Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Kind of Blue (part 1)

It has been said that jazz history can be divided into two segments: “Before Kind Of Blue and after Kind Of Blue.” In 1959 Miles Davis recorded Kind Of Blue and “More than forty years after its release, it is still one of the most-sought-after recordings in the country; in fact, as late as 1998 it was the best-selling jazz album of the year.” The story behind Kind Of Blue is essential to understanding the sociology of jazz and serves as a good case study for understanding jazz theology. The album was “created…because the most important jazzmen in the modern scene desperately wanted to change the way they played their music. This need was not purely musical; it had more than a little to do with the changes then going on in American society, especially concerning the lives of African-Americans.” “It should never be forgotten that the depth and beauty of jazz have arisen from centuries of injustice, brutality, fear, and pain, none of which were passively accepted but were met with African-Americans’ resistance, striving, and hope for a more benevolent future.” Kind Of Blue marked an “end of an era” for jazz music and the beginning of something fresh—not just emergent but also convergent. I see a day that this whole modern/postmodern emergent debate/conversation is divided into two era's: Before Jazz Theology and after Jazz Theology. Over the next few posts, I am going to unpack the significance of Kind Of Blue and its' contribution to jazz as we know it. This will be essential to understanding some of the basics of how the African-American experience informs our theology. Kind of Blue is essential listening for any wannabe jazz theologian, that is, those who desperately want to change the way theology is done. If you do not have a copy, you might want to purchase one along with an album that is pre-Kind Of Blue so that you can compare and contrast. Perhaps some big band jazz…I would suggest something by Duke Ellington (if you can get an album with the song, "I got it bad and that ain't good," it will be worth it.) As we go on this journey, it is essential that we understand what life in America was like in 1959. So I ask you, “How would you describe American life during the 1950’s?" (All quotes above are from Eric Nisenson’s fine book, “The Making of Kind Of Blue.)


Blogger Pete Gall said...

My dad used to be a pretty hard-charging businessman. Not much time for petty niceties or "soft" interests like art or, well, anything that didn't measure achievement. Classic paternalist, I suppose.

As the oldest of three sons, I was afforded the opportunity to choose which hoops I'd leap through to earn his praise.

My middle brother, though, tried football and hated it. He wasn't as good at school as I was. He didn't do as well with people. I was the dominant one, and I was all about scurrying to earn my father's praise, even if it cost my brother.

There were times when my brother raged against me and my selfish injustices. But he would never fight back. On one particularly horrible high school afternoon - when both of our parents were away - I remember pushing him around the kitchen until he ended up in a ball on the floor. Both of us were crying - and I was yelling at him to fight back. "Don't you know all Dad wants is for you to fight back?"

And that's all I wanted, too. Though if he had fought back I would have thrashed him.

When I think of America in the 1950s, I think of the older brother, the White men, returning from the war, ready to put their feet up. Women were driven from the factories, where they had just spent years proving themselves more than capable. Black men went from Sergeant Jackson to "boy" overnight. And the pecking order snapped back to its former inglory. Elvis bought a pink Cadillac with usurped Black royalties.

I mention the history with my brother because the quote about resistence troubles me. I don't see the Black world as having resisted all that much. There was more that could have been done. There has always been more that could have been done, and I think what is most compelling about the whole deal is not where the conflict fell short, but where it went underground.

There is something about being the long-term recipient of blows that highlights a more noble character - or at least a more noble role. Especially when held against the light of such virulent...devilishness.

My brother has not changed much. Now he is an amazing father and husband...a servant who gets things done, who values loyalty, who left a management job so he could work for the school system and be home for lunch with his family every day. There is a significant value in the way he refused to be sucked in by my father's demands, or by my bullying. When he and I speak now, every once in a while I will hear a tension in him - something about not knowing quite where he falls on the chart of dominance established by my father and me.

These days I'm quick to nip that self doubt. I prize his example - it offers me a rich alternative to the greedy obsessions I would choose without him.

My brother's doubts remind me of the tensions I hear in Black voices from time to time. Voices that urge efforts to fight back in kind, or that cause so much of the self-destructive - though culturally normative - behavior I see in a lot of the "keeping it real" Black culture.

What I dig about the culture of the Harlem renaissance, or the old Southern "yessah," or the way I've seen a few large Black churches do things around here is how similar the approach is to what I see in Jesus and His teachings. It's a refusal to get sucked into the stupid fight where the beat down is sure to come anyway.

To me it looks like a way to absorb the blows - for hundreds of years, but especially right after WWII - without compromising on strength. The emergence of this ability strikes me as a dominant 1950s feature...and maybe it was the convergence of the practitioners of that new ability that made the world kind of blue.

10:49 PM  
Blogger jazztheo said...


I'm not sure why you say that you don't see the black world as having resisted that much at all...all I see throughout black history is resistance, defiance and the search for dignity inspite of being dehumanized.

Don't mistake the "Yessah" as a lack of resistance...It might just be the presence of "loving ones enemies."

11:20 PM  
Blogger Pete Gall said...

What I was intending to highlight was that the resistence has not come in like form. My brother did not push me back. Instead he sidestepped me, or avoided me, or picked his shots in other ways. I think we're looking at different aspects of the word resistance - and that may be a telling thing in itself. I was referring to pushing back. When you put it alongside defiance, it looks much more like the refusal to accept the abuse - more like how my brother would respond.

I suppose a person could push to have any response to an overwhelming tyrant - whether in the moment the choice feels noble or more like defeat - fall under the label of "loving response to enemy." The refusal to enjoin a suicidal fight is a great way of showing the ugliness of the tyrant. The refusal to respond in kind is the refusal to agree to the curse the tyrant's choices heap upon himself.

What I was thinking about with the 1950s aspect was what it must have been like to go from a sense of optimism back to the same old garbage. I was thinking about what it must have been like to not be able to fight back directly - and what a confusing thing to a sense of self that must have been. No wonder there was so much self-destructive behavior mixed in with the cream of the jazz crop.

7:10 AM  
Blogger jazztheo said...

I'm with ya...I was looking at the Nat Turner Rebellion, the slave church, the under ground railroad, Malcolm X and the Non-violent resistence of King...and thought that you were saying that you didn't see African-Americans resisting much.

I think that you are absolutely right in reference to the 1950's (since that was the era I was asking about, way to read the question Pete!). There was a collective trauma brought on by jim crow in the south and despair in the north that smothered the spirit of resistance.

love you man!

7:38 AM  
Blogger Pete Gall said...

I have to tell you that I've experienced a sort of panic as we cover some of this ground again. I've drifted back into a pretty homogenized world - except I'm the weirdo outsider...and that just by my choices and tendency, not by anything against my will.

I listen to The Birth of The Cool every so often, and my book was all about wanting to create a reciprocal to Ellison's Invisible Man, but for the most part I have slipped back into the de facto segregation that exists in Indianapolis. And I feel this weird dangerous spot - a little understanding, growing old and being recalcified by the trappings of the FoxNews world, makes me feel clumsy with all of this now.

What I'm excited about regarding convergence is the idea that I may find ways to be my own musician in this ensemble...having spent too much time tooting along with the White band, and too much time awkwardly silent in some weird attempt at polical correctness making sure I conveyed my toe-tapping appreciation of the Black performers.

I know you've had to squeeze through the competing pressures, and I'm excited to see what I can learn as we go forward.

Thanks for doing this.

7:54 AM  
Blogger olympiada said...

How can I describe life in America in the 50's when I was not even alive back then and my parents were little children. I will have to call my grandmother and ask her.
Want me to do that? :)
My grandfather is in a nursing home in NY and barely remembers me, otherwise I would ask him too.
Sheesh, you ask hard questions man!
Oh I know, I could ask my ex mother in law and father in law.

11:06 AM  
Blogger jazztheo said...

Oly your great,

I wan't alive in the 1950's either, so let's get some first hand knowledge. I'd love to know what your grandmother has to say about the 50's in general...and specifically what what does she remember about music? Race relations?

11:10 AM  
Blogger Berry said...

LOVE it!

3:31 PM  
Blogger olympiada said...

Jazz Theo - Well I have had a horrendous day and I can not call her, so I will write to her.
Please pray for me a sinner.

5:50 PM  
Blogger jazztheo said...

Lord Jesus,
Go before, be with, come behind our sister Olympiada. Give her your grace and mercy this day.

And all the people of God said...

8:53 PM  
Blogger olympiada said...

Thanks JazzTheo I felt your prayer today. Will you pray for me tonight too?

Hey I just told someone else this, but did you know the American Protestant Fundamentalists and Right Wing Evangelicals spoiled the Bible for me?

8:56 PM  
Blogger olympiada said...

Prayer too. I am in a war. I am attempting to step out into the secular world as an EO and I can not do it. I am caught like the proverbial deer in the headlights. I am scared. I want to bolt...There is real hatred for Christians in the liberal community. I can not take it. God help.

8:57 PM  
Blogger Ookami Snow said...

intresting stuff, I didn't know there was that much too it.

10:30 PM  

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