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.