Ralph Ellison: Living with Music
- Ralph Ellison, Living with Music
Any jazz fan will have heard the 17 essential performances collected on this recording, a sonic commemoration of writer Ralph Ellison's birth centennial. But for those who have not, indeed for all who have never encountered Ellison's wry, perspicacious observations on the meaning and place of jazz in the American experience, this CD is a reminder of the writer's lyrical musical reflections. Jazz scholar and Columbia University professor Robert G. O'Meally advised on the selections, wrote the album notes, and edited the companion volume, Living with Music: Ralph Ellison's Jazz Writings (Modern Library, 2002). The project is worthy testament to the visionary imagination of a definitive influence upon the nation's literary and musical heritage.
An aspiring composer and trumpet player as a student at Tuskegee, Ellison would later write about jazz as experienced by a young man who haunted the black clubs of Oklahoma City with his pals, imbibing the very best live music of the era. It was thus that Ellison discovered the inspirations (heard here) of Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Jimmy Rushing, Billie Holiday, Hot Lips Page, Duke Ellington, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Johnny Hodges, Count Basie, Teddy Wilson, Charlie Christian and so many others. And those whose work kept them from the club circuit, including the great gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, and flamenco guitarist Vicente Escudero, Ellison would sound out via other media, internalizing their lessons as well.
Add to that a rare recording of Ellison's own voice, an excerpt from his "Hidden Name and Complex Fate" (i.e., Henry James's notion of American identity as "a confounding business"), read at the Library of Congress in 1964. Ellison's is a wondering reflection upon the contradictory character of race in America and the possibility of a multicultural nation, an index of his personal discovery of the vital connection between the rhythm and timbre of literature and the epic power of African American music, encountered quite unexpectedly in his own first reading of T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland. Similarly, as Ellison observed in the essay that lends this recording its name:
"Perhaps in the swift change of American society in which the meanings of one's origin are so quickly lost, one of the chief values of living with music lies in its power to give us an orientation in time. In doing so, it gives significance to all those indefinable aspects of experience which nevertheless help to make us what we are. In the swift whirl of time, music is a constant, reminding us of what we were and of that toward which we aspired. Art thou troubled? Music will not only calm, it will ennoble thee."
Some may discount Ellison's elegant vision as hopelessly na´ve against the long-delinquent promise of the dawning civil rights movement, the utopian idealism whose hopeful optimism would shatter with the JFK, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and RFK assassinations, the deadly lies that led the nation ever deeper into the mass destruction of Vietnam, the systematic deceits of Watergate, U.S. intervention in Chile, and the downward ethical spiral that has marked American politics since the late 1960s. But the cynics have a worthy contender in Ellison, who anticipated all their knowing, jaded cynicism. Of the jazz legends heard here, he wrote that "the end of all this discipline and technical mastery was the desire to express an affirmative way of life through its musical tradition... Life could be harsh, loud and wrong if it wished, but they lived it fully, and when they expressed their attitude toward the world it was with a fluid style that reduced the chaos of living to form."
Living with Music reminds us of the irrepressible power of that thing with the swing, beloved muse for all those who choose rather desperately to live. - Michael Stone
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