Pieces of a Man

Eugene Coles Winter in America

During the final week of classes this past spring, I hosted my first guest-DJ on Instrumental Voices Radio at WKNH (91.3 FM in Keene). The illustrious, inimitable Dr. Don Geesling earned his PhD from the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where his dissertation project, and now book manuscript focuses on the poet, novelist, singer, song-writer, teacher, activist, and master-griot Gil Scott-Heron.

Tony Bolden’s essential article, “Blue/Funk as Political Philosophy: The Poetry of Gil Scott-Heron,” notwithstanding, there has been shockingly little attention paid to Scott-Heron’s work in the fields of literary criticism and cultural studies. Marcus Baram’s Pieces of Man (St. Martin’s, 2014) is a worthy contribution, though not without it’s issues. Which is to say that Dr. Don’s book will be a welcome, urgently needed scholarly treatment of the life and art of Gil Scott-Heron in the context of the Black Arts Movement and beyond.

What’s more, Dr. Don leads the New Africa House Ensemble, the house band for the Department of Afro-American Studies. I first saw the New Africa House Ensemble accompany Abiodun Oyewole (of the Last Poets) in October, and caught their next performance with Sonia Sanchez in March. The following month, they returned to the Augusta Savage Gallery to perform their tribute for Gil Scott-Heron and Terry Callier.

New Africa House Ensemble1

When Dr. Don visited the WKNH studio later that same week, we attempted the impossible: to honor the fullness of Scott-Heron’s work and vision–the politics, humor, poignancy, spirituality, and the poetry. In doing so, I sought to remain attentive to a crucial statement from his posthumous autobiography, The Last Holiday (Grove, 2012). Scott-Heron writes, “When people picked ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’ to decide what kind of artists we were, they overlooked what the hell the whole album said. We didn’t just do one tune and let it stand, we did albums and ideas …” (159-60).

Although I led with the classic second version of “The Revolution…,” it was perhaps appropriate that my recording didn’t start until mid-way into the next tune. When Dr. Don joined me in the second hour, he led an insightful discussion of the profound depth and breadth of this major practitioner and theorist of the Black Aesthetic.

Thanks to Dr. Don for his knowledge and commitment to teaching us all about the legacy of Gil Scott-Heron, especially as a writer, intellectual, and activist. Be sure to check out his important interview with the man himself, published in the Brooklyn Rail, and to keep a lookout for his forthcoming book.

Raw Soul

The second installment of the Instrumental Voices radio program aired on November 20, featuring live cuts from R&B, Funk, and Soul legends. Live records are special to me because they preserve the social dimensions of the performance. Listen to the audience respond to Donny Hathaway’s “The Ghetto”; one audience member can be heard to say “Alright, this is it,” over Hathaway’s vibrato-laden Wurlitzer intro. Her interjection captures the anticipation and foreknowledge of the landmark recording. Later, when Hathaway asks the audience for a soul-clap, they are so present, so responsive that they don’t miss a beat. Hathaway conducts this antiphony with self-assured grace.

Improvised raps, like that on Curtis Mayfield’s “We’re a Winner” and throughout Curtis/Live, shape the meaning of the performance and preserve important details of the historical and political moment. Mayfield refers to an article in a John H. Johnson publication (Ebony, Negro Digest/Black World) about radio stations’ reluctance to play such a politically-minded, yet relentlessly positive song. As yet, I have not located the precise article to which he refers, but the back issues are all available through Google Books if you want to take a look.

Not only the contextual details, but the musicianship and improvisational genius found in the extended solos, breakdowns, collaborative exchange among performers, the bandleader’s directions, and even the mistakes make these enduring records. The exchange between artists is heightened in the live setting, and there are several cover tunes here. Aretha’s rendition of Stephen Stills’ “Love the One You’re With,” for me, surpasses all other versions. Later on that record, Ray Charles comes to the stage to perform “Spirit in the Dark,” but that recording almost didn’t make it on to the album because Charles was embarrassed about forgetting lyrics, making up his own as he went along (“It’s like a movie star / Talking to Ray Charles”).

This is representative of the way in which cultural memory becomes encoded in these performances–they mark special places and charged moments. Represented here are famous venues like the Apollo, the Fillmore West, the Bitter End, and Carnegie Hall, and festivals like Woodstock, the Monterey Pop Festival, and the Newport Jazz Festival. These live records present an alternative mode of social history–one inscribed in wax.