Tuesday 2 June 2015

The Blue Notes Legacy


In the recently published Ogun Collection of Blue Notes music boxed set of five CDs is one entitled Blue Notes – Legacy , which is a re-issue of a 1995 album of a 1964 gig by the band in Durban, South Africa.
When the album first came out I was asked by Hazel Miller of Ogun Records to write the liner notes. Now that the album is out again as part of the boxed set released by Ogun (and these notes are included in the booklet accompanying the set) I think I would like to share my 1995, because of the insight it gives into some of the history of South Africa in those now far-off seeming days, and how the implementation of apartheid hampered music making, and indeed almost all artistic endeavours. This is what I wrote back then (and remember, it was just a year after our first democratic elections, Nelson Mandela was president and apartheid was, officially at least, a thing of the past):

The liner notes

Looking back to the early 1960s from the vantage of a liberated, democratic South Africa, it is somehow difficult to remember those dark days. This is what makes the 1964 tracks on Legacy, recorded in Durban during the Blue Notes' farewell tour of South Africa, so poignant, so evocative of a bygone time. A time which, in the man, evokes not nostalgia but rather a sense of disbelief, of incredulity. Were things really like that back then?
The music on these tracks is so vibrant, so full of a zest for life and expression. Why did the Blue Notes have to leave South Africa? The audiences clearly loved them (just listen to the audience response!) and the music is swinging, tight and inventive. With those lovely rhythmic and harmonic surprises that seemed to be so natural to these six highly talented guys.
But this was a scant three years after Sharpeville, the State of Emergency and the banning of the democratic formations. The tempo of the enactment of laws hindering interaction between people of different “racial groups” was increasing. Looking at the legislation which impacted on musicians,one is struck by the sheer fantasy of it all, by the Alice-in-Wonderland unreality of it, while knowing that, for all its incredible foolishness, the ludicrousness of it, it nevertheless had power to harm, to destroy people's lives.
Kippie by Hardie Stockmann
Legendary alto man Kippie Moeketsi (who features to such good effect on the 1963 big band album Jazz: The African Sound, which was Chris's first opportunity to record with a big band) was so unsettled by all the obstacles put in the way of musicians, he hung up his horn for seven years before being encouraged by fellow musicians to start blowing again. Abdullah Ibrahim (Dollar Brand) and his wife Bea Benjamin, Hugh Masekela, Jonas Gwangwa and literally hundreds of other musicians, writers and artists left the country.
I wonder if any country, with the possible exception of the erstwhile Soviet Union, has so systematically, so painstakingly thoroughly, made it so well-nigh impossible for creative people to live out their creativity.

The South African jazz diasopora

The list of laws and regulations which impacted on the lives, both personal and professional, of musicians (and this is by no means an exhaustive list) includes the Reservation of Separate Amenities Act (No. 49 of 1953); the Native Laws Amendment Act (No. 36 of 1957); the Group Areas Amendment Act (No 57 of 1957) (this Act was used by some white musicians to prevent black musicians from competing with them); and the countless proclamations designed to reduce interaction between people of different races. For example, Proclamation No R26 of 1965 was to the effect that “no racially disqualified person may attend any place of public entertainment, or partake of any refreshments ordinarily involving the use of seating accommodation as a customer in a licensed restaurant or tea room or eating house, or as a member of or as a guest in any club.” As a somewhat cruel aside, bona fide domestic workers could be in such places as they were specifically excluded from the definition of “racially disqualified persons.” So the clubs and restaurants could be kept clean without whites having to get their hands dirty!
In the unbelievably complex world of racial legislation it became more and more difficult for people of different skin hues to work together as musicians. They did continue but at great personal risk to their own safety and, as Chris
recalled in a 1987 interview with a South African journalist, even the safety of those who came to listen.
In the South Africa of 1995 the horrors of the emerging statutory apartheid (de facto apartheid has existed since the 17th Century) sometimes seem quite far away, quite distant. But then one remembers the pain, the unbelievable dislocations, the confiscations, the disappearances, the mysterious deaths.
And out of all that came this wonderful flower, this amazingly robust thing of beauty at once so steeped in the horror, the day-to-day evil and yet so transcendent, so uplifting: the African, and, more particularly, the South African sound.
The Blue Notes were something of an exception in South African music – a band which stayed together and became a recognisable unit, playing consistently over a long period. Probably the only South African group to come close to this (at least in the field of improvised music) was Sakhile, and they disbanded soon after their tenth anniversary a few years back. They were also unique in being the only South African jazz group to leave as a group and stay together.
One of the greatest sadnesses of many about the South African jazz “diaspora” is that so much South African music was recorded in Europe dna never released into the South African market. So this great legacy of music is known to only a few. Between them the Blue Notes were involved in more than 90 albums released in Europe and the USA, very few of which have ever been on the shelves of South African music shops. Many of the musicians who stayed behind kept in touch, but the jazz listening public was denied the joy, the pride of hearing these 'homeboys' in so many wonderful recordings.

The inestimable legacy

Jazz and improvised music are, of their nature, ephemeral things. So hearing these tracks is a rare privilege for those of us who were not at the gigs. Of the many ambiguities in jazz, recording is one of the happiest, allowing the listener to hear the wonder, the joy of the otherwise fleeting moment of musical truth, the emotional “deep dark blue centre” of jazz of which Hoagy Carmichael spoke.
How extraordinary to savour, after 30 years, the excitement of the Durban concert. The “sound of Whitney Balliett's felicitous phrase, is captured for us to enjoy again and again.
surprise” in
So dig into this music, enjoy it, groove with it as the audience in Durban did, as the Blue Notes themselves certainly did. And spare a thought for those who missed the magical moments.
Spare a thought too for those who, refusing to let apartheid silence their creativity, left this miraculo09us, wonderful country and did not return. Among them were Dudu, Mongs, Mbizo and Chris.
Blue Notes, we salute you, we give thanks to you and the inestimable legacy you have left us.
We miss you.

A publicity shot of the Blue Notes on the beach in Durban, 1964. From "Drum" Magazine

Tuesday 31 March 2015

Trees of shame that bear “Strange Fruit”

“The Lord God made trees spring from the ground, all trees pleasant to look at and good for food; and in the middle of the garden he set the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” - Genesis 2: 9 (New English Bible, 1970)

"Did you hear of the spree they had up Bulawayo way, hanging those three niggers for spies? I wasn't there myself, but a fellow who was told me they made the niggers jump down from the tree and hang themselves; one fellow wouldn't bally jump, till they gave him a charge of buckshot in the back: and then he caught hold of a branch with his hands and they had to shoot 'em loose. He didn't like hanging. I don't know if it's true, of course; I wasn't there myself, but a fellow who was told me. Another fellow who was at Bulawayo, but who wasn't there when they were hung, said they fired at them just after they jumped, to kill 'em. I—" - from Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland by Olive Schreiner (1897)
“Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.” - from “Strange Fruit” by Lewis Allan (Abel Meeropol)
“We all live at the base of the Hanging Tree waiting for death?” - from The Hanging Tree by David Lambkin (Viking, 1995). A comment on the etching “The Hanging Tree” from the series “The Miseries of War” by Jacques Callot (1592 – 1635)

Tree of Life or Tree of Death?

How did the “Tree of Life” become the “hanging tree”? There can be no doubt that it has. Many thousands of bodies have hung from trees, twisting in the breeze, crawling with flies and maggots, spreading a hideous miasma of death around what should be “pleasant to look at and good for food.”
One reason has been religious intolerance: “As a Bohemian noblewoman, Polyxena Lobkovic, perceptively observed from the vantage point of Prague: 'Things are now swiftly coming to the pass where either the papists will settle their score with the Protestants, or the Protestants with the papists.'” (Europe, history of. (2012). Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Deluxe Edition. Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica.)
In the name of the Teacher who in time became known as the “Prince of Peace” unspeakable horrors were visited on people who believed differently during the so-called Thirty Years War (1618 - 1648). These horrors were graphically documented by the artist Jacques Callot in a series of prints entitled “The Miseries of War.”
One of these prints called “The Hanging Tree” eerily prefigures the lynching of mostly black men in the southern states of the United States (the term comes from Charles Lynch (1736–96), a Virginia planter and justice of the peace) by mobs who would hang people accused of some crime, real or imagined, from trees. These hangings often occurred in a kind of carnival atmosphere with men, women and children jeering at those being hanged. The hangings were often accompanied by mutilation of the victims.

Strange Fruit

Racial intolerance and hatred thus is another reason for the perversion of the tree of life into the tree of death.
In the period between 1882 and 1951 some 4730 people were lynched in the US, 1293 of them white and 3437 black. The perpetrators were seldom prosecuted although their identities were often known to law enforcement authorities.
Such lynchings were often justified by the perpetrators as being in the promotion of purity or morality. As one leader of the mob hanging Allen Brooks in Dallas TX on 3 March 1910 was heard to say: "You did the work of men today and your deeds will resound in every state, village, and hamlet where purity and innocence are cherished and bestiality and lechery condemned." (http://www.withoutsanctuary.org/main.html)
Abel Meeropol, a teacher in New York – coincidently at Dewitt Clinton High School in the Bronx among whose alumni were James Baldwin, Richard Rodgers, Burt Lancaster, Stan Lee, Neil Simon, Richard Avedon – saw a 1930 photograph by Lawrence Beitler of the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith. The photo haunted him for days and inspired a poem initially called “Bitter Fruit” which was first published in the union journal The New York Teacher in 1937.
Being something of an amateur composer as well as poet (he also wrote, under his pseudonym Lewis Allan, "The House I Live In" and "Apples, Peaches and Cherries" among many others), Meeropol also wrote music for his poem. It was sung as an anti-racism protest song by his wife Anne and Laura Duncan at Madison Square Garden.

How “Strange Fruit” became “Lady Day's” song

"...the first significant protest in words and music, the first unmuted cry against racism." - Leonard Feather
"She really was happy only when she sang. The rest of the time she was a sort of living lyric to the song `Strange Fruit,' hanging, not on a poplar tree, but on the limbs of life itself." - jazz critic Ralph J. Gleason
"When you listen to her, it's almost like an audio tape of her autobiography," - Tony Bennett
In 1939 Billie Holiday was singing at the Café Society, the first integrated night club in New York. The musical director of her gig, Robert Gordon, reportedly heard the song sung at Madison Square Gardens and took it to Holiday, who was nervous about singing it in a club setting.
Barney Josephson, founder of Café Society, set up some strict rules for the song's performance. There would be no service during the song, which would end the gig, and a single spotlight would be on Holiday's face. During a longish introduction Holiday would stand in the spotlight in an attitude of prayer. Josephson also insisted that there would be no encore.
The band at the Café Society, which also backed Holiday when she recorded the song for Milt Gabler's Commodore label in 1939, was led by trumpeter Frankie Newton (1906 – 1954) with Tab Smith (1909 – 1971) on alto sax, Kenneth Hollon and Stanley Payne on tenors, Sonny White (1917 – 1971) on piano, Jimmy McLinn (1908 – 1983) on guitar, Johnny Williams (1908 - ?) on bass and Eddie Dougherty (1915 - ?) on drums.
Holiday recorded the song again for Norman Granz's “Jazz at the Philharmonic” in 1945. On this recording she is accompanied by Milt Raskin (1916 – 1977) on piano. She introduces this recording by saying it is a song “written specially for me.” If that was not literally true, she certainly made the song her own.

Bitter crop or sweet life?

“Jazz is not simply music. Jazz is about civil rights, human dignity and dialogue among cultures. Jazz emphasises the importance of creativity and freedom of expression.” - Irina Bokova, UNESCO Director-General
“The psychological harm inflicted by the era of terror lynching extends to the millions of white men, women, and children who instigated, attended, celebrated, and internalized these horrific spectacles of collective violence. Participation in collective violence leaves perpetrators with their own dangerous and persistent damage, including harmful defense mechanisms such as 'diminish[ed] empathy for victims' that can lead to intensified violent behaviors that target victims outside the original group. Lynching was a civic duty of white Southern men that brought them praise. Southern white children were taught to embrace traumatic violence and the racist narratives underlying it.” - from the Equal Justice Initiative report Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror (2015)
The ugly reality of lynching contrasts with the beauty of trees felt by most people who experience the wonderful presence of life represented by them:
“I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.”
No doubt Joyce Kilmer's poem “Trees” is full of overblown sentiment and yet it strikes a chord with many people because it captures something of the wonder felt by sensitive people seeing a tree:
“A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the sweet earth's flowing breast;”
For all its sentimentality and strange anthropomorphism:
“A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;”
the poem is a celebration of a wonder of creation. Trees are, in their amazing variety, essential to all life, even life that plays out where there are no trees.
“Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.”
From the great arboreal canopies of the equatorial rain forests to the sparse vegetation of the South African Karoo trees offer the promise of life, of shelter, of food.
If “only God can make a tree” it still is up to us humans to ensure that the tree is a tree of life and not of death by working constantly for tolerance and justice, for the overcoming of prejudice and the hatred that comes from it. We need trees to live but not trees that bear that “strange and bitter crop.”