Jazz ‘n Class
Lights. “Aqua” by Jessie Montgomery swells then fades under.
MOM (assuming meditative posture)
Blood and love runs through it all. She be more annoyed with white people than I be. Once just one step up from toddling, she heard someone ask me if she was part Hispanic. Before I could catch my breath, she answered, “I’m 100% black. My father’s white and you better not mess wif him ‘cause he family.”
Living on the Lower Eastside (which nobody who lived there called alphabet city), she’d heard enough to give such a badass reply.
Soon after she sees a kid her size with a violin, tells her father, who plays tenor sax, to get her one. (He told me he’d take it back if she couldn’t play.) They went to the 3rd Street Music School (on 11th Street, which is a whole other story). And off she went into so-called classical music. But jazz — also referred to as classical — was always in her blood.
Me, I don’t play anything except my life — and percussions in my heart, but the jazz blood in her is more mine than his. Which is what I came to talk about.
Way back in Africa before this country was claimed to be white, a group of people came from the East and settled all the way West in Africa. Though different from ours, their journey compares to our journey through ourselves to where we are now. Everybody is more colored than white.
Music: “Strum” by Jessie Montgomery swells and fades under.
MOM: (intermittently moving to music) Do you know Billy Bang, I ask her?
She said, Yes, you know I knew him, the violinist … the jazz violinist who lived in the ‘nabe.’
I said, You know you’re not there yet.
Mom, she said, Billy Bang was Billy Bang. I’m not jazz.
But … I started
Cutting me off she said, I know your jazz thing. Everything to you is jazz. Me, I’m classical.
I know, Daughter Dear, I just …
“… want me to get in touch with my internal jazz,” she sighed. Gotta go, she said, ‘n hung up.
Strum fades out. Lights change. MOM standing with yoga mat talking to Herself
My butt still works.
Plastiques. A process I learned long ago, a way to think inside and move from deep inside body parts. Now I know it as breaking — all jazz.
Finding it hard to walk of late, I thought into my butt. Thinking released my legs, my pelvis, my mind. Lights. Music: “Reflections” by Billy Bang.
In the middle of that night reading the word “malevolence” I see “male violence. ” I’m driven to write. My arthritic hand hurts but I write anyway.
(Moving through the writing She reads.) People learn a lot from lore. My hands hurt so bad braiding her hair, her father took over, did it more gentle. She sees the world through different eyes, tells me she’s most attracted to black men. Me too, I tell her. But she has never lived up close to the threatening storm. Her father, a neighbor once said, is “really white”. He’s a romance addict, I say to myself, bringing flowers full of lies. (I hate flowers. They’re suspect.) No longer married we remain attached. Nothing untoward. I think we were related in a past life. I don’t try to be rational all the time. (Once I went to therapy, it helped.) My story is crusty old, but something bigger than age lives in it. Jazz is older than time. Music. “Reflections” refrain up and out.
MOM: (placing yoga mat. Music by Craig Harris under.)
Sekou Sundiata put down a rug on the floor and with trombonist, Craig Harris ‘nem, did The Circle Unbroken Is A Hard Bop. Sekou once came to me to be taught, called me professor before I had credentials. I learned so much. He told me question stories like the cab driver in Kenya who asked him where was the land of Africa America, stories and questions that continue to sustain me such as, Who were we to sell ourselves to slave traders. When Sekou’s picture flashed on my phone at the hospital in Casablanca, Laurie Carlos – however I heard her — let me know Sekou’s spirit was with me. I don’t know if I’m coming or going. Laurie tells me to be quiet, say she wasn’t ready for me to go any damn where. Spirits no matter how young surround me. I thank goodness. The doctors’d opened me up in a different language. Another artery collapsing, my heart weak. I’m scared, can hardly speak, think I’m dying in Venice — or in some other book — not home. Yes, daughter girl child … you call … say you have a plane ticket.
One day when you were at about 10 months old, I picked you up. You held me tighter, put your cheek to mine, then looked at me and smiled. Every day after I stood over your crib, your playpen, your stroller, and chanted, You are beautiful, you are smart, you are free.
(Music, a medley of jazz. MOM dancing to it.)
You were born into jazz the underground of it,
jazz didn’t nobody know unless they were around –
or aficionados of — it. You came into the world into it.
Billy Bang’s wife was having their little girl down the hall from you being born – in it.
Henry Threadgill’s daughter, no slacker musician now herself, babysat you; you play-dated the sons of Jemeel Mundoc and Butch Morris in it. If people don’t know them, they oughta. You saw, heard or heard of C Sharpe and countless others in the (imitatively) ‘nabe’ … in and out of The University of the Streets headed by Muhammad Salahuddeen, who I’d pay homage to when he’d be seen at 7th and A, me carrying you. Not to mention the grace of Wilbur Morris, bass, Ornette Coleman on almost everything including violin, Cecil Taylor playin’ the keys off the piano, music people well known or not … well, mainly guys … but that’s how it was, still is, ‘n that’s a complaint … though if Edwina Lee Tyler ain’ jazz ain’ nobody. You crawled around people in your father’s band includin’ Richard Fairfax alto sax, Ben Bierman trumpet, Bern Nix and Ayodele Maakheru awesome guitarists, Bob DeMeo on traps … Miguel Rodriquez on congas ‘n your dad himself … on tenor sax– ‘n the poets …. (To Audience) Look up Nuyorican Poets Café for that, the poets who’re as much jazz as anybody.
(Sits on mat, circling arms to include Audience (‘Songbird Smoke’ Music under)
So far back goes this circle that entertains and … complains … this rhythm section. Al-Halq, an ancient form of performance still in Morocco. It is form and content remembered impro- vised and woven together … sometimes banal/other times elite, sacred and profane of a people grounded in tradition while free enough to have open secrets, like us. Music fadeout.
Way back down South I remember a sound that sound like Africa. A woman with her head wrapped holding a basket on it and singing, “Buy any green peas, tomato, okra?”
Way back wagon shows came to our neighborhood in Georgia where there’d be a woman singing in a fancy dress, a man playing a horn and sometimes a banjo ‘n somebody selling medicine which wadn’t nothin’ but whiskey ‘n sometime selling watermelon slices. We wadn’t ‘pose to go look but we sneaked ‘n did. “ When I asked my mother about Ma Rainey, she looked disapproving at me. “She wadn’t our kinda people,” Mother said.
I loved being the darkest girl in the family though they always said Cousin Lillie who’d died young was dark but — pretty. I liked looking in the mirror seeing me dark — and pretty. Funny about color, Daughter thought my color was the favored one. Electra-like she saw her father choosing me. (Yeah, I went to therapy once.) The Lower East Side and our places were full of people and families with all kinda colors and … HAIR!
Malcolm X said, Revolution is based on land. That’s what makes people mad with each other – how they deal with land, with ownership. We still carry plantation thoughts inside us, thinking light skin-ded people get more from the Massa.
Please, Mom, she says. Can we not go all the time back to the plantation?
It’s hard to get out, especially because too many white people think they’re born with no memory. They like the word forget. If they forget about slavery long enough they think who we are will disappear. Still genocide. They have to remember so we all can move.
Ma Rainey publicly called ugly — looked a little like me and I know I ain’ ugly — was born in my mother’s Georgia home city. We were First African Baptist Negroes, church right near Gertrude Pridgett’s/Ma Rainey’s house — now with historical status. For years it just sat there, falling apart. After the Movement they fixed it up.
My family who I loved so much I had to get away from ‘em, were wannabe uppity but were working middle class black people — wouldna been middle if they weren’t working, all the women and men — teachers, clerks, nurses, truck drivers, and armed forces. Mother said she just wanted me to be normal. I woulda been if I coulda. Instead, I was moody, dreamy, acted different, read when I could (Aunt Jessie say you read too much you be crazy) — and I wadn’t scared of the blues.
You were a surprise I knew I wanted as soon as I knew you were coming. You were the reason I knew I was here for. Your eyes were open when you were born ‘n you looked at me with curiosity, ‘n I said through my tears, You are perfect. Later your father held you sitting across from me. Barely able to talk, he said, She looks like you. I said, She’s got your hands. They called it a bonding moment.
MOM (doing tai chi-like movements “The Poet” by Jessie Montgomery fades in and out.)
Jazz is like air
It nourishes us whether or not we know all the complicated stuff of it.
We know the sources of it live in our souls.
Whether we feel it or not, we look for it to lean into.
Soul in this country is black.
We breathe here from a source of blackness and all its contradictions
Jazz is … air.
(Doing plastiques, pulling thoughts from the air))
Poet Sekou Sundiata said collaboration is working with people you like.
Director Joseph Chaikin mentioned inside eyes. I like tuning in to all the senses inside. Chaikin said jazz is everything.
We don’t know who was the first real of anybody. From California I talked over electric air with women in Morocco. They talked of freedom change hope tradition and property. We understood each other speaking different languages.
Would not been no jazz without the blues. In black language there is no bad grammar. Another thing we added to this country. Amiri Baraka’s Blues People should be basic text for everyone.
Revolution now, I think, is based on air, learning how to move ‘n talk through air from the inside out, how to shape breath/sound ‘n how to, you know, let it go. Everybody should read Margaret Walker’s Jubilee.
(Trying lotus position, speaking from inner movement)
What’s the point? Daughter asked.
I had you when I was 39. My mother fed you my breast milk wif ‘ a bottle.
She said, You a better mother than me.
Still drowsy from birthing you I comforted her. “You were younger,” I said.
(Music: “Banner” way under building)
The point Daughter Dear is that you called me back after hanging up having to go.
You called deep in tears. I thought it something personal, some guy thing, which I have no expertise in, so I was just ready to say ‘poor thing’, but it was deeper. You needed me to teach you Laurie Carlos who said “Keep your rage intact.” You called me having found your rage, your natural blackness, whether people want to admit it or not. It nourishes and of course can destroy us if not kept intact, which is the beauty of Laurie’s lesson.
Frederick Douglass, you said, was asked in 1855 to speak honoring the 4th of July, and he found it hard to honor something that didn’t honor him. You, commissioned to compose a piece about the flag, identified. Lucky to be a hard-working lucky artist, you heard me.
So yes, Daughter Dear, the point is your tears came from knowledge you were born into, born classy as most black people are, ‘n with a sense of class, ‘n yes, hard to talk about once we buy in to it to keep our hair looking good. ‘Reparations now’ had to be close to the last words of Amiri Baraka, our Africa America land’s deepest jazz aficionado.
You living conscious of contradictions finished your composition about the flag. All I could do was grin, my chest up to my chin, — your music, an orchestra, Carnegie Hall. The work was called diverse and inclusive. I thought it more … personal, political, beautiful and free, which is who you are, and how I’d hoped you’d be.
And I’ll never forget how when I’m sick overseas you come to Casablanca — leave your work, cross the ocean to comfort me. You are descendant alive and delightful to ancestors. And we laugh close over there … mother/daughter/sister/friend close … speaking bad French … to each other (laughter).
(“Banner” briefly swells and fades.)
My rage, Mom, she said, is full of energy … images … feelings.
“Banner” swells up… and out.
Yes, I said, you helped heal my heart, Baby Girl, in Morocco … as far into Africa as I’m ever likely to be.
Images: Ma Rainey’s House fades into Jessie hugging Bach’s statue.
Robbie McCauley, OBIE Award playwright of Sally’s Rape, is an internationally recognized performance artist and director. Sugar, her play, directed by Maureen Shea at ArtsEmerson in Boston received the IRNE (Independent Reviewers of New England) Award for her performance. Directing credits include an innovative interpretation of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie at Roxbury Repertory Theater and Adrienne Kennedy’s Sleep Deprivation Chamber at Penumbra Theatre Co. in Minnesota. Acting credits include For Colored Girls Who’ve Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf on Broadway, and Fences at the Tyrone Guthrie in Minnesota. She toured with The Arts Company and with New Performance Video as writer and director in cities across the U.S. and abroad, facilitating dialogues on race between local whites, blacks, and other ethnic groups. Widely anthologized, including Omi Osun Joni L. Jones’ new book, Theatrical Jazz; Robbie McCauley is a recently retired Professor Emerita of Emerson College in Boston.
Jazz ‘n Class Track (Selected and Sequenced by Oliver Seagle)
- Aqua – Jessie Montgomery
- Strum – Jessie Montgomery
- Reconciliation 2 – Billy Bang
- From a concert given in 1983 no track name listed – Craig Harris
- Recorded during 3rd Muzyka z Mózgu Festival in Bydgoszcz (Poland) 25.11.2007 – Billy Bang and William Parker
- All The Way Light Touch – Henry Threadgill
- One For Monk & Trane – Jemeel Moodoc
- Conduction #188 – Butch Morris
- Gaza Strip – Lee Morgan feat. C. Sharpe
- Wilbur Force – Wilbur Morris
- Lonely Woman, at Jazz a Vienne 2008 – Ornette Coleman
- From A Master Class at N.Y.U. – Cecil Taylor
- Dear Poppy – Edwina Lee
- Regeneration Report – Sedition Ensemble
- Songbird Smoke – Jessie Montgomery
- The Poet – Jessie Montgomery
- Banner – Jessie Montgomery
- Regeneration Report – Sedition Ensemble (For Bow)
Images selected and designed by Mirta Tocci.