Living with Music: Ralph Ellison's Jazz Writings
Ralph Waldo Ellison, Author, Robert G. O'Meally, Editor Modern Library $19.95 (336p) ISBN 978-0-679-64034-9Many people don't realize that novelist Ralph Ellison, best-known as the author of Invisible Man, was first an accomplished trumpeter and a student of musical composition, especially jazz. In Living with Music: Ralph Ellison's Jazz Writings, literature and jazz scholar Robert O'Meally, founder and director of the Center for Jazz Studies, has collected the best of this oeuvre in a volume that includes profiles of jazz greats like Charlie Parker, meditations on jazz classics, music-related selections from Ellison's fiction and a foreword by Wynton Marsalis. No Ellison fan or jazz aficionado should ignore this book, in which the novelist eloquently conveys the profound role that music has played in the lives of black Americans. As he wrote in the title essay, ""it was either live with music or die with noise, and we chose rather desperately to live."" ( May 15)
Reviewed on: 05/01/2001
Release date: 05/01/2001
Paperback - 336 pages - 978-0-375-76023-5
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One of the greatest American novelists, Ralph Ellison, is also one of our greatest writers about music, as evidenced by the volume “Living with Music,” which collects his writings about jazz. Ellison’s life with music is thrust to the fore by a noteworthy exhibit that just opened at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, “Ralph Ellison: A Man and His Records,” on the occasion of his centennial (with an asterisk: his biographer, Arnold Rampersad, gives Ellison’s birth date as March 1, 1913). Ellison, who died in 1994, was a big collector of jazz records—indeed, of records of many kinds of music. The museum has acquired his collection, which is the centerpiece of the exhibit.
To capture the appeal and the delight of the show, with its selection of citations from Ellison’s work and evocative archival images, it’s worth glancing at just how Ellison lived with music. He was born in Oklahoma City, which, in the twenties, was a major musical hub—it was the home of Walter Page’s Blue Devils, a band that later became Count Basie’s. (Page was the innovative bass player whose walking beat was crucial to the band’s gliding swing.) Ellison went to a public school where students learned music appreciation and theory. A trumpeter, he was also a bandleader in high school, even as he imbibed, first-hand, the very finest in music: he grew up with the seminal and short-lived guitarist Charlie Christian; the singer Jimmy Rushing was Ellison’s father’s employee and a family acquaintance; he saw Lester Young in 1929 (remembering him from a jam session in a shoeshine parlor), along with other great musicians of the time—Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Duke Ellington, King Oliver—when they played in one of the city’s theatres.
Ellison majored in music at the Tuskegee Institute (and met Ellington there). Moving to New York in the mid-thirties, he again met Ellington, and narrowly missed sitting in with the band. In New York, he was an habitué of the jazz scene, paying particular attention to the jam sessions at Minton’s, in the Cecil Hotel, where the new generation of musicians, such as Christian, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and Kenny Clarke, tested themselves against the likes of Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Roy Eldridge, and Young.
In short, Ellison and music were inseparable. In the title essay of his collection, he tells the extraordinary story of his passion for records, which was sparked, in 1949, by his attempt to cope with extraordinary noise (musical and otherwise) from neighbors while writing his novel “Invisible Man” in his apartment. He decided to fight fire with fire, but found that “between the hi-fi record and the ear, I learned, there was a new electronic world.” He decided to build an amplifier:
And still our system was lacking. Fortunately my wife shared my passion for music, so we went on to buy, piece by piece, a fine speaker system, a first-rate AM-FM tuner, a transcription turntable and a speaker cabinet. I built half a dozen or more preamplifiers and record compensators before finding a commercial one that satisfied my ear, and finally we acquired an arm, a magnetic cartridge and—glory of the house—a tape recorder. All this plunge into electronics, mind you, had as its simple end the enjoyment of recorded music as it was intended to be heard. I was obsessed with the idea of reproducing sound with such fidelity that even when using music as a defense behind which I could write, it would reach the unconscious levels of the mind with the least distortion. But it didn’t come easily. There were wires and pieces of equipment all over the apartment.
For Ellison, music had always been material, whether as a student, a performer, or part of a crowd of revellers, dancers, enthusiasts. Though he writes of having heard Louis Armstrong, on records, in the twenties, before seeing him live, the preponderance of his musical experience was immediate and physical, inseparable from his life with family and friends, from his school and his wide web of personal connections. He knew, played, and loved so-called classical music—European music—but he lived jazz—or what he called simply American music.
Yet his electronic jungle and vinyl treasures hid musicians away from him, rendered them essentially invisible men and women, and added a mystical aura that would “reach the unconscious levels of the mind” without a physical or experiential connection. That mysticism, a shuddering mystery of technological solitude, is of course the condition of Ellison’s own underground Invisible Man, who, in his illuminated isolation, invokes by way of memory the almost unbearably turbulent currents of his history and his heritage.
Records are ideal icons of that reanimation of the vital spirit of art, the sparking of memory, and the safekeeping of a menaced legacy. The physical display of some of Ellison’s records at the Jazz Museum, relics that passed through his hands and onto his turntable, is itself a continuation of this relay. The resurgence of enthusiasm for vinyl may reflect a yearning for a supposed authenticity, a practical connection with earlier generations, or a true sonic connoisseurship, but it’s worth noting that an LP cover is more or less on the scale of a painting, and the ones that belonged to Ellison—whether it’s “The Louis Armstrong Story,” Jimmy Rushing’s “Goin’ to Chicago,” or Mstislav Rostropovich playing Prokofiev—emerge both as relics and as visual impressions of Ellison’s inner sound world.
The lists of his records, which the Museum has issued on its site, makes for fascinating reading. Vast amounts of Ellington (whom he considered the supreme creator of American music); one Skitch Henderson but no Fletcher Henderson; more Mahler than Billie Holiday; plenty of Glenn Gould and Kathleen Ferrier; one each of Bartok and Schoenberg, three records of Charlie Parker, three of Ornette Coleman, and nothing of any other modern jazz (such as Miles Davis or John Coltrane).
Ellison’s relationship with the new generation—that of musicians younger than himself, starting with Parker—was troubled. He wrote movingly of Parker’s art, and of what he considered to be the struggles and contradictions of his music:
For all its velocity, brilliance and imagination there is in it a great deal of loneliness, self-deprecation and self-pity. With this there is a quality which seems to issue from its vibratoless tone: a sound of amateurish ineffectuality, as though he could never quite make it. It is this amateurish-sounding aspect which promises so much to the members of a do-it-yourself culture; it sounds with an assurance that you too can create your own do-it-yourself jazz.
For Ellison, that independence, or rootlessness, was a curse. He wrote, “Usually music gives resonance to memory (and Minton’s was a hotbed of jazz), but not the music in the making here then.” In a 1976 interview, he explained that “Jazz was part of a total culture, at least among Afro-Americans,” and he regretted that this new music (new in the nineteen-forties), generally called bebop, didn’t share the same spirit. “Few people were capable of dancing to it; it was more a listener’s music.” He added, “Very often Dizzy and Bird were so engrossed with their experiments that they didn’t provide enough music for the supportive rite of dancing.” Primarily, Ellison noted with dismay that the new jazz was cut off from the general black public, from the tradition of popular music from which it arose, and from the historical experience and civic realm that animated it. The effect, he wrote, is that Parker “was indeed a ‘white’ hero. His greatest significance was for the educated white middle-class youth” that was in revolt.
And his sense of even more modern jazz was overtly hostile, as in this 1958 letter to Albert Murray about what he heard at the Newport Jazz Festival:
I finally saw that Chico Hamilton with his mannerisms and that poor, evil, lost little Miles Davis, who on this occasion sounded like he just couldn’t get it together. Nor did Coltrane help with his badly executed velocity exercises. These cats have gotten lost, man.
That’s why one particular element that has been incorporated into the museum show is of particular interest: the video of a 1965 public-television broadcast that Ellison co-hosts with the critic Martin Williams, and which features groups led by two of the exemplary jazz modernists, Charles Mingus and Cecil Taylor (and it’s worth noting that the Taylor band was of a particular musical freedom and complexity). According to the museum’s artistic director, Loren Schoenberg, it’s the first time that the archival broadcast has been readily accessible to viewers. (It will be on view there starting tomorrow.) I’m planning to revisit the exhibit, to watch the performances by Taylor and Mingus and to hear what Ellison has to say about them. I suspect that it will be a revelation on all counts.
I wonder whether Ellison’s distaste for modern jazz belonged to a more general dismay at the course of modern life itself, at the rise of new freedoms at the cost of fellow-feeling, civic bonds, and deep psychic continuities. That’s why, in Ellison’s exuberant description of his electronic sanctuary of music, the one that teases the imagination mercilessly is the tape recorder. Which broadcast performances did he preserve, which did he treasure? Unfortunately, those recordings aren’t part of the museum’s collection. I wonder whether they have survived, and, if so, whether they’re a part of Ellison’s archives at the Library of Congress. They would make for a separate exhibition to cherish.
Photograph: James Whitmore/Time & Life Pictures/Getty