Saturday, December 29, 2012

Why Esperanza Spalding Matters

Nicholas L. Baham III, Ph.D.

A longer and more academic version of this inaugural post is being published by Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture 1900-Present in the Fall 2012 issue. You can find that at:

I'd be very interested in any opinions about either version.

As for The Upper Room at at Google+, well I finally decided to catch up with the times and initiate a blog on culture and politics that might serve as a sketchpad for ideas I've been working on as an academic. Some of these ideas might become the subject of more expansive articles and conference papers and others might find their way into my teaching at Cal State East Bay. I trust that this will be a great way for me to get a little reader feedback, find out whether my musings resonate, and whether further directions remain to be explored.

I've been working on a critical piece about Esperanza Spalding as an avatar of a new jazz idiom that radically broadens the very definition of jazz and creates new communities of listeners. We've all read and heard a great deal about the "death" of jazz and its ever-declining commercial sales and aging concert audiences. As a jazz lover, I've grown tired, bored, disinterested in the endless jazz eulogies. I've been looking for that bright horizon where a new jazz is coming into view. And when I first heard Esperanza Spalding's work, I knew the moment had arrived.

I've been intrigued with Esperanza Spanlding's work ever since her receipt of the 2011 Grammy Award for Best New Artist. This was the first time that a jazz artist was accorded that particular honor and, in my opinion, it signaled possible new directions in jazz with a specific emphasis on genre hybridity, intertextuality, and maybe even a return of socially relevant discourse in American music.

As is generally the case, when you come across a good idea the universe begins providing all the help it can to keep the thing going.  On April 30, 2012, somewhere around the time that I conceived of writing about Spalding, jazz pianist and composer Jason Moran – the recently installed Artistic Advisor for the Kennedy Center- was interviewed by NPR’s Neil Conant about the future survivability of jazz music. Moran, who succeeds Billy Taylor as only the second Artistic Advisor at the Kennedy Center, presented the outline of a theory of “re-contextualization” where the very definition and aesthetic boundaries of jazz music necessarily expand in order for jazz to survive. His argument focused on genre hybridity, and he spoke of his own performative “re-contextualization” of Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock” and his collaboration with Meshell Ndegeocello to transform the music of Fats Waller into contemporary dance music.

After listening to and transcribing portions of Jason Moran's interview on NPR, I decided to evaluate Spalding under the lens of his concept of "re-contextualization." Moran's ideas were sketchy, but he clearly communicated his belief that jazz could serve as an umbrella aesthetic with a fundamental emphasis on improvisation that could perpetually incorporate disparate musical genres and perhaps even the “texts” of non-musical art forms. What else could account for the broad history and international appeal of jazz music but its ability to infinitely incorporate new ideas and new histories?

I’m intrigued by the notion of building a theoretical principle around a radio interview. Why not? For me, Moran’s “re-contextualization” incorporates what I’d call a “radical genre hybridity,” intertextuality, and some element that re-engages jazz with contemporary public discursive formations. I want what William Banfield has called “music that matters” and I’ve been waiting for the prophetic voice to return to American popular music and for our music to challenge power and structures of domination.

I am specifically interested in whether Spalding's particular artistic expression of "re-contextualization" might afford opportunities for meaningful connections with contemporary discursive formations of social/cultural hybridization in a world experiencing contestations over the Enlightenment assumptions of race, class, gender, and sexual identity politics. I wonder if Spalding's incorporation of disparate musical genres amounts to anything more radical than any other previous instance of genre bending in jazz (e.g. Latin jazz, Third Stream, fusion, etc.) and whether there was any significant social/cultural messaging beneath the formal aspects of her expressions of genre hybridity. 

I began a closer listening of Spalding's third release Chamber Music Society.  John Coltrane used to call it a practice of "repeated listening" until you understood what the musician was trying to convey. On one level her album is pays homage to her classical training, but she layers pre-Baroque acoustic bass, cello, violin, and viola with inspired moments of jazz improvisation, soul, funk, and frequently Brazilian vocals. Of particular interest is Spalding's composition, “Little Fly,” where she integrates the eighteenth century poetry of William Blake with NuSoul lyricism. Spalding's intertextuality –her specific blend of poetry and music- reminds you of inspired moments like the unlikely pairing of Arthur Koestler's 1968 evolutionary critique of insanity and violence with the hybrid punk-reggae-jazz cocktail of the Police on Ghost in the Machine (A&M 1990). On "Little Fly," Blake’s 18th century verse on life and death meets '70s soul and '50s jazz and pre-Baroque chamber music. What does it all mean?

Whether we look at the pairing of chamber music and jazz improvisation or the pairing of 18th century meditations on life and death with NuSoul lyricism, Spalding is always referencing the communal space. Blake's poem creates community between man and fly over the shared experiences of life and death. The contrapuntal organization of Baroque music and the polyrhythmic organization of jazz music - particularly in the early New Orleans and free jazz eras- convey communal performance and the conversational dimension of all good music.  

Community. This word keeps coming up in association with Spalding. Even her use of the word "Society" in two album titles points in the direction of "community." Is it possible that the “re-contextualization” (intertextuality and genre hybridity) of her music in fact creates new forms of community? And if so, what kinds of communities are being brought together? Is it possible that Esperanza Spalding’s expressive “re-contextualization” may also encompass some profound social meaning and urgently resonate contemporary discursive practices the way that jazz music used to when jazz mattered? 

Lately I've been playing the music and video of Spalding’s “Black Gold” for my eight-year old son as an inspirational supplement to all the books on African American history that I give him and my constant encouragement for him to draw on his inner strength as a young Black man. When you raise a young Black man you wind up vigilant of all that lurks in our culture to tear at his confidence and self-esteem. Spalding's duet with Algebra Blessett from the 2011 release Radio Music Society, strikes the right chord in an affirmative fusion of jazz, NuSoul, and gospel music wrapped around an Afrocentric reading of world history.

Hold your head as high as you can
High enough to see who you are, little man
Life sometimes is cold and cruel
Baby no one else will tell you so remember that
You are Black Gold, Black Gold
You are Black Gold
Now maybe no one else has ever told you so
But you're golden, baby
Black Gold with a diamond soul
Think of all the strength you have in you
From the blood you carry within you
Ancient men, powerful men
Builders of civilization
They'll be folks hell-bent on putting you down
Don't get burned
'Cause not necessarily everyone will know your worth

The official video for “Black Gold” depicts a presumably single African American father picking up his two sons from elementary school in an urban and clearly east coast setting and, after learning about their history lessons on Africa, sharing with them his knowledge of the African past. Once at home, the father shows his sons his scrapbook, entitled “Black Gold,” and highlights the achievements of Sundiata, Miriam Makeba, Salif Keita, Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, and Fela Kuti. The video ends with the father taking his sons to hear Spalding and Blessett performing the song at a neighborhood block party.

This means a lot to me in the era of the Trayvon Martin killing and the kind of daily assaults that young Black men have to endure, particularly against the backdrop of the continuing growth of the criminal justice system and Stand Your Ground legislation in states throughout this country. It means a lot to me that Esperanza Spalding reached out to young Black men and spoke encouraging words to them through her music. I've always appreciated songs like Tracy Chapman's "Born to Fight" or "You're the One" or Angie Stone's "Brotha" or Jill Scott's "Long Walk" for their ability to strengthen and renew the bonds between men and women as brothers and sisters unified in the struggle. With "Black Gold" I experience Spalding's call to community across gendered barriers, and, for me this particular call to community is critical in African American contexts. Spalding encourages young Black men to recognize their history as "Builders of Civilization," with the kind of urgency that Jill Scott's insisted when she sang "Maybe baby we can save the nation."

You could certainly present the history of jazz music in terms of its discursive relevance to community and its ability to either suggest or form new communities of listeners. New Orleans jazz spoke to the language of newly freed men and women. The Roaring Twenties, defined as the Jazz Age, produced a music that spoke to industrialism, technological advancements in communication, and a new modernity. The great swing bands took us to distant and fanciful places where we could dance away the troubles of the Great Depression and WWII. Bebop and cool jazz gave us alternate means of coping and reflecting the anxieties of the nuclear age and McCarthyism and suburban sprawl.  Contemporary times require another substantive link between the jazz aesthetic and relevant public discourse that might be inclusive of the modern day demise of the welfare state, poverty, chronic unemployment, endless war, the crisis of racialism and the promise of post-racialism, the crisis of the nation-state and the advent of globalism, etc.

I miss being a fan of a genre that produced such socially relevant compositions as Bessie Smith’s 1927 recording “Back-Water Blues” about the 1926 Cumberland River Flood in Nashville, Tennessee; Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”; Charles Mingus’ “Fables of Faubus” on the 1959 release Mingus Ah Um; John Coltrane’s composition “Alabama” from the album Live at Birdland; Archie Shepp’s 1972 album Attica Blues; and Toshiko Akiyoshi’s "Hiroshima: Rising From the Abyss.”

I am not sure that we can speak of jazz music in the same fashion in the contemporary era. I’ll save my arguments about when and how jazz became culturally irrelevant for a later blog post, but for now it should suffice to realize that jazz no longer informs us on broader, national and international cultural levels, no longer provides moments of euphoria and escape in the midst of a challenging economy or war-torn years, no longer speaks the language of the speakeasy and the flapper, no longer resonates the onomatopoeia of the railroads carrying migrants north and westward from the Mississippi Delta, no longer speaks to the complicated multiculturalism and brazen lawlessness of New Orleans, no longer speaks to the Cold War and the nuclear age, no longer speaks to our longing for freedom. I do believe that in order for the music to connect with people on a larger, national, international, popular discursive level, jazz music must incorporate an even broader and increasingly more diverse range of meanings around a progressive and determined movement of “re-contextualization.” 

I would suggest that “hybridity” is fundamental to the relevant discourse of the new millenium. This is the age of globalization, transnationalism, technological advancements in global communication, the emergence of China and India as world economic powers, the decline of the European hegemony, a re-appraisal of gender and sexual identity difference, and, significant demographic shifts and the crisis of a diminishing European-American majority. We are nearing the twilight of racial, gender, and sexual identity bias. It is the age of the Occupy movement and the critique of American colonialism and corporatism. We need a jazz music that speaks to the chaos of our times and assists us as listeners with the process of interpreting meaning and sifting through the noise.

In my view, Esperanza Spalding is speaking to contemporary discursive formations of cultural hybridity that are broadly inclusive of many of these tensions. Her work suggests that jazz improvisation is fundamental discursive practice that undergirds and incorporates endless other musical forms. The new hybrid aesthetic of Spalding’s re-contextualized jazz communicates an important and timely social message about cultural hybridity, suggesting possibilities for alternative community formation and creative new cultural/social alliances in a world of ever-changing alliances, particularly as the Enlightenment legacy of race, gender, and sexual identity wane. Furthermore, Spalding’s work is suggestive of the vanguard leadership of women in building a new future. The question of the survivability of jazz rests in large measure on the ability of musicians like Esperanza Spalding to continue to draw an ever-expanding circle around this thing called “jazz,” create new and previously unheard of communities of sound, and connect their art as socially and culturally relevant.

Evans, David “Bessie Smith’s ‘Back-Water Blues’: The Story Behind the Song” Popular Music (2007) Volume 26/1 Cambridge University Press

Nisenson, Eric Blue: The Murder of Jazz Da Capo Press 2000

Teachout, Terry “Can Jazz Be Saved?” Wall Street Journal August 9, 2009

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