Monday, September 1, 2014

A look at Ralph Ellison looking at jazz

I’m not sure how I could have gotten through an upright American Catholic high school, and then have spent 21 years in seven different schools getting a bachelor’s degree in business and never have read one of America’s greatest writers of the 20th century, Ralph Waldo Ellison. I’m sure some sort of black white thing played into it, but whatever, you can just put him in the pile of things, along with jazz, that took me forty or more years to discover, but aren’t we glad I finally did.

What led me to Ellison was the Ken Burns documentary on jazz, which excerpted some of his essays on the subject of America’s music. No surprise to learn also that Ellison stopped focusing on music to start focusing on writing. That, too, has many parallels, as an ear for language certainly can and often does breed an ear for music, and vice versa.
Ellison wrote A LOT. This 860 page anthology is just a "small" sampling of his work.
Having gotten through the first part of the anthology, where the antiquated word “Negro” appears about seven thousand times in 200 pages, I’m now in the heart of a chunk of essays about music, musicians, singers, and jazz. I’m enjoying it much more than the Negro bits. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read, and I’m learning a lot about black American culture in the 1940’s and 50’s. It’s just tiring to me. (Maybe that’s why they don’t teach it in high school?)

Ellison is a fascinating and incredibly insightful writer, and he has a turn of phrase about him that is unique, as if he developed it and practiced it, just like some technique on a sax or trumpet. Here’s a small sample:
I tell you this to point out that although there were no incentives to write, there was ample opportunity to receive an artistic discipline. Indeed, once one picked up an instrument it was difficult to escape. If you chafed at the many rehearsals of the school band or orchestra and were drawn to the small jazz groups, you were likely to discover that the jazzmen were apt to rehearse far more than the school band; it was only that they seemed to enjoy themselves more, and to possess a freedom of imagination which we were denied at school.
Labor Day is a godsend to me. I shall spend the day playing the piano and reading Ellison. I think those two activities will make me feel pretty good about not working today.

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