Category Archives: John Coltrane

A Few Words on Public Enemy, 30 Black History Months In

It’s almost too fitting that the anniversary of Public Enemy’s debut album should fall during Black History Month. For people like me–’90s kids from majority-white towns where “Black History” meant half a class period on George Washington Carver every February–Public Enemy was our connection to an invisible history of Black radical thought: from Marcus Garvey and W.E.B. Du Bois to Malcolm X and Huey P. Newton. Their music opened me up to ideas I didn’t even know existed; ideas that, in the wilderness of White (supremacist) America, were truly life-altering. Discovering P.E. as a teenager was an experience as radicalizing as discovering punk rock; more so, in fact, because they represented a threat to racial hegemony that even the likes of the Clash did not. They were insurrection in musical form, with a visceral cut-and-paste aesthetic that continues to sound cutting-edge to this day.

None of that, of course, was the point of Public Enemy. More than any other rap group of their era, P.E. was music by and for Black people; the radicalized white kids like me were collateral damage. But I can only speak from my experience, as someone for whom Fear of a Black Planet and, especially, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back were an introduction to an entirely new kind of politics, a new way of seeing the world. If nothing else, I have Public Enemy to thank for introducing me to a rich canon of African American literature and art: to Stokely Carmichael, Angela Davis, James Baldwin, and Toni Morrison, and for that matter to James Brown, John Coltrane, and Gil Scott-Heron. Without that initial spark of interest I felt the first time I heard “Bring the Noise,” I might have missed out on a whole universe of ideas that have made me a definitively better person.

Granted, not everything about the group has aged well. Public Enemy may have exposed millions of listeners like myself to Black Power and the Panthers, but they also regurgitated a lot of less progressive influences: the anti-Semitism and homophobia of Louis Farrakhan, most famously, along with a host of conspiracy theories and pseudo-history that contemporary listeners are likely to file away as Hotep bullshit. Their politics are more akin to a firebrand anarchist zine than a well-reasoned essay–which is probably why they appealed more to my teenage self than they do to me as an adult. But there will always be a place for firebrands, and P.E. were as incendiary as they came: it was what made us sit up and listen in the first place. And in early 2017–a time when racism in America is arguably the worst it’s been in my lifetime–their fire might just be needed more than ever.

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Filed under 1980's, 1987, 1988, conscious rap, James Brown, John Coltrane, Malcolm X, Public Enemy, rap

Prince’s Place: Influence And Inspiration

Ron Wynn Prince Article

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.

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Filed under Duke Ellington, Jazz, John Coltrane, Minneapolis Sound, Prince, Uncategorized

Anatomy of THE Groove: “Be Bop Medley” by Chaka Khan

Chaka Khan’s very musical essence could be summed up through jazz. It was listening to Billie Holiday growing up in a family of visual artists that inspired her whole vocal approach. As a late 60’s counter culturally inclined teenager,she became involved with organizations such as the Black Panthers as well as Affro Arts out of her native Chicago. She encountered folks who’d later be members of both Sun Ra’s Arkestra and Earth Wind & Fire through Affro Arts. And this was all before she teamed up with a band known as Ask Rufus,and went on to enormous success as a leader singer and eventually a solo artist. So from jazz to rock to funk,Chaka never strayed from what inspired her.

Now in my late teens,there was one piece of vinyl of Chaka’s that I suppose would be referred to as a grail by the modern vinyl collecting community. It was her self titled 1982 album. While the least commercially potent of her early/mid 80’s Warner Bros. albums produced by Arif Mardin,it was known as being among the most unique and funkiest of her solo records.I personally found the vinyl in Boston. Eventually I managed to purchase the rare CD import offline. The album itself is a masterpiece of brittle yet cinematic electro funk. Chaka’s solo albums generally contained at least one musical tribute to her love for jazz. And on here it was perhaps her most defining one in”Be Bop Medley”.

A powerful drum kicks off with Chaka’s screaming vocalese before a chanking rhythm guitar strums along. A Vocoder kicks into a sturdy 4/4 dance rhythm with a synth bass scaling down. That’s the rhythmic element linking each part of the medley. The Hot House part of it has a metallic synth playing the chordal pattern whereas a Arabic style Fender Rhodes solo segues into “East Of Suez” along with some spirited percussion. An electric sitar begins the frantic synth bass take on Epistrophy whereas Yardbird Suite and has Chaka duetting with the Vocorder. Con Alma slows the song briefly to a swinging ballad tempo as a sax led Giant Steps finds Chaka scatting her way out of the song.

Having listened to this particular song over and over again for fourteen years now,this is one of the most instrumentally intricate and futurist examples of jazz/funk in the 80’s. It showcases once and for all that the electro funk movement did not represent a great to the funk genre. As Miles Davis-later a friend and collaborator of Chaka’s might’ve said, all quality music needs is the best caliber of instrumentalists. Steve Ferrone,Will Lee,Hiram Bullock and especially Robbie Buchanan’s rhythmic synth bass absolutely burn on this song musically. Plus her jumps from melody,harmony to chordal based singing-changing pitch and speed on a whim,make this perhaps Chaka’s most defining solo number.

Another significant musical element to this is how Chaka and the musicians playing with her on this showcase how much the instrumental innovations of be bop carry over into the funk era. It’s a stripped down,synthesizer derived naked funk that provides the main groove of this song that’s present throughout. It protects the beat much as Max Roach might’ve with Charlie Parker. Showcasing the evolution of bop from Bird,Dizzy and Monk on through John Coltrane is accomplished here by Chaka’s lead voice being the horn like voice,and her backups being much like string orchestrations. So also on a purely musical level,this paved the way for a possible whole new level of funk for the early 80’s.

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Filed under 1980's, Arif Mardin, be bop, Chaka Khan, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, drums, electro funk, Fender Rhodes, Hiram Bullock, Jazz, jazz funk, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, percussion, Robbie Buchanan, Saxophone, scat singing, Steve Ferrone, synth bass, Thelonious Monk, Uncategorized, Warner Bros., Will Lee