The Last southern gentlemen
The Last Southern Gentlemen has the sound of classic Jazz played by master musicians. The music is relaxed, thoughtful and provocative; paying tribute to the humanity and humility at the center of the Southern lifestyle that birthed America’s original music. Built on the intimacy of ballads and the blues, while embracing grooves and up-tempo forays, The Last Southern
Gentlemen is a firm acknowledgement of the existence and importance of sweet, gentle sounds.
The phrase conjures images of a bygone era so uniquely magnificent it must be the stuff of legend, Hollywood creation, or a convoluted amalgamation of the two. Through our forefathers’ attempts to escape the rigors of European sovereign rule while simultaneously developing a new upper class, arose an aristocratic society that has yet to be paralleled in terms of American originality or dichotomy: the Antebellum South. Replete with a billion dollar industry undergirded by voluptuous plantations, overflowing crops, and an imported free labor force, the Confederate States were poised to continue realizing a dream of epic proportions; if only their terrorist stance had successfully overthrown our great country’s government during the Civil War (of Northern Aggression).
One can vividly picture America in its burgeoning heyday. What a great spectacle the new Southern royal families are to foreign visitors! The ladies pretty themselves in their chambers while the men sip lemonade and discuss important business matters on the front porch. Mammy tends the home and the family’s children while laborers harvest the crops to the sound of joyous singing and cracking whips; of course, only when necessary. As the workday subsides and residents retire to their quarters—miniature castles surrounded by opulent riches for some, raggely, inglorious shacks for others—a profound understanding of the new American family is developing. The pale moonlight intrudes upon the midnight sky as the reality of our great nation at both its finest and worst simultaneously creates quite a dramatic tale.
The new American family consists not of natives, but of immigrants from Africa and Europe now living within such close proximity that cultural exchanges in every social aspect are inevitable. The required negotiations of every day life as dictated by surreal circumstances cause each individual to develop a duplicitous personality. The African side of the family is required to exploit their agricultural, culinary, and communal skills while accepting a newfound social position contingent upon mandatory inferiority accompanied by constant degradation and threats of violence. Conversely their European brethren must maintain or develop strong business sensibilities while ascending into an entitled status they certainly did not possess in the “Old World.” The ability of all family members to coexist under these circumstances was indeed a remarkable task.
For the European-American land and property owner, life is good and the future bright. For his cousin the African-American laborer, life is difficult at best and the future uncertain. That he was able to maintain many of his people’s customs and beliefs from Africa and generously share them with his new family is both miraculous and fortuitous. The African’s lifestyle is at the center of many great American traditions, none more so, than the irrepressible notion of southern hospitality and manners. Once the Natives were removed from the equation, their land stolen and lives summarily discarded, the new American dream slowly took shape.
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While this dream has consistently eluded and excluded most Americans of African heritage, the degree to which people of color have contributed to the morality, spirit, and manifestation of all things American cannot be overstated. The vast majority of American culture, at least that which one can claim to be original, is by and large an incessant testimony to the African’s ability to adapt, survive and influence those around him; to create new narratives in a foreign land while steadfastly embracing the precious philosophies of his ancestors.
In the classic novel and film Gone With the Wind, the character Ashley Wilkes is portrayed as the ultimate Southern Gentleman. His astute usage of the English language notwithstanding, Wilkes’ sense of chivalry and manners actually derived from the many generations of Africans who defined social expectations in the New World. Judith Martin, in her insightful prose on etiquette, Star Spangled Manners, observes:
“Some house slaves had been of high social class in Africa and the background of a slave might be seriously above that of his or her owner… Southerners learned to practice African manners. It is not from the British that southern graciousness was developed, with its open, easygoing style, its familiar use of honorifics, and its ‘y’all come see us’ hospitality. The higher the family’s pretensions, the more likely the children were receiving daily etiquette instruction from someone whose strict sense of the fitting came from her own cultural background. Charles Dickens was among those who noticed that southern ladies spoke like their black nurses.”
Of the many conjectures one might hear today about jazz as an art form—its important musical elements or political ramifications—few if any will address the necessity of exhibiting good manners as a requisite to greatness. All early jazzmen had an extraordinary sense of etiquette, respect, kindness, and humanity accompanying their toil. Given the emotional and spiritual purity of the early music, those characteristics far outweighed the musicians’ emphasis on rhythmic, harmonic or structural complexity. The appeal of jazz as an accurate representation of American democracy has always been its close relationship to our country’s social climate. ‘Tis true that over a century ago general social politeness was more the order of the day than in our current times. But the musician who follows this unfortunate trend of disregarding basic courtesy does in fact “throw out the baby with the bath water.”
Trumpeter King Oliver influenced Louis Armstrong musically, and more significantly, he provided the type of example what was expected of all men at the turn of the 20th century. Known for his amenable disposition, Oliver was the consummate professional and eternal optimist. Drummer Baby Dodds recalled, “Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band played for the comfort of the people. Sometimes we played so softly you could hear the people’s feet dancing.” Fast-forward to 2014 and many students are being taught to perfect the most inconsequential elements of jazz with no regard for developing or heavens forbid, pleasing an audience.
Back when men were gentlemen, jazz was a functional music. While historians have tried to maintain equilibrium by reporting its history in black and white, trombonist Slide Hampton noted that “Benny Goodman, Harry James and the Dorsey brothers were excellent instrumentalists, but like all of us, they were trying to rise to the standard set by folks like Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Their music was structured, spiritual, and executed on the highest possible level.” Though John Coltrane would later represent a similar level of expression, his explorations would unwittingly lead to the steadfast demise of diversity and originality in jazz performance. Once educationalists realized that Coltrane’s genius could be analyzed in the European manner—primarily reduced to scales, patterns and basic mathematical equations—the music’s functionality and audience appeal took the proverbial backseat to academic hubris. In post 1960s American art, only in the arena of jazz has the importance of negritude been marginalized to a point of near cultural genocide.
The Negro is a natural musician. He will learn to play on an instrument more quickly than a white man.... They may not know one note from another, yet their ears catch the strains of any floating air, and they repeat it by imitation.... Inferior to the white race in reason and intellect, they have more imagination, more lively feelings and a more expressive manner.... With their imagination they clothe in rude poetry the incidents of their lowly life, and set them to simple melodies.... Blessed power of music!... It is a beautiful gift of God to this oppressed race to lighten their sorrows in the house of their bondage.
"Songs of the Blacks," Dwight's Journal of Music, IX:7 November 15, 1856
This quotation, a failed effort to define or explain the spirit and exuberance inherent in the most comprehensive American music, appeared in an anonymous American article. Though one might denounce the author's cowardice, certainly his forthright honesty must be applauded. The Emancipation Proclamation—while moderately affecting Uncle Sam's peculiar institution—did nothing to abolish this misguided, reductive portrait of the Noble Savage. Over 130 years later. the struggle against stereotypes
• of this nature continues.
The conception of the Noble Savage characterized the thinking of certain Europeans and their American descendants who were not willing to accept slaves and their descendants as intellectual equals. Thus, the common opinion about extraordinary Negro artists was, "Genius by night, nigger all day." The legendary pianist Blind Tom provided an excellent example for these theorists, as he was able to replay any music he heard after only one listen. But Blind Tom was an exception, not the rule.
In the 20th century, high-brow jazz improvisation began with Louis Armstrong, progressed through Art Tatum to Charlie Parker and continued with John Coltrane. These particular individuals were geniuses— not intuitive geniuses—cerebral geniuses, who represented our most sophisticated ideals with immediate clarity. Due to the warm racial climate in America, however, Armstrong appeared in various movies as
a "spook,' a butler (with maid servant Billie Holiday), and as a field hand playing trumpet to a horse. A man who was as financially wealthy as any Negro could hope to be, heralded as the greatest trumpeteer/entertainer of all times, honored by the king and queen of England, and worshipped the world around for his unique personality, was also greeted by a generic actor in a grade B movie as "Uncle Tom." It is no longer socially acceptable to overtly promote such narrow-minded attitudes. Consequently, today's youth enjoy a kinder, more subtle indoctrination to this insidious American tradition.
Branford Marsalis' Bloomington, with its broad range of dialects and comprehensive vernacular, provides asociological analysis of the sophisticated racism that dominates our country today. Over the past century, the language of America and its music has experienced both an expansion and a diminution,ßimultaneously, While words have become more personalized and their underlying ssage remains fixed—we hold these truths to be self-evident...With one major exception.
What Marsalis expresses through his music is the firm knowledge that human beings are responsible for upholding the ideals of their society. Though we have made significant technological advancements, commerce has forced mankind to compromise his honesty and therefore sacrifice its resultant enlightenment. As the82-year-old virtuoso explains, "People think that the gospel and blues musicians were singing about how terrible their lives were slaving on the plantation antThow everything would be cool at Judgment Day. Those types of songs were actually a way to avoid dealing with a grimreality." It is often difficult forpeople who maintain a refined level of integrity to embrace acts of flagrant Oishonesty, lest they are accepted as the will of a supreme being. In this fashion, Negroes havejustifie virtually L every conceivable injustice.
In the late 19th century, when law books stopped supporting slavery, an unwri en Code of ethics was birthed, nurtured and preserved. Jim Crow, as this practice of enforced segregation was affectionately named, exhibited a capacity for humbling that only the Grim Reaper could surpass. Thoggtl many try to dissociate Jim Crow from American art, his existence has always been directly latedâo the deve10P7 ment of jazz music. Crow was responsible for the defection of America's first g eat saxophonist; Sidney Bechet, who moved from New Orleans to Pans early in his career and nŸver returned to the
South. Many jazz musicians preferred the financial and personalsupport ok Europeans more than the
"Southern hospitalityT 0f down-home good old boys. In fact, the term "paying dues" was developed as a polite description of work under Crow's management. It appears that not ylbeqrly 20th-century musicians had to pay dues in the Fameáashion or to the samedegree.
During the bebop era, Crow emerged underthe guise of "cabaret" identification cards, issued by the police to perpetuate legalized harassment. Police officers would(cohfiscate a performer's card if he/she were arrested forany reason. Without the cardv,an artist could not work in New York city nightclubs and was subject to confinement. A hallucinogenic narcotic, heroin, introduced a new form of escape from this everlasting reality. For the brave musicians who chose to confront old Jim rather than deny his existence, any sedative would suffice.Ähe high volume of substance abuse could have been prevented, however, if genius minds had been cultivated, not violated. The racist attitude in this country led many great artists to "live on the fringes, and pass on long before their time," in the words of legendary bassist Milt Hinton. Hinton. a progenitor Of American music, Vividly recalls both the accelerated dynamism of the bebop era and the melancholic effects of several lynching incidents from his childhood years in Mississippi. Though society scorned the seemingly evil lifestyle of Negro musicians, it never directed attention at the cause, only the result.
At the height of our nation's greatest internal conflict since the Civil War—the 1960s Civil Rights Movement—the music was enjoying a revolutionary movement of its own. Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong,
John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Ornette Coleman all had rebellious bands that were swinging and
stretching the boundaries of acoustic music, yet never compromising their beliefs. Oddly enough, as the Civil Rights Movement began to lose steam, so did jazz. The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968 would coincide with the last great years of contemporary jazz until the 1980s. This new generation of musicians would be the first in American history to address democracy (as described in our constitution) without the psychological bondage of legal segregation.
Branford Marsalis was unquestionably a vital part of the 1980s jazz resurgence. With this recording, jazz music's most contemporary saxophonist reaffirms his philosophical convictions with brilliant clarity and eloquence. It is his recognition and acceptance of the American odyssey—from the chitlin switch to the penthouse. slave quarters to the big house—that give his improvisations an unrivaled originality. In its most revealing moments, Bloomington displays a spiritual potency capable of conjuring optimism in the face ofthe most daunting adversity.
The music Of Branford Marsalis reflects the seriousness and intensity that confrontation demands: against one's own personal limitations and dogmatic indignation. In a strictly improvisational setting, this trio is performing the most sophisticated. contemporary, and innovative music today. Very few instrumentalists in jazz history have been able to function in this setting comfortably, none with the stylistic diversity of Branford Marsalis. The saxman credits Duke Ellington as his primary inspiration. Though there is an Obvious contrast in styles, Ellington's broad musical horizon has assisted all succeeding American musicians in a manner similar to William Shakespeare's influenceover western writers.
Marsalis iS quick to point out, "Duke was a masterauthor. Like any great storyteller, he realized the need for different grooves, tempos, and was light years ahead of everybody else...me10dy, harmony, rhythm, texture, form,scounterpoint, call-and-response. Just compare his catalogue of music in any decade with other big bands and it's very obvious what the deal was. As far as soloing goes. Pops, Bird, and Trane are the,pivotal instrumentalists in American history. They extended single-line improvisation to a spiritual level-far beyon technical description. I can feel their presence whenever I play in this context."
Wherea§lárge ensemblé music requites a,dértaiWåmount of cálcúlating and premeditation, trio performance relies strictly upon the spontaneoustímagination and creative resources of each player.
Duke Ellington controlled his music and dictated the entire structure, form, and content of each composition; improvisation serving the purpose of the music. The most difficult task for Marsalis' trio—in which the music serves the purpose of improvisation—was adapting such a regimented sound into a completely free environment, while avoiding the undisciplined random conclusions that are often equated with •avant-garde" music. He points out, "Bob and Tain are the only two musicians in the world who can play this music in this setting...we're at each other's mercy. We don't decide to go into a groove at a particular time or play for a certain length of time, The music takes care of that on its own."
Marsalis and associates• powerful performance on Bloomington must be recognized for many advancements. In "Xavier's Lair," for instance, all melodies are self-governed, not restricted by patterns or clichés...(:56-1:19*) 28 bar phrase, (1:19-1:52) 39 bar phrase: fluent juxtaposing of different time meters (5:39-7:09); extended imitation of melodies and rhythms (7:31-9:49); call-and-response (10:12• 10:29). Almost all of the saxophonist's melodies are inspired, acknowledged, contradicted or co-signed by Watts or Hurst. An excellent example of the group's overwhelming power is the Nebulous Neb section (4:38-4:50), so named because neither the chord changes nor the time meter is discernible.
"Citizen Tain" is a tour-de-force exhibition Of the trio's ability to interpret complex solo forms and mathematical equations. Each musician seems to thrive off such challenging structures, for example:
(5:41-6:13) or (7:43-9:46). The group definitely sounds more convincing performing abstract. crazy
people's music than imitating someone else's style.
One profound aspect of Branford Marsalis' personality is his ability to accurately interpret different -musical styles. In addition to his jazz musings, he has played and composed several types of popular -dance music, Middle-Eastern, African, gospel and mellow mood material. Actually, the Ringling Bros.
came into town one year and I could have sworn I saw him playing a wooden flute, wearing a big red nose and peppermint pantaloons!
Because of his role as an endearing sideman on many projects that are not associated with his own music, Marsalis has bewildered those individuals intent on describing a personal philosophy with a catchy slogan; the same ones who managed to reduce the genius and unparalleled accomplishments Of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to adrearn. If elitism is equated with intelligence and comprehension, so be it. Though this writer would never postulate whether Branford Marsalis is a " purist" or not, Bloomington is as pure as it gets.
— Delfeayo Marsalis