Think it can’t be done? Listen to the paramount instance of bubble gum, The Archies recording “Sugar Sugar,” then listen to Wilson Pickett tear away at the confines of that song.)
As I entered adulthood, Reggae came to America. We listened to that, and to musics from all over the world, though we didn’t think to term it “world music.” I’d begun listening to African music in High School. I’d listened to even more after hearing Leon Thomas cite recordings of African folk music as a source for his jazz yodeling on Phaorah Sanders sessions. On my play list today: Fatoumata Diawara. When I had a literature radio program for several years in Northern California, my “outro” music was by Toure Kunda. Another recent enthusiasm is Tinariwen, the Tuareg group.
I just finished giving a first listen to D’Angelo and the Vanguard’s Black Messiah, whose title did make me think of Isaac Hayes’s Black Moses. D’Angelo has emerged from fourteen years in the desert bearing gifts.
Having witnessed the birth of Rap and Hip Hop, I confess to a certain weariness as I hear academic colleagues deliver paper after paper saying the same things over and over about this putatively transgressive form. I’m not saying that it is not possible for verses sanctified by inclusion in a Yale anthology to be transgressive; it’s just that I don’t want to hear anymore about this from people who have not listened to Georgia Anne Muldrow. (No, really – Right now, go listen to Georgia Anne Muldrow’s Olesi: Fragments of an Earth and then we can talk about Hip Hop transgression again.)
I’ll listen to anything that William Parker records and have in my permanent rotation a box set of his bass solo releases. I’ve written elsewhere about the project he did with Amiri Baraka, The Inside Songs of Curtis Mayfield. I’m writing now about recent releases of the old New York Art Quartet with yet more recordings with Baraka, and that group reformed for a CD some years ago with new music and poetry. Back in the day we already heard from Japanese piano giants like Toshiko Akiyoshi. Today that tradition is carried forward by Hiromi and by Satoko Fujii. Susie Ibarra is a monster on drums. Fred Ho had told us all about the coming revolution in Asian and Asian American jazz, and it’s full upon us now. Any day you listen to Vijay Iyer is a good day; he’s another who has worked with Baraka. One intriguing development for throwback Thursdays is the way that artists like Robert Glasper and Esperanza Spalding have created projects inspired by R&B radio, except that it’s really the sound of early to mid-seventies Soul/Jazz melding that they are taking us back to. Not “Soul Jazz” of the Horace Silver variety, good as that was, but the radio sounds of the days that brought us Roy Ayers, Norman Connors, Lonnie Liston Smith, Donald Byrd and the Blackbyrds.
But if I were going to pass a list to a friend from my permanent collection of the new, high on that list would be Matthew Shipp, Hamid Drake, Cindy Blackman, Craig Taborn, D.D. Jackson, Dr. Lonnie Smith (NOT to be confused with Lonnie Liston Smith), Nicole Mitchell . . . I could go on and on. These, like good poetry, are news that will stay news.
Have I mentioned Jimi Hendrix’s take on “All along the Watchtower.”