Tag Archives: violence

CREATIVE VIOLENCE?

wby1When I was in graduate school, deep in W.B. Yeats-idolatry (my other life has been wound around Irish literature), I admired “Under Ben Bulben”  — his great late poem — immoderately.  But I had very little patience for this quatrain, and wondered if Yeats had made the idea fit his rhymes.

Even the wisest man grows tense
With some sort of violence
Before he can accomplish fate,
Know his work or choose his mate.

The slightly satiric visual image these lines suggested to me was of the artist as bullyboy, getting ready to wallop someone, the man getting dressed to go out with his ladylove, shaving in front of the mirror in tremendous annoyance.  And as I write this, I am listening to an old record of Johnny Windhurst ambling through a ballad-tempo “Memphis Blues”; he sounds utterly at ease.  And Yeats himself — in the famous photo here — looks more pensive than violent.

But I do know that the creative process, even for writers, is tension-producing, the effort of making something a tiring and often irritating thing.  Although we talk about “relaxation” as an ideal creative state and imagine that the string bassist playing those beautiful lines (I am thinking of Pat O’Leary at the Ear Inn last Sunday) is dreamily easeful, every muscle loose, this may be a fallacy.  I wonder if creative energy, productive anger and violence are much like sexual tension: that state of being ready for action, mildly edgy, on the brink of action.

But these lines came to mind again because Sam Parkins, sage and improviser, sent me something he had written about Louis and the emotional climate needed for creativity.  It also reminds us of Louis’s essential deep seriousness about his art, something that all the grinning pictures occasionally obscure.  Some readers might think that these two examples are atypical, but I wonder.  A great deal!

louis-somber-1

In all the voluminous writing about Louis Armstrong there is something elementary missing, and the minute I tell you about it you’ll agree.  I started looking for it about ten years ago, when I started researching him. Had to be there.  Violence.  The need for it comes at you from all directions.  His start in life, in the funkiest, most criminal part of New Orleans.  The stress of dealing with really bad racial stuff – from both sides, because he was darker than most, and would have got it from lighter folks as well as whites.

And something I know from myself.  When I get deeply involved in music, I go around slightly pissed all the time.  It generates a kind of energy that it’s a good idea to be aware of.  I noticed it only last fall when I had to play clarinet on a critical recording, including memorizing the book, and having to practice my way to more than competence in a hurry.  If you knew Zoot Sims, you would have been aware that it was always there – an undercurrent.  (Don’t take this to include all artists all the time – just a tendency).  But all the writing portrays Louis as this pussy cat.

So finally I found it.  In a recent book, “The Louis Armstrong Companion: 8 Decades of Commentary” (ed. Joshua Berrett, Schirmer Books, 2000), there’s a couple of prime examples:  1) Someone goes into the dressing room just in time to see Louis with his hands around his manager Joe Glaser’s neck – “Lissen motherfucker – if I find you’ve stolen one penny from me you’re dead”.

2) Just before the All Stars are about to go on stage, Louis flattens Jack Teagarden.  Knocks him out.  And goes on to announce sweetly, “Mr. Teagarden will not be able to be with us for this performance”.  (Doesn’t tell us why). I asked biographer James Lincoln Collier if he knew about this, because it’s not in his book. “Yes – I knew about it, but didn’t include it because I have to have something like that from two sources and there’s only one”.

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JAZZ FESTIVAL: BETTY BOOP, DON REDMAN, EDDIE CONDON, LESTER YOUNG

Like you, I tried to imagine all those players assembled in one place and failed.  But everything is possible on YouTube.   Melissa Collard called my attention to the Don Redman / Betty Boop clip, circa 1932-33.

Has anyone written a history of Max and Dave Fleischer and associates?  I know there are Betty Boop fanciers, but I wonder about Fleischer’s choosing famous African-American jazz musicians and their bands in his cartoons.  Did he love the music?  Or was it because he could get these bands and players (think of Louis, Cab, and an uncredited Luis Russell ensemble) fairly inexpensively?  Anyway, here is I HEARD:

The opening theme is CHANT OF THE WEED — the vipers’ theme song, punctuated by wood blocks and the oceanic swaying on beautifully-dressed musicians.  Then we enter the deliciously surrealistic world of the Never Mine — the noon whistle eating its lunch, the beaver cooking pancakes on its tail.  Not to mention the whole peristaltic underground travel system.  All of this while Redman himself sings HOW’M I DOIN’?  I hope he didn’t mind being transformed on film into a canine member of the waitstaff.  Betty’s vocal (presumably that is Mae Questel) is also accompanied by a miniature mixed choir who pop in and out of the staircase in time.

When the lunch hour is through (note how that whistle lets everyone know) all the miners reverse their steps — going back under the shower which now rains down filth so they are suitably attired for the mine — to the strains of I HEARD.  Don’t miss the cat-telephone-switchboard while Claude Jones, Ed Inge, and Bob Carroll have brief solo spots before Don’s vocal.  It’s hard to keep up with the action of a terrifying descent down an elevator shaft (Betty, characteristically, loses her dress for a moment), ghosts playing baseball with a bomb — all the nightmare anyone could imagine while the Redman band plays goblin music.  But everything ends well — the bomb does the miners’ work for them and they can go home to the strains of WEED, which is perhaps an in-joke here.

These cartoons happily mix the surreal and the swinging, the wild camera angles anticipating later films.

After that, almost anything would seem sedate.  However, an Eddie Condon group (circa 1952) does its best in real time, no animation, working out on FIDGETY FEET with Wild Bill Davison, Cutty Cutshall, Ed Hall, Gene Schroeder, Condon himself, an off-camera Jack Lesberg, and Cliff Leeman.  (I was reminded of this and the last clip by Loren Schoenberg.)

The Mob seems to be doing a gig on an aircraft carrier, but that’s of less import than the fine sound and the beautiful interplay of this group.  They had performed FIDGETY FEET thousands of times at the club, so the routines are razor-sharp in performance, but what I delight in here is the collective exuberance, particularly that rhythm section.  Cliff Leeman!

And watching a very expert and enthusiastic Gene Schroeder makes us remember just how much piano he played, night after night, without anyone paying sufficient attention.  (He made one 78 session, four songs, as a leader, for the Black and White label, in 1944, but he deserved more.)  And Condon himself, so often slyly categorized as someone who talked more than played and drank more than he talked, shows how he directed and drove this band.  Imperishable stuff, fierce and compact at the same time.

Finally, how about seeing — not just hearing — Lester Young play POLKA DOTS AND MOONBEAMS?

The rhythm section on this Art Ford telecast (from 1958, I believe) is Ray Bryant on a terrible piano, a happy Vinnie Burke on bass, and an unacknowledged drummer who sweeps his brushes most respectfully.  Yes, the clip is out of synch, but that adds to the poignant dreaminess of the performance, with Rex Stewart wandering in the shot.  Since there’s so little Lester on film, this is even more precious.

What follows suggests that no one — at the moment — recognized how beautiful a performance it was, or perhaps it was just that Art Ford (and his passel or posse of jazz critics at home, ready to call in) had to “keep it rolling.”  Sylvia Syms, with the same rhythm and a perky Rex Stewart offstage, wisely change the mood.  Who would be foolish enough to follow Lester in the same lovely, mournful mood?

All the Olympians . . . .