Sidney Bechet was one of the first musicians I was drawn to after Ellington and Monk and the singers I had always listened to. When I was about 14, I bought a few CDs from a nearby music store and among them was a compilation of some of his works. I quickly took to 'Really the Blues,' then 'Characteristic Blues.' Later on, as an adult, I read his 'Treat It Gentle' and listened to his music more in depth, which was quite the revelation. Though with a great measure of physical and chronological distance, I had already been exposed to other musicians from New Orleans. Jelly Roll Morton. Barney Bigard. King Oliver. The Marsalis Family. Louis Armstrong, of course. But, I knew in my listening – and later on, I found in my reading – that Bechet was just as much an anomaly in New Orleans as he was in the greater world. Though he enjoyed pleasurable things and hustled music for his bread, he was no hustler or pleasure-seeker. He was a master of musical philosophy, someone who spoke of deep roots, not just New Orleans culture, but of the motherland and beyond. Of course, I always had respect for all of the New Orleans musicians and admired them. I respected them without any encouragement or guidance.
Nonetheless, I never really felt connected to New Orleans music as a whole and I never felt as if what I was playing or singing was derivative, as the common linear narrative might suggest. In reading Buck Clayton's autobiography, I found that Bechet did not take kindly to outsider musicians playing New Orleans music anyway. He resented how 'Dixieland' was being turned into everybody's music, when it was really just the music of his community. Of course, we now have learned, as Freddie Keppard predicted, that any music's entrance into the market means that it will be exploited globally.
There is an instance in Clayton's autobiography, where he is scheduled to play a gig in France opening for Sidney Bechet. On this gig, he makes the mistake of playing a song from the New Orleans repertoire. As a result, Bechet was up in arms, talking loudly about Buck Clayton being a fake. I believe he almost refused to play after him and agreed only after much pleading. Whereas the vast majority of the 'jazz' musicians out here today are simply Buck Clayton, outsiders playing fake New Orleans music for money, a skeptical few from our respective villages outside of New Orleans have maintained a connection to the true spirit of music. For, ragging the time is a characteristic of all ancient music, as is hyper-expression and the improvisation that comes with it. The various styles coming from the various villages are modern representations of ancient musical philosophy dating as far back as the Sapiens can be traced. All of our true musicians have their own way of expressing these techniques and it is the fundamental essence of our true culture, unrelated to any generic categorization. We had our own thing where I'm from too, and honestly, I've always had something all my own.
It always struck me as peculiar that everyone was so awestruck by this New Orleans sound, that they were insistent that the purest cultural music in 'America' was from there. I can't count how many people I know that have taken vacations to New Orleans and called me to tell me that I should visit, to tell me how exciting it was to see the musicians. However, in my adulthood, after playing and writing and watching and listening so much, I now understand the national and international fascination with dancing, wailing exhibitions of 'negro-isms,' especially as part of any sidewalk presentation.
The story of New Orleans and Congo Square is told time and time again, noting how freely the slaves were allowed to dance and sing on Sundays. Strangely enough, this story is always told with a romantic tone, recalling its significance. But, you see, most of our stories moved through the other southern states, in places that did not merge cultures and ideologies as they did around the Gulf Coast. In most of the southern states, the 'master' did not particularly present himself as being some sort of temporary ally on Sundays. However, his imposition of Christianity is no more deviant than the manufactured culture of New Orleans, which has always been encouraged (and cultivated) among the 'black' population, not just to enslave the body, but to manipulate and deceive the soul. You see, in New Orleans, slavers had a bit more foresight and understood that the bondmen must feel as if they have some portion of freedom in order to carry out their duties more willingly and more effectively. The laws pertaining to the maintenance of slaves in New Orleans were very specific. Through these laws, bondage would seem like employment and welfare, as it does today.
To illustrate the stark similarities, I'd like to call attention to the dancing holy ghost that overtakes many 'black' Christian churches on Sundays. For, if these services took place in the the street, on floats and on rooftops, instead of between those four walls, they would look and feel identical to a New Orleans procession. For, shuffling feet are shuffling feet, regardless of the label that presents them as cultural, religious, secular or sacred. In 2007, I was invited by the head of my university music department to take part in an international music exchange program hosted by the U.S. State Department. The visiting music students from Brazil, India, South Africa, Ireland and Mali were all excited to see the 'culture' of the church one Sunday, at the invitation of one of our 'black' professors. Being raised in the church, I understood that, if open to outside spectators, it becomes a circus attraction. I had long abandoned Christianity and did not attend. I have come into an even greater consciousness now that exposes the New Orleans thing as an equivalent dynamic. I'm sure it is quite amusing to watch and take part in those festivities, just as it might have been for the international students to watch the 'negroes' sing and clap hands so passionately in church.
Let it be known that I do not dismiss New Orleans as being some early slave-haven. I have read many accounts of New Orleans life in the days before 'abolition,' of course their most beloved being that of the mistress Delphine LaLaurie, whose reality has become exaggerated during the process of marketing horror stories, much like the city's musical export which bears the exaggerated misnomer of 'jazz.' But, as a result of the consistently relentless impositions of the slavers outside of New Orleans, descendants outside of New Orleans are relentlessly cautious and far less prone to marching in the street. When the people of Alabama did end up marching, it was for what they might consider justice. Even if their approach was just as mistaken as New Orleans, and it was, the marching was not for cultural reasons.
Culture should be an afterthought when self-centered productivity is at stake. Though it is also grossly exaggerated, the efforts in Alabama may have been the closest we've come to staying focused on the task at hand, which is to regain our sense of self-discipline and to lose our fear of doing for self. Of course, there have been other movements that have been successful to some measure, as well. The Nation of Islam presents a strong example. But, I find it undeniably suspicious that the story of the preservation of 'African' music on this land has often been centered on the wailing and marching culture of New Orleans. So many rich traditions of music have been overshadowed, and indeed, buried by this fetish, which is drenched in liberalism, the most powerful tool of deception used in support of the ongoing state-sanctioned genocide. To this day, for this very reason, very few are aware of the drum and fife tradition here on this land.
Now, don't go and accuse me of being aggressive toward New Orleans for what I write. New Orleans musicians have had an entire century to correct this exaggeration. As far as I have seen, this correction has never come, and so I write this out of love and necessity. It is difficult to watch music within the 'United States,' even beyond New Orleans styles, evolve within a market-motivated tradition of mindless blowing competitions and presentations. Of course, it was inevitable that as the Great Migration descended on the north, the New Orleans styles overwhelmed Chicago. But, this means that although Jimmy Yancey is a native Chicagoan and born 7 years before Louis Armstrong, he is lesser known and music during this period of the city's history is more associated with Armstrong.
Of course, in reality, there are really very few things that separate New Orleans music from other southern styles and their northern cousins, one of them being the simultaneous soloing that marks the call and response of New Orleans parades and stationary performances. New Orleans certainly cultivated a very distinct personality in their expression on wind instruments and trap drums. Their musicians can be credited without protest for originating a great bulk of the modern personality of these instruments in our music. However, in Chicago before the migration, neither wind instruments nor drums were popular among the 'black' population. Rather, the piano, guitar and voice were the main focus. For, during slavery, in many places outside of New Orleans, drumming and playing loud horns could result in perverse violence, including the severance of the hands.
At first, the New Orleans style of simultaneous adlibbing was rejected in Chicago, because realistically, unless the most sensitive and knowledgeable musicians are involved in its execution, it sounds sloppy and difficult to follow. The style only became widely accepted as part of a trend, much like trap music and wearing tights as pants today. As the music progressed, musicians freed themselves from this submersion in novelty, with men like Louis Armstrong, Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman and Ellington using the style masterfully only as part of their repertoire of sounds.
As for the second line rhythm, it is simply a repetitive fixation on a common rhythmic figure that could be found all over the country, as well as in 'Africa.' But, in the 'USA,' it was usually expressed vocally or on string instruments, save for the fife and drum music mentioned earlier. I don't use the word fixation in a negative way, but simply to point out that in choosing a rhythm to focus on, we create a habit, and that habit can easily be called 'culture.' All of this was most interesting to the 'whites' on the north side of Chicago, who influenced the trajectory of the music with their financial spending power. But, much like today, the general population of 'negroes' finds it easier to feign ignorance than to expose the insecurity of the usurping majority.
It would be years before Chicago would recover a balanced representation of its Midwestern character, which would be found in the 2nd half of the twentieth century with people like Von Freeman, Jimmy Dawkins, Curtis Mayfield & The Impressions and Psychodrama. Of course, the great appreciation for New Orleans music continued even beyond this renaissance of Chicago character. This can be evidenced in the success of No Limit Records in Chicago. In it's early days, the label represented a style of music very distinct to New Orleans. All over the south side, the south suburbs and in north Lake County in Indiana, the output of New Orleans rap was widely consumed.
Getting back to the subject at hand, it seems to be the nature of the market to duplicate the original for the masses. How many Sidney Bechets popped up in Paris after he relocated there? Is it not simply common sense to view this as a continuation of the siphoning of soul that started in Congo Square? For, I was in a subway in Paris in 2009 when a Frenchman walked into the train and played Sidney Bechet licks perfectly, asking for change! In respect to Bechet's role in this, although he did do a great deal in furthering the financial viability of carnivalistic buffoonery, this is not what he was about at his core. Certainly, neither he nor the city of New Orleans were alone in being subjects of market exploitation. Within the modern representation of 'jazz,' Charlie Parker is arguably a much more popular personality to emulate. Furthermore, how many Curtis Mayfield impersonators are there out here right now, getting paid serious dough? I could name the head impostor right now, but I do not wish to stir up trouble.
It is important that the public understand the information that is being communicated in the music. Bechet used to say that the audience had the potential to be just as musical as the players, sometimes more. He explained it very well in “Treat It Gentle.” For, music was not born on a stage. It was recently placed there, just like the West 'African' was placed in Congo Square. I have always felt uncomfortable being on stage, though I have done my best to indulge it. It can very easily be argued that stage performance is a form of idolization and that those who seek it find themselves worthy of being idolized. We are greeted daily by this idolization that created our ongoing dilemma. It controls us in our manufactured cultural practices that constantly favor beauty more than productivity, that constantly favor the cultivation of the external over the internal. This cultural stagnation is consistently magnified and used as a distraction, as is the case with the unique qualities of New Orleans musical ideology.