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Meeting Ma Rainey

As films depicting imaginary incidents from a real life go, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom doesn’t cut it. A version of August Wilson’s 1982 stage play, it falls into just about every trap laid for those who attempt to translate theatre to cinema. Viola Davis, as Rainey, is sensationally good, and Chadwick Boseman, playing the last role of his life as an angry young cornet-player, scarcely less marvellous, but that’s really all there is to recommend it. Even the music, directed by Branford Marsalis, seems tame.

It did remind me, though, of encountering Ma Rainey as a major figure in the first book I ever read about jazz. Rudi Blesh’s Shining Trumpets was first published in the US in 1946 and in the UK three years later. Towards the end of the next decade there was a copy in my school’s library, which I could read during lunch breaks and the free periods we were given for study. At that stage my knowledge of the music had moved beyond The Glenn Miller Story, but not all that far, particularly in terms of the music’s origins. So Shining Trumpets, subtitled “A History of Jazz”, was a revelation, despite being written by a man who considered the music of Duke Ellington to be “decadent” and saw Billie Holiday as “merely a smart entertainer”. By then I knew enough to question those views, while recognising the value of Blesh’s belief that jazz was a form of high art which owed pretty much everything to its African origins. In that sense he set a boy of 13 or 14 on the right track, although his path was straighter and narrower than mine would become.

Rather bracingly, his book began with a tabulated comparison between “African survivals” in jazz and what he called “Deformations”, illustrated by the contrast, for example, between Tendency to use any melody or harmonic pattern as a basis for free improvisation of melody (admirable) and Straight playing of melody (or) mere embellishment or rhapsody (deplorable). His ideal of “hot jazz” featured the use of intonation free of the fixed European scale, vocalised instrumental tones, displaced accents and polyrhythms, collective improvised antiphony and polyphony. He particularly disliked the infusion of influences from European classical music. He died in 1985, aged 86, and I have no idea what he made of Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler, who restored those characteristics to jazz at a time when bebop, “progressive jazz” and the West Coast sound had taken the music into areas that would have earned his wholehearted disapproval. Or if he even heard them.

Nevertheless he was responsible for implanting in the mind of this listener the useful idea that the music came from West Africa via slave ships, cotton fields and chain gangs, and that there was a direct line from gospel singing and field hollers to whatever was on the cover of the latest issue of Down Beat. His arguments were backed up by musicology that was impressively diligent and open-minded. The book’s appendices include musical examples quoted in the text, carefully transcribed for Blesh by the modern classical composer Lou Harrison (a student of Schoenberg); another contemporary composer, Virgil Thompson, provided encouragement. And the author never for a moment attempts to divorce the music from its social and cultural contexts.

Shining Trumpets was where I first met the protagonist of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. She was one of his heroes, representing to him a perfect example — like Jelly Roll Morton, Baby Dodds and King Oliver — of the application of great artistry to the raw materials of which he approved. “Ma Rainey’s singing, monumental and simple, is by no means primitive,” he wrote while discussing recordings such as “Shave ‘Em Dry Blues” and “See See Rider”. “It is extremely conscious in its use of her full expressive means, definitely classic in its purity of line and its rigid avoidance of the decorative. Such art as this must, of necessity, transcend the level of the spontaneous and purely instinctive. Thus her effects are carefully calculated and full of meaning; they are neither naïve nor spurious, sentimental nor falsely sophisticated. Rainey’s voice is sombre but never harsh, and its sad and mellow richness strikes to the heart.”

I hadn’t read the book for almost 60 years until I came across a second-hand copy last year and bought it for purely nostalgic reasons. I’d forgotten, if I ever realised it, how well Blesh wrote, and how hard he, an Ivy League graduate, tried to get to what he saw as the music’s essence. He could dismiss Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” as “an atmospheric bit of musical stuff too gauzy to hold a tragic content”, but he could also write this about what he heard while listening to the 78 of Blind Willie Johnson’s “Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed”: “In the record grooves are frustrated loneliness, hungry poverty, fanatical devotion to heaven, and the ascetic waiting for it. He enunciates cruel and peremptory phrases in a voice harsh and burred; in one that is thick, rough and crooning, he answers with pathetic melodic downward turns that are like appeasements, conciliations, solaces, and pardons. Throughout, the guitar, sweet and ringing, weaves a polyphony with the singer. These are, by implication, the voices of many people.”

You don’t get the sense that, unlike some of his contemporaries, Blesh wanted to freeze the music at the point he loved it best. He was keen for it to continue its development, as long as it adhered to the standards he upheld. Inevitably he sometimes patronised the musicians of whom he wrote, committing the error of wanting them to do things his way rather than theirs. He believed he had seen the truth of their condition, and was prepared to advise them on how best to express it in their art. Although he adored Louis Armstrong’s early work, he claimed that the trumpeter failed to understand the responsibility of accepting the baton handed on in turn by Buddy Bolden, Freddie Keppard and King Oliver: “Had Armstrong understood his responsibility as clearly as he perceived his own growing artistic power — had his individual genius been as deeply integrated into that of the music, and thus ultimately with his destiny, of his race — designated leadership would have been just.” Sadly, he felt, Armstrong had been diverted by the tides of commerce, as exemplified by his recordings with the big bands which did away with the principle of collective improvisation birthed in New Orleans. Blesh’s conclusion: “Jazz itself is revolutionary: Armstrong’s act was that of counter-revolution.”

At this distance, the offence is more picturesque than distasteful, but it does make me think of the best line in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. “White folks don’t understand about the blues,” Rainey says. “They hear how it comes out, but they don’t know how it got there.” No matter how deeply one loves the music, how closely one studies its history and how genuinely one admires its creators, that’s always something to reckon with.

* Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is on Netflix. Rudi Blesh’s Shining Trumpets was published by Alfred A. Knopf in the US and by Cassell & Co in the UK.

** Due to authorial carelessness, the original version of this post gave the name of the actress playing Ma Rainey as “Viola Wills”. The film was also mischaracterised as a “biopic”. Both these errors, pointed out by readers, have been corrected.

19 Comments Post a comment
  1. Trevor Barre #

    I quite enjoyed the film, whilst I can see that it’s clearly an adaptation of a play. Jazz ‘purists’ will clearly find fault with its many presentational ‘impurities’, I’m sure (even the grotty studio looks ‘arty’).

    Boseman and Wills were indeed great, and their performances ensure that the film should deserve due attention, certainly enough to warrant a recommendation?.

    I’m not sure why Richard is so dismissive here – rather than hearing about this antique, madeleine-like book, I’d have been much more interested in a more detailed dissection of the perceived failings of the film. (I understand that this is a personal blog, not a work of film criticism, but even so…)

    It’s yet another ‘jazz film’ that seems to have fallen short in the eyes of the cognoscenti. Will there ever be one that fully passes the test? The recent Miles Davis biopic was truly terrible.

    December 28, 2020
    • GuitarSlinger #

      ALL biopics … by the very nature of the beast ( placing the majority of their emphasis on entertainment and profit … not facts or history ) …

      ….. are a waste of effort on the part of the viewer … proving once again the adage ;

      ‘ The more you pander to the bottom end of the curve … the lower the bottom end becomes ‘

      December 28, 2020
  2. Tom Hudak #

    The second, well written and even handed review I came across today (the other being the Washington Post’s review of the latest Harold Bloom book). Thanks, I’ll check out Shining Trumpets though I probably won’t be able to resist also checking on Black Bottom. I’ll accept a little staginess in return for getting a big budget production of a jazz-centric story on screen.

    December 28, 2020
  3. GuitarSlinger #

    Amen.. hear hear and two thumbs on your review of that … errr .. film Richard . Hideously inane barely comes close .

    Truly … a waste of celluloid ( or digital ) as well as a waste of time .

    December 28, 2020
  4. Richard,
    Sorry to disagree. The film was an A-1 depiction of how blacks see whites and vice versa, and see themselves. And it’s not a biopic is it? It’s a scene from a recording session, packed with stories of how people treat each other. And, man, it’s Viola Davis. Come on….ZS

    December 28, 2020
    • I know, I know. Viola Davis. A bit of brain-slip, now corrected. And it was lazy of me to refer to the film as a biopic; I’ve amended that, too, with a more accurate form of words. My last paragraph was an attempt to address, very briefly, the justified concern of your second sentence. The whole business surrounding the effective theft of Levee’s songs rang very true and I should have said so.

      December 29, 2020
  5. Martin Newman #

    It`s all very well having an intellectual approach to music for those whose material needs are relatively secure.It is then only arrogant to resent Louis Armstrong singing “Hello Dolly”,one of his more commercial moves ,instead of pushing the art-form of jazz to new heights. Look what blues has done for social transformation by being popularly accepted by both blacks and whites whose reactions to a sound were more instinctive.
    By the way, what`s the music like in this new film ?

    December 29, 2020
  6. Mick Steels #

    I quite enjoyed the film bearing in mind it was effectively a recording of a stage play. The dialogue between the musicians seemed authentic enough and Ms Davis was impressive.
    People of my generation worshipped Bessie Smith and tended to overlook Ma Rainey a situation that needs rectifying.
    I remember once turning up at Ronnie’s in 1974 expecting to see Bill Evans but got the wrong week and a certain Viola Wills was performing with Gonzalez – not quite the same

    December 29, 2020
  7. Mr Blesh was evidently a very interesting person with intriguing ideas and tastes – I knew him as the writer of the first authorised biography of Buster Keaton.

    December 29, 2020
  8. I enjoyed reading the thoughts on Blesh, but I’ll join the caucus that would be interested in you extending your thoughts on the film. Saying that you thought it had two great performances but that the film failed makes one wonder where the rub was for you.

    December 29, 2020
  9. Colin Harper #

    As you’ve done with Blesh, Richard, it’s always fascinating and worthwhile, I think, to go back and see how artists, recordings, events, etc. were perceived ‘at the time’ – especially if there has been a lot of mythologising about such a person/thing since, resulting in received wisdom or anachronism.

    As an example, I hope you won’t mind me saying that I was intrigued when I chanced upon your opinion of ‘Let it Be’, the song, at the time of release in an old MM a while back. For someone my age, it is impossible to think of a time when that song didn’t exist and with the sort of resonance it does today… but to you in the MM office one wet Wednesday, unburdened with all that, it lacked the heft to become a McCartney classic, or words to that effect. Maybe lots of people thought the same at the time, but it’s impossible to know, now that’s it’s become a world hymn of sorts – unassailable.

    Going back further, to the likes of British and European jazz gurus like Albert McCarthy, Sinclair Trail, Hugues Panassie et al. in the 1950s-60s is just as intriguing. I was reading Panassie in a 1955 MM only last week trying to make the case that bebop was a momentary blip that should be regarded as not even jazz – a different music (that had run its course) – and that, yes, jazz must progress but that he had identified artists other than Dizzy etc. who had progressed in the same period along a line of jazz that was, to him, purer. It’s extraordinary, when sifting through vintage jazz mags, to find how (a) self-important and (b) influential a number of these commentators were at the time!

    But while it’s easy to mock the likes of Hugues or Ken Colyer for choosing their own lines in the sand and reckoning that real jazz stopped there or that any jazz progress should only follow a pretty narrow line from that point, one must admire their passion – and in Hugues’ case, maybe there was *something* in his argument about a parallel (more conservative) progressive line during the early bebop era – though maybe it was that line, rather than bebop, that withered on the vine or drifted into the margins.

    On Louis Armstrong’s supposed selling-out to commercialism, the coverage around his ‘second coming’ 50s visit to Britain, to play a series of Empire Pool shows on a revolving stage, is great stuff to read from afar. All the hardcore jazz buffs were pained at the nature of his show – a kind of variety bill with a load of duffers and the Louis playing… more variety type stuff, with a featured vocalist nobody seemed to like. It seems to me that Louis was a black man from racist America who had found a way to make a living as a musician – good for him!

    December 29, 2020
    • Mick Steels #

      Apropos of this if anyone wants to view old copies of music magazines in particular the halcyon days of MM this is a good link

      December 30, 2020
      • Colin Harper #

        Alternatively, one can painstakingly build up a collection over years from eBay, vintage magazine dealers and the like! 🙂

        December 30, 2020
      • Trevor Barre #

        I had a pretty comprehensive collection of NME’s from around 1972 to 1980. There were issues around storage space and conditions that couldn’t be ignored. Like a lot of obsessive men, I got rid of the several fee-high pile once I moved in with my girlfriend (now wife of some 34 years)

        December 30, 2020
      • Trevor Barre #

        Hi Mick,

        Thanks for posting this link to old Melody Makers. I’m currently researching for a book on the Musicians’ Co-operative. The Co-op lasted from 1970 to 1975, which, unfortunately is where the entries peter out? Do you have any idea as to why this is, and/or where i could access editions from those years?

        It’s a fascinating journey back to my teenage years going through the late-60s editions!

        December 30, 2020
      • Colin Harper #

        The British Library have a full collection of MMs, Trevor – some microfiche only, some in bound volumes. Humanities II reading room. It’s easy enough to join. I often had to travel to London (from Belfast) to research things involving old MMs. Hence building up my own collection.

        December 30, 2020
      • Trevor Barre #

        Thanks Colin. I will also ty the Light on Jazz Library.

        December 30, 2020
      • Mick Steels #

        Best to keep checking additions to site feature, as recently as 3 days ago quite a number of years were added.
        I concur about the late-60s copies very easy to get lost in them for a considerable time!

        December 30, 2020

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