Coolness as Preparation for
a Meeting with the Daimon
The hidden harmony is stronger than the visible one.—Heraclitus (1)
I hadn't listened to jazz intently for quite a while. For the past 10 or 15 years, I have been listening mostly to classical music. I have become adept at slipping between the centuries in order to view each breakthrough from a multitude of angles. Lately, though, I have shifted my attention to jazz. The mix of elements found in jazz culture during the 1950s is especially fascinating to me. A pregnant tension existed between the fact of the artist's alienation from society as a whole and his sense of belonging to an almost esoteric in-group. The alternation between despair and the desire for transport, the koan posed by the two-faced god called Heroin, the resort to extra-legal means for the putting of food on the table, the paradox that reckless and destructive personal habits could so casually converse with obsessive discipline and the devotion to an aesthetic ideal—all of these things
were calling me towards deeper exploration. For several months this essay had been following me around, and then, quite suddenly, it stepped out in my path.
So: The 1950s could be seen as the golden age of the interstate highway system and the suburbs or as the neon-lit rooftop apocalypse of Ginsberg's Howl, from whose edges true artists had no choice but to jump. "So far, so good," said the artist, as he leapt from the 85th floor. Was the alienation felt by artists in this decade just as much of an aid as an impediment? Was the darkness that they experienced a more ancient kind of light, and was their art able to transform the forces massed against them into blessings? The only correct answer may be a finger to the lips. Let me nonetheless dare to suggest that the flight plans of these artists could not have been more perfectly coordinated than they were.
In order for them to plunge to their desired depth, to create in the way that they had dreamed about creating, to achieve the type of liftoff that they wanted, it was necessary for them to probe into the underside of their angst, and it is possible that this constellation of forces was ideal. Without the threat of annihilation, which had been drifting in like static since the early 1920s, Miles Davis might have followed in his father's footsteps as a dentist and Jackson Pollock might have sold insurance. There would be no Blue Poles or Kind of Blue. Davis would not have wrestled with the monkey on his back. Surging forward to sixty and then seventy and then eighty miles per hour, Pollock would not have driven his car into a tree. Conducive neither to long life nor wholesome habits, there was a force that drove good artists to the limits of their angst, for it was there, and there alone, that the artist could
begin to determine the true outline of his gifts.
At the center of the big city, you could all too easily become a mere reflection of your habits. These led you from a claustrophobic past to a choice between different types of prison in the future. Neither good nor bad in themselves, these habits occupied the foreground. You jumped when they called. At the edge, you could get a better view of the tens of thousands of lights of the skyline, which sparkled as on the first day of creation. Such a view was breathtaking! Yet the average artist could not begin to guess if it had been designed as a trap. To stare too directly into the source of any light was potentially to be blinded by its spell; conversely, the darkness could prompt an artist to open up other senses. In the 1950s, when it came to metaphysical matters of this sort, most artists were instinctual. They did not know how to read the entrails of a bird. To them, this was not a language. The
methods that they developed led only deeper into the night. There were two worlds, at a minimum, however these might be conceived. Some might see these as the manifest and the subtle, others as the contemporary and the ancient, and still others as the illusory and the real. It seemed likely that there were harmonic laws that somehow defined the relationship between them, but those laws were being constantly subverted and reshuffled.
The Yoruba say, "It takes a little bit of everything to make the world." If this was not, in fact, the best of all possible worlds—for what could be more silly?—it was nonetheless the world most likely to nurture their creative goals. The worst of events had a way of advancing their agenda. It was essential to keep certain secrets even from themselves. If the night was dark, it was also like a womb. One could take the pulse of some distant but perhaps supportive presence through one's navel.
Jackson Pollock, The Moon Woman Cuts the Circle,
oil and enamel on canvas, 43 x 40 inches, Centre George Pompidou, 1943
There were dues to be paid, certainly, and the struggle to take flight could add decades to the face of the young musician, so that at thirty he might look like a wasted forty-five. There were dues to be paid, yes, but this was preferable to the alternative. The American Dream was exactly that, a dream. Atlantis had more substance than the suburbs. Life was hard, and the hustling ate one from the inside out. Still, this world was their world, however much it might turn on them without a moment's notice. Where else but on the stage of a smoke-filled club could a musician leap from here to the beyond to reach the intensely focused spontaneity that he sought? For a time, when the music took him, he was not the alienated subject of a modern industrial state, or the victim of several centuries of injustice; no, he was the enactor of a ritual, whose job it was to ferret out a web of
correspondences. Most straight jobs led nowhere. Politics had not yet proven to be practical. To play well was the perfect drug, for which all others were the off-peak substitutes. To lose oneself in a good chord progression was to free oneself, for some indeterminate period, from this dimension of existence. These were the chosen. These were the magicians with zigzags on their foreheads, the children of a broken wheel. These were the sailors who would never again drink in a bar on their own continent. The night called to them, like a scantily dressed lover, whose body had already started to turn cold.
That the sky is falling is not the problem of one person.—Yoruba proverb (2)
Did jazz improvisers in the 1950s have some reason to be anxious? They did, but such feelings pointed to an object that was not anywhere on view. Certain things must be intuited more by their absence than by their presence. One sensed them mostly by the disturbance in the air. Contemptuous of even their own desire for escape, they hid behind the all-purpose barriers of dark glasses. There were signs everywhere, of course, as well as headlights and streetlights and an artificial moon. The signs led nowhere but to the product advertised. The unnatural light did little to illuminate the city, or the artist's place within it.
Had the world ceased to exist in 1945, on July 16th, at 5:25 AM, as scientists feared that it might, when the first atomic bomb was detonated on a tower at Alamogordo? And were artists only the first to become conscious of this fact? Why did Bebop, Cool Jazz, Hard Bop, Neo-Bop, Modal Jazz, and Post-Bop artists see heroin as a kind of sacramental drug, when its effect was more commonly the blunting of awareness? Almost certainly, the best improvisers of this period had something of a love/hate relationship with death. Heroin perhaps smoothed the jagged edges from the void, at whose blackened shapes the artist had been hesitant to peek. As he flew—or rather fell—by the seat of his pants, it was possible that the stealthy improviser learned much more than he wanted. The night, such as it was, had come, and no teachers were available to assist him in his flight.
Those Who Knew had withdrawn to a distant time and place. Their less than fluent intermediaries had been sealed in the artist's soul, at a mind-killing depth, under scars that were difficult to pick open. There were others, of course, the hierophants, who could not be induced to shut up. The proponents of the common wisdom were the shills for a murderous empire. They were doctors who would perform a lobotomy on Mozart, the repeaters of transparently false facts, the puppets of the Underworld. That their world was a vast optical illusion did not appear to disturb them in the least.
By 1939, already, big holes had been ripped in the fabric of reality. The world's surface and its depth could no longer be read together. That year's Nuremberg Rally was to be called the "Rally of Peace." On September first, one day before the scheduled opening of the event, Germany launched its "defensive" war against Poland. Each year would bring peculiar new material to the surface. There was no way to determine from whence this material came. There was no way to determine at what object it might point. All laws and codes of conduct would be soon enough suspended. None had seen a war on this scale since the time of the Mahabharata. When the whole of reality ripped, there was no good way to mend it.
Brian George, Black Sun, Skull, and Bindu,
photogram, 9 x 12 inches, 2001
In the Battle of Stalingrad alone, 2.2 million were killed and another 1.5 to 2 million wounded. Luftwaffe bombing reduced much of the city to rubble. Hitler originally ordered that all male civilians should be killed. Children were hung from the branches of trees in parks. The winter was severe and supplies were limited. When dogs, rats, suitcase leather, and wallpaper paste ran out, it was necessary for both sides to resort to cannibalism. One thousand or so years of Orthodox instruction did not prompt the average Soviet citizen to forgive. Of the 110,000 Germans who surrendered, only 5000 would return from Stalin's gulags. This was the culture that gave birth to Pushkin and to Tchaikovsky and to the Faberge Egg. Meanwhile, some equally peculiar material had surfaced in the east. Unit 731, known officially as the Epidemic and Water Purification Department of the Kwantung Army, performed biological and chemical experiments on over two
hundred and fifty thousand subjects. These men, women, and children were not, however, classified as "human"; they were "logs" within the grand edifice of the Empire. Japanese doctors often performed vivisection on non-anesthetized subjects, so as not to taint the results of their observations. This was the culture that perfected the tea ceremony and the haiku and Zen brush painting. In exchange for their data, the US government gave immunity to the majority of the researchers.
In the spring of 1941, the Aktion 14f13 program was introduced, and certain concentration camp prisoners were sorted out for "special treatment." Bullets were too expensive, and officials were forced to resort to a gas called Zyclon B. At Auschwitz alone, 6000 per day were euthanized. When Bergen-Belsen was liberated, the British Eleventh Armored Division found 13,000 corpses still unburied. In all, an estimated 15 to 20 million died from forced labor, starvation, heat and cold, disease—both accidental and induced—and various forms of extermination. In a report on the liberation of Dachau, Colonel William W. Quinn wrote, "There our troops found sights, sounds, and stenches horrible beyond belief, cruelties so enormous as to be incomprehensible to the normal mind."(3) This was the culture that gave birth to Goethe and to Beethoven and to Rilke.
On August sixth, 1945, at eight sixteen AM, the Enola Gay, a Boeing B-Twenty-Nine Superfortress, dropped a uranium-fission bomb called Little Boy on the city of Hiroshima.
Sixteen hours later, President Truman warned Japan to "expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on the earth."(4) Pausing for just a moment as he polished the dust from his mirror, Hirohito took the opportunity to pretend that nothing was said. On August ninth, a second B-Twenty-Nine, the Boxcar, dropped a plutonium-implosion bomb called Fat Man on the city of Nagasaki. Between them, the two blasts killed between 129,000 and 246,000 people, of whom only 20,000 were soldiers. On VJ Day, according to Life Magazine, a "coast to coast frenzy of kissing" occurred in the U.S.(5) No mourning for the enemy was permitted. Even in passing, such an idea could not be entertained. This was the country that gave birth to the Bill of Rights and to Thoreau and to Copland. With the creation of Operation Paperclip in 1945, many
Nazi war criminals were given a fresh start in the U.S. Their knowledge would prove invaluable. False employment and political biographies were created for them by the Joint Intelligence Objectives Agency. These new alternate histories were "paper clipped" to their files, and hence the program's name. It was clear that the solidity of objects had been compromised.
In the 1950s, beneath the shadow of the Bomb, did metaphysically exposed artists go in search of transport or extinction, and are we too fussy in our definitions of such words? We accept that the shadow that the Bomb cast had some influence on the psyches of those living in this period. The full nature and extent of this metastasizing influence has not yet been determined. This shadow provided them with a kind of one-size-fits-all fear. Whether of the mainstream or on the edge, few Americans had even begun to come to terms with the trauma of the Second World War. Their vision became oblique. The horror went underground, to emerge in the form of symptoms. One could mention such things as the McCarthy hearings, drag racing, the birth and growth of fast food franchises, automated dishwashers, grammar school nuclear "duck and cover" drills, Leave it to Beaver, drug use by
both housewives and hipsters, TV game shows, the Beats' random and relentless bopping from one city to another, but the list would be as inclusive as the decade. Their PTSD took the form of "MORE! FASTER! NEWER!" You would think that, by defeating the Axis Powers, the U.S. had somehow exorcised the forces they had summoned. If not, the Lone Ranger would soon do so. Yet these forces had not gone anywhere. A whole superstructure had been built upon past trauma. They simply sped, as fast as they could, into the blind spots of their vision.
The average big-hearted American would prefer to slaughter millions than to acknowledge that his thoughts had been perverted by a shadow. Something had changed. It was not possible to go back. There was no monstrosity of which humans were not capable. Morality would not protect us from much of anything at all. Their denial of these things was a testament to just how central they were. "There are bad actors everywhere," they said, "Who gave them permission to stare at us?" The once massive and solid planet that they stood on was no more than a stage-set. In their final moments, "duck and cover" had proved of no use whatsoever, nor had it prepared them for the non-object-based reality that they entered. Alert artists could at least sense on some molecular level that certain rips in the fabric of time/space had occurred. Meanwhile, in the sunlit suburbs, things continued to look even more minutely normal than before.
In "Speeding Towards Death: Neal Cassidy, Charlie Parker, and Escape in the 1950s," Jennifer Hartt argues that jazz culture in the 1950s was a manifestation of Freud's concept of the "death instinct."(6) Perhaps, I thought, it could be a good thing—or at a minimum, not a bad thing—to confront one's nonexistence. We believe that life is good. We believe that death is bad. It was possible that both of these categories should be thoroughly reexamined. In the 1950s, for the alienated artist, perhaps jazz improvisation served as a kind of razor's edge, upon which it was possible to cross between the worlds. As if these issues were not enough to prompt me to investigate, I also had personal reasons.
Eshu threw a stone yesterday; it killed a bird today.—Yoruba proverb
Brian George, Oceanic Mask, oil pastel on paper, 2003
Between May and September of last year, 2015, I had finished the revisions for two books. These were Voyage to a Nonexistent Home, a book of essays, and The Preexistent Race Descends, a book of prose poems. The path that led to the completion of this second book could best be described as "circuitous." I had started it in 1992, in the aftermath of a spiritual breakthrough, threw myself into it, dropped it, and then played with it off and on for many years. I never did manage to pull things together, and then, at the end of August, some other force took over, and the whole of the book was rewritten in three weeks. For the most part, at least in terms of pure intensity of focus, the creative process that led me through both books was unlike anything that I have previously experienced. As if my center were located in the space around my body, both everywhere and nowhere, I would
watch my fingers fly across the keyboard. The method, however, was not that of a simple "stream of consciousness," nor was it anything that resembled "channeling." Instead, it felt as though ten thousand complex operations, both creative leaps and editorial judgments, were being carried out simultaneously. On the one hand, the process happened by itself; on the other, I possessed some subtle measure of control. I do not mean to suggest that I did not revise, only that these revisions took place in a "zone," in which I watched as much as acted.
There were also times when I could feel some other presence in my room, breathing. Who was who, and just where were the self's boundaries? Perhaps, I thought, this presence was the Yoruba god Olokun, the Keeper of Secrets, the One Who Lives Apart, the One Who Wields the Power of the Eight-Spoked Wheel, the First Spirit to Inhabit the Earth's Surface and the Guardian of the Ocean's Depths. In other circumstances, I might have seen this presence as my daimon, a being with whom I was somewhat more familiar.(7) However one might interpret it, some aspect of primordial consciousness was in play. My creative force had been freed to do somersaults through the night and then to catch itself in midair as it fell, and I wondered if this might be similar to the experience of jazz artists.
"Quod me nutrit, me destruit."—"That which nourishes me destroys me."
There was no period in which I had not appreciated jazz, but I had, perhaps, underestimated how much I could learn from it and had not quite come to terms with the challenge that it posed. When I taught art at a junior high, I would sometimes play jazz recordings from the 1950s and the 1960s on a boom-box, in the hopes of nudging students into a less cynical and more open-ended space, into a zone where the subconscious flowed and clock-time could be altered. Far too often, some student would shout a version of the following: "But that's my great-grandfather's music!" Jazz background music is such a picturesque part of 1950s films that it is easy to forget what an edgy scene jazz was, at least until its rebranding as a distinctively American form of classical music—from the time of Dave Brubeck onwards.
As I probed behind the surface of this period, I was stunned by the centrality of heroin to the jazz scene, both in New York and in California. I knew that the drug was popular, but I had no idea of just how popular it was. The list of major jazz musicians who spent some period of time addicted to heroin is just staggering—perhaps two thirds of the major musicians to emerge from the early 1950s.(8) Charlie Parker seems to have served as the half-human and half-divine model, and he was followed by Dexter Gordon, Art Blakey, Lee Morgan, J. J. Johnson, Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis, Tadd Dameron, Paul Chambers, Jackie McLean, Freddie Webster, Sonny Stitt, Bud Powell, Fats Navarro, Russ Freeman, Gene Ammons, Stan Getz, Paul Desmond, Gerry Mulligan, Red Rodney, Philly Joe Jones, Chet Baker, Red Garland, Cannonball Adderley, Max Roach, Bill Evans, and
John Coltrane, among many others. Some of these lived; some, like Bird himself, died early on. Miles Davis, during the peak of his addiction—around 1954—was said to have a two- hundred dollar per week habit. The rent for my first apartment in Boston, when I moved here in 1974, was ninety-two dollars per month. It's hard to even imagine how a struggling musician could come up with such an amount.
Norman Lewis, Ritual, oil on canvas, 51 x 63 inches, Estate of Norman Lewis,
courtesy of Tom Burrell, courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, 1962
There seemed to be something of a religious aspect to this impetus towards extremes, as though these musicians were the members of an archaic cult of Bacchantes, and heroin addiction was a form of ritual self-mutilation. I have never tried heroin and have no desire to do so, but I would very much like to figure out what it represented to this group.
Since the time that I worked at the Worcester Crisis Center, from the ages of seventeen to twenty, I had always associated heroin with stupor and degradation. When I lived in the Boston's Back Bay in the 1980s, on a street that was popular with prostitutes, I would often see girls in need of a fix, with their empty eyes, stumbling around like short-circuiting robots, or, after shooting up in an alley, propping themselves face-first against walls in order to keep from falling over. Even in memory, these images are painful and unsettling. If I imagine that these girls are my daughters, I am haunted not only by the fact that they love the thing that destroys them but also that they love it more than anything else in the world. From a distance at least, the drug seemed to deepen whatever trauma it was meant to keep at bay, however much it first appeared to do the opposite. I had no doubts
as to whether heroin was a form of self-mutilation; I had seen more than adequate evidence at the Worcester Crisis Center and on the street. The only question was whether such self-inflicted wounds could be seen in some larger context. There did not seem to be space for anything that did not serve the ever-worsening need/fix cycle of addiction.
That heroin could play any role in the unfolding of the creative process, however two-edged and transient, very much took me by surprise. In fact, the idea struck me as absurd, but there was no way to sidestep the scale of the 1950s' phenomenon. For this particular group of artists, at that time and place, it seemed likely that heroin acted as a catalyst; if so, however, it was a catalyst whose effects could in no way be predicted. Like a mirror, any drug is both an exit and an entrance. Strange forces were at work. My sense is that musicians during this period were courting some form of near-death experience. Not only did they define themselves as being on the edges of society, they defined themselves as being on the edge of life itself. To these Bacchantes, the world looked flat. It was far more boring and less wonderful than it should be. Their intuition told them that there was more to be discovered.
"You must be willing to die in order to live."—Yoruba Proverb
Norman Lewis, Untitled, oil on canvas, 51 x 63 inches, Estate of Norman Lewis,
courtesy of Tom Burrell, courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, 1962
Normal methods of transport had proved to be inadequate. New methods, however unpredictable, were required. If they could not achieve liftoff by the sheer force of their wills, as they feared that they could not, then they would instead subject themselves to the external rigors of necessity. At the limits of their wills, a radiant space would open up; towards this they would move, driven by the impossible-to-resist-force of their desperation, while another part of the self observed, quite coolly, from behind the cover of dark glasses. The concept of "cool" that developed back then, which was, of course, the redefinition of an originally West African concept, was pretty much the exact opposite of our own. Today, the cool is indistinguishable from the trendy—an anticipation of the next big thing; back then, it was meant to define an unbridgeable gulf between the marginal and the
mainstream. It came complete with its own language and secret system of signs. In West African art, a state of transport is often indicated by eyelids that are almost but not quite closed, and this slit is also the line that divides this world from the next. The subtle jazz musician should be able to play both sides against the middle.
Scott Ainslie, in "The Roots of Coolness: Ancient Yoruba Aesthetics in the New World," writes:
"The Yoruba penchant for improvising; for determined practice and the development of uncanny skill; for restraining one's emotions; for carrying oneself with a certain quiet, regal bearing; and for describing all this as 'cool' was part and parcel of the Jazz culture that developed around New Orleans."(9)
In the Yoruba language, the word for coolness is itutu. It is a central religious concept that brings with it a network of interrelated meanings. The possessor of itutu is open to the demands of the other world, and he is able to keep his equanimity in the face of powerful supernatural forces. As the recipient of ashe, or primal energy, the possessor of itutu must also possess iluti, or "good hearing." He is calm, gentle, detached, generous, circumspect, of good character, and reserved of speech. As a village elder told author Robert Farris Thompson, "Constant smiling is not a Yoruba characteristic."(10) Itutu is associated with the colors blue, indigo, and green. Its corresponding element is water, which literally has the capacity to cool. The possessor of itutu has the capacity to navigate and defuse conflict. He is
able to maintain his detachment when absorbed and to remain playful in a state of peak intensity.
Norman Lewis, Twilight Sounds,
oil on canvas, 23 x 28 inches, Saint Lewis Art Museum, 1947
Itutu is a precondition for the opening of a dialogue between one world and another. The possessor of itutu is not in any way passive or inactive, but his actions are not carried out for the purpose of self-promotion, and he does not tend to move in straight lines. Thompson, in Flash of the Spirit, writes:
"To the degree that we live generously and discretely, exhibiting grace under pressure, our appearance and acts assume virtual royal power. As we become noble, fully realizing the spark of creative goodness God endowed us with—the shining ororo bird of thought and aspiration—we find the confidence to cope with all kinds of situations. This is ashe. This is character. This is mystic coolness. All is one. Paradise is regained, for Yoruba art returns the idea of heaven to mankind wherever the ancient ideal attitudes are genuinely manifested."(11)
The possessor of itutu hears what the other world is asking. He internalizes all of the implications and the contradictions to be found in these demands, some of which may tie his concepts into knots and others of which might have the capacity to destroy him. By then summoning his ashe, he is able to respond.
We can easily trace the line that leads from the West African concept of coolness to that found in the jazz culture of the 1950s. At the same time, the extremist tendencies of many jazz practitioners present us with a problem, and they might cause us to question whether the two versions of coolness are really that similar after all. We must keep in mind, however, that jazz in the 1950s was the music of the soul in exile, of a once coherent entity fractured along fault-lines, even as the musicians that produced it defined themselves in terms of their distance from society as a whole. A culture had been ripped from its roots and involuntarily transplanted. The parts that fractured along fault-lines had been forced to function independently. A mode of spiritual alignment had been forced to reinvent itself under conditions that were far less than ideal. Due to the harshness of these events
and conditions, we must question what "good character" might mean. We must ask whether it might even manifest in a form that, to the average straight citizen at least, would appear to be the exact opposite of good. There is one reality for the in-group; there is another for society at large. For this in-group, heroin perhaps acted as a seal on their identity, and it played a role that was all but incomprehensible to outsiders. Unlike alcohol, heroin created detachment. It was cool. The straight life led nowhere, or at least not to the flashes of insight that were available at the edge. There were certain things that could be communicated only by a look.
So: of what might good character actually consist? If we were to look down on the world from the vantage point of the gods, good and bad might be defined in terms of the lifting of the gift of human creativity to the beyond, and character would have to do with the ritual preparation of a vessel. To fulfill its function, the vessel must first be emptied out, by whatever violent means might be required. And, in a complacent society such as that of the 1950s, a society that did not realize that the known world had ceased to exist in 1945, on July 16th, at 5:25 AM, such ritual preparation must be conducted on the edge.
Traditionally, we have tended to idealize the arts; more recently, we seem determined to define the artist in terms of his being a "brand," but who knows what alchemical fires might be involved in the cleansing and preparation of the artist as a vessel? Such a vessel might resemble nothing more than the charred remnant of a world-destruction. As it says in Matthew 20:16, "So those who are first will then be last, and those who are last will be first." What looks flawed here may look close to perfect when we have entered through the pass-not surface of the mirror.
The world has, in fact, been destroyed, not once but many times, and each individual has been projected ever further into a state of deep estrangement. I would argue that this process of exile and fractured reconfiguration is not the preserve of a handful of West African cultures, however much the violence of their uprooting is at the forefront of our awareness; rather, it is a trial that we all must undergo and a test that we all must confront. It is a journey that leads from the vastness of our origin to the contraction of the present world. We will none of us escape from the dismemberment that is history. Some, of necessity, must go before the others. Some will embrace their exile as a catalyst, while others will deny to what extent they have been fractured. The possessors of itutu lead the way.
Immortal mortals, mortal immortals, living their death and dying their life.—Heraclitus
Jackson Pollock, Cut-Out Figure, oil, enamel, glass, nails, on cardboard,
paper, and fiberboard, 30 x 22 inches, Ohara Museum of Art, Kurashiki, 1948
One musician that especially interests me is Art Pepper, whose life serves as a perfect illustration of the very peculiar relationship between the persona and the daimon, between the tragically flawed human on the edge and the detached but bottomlessly creative guardian spirit, which characterized a great many of the musicians from this period. (I speak of the "daimon" because this being is a part of my normal frame of reference.) If we shift back from the cosmology of Ancient Greece to that of the Yoruba, this fault-line between the self and other can be viewed in terms of the tension between the ori, or personal head, and the ipori, or the part of the self that has not descended into time. In the first world, these two aspects of one whole were not meant to be more separate than the
right hand and the left, the head and the heart, or the solar plexus and the feet. In our world, things have ceased to be so simple. A vast ocean of shadows stretches from the one self to the other.
With any artist, these two poles are engaged in a dialogue, sometimes friendly and sometimes argumentative. With certain figures, however, you can see this tension thrown into high relief. Being the key figure from which a lineage derives, Charlie Parker might illustrate this inscrutable relationship even better; he might be the more logical figure upon whom I should focus first, but with him it can be difficult to separate the man from the myth. Truth be told, my focus upon Pepper is as much of an accident as a choice, since I was listening to a number of his albums when I first began to be followed by these thoughts about the nocturnal underside of 1950s. The intensely focused spontaneity of his playing was one of the key things that had prompted me to follow where they led. So, for these reasons, I will speak first about Art Pepper's purely instinctual relationship with his daimon and of the
almost psychopathic sense of disconnection that informed his concept of coolness, before moving on to look at the return and reconfiguration of the original Yoruba concept in the figures of Miles Davis and John Coltrane.
At the moment, I find that Pepper serves me well as an object of contemplation. This is partly because he spoke about himself, at length. His innocent grandiosity reminds me of the megalomania of Giorgio de Chirico, an artist whose work has obsessed me since I first discovered modern art, and this provides me with a familiar angle of approach. Also, Pepper lived until 1982. In looking at his movements into and out of full rhythmic focus, it is possible to observe the long arc of a relationship that was simultaneously creative and destructive.
"I believe I'm above anybody I meet," Pepper writes in his autobiography, Straight Life, "Anybody. Everybody. I think that I'm more intelligent—innate intelligence; I feel that I'm more emotional, more sensitive, the greatest lover, the greatest musician; I feel that if I had been a ball player I'd have been in the Hall of Fame. There's no question in my mind: if I ever became crazy I would probably be Jesus. But, unfortunately, I've never been crazy. I've just been totally sane."(12)
If the conflict found in de Chirico is that of metaphysical exposure and defense, of breakthrough and repetition, of true magic and slight-of-hand, the conflict found in Pepper is that of purity of intention and corruption, of discipline and dissolution, of arrogance and full surrender to the dominance of the daimon.
Along with being a brilliant saxophone player and a serious heroin addict, Pepper, the child of a sixteen-year-old prostitute and an abusive longshoreman, was also a check forger, a conman, and an armed robber, who spent a good many years behind bars. The California penal system seemed to act as a kind of magnet. Some degree of bad behavior would seem almost inevitable when it is your own mother who first turns you on to drugs. Curiously, Pepper's drive towards self-destruction did not seem to affect his playing in the slightest, and the period from 1955 to 1960, when his addiction was at its peak, also strikes me as his most fertile. His later work, done after his release from San Quentin in the mid-1960s, was influenced by John Coltrane, and some find it more expressive. For me, though, his most distinctive work dates from the late 1950s, when the maximum tension between opposing forces can be felt.
Why does the daimon love the persons whom it loves, and not other, more sensible, candidates? Perhaps it is because the majority of us are too successfully well defended. A wound is a kind of opening, through which it can speak. The daimon takes our sense of comfort as an insult. We are deaf, dumb, and blind to the instruction that it so generously offers. We are not at all as innocent as we think! We prefer life to death, the here to the beyond, the kind gesture to the sacrificial leap, and the cliché to the mind-shattering ultimatum. The continent of the inexpressible rises from the depths, and a shadow half materializes in the fog. Only those who do not know better dare to follow where it leads.
One of my favorite cuts by Pepper is "A Bit of Basie," from the 1960 album Smack Up, one of his last recordings with the Art Pepper Quintet before a four-year stint at San Quentin, a place reserved for career criminals. (These days, under the "Three Strikes and You're Out" law, they would have sent him away for life.) Pepper knew that he would be going; you can hear it in his playing. He is almost always good, even when strung out, and he is frequently at his best, but here you can feel him stretch himself past the edge of his concentration. Repeated listenings to this piece were the immediate inspiration for the writing of this essay.
In its emptiness, there is the function of a container.—the Tao Te Ching(13)
Adolph Gottlieb, The Voyager's Return, oil on canvas, 37 x 29 inches,
Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation, 1946
If Art Pepper represents the extreme limit in the centuries-long dispersal of the concept of itutu, in the figures of Miles Davis and John Coltrane we can see a countermovement, with Davis representing a partial, and to some extent unconscious, reclamation and embodiment of the Yoruba concept and Coltrane representing the completion of a circle. All of the terms of the cultural context would be altered. If we look, however, we can see the original concept acting beneath the surface of events, with stealth, strategically, and with other-than-human knowledge. In the silence of the night, as if by accident, the most generous of gifts would be prepared.
In 1954 and 1957 respectively, both Davis and Coltrane experienced life-transforming crises in which their past modes of behavior came to a sudden stop. Beneath them, an abyss tore open; into it, they fell, and there they were forced to confront the costs of their addiction to heroin. How was it possible that its effects were so different from those that they had first imagined? Once free of this substitute for attunement, both discovered their mature voices, and they began to play with a newfound depth and clarity of purpose.
The idea that a vessel must be emptied out by violent means in order to fulfill its function might at first appear to be a euphemistic fiction. Who or what is doing this emptying out? Is the artist the beneficiary or the victim of this process, or is there a larger logic that redefines both terms? I have no interest in providing easy answers, but the arc of Davis's addiction is instructive. From 1951 to 1954, he had been spiraling out of control. He had gotten banned from a number of clubs, lost friends to heroin, disappeared for months at a stretch, and gotten arrested for possession in Los Angeles. In 1954, at the end of a gig in California, drummer Max Roach slipped a hundred dollars into Davis's pocket for a ticket back to St. Lewis, where, at his father's farm, he spent twelve days in cold turkey withdrawal from heroin.
"I made up my mind that I was getting off dope," Davis said. "I was sick and tired of it. You know you can get tired of anything. You can even get tired of being scared. I laid down and stared at the ceiling for twelve days, and I cursed everybody that I didn't like. I was kicking it the hard way. It was like having a bad case of the flu, only worse. I threw up everything I tried to eat. My pores opened up and I smelled like chicken soup. Then it was over."(14)
When, the following year, in an unannounced appearance with a makeshift group at the Newport Jazz Festival, Davis played a searing and austere version of Thelonious Monk's "'Round Midnight," it caused a sensation. This was a musician that no one had seen before. There are key turning points in which a person's destiny can come dramatically into focus in order to create a new synthesis out of the existing elements. All of the elements that define his playing may have previously been present; Davis's struggle with addiction had created a new edge of self-awareness. This brought with it a new rigor, a sense of stoic joy, a dark existential poetry. If his inner conflicts had not, in the end, been alchemically transformed, they had nonetheless been transposed to a more-than-personal context.
In Davis, at least in this mature period, we do not see the extreme split between persona and daimon, or ori and ipori, that we do in a figure like Art Pepper, where each participant in a cosmic syzygy seems recklessly indifferent to the other. To be sure, the relationship may not be a natural or a carefree one; rather, Davis seems intent on bringing self and other into proximity by a strenuous effort of will, and, to this end, a large amount of negative space is carefully left open, much as in a Zen brush painting. Jazz enacts a break in the linear sequence of events where the archaic and the cutting edge can freely work together. In the dead of the night, at a crossroads, a circle has been traced out on the ground. This serves as a theatre for the indeterminate, within which some new form of dialogue can occur. From the depths, magnetic energies begin to congregate. The silence becomes so loud that it
almost hurts one's ears. The trumpet player finds that he is less solid than his shadow. A multitude draws near on a little puff of wind.
Brian George, Lukumi Offering, solarized photograph, 9 x 12 inches, 2001
When I came across the comment by the village elder to Robert Farris Thompson, that "constant smiling is not a Yoruba characteristic," I almost immediately thought of Miles Davis. And, sure enough, when I searched for photographs of him taken between the 1940s and the 1980s, out of the 150 or so that I found, he was smiling in only half a dozen. "Why doesn't Miles smile?" is a question that has frequently been asked. The most common answer is that this was due to his bone-deep sense of racial injustice, an issue about which he was quite outspoken. In a 1962 interview with Playboy, when asked—by a then unknown Alex Haley—about his supposed bad temper and rudeness to audiences, Davis said:
"Every little black child grew up seeing that getting along with white people meant grinning and acting clowns. It helped white people to feel easy about what they had done, and were doing, to Negroes, and that's carried right on over to now. You bring it down to musicians, they want you to not only play your instrument, but to entertain them, too, with grinning and dancing."(15)
Outrage over racism and a refusal to be typecast are, I am sure, valid explanations of Davis's disinclination to smile, but I believe that such explanations are not complete. This slowness to smile could be seen as a direct, if unconscious, continuation of the classic attitude of the Yoruba. In order to possess itutu and to embody the virtues that are associated with it, one's energies must be rooted in both this and in the other world. One's expression serves as a sign of one's seriousness of purpose, of one's steadiness in the face of the implacable stupidity of others, and of one's commitment to act as fully as one is able both on this and on the other side of the known.
Hale Woodruff, Afro Emblems, oil on linen, 18 x 22 inches,
Smithsonian American Art Museum, 1950
Elsewhere in the Playboy interview, Davis said:
"Why is it that people just have so much to say about me? It bugs me because I'm not that important. Some critic with nothing else to do started this crap about I don't announce numbers, I don't look at the audience, I don't bow or talk to people, I walk off the stage, and all that. Look, man, all I am is a trumpet player. I only can do one thing—play my horn—and that's what's at the bottom of this whole mess. I ain't no entertainer, and ain't trying to be one. I am one thing, a musician. Most of what's said about me is lies in the first place. Everything I do, I got a reason."(16)
Is such a comment arrogant or humble? Both words seem more or less beside the point, since it is clear that Davis's primary concern is on maintaining the intense focus that is essential to his art. In spite of his frequent displays of what some might take to be arrogance, where it counts Davis is often quite curiously humble. He does not make light of his ability, but neither does he treat it as a purely personal possession. It possesses him, as much as he possesses it.
Rather than its being an impediment to contact, I would argue that it is this very quality of distance in Davis that allows us, as listeners, to become more fully active as participants in his flights. He does not try to impress or overwhelm us with his virtuosity. There are missing pieces, which we are being asked to fill in. Before he even starts to improvise, just the sound of Davis's trumpet is enough to take one places. The sound is immediately recognizable, even to those with the most minimal knowledge of jazz, and it can send a chill down one's spine. The sound calls up a range of sometimes similar and sometimes contradictory words, among which are solitary, contemplative, exposed, secretive, playful, melancholic, poetic, mischievous, nocturnal, searching, wistful, stoic, and romantic. It is a sound that draws us irresistibly in even as it keeps us at a calculated distance. "This far, and no
farther," it seems to say. In terms of the traditional Yoruba virtue of itutu, perhaps the key word that comes to mind would be "restraint." While Davis gives everything that he has to his playing, there is always the sense that he holds much in reserve, and that there is much that has been left unsaid.
A whole world view could be deduced from some of Davis's offhand comments on creativity. Here are some of my favorites:
"I'll play it first and tell you what it is afterwards." "Don't fear mistakes; there are none." "It's not the note that you play that's the wrong note; it's the note that you play afterwards that makes it right or wrong." "Don't play what's there; play what's not there." "In music, silence is more important than sound." "I always listen to what I can leave out." "If you don't know what to play, play nothing." "It's always been a gift with me, hearing music the way I do. I don't know where it comes from, it's just there, and I don't question it."(17)
In such statements, we can observe a scrupulously fashioned dialogue between presence and absence, attentive listening and expression. Although formatted in terms of self-description or creative advice, they could just as easily be read as spiritual or philosophical maxims.
On March 2nd, 1959, the members of the Miles Davis Quintet met at Columbia Records' 30th Street Studios in New York to begin work on the five tracks of Kind of Blue. This was one of the first jazz albums to employ modes—or scales—rather than chords as a harmonic basis for improvisation, and it is, to this day, one of the most successful experiments in the use of modes. This shift in compositional theory brought with it new possibilities for melodic development and new structural freedoms but also new temptations in the form of shapelessness and excess. As is often the case in any of the arts, those who break new ground are often the best prepared to take advantage of the breathing space that opens up, for to them the new freedoms appear in the aspect of necessity. I do not, however, want to focus too much here on the purely musical and theoretical aspects of the album; instead,
I would like to point to the conditions of its creation and to the implications of the collaborative method out of which it emerged.
Pianist Bill Evans, who plays on four of the five tracks on the album, writes:
"Miles conceived these settings only hours before the recording dates and arrived with sketches which indicated to the group what was to be played. Therefore, you will hear something close to pure spontaneity in these performances. The group had never played these pieces prior to the recordings and I think without exception the first complete performance of each was a 'take.' "(18)
According to jazz historians, Evans eliminated a few details from this account for the sake of narrative simplicity, but its essential elements are more or less correct. Although it is true that there were no prior rehearsals and the group had little idea of what they were planning to record, they did throw half-formed ideas around and approach these "modal sketches" from a variety of angles, and a second session was required before they were interacting in complete synchrony, with the second session taking place on April 22nd. Davis did keep his instructions to a minimum, and these were less along the lines of what to do and more along the lines of what to avoid. "Hey, man, don't do that!" he would periodically yell. It was only after these preparations that they did a complete run through of each piece, each of which resulted in a mysteriously right "take."
One of the most noticeable sensations that occurs when listening to Kind of Blue is that each track conjures up a kind of space that is also a kind of negative space. The modal frameworks function like contemplative echo-chambers, within which near telepathic listening as well as brilliant improvisation is going on. This is not at all a busy album, and yet each moment is full to overflowing. The studio in which the album was recorded is not the space in which the music was created. Space, as it is conjured up by the Miles Davis Quintet, is not an external backdrop to the decisions of human actors. No, it is the space itself that creates. "Blue In Green" is one of the most evocative tracks on the album, and it demonstrates just how pointless is our fear of letting go, just how seamlessly our reflections can morph into the space around them, so that we find ourselves with no firm ground on
which to stand. For reasons that are inexplicable, we are forced to view this radical new space through the distorting lens of nostalgia. As we listen to the track, we can feel our aloneness reaching through the glass walls of New York, see light after light blinking out, sense our culture letting go of its desire to exist, and hear, through the blue-green of the canyons, the rush of archaic waters. Some presence empties out all trace of busyness from the skyline, beyond which breathes a depth that we have never actually left. It is blue and green and indigo, the colors of itutu.
No human can uproot the tree that a god has planted.—Yoruba proverb
Mark Dukes, Saint John Coltrane Enthroned, acrylic and gold leaf,
Saint John Coltrane Church, San Francisco, 2009
Music critic Ben Ratliff writes:
"Performing artists like John Coltrane don't usually become famous. He was quiet, generous, even-tempered, honest, nonjudgmental. There are no published reports of his flying off the handle, and he had no apparent gift for public relations. The stories of his desperate need to practice, above all else, start before he reaches twenty; they continue through his first public successes and to the end […] Even at his most expressive—in the final stretch, with the albums Meditations and A Love Supreme, and his wild last work, Interstellar Space—he was a student, earnest, self-possessed, apparently uninterested in the shocking-diversion aspect of modernity."(19)
It would be hard to imagine a list of personal characteristics that more closely correspond to the virtues that the Yoruba associate with itutu. Such an ideal synthesis of attitude and creativity was not easily achieved, however.
At his best both soul-stirring and technically probing and intense, Coltrane's star had been on the rise since Miles Davis invited him to join his quartet in 1955. At the time, many jazz fans and critics did not know what to make of him. "When he was with me the first time, people used to tell me to fire him," Davis recalls. "They said he wasn't playing anything."(20) But Davis had an uncanny sense of intuition about people, and he recognized the signs of genius when he saw them. Things did not go smoothly. By April of 1957, Davis had reached his limit of patience. Sinking deeper and deeper into heroin addiction, Coltrane had become erratic, often missing his cue for solos, and he had taken to nodding off in the middle of performances. His bandmates would have to shout to wake him up when it was time for him to play. One night, Davis had had enough. After a particularly careless
performance, he slapped Coltrane and then punched him in the stomach. It is not clear whether Coltrane quit or was fired, but, after this, he did not return.
Although it cost him one of the best jobs in jazz history, this violent rupture was the best thing that could have happened. He would later write, in the 1964 liner notes for A Love Supreme, "In the year 1957, I experienced, by the grace of god, a spiritual awakening, which was to lead to a richer, fuller, more productive life."(21) (He would be rehired by Davis the following year, in time to record Kind of Blue.) Elsewhere in these same liner notes, Coltrane writes, "No road is an easy one, but they all lead back to God."(22) Apparently, he took this idea quite literally, and his bookshelves contained such diverse volumes as the Bhagavad Gita, the Qur'an, the Bible, The Gospel of Shri Ramakrishna, Yogananda's Autobiography of a Yogi, and books on Kabbalah, Zen Buddhism, astrology, Ancient Greek philosophy, and
African history and cosmology. As much as he might have been a product of his immediate time and place, he was equally a citizen of the world. I am not usually one to be impressed by narratives of sin and salvation—not at all!—and that is not what interests me here. What is see is rather the stripping off of a surface mode of action and reaction in favor of one that is deeper and more ancient.
Getting quickly back to work once his withdrawal was complete, Coltrane set out on a course of almost unprecedented creative risk and growth, during which he is said to have practiced somewhere in the neighborhood of twelve hours per day. There were periodic lapses of "resolve," somewhat vaguely described by Coltrane, but almost every year until his death (from liver cancer) in 1966 saw him enter a new world. Shortly before his death, an interviewer in Japan asked him what he wanted to be in five years. Without a trace of irony, Coltrane answered, "A saint."(23)
In San Francisco, six years after his death, the Yardbird Temple decided to improve on this idea, and for a time worshipped him as god incarnate. In 1982, when the group became affiliated with the African Orthodox Church, a condition of the reorganization was that Coltrane be demoted. He is now revered as Saint John Coltrane, and he is one of ninety unconventional saints depicted in the Dancing Saints icon of the Saint Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco. To this day, his music, statements, and poems form an integral part of their liturgy. This would seem extreme, if not nonsensical, if there were not something in the purity of Coltrane's spirit and the breadth and depth of his achievements that seems to justify such excitement. Curiously, the hotness of this engagement could be taken as a tribute to the near perfection of Coltrane's coolness. He was dead by the age of
forty, yet, as short as his life was, one is left with the sense that he had exhausted all of the stylistic possibilities that the culture put before him as well as all of those that he had conjured. There was, perhaps, no place left for him to go, and almost nothing that had been left undone.
On December 9th, 1964, when Coltrane entered the Van Gelder Recording Studio in New Jersey to begin work on A Love Supreme, he asked that all of the lights be turned down. It was assumed by some of those present that this was meant to imitate the dimly-lighted intimacy of a club in the late hours. Listening to the album, I would not necessarily have guessed at these arrangements, but the story is certainly in keeping with the nocturnal coloration of this essay. Before this, Coltrane had disappeared for five days to contemplate the project, and he emerged on the day of the recording with a four-movement concerto-like blueprint, which was clear in its structure but much less so in its goals. McCoy Tyner, who plays piano on the album, reports that Coltrane gave very few instructions; at the same time, there was a deep sense of unspoken communication from the beginning to
the end of the sessions. Even before they met at the studio the first evening, the members of the quintet could sense some positive disturbance in the field, and they knew that something big was going on.
For years, they had conducted even their most daring of musical experiments on stage, in front of thousands of eyes, and the time had come to condense and edit the results.
"You see," says Tyner, "we had reached a level where you could move the music around. John had a very wonderful way of being flexible with the music, flexing it, stretching it. He gave us the freedom to do that. We thought of something, 'Oh, then we'll play it,' you know? And he said, 'Yeah, I have a feeling'—you know? And all that freedom just came together when we did that record."(24)
In jazz, we are faced with something of a paradox: the group takes on the intentionality of a single individual, even as the individual takes on and embodies the collective genius of the group. Yet it is not the group but the separate individuals who play. When it is time to solo, each individual must push the flight of his improvisation to its limits, and, as often as possible, beyond. (It is here that each individual's daimon introduces a whole other level of complexity, since the daimon is not just an aspect of the individual, nor is it dependent upon the activity of any particular group, even though it has similarities in terms of its being collective and non-local.) When I read descriptions of "vimanas"—or flying vehicles—in ancient Vedic texts, I sometimes wonder if they might have functioned like jazz groups or some other type of musical collaboration. In such a vehicle,
space itself would move. A continuous harmonic feedback-loop would yoke the heart of each participating Siddha to the oceanic flux of the horizon. Great vistas would move into and out of visibility, while each Siddha remained coolly centered in his breathing. While each individual may possess almost unimaginable depths, as well as powers that he knows not of, it is only within the cultural context of a group that he can begin to resurrect the skills that he has lost.
Hale Woodruff, Celestial Gate, oil on linen, 65 x 45 inches,
Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, 1965-1968
For years, Coltrane had experimented with "split-tones"—or "multiphonics"—and what critic Ira Gitler termed his "sheets of sound" technique, as if he were engaged in some occult effort to sound like a multitude of players. At times, he appears to be speaking in tongues. This desire for an omnidirectional largeness can also be found at the end of the first movement, called "Acknowledgement," when, after a dense introductory solo and before chanting "a love supreme" for 36 seconds, as if it were a mantra, he plays the four-note motif again and again and again, until he has played it in all 12 keys.
The sound of a gong opens the first movement, as if to say, "Your full attention is requested. This is not an album; it is an invocation. Please enter through the sound." We then proceed though the movements "Resolution" and "Pursuance," which trace a path of a flight that is both guided and threatened from many unpredictable angles with disaster. Depths open underneath us; the sky expands, and the sense of vertigo is both frightening and pleasant, until, in the fourth movement, "Psalm," Coltrane launches into a set of mind-bending improvisations in which, according to author Lewis Porter and Reverend Franzo Wayne King of the African Orthodox Church of San Franscisco, he speaks the psalm of gratitude found in the album's liner notes through his saxophone. Coltrane himself describes this movement as "a musical prayer by horn."(25) The results, however, are anything but programmatic.
In this movement, the mystical path is revealed to be made up of all the errors and disjunctions that compose it; the return to a point of origin is no different than the facts of one person's biography. Harmonies rise, and Coltrane attempts to reach "a level of blissful stability at the end."(26)
What is is, and it cannot be otherwise. Was "John Coltrane" the sum of the social forces that produced him, the stoic recipient of many centuries of institutionalized racial violence, a 1950s artist on the edge, the son of a tailor and a domestic servant from Hamlet, North Carolina, or was he a vehicle for the primordial powers of creation? Was Coltrane a heroin addict who had experienced a spiritual breakthrough, or was he, instead, an ancient soul, a possessor of itutu, who had temporarily put on the mantle of addiction? On this side of death's mirror, we can only begin to intuit how self and circumstance interact. Weakness and strength are the flip sides of a single creative process. The daimon is not the same as the persona, yet neither are they separate. Coltrane's years of addiction could be viewed as a form of inverted spiritual discipline. As he wrote in the album's liner
notes, "Words, sounds, speech, men, memory, thoughts, fears and emotions—time—all related, all made from one[…]One thought can produce millions of vibrations, and they all go back to god."(27) The night was pregnant, and it spoke of the massive immanence of what is.
As important as this album was to Coltrane—and he had micromanaged every detail—there are no recorded interviews in which he talks about its significance. He did, according to drummer Art Blakey, already know that his health was not good and sense that he was running out of time, and one would think that he would have had a desire to say more.
"We didn't talk about a lot of things," says Tyner, "He told me, he says, 'I respond to what's around me. That's the way it should be, you know?' And it was just—I couldn't wait to get to work that night. It was just such a wonderful experience. I mean, I didn't know what we were going to do. We couldn't really explain why things came together so well, you know, and why it was, you know, meant to be. I mean, it's hard to explain things like that."(28)
The hidden text is there, along with a great deal else; it is up to the listener to discover what is there and to decide which elements to pull out of the matrix. A Love Supreme is a gift of the primordial creative spirit, again liberated after centuries of exile, and lifted freely as an offering both to other humans and the beyond. At that point in his life, just three years before his death, it is possible that Coltrane felt just as rooted in the other world as in this one, and he felt no impulse to say more than was needed.
The lightning directs everything.—Heraclitus
Brian George, Bird Arising out of Vortices,
carpenter's pencil on paper, 9 x 12 inches, 2003
When listening to such albums as Kind of Blue and A Love Supreme, we can glimpse in these organic improvisations something of the original radiance of the mind, of its tendency to ignore the determinism that places that past before the future, of its talent for turning trauma into breakthrough, of its capacity to navigate with limited or no guidance through the night, confident that the appropriate connections will appear. This is mind as a spontaneously arising field of interactions rather than mind as the competing or cooperating intellects of separate individuals. This is mind as it was when it was outside rather than inside of our bodies, as it was before its descent into the solidified dream of history.
In listening to albums such as Kind of Blue and A Love Supreme and to pieces such as "A Bit of Basie," you can easily grasp the model of intensely focused spontaneity towards which the Beat writers aspired, most often with only limited success. The dilemma is that, as with Zen brush painting, a gesture that seems to happen "in a moment" does not actually happen in that moment. Rather, the moment is the result of many years of discipline, which prepare the artist to throw all of his powers into a gesture that has a life and mind of its own. To some extent, a good jazz musician cannot help but be disciplined, although the music may or may not at a particular time take off. For a writer, total focus is only one out of many options, and it is all too easy to drift off into noodling. After "Howl" and "Poem Rocket" and "Sunflower Sutra" and several other early breakthrough pieces, Ginsberg spent
much of the next thirty years in demonstrating this point. None too surprisingly, his most explosively original work was done during the period when he was not yet famous and was most at risk. "First thought, best thought," Ginsberg wrote, in an often-quoted statement. To me, however, this maxim strikes me as an intellectual's all too mechanical attempt to escape from the hyperactive vigilance of his mind; it is not in any way a recipe for a flight to the beyond. True improvisation is the condensation of a life into one moment. The process is an alchemical one.
With this realization I have come full circle, to a point where I can see how jazz and the arc of my creative process intersect. In 2016, as the almost anonymous chronicler of the Year of the Leaking Dike, as tankers sail through the Arctic and the solar-powered car has not yet been invented, I do not necessarily feel less alienated from my culture than did artists in the 1950s. My alienation, however, exists within a different metaphysical context. I have no interest in drugs, and I am glad to be set apart. Paradoxically, there is no place in the world that I could go that it would be possible to feel alone; for, wherever I might go, there the other is, however this might be defined. Far more than I had originally wanted to accept, the achievement of a state of intensely focused spontaneity may be as much of a group achievement as a private one. For jazz artists in the 1950s, this sense of
interdependent creativity came from their membership in a cult of Neo-Bacchantes. Their disaffection was a badge of honor. Their coolness was an attitude that went in search of a Near Death Experience. For me, this sense of interdependent creativity comes from a bargain that I made with the ubiquitous but unseen forces of the cosmos.
You would not find the limits of the soul, even by traveling along every path, so deep a logos does it have.—Heraclitus
Brian George, Ancestral Presence,
oil pastel on paper, 9 x 12 inches, 2004
In Hebrew, the word for "seer" or "prophet" is "nabi," which translates as "to bubble up, as from a fountain," and also as "mouth," "hollow," or "cave." The word nabi comes with an injunction: "You must make yourself open in order to receive." For the artist to be able to throw his voice into the void—at least with any hope of success—it was necessary that he first take the time to listen. To give and to receive are not as different as we think. They are as intimately related as the drawing in and blowing out of the breath. At the far edge of a signal from the depths, without the artist being aware of who is acting through his body, a work of the purest originality might explode. Just as the world was created by some force that acted and then withdrew, the artist may find that he is no more than a bystander. He must let go if he is to gain some measure of control. Stepping back, he cannot wait
to see where he has been. Each gesture is a departure. Each departure is a gesture that points him to a land that time forgot. In the Mesoamerican tradition, a shaman would journey to the "Altepetl," or "water mountain," at whose center all signs flowed.
The darkness of my cave is luminous. I can hear the ocean swirling. I can hear its waves crashing. I can register in my bones the shock of the coastlines collapsing. In this luminous darkness, it can be difficult to tell the inside from the outside, and the sky appears to change places with the Earth. Here, the dead listen just as closely as the living. Each presence draws its nourishment from the shadow of the other. I am glad to be tucked inside the luminous darkness of my cave. I am glad, and I am anything but alone.
Both humans and gods are driven from behind to a destination that is both fixed and unpredictable. It is all of the things missing that direct us. Bit by bit, we are stripped of all of our fantasies and attachments. Quite suddenly, perhaps, and with always inadequate warning, we may come to understand those things that we are meant to see and hear. "If you do not expect the unexpected you will not discover it," says Heraclitus, "for it is not to be searched out and is difficult to apprehend." There are discoveries that wait for us to remove them from their Rorschach blots. The achievement of a state of intensely focused spontaneity is our birthright from a time before the physical world existed. It is the conjuration of the shards of a lost language from the depths, a reconfiguration of the logic of possession, the return to a time when the gods jumped head-first towards the Earth. Desire alone is not
enough to pull this intensity of focus from the air. Education is not enough, or the use of a drug, or even the most devoted attention to one's craft. The best Bebop, Cool Jazz, Hard Bop, Neo-Bop, Modal Jazz, and Post-Bop artists had perfected their capacity to actively do nothing. They knew that the most productive technique was to hurry up and wait. There was no way to predict when one or another solo might take off. At times, something happened. You knew it when you heard it.
The instruction manual for the smashing of an empire could be found beneath the improviser's fingers, as could the spells by which dead relatives could be lifted from the depths. Without setting out to do so, and acting from an ever-shifting mix of life-affirming and life-negating elements, jazz artists from the late 1940s to the mid-1960s may have somehow managed to steal their breath back from the gods, who for too long had hoarded its catalytic force. As they stared with half-closed lids behind dark glasses, they may have almost inadvertently found a method of transcendence.
1) Translator of Heraclitus fragment unknown. All other Heraclitus translations are by Robert Geldard, Remembering Heraclitus: Philosopher of Riddles, Floris Books, 2000, 156-161
2) All Yoruba proverbs are from memory. Original translators unknown.
3) Colonel William O. Quinn, Dachau, Society for the Prevention of World War III, 515 Madison Ave., New York, Pickle Partners Publishing Kindle Formatted Edition, 2015, 1
4) Harry Truman, "Statement by the President Announcing the Use of the A-Bomb at Hiroshima," Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum August 6th, 1945
5) Life Magazine, week of August 15th, 1945, 21
6) Jennifer Hartt, "Speeding Toward Death: Neal Cassady, Charlie Parker, and Escape in the 1950s," 1998, http://www.plosin.com/beatbegins/projects/hartt.html
7) In Ancient Greece, the daimon was seen as a source of creativity that originated outside of the personal self. Genius is a Roman word for the same concept. "In-spiration," or in-breathing, implies that some force is rushing in, like air. The role of the daimon was similar to that of the muse, although it had other aspects as well. Like the soul, it could be seen as the part of the self that remains outside of time and that acts as a catalyst or a teacher. Since it is able to see beyond the horizon that limits our perception, its motives can seem perverse. When ignored or disrespected, the daimon can take on aspects of the shadow. From a different angle, the daimon was understood to have an intimate relationship to the shape of the person's life story. Heraclitus writes, "A man's ethos (character) is his daimon (fate)."
8) Winick's 1959 study of 400 jazz musicians in New York found that 40 percent were either regular or occasional users. This was past the heyday for the drug, however, and the percentage among key figures strikes me as much higher. Winick, Charles, "The Use of Drugs by Jazz Musicians," Social Problems 7, 1959, 243
9) Ainslie, Scott, "The Roots of Coolness: Ancient Yoruba Aesthetics in the New World," 6, ScottAinslie.com
10) Thompson, Robert Farris, Flash of the Spirit, First Vintage Books, 1983, 13
11) Thompson, Robert Farris, Flash of the Spirit, First Vintage Books, 1983, 16
12) Pepper, Art, Straight Life, Da Capo Press, 1994, 155
13) Lin, Derek, Tao Te Ching: Annotated and Explained, Skylight Paths, 2006, 23
14) Miles Davis, Ebony Magazine interview, Jan 1961, 76
15) Miles Davis, Playboy interview, September 1962
16) Miles Davis, Playboy interview, September 1962
17) Miles Davis, jazzquotes.com; wikiquotes.org; apassion4jazz.net/quotations; az.quotes.com; allaboutjazz.com
18) Bill Evans, Kind of Blue, liner notes, 1959
19) Ben Ratliff, "The Miracle of Coltrane—Dead at 40," NYT, Critic's Notebook, December 7th, 2001
20) Miles Davis, Milestones, Da Capo Press, 1998, 252
21) John Coltrane, A Love Supreme, liner notes, 1964
22) John Coltrane, A Love Supreme, liner notes, 1964
23) John Coltrane, "Interview in Japan," July 9, 1969, johncoltrane.com
24) McCoy Tyner, Jerry Jazz Musician, interview with Joe Maita,
November 8th, 2001
25) John Coltrane, A Love Supreme, liner notes, 1964
26) John Coltrane, A Love Supreme, liner notes, 1964
27) John Coltrane, A Love Supreme, liner notes, 1964
28) McCoy Tyner, Jerry Jazz Musician ,interview with Joe Maita, November 8th, 2001
Cover Art: Brian George, The New York Skyline from Above,
photogram, 9 x 12 inches, 2001
Read his essay in a comprehensive view of the exhibition of
The Color of Seasons
Brian George is the author of two books of essays and five books of poetry. These include Voyage to a Nonexistent Home; Maps of the Metaphysical Double: In the Footprints of de Chirico; To Akasha: An Incantation for the Crossing of an Ocean; and The Preexistent Race Descends. His book of essays Masks of Origin: Regression in the Service of Omnipotence is scheduled to be published by Untimely Books in February 2021. He is a graduate of the Massachusetts College of Art, an exhibited artist and former teacher. He often tells people first discovering his work that his goal is not so much to be read as to be reread, and then lived with.
©2020 Brian George
©2020 Publication Scene4 Magazine