Louis Armstrong Back in the Day

Louis Armstrong Back in the Day
With His Signature White Handkerchief and Smile

The significance of the blues aesthetic for those who are not professionally conversant in musical notation or the academic discipline of music or jazz history.

Thursday, February 16

Leela James: My Neo-Soul R&B Hero (or Heroine) and Other Heroes: Nina Simone, Etc.

This Leela James is bad as in very very good.

 Whitney Houston's death has me really thinking about this thing called Neo-Soul.  I never really cared that much about Houston's material.  I always felt like she never got to sing the right stuff despite the brilliance of the voice, a voice which just got richer and richer as she got older and more troubled.  But I also understand why people couldn't hear that.

Recently had the opportunity to view two documentaries about Nina Simone (one on Netflix and another independent) a few times, as well as a documentary on HBO on Mavis Staples, and briefly a documentary about Roberta Flack. Since I always loved Nina Simone, when she died in 2003 and the Columbia Jazz Station did a memorial in which they played her music non-stop for several days, I taped it all on cassettes and then played them on my Walkman for years, in fact until I switched to an IPod. 

At the time, the opportunity to purchase Nina Simone's music was in disarray or maybe it was just what was beginning to happen to the music industry in the transition through these various technologies to our current moment of internet streaming. 

At that time, Simone's copyrights still were not clear I am guessing. As she said in the 70s at Montreux: "I made 35 albums and they bootlegged 70! Everybody got a piece of me.".(See What Happened Ms. Simone?)

At the time I had several Simone albums that I had played forever and taped--Nuff Said, Baltimore. I remember I found Baltimore albums in the Yale Bookstore in 1980 in New Haven for $2 a piece. I was so thrilled by it I bought all they had and gave them as gifts. Albums were phasing out and at the time Simone was way out, not respected musically by all sorts of jazz fans (but these were always men and I never let that phase me) and I was wondering where she was because she had been an unforgettable aspect of my childhood. Summertime was the first song I ever learned to sing that wasn't a hymn as I recall. The second had to be I Love You Porgy, Simone's hit of 1959.  I kept up with her as best I could.

The challenge was to track this music down on the cds that were available when I wanted to upgrade to cds. The memorial broadcast in 2002 gave me my first real chance to update my collection, to figure out her repertoire and to understand how many substantially different versions there were recorded and the ones I wanted to collect. I had done something similar when building my collection of Billie Holiday, and Sarah Vaughn, and Dinah Washington, three particular favorites. Once I really got into R&B and Gospel, I had done the same thing with Aretha Franklin and Mahalia Jackson because the market was so devious and repetitive. That is to say you could buy three "albums" or cds and find that they all had the same songs, or almost entirely the same songs. It was a racket of some sort. Who knows who it benefited but I couldn't afford to buy the same album three times. And what seemed to go with it was the general perception by people who ordinarily could be counted upon to have an expert opinion of music that the person in question was largely overrated. As soon as they said that about any woman singer, especially somebody who's music had provided the soundtrack to my childhood (such as Mahalia Jackson), I began investigating what happened and when because most people don't listen to a lot of anybody's music, especially somebody they don't like. In addition, there are many artists who can only be properly enjoyed in person. I would say this is still true, for instance of Toshi Reagon and Meshell Negedecello. Not that there aren't albums. Just that the live performances are stll a lot richer and this has to do with, I guess, production money.

Anyhow part of this is learning what the career of the artist has actually been like, the record companies they recorded with and how they treated them, especially if they were also political. In almost every case, there are long hiatuses in which there is no recording taking place--for various reasons: either they are being blackballed by the industry, or they are fighting over royalties, or there are health issues. Most of the time I am rarely satisfied with the answers. But one thing that is going on, which is usually frankly admitted in the accounts is that somebody in the record industry is trying to turn the singer into a successful pop artist, by which I take this to mean they are trying to get that mainstream audience that likes very bland music and lots of it. In the process, they be making it difficult for you to find and hear the unique artist in which people such as myself are interested. 

With black women artists, sometimes they can just simply disappear, even as they are no doubt our most successful and prominent artists. There is this excitement right now around Nina Simone, just as there continues to be around Billie Holiday. While this is a mixed blessing indeed, where are the books and the documentaries and the stage shows about Odetta, Mahalia Jackson, Dinah Washington, so many others.  And then we get the crazy comparisons. Any artist of the 60s has to be compared to Aretha Franklin. Not like Aretha Franklin is some kind of password. Well nobody is or ever was like Aretha Franklin

I don't know why people don't understand that R&B is about deep trouble in the soul.  And that it has never been about perfect voices, perfect pitches or what white folks think or can figure out.  Not that I don't just love white folks and their music from rock to country to gospel and so forth. It just suddenly began to come together for me one day when I was 60.

Of the great soul sounds Al Green, James Brown, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Chaka Khan, god knows who else: I was a child.  I danced to this music.  I loved this music.  I need it still for my soul and I loved to dance on the dance floor, in my house, in the shower, in the street, Sometimes I would dance and sing all day in the street and not worry too much about whether people thought I was crazy.

But when I was a young woman I thought R&B was essential but I didn't think it was the important music.  The important music was Charlie Parker, Coltrane, Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, Etta James.  There were hundreds of the most most superb instrumentalists, blues, jazz and gospel vocalists and a familiarity with this repertoire was why I got up in the morning.  Of course, visual art was equally important to me but I was less successful in sharing this with other black folks. 

For years I tried to teach blues gospel jazz vocals at CCNY, the young people had their own versions, largely a form of hiphop.Then came Neo-Soul and I finally got it. It was pointless to teach them the old stuff until I could teach in a real quality educational institution rather than the CUNY system, which is very serious about music (great program with its own wood paneled library carved into the walls of Sheppard Hall) but not music for other than music students, not for students of the humanities, which is where I am situatedBut that is a grave mistake because music, especially Neo-Soul and all that came before is essential to our knowledge of our legacy.  

Michele Wallace

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