Inspired by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ralph Ellison, “Jazz in the Key of Ellison” is a multimedia concert featuring music by his favorite artists, including Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie and Thelonious Monk, as interpreted by trumpeter Nicholas Payton, R&B/jazz vocalist Will Downing, singer Nona Hendryx, jazz vocalist Quiana Lynell and the Andy Farber Jazz Orchestra. Roxane Gay, author of New York Times best-seller “Bad Feminist,” is the narrator of the concert, presented Feb. 22 as part of the SCP Jazz Series.
Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man (1952) is still required reading in college classes everywhere. But only the savviest jazz lovers know that since the mid-1940s — in his fiction, essays, letters, and published interviews — Ellison was one of the most broadly learned and eloquent writers on this music. His “invisible” but highly potent intellectual leadership has helped move jazz from smoky clubs and dance halls (which, by the way, he loved) to the hushed concert halls of the planet, into special collections of major museums and libraries, and to assigned reading lists everywhere. Perhaps, according to his view, we have lost something precious as we have gained a jazz that is scrubbed up for the front rooms of America. Perhaps, as Langston Hughes once warned, “They’ve taken our blues and gone.”
When I first met Ellison in 1973, I asked if he did not agree that the U.S. black community lacked cultural institutions to protect our cultural gains, and he said, quietly, “No. We do have institutions, we have the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and we have jazz.” For a black graduate student of that era, standing there in my dashiki, this was startling news.
What Ellison meant, I think, was that although jazz began as a black American music, it did not represent a racially pure stream. Later that afternoon at Harvard, he told a group of faculty and students, “You cannot have an American experience without having a black experience.” Nor can you have the techniques of playing jazz, as original as they often are, without having had the long centuries of European music-making, not to mention the centuries of various African musical traditions. “Usually when you find some assertion of purity,” he went on, “you are dealing with historical if not cultural ignorance.”
Furthermore, jazz is classic American art: the perfect expression of our improvised national culture, and of our capacity to confront our most intractable (our deep bluesiest) problems of race and national identity. With its insistence of individuality, improvisation and collaboration, jazz suggests ways for all of us to survive together in a melting pot that sometimes can feel like a deep, hard freeze.
In the Oklahoma City black neighborhood where Ellison grew up, jazz infused the culture; balanced school, church and family, and granted perspective on one’s other activities. You could learn things in the bandbox or on the dance floor that nobody in church would tell you … information that could not necessarily be put into words. Profoundly, it was a ritual music in which instrumentalists, singers and dancers comprised a cultural triumvirate celebrating the persistent vitality of the community itself and its powers of continuity despite racial violence. For the black community, the public jazz dance offered a secular form of what Ellison termed “communion.”
Jazz — the unofficial institution — set its own stellar standards. If Ellington found his band slacking off, he would book a series of Harlem or Chicago South side dance gigs. Such dancers just won’t tolerate music that would not make them want to strut their stuff or hold a “fine brown frame” (as the old songs say) closer than close. With dancers rocking the bandstand, says Ellison, “the artist has a vital criticism danced out in the ritual of the dance.”
The hero of Invisible Man is a brilliant but naive “bungling bugler of words” in search of the jazz artist’s capacity both to solo and to harmonize with others: to create a grounded self that swings. Recordings of Louis Armstrong “Black and Blue” call him to “descend, like Dante” into the song’s blue interior where the dissonant voices of America’s racial history blend and blare. “Each melodic line stood out clearly from the rest,” reports Invisible Man, “said its piece, and waited patiently for the other voices to speak.”
In Ellison’s posthumous novel Juneteenth (1999), again, a young man struggles to rise to leadership within a racially fractured nation. “We seek not perfection,” one important character declares, “but coordination. Not sterile stability but creative momentum. Ours is a youthful nation: the perfection we seek is futuristic. … Yes, and as we check our checks and balance our balances, let us in all good humor balance our checks and check our balances, keeping each in proper order, issuing credit to the creditable, minus to plus, and plus to minus.”
Ellison’s non-fiction swings on the page as much as the fiction. Here Ellison reveals his complex fate as an Oklahoma City boy who grew up in a poor family (which nonetheless had middle-class values) living on and near old Second Street — wonderfully nicknamed “Deep Second” and “Deep Deuce” — that city’s main strip for southwest “territorial” jazz in its best days when Bennie Moten, Jimmy Rushing and eventually Charlie Parker ruled that part of the musical nation. As a youngster, Ellison first saw tenor giant Lester Young, sitting in a shoeshine parlor’s chair, “head thrown back, his horn even then outthrust, his feet working on the footrests.” Called “Prez,” he “left absolutely no reed player and few players of any instrument unstirred” as “with his battered horn [he] upset the entire Negro section of town.”
Before beginning, in the 1930s, to practice “night and noon” to master the forms of writing, Ellison centered his professional ambitions on music. He attended Oklahoma City’s Frederick Douglass School (strictly segregated, blacks only) whose black director of musical studies insisted that every child study classic European musical forms. After hours, young Ellison strained public patience as he practiced playing the blues on his trumpet. “Let that boy blow,” he recalls one neighbor calling out in his defense. “He’s got to talk baby talk on that thing before he can preach on it. … Son, let’s hear you try those ‘Trouble in Mind Blues.’ Now try and make it sound like ole Ida Cox sings it.”
Until he was in his early 20, Ellison’s dream was to write a symphony richly flavored with the southwestern blues and jazz he had grown up hearing. Once he turned from practicing music every day to writing “night and noon,” music remained a guide. In 1955, Fanny Ellison, the writer’s wife, whispered to a group of students: “When he can’t find the words at the typewriter, he goes upstairs and plays the trumpet.”
“The blues,” he writes in an essay of 1945, “is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism. As a form, the blues is an autobiographical chronicle of personal catastrophe expressed lyrically. … Their attraction lies in this, that they at once express both the agony of life and the possibility of conquering it through sheer toughness of spirit. They fall short of tragedy only in that they provide no solution, offer no scapegoat but the self.”
With this definition in mind, one sees how Ellison considers the painter Romare Bearden an artist of the blues/jazz tradition, one whose work expresses in cut-and-pasted papers and bright colors “the tragic-comic transcendence through which we [blacks] had survived and remained hopeful, both as individuals and as a people.” For Bearden’s art brought to light our “collage of a nation … that is ever shifting about and grousing as we seek to achieve the promised design of democracy.”
Before there were jazz orchestras at the Smithsonian or Carnegie Hall, before jazz courses in the nation’s colleges, before jazz on television and in the movies, and routinely, in the bookstores of America, Ellison saw the music itself as an American institution, standing for values that could sustain us all. When it comes to fixing the music too tightly in the concert hall and the classroom, he offers a useful warning: What would such imposed formality have done to jazz’s early “free-swinging, improvisational, irreverent attitude”? “Teaching it formally might well have imposed too many thou-shalt-nots and imposed stability upon a developing form. Dance halls and jam sessions along with recordings are the true academy for jazz.” As we’ve dressed jazz up for formal evenings at the concert hall, have we put too much starch in the clothes for the dancers to move freely enough to make the band feel like swinging (and for the band and the singer then to swing the dancers right back)?
Here we could grouse a bit, American-style, by highlighting the limits of Ellison’s jazz vision. Like many of his generation, he loved danceable big band jazz and had little good to say about Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, bebop or avant-garde players of the music. But Ellison’s strengths outweigh the limits by many tons. Who but he (along with his close friend the novelist Albert Murray) saw so clearly the profundity of jazz as a gesture toward perfection in democracy and proclaimed that real secret of life is “to make life swing.” Whether we know it or not, we live, Ellison might say, in the United States of Jazzocracy.
Robert O’Meally is the Zora Neale Hurston Professor of English and Comparative Literature, and the founder and former director of the Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University in New York City.
TOP: Detail of a portrait of author Ralph Ellison, as he appears on a U.S. Postal Service stamp, issued in 2014 as part of the Literary Arts Series.