Music as Elegant Form
In 1997, Wynton Marsalis took a tape recorder on a visit to Albert Murray, the novelist and jazz chronicler, then 81, at his Harlem apartment. Al Murray was an adviser for Jazz at Lincoln Center and a mentor to Wynton after his ’81 arrival in New York. Their dialogue leads off the new interview anthology Albert Murray Talks Music (University of Minnesota Press) edited by Paul Devlin.
Murray advanced a jazz aesthetic, an artistic sensibility of the music transcending the raw cold reality of blues. “Your philosophy,” said Wynton, ”illuminated for me … the objective of blues musicians.”
Riffing on his keystone work, Stomping the Blues, Murray said that the objective is “to get rid of the blues … stomp the blues not with the utmost violence but with elegance.” Get past the suffering that caused the blues. “The enemy is formlessness … Art is all about elegant form.”
The clarinetist and Southern University educator Alvin Batiste had his own take on jazz as an idiom risen from the blues and expanded by swing music of the Ellington and Basie big bands. Batiste, who considered New Orleans Style the taproot, spoke of “the continuum” – the expanding memory as jazz musicians spun off new styles, like branches to a tree, extending artistic form.
Murray and Batiste considered the music that spread out after World War I in idiomatic shifts to be form in motion. Dancing bridged the small New Orleans clubs with big ones in Manhattan. Marsalis enshrined the idea of a canon at Jazz at Lincoln Center, devoting concerts and recordings to the works of Armstrong, Ellington, Basie and sundry others. Jazz as a canonical art form relied on a tradition of identifiable roots.
T.S. Eliot in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” refers to literature in saying that tradition “cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labor.” Eliot’s slant on writers equally applies to a continuum of elegant form. “The historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of literature of Europe,” continues Eliot, “has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order.” The jazzman, like the poet, “must develop or procure the consciousness of the past … throughout his career.”
Davell Crawford’s new CD on Basin Records, Piano in the Vaults, Vol. 1, surrounds the New Orleans tradition in 14 cuts, four of which are original compositions that build off the music of James Booker, Dave Bartholomew and Davell’s grandfather, James “Sugarboy” Crawford. Sugarboy did the 1953 recording of “Jock-A-Mo” with the fabled refrain “Iko Iko” in lyrics of a clash by Mardi Gras Indians.
The first time I interviewed Davell in 1995, he had just turned 20 and recalled, as a 13-year-old, being furious as he waited backstage while the Dixie Cups sang “my grandpa’s song” – “Iko Iko,” the retitled song that was a 1960s’ hit for them. The boy got so mad in misunderstanding the continuum that he almost missed his set.
The polish of a seasoned artist, working from jazz to blues and back again shimmers across Piano in the Vaults. It is hard enough to imitate the style of James Booker, though Jon Cleary handles it with aplomb. Composing odes to Booker takes the continuum a few steps forward. On cut one, “Song for James” Crawford’s deft boogie stride echoes the late Piano Prince. The second cut, “Booker Days,” rolls out the circular melodic style on which James thrived, with a love song as tender as they come.
“I’d give anything just to hear him play
Sure the world, it would be a better place if Booker
was still around today.
What would he say and what would he do?
But now he’s gone, somebody’s got to carry on, feeling enough
true blues. Praise the Lord, help me run the race.
Am I the only one to feel the shoe?”
Others feel the shoe of that ghost with the mischievous smile and famous eye patch, kicking along. Davell Crawford draws elegant form in his paean to Booker, late and never forgotten.