Prince: influence and inspiration
By Ron Wynn
The arts, especially music, film and literature, as well as sports, have been personal passions since childhood. As the son of two academics who never hid their contempt for most of what is now called “pop culture,” it was made clear to me rather early just how little value my parents saw in collecting records, attending movies, and either playing or watching sports.
Only when I could show through reading books on these subjects and then quoting them back facts or knowledge did they at least see limited worth in my obsession, mainly because it at least reflected a love of the written word, and a willingness to diligently devour any and all things I could find about these subjects.
Their disdain for my loves worked in a strange, yet positive fashion. Because there was no one to fill my head with notions about what music I should or shouldn’t hear, films not to see or sports that Blacks shouldn’t follow, no limits were placed on my quest for knowledge or enjoyment in any area.
The music that surrounded me was predominantly gospel courtesy of my grandmother, soul & R&B from my friends, and country and pop through the commercial radio stations of the day when living in Knoxville, which didn’t get a black radio station until James Brown brought an AM day-timer and converted it to WJBE in the late ’60s.
My three prize possessions growing up were a library card, baseball glove and transistor radio. A fourth, a cheap portable record player with a ceramic cartridge, came a bit later, while a fifth, a 15-inch black and white TV with very poor UHF reception, I didn’t acquire till my senior year of high school.
Classical and jazz became part of the equation through piano lessons from age 11 to 17. I developed a profound respect for classical, and jazz became one of several lifelong idiomatic obsessions, even as it quickly become rather obvious from my struggles with the transcriptions for Thelonious Monk and Herbie Hancock compositions that I wasn’t going to be leading any jazz combos, no matter how much I practiced.
However my valiant but hopeless struggle to become a jazz pianist didn’t lead me to abandon my other musical joys: it enhanced them, just as not having enough speed to be a good football wide receiver or the hand/eye co-ordination for a successful baseball player enabled me to better understand and appreciate the skill it took to achieve those goals at the professional level.
Fast forward to college, where I began doing some sports writing, and on to grad school, where I did political columns, more sports, plus music and film reviews while deciding that this was going to be what I’d do for a living. Despite some detours into TV work, and various part-time radio gigs which continue to this day, writing about the arts and sports has been my combination work and joy for almost 39 years now, 19 of them in the daily grind, the others for various weeklies, monthlies, specialized publications and occasional ancillary gigs like bios and liner notes. This leads me to my newest venture, contributing weekend columns to my friend Andre’s music blog, which he’s been generous enough to allow.
Some of these will be think pieces, commentaries on particular cultural issues of interest. Others will be review columns, Once a month I’ll spotlight a favorite radio show or TV program. Hopefully, there will be some things that will interest the readers of Andre’s blog. The bulk of it will cover what I consider roots music: jazz, blues, vintage R&B, soul, gospel. Also I’ve long enjoyed international music, particularly various Latin, reggae and African sounds. Over my time on this beat, I’ve done my share of obits, appreciations, reassessments and evaluations, which brings me to the current subject: how to evaluate the late Prince Rogers Nelson.
I preface this by saying normally I hate making comparisons, because I’ve always felt every artist offers their own unique view of the world, and should be viewed through that prism rather than evaluated against someone else’s conception. But I also understand this is a practice many enjoy, and it can aid in understanding a performer if you recognize and accurately assess the things that have influenced them. It’s even more enjoyable when it’s someone who draws from so many sources that the more you discover, the more it broadens your own horizons.
Which is the thing that makes Prince not only special, but a real inspiration. In my lifetime of following music he and Stevie Wonder, and for that matter Ray Charles (but he’s not quite as much a contemporary as the other two), have best exemplified to me among non-jazz/blues stylists the qualities I most admire in artists: versatility and consistent excellence, as well as a dedication to their craft that places artistry ahead of commerce. Certainly they are not the only ones, so folks can hold off on the objections. But all three cited here are multi-instrumentalists and bold conceptualists, not restricted or confined to any one genre. They are also compelling vocalists and performers who’ve continually ignored conventional wisdom in regards to what they should or shouldn’t do in and with their music.
Since his death April 21, there have been thousands of words written about Prince. Everyone from Rolling Stone to People, Time to Newsweek, Ebony and Essence have either released or will soon issue commemorative volumes dedicated to his music. Sadly, there’s also been as much prose about how he died, who may or may not inherit his money, what might happen to his immense set of unreleased recordings, and whether his late image as a dedicated Jehovah’s Witness and Vegan was a fraud. Much of that doesn’t interest me. What does is the question of exactly how Prince should be viewed musically.
There’s one school of thought that undervalues his contributions. Folks on this end maintain that while he was certainly an outstanding pianist, fine guitarist, good bassist and accomplished on other instruments, he didn’t revolutionize or change the way anyone approached them the way Charlie Parker did everyone who’s played alto since. He didn’t turn around how people thought about the blues the way Muddy Waters did, or open up the possibilities of secular music to gospel acts like Sam Cooke and Charles did.
All of that is both true and besides the point. What he demonstrated was there were no limits to what an artist could do in the studio, particularly a Black one in an era (’80s and ’90s) when there were cretins at rock radio and such places as MTV who truly thought being African-American meant you couldn’t play rock or punk or new wave. This really sounds ultra-stupid today, and it was then, but there were plenty of folks around in positions of control and authority culturally who believed it, and some who were even willing to say it publicly.
Unfortunately, there are still those around who believe it in 2016, though one would hope there are fewer of them. There were also plenty of others at the time who didn’t openly express that sentiment, but showed they believed it in the way they routinely denied access to Black acts playing in those styles. But Prince’s sheer brilliance and popularity enabled him to break through those barriers, and forced the cultural brokers who clung to those stereotypes to acknowledge his music was an exception to their ignorant notions.
Another equally inaccurate line of thought puts too much value on his prodigious compositional output, assuming that everything he did was invaluable. The truth is Prince recorded constantly, and often was working things out in the studio on a nightly basis. Not everything he cut was a gem, nor should every single Prince tune be issued. Certainly there are no doubt plenty of magnificent items in the vaults that haven’t been heard, but here’s where someone who truly knows and understands his music needs to be hired for however long it takes to ensure there’s not a flood of sub-par material issued to take advantage of the current public thirst for his music.
There are two jazz greats whom I think putting Prince’s music in a contemporary comparative vein makes sense. One is Duke Ellington: the other John Coltrane. Ellington from the curative/presentation vein, Coltrane from the personality/cultural impact sphere. Duke Ellington’s vast catalog of compositional delights spans multiple decades, and is still being evaluated and examined. He understood the importance of matching music to individual players, and saw his work as the expression of a people. Without overlooking the considerable input and importance of Billy Strayhorn to the Ellington legacy (a separate discussion), it is fair to see Ellington’s music as a host of sonic colors that were designed to be illuminated by individual players and instruments.
Prince gave equal consideration to tone, sensibility and instrumental configuration in his writing. He penned numerous works for other musicians, and was a marvelous producer and talent scout, especially in finding and collaborating with gifted women artists. It will be years before his catalog can be accurately evaluated, but there’s no question that the body of work already out, both commercially issued recordings and bootlegs, reveals an impressive, varied and extensive legacy,
Coltrane’s journey from sideman to bandleader to cultural force isn’t quite identical to Prince’s, but it is fair to say both men enjoyed a wide-reaching societal impact. Coltrane became a mentor and symbol to jazz musicians for both his search for a singular identity, and a desire to make music that was personally satisfying, no matter how esoteric or baffling critics, record company executives and fans might find it. His quest may have puzzled those who failed to understand how someone who could play so beautifully on “Ballads” could embrace the seeming chaos of “Ascension” or “Cosmic Music.” Yet it was precisely that search that made him such a hero to others in different musical worlds who could identify with someone ultimately more interested in a creative vision than the bottom line.
Prince certainly had plenty of hits, but he also had “Under The Cherry Moon,” and other songs and albums that left even the most loyal fans wondering what he was doing. His desire to control his output and be free of any restrictions led to open warfare for years with Warner Bros., the label that felt they’d made him a star, and then wondered why he turned on them. Like most corporate cultural controllers, they never understood that it was always about the music, and that Prince cared far more about that than anything else.
While shying away from labeling Prince a 21st century Duke Ellington or John Coltrane, those two strike me as the jazz models that most closely align with the way Prince led his musical life, and the sizeable inroads he made away from the studio and off the bandstand. Add the many contributions to social causes and willingness to help fellow musicians that are just now coming to light, and the result is a portrait of someone who is every bit as much a giant in his era as any of the greats of jazz, blues or any other idiom were in earlier times.