Cover Image

Larger ImageView Larger

Race Music

Black Cultures from Bebop to Hip-Hop

Guthrie P. Ramsey Jr. (Author)

Available worldwide
READ AN EXCERPT

Paperback, 293 pages
ISBN: 9780520243330
November 2004
$29.95, £19.95
Other Formats Available:
This powerful book covers the vast and various terrain of African American music, from bebop to hip-hop. Guthrie P. Ramsey, Jr., begins with an absorbing account of his own musical experiences with family and friends on the South Side of Chicago, evoking Sunday-morning worship services, family gatherings with food and dancing, and jam sessions at local nightclubs. This lays the foundation for a brilliant discussion of how musical meaning emerges in the private and communal realms of lived experience and how African American music has shaped and reflected identities in the black community. Deeply informed by Ramsey's experience as an accomplished musician, a sophisticated cultural theorist, and an enthusiast brought up in the community he discusses, Race Music explores the global influence and popularity of African American music, its social relevance, and key questions regarding its interpretation and criticism.

Beginning with jazz, rhythm and blues, and gospel, this book demonstrates that while each genre of music is distinct—possessing its own conventions, performance practices, and formal qualities—each is also grounded in similar techniques and conceptual frameworks identified with African American musical traditions. Ramsey provides vivid glimpses of the careers of Dinah Washington, Louis Jordan, Dizzy Gillespie, Cootie Williams, and Mahalia Jackson, among others, to show how the social changes of the 1940s elicited an Afro-modernism that inspired much of the music and culture that followed.

Race Music illustrates how, by transcending the boundaries between genres, black communities bridged generational divides and passed down knowledge of musical forms and styles. It also considers how the discourse of soul music contributed to the vibrant social climate of the Black Power Era. Multilayered and masterfully written, Race Music provides a dynamic framework for rethinking the many facets of African American music and the ethnocentric energy that infused its creation.
List of Illustrations
Preface

1. Daddy’s Second Line: Toward a Cultural Poetics of Race Music
2. Disciplining Black Music: On History, Memory, and Contemporary Theories
3. "It’s Just the Blues": Race, Entertainment, and the Blues Muse
4. "It Just Stays with Me All of the Time": Collective Memory, Community Theater, and the Ethnographic Truth
5. "We Called Ourselves Modern": Race Music and the Politics and Practice of Afro-Modernism at Midcentury
6. "Goin’ to Chicago": Memories, Histories, and a Little Bit of Soul
7. Scoring a Black Nation: Music, Film, and Identity in the Age of Hip-Hop
8. "Santa Claus Ain’t Got Nothing on This!": Hip-Hop Hybridity and the Black Church Muse

Epilogue: "Do You Want It on Your Black-Eyed Peas?"
Notes
Selected Bibliography
Acknowledgments
Index
Guthrie P. Ramsey, Jr., is Assistant Professor of Music at the University of Pennsylvania.
“To an outsider it is an eye opener to read just how varied the musical scene was in the 1960s in the black experience, just in religious context alone . . . . The idea that it all stems from the blues from the southern states and that the newly migrated black population in places like Chicago simply carried on that tradition - could it be that Afro American music is just a hybrid of all it encounters? These issues and many others are debated in this serious, informative yet very readable volume.”—Brian Dalton Beat Scene Magazine
"[Guthrie’s] sophisticated understanding of current ethnological, musicological, literary and historical theories—as well as a clear and engaging writing style remarkably free of theoretical jargon—explores a central theme: the ‘subjective understanding of black music as shaped continually by community sensibilities.’"—Publishers Weekly
“A very interesting treatment of African-American music of the last half of the 20th century.”—Jack McCray Charleston Post & Courier
"Race Music is a powerful study -- sweeping and yet scrupulous -- of how black communities have transcended time, change, and genre by passing down musical knowledge and tradition between generations that have created a succession of globally influential musics. Equally appropriate for both music and cultural studies collections, this masterwork belongs on the shelves of every academic library."—Library Journal
“Ramsey clearly writes from a deep understanding of the roots of this music; it is comforting to read a critic who isn’t afraid to live the subject he breaks down. . . for an understanding of race music and the science of its creation, this book could not come with higher marks.”—Rain Taxi Review Of Books
“Prodigious in range and detail.”—Jazz Journal International
“Race Music . . . provides a framework for rethinking the facets of African-American music and the ethnocentric energy that birthed it.”—Black Beat
"This work easily makes Guthrie one of the top musicologists of his generation who writes on black music. The scope, depth, and breadth are highly impressive. His criticisms of other scholars are fair. And his treatments of black musical artists in time, in space, and in place are quite illuminating. I know no one else who has his mastery of knowledge over such a broad range of black musical works of different genres and periods."—Cornel West, Princeton University

"Witty, powerful, smart, opinionated, beautifully written, groundbreaking, and bold. Scholars will read Race Music and debate it for years to come."—Robin D. G. Kelley, author of Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination

"Race Music is slammin'! Ramsey brilliantly interweaves oral history with his own scholarly readings of jazz, gospel, popular music, and film soundtracks with pathbreaking results. Race Music revolutionizes the way we receive and critique African American popular culture and provides a new context for our understanding of black music and cultural memory. A must read---intelligent, engaging and powerful."—Rae Linda Brown, author of The Heart of a Woman: The Life and Music of Florence B. Price, 1887-1953

"One of the most engaging, thought provoking and original treatments of black music that I have read. Ramsey seamlessly combines ethnographic research, musicological theory, historical investigation, and personal narrative in a work that is at once rigorous and poetic. Spanning blues, gospel, jazz, rhythm and blues, soul and hip-hop, Race Music offers us the scholarly monograph as jam session-a first-rate intellectual essay whose rhythms, tones, and melodious voice are as captivating as the music Ramsey brilliantly explains and masterfully performs."—Michael Eric Dyson, author of Open Mike and Holler If You Hear Me

IASPM - US Book Award, International Association for the Study of Popular Music - US Branch

1    Daddy's Second Line

       Toward a Cultural Poetics of Race Music

 

History, because it is an intellectual and secular production, calls for analysis and criticism. Memory installs remembrance within the sacred; history, always prosaic, releases it again. Memory is blind to all but the group it binds. . . . There are as many memories as there are groups. . . . Memory is by nature multiple and yet specific; collective, plural, and yet individual. History, on the other hand, belongs to everyone and to no one, whence its claim to universal authority.

Pierre Nora, "Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire"

Cultural memory, obviously a subjective concept, seems to be connected with cultural forms—in the present case, music, where the "memory" drives the music and the music drives memory.

Samuel A. Floyd, Jr., The Power of Black Music

 

In the summer of 1999, Stevie Wonder's hit recording "I Wish" from two decades earlier provided the rhythm track to a rap recording by the ubiquitous entertainer Will "the Fresh Prince" Smith. The recording, a single from the soundtrack of the film Wild, Wild West (based on a 1960s television show), features Smith rapping and the soulful vocals of Sisqo, formerly the lead singer of the hip-hop/R&B group Drew Hill. While the film Wild, Wild West drew mixed reviews and proved only moderately successful, the single itself was a smash hit, without doubt bolstering interest in the movie. Smith's gesture to revive "I Wish" in this setting speaks to more than the tune's enduring appeal. History and memory are embedded in the original song—in both its musical and its lyrical qualities and in its connection to a film about a television show from the past, which was, in turn, about a key moment in America's past.

Wonder's "I Wish" first appeared in a special double-album project titled Songs in the Key of Life (1976). Contemporaneous audiences, historians, and critics have viewed Songs in the Key of Life as groundbreaking on a number of levels. Recorded on the conservative and historically important Motown label, Wonder's project (and his other early- to mid-1970s work) has been heralded for helping to expand the company's formal and formulaic approach to hit making. Moreover, Wonder's explicitly expressed cultural nationalism represented a thematic departure from his earlier body of love songs. Along with Donny Hathaway, Gil Scott Heron, and Marvin Gaye, among others, Wonder has been credited with introducing a political element into 1970s black popular music that had not been seen before. What is more, Wonder's music "crossed over" into the pop market, won critical acclaim and numerous Grammys during this period, and at the same time earned him a "progressive" artistic reputation.

For all of the reputed progressive orientation of Songs in the Key of Life, it produced hit singles, among them "I Wish." Wonder cast the musical language of "I Wish" in a remarkably "nonprogressive" mold. Most of the recording features a heavy funk backbeat under a nonlinear chord progression (E-flat minor to A-flat 7). Despite the repetitious quality of this harmonic setup, "I Wish" propels itself forward on the foundation of a symmetrical, "straight eighths" walking bass pattern. The chords and bass movement "take it back home," sounding very much as though they were straight out of a black Sanctified Church shout—the time in the worship service reserved for ecstatic religious dancing and the visitation of the Holy Ghost. Wonder's ever-towering tenor vocals add another layer of gospel-infused excitement to the performance. The theme of the song does not convey political sentiments in the traditional sense. It expresses, rather, a nostalgic (though not saccharine) reflection on a poor and presumably black childhood: the "joy" of unanswered Christmas wish lists, boyhood pranks, spending Sunday school money on candy, playing "doctor with that girl," and schooldays discipline.

Wonder's new "political" profile, as evidenced by Songs in the Key of Life (and his other projects from this period), was clearly of its historical moment. He wanted his work to be relevant to his Black Power movement era audience, stating as early as 1973 that "we as a people are not interested in 'baby, baby' songs any more." Wonder wrote from his vantage point as an adult composer, choosing the modes of history, memory, and his meditations on the contemporary moment to make profound musical statements that, despite their specificity, spoke to the hearts and musical sensibilities of a very diverse audience base.

My brief discussion of this piece shows how it participated within a historically specific, socially grounded dialogue between a film and a recording, an artist and his audience, three decades, several musical genres, commercial and political interests, "folk," mass, and art discourses, sacred and secular sensibilities, and history and memory. All of these dialogues (and undoubtedly others that I have not mentioned) help audiences to generate and perceive meaning in this music. This book is my attempt to identify and explore some of the ways in which meaning is achieved in various styles of African American music.

Boiled down to its essence, the central question addressed here is, How does the music under consideration work as discourses and signifying practices at specific historical moments? I discuss several post-World War II musical genres, including jazz, gospel, rhythm and blues, and their stylistic progeny. As my title suggests, I call these musical styles race music. I have grouped these various styles under this rubric because, while each is certainly distinct, possessing its own conventions, performance practices, and formal qualities, they are yet grounded in similar techniques and conceptual frameworks identified with African American musical traditions. Most of the genres were historically marketed and mass mediated in the culture industry as "race records."

My use of the term race music intentionally seeks to recapture some of the historical ethnocentric energy that circulated in these styles, even as they appealed to many listeners throughout America and abroad. The concept "race" is recognized in most academic circles as a "fiction" and social construction and has become almost reviled in today's cultural criticism. But the word at one time represented a kind of positive self-identification among African Americans. The black press routinely used "the Race," for example, as a generic term for African Americans during the first half of the twentieth century. Furthermore, calling oneself or being referred to as a race man or race woman became a way to display pride in being an African American and in having efficacy in the affairs of one's immediate community. I use the word race in these senses, not to embrace a naive position of racial essentialism, but as an attempt to convey the worldviews of cultural actors from a specific historical moment.

I weave through a number of theoretical, methodological, and intellectual concerns in this study: ethnographic perspectives, historicism, cultural memory, practice theory, and self-reflexivity, among other tools that I use to engage musical analysis, interpretation, and criticism. Taken together, they cluster into three broad modes of investigation: history, memory, and theory. Before elaborating on these various investigative modes, I want to proceed by recounting some of my own experiences with black music.

I have several reasons for including the following information in this context. The musical autobiography sketched below brings into high relief some of the theoretical and intellectual points that I will explore throughout the book. As an African American scholar and musician, I believe there is value in exploring the historical grounding of my own musical profile and revealing this to readers. The family narrative and the other cultural spaces that I discuss highlight a cultural sensibility that has undoubtedly shaped my critical approach as much as, if not more than, any academic theory has. Moreover, they provide a window of interpretation that allows me to enter into some important ideas about the cultural work performed by music in the processes of African American identity making.

I call these kinds of spaces community theaters. These community theaters or, perhaps better, sites of cultural memory include but are not limited to cinema, family narratives and histories, the church, the social dance, the nightclub, the skating rink, and even literature, or the "theater of the literary." The communal rituals in the church and the underdocumented house party culture, the intergenerational exchange of musical habits and appreciation, the importance of dance and the centrality of the celebratory black body, the always-already oral declamation in each tableau, the irreverent attitude toward the boundaries set by musical marketing categories, the same intensive, inventive, and joyful engagement with both mass-mediated texts and live music making, the private performances of class-status and gender, the fusion of northern and southern performance codes, the memories of food, sights, smells, and the ritualized spaces of what the old folks called drylongso, or everyday blackness. All these combine to form living photographs, rich pools of experiences, and a cultural poetics upon which theoretical and analytical principles can be based. By recounting these experiences in detail, I hope to give some idea about how I learned that music possesses a power, in particular, the power to mean something important about the world around me.

My earliest recollections of African American music stem from childhood. My father's immediate family was raised during the 1920s and 1930s in the "black belt" of Chicago's South Side. The neighborhood was home to many important cultural institutions such as the Regal Theater and Chicago's Savoy Ballroom. My relatives were music lovers, and jazz held an important place in their collective musical tastes. As I recall, a variety of music—jump blues, rhythm and blues, soul, and jazz—accompanied virtually every family gathering. Soul food and, most important, dance were central to these events and charged each with an air of communal celebration in which everyone—the young and the not-so-young—eagerly participated. The musical foreground of these celebrations (and of our everyday lives) comprised a broad selection of black vernacular music. We paid equal attention to contemporary and "dusty" artists: Louis Jordan, Sarah Vaughan, Cannonball Adderley, Count Basie, the Supremes, Charlie Parker, Aretha Franklin, Dizzy Gillespie, Otis Redding, Duke Ellington, Dinah Washington, James Brown, Oscar Peterson, the Four Tops, Dakota Staton, Dexter Gordon, Archie Bell and the Drells, and Joe Williams, among many others. Suave jazz aficionados, Motown-minded teenagers, blues stompers, and weekend gospel rockers partied cheek to jowl to these various styles.

And we did party. I've used this word as a verb twice, and it deserves some explanation. Everyone understands what a party is, but "to party" in this particular context means something quite specific. On a designated weekend, my father's brothers and sisters, together with their numerous offspring, would crowd into our house. His sisters, Ethel, Doris, and Inez, all small women under five feet tall, commanded the most attention. The word jazzy comes to mind when describing them: strong, shapely women, each adorned with hair colored somewhere from reddish-brown to downright what-you-looking-at red. "Hey, ba-a-a-a-a-by," they'd croon in that informal but hip Chi-town drawl, planting polite kisses on every familiar mouth present. The brothers, Earl, W.J., and Russell, and their families completed the picture. These men were not as demonstrative as the women, at least not until the drinking and the music stepped up a notch or two. The Ramsey brothers played the spoons, and they played them better when the party had hit its stride. Spooning consisted of holding two spoons on either side of the index finger of both hands so that the bowls could click together, back-to-back, in a polyrhythmic flurry. Flexibility, timing, and stylized facial contortions separated "wannabes" from the real article. My father, Guthrie Sr., was the resident spoon virtuoso. Once the flow of recorded music had hit a sufficiently upbeat groove, somebody would rush from the kitchen with the necessary supplies. And then the show would begin. He-e-e-e-e-y now! Hand clapping, foot patting, finger snapping, neck popping, shoulder shrugging, hip-rolling, pah-tee-in'!

Not that the Ramseys necessarily needed anybody else's help in the entertainment department, but on occasion, we would pay our neighbor, little Vernon Glenn, to come "do the James Brown" for the guests. Coffee tables and throw rugs were tossed aside, and "Stinky," as we called him, would go to work. Slipping and sliding across the floor on both feet, lifting one foot up and having the other dash energetically from side to side like a washing machine agitator, and then putting an exclamation point on his routine with a fake split on the downbeat. A kitchen full of food and drink, rise-n-fly bid whist, poker, loud music, jivin' and signifyin', laughing, and dancing completed the agenda. Whenever this scene and its beloved cast of familiar characters shuttled through our front door, my chest would fill with a breath-gripping anticipation. We knew we were going to have a ball.

Some of my earliest musical memories also include those from the Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church, which my immediate family attended in the mid-1960s. No matter what the temperature happened to be outside, it was always hotter within the confines of its tiny, shoebox-shaped sanctuary. The volcanic baritone voice and percussive piano accompaniments of Arbry, the church's musician, were the conduits for the spark of Holy Ghost fire each week. His gale-force rendition of the hymn "We've Come This Far by Faith" would electrify our swaying congregation, whose hand clapping, foot stomping, and other kinetic stirrings offered sacrifices of praise to God, efficiently burning the fuel of the Sunday morning breakfast of grits, gravy, spicy Mississippi sausage, bright yellow scrambled eggs, and biscuits soaked with butter and thick Alaga syrup. Mount Moriah's musical experience took us to the mountaintop indeed, but it was only one aspect of the entire Sunday-morning ritual sights, smells, sounds, and textures: the weight of the hearty meal in your belly, the sizzle and crackle of a hot comb frying my sister Cynthia's long, billowy kinks, which was followed by the unmistakable scent of smoke and Royal Crown Hair Dressing, the firm press of my mother's perfumed hand working a smear of Vaseline into every pore of my face, and the televised images of The Lone Ranger, The Cisco Kid, and the locally produced Jubilee Showcase. And we weren't heathens either; there was no secular music before church. After church, however, was another story. The sounds of soul, jazz, and blues filtered from the most stylish piece of furniture we owned, our hi-fi. The music came courtesy of Daddy-O-Daylie's Sunday afternoon jazz party or any one of the other local media personalities who played "the jams" right up to the early evening ham, collard greens, corn bread, and macaroni and cheese supper.

When we switched congregations to the more structured liturgy of the Colored Methodist Episcopal tradition, I experienced the black storefront. A potbellied stove heated the tiny rented space. It was cramped; all roads led to "the building fund." We needed our own church. The musical tradition differed somewhat from that of Mount Moriah's. Hymns were sung more or less as written, but the gentle swing of Mrs. Dicey Perkins's gospel piano put a dash of "jive" in them, as my grandmother used to say. Many of the church's cultural activities surrounded the raising of money. Culture and capital were synonymous. Rain, shine, winter, or summer, Saturdays comprised a few of us more dedicated kids selling barbecue or barbecue chicken dinners door to door, barbershop to beauty shop, car wash to service station, until the food ran out. Sides of slaw, white Wonder Bread, and spaghetti rounded out each meal. Chitlins, when they were available, cost more. We were only eight or nine years old, but we prided ourselves on delivering hot. The Sunday Afternoon Program, always held at 3:30, though, seemed to be the veritable cash cow. Tom Thumb Weddings, Baby Contests, Oral Recitations, and Musicals were events that rallied the church community, drawing attendance from spouses, brothers, aunts, and former members whom one rarely saw at the regular worship services.

In the preadolescent days, our choir was known as the Tiny Tots. We would later insist—with more than a hint of exasperation—that our new name was the Sunbeams, apparently with no clue whatsoever that this new rubric did not increase our "hip quotient." We sang standard hymns in unison and in tune. I think. When we became preteens and teens, we formed the Youth Choir. Our repertoire, thanks to the music minister's youngest daughter, a prodigy at singing and piano, was updated with only the latest gospel hits, including the Hawkins Family's "Oh Happy Day." As the choir director, I got my first experience in arranging music in the moment and flowing with the spirit. There were many decisions to make, and I relished the role. When should we start rockin'? How many times should we repeat the chorus? Should the soloist sing the verse again? My sense of accomplishment grew with each performance. We rested assured that our performances on second Sundays constituted the centerpiece of the church's musical output, perhaps even of the entire greater South Side of Chicago! That's how the congregation made us feel, anyway. Thunderous applause and enthusiastic "Amens!" greeted our every utterance. Occasionally, somebody would even "get happy," overcome and wringing with emotion until the fan of an alert usher calmed him or her down.

This Sunday-morning community theater shifted to another cultural space at 1:00 p.m. Art's Roller Rink, a white-owned and -operated cavern was our teenage hangout. And theater it was. Art's featured a short, white organist who played funky blues patterns until 5:00 in the afternoon. All Skate. Backward Skate. Ladies Only. Men Only. Couples Only. Trio. Fox Trot. Collegiate. He had a set tune for each dance, propelling us to daring feats of speed and style. Virtuosity was cherished and pecking orders were established week after week. I dreamed of the day when the most popular female skaters whom I had spied during Ladies Only would agree to couple skate with me, or at least for the day when my heart would stay out of my throat when I asked. Or for the day when I could casually join in with the spontaneous slightly older group of skaters who moved in a unified, synchronized line around the rink. Their moves were in sync and complex. I could even copy the smug look they wore on their faces—they knew they were jamming. But the risk was too high. If you couldn't fall into step or, God forbid, by accident you made one of them fall or even stumble, you may as well pack up the skates for good that afternoon. Your reputation would be beyond repair. After all, when this group passed by, the other skaters parted like the Red Sea, yielding the right of way to the skilled and "the cool." At the other black-owned skating rink nearby, the operators played not organ music but James Brown records, seemingly all day long. Nobody minded, because this theater was really about the ritual, the style, and the high sense of drama and athletic skill every week.

"Sit down and shut up," my high school music teacher whispered emphatically, "I've gotten your name put on a very important list." Life-changing words. I had been asked to audition for the Madrigal singers, a select ensemble that performed madrigals, whatever those were. After being asked to join, I learned to perform this repertory along with the other standard fare that music educators believed would make us better citizens: Mozart's choral music, themes from movies such as The Way We Were, Handel's Messiah, arranged Negro spirituals, pop tunes such as "Home for the Holidays," and the showstopper "Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B," which I accompanied on piano. Two of the first madrigals I learned were "Fire, Fire My Heart" and "April Is in My Mistress's Face." I loved the polyphony, the layering, the routine of practice, and especially the sense of accomplishment after a performance. Participation in this music literally opened up another world for me: the white one. At home, the strong ostinato pattern of songs such as the Ohio Players' "Fire" and Count Basie's version of "April in Paris" hung heavy in the air. In one space, P.D.Q. Bach. In the other, "Jungle Boogie." Each of these was, of course, a parody of larger musical traditions but ones that were viewed as mutually exclusive.

As the pianist in the jazz ensemble, I found some kind of middle ground but no respite from trying to negotiate the boundaries of race as I had experienced them as an adolescent musician. Primarily white kids were asked to be in the band, because they were "better prepared." In other words, the band program in the segregated black elementary schools that we had attended had been the first to have their budgets cut, and music programs were the first to go. Boundaries, as they played themselves out in my young musical world, became more and more apparent. I chose my route, and this period is known in my family as my "white years." All-State Choir, summer instrumental and chorale camps, state contests, constant rehearsals, South Pacific, How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying, You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, Pajama Game, Neil Hefti big band arrangements, piano lessons, music theory classes, faded jeans, earth shoes, flannel shirts, and, of course, the cut classes and mediocre grades that usually accompany such obsessions. Life was a never-ending rehearsal. My sister swore in exasperation that if she heard me pound out the chords of Carole King's "I Feel the Earth Move under My Feet" one more time, the earth would move, all right, when I was clocked at the piano. She couldn't appreciate that I was perfecting my C minor to F7 chord succession.

My very specific interest in modern jazz began in the late 1970s, when I kept fast company with a group of musicians who were either recent graduates or in the process of completing high school. Two prodigious brothers, Wynton and Branford Marsalis, had launched highly visible careers and seemed to be creating a renewed musical and marketing interest in jazz. Soon, my friends and I found ourselves counted among a growing number of young, African American musicians seriously studying mainstream jazz, although many of us had deep roots in 1970s gospel, soul, funk, and jazz-fusion, as the Marsalis brothers did. In this atmosphere, however, one wore absolute devotion to mainstream jazz like a badge of noble martyrdom: no "mindless" pop music shall enter these ears, thank you very much. Relentless and self-imposed routines filled the days and nights: aggressive collecting and learning of jazz standards; "discovering" and tracing the influences of important jazz artists; playing as many gigs on the chitterlin' circuit as possible; and "sitting in" on Monday nights at the El Matador Lounge and on Tuesdays at the Club Enterprise, two long-running jazz "sets" on Chicago's black South Side. The upscale North Side of Chicago also boasted several regular jam sessions with good musicians who played a lot of the same repertory; however, we were drawn to the South Side sessions, because its specific ethos seemed geared toward and welcoming to African American musicians and audiences. These weekly episodes lasted well into the wee hours of the morning, and their consistent structure, organization, and flow took on ritualistic dimensions. One of these involved the sessions' floating waitress, China Doll, an endearing term that referred to her obvious biracial (probably Asian and black) background. Without fail, she asked each week what we were drinking that night. Since none of us was old enough to be there legally in the first place, our answers never varied: orange juice and ginger ale.

We had come for the music, anyhow. Veteran tenor saxophonist Von Freeman, then a fifty-ish, salt-and-pepper-haired Gene Ammons protégé, whose breathtaking virtuosity and mix of urbane yet southern-fried patter stole any show, began each evening playing standards with his house band. Freeman's masterful musicianship—incredibly fast bebop runs, timing that pushed ahead of the beat, soulful tone, and original melodic approach—was in itself mind-boggling and inspirational. Yet despite his consistent ability to leave everybody in the house awestruck at his prowess, distractions were also part of the scene. As patrons entered the dimly lit club, those already seated would survey newcomers with more than passing interest. Of course, one could not easily ignore them, since the door was situated—in typical hole-in-the-wall fashion—directly adjacent to the bandstand. Each new arrival could bring a known musical rival, new competition, or perhaps visiting musicians that had "graduated" from their apprenticeships on our local scene and moved to New York City to really test their mettle. These musicians usually returned full of stories of how many dues they were paying. As young players we were, of course, very impressed. Not that one had to leave Chicago to pay dues, though. On the occasion of my first jazz gig and that of my steady bassist Lonnie Plaxico, I showed up equipped with a Fender Rhodes electric piano and fake book only to learn that our drummer—an older gentleman who played with a disarming Cheshire cat grin—had fallen out with his girlfriend and that she had disappeared in a huff with her car. His drums were still in the backseat. Welcome to the "jazz life."

Along with Von Freeman's performance, an important feature of these jazz nights at the clubs was the jam session proper. We all knew its starting signal: Freeman counting off a moderately fast twelve-bar blues, invariably in the key of F. "It's time to hear from my horses," he'd state coyly, "they've been chomping at the bit all night." With those words still hanging in the air, a palpable excitement would stir through the nightclub as a chorus of unzipping, unbuckling, and unsnapping instrument cases sounded from all corners. Although the skill level among the collective "horses" was noticeably uneven on any given night, all seemed to play their hearts out. Some were there for the practice; and still others came looking for the recognition that could—and, for many, did—lead to local and national professional opportunities. Advice flowed like water at these sessions. As a young pianist, I was often pulled aside and advised on many issues ranging from the necessity of my being able to transpose on the spot for singers, to the virtues of listening to the giants of jazz piano. All of us thrived in this after-hours cultural space, and virtually all of my associates from those years are now professional musicians.

 

Then I got saved. So broke that I couldn't pay attention and funding my own college education, I began playing at a small Baptist church for something close to thirty-five dollars a Sunday, plus rehearsal. I rode public transportation to church, which took an hour and a half each way. I learned to play many of the standard hymns that I had heard as a youth but with the Baptist kick. During the annual revival one summer, a sermon from a young, Pentecostal minister who happened also to be in college, convinced me that in order to avoid hell I would have to be saved and baptized with the Holy Ghost and with fire. Salvation came with impressive fringe benefits. I could also improve my financial status, provided that I develop enough faith. This was the updated, early 1980s, belt-tightening, "Reaganomics era" gospel message. God wanted me prosperous. The excitement generated by the charismatic presence of this sanctified Holiness preacher was awe-inspiring. My mainline denominational background did not prepare me for the waves of emotion fanned by the delivery and impact of the message. When I was growing up, we whispered, "she's sanctified" behind someone's back with disinterested pity. It was a suitable explanation for why someone who came from a religious family would dress out of date, or otherwise seem a little out of sync with the times. But this prosperous sanctification had enormous appeal to me as a young adult. Not only could I save my soul, but I could get the house, car, and wife I wanted as well. I soon left that church position in search of greener, "more sanctified" pastures and, of course, higher-paying gigs.

Again, musical style marked important boundaries. Music in the Holiness churches was decidedly more spirited than I had ever experienced. It possessed a mysterious power. Despite my new outlook and discernment, however, I still had designs on a career as a professional jazz musician, so I continued to frequent the nightclubs where this music was being played, and I enjoyed it. Weeknights in the nightclubs, Sundays in the church, usually behind a piano or Hammond B-3 organ. My jazz ensemble in college was sounding better. The choir I directed at Second Baptist was starting to "smoke," and life was pretty uncomplicated until my musician friend and pianist Kenny Campbell asked me when I was going to give up the night life and play for God only. I wish he hadn't said that. After debating this issue ad nauseam for a while on the street, we must have decided that I did not fashion a satisfactory response to this curious question. Shortly thereafter, I found myself visiting his family's church, the St. James Church of God in Christ.

I had never heard such a choir. The musicians formed a tight unit of piano, Hammond B-3, and drums. Sixty or so teenagers and young adults sang down the glory of God each week. Sometimes robed, sometimes dressed in standard black and white, the choir rocked, stomped, riffed, and brayed with a brassy verve unmatched on Chicago's West Side. The West Side of Chicago had always earned a reputation unto itself within black Chicago's larger history. It was rougher, tougher, and very territorial. St. James sat in the middle of "K-Town," a section of the West Side in which all of the cross streets started with the letter K. Kenny Campbell's older brother, Elder Willie James Campbell, pastored St. James; he had inherited this responsibility following the untimely death of their father, who had founded the church decades earlier. Elder Campbell's nephew manned the B-3; another brother played piano; his wife sang beautifully; one of his sons directed the choir, another played drums and later developed into a nationally known gospel tenor. The Campbell's were one of Chicago's premier "church dynasty families": immensely talented preachers, teachers, singers, and instrumentalists in the black Holiness tradition. People were attracted like magnets to them and to the youthful energy of this church. I was no exception.

The collective created the social energy of this space, but Elder Campbell was the central persona dramatis. A gifted preacher and singer, he single-handedly taught the choir their three-part harmonies by rote and administrated the church's vision and finances. His reputation grew throughout the country as one of the up and rising, a man to watch. The church's musical repertory comprised a combustible mixture of congregational Pentecostal "church songs," sung prayers, impromptu ditties, compositions for gospel choir in contemporary and traditional styles (original and covers), and, of course, Elder Campbell's virtuoso preaching style, which always featured the speech-song "tuning-up" as the climax of the worship service. A-flat was his tuning-up key signature. This was the preacher's primordial "call." The Spirit entered the congregation, and the saints responded in kind by concluding each worship service with the shout—a stylized, energetic dance unto the Lord that would have made King David himself green with envy. New saints were reassured that God will "give you your shout," which consisted of an individualized dance, but one that nevertheless was defined by established parameters of kinetic and vocal expression. The musically mediated pacing of the entire service led to such dancing, in fact; it distinguished this type of worship from others. I cannot stress enough the depth of musical talent within cultural spaces such as these. Moreover, the musical styles combined with "the teaching" and other modes of socialization to create community primarily because of the strong sense of tradition and the higher purpose of evangelizing the world. Although our congregation constituted the lower socioeconomic levels, I gained numerous musical and life skills, and even a life partner, in this situation. I married one of Elder Campbell's altos.

But there existed greener, more sanctified pastures to explore. By the time my young family and I discovered the "Full Gospel" ministries of Liberty Temple Full Gospel Church, we were up to our hip boots in the boundary skirmishes and the territorial battles of doctrinocentric contemporary Christendom. Intense and black Chicago-style. Liberty stressed "teaching" and not the powerful preaching styles of the Church of God in Christ denomination. This church, only three years old when we joined, sought to be different from the surrounding "competition," and that difference was articulated in the realm of black expressive culture.

Musical practice constituted a most notable arena of contrast. Citing instances of "church mess" in choirs, the pastor insisted that there would be no such groups at Liberty. The main musical unit was provided by the Sanctified Band, a variable five- or six-piece rhythm section (plus lead singers and backup vocals) that prided itself on professionalism, slickness, and most important, being "in the pocket." Funky was the watchword here. God liked funky. Funky ministered to "the people." The Sanctified Band's contemporary gospel approach is best described by way of comparison: it sounded something like the 1970s funk group Rufus with Chaka Khan or perhaps the Gap Band. The fervor of the Holiness church was streamlined and repackaged for the youthful congregation, who were weary of "tradition" and "religion." We wrote our own compositions and recorded them in semiprofessional studios. We were broadcast on local religious radio and television stations. Our reputation among Chicago churches grew by leaps and bounds, and I believe the phenomenal growth of the membership rolls had to do with the music ministry's singularity.

Another feature of musical life at Liberty sought to distance itself from the competition of the surrounding dynamism of gospel music in black Chicago. Liberty featured "Praise and Worship Music," which can be described in terms of both style and repertory. The style was modeled after that of other white Full Gospel churches: some of it had what is known as a messianic-Jewish beat, an even boom-chuck, boom-chuck, boom-chuck rhythmic feel. Some of it sounded like placid soft rock. It could not have been more different from what one would typically hear in a black church on Sunday morning. The repertory itself also came from the white Full Gospel-type churches and was circulated and promoted via videos, cassettes, and CDs through an increasingly sophisticated distribution system patterned on that of secular music. The funky-messianic combination set this ministry apart from many others on Chicago's South Side, and it probably helped to demarcate the boundaries set by its rather cultish insularity. However, as this congregation grew into the thousands, I noticed a shift in our musical habits. Slowly but surely, the sounds of the traditional black church crept into the congregation. Although the messianic strain of music remained part of the overall repertory, we began to look and sound more like the Afro-Gentiles we really were. Notwithstanding the distinctive rhetoric of black "musical preaching," it became hard to distinguish us from any other black Holiness church.

 

"That's not God." I was stunned but not really surprised when these words fell out of the preacher's mouth onto his gigantic desk and rattled inside my head. My grand announcement that I was planning to begin graduate study in musicology had gone over like a lead balloon heading straight to hell but with a five-year layover in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Another boundary to cross.

When I began my study of black music as an academic pursuit in graduate school, I learned that jazz was privileged as a carefully selected part of the musical styles that played such an important role in my youth. One might apply the label "jazz-centrism" to this ideal. The "bebop only" attitude that underscored my years as a jazz crusader was in many ways shared by and reflected in the academy's approach. Boundaries were clearly marked along cultural hierarchies. Jazz, for example, had become "art": music for listening and not dancing, for the concert hall and not the family gathering; it had become music for the textbook and the lecture hall. Many jazz writers and jazz musicians have generally supported this cultural shift, downplaying or even ignoring important aspects of jazz's social history. As for the other styles of black music, they seemed to cluster around other hierarchical labels such as "folk" and "popular." My personal experiences bore witness, however, that boundaries, territories, and categories tell only part of the story of meaning.

The specific circumstances of my Chicago-based, working-class, African American background mediated my engagement with "the literature" and provided a healthy dose of skepticism to my studies. Much of my initial work involved an effort to formulate a "theoretical" position based on my empirical experience. But that task proved to be difficult. In doing research for my dissertation on bebop and pianist Bud Powell, I lacked models for the issues I wished to explore. I could not satisfy my desire to develop fully a framework that would sufficiently address all my concerns. How could I represent the vital influence of World War II on the postwar venues, discourses, institutions, and life experiences of the many writers who had already contributed to the literature of jazz and that of the other styles of African American music?

A key family event would reinforce my imperative to keep working toward that end. Just prior to finishing the dissertation in northern New England, still questioning the validity and importance of the questions I have raised here, an urgent phone call from my brother announced that my father had passed suddenly. Within a few days I found myself back in the family circle and cultural setting that had first nurtured my love for the musical styles treated in this book. After completing all the necessary affairs, our family elected not to meet in someone's house, as had always been our custom at these times, but in a restaurant. Initially, it seemed like a sound decision: the food was passable; everyone was together reminiscing and lifting each other's spirits. But something was still missing; the circle of culture was incomplete, and I think we all sensed it. And I could not board a plane and leave Chicago without it.

A couple of days later we decided to gather in a more appropriate "home-cooked" cultural space where we could really get down to the business of "gettin' up," to begin healing ourselves through celebration. Once again we convened for some blues in the basement, albeit a stylishly appointed and finished one. The food and drink were good and plentiful; and the music was just right—a little jazz, a little rhythm and blues, a little funk, a little soul—played at a volume that caused you to raise your voice above conversational tone in order to be heard above its infectious strains. And then something happened. When the DJ, my cousin-in-law "Bobby-Love," cued up the Gap Band's "Yearning for Your Love," a familiar dusty from the early 1980s, a cultural necessity emerged among us—something larger than the event itself.

Innocently, the introduction of "Yearning for Your Love" permeated the airwaves of our cozy room without a view. The piece opens with eight bars of a Fender Rhodes, a drummer accenting two and four, a catchy asymmetrical electric guitar pattern that would unify the entire piece, and a distorted lead guitar lick—à la Jimi Hendrix. We were being set up. After a glissando on the Rhodes, the piece settles into eight more bars of the song's main medium-slow, bass-heavy groove that comprises all of the elements of the opening gesture but with some added meat on the suggestive skeletal frame of the first measures. The musicians mix in some bottom, middle, and top: a strong, ostinato bass pattern and synthesized strings. Charlie Wilson's baritone vocals, a stellar example of gospel-influenced soul singing, introduce the final ingredient in the funk recipe. When Wilson sings the first lyrics in a heavily syncopated phrase, "The time has come for us to stop messing around," no truer words could have been spoken for this moment. Although the song is from the torch tradition (a singer telling the object of his unrequited affection, "Let's do something about it")—the words also resonate with other cultural work. Some serious business needed attention, and it was time to stop messing around. My cousins Ernest and Sina started things off. As they glided gracefully into some "steppin'," an intergenerational couples social dance that has many geographical varieties but is unique to Chicago's black community, others chose partners until the makeshift dance floor filled to capacity. This activity could easily be considered our version of the "second line," a term that refers to the New Orleans jazz funerals in which mourners play solemn hymns in the beginning of the ritual but gradually celebrate in a more spirited manner as it progresses. The second line impulse not only honors the dead but also serves to "cleanse and renew the spirit of the community."

So as the evening progressed, the young and not-so-young, aunts with nephews, brothers with sisters, cousins with cousins—"steppers from the new school and the old school," as one of my cousins put it—danced, played cards, "stomped the blues," and stomped our grief away with the blues. Auntie Ethel would refer to such events as "good times like the Ramseys do like," even if the reasons for the gathering were not always happy ones. And although the spoons my father would have played lay still on the table, we finished the job and partied for him. This was also jazz's "home": among the blues people, whose social, emotional, and cultural well-being depended on its power.

The cultural power and significance of my father's "second line" were not lost on me when I returned to rural New England. Musical practice had sparked a flood of memories, and I felt compelled to understand the social, cultural, historical, and material grounding of that experience. I began to think about the powerful ways in which music had informed my own personal history, how it has always signified community or some other kind of identity—be it ethnic, generational, gender, geographic, religious, professional, educational, or scholarly. My mind flooded with questions. Why was our funeral "stomp" so cathartic? Could the impact of the moment be explained through an examination of larger cultural and historical factors? What was the relationship of my lived experience to the topics I have chosen to deal with in my scholarly work? How could I use these experiences to establish a critical, interpretive voice in scholarship? And what could all of this have to do with musical meaning?

Save 20%

Add source code 14W0162 to get your discount at checkout.
Cannot be combined with any other offers.

Join UC Press


Members receive 20-40% discounts on book purchases. Find out more