Fredrick Woodard is professor emeritus in the Department of English at the University of Iowa. I interviewed on April 9, 2006, at his Iowa City home.
FRED WOODARD: Beiderbecke was an unusual person as far as the black perspective was concerned. I mean, he was a farm kid playing very sophisticated music. The perception of the music that he was playing was that he caught on very quickly to the manner of style, the manner of copying, the manner of creating in the moment, and he could do that. And Satchmo could see that. And he was such a spectacle in play, and had such an effortless spontaneity in an era when people and literature were, white American writers in literature, were trying to capture some of that spontaneity of black people, to see someone like Bix Beiderbecke was to say, “Ahh, yeah! He’s genuine. He’s not black.” Bix Beiderbecke was an unusual human being. I mean, he was, I think, a genius in a way. Bix Beiderbecke was like flowing water: he moves into a space and he takes in everything that’s there. And he was in the presence of the best of the black players and for the most part they were at ease with him because he could flow in so easily. He had not learned the harsh reality of most of blacks’ experience with white musicians in New York, where they were coming to steal their work and transform it and put it out there. Bix Beiderbecke could create it. And that was a big difference. And I want to take it back to this other thing you were saying about Baraka, because if you’re genuine, he isn’t afraid to go with it. Black musicians could find Bix Beiderbecke genuine.
He was not making himself up, he was not pretending. He was the music. You see, that was the black musicians’ experience: to be with someone, you knew who was coming in to take your work and go off with it and do something else and claim it as their own. It happened over and over and over and over and over again. Black people had no intellectual property, you know. How can you copyright spontaneity? [He speaks this in his uptight white voice.] People knew who was stealing what.
I just imagine Bix being someone who black musicians could interact with by the race boundaries. There were no boundaries. Music became the means by which they could explore together. Now that’s my imagination, and I have only that statement from Satchmo that, you know, folks just loved Bix to death because he was sort of an exemplary example of what many of the artists of the 1920s—actually probably going back to the 1890s to the 1940s, there was still this overwhelming almost fifty year period in which the artists were convincing themselves of this great argument about the primitive in American life, that acquiring a primitive state gave one certain ability to spontaneously create. We see the vernacular being given a special sort of meaning. This ability to create or make oneself up as one went along had been a great dream of the American Renaissance in the 1820s and 30s and 40s, Emerson, Thoreau. Whitman [in a theatrically white sing-songy voice, much louder], “I sing of myself, la da dee da da. Spontaneity, I go out in the world, la da dee da da ...” It’s part of that Emersonian notion that being in the world, I am a transparent eyeball, he says. I see all, and all that I see is reflected in me. That becomes the quintessential expression for stream-of-consciousness, which is the psychic counterpart to the school of spontaneity. Anyway, what I’m saying here is that in the rejection of classicism as it were in favor of primitivism, when one really looks at that, one is dealing with spontaneity and intuition. There is an emphasis on nature and teaching through experience, and combine all of that and you find them in the explosive expression of jazz music in American. Then you have someone come along who is not black and who could do that and do it well, and you have a spectacle. In other areas you call him a Great White Hope. It gives some believability to Satchmo’s expression. Here was a genuine dude who probably had very, very, very few preoccupations. I mean, the inferiority of blacks was not stamped into his consciousness. You know what I mean? As wonderfully liberal as Sherwood Anderson tries to be, he never makes it. You look at things he wrote, there’s something still at the center, he can’t quite clean himself up. Bix Beiderbecke in his artistic expressions, there’s some sort of purity there. You talk about splitting atoms. There was a real difference between the daring you man on the flying trapeze, that was Bix Beiderbecke. He was daring. He was out there all the time, on the edge. And that it seems to me becomes an intellectual and spiritual expression of how he interpreted music and, probably unfortunately, how he interpreted life.
Hemingway, in his writing, tried to find his way inside the consciousness of a person who wants to live intensely in this moment. The bullfighter becomes a real aficionado, who’s living emotion and time in the continuing present moment. That’s jazz.
BRENDAN WOLFE: How do you connect this strain of thought that comes from Emerson and Whitman up to Hemingway with the jazz culture that is primarily African American?
FW: The jazz culture is I think an expression we give to a phenomenon that grows out of America but was not really accountable by all of the cultural phonemes of Europe, they were not a part of it. They didn’t really explain it. What I’m saying that is the phonemes were in the American grain, period. Emerson expresses it one way and William James picks it up in psychology, and then John Dewey. There’s something about the environment, the intensity of the intellectual environment for people of learning. People who were intensely engaging nature, engaging the world in a tinkering sort of way. And this was in a political climate that was steeped in talk of liberty and freedom. I don’t know how one could talk about either of those terms without implicating the individual and individual choice. So all of this stuff is around. On the African American side, liberty and freedom was categorically denied by their social status. The social history that implicates the slave community, I think it’s been a colossal failure in the American academy, quite frankly. Nothing has really captured the dynamics of slavery. We play the political games when presenting it very well. What I’m driving at, is that simultaneously, there was a parallel in American culture. You find it at the high end, the intellectual level, and you find it at the folk level. African Americans created, and they didn’t do this alone, African Americans created a folk culture that was a mirror image of the intellectual culture. It’s a mirror image of the culture, and we can look at these ideas of liberty and freedom as expressed in the ideas of the Transcendentalists and others, the Puritan Church, the development of the Congregationalists, this whole movement in American religion, everybody searching for their own level. Slavery is always talked about in this monolithic way. That is a figment of someone’s imagination. In the low country, in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, where you have this intense labor, it came closest to developing these fantastic slave communities. But there’s a whole host of contradictions from New England down to the coast of Florida, lots of contradictions. We’re still writing consensus history. We haven’t dealt with the fact that in early, early American life, there were these Native Americans who were black in color sold to the Caribbean into slavery, because black is synonymous with slavery, right? It wouldn’t make any difference if they were Native American because they were black. So we don’t see that slavery was not a monolithic thing that was just about Africans. There was a mixture of Native American and African culture from the Carolinas to around Florida and Georgia, probably all the way over to New Orleans. We’re not looking at that because it’s been the course of power to have the absolute separation and compartmentalizing of that life. Yet we try to explain the culture in simplistic terms. I am saying that the theory is that there was a parallel, a mirror image of American culture at the high end and at the low.
And it was the commercialism of the 1920s that begins characterize or divide all of these different genres of music—you know, mountain music, country music, country blues, that sort of thing, all part of an environment of social segregation. Yet you go down into Mississippi and you find black people singing country stuff, just like black folks singing blues. It’s all a matter of who would buy what that you end up with this segregation. Okay? It was a commercial thing, an ugly, nasty perversion of what was happening on the racial scene of America, separate but equal apartheid. And so how culture comes to be written follows the line, the official political line, but it’s not at all the way things really are.
And this is why at the turn of the century one begins to get the Columbia School of Anthropology, which at least promises to go in to the South and look at the people from a kind of participant-observer sort of operation, and treat them in a way like they are foreign people. They were talking about studying the whole of the South in this way, because people recognized that historically the poor whites were in a social situation sometimes far worse than the slaves, because they had no means of production, and they were just hanging on and getting whatever they could get from the crumbs of the planter class. It was only after the Civil War that the whites who had been disenfranchised or not enfranchised became enfranchised as a buffer between the blacks who had also been enfranchised. It’s a mess. It’s the truth of the history. It’s a history that America has just begun to confront. And unfortunately America has left it to the leftists to define and describe that history.
I think what this has to do with everything, for my part, is that if we could start with Bix Beiderbecke, just a simple observation, and that is Satchmo’s statement: What on earth could he have meant that they loved him to death? What is the implication of all of that? And just offer one possibility, and that was, Bix Beiderbecke was, a spirit, an artistic spirit, his way of being, his way of living intensely. Maybe there is a chemical explanation for that. Maybe he had, he had, what do you call it, some kind of HDD ...
FW: I don’t know. But if we start at that point and say, Why would Satchmo have said that? You have to think about how Satchmo expressed his ideas. He didn’t have a common vocabulary that most people had. He lived intensely and by his own order, and out of that, the vernacular, which had never been spruced up ... so he had his own homespun way of making observations, so you look at what he could have meant ...
[His wife, Ginny, comes home.]
There are substantial numbers of people who are interested in exploring again and exploring say Bix Beiderbecke as if one were trying to find some thread some theme some something that would give us a more intense look inside the man, knowing that in the very act of looking, we are carrying our own perceptions in there. All right? It’s almost as if, as writer, researcher, communicator, you have become like an artist yourself. This is a work of my synthesis, this is a synthetic thing. But here is where I think Bix Beiderbecke as an artist in his time not only made sense to himself but also spoke to the people who were largely credited with bringing this whole rush of musical culture to the foreground. How could he stand on the edge of their reality and be so real to himself and also real to them? You see what I’m saying?
[Ginny again. I’d like a gin and tonic? You serious? Yes, I’d like a gin and tonic. You can’t get him anything, he’s too young. He’s working. He needs to keep his speech together. Hibiscus tea.]
When you start talking about the origins of jazz, I think when you start talking about the origins of anything, it’s almost as if this thing, this entity sprung into being out of nothing. It made itself in the moment. Or jazz grew, you know? That’s not the way that it happened at all. In the West, in a literate society, all we think about are ideas having been created by a white person in one place in one time, rather than the possibility that all the things jazz and blues became were in the air or came to be in the air though not out of nowhere, but the coming together of lots of different licks and songs, you know, and pieces, you know, and things remembered, and things written and so forth. And even in an oral tradition, one finds certain kinds of spontaneity become standard lines because somebody’s repeated it and somebody else has repeated it. You never know where it’s come from. So that even as one looks at the stuff that we call jazz, you want to say, Well, look, we gotta go to New Orleans to really find jazz. All right. Okay. You want to talk about the music that was played in the juke joints and the houses of prostitution and the whore houses, but what about the music that was played in Congo Square? People coming together, out of the Caribbean, out of Europe, out of Paris, out of everything. Talk about the melting pot. It was not just one pot. It was a lot skillets and broilers. They were boiling everywhere. In the ways that I think about cultural things, I would say that when you talk about origins, we’re saying that someone has made a fiction, the Creole fiction. In the history of family entertainment that really takes its grand leap in America in 1780, 1790s, you watch the circus and then the carnival and all of this stuff becoming the forums for formal entertainment, the traveling circus, and you watch as the circus begins to build its acts, as it were, and you will slowly come to understand the structure of American popular culture as it grows out of that caravan, as it were. And then you watch the epic dimensions begin to take place in the 1830s with the rise of minstrel shows in the Northeast, all of these things becoming conventions in their own way.
So in the 1920s, '30s, very little was actually invented. The categories were already there, the categories of family entertainment, as defined by the circus. One finds in the cities, imported from Berlin actually, the great cabarets, and this sort of thing. All right? But watch then how after the war you have oodles of folk invading the South to capture the music of the former slave. This is crazy, it seems to me. You’ve got the spirituals, and you’ve got Thomas Wentworth Higginson taking these down these hymns, and it was as if all of this had just started. Collecting the folk stuff, nobody at that point looked back to Richard Allen and to the arrival of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, in which they started, they became the first collectors of this quaint little music that was coming out of the churches of the South. And you know, though, the most great revivals that have become a part of the Evangelistic movement coming over from England to convert the folks in the South? Those great revivals were black people and poor white people all together. They were all singing these songs. And the travelers in their accounts of these things, they talk about the vibrancy of the Negro singing, and that, and they were so full of spirit and that and the other. I don’t know how to assess that. Perhaps they were just concentrating on the exoticism. But white folks were right in the middle of that stuff. There was a blending going on. Du Bois tries to capture a sense of this in The Souls of Black Folks, he talks about the sorrow songs, and he tries to put them in categories. You look closely at what he does there, and he talks about African-American music being essentially African and American.
The very social structure of the South during slavery threw slaves and white folks together in ways that have not been talked about by historians. Little bits and pieces. So the composition of that period of slavery among the workers, slave and free, there’s a great deal of exchange going on. And it was tri-racial. African, Native American, and European. We have not dealt with that. David Littlejohn is beginning to deal with it. William Katz has begun to deal with it as he deals with the phenomenon of black Indians. Okay? We’ve been dishonest with ourselves and we’ve lost a great deal of the American identity in the rush to have white supremacy and nice neat little categories. It has divided the American people and has divided American culture and made an artifact, a commodity so that it no longer really represents the people, it represents what the commercial folk want to make it.
My God, somebody made a hell of a lot of money controlling the imagery of what America is. All right? They made a lot of money. I’m not saying it’s a lie, but it made for a wonderful artifact, a wonderfully manufactured America. The culture of America is as much the result of assembly line-like behavior as the Model T Ford. The format of popular culture is easily imitated, and it is all over the world.
Maybe that’s what this globalization is all about: easily discernable categories, nothing that challenges the imagination at all really. Everything is surface. Maybe that’s what it really means to be living intensely on the edge, it’s continually present. I’ve not done drugs, you know, tobacco, smoked pot as a graduate student, I mean, who didn’t? But I could imagine LSD taking us to that edge, that moment. I could imagine cocaine doing the same thing, you know. For some people alcohol does it. Maybe, just maybe, this thing that they’re calling jazz that intensely engages us in the moment, is anxiety. Okay? It’s a music of transition. And it seems to me that it captures the urgency of having to do it now or there’s never every going to be another moment. And the thing that makes it viable nowadays is that I can take what you’ve done, what you’ve written, and make it my own, and it’ll never become my intellectual property because you own the copyrights and all of this stuff, but when I play it, when I do it, I’m leaving my mark on it. I leave my DNA on it, and anytime it comes back in this form, it’s mine. Know what I mean? From my performance. So originality is not really the key thing, it’s a matter of how one stylizes what’s coming through, what’s passing. I don’t care who did it. When it comes through me it’s gonna be mine. And I can make it mine. If anything, jazz is an attitude, you know. It’s an attitude. It’s not just music. It is an attitude about life in the moment. Know what I mean? So if you can capture that living intensely in the moment, then authenticity in this instance is a judgment about the level at which you live honestly in that intense moment, that artistic moment, within yourself. It’s almost as if your audience feels you making it up. You think about these wonderful jazz sessions where folks would just going out of their minds because they could feel the artists making it ...
The people who make these categories, they want to control things, but you can’t control somebody’s artistic moment.
BW: You said that by the time Bix came along, he was an exceptional figure to be playing jazz, exceptional as a white kid from Iowa.
FW: I would say that he was a white kid from Iowa had a lot to do with it. Maybe it was the geographical label, maybe, that he was from the Midwest. I mean, hell, there was in New York any number of white guys from Virginia and North Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, who were as white as Bix Beiderbecke, but who were black. I mean, they had African ancestry, some did, and a lot of them were playing jazz in New Orleans, as it were. So among black people it was not so horribly phenomenal to find a person, you know typically white, playing jazz music and playing it well. The clarinetist Sydney Bechet, and there were certainly others ... but the point I’m trying to make it was not Bix Beiderbecke’s phenotype in itself that made him exceptional. Because there were plenty of other phenotypes around who could play. It was the quality of the man’s playing, you know what I mean? You get with musicians, you know I used to go down to the musicians’ local and watch the guys get together to play, and just the memory, I was 12, 13, 14, 15 years old—
BW: Where was that?
FW: In Kansas City, Missouri. What sticks with me, those moments when things are really smokin’. Today they call it cookin’. When things are really cookin’. I don’t know whether smokin’, cookin’, or what, but there is that moment when there’s nothing that’s more real to be considered than experiencing the music. I mean, so it makes it possible, for example, you know, to sit and you’re listening to Bach, you follow a line, and you just watch it grow. You’re inside the music. You know what I mean? It’s the same thing. Bix Beiderbecke fit into that category. Pure art form. You know what I mean? We were achievin’ that pure art form in jazz, and everyone knew when they got there, but nobody could ever sort of map it out. It’s that kind of thing. I am absolutely certain that people made a lot of Bix Beiderbecke being white and being from Iowa, the geography and the phenotype might have had some meaning for people, but in itself, the phenotype had a hell of a lot less meaning for most of the black Southerners playing that music in New York because they’d seen the phenotype over and over again. It was the purity of the man’s sound. That’s performance. It takes a certain sort of internal mechanism that makes that worth. It has nothing to do with that external stuff. It’s what inside.
Maybe there was something in his background, something peculiar ... You know, if Bix Beiderbecke had been the son of a Jewish cantor and had these, you know, little turns and his phrasing, I’d say okay you can take it back to some of these Jewish sounds, these religious sounds and say, Hey, yeah, there’s something. Or, you know, there are other ways of tracing that. But I don’t know, I just think, you know, he was an artist.
Using the rhetoric of the day, it was highly unusual a white boy could play like that. It wasn’t the white boy-ness of it. It has something to do with his own individual talent. It was that sort of unique-ness.
BW: If people looked at him in the 20s in terms of his horn and his talent, then 40 years later, didn’t they look at him more in terms of the color of his skin?
FW: So it’s like 40 years later, we’re into the 60s, the political climate had shifted greatly, and it’s remarkable when we ask ourselves, not just in the black community, but across middlebrow American cultural life, that everything has to be standardized, you know, pasteurized, and that’s how it sold to that body. So that even the developing activism had its flavor and its rhetoric and the way it was reported and talked about by those outside of it who were observing it. So it seems then an easy leap from recognizing that kind of thing happening to saying that in effect almost any topic had to be filtered through the current rhetoric if we were going to resonate with the kind of political-social urgency of the day. Okay?
Now, it seems to me that one of the things the black community sort of revolved around an issue was also raised in the 1920s and that’s the question of the authenticity of black people. Talk about a black aesthetic. It’s extremely important in the 20s; as it was raised in the 20s in Harlem, so too it was raised in Paris by expert Africans, mostly West Indians, and later in London, pretty much across the African continent by the 1960s. Okay.
So now, to answer your question, I would like to filter through, to take whatever cometh, whatever assessment, and filter it through my understanding of the rhetoric of the period and say, Okay, what are these references. I would interested in two features. I would be interested in the writer’s psychological and sociological commitment as it’s revealed in the very language of his/her description of this environment where Bix Beiderbecke ... it’s a new language, it’s a very old method by Kenneth Burke, called Philosophy of Literary Form, 1939 in fact, the introduction will show you exactly how do it. Quasi-quantitative fashion, you go through and you see where the person, the writer is leaning psychologically and sociologically, and you can make some real understanding of where this person is coming from within the context of the 1960s. Black, white, blue, green, no matter who he is, no matter what his historical posture is.
Now, I would say that there is a certain political exigency and nobody in the 60s was writing anything that could be said to be divorce-able or separable from the politics, I mean even the wonderful and apolitical artists who wanted to put as much distance between themselves and the practicing activists—the very act itself of putting themselves at a distance caused them to create political acts. You could follow them psychologically and socially looking at their work. I mean, it’s there.
So, when you make an attempt to distinguish yourself as critic, as cultural observer, you have to be aware that one of the way of distinguishing yourself is being sure that you understand where you are aligning yourself psychologically and sociologically. And is it possible for you to write anything without having some reflection of your commitment revealed? I don’t know if it’s possible. A neutral rhetoric. I don’t know that it’s possible.
In the 1960s, in defense of the black nationalists’ posture, you need to have “Black is Beautiful” paraded around again, well, hell, any white man coming up doing anything akin to what black people were doing was merely imitating black people. You know? And so, you know, Hey, we don’t think we need to give him any credit. Look who created jazz. Look who made jazz. The one authentic American music. It’s my position that it’s authentic because it’s very exceptional, multi-racial, multi-cultural, and the thing that brings it together is that those people who were so intensely engaged and living in the moment, and that transcended all of those barriers, and each one of those groups contributing like mad.
There was a point at which, in the great cauldron of American life, African, the European, the Native American were altogether. The Germans talk about the germ out of the forest that gave rise to the great German character. And I’m saying there’s no such germ it seems to me, there are a lot of viruses. One of this whole New England Transcendentalist things is looking at the mind, looking at the individual in the presence of nature, the individual consciousness as it designs itself, or designs its consciousness of its own reality. And you watch how the Hegelian model for the phenomenology of spirit ...
Except on the American side, that Harvard group of the 70s up through the 90s, William James and others, a lot of really first-rate thinking, you later find that thinking retranslated later in Europe as phenomenology, semiotics, and all this other stuff. But this was a part of the American drift. I’m maintaining that in the same way, in a mirror-image sort of way, here out of the American woods comes these viruses. It settles in the city, and a number of people become infected by this one and then you find it going off in this direction and then off in another direction. And they become infected by it because the climate, the commercial and economic climate, whether it’s in the whorehouse or it’s on the street corner, will determine the strand of music that’s being doubled. Who’s the audience? If it’s in the whorehouse, they don’t give a shit where it came from, as long as it’s hoppin’. It becomes a mirror image of what it is they’re doing there, why they’re there.
What I’m saying is that we’ve missed the boat and it is highly likely that out there somewhere you’re going to find those people who’ve been trying to talk about it in these terms. I mean these books have already been written, these notes have already been written. So it’s not anything that’s new in Fred Woodard’s imagination. I’ve not read them. But I do not believe that I’m having an original thought. It might be new to me, it was new to me. Out of my own reading experience, I have not yet come up with the books that have approached things exactly that way.
Only Du Bois wrote about the music as if it had cultural implications. Not James Weldon Johnson or Langston Hughes. He called it double consciousness. And in the 1960s, the cultural black nationalists would say that the double consciousness was schizophrenic. There was no way for it to have any meaning as a critical, creative device. That one had to have the singularity of a commitment to blackness.
You have to ask yourself if some of them really believed a lot of the ridiculous stuff that they were saying. Well, hey. You educated son of a bitch, you’re not my audience. I’m talkin’ to them. I’m takin’ them for a ride. Right now, I’m gonna indoctrinate ’em on this, indoctrinate ’em on that. They were in a mode, overwhelmingly, of teaching. And for them the outcome was much more important than the means. Okay? The outcome. What were they looking at? They were looking toward helping common people in the closed, isolated walls of the ghetto realize that they were not the reason for their own victimhood. So you have to bring them out of a mindset. We forget what is going on as scholars. We say well, we have to be objective, la la la, we don’t know that for sure. Well, if we can’t read it, if we don’t have a document, we don’t know for sure. But there’s very little difference in what’s happened in creating the environment in the 1920s and the 1960s. The overwhelming difference is in numbers. There is an overwhelmingly large number, in the 60s, of literate black people who could get caught up in the whole movement. Marcus Garvey, of course, had managed to bring 2 or 3 million people into a dynamic black nationalist movement in the 20s, and for a while his propaganda had a similar ring. Black is beautiful, Marcus Garvey coined, it turns up again in the 60s.
So were white folks out copying black folks? In our tradition that’s signifying. [In black dialect.] Hey, hey man. Look at that white boy over here. Shee-it. He ain’t nothin’ but a white boy. He ain’t doin’ nothin’ but coppin’ me. You know? He ain’t got an original thought in his head. That’s the shit on the street. That’s how we do it. Secretly, in the 1960s, I may have loved the hell out of Bix Beiderbecke, I may well have maintained all the ideas that I have right now, but I’m gonna go down on the street where they got an argument going on, and all of the wonderful academic rhetoric ain’t gonna get me nowhere. If I don’t get a little kick in my talk, if I don’t kinda spit things out, and if I don’t sort of kick some ass, I ain’t nobody. I can’t stand there with a shirt and tie on and go, zee zoo baa baa ... They’ll go, Muthafucka, you crazy. And these might be guys with Ph.D.s up the ying yang. But you put them out on the street and start talkin’ the shit, your rhythm’s gonna change, everything’s gonna change. And it doesn’t make much sense to say, Well don’t print that. Well, for the most part it’s not going to be printed anyway.
But we find that oral attitude entering the world of print and you find LeRoi Jones, for example, signifyin’ like hell on everybody. There it is. What was interesting is that, Hey, man, belonging to the academy these days doesn’t mean you can’t still do the signifyin’. Like Henry Louis Gates, you create a whole way of doing the signifyin’. You attribute it to somebody else. That’s exactly what you wanna do. I maintain that Henry Louis Gates came up with signifyin’ because he wanted to do some signifyin’ on some muthafucka and he did it. But he attributed it to a larger culture. Yes, of course, he found it out there because it was there. But it was important for him to do it because it was his time to signify. And he did. Beautiful act. Wonderful jazz movement. And in a number of ways, it was just the prescription Ralph Ellison gives. Unpredictable. But all of a sudden when it comes, you recognize it. Aww, I’ve seen that before. How did I let it creep up on me? You know what I mean?
What I’m saying now, in another context, when I talk about the folk culture that has been attributed largely to black people, the folk culture and the attributes that have been attributed largely to black people, and black people have owned it because it was necessary to hang on to something in a society that was isolating people into these sort of ethnic groups. They certainly weren’t in the business of being the doctors and the lawyers and other kinds of stuff. You weren’t the captains of culture, all right? So they had something that gave them a little bit of respectability. They’re not all true, they’re not all wrong, but let’s take it and go dance with it. If it’s got some value, let it teach us how to get out. All right? Come one. Come on, y’all. Let’s go on down the road.
The bigger beauty of all of this, and part of what Henry Louis Gates has managed to do, is to capture the real spirit, the real attitude of it, and I’m saying that Henry Louis Gates can capture the attitude because he has seen it in abundance in categories that have been attributed to black people. But I’d say that Bix Beiderbecke caught the attitude because he was there, he could see, he could feel, it was something that appealed to him, something that he had in him.
You can go back to Beiderbecke and say, Hey, man. I don’t care what color the dude is. The way he’s doin’ it, and the environment he’s doin’ it in, nobody can touch that muthafucka.
BW: I’m trying to figure out where Albert Murray figures into this. He uses blues as a metaphor for black experience, but he also sees it as a kind of musical fountainhead for jazz and all sorts of authentic black expression.
FW: Albert Murray considers himself a very decent musician and, certainly like Stanley, he considers himself a kind of aficionado. He understands the traditions and is able to get inside where people are, you know, what’s going on. But there’s another thing that’s very interesting and that is that Albert Murray has latched on to, or has made a kind of ideology out of authentic African-American aesthetic or reality. I say none of those muthafuckas is being very honest with themselves because they’re not really basing it on the fact that this Negro stuff, this African American stuff, is really made up. It’s a social construct and it’s a political construct [tape ends]
I don’t know what history would be like if we weren’t engaged in creating these myths, I mean, we’re creating contemporary folk material. It’s all folklore, you know? We’re creating folklore. We don’t recognize it as that because we’re creating these nice little categories that our publishers have got all set up and we’ve the market da da da da da and on and on, and we’ll put on the back of your book sociology or art history, and that puts you in a nice little category. But that doesn’t say anything about the content of that book.
I’m not a spoil sport, and I’m not a philosopher. But you know, it seems to me, in a central Socratic sort of way, that someone has to keep posing questions about what all this shit means. I’m afraid that there are those books out there that have started to broach the same questions, but fifty years ago, hundred years ago. They’re out there, but it’s too easy to see through the political and social constructs of American knowledge, historical-social knowledge. Someone has made a hell of a lot of money out of America, America as commodities.
And I think maybe Albert Murray is defending a commodity. There would be no category under which Albert Murray could write if he could not write for the category made available to him. And in this regard I think he is the great compromise, he’s making a compromise, he’s compromising black, he likely knows what people will buy. The same goddamn thing with Stanley Crouch. You know what I mean? One of the things that’s so different, it seems to me, with Baraka, Baraka will go inside an idea, he’ll go inside a construct, and wear it like a hat for three, four five days or three four five years. And when he’s done with it, you can go through and trace and see the artistic embellishments that he’s made on it, and when he abandons it, it’s gone. He’s got another hat, and he plays out the implications of that.
And I’m more sympathetic to Baraka for the variety of ways in which he takes us ... it’s intellectual graffiti. Okay? So what? It’s there. And he moves on to the next thing. And he moves on to the next. You say, Well, where’s his commitment? Huh? I’m committed to every single one of those. You know? He was committed to every single one of those at the time that he was in it, so he could explore those honestly. And I would say, he would say, that he was authentically involved in each one of them. All right? And it becomes a kind of radical empiricism that he’s engaged in. Okay?
It’s not the character of either Albert Murray nor Ralph Ellison. There’s something inauthentic and made-up about each one of them, for me, all right?
Sorry. I mean, the last time Jim McPherson talked to Ralph Ellison on the phone, and I was at Jim’s house and had a choice to talk to him, I didn’t want to. We’re from the same neck of the woods, Oklahoma. But when I read Ralph Ellison I get a sense of I’m following his tracks, and I say, okay, here he’s a fox, there though he’s a wolf. And over here maybe a coyote, all right? And all of it’s all right, okay? But when he comes at me as a coyote and tries to convince me that he’s a wolf, I ain’t buyin’ those tickets, you know what I mean? But you have to pay attention. Just like one gets inside where the music is going, you read and you read what this guy has agreed to let go as the final copy, you’re inside that. You can see when he’s decided to take one too many gulps and it doesn’t go down the right track and he’s coughin’ and stumblin’.
So this authenticity is I’m afraid commercial. In the academy now there’s still this argument about authenticity. You have to worry about, well when did this business come up? Authentically black? Well, you know, it comes out of the great mix, of that post-bellum period when blacks are really for the first time en masse now perceived as a suffering sort of ethnic group. All right? That became the political reality out there.
This whole idea of authenticity, I think it’s a hoax, quite frankly. I mean in my heart of hearts, philosophically, I see no way of justifying it. Politically I say yeah. Because the political reality is such that you have to keep track of interests in the political sphere. I mean if you are a political animal, you have to know what’s up. But that goes for all other ethnic groups as well. So you say that whatever is authentically African American in political terms, that’s on the fuckin’ books. What’s going down in the Supreme Court, what’s going down in the local scene, what’s going down in the national scene? That’s when you see the incarceration rate of African American males and you see that as a pattern in American life that hasn’t changed since slavery, then you have to ask some questions about the nature of this society, its judicial organization as it relates to the black male. Okay? That is an authentic question, my friend. Okay? It’s an authentic question.
But you ask me a similar thing about music? It doesn’t have the same urgency.
You can agree that you’re engaged in a certain kind of entertainment. First of all you entertain yourself by engaging yourself in the research and asking these questions. Then you make some discoveries along the way, and now you want to share these discoveries with an audience. So you take your notes and you start structuring this presentation. It’s a performative act in a way from the first word to the end. And you know that. So you start writing and before you know it, you get to the end and this becomes a draft. You read through the draft several times and you begin to see how it’s moving and you see some form, it has an interesting presence to it. And you decide, okay, this is a performative act. I’ve rehearsed it many times. I’ve gone through this rehearsal. Now I want to plan for the opening night. We know that this opening night is going to be the permanent stamp. That this artifact unlike a play on the stage will not be subject once it’s in print it’s going to be that way, the way it goes out there forever unless there’s a new edition but this one will be out there forever.
What’s at stake here, okay? Who is Bix Beiderbecke anyway? Those of us who’ve lived in Davenport have some sentimental attachment to him.
So what new thing can you add to what’s already out there? Is it your sentimental attachment that’s important or is there something else about the account of that man’s movement through time and space and what he produced that’s really sort of interesting? What Brendan is interested in is that line, that division that becomes clear after or perhaps as he’s in the process of putting it all together. The focus is on the man and what can compel my journey, Brendan’s journey into this world and becomes an occasion for a composition, and it is a composition, a composition that you want to come off as if it is interestingly improvised. And all that you manage to collect and gather is playing at the edges of your consciousness, but you’re driving through this lane all by yourself collecting and you’re playing this tune. And that’s like the instrumental piano. You know, so you’ve got the whole orchestral range. The point that I’m making, this truth that you’re searching for is the purple egg, you know? And who knows where the purple egg is, you know? And as you’re going, you’ll have all kinds of visions about where the purple egg is, you know what I mean? But it cannot come before you start orchestrating this possibility.