60s

“Welcome” John Coltrane (Kulu Sé Mama, Impulse! 1967) “Search For A New Land” Lee Morgan (Blue Note Records, 1966) plus Coltrane interviews

Personnel: John Coltrane — tenor saxophone, McCoy Tyner — piano, Jimmy Garrison — double bass, Elvin Jones — drums. Recorded, June 10 & 16, 1965

"You know, I want to be a force for real good. In other words, I know there are bad forces, forces out here that bring suffering to others and misery to the world, but I want to be a force which is truly for good." 

John Coltrane

Quoted in Brian L Knight, “Better Living Through Coltrane” published in The Vermont Review (2018)

Right from the very first piano note that marks the start of the piece: that note where it all begins, before the music expands poetically via Tyner’s piano, all those trills and flourishes – the piano, as one writer said, sounds like a stringed instrument:

"Welcome" is one of the most serene things recorded in the period. McCoy's piano sounds like a harp here. For the first time in a long time, Coltrane sounds like he's at peace.”

(“1965 was the year where everything changed. Of course, things were changing in all the years before that as well, but John Coltrane's 1965 was a watershed year …”)

Review of the “transition period” in Coltrane’s career by Mitch NZ  

and Jones’s percussive drumming that stays so still in parts, repeating the same beat like a broken-down instrument: tapping out the rhythm as if it were being kept by an open hand.

Before Coltrane’s saxophone comes in, at just before 30 seconds the three-note melody referencing “Happy Birthday To You.” And especially when Coltrane’s part descends, repeating the same note over and over there is something innocent and all-embracing about this music, as if you can hear something of John Coltrane’s heart.

The reaction to John Coltrane’s first London tour in 1961 was one of sharp contrasts, with the critics generally lost to understand his music (his show was an extended version of his hit song “My Favorite Things” - one song only for the entire performance). One critic dismissed his work, saying that his music “belonged more to the realm of higher mathematics,” while listeners at the show were in raptures, the audience was “shouting with enthusiasm … with ecstasy.” (I don’t have release/authorial information for the documentary above that provided this information, here’s part two).

This split reaction is typical for the mystique that surrounds Coltrane, something that has become even more pronounced as he takes on a secular saint role. This notion that he, his work are deeply analytical, dry, lacking in feeling. Yet, this music is all about the emotion. Central to this is his reinvention of popular songs, most notably the Rodgers/Hammerstein song from 1965 The Sound of Music musical and “Happy Birthday To You” here. Reworking pop music is a central part of jazz practice. See the way Jeanne Lee/Ran Blake transformed an excessively sentimental ballad from West Side Story into a work of mystery and wonder that I wrote about in an earlier essay on Lee, published on this site.

I imagine that doing these versions almost operated as a kind of in-joke among the musicians, while possibly having a broader import as the work of Black Americans existing within a hostile socio-cultural space. There is nothing more racialised than Julie Andrews singing of “girls in white dresses with blue satin sashes/snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes/silver-white winters that melt into springs …” (in a 1930s Austria re-imagined by mid-1960s Hollywood).

Coltrane’s choice of such popular foundations for his experimentation serves to make his work even more elemental; it reinforces a sense of our commonality, while stamping it with his individual voice.

Three things particularly touch me about this piece of music. First, the way it exists in a state of becoming; the capacity of jazz to evoke this state is one of the qualities I like most about the genre. The music’s power lies in the way it suggests, it invokes. There is no need for resolution.

The second aspect is the “false ending” at 3’30.” The piano and drums appear to be building towards a conclusion. Coltrane is gone, then returns (unexpectedly). This re-appearance reinforces my earlier impression of the music having an almost mystical aspect: it is as if he (Coltrane) is gone, but still present, still there. Coltrane’s absence/presence – especially when his part is the dominant and unifying element in the music – is intriguing (and possibly reflects something of Coltrane’s character: his humility is noted in the documentary above).

Here is Alice Coltrane speaking of the Interstellar Space album released in 1967, as quoted in the Brian L Knight essay where she also refers to Coltrane’s music as a kind of mathematics :

"A higher principle is involved here. Some of his latest works aren't musical compositions. I mean they weren't based entirely on music. A lot has to do with mathematics, some on rhythmic structure and the power of repetition, some on elementals. He always felt that sound was the first manifestation in creation before music."

Such a comment might also apply to this work.

While searching for interviews with Coltrane from this period, this came up as a recommendation on Youtube. It’s from 1958 and recorded in Baltimore at “August Blume’s house.” One YouTube listener says it was published in the Jazz Review (another says it’s transcribed in the book Coltrane on Coltrane by Chris DeVito pg. 10.) It’s quite wonderful, I haven’t heard an interview like this before. Someone seems to be doing the dishes, you can hear the sound of cups and cutlery and general background noise, which makes the mood incredibly intimate. Coltrane seems relaxed too, speaking openly about his religious background, his views on religion in general and other subjects. Notice the way he speaks – the emphasis on certain words – is not so different to the way he plays the saxophone, his voice seems to have the same phrasing.

Lastly, Elvin Jones’s drumming is something to witness. Remember that this was recorded in 1965, long before this kind of approach became so familiar. It’s so submerged. If you listen to it alone it seems to have no direction, at certain points it repeats, other times there’s an increase in speed, or it slows, it becomes internal. With this in mind, the goal of the music seems to be to privilege Coltrane’s part, and for the drums to play out in the deep background and yet as I have already mentioned above Coltrane’s part is tentative, impressionistic, often absent. It disappears, to re-appear. This undermines this idea that it provides the music’s spine. Such apparent contradiction is the music’s achievement, and indeed genius, the way the performance appears to undermine musical logic in general.

All this is a universe away from Coltrane’s earlier recordings, say “My Favorite Things” (1961), “Spiritual” (1963) “Equinox”. Obviously there are points of commonality, the essence of the artist can be heard in all, but the emphasis is different. (Note that I’m purposefully avoiding categories when speaking about this work and how Coltrane’s music changed and/or developed. My preference is to keep my writing on music as spontaneous as possible. And as we know many jazz musicians resisted such categories being applied to their work, with some refusing to call their music anything at all, or preferring looser notions such as “midnight music,” as was the case for Gil Scott-Heron).

Now listen to Lee Morgan’s “Search For the New Land” released in 1966. Another favourite piece of music, one that conveys a similar mood:

Album: Search For The New Land Year: 1964 Label: Blue Note

Personnel: Grant Green - guitar Herbie Hancock - piano Billy Higgins - drums Lee Morgan - trumpet Wayne Shorter - tenor sax Reggie Workman - bass

Yet, Morgan’s composition follows the solo formula, the rising and falling, the disintegration and resolution (albeit with unkempt edges and dimensions). Coltrane and the musicians playing alongside him enact none of this. “Welcome” is granular, focussing on conveying the jazz idiom in shorter phrases, thus encouraging a listening experience of the moment.

Here’s a review of the Kulu Sé Mama album which notes the subtle reference to “Happy Birthday To You:”

“Kulu Se Mama, recorded in June and October 1965 and released in January 1967, sees Coltrane return, for the near nineteen minute title track, to the larger band format introduced on Ascension. This time the band is an eight-piece, again with Sanders on second tenor saxophone, and it is percussion rather than horn heavy. If it had been recorded in the 2000s, "Kulu Se Mama" might be labelled jam band or groove jazz. It's a vamp-driven, tuneful, African-informed piece which contains wonderfully soulful solos from Coltrane (on tenor), Tyner and bass clarinetist Donald Garrett. Anyone who enjoys the astral jazz of albums like Sanders' Tauhid (Impulse!, 1967), or pianist/harpist Alice Coltrane's Ptah, The El Daoud (Impulse!, 1970), will love "Kulu Se Mama." The two remaining tracks, "Vigil" and "Welcome," from the June sessions, are by the quartet. "Vigil" is a motor rhythm free, tenor and drums feature. "Welcome" is a lyrical and amiable affair in which at one point Coltrane references the tune to "Happy Birthday To You."

John Coltrane: John Coltrane: The Impulse! Albums - Volume Three Chris May, All About Jazz 2009

Coda:

“Hop Special (Whiter Shade of Pale),” Roland Alphonso prod. Derrick Morgan, 7” (Pyramid, 1968) w/Alton Ellis, Pat Kelly & Lynn Taitt & The Jets plus more

“Roland’s flavor was one of the first tastes of the nation’s emerging musical identity. His saxophone sounds shaped Jamaican music at its “Boogie Shuffle” inception and into Ska, Rock Steady and Reggae.”

Brian Keyo, “Rolando Alphonso, 1931-1998 - A Remembrance of The Chief Musician, SoulVendors.com, 2003(?)

Embedded in this version of Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale” by the artist dubbed “The Chief Musician” of Jamaica, Roland Alphonso is the alchemy that so often defines essential recordings in any genre: the fusion of the individual artist’s spirit, with history, the expression of a clear voice that is enhanced by echoes of the past.

This performance, or interpretation remains open, expressing vulnerability where contrasts can co-exist. There is something both melancholy and stirring about this music, from the very opening moments, in its purposefully naive interpretation of the extremely famous song. My use of the word “naive” is not a criticism, but quite the reverse, as I have never liked the Procol Harum original – here is a video of a 1968 live performance - that was a massive hit (winning a Grammy, reaching first place on the UK charts, selling more than 10 million copies worldwide), but I love the Roland Alphonso version and some other reggae takes, also included here.

Some have said that the Procol Harum song is the most popular/best/greatest British song of all time, sharing the honour with Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody: two songs notable for their inclusion of the word “fandango” in their lyrics. The original may, or may not borrow from the second movement of Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D Major, one of the group’s song-writers, Allan Moore has said that there is “a certain family resemblance” that “creates the sense of [Bach’s] music but no direct quotation. (The music also borrows ideas from "When a Man Loves a Woman" by Percy Sledge, apparently).

Here is a truly beautiful performance of the Bach piece by the Mito Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Seiji Ozawa from 1990. I realise that the video might be a bit distracting, to get a sense of the wonder of the performance it might be best to listen to the music without it. Notice how the musicians allow the music to stay still at certain moments, allowing the music to rest before returning to the fold.

Versions: “Never let go”/”Forever and Always” Carlton and the Shoes, prod. Coxsone Dodd (Studio One, 7” 1968?) live performance & more

You are just my … cup of tea/You are everything to me ...


Surely one of the greatest dub reggae love songs, or love songs of any genre; each time I hear the way Carlton Manning sings his vocal part, enclosed by the supporting harmonies that creates a kind of claustrophobic intensity, it kills me, just a little bit.

Lyrically, musically in terms of its overall tone, its production vision, few songs come close. Certainly there are other reggae vocalists who have comparable talent as singers, but this song - largely thanks to the Coxsone Dodd production sound (listen to the unexpected hidden-away drums that only appear sometimes, after introducing the song so confidently) has an otherworldly mood all of its own.

There are so many elements to highlight: to take one the pause after “my” for no apparent reason other than to draw attention to the “cup of tea” in the sweet couplet: You are just my … cup of tea/You are everything to me ...

Released by Studio 1 as the AA-side (not B-side) of his hit, “Love Me Forever,” one of reggae’s foundational songs -

(the info linked to the Soul Jazz reissue from 2017 supplies a different release date) produced by Coxsone Dodd (Carlton Manning says that Dodd underpaid artists - he was also given £ 5 by Lee “Scratch” Perry in another context - see the interview below, causing him to move on).

On YouTube there are two versions of the song with this title that sound dramatically different; here is the second. I’m not sure if the difference in sound relates to different versions/recording sessions, or the way they’ve been uploaded online. The track’s muffled quality disappears in the second, which is a shame as this submerged quality is what distinguishes it and makes it so affecting.

Countless capital-R romantic Lovers rock songs, deep on melody were recorded in Jamaica in the 1960s on, but usually the tone of the songs is clear with the vocals the dominant element, just like a pop song. The tone shifting between upbeat, mournful or threatening (warning the departed lover how much she’ll miss him now she has left him) - think about the catalogue of Ken Boothe or Honey Boy.

In contrast, this song has such a dense sound with that over-exaggerated bassline taking prominence over the guitars, drums and pulsing with such an intensity. Basslines in dub are often key – exposed and allowed to be the sole element – but the way this song is recorded/mixed makes it sound as if the bass is distorted, it’s so prominent, relentless and constant. The contrast between it and the sweet vocals is really something.

Similarly, the track’s intensity comes from not only the bringing the vocals right at the top and the way they are recorded: Carlton Manning sings the beginning of each line alone, to be joined for the latter part by the other vocalists. This is strikingly different from many/most reggae songs, which depend on a call & response dynamic between the vocalists, where the singer is “met” by another voice, and often one of a contrasting character for contrast, effect and frequently humour. (This use of contrast between voices and parts continues on in hip-hop, of course).

To stay with the way the vocals come in so early, just before 15 seconds: this is the signature of other famous dub/reggae songs say The Congos’ “Fisherman” from Heart of the Congos, released in 1977 on Blood & Fire Records:

But here the singer/backing vocalists interaction is maintained, so it’s not exactly the same as “Never let go” and is generally more conventional despite the beginning (and extraordinary sound). Listening to the Carlton & The Shoes song it’s almost as if Dodd is not only recording it, but imagining this song with vocals as if it were an instrumental, with no space between the two principal elements as is normally the case, i.e. no separation between the vocals and the music. This strikes me as innovative, forward-thinking.

Other groups - recordings from the same year, see this cover by The Gaylads/Soul Vendors of “Sound of Silence” also on Studio 1 and produced by Dodd- follows a more familiar pop song structure, allowing the song to build first:

The performance here is wonderful and has that submerged-production, which might be the defining quality of Coxsone’s work at this time, but sounds old-fashioned compared to the Carlton & The Shoes song. To get a sense of how Coxsone Dodd’s production style is so distinctive, check out this much cleaner cover by Roland Alphonso.

I like the muted vocals in this version of the song, the way Carlton Manning sounds distracted and preocuppied and the dub.

The extended version above is credited as having the Family as producer, the overall feel is less intense, more sweetly melodic than the one by Coxsone Dodd with the emphasis on on the horns solo - it more predictable and pretty, but still nice, the very simple dub especially.

In a 2016 interview with Angus Taylor for unitedreggae.com Manning shared stories about Dennis Brown, their trip to London that Brown organised where Manning had to keep returning to the airport to get visa extensions so he could remain in the U.K. and how his group got its name.

How did your original name Carlton and the Shades become Carlton and the Shoes?

Let me see. I have a problem with shoes. I have a disease when it comes to shoes. The most expensive things, raiments I wear, are my shoes. I will pay any amount of money for a good pair of shoes if I like it. I’m going to tell you something – Clarks Shoes are the most comfortable shoes you will ever find. You look at the bottom of that there and you see “Wallabee Clarks” right there. I love Clarks. I like to be comfortable. When I was in the studios working, every time the song is finished and everybody has gone to the console room, I get my guitar case and get my duster and I am dusting off my shoes. I like to see them nice and shiny.

That’s what Coxsone noticed. I told him Carlton and the Shades. Well, at that time there was a singing group named the Shades. To be truthful I wasn’t penetrating that. But because of that fussiness about the shoes Coxsone put “Carlton and his Shoes!” I was mad about it for a while but it caused one thing where everybody wanted to know who was Carlton and the Shoes. I just resigned to it. Everybody was calling me Mr Shoes, Daddy Shoe, Uncle Shoe, Fada Shoe. That’s what they called me since then. I kind of got used to it.

Anywhere you go on Mountain View Avenue ask “Where Shoe live?” Just say “Shoe” and they’ll tell you “Jus down the round there”. If you say “Shoe” you’re going to find me. A lot of people might not know who you’re talking about if you ask for Carlton Manning but if you say “Carlton Shoe”? Everybody knows where Shoe is!

"Sundance" - an essay on Jeanne Lee

We’re talking about our work at a roof-top bar in the 11th arrondissement where you can see Sacré-Coeur in the distance. The woman teases me with light humour and kindness about the emphasis of my writing; she says that she plans on returning to Senegal, the country where her father was born to find work in an organisation that makes connections between Dakar and Paris. Recently she says she attended a conference about “women in jazz.” No, no, she says laughing in response to the expression on my face, it was interesting, really. 

"Jazz is a music that combines so many opposites ... You have to find that balance, then you have a guideline between freedom and discipline, between rhythm and melody, between body and spirit, between mind and instinct."

"I feel the music like a dance, I think it's an important part of the music, it has to be felt like a dance."

Jeanne Lee  

 

Few jazz singers, or singers of any genre, could capture the same emotional depth with such ease, as self-described "a jazz singer, poet/lyricist, composer/improvisor” Jeanne Lee who died aged 61 in Mexico, 2000. Compassion, tenderness, levity and freedom can be heard in her voice. More than anything else, even from her earliest recordings and performances with Ran Blake in the 1960s, Jeanne Lee sounds at peace with herself.

Recently I’ve been ruminating about how our sense of our own identities as women, even as the years pass, is shaped by how we see ourselves in relation to others, how we think about ourselves in terms of how others see us (self as performance, performance as self). I am grateful to Jeanne Lee for the way she seems to have found a way through all this, as an artist she sounds free.

None of this was by chance. Lee’s artistry emanated from her conscious exploration of the limits and potential of performance and improvisation, to give voice to her musical gift and experience as an artist and as a Black woman in the United States (and Europe). Yet in the later years of her life, Lee expressed frustration that she didn’t have so many recordings to her name (a consequence of raising children, she said) and that the multi-faceted nature of her achievement had not been recognised.

READ MORE

‘Korn Dogz’ DANGERDOOM (Occult Hymn, digital release, 2006) plus Nico & Nas, interview excerpt

Something that appeals and does truly, madly etc is when an artist or piece of music or an artist clicks with me despite my instincts not to like to it. MF DOOM was held in the category (of not being something I'd like) for a long while, until I came across some music by chance.

Knotted up like roots of a mangrove with plenty of contradictions, something about his popularity (with people who read the same kinds of books as me and get burnt by the sun easily) made me suspicious, and I was wary because of his image as someone whose rhymes were ‘cute’ or self-aware. Even if this didn’t make much sense, as that moment of self-consciousness when an MC smiles, knowing that they have blitzed it is one of the first things I loved about hip-hop performance this second time around. Then I came across this, not so long ago …

At some point I’ll write more on DOOM, when I can find an angle that makes sense to me without it becoming too academic and … well, see above. What turned it was an emotional depth I could hear at some points in some of his verses, principally a sadness or chastising tone that went against the stereotype of DOOM as the 'funny guy/entertainer in a mask.'

Added to that I couldn’t help but be impressed by his brilliance. No other MC comes close to the way DOOM builds associations that have weight to them and are not just left hanging in a three-point lyrical rhumba: first idea, second, third the final word running on a rhyme that echoes a phoneme. At its best, DOOM’s lyrics can dazzle you with their skill, while also imparting something serious. Moreover, as I’ll argue below his tendency to shift tone, without developing it, is in itself intriguing in terms of technique.

When I discovered that this track from his collaboration with Danger Mouse, DANGERDOOM  sampled Nico’s ‘Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams’ from Chelsea Girl, especially at this time when I’m thinking a lot about the use of strings in popular music, not just hip-hop but across the genres, well ping! Transformation of prejudices time (this has been sent to me).

It's said that it also samples ‘What The Beat’ from DJ Klue, feat. Method Man and Royce da 5’9 from his 2001 record, The Professional 2

To again use the negative rhetorical set-up: the trademark elements of a DOOM track that had distanced me before were here, principally the skits/or samples from TV, moreover the production style is so clean/considered. Normally this kind of sound would be too conventional, at least with a lesser MC. But the opening less than 5 seconds here, the way it unfurls on itself is beautiful with the strange grunt, bamboo style drums and strings are nice. There’s the essential cleverness/wordplay:

We don’t suggest you let your girly go alone
Come home all glowin with the the pearly glow
It was the super AKA super sperm
Hit her in the chin, told her rub it in like lubriderm
Finished, oh spaz go next
Who’s fault is it if her face taste like Vazoplex?

The use of the ‘we’ is interesting and reinforces the menacing mood, it sounds threatening because of the ambiguous subject (to read about the play on lubiderm/Vazoplex and the rest of the song, go here). Then that emotional depth I referred to before comes through:

... It ain’t funny
Ever since a young’un sonny, take the money
His first business made each day a grand
His only comp, shorty with the spiked lemonade stand
That’s how he ran his hustle
He came with a plan that took least amount of muscle
Two for one, dime frogs for the lickin’
And all you can eat, ”Corn dogs for the pickin”

As DOOM says, this isn’t funny. He establishes the scene of possible sexual violence – though it’s deadpanned, it's not clear – or exploitation; 'that’s how he ran his hustle,' telling the story of someone who is again unidentified. This refusal to set up characters is striking. A less adventurous MC would either end up describing a friend back at school or who is now in prison etc or focus on him/herself as the narrator, but DOOM rarely does this. He creates a lyrical space where we are already inside the action, as he tells the story.

As a lyrical device in hip-hop this is quite experimental: the way he gestures towards telling a story (refers to the typical paradigms and characters) without actually doing it. He refers to a situation (as above) but then doesn’t allow us to see it develop into a conclusion, as you’d expect.

The narrative does continue, but is the ‘seemingly modest fellow’ the same as the ‘young’un’ I don’t know.

... A seemingly modest fellow
With a DJ’s ear and graffiti artist elbow
Nose of a Mouse and the brain of two weasels
Discovered a name and new strain of the measles
He say you accidentally caught it
And sold circles and dots to those who could afford it
Once you squeezed his face through the gate
It got stuck, too much fake soy-based cheese product
Did a scheme and was in it for the Aspercreme
Slashed your team, let’s see who can make Casper scream
Down to the last marine
See him as your cable man, sizin’ up your plasma screen
Instead of doin a jux with pistols
Or workin’ in the back, cookin’ sacks of crystals
Or runnin’ on logs out in deep water kickin’
”Corn dogs for the pickin

Compare this ambiguity and refusal to tie things up neatly with Nas’s narrative/storytelling style that develops characters or stories to represent his arguments, in ‘What Goes Around’ from his 2001 album Stillmatic :

The genius of Nas's lyricism is apparent certainly. He like DOOM doesn't over-state, or over-extend his references to other people's stories, he touches on them/makes connections then moves on. And yet the characters are clear to us, as is the overall argument of his lyrics. Neither could be said about DOOM's lyricism, even if we sense that they exist.  

See here how DOOM then jumps to another subject, posing a question about ‘dedicated dads’ before – apparently – critiquing the self-absorption of his contemporary MCs suggests his intent is also to provide some (critical) commentary on the current state of affairs:

What up to all you dedicated dads
As stated, rap sucks Tucks medicated pads
And these rappers need to gather their belongings
Or get wrapped up in they extra long thong strings
For singin’ the wrong things
Ain’t no delayin’, you playin’ with the Pong king
A nerd with insight and a Urkel smirk
Purposefully misplaced invite to your circle jerk
... A bunch of men in cyphers
Fake you out tough guys and make pretend lifers
It’s still a few loose screws in his face
Turn away as he pulled a phrase out his usual place
... Combination jewel case
Almost popped open if it wasn’t for the cruel space
Critics talkin’ slick chicken shit to sick men
”Corn dogs for the pickin

Here’s an excerpt from a longer interview with DOOM where he speaks about his lyricism, the way he writes his rhymes with the listener in mind, thinking about how they will have expectations to then skirt around them.

Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power exhibition, Tate Modern London

‘The ghetto itself is the gallery.’

Emory Douglas, Black Panther Party Culture Minister

Before seeing this exhibition, based on the name alone, I was expecting a show turned up to peak volume; not that there is a problem with this, as someone who adores noise, the blacker the better, but wondered if it might operate on the level of radical pastiche.

None of this was a judgment of the curators, Mark Godfrey and Zoe Whiteley who have assembled 150 works from 1963-1983 by black American artists or the museum, but more an expression of personal confusion or alienation now that transgressive art, culture and ideas from the past are routinely transformed into commodities to be sold.

As I soon discovered, though, this often delicate and complex show was light years away from such mind-static. Introspection, restraint and a deep thoughtfulness pervaded much of the art – and its presentation - allowing us to take time to reflect and feel something of how it might have been to be alive then.

‘H20gate Blues’ Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson  (Winter in America, Strata-East Records, 1974)

Certain artworks, such as ‘Injustice Case’ (1970) by David Hammons worked on the level of the gut –

the artwork depicts Bobby Seale, co-founder of the Black Panther Party, gagged and shackled at his 1969 trial after the judge ordered he be chained to his chair following a series of interjections. He was being tried as one of the ‘Chicago Eight’ on charges for conspiracy to cross state lines, according to the history.com site, ‘to cause a riot during the violent anti-war demonstrations in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic National Convention’. He was later tried alone for contempt charges and received a four-year sentence.

Here, Hammons printed his own body, objectifying it, transforming it into an surface, he 'coated his body (along with his clothes and hair) in margarine and then rolled his torso and limbs onto a large piece of illustration board, printing the image by pressing his body onto the smooth surface of paper, often arrayed on the floor’ – this is taken from Apsara DiQuizio's article, ‘David Hammons: Printing the Political, Black Body’. 

Because of its life-size dimensions, the essential savagery of what it depicts – chaining up a man as if he were a dog at his own trial - and the genius of the presentation/idea, this work is deeply affecting. Resembling an X-ray in an airport, the image transforms Seale into little more than a squashed/flattened body/bones in his fingers, while forcing us into the role of those conducting the surveillance. An older white man standing in front of me, shook his head when reading the description for the artwork and swore under his breath.        

There’s a lot to write about in terms of this exhibition, I kept writing notes and taking photographs of the descriptions of the works, as I was struck repeatedly by the fragments and splinters of ideas, often formulated as questions, see this from the brochure: ‘Was there a ‘Black art’ or a ‘Black aesthetic? Should an artist create legible images or make abstract work? Was a choice to be made between addressing a specifically Black audience or a ‘universal’ one?’

***

Black Light

Roy DeCarava (1919-2009) Man in window, New York, 1978 

 

'... the self as a secret entity, as a secret, hidden place.'

Note beside an artwork by Martin Puryear, 'Self' with regard to his sculpture (1978) 

One of the rooms seemed darker than the others and held a series of fragile and extremely beautiful installations by Betye Saar from the early 70s that drew on time spent in Haiti, entering the room was like going into a crypt ... On the walls, there were finely-constructed collages, often held in wooden boxes, filled with very small objects. There was something deeply private and intimate about this art that moved me.

The act of collecting and putting these objects together was a recurring theme in the exhibition; for example, the room called ‘Los Angeles Assemblage’ that included this commentary:

Los Angeles was a city experiencing great racial tension in 1962, police had entered a mosque and shot an unarmed member of the Nation of Islam. Two years later, another instance of police violence in a predominantly African American neighbourhood triggered the Watts Rebellion, which left 34 dead and properties and shops in ruins.

The artists featured in this room - Noah Purifoy, John Outterbridge, Melvin Edwards and Betye Saar - ‘created art by recycling and bringing together objects in different formations, known as assemblage’.

Of particular interest to me was the ‘Lynch Fragments’ series by Melvin Edwards, a project he started in 1963. The aggressive-looking steel objects, made up from refuse found on the streets of LA completely reversed expectations of how to represent race-based violence; here there is no victim – and no audience – but an object of torture, made from scrap metal.

Melvin Edwards (born 1937) Some Bright Morning, Lynch Fragments 1963

Christopher Knight writing in a Los Angeles Times review of a show marking the 50th anniversary of the Watts uprising quoted Purifoy as saying the following regarding the Watts Towers that he said was 'arguably America's greatest modern folk-art masterpiece.'

What if these people could look at junk another way — as a symbol of their being in the world, their being just in relationship to something.

Knight then concluded with these sentences: 'Their being in the world — battered and discarded, like the broken glass and pottery of the soaring towers but also reassembled and reborn into something beautiful, mysterious and profound.'

mysteries.jpg

Romare Bearden (1911-1988) Mysteries, 1964 

Reading Umberto Eco’s Travels in Hyperreality – Harcourt Brace & Company, 1986, trans William Weaver   

Two days ago, I made my way down Avenue de Clichy to the northern edge of Paris, where I collected the documents needed for my son’s entry to middle-school; this part of the city has always appealed to me, partly for its raffish edge (the bars/restaurants with all the chancers, scroungers, the kinds of outsiders you might find in a Lou Reed song, circa 1978).

Grimy, but it’s also an extremely physical, a sensual urban space – partly because of the very many trees that provide cover, dappling the concrete in shadows – but largely because of the constant movement of people. This is not an elegant environment, but rather an ‘uncontrolled’ space that reminds me of Zamalek in Cairo – it has the same faded grandeur, very dusty - a place I visited when I was a teenager with my parents, perhaps because of the unkept forgotten architecture; the way the residents live in tiny spaces, in darkened rooms that look out on to the street.

This part of Paris could be any southern city, somewhere where there are warm nights, subtropical: densely populated and insalubrious. Close to the final intersection that marks a redevelopment site, or sites, I saw this ‘hut construction’ filled with some books, kept together with thick black tape.

I moved forward to take a photograph of the ‘hut’ on my phone. A man suddenly was standing beside me, with an impatient feel, so I stated the obvious – and said what I was doing, that I was taking a photograph. I then went on to ask the obvious, ‘Can we take these books?’ You can, he said, and walked away. Umberto Eco’s Travels in Hyperreality in English translation.

The collection of essays, written for newspapers mainly includes a piece that I have since learnt was deeply influential on activists wanting to disrupt the messages put out by the media, ‘Towards a Semiological Guerrilla Warfare’ .  

‘The mass communication universe is full of … discordant interpretations; I would say that variability of interpretation is the constant law of mass communications. The messages set out from the Source and arrive in distinct sociological situations, where different codes operate,’ Eco wrote.

Such thinking is now commonplace – almost reified, it often seems via the simplistic stances of mass media versions of Identity Politics. Back in 1967, though, this idea that the way someone interprets a message was context-based – or as it became known later, identity-based – was new. When I was studying journalism decades after this essay was published, it was still open for debate, with some believing that the media had the power to directly shape and form opinion in a unified fashion, as if the message was similar to a syringe inserting information/viewpoint directly into the public’s consciousness.

There is much to appreciate in this collection, a highlight for me was his 1979 essay, more like a piece of reportage, on an Afro-Brazilian rite of the Candomblé, ‘Whose side are the Orixà on?’ It is very vivid, full of detail and recreation of an experience with people desperate to fall into a trance and thereby lose themselves for a moment.

Much of it is funny as well, with a wry touch, especially the beginning section where Eco asks himself questions about the value of the real and the fake, as he visits a series of wax museums in the United States and the Hearst Mansion, where he writes what offends is the ‘voracity’ of the selection, what is distressing is the 'fear of being caught up in venerable beauties, which unquestionably has its own wild flavour, its own pathetic sadness, barbarian grandeur, and sexual perversity, redolent of contamination, blasphemy, the Black Mass.'   

Avenue-de-Clichy_Louis-Aquetin.jpg

'Avenue de Clichy' Louis Anquetin, 1887

Avenue de Clichy, 2017

Avenue de Clichy, 2017