Archive for April, 2011

Such Sweet Duke

Posted in Uncategorized on April 29, 2011 by Josslyn Luckett

Delfeayo Marsalis has been talking about Duke and Shak likely ever since he could talk, certainly for as long as I’ve known him which is pushing close to 20 years now.  I owe him long overdue public thanks because it was when I was a young MFA student spending all my loan checks on as many sets of live Elvin Jones as I could get to and writing a screenplay called “Didn’t Know What Time it Was” that I asked him what books I might want to dive into to get a richer sense of the lives of jazz musicians.  Delfeayo said without blinking, Music is My Mistress (the Duke memoir which much later got this whole sacred jazz passion rolling) and To Be or Not to Bop (Dizzy’s autobiography which inspired the subtitle for this blog). So on this April 29th I want to say thank you, Delfeayo and a very special Happy 112 Edward Kennedy Ellington!  Instead of singing him Happy Birthday, I am enjoying strutting around my living room this morning to Delfeayo’s delicious and dilemma-free celebration of Maestro Ellington’s “Such Sweet Thunder” and I encourage you to do the same.

I love reading in Marsalis’ liner notes that Duke and his musical soulmate Billy Strayhorn were inspired for the project by a series of performances they caught together at the 1956 Shakespeare Festival in Ontario, Canada.  Duke wrote, “We read Shakespeare quite thoroughly afterwards,” and then dreamed/composed a 12 movement tribute to various characters, like “Hank Cinq” and “Lady Mac” and “Sonnet in Search of a Moor.”  Now, I gotta cop right now to not owning the original…I promise to get to it though because I’m so intrigued by these haunting, lush, layered and fanciful arrangements…trombone/sax/trumpet drama staged so energetically I can hardly catch my breath. 

Theologian Peter Paris in his remarkable book, The Spirituality of African Peoples writes this about the moral virtue of improvisation: 

Improvisation comprises unpredictable variations on a theme.  It brings novelty to bear on the familiar, not for the sake of destroying the latter, but for the purpose of heightening the individuality and uniqueness of the agent and his or her creative ability.  Improvisation expresses not only the agent’s creativity and spontaneity but also his or her spirit of perceptive wholeness.  By keeping the old and new close at hand, the virtue of improvisation embraces and enhances the whole and thus serves to promote and preserve the goal of community….

I celebrate the spirit of perceptive wholeness in both generations of improvisors here, first Billy and Duke, and now 55 years or so later, Delfeayo.  Last but not least I just want to point out in the photo of Duke playing live up top (that I found off the website for the Duke Ellington Society of Sweden …go ahead my global ancestor!) Duke looks like the happiest audience member at this performance of his orchestra, and I bet he was most nights.  Delfeayo’s liner notes quote Duke lifting up the joy of repeated viewings of anything from Shakespeare plays to live music:  “Anybody who listens to a beautifully performed symphony for the first time gains something from it.  The next time he hears it, he gains more; when he hears the symphony for the hundredth time, he is benefited to the hundredth power.”  Wonder what power he’s up to in that photo?  Smile tells me I might not have enough zeros to measure…

“… A Cat Who Related to the Populace … ” Rest In Peace Billy Bang

Posted in Uncategorized on April 21, 2011 by Josslyn Luckett

Recognizing I may have been too crazed with end of semester crunch to catch this, I’m so grateful my friend, Paul, thought to send news of the passing of Billy Bang.  I only got to see this most generous with his groove, grace lit soul play once about a decade ago with Kahil El’Zabar and I think Ntozake Shange popped up on stage for a word or two.  I associate Bang and Shange because I imagine her violin playing magician-midwife-serenader, Indigo would have played with Bang’s freedom and wholeness.  Googling this morning I found a wonderful memorial post on Bang in Jim Macnie’s blog:  Lament for a Straight Line.  Please visit there to find some amazing links/youtubes and this great quote from an interview Macnie did with Billy Bang back in 1980s for my all time fav, Musician Magazine.

“I’ve always been a cat who related to the populace…I don’t want people to have to study to get into my stuff, just groove. I wish I could go to the hills and hang out with those Appalachian cats for six months, then go down with the Cajuns – some harmonies they’ve got sound just like bagpipes. I just got back from Japan. Some of my plucking techniques are very oriental, and they heard it over there. There’s an aboriginal thing in my stuff, too. Don Cherry helped me with that; sympathy notes from India, four-note things from Ghana. Music evolves, right?”