Hey, Buddy Bolden

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The fourth issue of the Journal of Ethnic American Literature is dedicated to technology and black poetry, guest-edited by SIUE Professor Howard Rambsy. Howard’s excellent book, The Black Arts Enterprise and the Production of African American Poetrycame out in 2011 and was crucial to my dissertation research on Black Arts poetry. His work in digital humanities, visual culture, and black American literature exemplifies an important, evolving conversation in African American literary studies. His blog, Cultural Front, is also a prolific and highly relevant resource on contemporary culture and politics.

DSC03863The back cover of the issue features a photograph, “The Blues Mural, Clarksdale, MS,” depicting a formidable trio: John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, and Bessie Smith.

DSC03852My contribution to the issue is titled “I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say: Recording the Prehistory of Jazz.” The essay examines mythology surrounding Buddy Bolden, the musician who is said to have invented jazz in New Orleans around the turn of the century.

In early jazz criticism, the Bolden myth functions as an allegory for a paradigm shift in modern music. The invention of jazz is harnessed to new technologies that record, duplicate, and replay sound. Yet even as critics lamented the loss of pre-technological authenticity, they claimed recordings as the objective texts of jazz improvisation. Although no recording of Bolden has ever been found—or likely will be—his status as a folk hero is reinforced by each iteration of his story. The legend of Buddy Bolden is retold by musicians as a way to write themselves into the historical record of jazz’s origins. Because Bolden’s sound is not captured by phonographic technology, he becomes a symbol of the oral tradition—one inscribed everywhere in the written history of jazz.

I compiled a playlist for my Jazz Literature course last spring featuring tunes written by and about Buddy Bolden, as well as interviews with musicians who knew him. Jelly Roll Morton gives a colorful, but largely accurate recollection of Bolden’s life and times in his Library of Congress sessions with Alan Lomax. Duke Ellington boasts about King Bolden’s place in the heroic tradition in his spoken-word history of diasporic music, A Drum is A Woman (1956). And, more recently, Wynton Marsalis surveys the myth derived from Bunk Johnson’s letters and interviews with the editors of Jazzmen (1938).

DSC03868In his introduction, Rambsy writes that these wide ranging articles “explore aspects of music history, science fiction, hip hop, Afrofuturism, digital collections, contemporary poetry, and data analysis. The articles affirm the diverse manifestations of scholarly work on black poetry and technoculture.” Without such work, according to Rambsy, “the discourse about one of our most important art forms would lack essential upgrades.”

Jazz Literature–Spring 2014

Jazz Lit Cover

This course examines jazz’s influence on literature during the century since the music began on the streets of New Orleans. Whether you are an aficionado of jazz or unfamiliar with the music, the course will hip you to the history, genres, and culture of jazz through poetry, fiction, drama, film, and recordings.

Jazz Literature traces the reciprocal relationship between improvisational forms of black American music and literary experiments from the Harlem Renaissance to the Black Arts Movement and beyond. Readings focus on major black writers like Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, August Wilson, James Baldwin, and Toni Morrison. Students will also listen to jazz literature. Experimental poets including Amiri Baraka, Sarah Webster Fabio, Jayne Cortez, and Gil Scott-Heron recorded with jazz and R&B accompaniment.

The course begins with variations on jazz’s origin narrative. Historical sources like Jelly Roll Morton’s Library of Congress sessions and concept-albums by Langston Hughes and Duke Ellington reveal what is at stake in retelling the story of jazz. Such narratives affirm and challenge cultural investments in racial and ethnic identities, gender and sexuality, and social class. Jazz is equally a record of regional, national, and international collaborations and collisions.

Buddy Bolden

Students then delve into the decade during which jazz entered the mainstream. The 1920s are often called the “Jazz Age,” and the twin birth of jazz and film during this period highlights the importance of hybrid media. Early jazz films like St. Louis Blues, Black and Tan, and Symphony in Black feature Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday. The Roaring Twenties—Cagney and Bogart’s last film together and a foundational gangster movie—begins in the trenches of the First World War, covers the prohibition era, and ends on Black Tuesday, with the onset of the Great Depression.

The evolution of jazz both reflects and shapes the cultural movements and historical shifts around it. Our course explores how the Second World War impacted jazz; by mid-century, bands got smaller and the music grew more dissonant. The changing forms of jazz—from swing to bebop, and then again from hard bop to fusion and avant-garde jazz—scores the movement from Civil Rights to Black Power.

Billie

Our course concludes by considering the dwindling role of instrumental music in contemporary popular culture and the shift from acoustic to electric instrumentation, suggesting both the possibilities and pitfalls of technology. Hip-hop, for example, is a literary extension of the jazz impulse, but what resemblance does rap bear to jazz poetry? We look at contemporary writers and musicians who illustrate jazz’s evolution through new hybrids of literary and musical form.

And on the final day of class, we got a surprise lesson on how to do the Charleston, courtesy of some very talented dance majors.

Jazz Lit Charleston