MIXED BAG: #3
1.) It was THE NEW YORKER’s jazz critic Whitney Balliett who first used the phrase “the sound of surprise” to describe the effect of a good performance on the listener. Now while Balliett was using it in regard to a jazz performance, it is equally applicable to other forms of African American performances, including blues. I first heard B.B. King in 1964 at The Apollo Theatre (O&S # 56) and over many decades since that first experience I can say that Balliett’s phrase still holds true – B. always plays SOMEthing that I’ve never heard him play before, no matter the time and place (I last heard him in person here in Sydney a number of years ago). That is one of the beauties of African American musics, to take something “the same” and making something “different” with or within it. Now, B.’s repertoire may be relatively predictable, although I’ve noted changes over maybe forty years and he is able to find something there to be continually creative with.*
This is a marvelous ability that the truly great have, an ability to make the listener take note (no pun intended) of what is being performed, of incorporating them into the musical community at hand, no matter how small or how temporary. For B. it is his guitar playing; for Eddie Kirkland (O&S # 49, 50, 51) it was his intensity and energy; for Peg Leg Sam (O&S # 16) it was being able to incorporate his community into his performance, be it Mariposa or Jonesville, and make it their own. Not all musicians can reach such a level of sublimity, but the good ones resonate in some way with their audience that is meaningful. The best can go beyond their own small, immediate community, if given the chance. And a good and knowledgeable audience, secular or sacred, can tell if it’s “real” or not. I’ll always remember the cry from a guy in the back of The Apollo as B. was getting into a guitar solo: “Play it as long as you like… I’m off tonight!” He knew, and so did all those around him, the sound of surprise.
* I have a DVD of material recorded at B.B.’s club in Memphis that my family recorded for me off-air from SBS-TV here in Oz. He still is giving surprise today, even though slowed down and sitting. A marvel.
2.) It was in 1962 that another form of surprise took place for me. As a sort of “thank you” to my father for introducing me to big (jazz) bands, I purchased tickets for a concert at Town Hall, a theatre in NYC. The band that night was my primary deity, Duke Ellington, who was always worth a listen and who my father had never heard in person. This time there was to be a “special guest” on the program. The first half of the concert was a standard early sixties Ellington performance, with the usual repertoire being played by the usual suspects. And very well, indeed.
The second half of the program began with the curtain rising on the band in full swing (no pun intended). The oddity was the presence of a guitar amplifier seated on one of those metal folding chairs stage left of the band. Then this old guy, grey-haired and seeming to be walking with some care, entered Stage left, went over to the amp, and plugged in an electric guitar! My father found this a bit odd, but I sat back and smiled… the old guy was Lonnie Johnson!!
Now Johnson and Ellington had (ostensibly) last played together in the studio in the late twenties. How much rehearsal (if any) they had, I don’t know, but the familiar (to me) guitar runs tumbled forth and magic happened. As his program went ahead, the band seemed to levitate as they backed him. Even the dourly inscrutable Johnny Hodges was seen to smile! I cannot recollect the songs, but they were the expected Johnsonian mix of blues and old pop tunes. The band dug right in and supplied a magnificent background for Lonnie, who seemed to straighten up and get stronger as the set progressed.
And then it was over. I was elated, and my Dad was impressed and I was able to have demonstrated how my blues interest intersected with jazz. While I was too shy back then to approach the Duke, I did manage to get backstage – there was Lonnie, almost alone, packing up his equipment. I told him how much I enjoyed his performance and his music overall. He signed my program inside the back cover – I still have that program with all my stuff stored back in New Jersey.
3.) Such opportunities to thank the “oldies” are rare, since so many have died before the chance arises, but I had another experience a few years later. On one of my first trips to Chicago, Jim O’Neal asked if I’d like to go and see Tampa Red – of course I would. We went to his apartment where he lived with his lady friend (before she died and he had to go into a “home”). Small and frail, he launched into a monologue about God and the Devil and their respective musics and all. Jim said later that that was his normal preamble with visitors like us at that time. I was just honored to meet him and I told him how much his music meant to me. Whether or not it made his feel good or not, I’ll never know, but I certainly came away feeling good – it’s nice to be able to say “thank you” to those who’ve unknowingly given you so much pleasure.
4.) Of course, there were more times when the person has died long before you came along, or dies suddenly before you can say “thanks”. Two instances (one of each) come to mind in my experience, ones that I dealt with in the same week. One of Bastin and my initial informants in Georgia was Cora Mae Bryant, the daughter of Curley Weaver. She introduced us to many folks, some musicians, some not. She took us to the grave yard where her father was buried and whose grave was marked only by a small metal frame with some information written on some paper that was fading over time placed there by the funeral home at burial. Hardly a marker to say “this was someone important to the outside world” – headstones were just too expensive for many poor folks with more important living goals in mind, like survival. This bothered me and I thought about it for a long time.
When Baby Tate died suddenly in 1972 (O&S # 11), I was abruptly unable to say “thank you” to my friend, who opened up the whole Spartanburg/Greenville area of SC to Bastin and myself. So I took it upon myself to do something and went to a stone cutting establishment in Spartanburg and had two headstones made, one for Tate and one for Curley. Each had their name, dates, and a song title quote (“See What You Done Done” and “”Tricks Ain’t Walkin’ No More”) on each. I took the one to the cemetery in South Spartanburg where Tate was buried: there was another there from the Army… the birth date was different from the one on mine and his death certificate! So I placed it at the other end of his grave. The second one I took with me to Covington, GA and showed it to Cora Mae – she seemed pleased. The two of us then took it out to where Curley was buried and placed it at the head of his grave. A different form of “thank you” to those who supplied the sound of surprise to my life.*
Peter B. Lowry
Published: BLUES & RHYTHM
*According to Michael Grey, author of a good bio of Willie McTell, Cora Mae may have become less enamored of it in her later years; my name was the proverbial mud when he went around to her – maybe I should have used a different song title (like “Some Cold Rainy Day”), but she exhibited no dislike over what I had done. It’s all theorizing, innit?