Sunday, January 3, 2010

Revisiting Monk, Rethinking Césaire

It's January 3rd, and it's also time to break our silence here at the Notes Taken. As many of you have experienced, the winter holidays are a slow time if your calendar is oriented around academia. It's a good time to put off things you don't want to do (like correcting exams), even if it is also necessary to delay starting any new projects.

And regarding books, the calendar new year doesn't mean much. Our new year is much closer to the release of Spring catalogs.

Nevertheless, the start of 2010 will perhaps allow me to revisit a theme that I discussed last year. In October I wrote that
Biographies of musicians, even in jazz, can be a mixed bag. Reviewing for the New York Times, August Kleinzahler writes that Robin D.G. Kelley,
the author of “Race Rebels” and other books, makes use of the “carpet bombing” method in this biography. It is not pretty, or terribly selective, but it is thorough and hugely effective. He knows music, especially Monk’s music, and his descriptions of assorted studio and live dates, along with what Monk is up to musically throughout, are handled expertly. The familiar episodes of Monk’s career are all well covered.
In retrospect, I should have written that I find both biographies and music journalism a mixed bag, but I chose to point readers toward Kelley's new bio of Monk instead. Kleinzahler, as shown by the choice of the 'carpet bombing' metaphor seems overwhelmed with the material. Fortunately, David Yaffa has reviewed the same book for The Nation, and he pronounces a stronger verdict:
Robin D.G. Kelley's exhaustive, necessary and, as of now, definitive Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original offers a Baedeker of sorts. Jazz may be filled with fascinating characters, but it has inspired relatively few exemplary full-length biographies. (Among the exceptions are David Hajdu's Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn; John Chilton's Sidney Bechet: The Wizard of Jazz; Linda Kuehl's unfinished With Billie, assembled by Julia Blackburn after Kuehl's death; and John Szwed's So What: The Life of Miles Davis.) Kelley is, in many ways, a rarity. While many music journalists write amateur history, Kelley is an eminent historian at the University of Southern California.
I highly recommend reading Yaffa's review, and the others he has written for The Nation. He's engaging and not afraid to through the reader for a loop or two (see his piece on Ornette Coleman), while striking the often difficult economy of prose required for reviewing books. And I say that in full cognizance that we're running a site on book reviews. I just want to add two things to the section of Yaffa's review that I have quoted:

First, I think the list of exemplary biographies ought to include John Szwed's Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra and Lewis Porter's John Coltrane: His Life and Music. Szwed does the difficult work of tracking down Sonny Blount's earthly origins, and Porter is unafraid to reproduce sheet music to show the progression of Coltrane's style and technique.

Unlike Coltrane, I think that Sun Ra and his Arkestra remain under appreciated. Sure the cosmic messages and costumes can stretch one's credulity, but Sun Ra is a great and unconventional piano player (or rocksichord player; I'm listening to Night of the Purple Moon right now), while John Gilmore's tenor is both bluesy and out there. In fact, this might be the problem some critics have with Gilmore's playing: there is not a gradual sense of progression (as in Coltrane); Gilmore, from the late fifties onward works simultaneously within a swing/blues style and with squawks, honks, register leaps and the high end of the altissimo range.

Second, when I first read about Kelley, I couldn't figure out why his name sounded familiar. When the department contracted me to teach Great Philosophers, I found out why: I had decided to include Aimé Césaire for a perspective on colonialism, and along the way rediscovered that Kelley wrote the introduction for the English translation of Discourse on Colonialism.

Kelley illuminates the framework in which Césaire wrote, the extent of his influence, and (most importantly for the students of my course) deals with the Discourse's positive references to the Soviet Union. Kelley is not immediately dismissive, which is usually how communism is dealt with these days; he reminds the reader of the hope inspired in the Third World of the 1940s 1950s by the idea of communism/socialism. I find that my students have very little knowledge of the Soviet Union, as many of the first year students were born after 1989, but I suppose that this is better than all the misinformation that I grew up with. Whether Césaire will be jarring for them or not, perhaps he will allow them to see how, far from being a relic of the 20th century, colonialism continues, in a different and less obvious form, in the 21st.

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