Gil Scott-Heron: Winter in America

Today, proto-rapper Gil Scott-Heron is acknowledged as a major influence on several developments in Black Music and soul jazz, and it is easy to imagine that such artists as Cassandra Wilson considered the poet-vocalist's music before finding her own path. One of Scott-Heron's finest statements is "Winter in America," an image-driven portrait of the icy stasis gripping the nation in the early seventies-after the assassinations, riots, Watergate, and Vietnam.

First, there was an album of that name but no song, as Scott-Heron considered the three words simply an evocative image and not a subject for music. Then, he composed an actual "Winter in America" for his Arista debut, The First Minute of a New Day. Live performances and recordings subsequently crystallized the recording's powerful message.

Featured as a bonus track on the New Day CD reissue, this version of the song is distinctive because Scott-Heron performs alone on it. His keyboard work is more staccato and basic and the melody is slightly flattened out. Despite the changes, the cold, hard facts remain: "...Democracy is rag-time on the corner, hopin' for some rain...all of our healers have been killed or betrayed...ain't nobody fighting because nobody knows what to save."

The scenario is bleak but Scott-Heron's compelling music and verbal tropes continue to resound thirty years farther (or maybe no farther) on.

May 14, 2009 · 1 comment


Billy Harper (featuring Amiri Baraka): Africa Revisited

If I didn't know better, I'd think Amiri Baraka is mellowing in his old age. Now 74, the remorseless radical was last in the news a year ago, when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to consider his lawsuit against former New Jersey state officials for terminating him as Poet Laureate in response to his controversial poem blaming the United States for the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. For anyone unfamiliar with the Poet Laureate's stirring ode "Somebody Blew Up America," that's the one where, among other calumnies, he accused Israel of having foreknowledge of the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks and of surreptitiously warning "4,000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers to stay home that day." Baraka also claimed that an Israeli film crew who documented the explosion could be seen gleefully "cracking they sides at the notion." (An educated man, the Professor Emeritus [State University of New York at Stony Brook] likes to toss in grammatical errors to bolster his sagging street cred.)

So you can imagine my surprise upon encountering Baraka's restrained (yes, restrained!) participation in Billy Harper's "Africa Revisited," over which musical performance the Professor Emeritus declaims his vignette "Where Dat Stuff Come From?" In this instance, stuff refers to jazz, but Baraka disdains said term as having been "media-named," and every anti-Semite worth his salt knows who controls the media. In any event, the Professor's saga of Dat Stuff commences with "the earliest blood songs the African made at the bottom of the ship" during the 40 days on the ocean, 40 nights in hell of the Middle Passage. Next come field hollers and work songs, for as the Professor Emeritus sneers, "We were not brought here to play basketball or place second on American Idol."

What for, then? Well, obviously, as the Professor Emeritus sees it, to play in the band. Taking Dat Stuff to the next level, however, requires urbanization. Notwithstanding such lurid distractions as the "blood-&-guts arena" of St. James Infirmary, moving to the Crescent City permits a fateful "new encounter with European instruments," says the Professor Emeritus, "themselves prototypes of the ancient African ones."

Whoa. Clearly I have overestimated the Professor Emeritus' erudition. How can modern instruments be prototypes of ancient ones? Yet before I can parse this cart-before-the-horse non sequitur, Professor Emeritus continues his exegesis of European instruments. "As the piano emerged," he recounts, "voilą, it was segregated into all the white keys and the black five set up top" so that "when the slaves got over here they could immediately pick out the notes to make the blues." Talk about your 40 nights in hell! As a metaphorist, with his segregated white keys and black keys, Professor Emeritus wouldn't even place second on American Idol. More like 42nd.

Still he forges on, following Dat Stuff wherever it leads, which by now is to big bands engineered by Fletcher Henderson, who "did all of Benny Goodman's arrangements for Goodman's radio show at 32 dollars a pop." Actually, according to Ross Firestone's book Swing, Swing, Swing: The Life & Times of Benny Goodman (Norton, 1994), the fee was $37.50 and was acceptable to Mr. Henderson. But more to the point, which is the presumed exploitation of a black genius by a white huckster, it should be noted that in early 1935, when Goodman and his band were featured on NBC's Let's Dance radio program, the U.S. was still clawing its way out of the Mariana Trench of the Great Depression. Per capita personal income was a meager $474. Fletcher Henderson had merely to crank out 12 arrangements to equal what the average Joe or Jane could earn in a year. Mr. Henderson's orchestrations were a far cry from "blood songs" extorted at the bottom of a slave ship.

At this point, the track peters out and our history lesson terminates prematurely, only to resume on the ensuing track ("Knowledge of Self"), which is otherwise unrelated to "Africa Revisited." This arbitrary break underscores the fundamental disconnect between Billy Harper's music and Baraka's spoken words, recited not as an integral part of the group's performance but overdubbed later, probably long after the band had gone home.

Musically, "Africa Revisited" revisits "Africa" from John Coltrane's 1961 LP Africa/Brass. Essentially a 2-chord vamp over a pedal point ą la the previous year's Coltrane hit "My Favorite Things," the 16½-minute "Africa" was overlong and monotonous, but at least spared us LeRoi Jones (as Amiri Baraka was then known). "Africa Revisited" is virtually the same length as its prototype (take that, Professor Emeritus), and is deliberately imitative. What distinguishes it, if that is the word, is the pedagoguery
(if that is a word) of Professor Emeritus.

Yet, as I indicated above, Billy Harper's "Africa Revisited" is notable most for Amiri Baraka's restraint. So uncharacteristically does he abstain from anti-Semitism and railing against paleface devils, that it's hard to believe this is the same rhetorical rottweiler from back in the day when an earnest young woman asked how she and other whites could help heal America's racial wounds. Baraka replied: "You can help by dying. You are a cancer. You can help the world's people with your death." Thankfully, there is none of that rancor here. Just the same tired History of Jazz previously set to music, and to better effect, by chroniclers from poet Langston Hughes in 1954 to the rappers Gang Starr in 1989.

You know, I never thought I'd say it, but "Africa Revisited" makes me nostalgic for the Amiri Baraka of old. What ever became of the hotheaded, self-appointed commissar who grandly decreed: "The Black Artist's role in America is to aid in the destruction of America as he knows it. The Black Artist must teach the White Eyes their deaths, and teach the black man how to bring these deaths about." Now that's the Amiri Baraka we know and love.

November 15, 2008 · 3 comments


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