November 9, 2015KR BlogBlogEnthusiamsReadingRemembrances

Enough Beauty to Ruin Your Day: From Ella to Dilla

Technically, I don’t understand jazz. Emotionally, I feel the power of Louis Armstrong, Wayne Shorter, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughn, Brian Blade, Miles Davis, and others. I do not have a technical understanding of music theory, though I did rap in a hip hop band in college with guys who were studying jazz. They always seemed, to me, to be engaged in a form of religious devotion, with coffee as their ceremonial drink, sleep deprivation, the ritual performance of scales, the shaping of the guitarist’s fingernails with fine sandpaper, the drummer practicing a song at 40 beats per minute, inserting a desert of time between snare and high hat, long enough to die of thirst, the heat exhaustion brought on by your own rushed mind and heart. They were surely much more devoted to jazz than I, a Religion major, was to the academic study of religion.

There is so much great writing about jazz and jazz artists. Ralph Ellison. James Baldwin. Miles: An Autobiography with Quincy Troupe. And, of course, I love listening to Gerald Early on Ken Burns’ 12-part documentary series, Jazz. I didn’t grow up with the classics, though I did get heavy doses of Steely Dan, which probably built an appreciation for the instrumentation and improvisation of jazz. More than anything, what connected me to the music, even in preadolescence, were the jazz samples in hip hop, from Pete Rock to Q-Tip to DJ Premier. These men connected my generation to the music of previous generations, as 9th Wonder has so eloquently explained both verbally and sonically.

I listened to Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong’s duet version of “Autumn in New York” this morning, the kind of beauty so sublime it ruins your day. How does one go to work and sit in front of a screen when sounds like this swirl in the world? Two unqualified geniuses in one session. The lyrics with their “canyons of steel” and exhortations—“you don’t need castles in Spain”; you don’t need the Old World; it’s New Amsterdam, New York you need. The voices in my earbuds rambled on as I crossed UVM’s green on my walk to work, the sound and the sight reinforcing my sense of overwhelming beauty in the world: the morning fantasia of Lake Champlain, when the Adirondacks across the water bask in shadow or shout their auburns and ochres and umbers toward cloud breaks. And all the light in the lake condenses into cool white on the surface like bonefat on broth, or is it just a layer of fog? Somewhere in there is a monster, they say.

There is a roster of musical geniuses in my mind: Björk, J-Dilla, Brian Wilson, Camarón, James Brown, Louis Armstrong, Van Morrison, Ella Fitzgerald. Each one has compositions and performances that bring them into the same aesthetic space in my perception. For Louis Armstrong, it is his “I Cover the Waterfront” on the Scandinavian recordings; for James Brown, it is “Bewildered,” and Camarón offers “Que He Dejado de Quererte”; Brian Wilson’s music on “That’s Not Me,” with keys that foreshadow Radiohead tracks three decades later; Bjórk’s pulsing “Unravel” and Ella’s sparse, haunting rendition of Ellington’s “Azure.” One day, I may try to connect these artists up through a trans-genre critical appreciation, make convincing and unverifiable claims, about the volcanic activity beneath the feet of Björk informing something in her music, those old, pre-Darwinian kinds of claims, quasi-scientific and mystical, about earth and blood and the saturation of the atmosphere in one’s being.

The first tenet of such an approach is the recognition that when you are listening to J Dilla’s “Waves,” or the earliest recording of “West End Blues,” for instance, you’re listening to an art that borders on, indeed enters, the realm of alchemy. And alchemy was never first about turning lead into gold for earthly gain. It was about transformation, distillation, purification through discipline and diligence and mastery, an affirmation that there is magic stuffed inside of every single thing, including every human, including those deemed without value, those deemed subhuman. It is this affirmation that links these disparate works and workers together; it is J Dilla in a hospital bed, chopping samples, encoding messages for his devotees to decipher for years to come, that haunting hook on “Last Donut of the Night,” the strings hesitating and straining, guitar line descending into the vocals “I give to youuuuuuu.” Even as a rare blood disease clotted his capillaries and shut down his organs, his fingers tapped out a message, a telegraphy of love and mastered craft. This is my favorite kind of music.