Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Richard Pryor Show

Out in Ontario where he believed the women and money were supposed to be, Richard Pryor was looking at the latest Newsweek (June 17, 1963) when he came across a full-page article on a black stand-up comedian whose name was not Richard Pryor. In the article, Bill Cosby explained that he didn’t tell “Negro jokes,” and that the reason he didn’t tell Negro jokes is that “I’m trying to reach all of the people. I’m trying to reach John Q. Public.”
“Goddamn it,” Pryor said to the close friend and fellow comedian who had talked him into Ontario in the first place, “this nigger’s doing what I’m fixing to do. Ain’t no room for two niggers.” That’s when he went to New York.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Dramatic Needs: Marvin Gaye's _Trouble Man_

The way the story most often gets told, Marvin Gaye with What’s Going On (1971) liberated himself from Motown’s formulaic method of music-making and achieved total artistic independence, whereupon the music—if not, to be sure, the man himself—went on to live happily ever after. But the story gets told incompletely, because What’s Going On was only the start of it—it was how Gaye leveraged the potential for his independence, but it wasn’t how he ventured out and completely seized that independence. To tell that story, you have to tell about Trouble Man.

It’s a story that can now be told more elaborately, with a wonderful fortieth anniversary reissue of the original album, complete with some newly released material and a supplementary booklet.Trouble Man is absolutely sui generis within the Marvin Gaye canon for being not only a blaxploitation film soundtrack—the only film score he would ever do—but for being jazz-based and largely instrumental. The booklet does a commendable job articulating Trouble Man’s importance, while the artifact itself sings, as always, with perfect eloquence to the same thing. Except that now it sings even better.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Parker's Theme: An Overture

To get that quiver he wanted, he’d take the reed of his saxophone and make it just the right kind of fine, applying sandpaper, fire, and knife. “He was trying everything he could think of to push his pitches through the horn quicker,” writes Stanley Crouch in Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker, “to make them as blunt as snapping fingers when the inspiration demanded.” To get the right sound, he’d even risk brass poisoning, taking his Brilhart mouthpiece and filing it down to the way he thought it should be, the way that would eliminate vibrato and make his clean sound even cleaner. The older guys would warn him about the saxophonist who’d gotten sick that way. But Charlie Parker knew what he was doing, and before long other players were giving him their horns and asking him to do theirs, too.
In later years — those after Crouch’s first-of-two-parts biography concludes — players everywhere would try to follow Parker’s lead, and not just sax players, either. His was the kind of genius that transcended instrument — that in fact transcended music itself. A beatnik icon, hero to the hipsters, it’s impossible to say just how many ruined their lives in trying to mimic Parker’s drug habit (horrific even by the standards of mid-century jazz musicians), or their art in trying to mimic his transcendent musical liberation. What many failed to realize is that not only does genius pick its spots, but genius, fully realized, comes at a cost. It was a cost Parker had paid in the form of dogged devotion to the possibilities of his craft — the kind of devotion that finds its own ways, after the old ways are all used up; the kind that does whatever’s necessary to realize itself, even if it means inventing new kinds of sacrifice.

How Leonard Schneider Became Lenny Bruce

Maybe it really was those days and nights out at sea that did it. Stationed aboard a Navy destroyer in his late teens and early twenties, young Leonard Schneider would “[s]ometimes . . . talk out loud up on the bow,” vocalizing all those thoughts he’d be thinking because, after all, “out at sea you have a lot of time to think. All day and all night I would think about all kinds of things.” A couple decades later, when he wrote his memoir, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People (1965), that’s how Lenny Bruce chose to frame his stylistic development—or this aspect of it, anyway: “[t]his process of allowing one subject spontaneously to associate itself with another.” Which is, Lenny added none too modestly, “equivalent to James Joyce’s stream of consciousness.”

I’ll leave to others any comparisons with Joyce, but to pursue the question of where Bruce got his style—not just his free-form and -flowing spritz but the entire repertoire, the slang, the Yiddishisms, the scandalous and sacrosanct subject-matter—we need to take our inquiry beyond the sailor’s lonely days and nights at sea and into the places where Bruce began honing his craft in earnest, after getting himself discharged—by pretending to be a cross-dresser—from the Navy.