Eddie Becton (L) with Chet Hanley and Leroy Downs
I was kicking back having a glass of wine and listening to some classic Duke Ellington and reflecting on a discussion with a young cat in my jazz history class years back:
Young 'Un: Eddie B! Hey man, I know you dig jazz, but doesn't it get boring? A lot of it doesn't have lyrics, so it doesn't really tell you anything. Are you STUCK on jazz?
Eddie B: (resisting the urge to plunder the young lad, YET conjuring the spirits/sentiments of Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Charles Mingus, among others) I tell you what. Listen to these cuts. Start out with Ellington's cut, "Gong." Listen to what Duke says throughout, but especially to what he does in the background as much as the foreground. Peep his lines from 2:47 to 3:07. Tell me what you hear.
YU: Damn! They're chillin', but it sounds like they're having a conversation, even though there were no vocals! It's like Duke was responding to whatever they played.
EB: Okay, cool. Now, listen to this cut, "All Blues," by Miles Davis. What do you hear?
YU: It's a different vibe, but it also sounds like they're having a conversation. The band seems to be feeding off each other. I dig how mellow and cool this cut is!
EB: Okay, I dig you. Now,watch this clip from by Funkadelic, "Cosmic Slop" live. What do you see/hear/feel?
YU: Damn! They're killin' it! You see how many people were on stage? Parts of it sound like rock, but it has that funky vibe to it. Everybody is having a conversation and feeding off each other. You could even feel like the people in the audience were probably going off!
EB: (laughing my head off!) Man... okay, okay. Now, listen to this cut by Dr. Yusef Lateef, "Juba Juba." Was there ANY connection between all the cuts?
YU: WOW! That cut is POWERFUL! I heard the literal voices and musical voices. It's like the cut encompassed, in some ways, the history of black music in America. All the cuts sounded good, for different reasons, but I dug them all. If there was anything across all, I guess it was they all seemed to be having a musical conversation, but the Lateef cut was like a summary of them all, if that makes sense.
EB: Exactly! When you understand the culture and the music, you FEEL it, and can relate to the band's conversations amongst itself AND the audience! While each cut you listened to might have had a different vibe, they were ALL talking to you, just using different words. ALL of it felt/sounded good, and for different reasons. It's like spirituals, work songs, blues, jazz, etc., they all speak to you, it's just that they may, in some cases, use different words to tell the same story!
YU: Ahhhhh, I didn't really think about that.
EB: Man, don't you EVER tell me that music with no verbal lyrics is incapable of telling a story! The voice is an instrument as much as a sax, but that doesn't mean they both can't talk and/or tell a story. The history of black music IS the story, man, LISTEN, and if you listened to the music at any period in history, you'll get a sense of what was happenin' at that time!
YU: Thanks, Eddie B!
EB: No problem, and remember this: Life can be much more fuller and wonderful when your ears are bigger than your mouth. Listen, son, listen!
[Eddie Becton is a professor of African-American Studies at Loyola Marymount University and hosts Eddie B's Jazz Journey on KXLU 88.9-FM. The above FB post was reprinted with his permission.]