Ralph Ellison’s Jazz Writings

Living with Music is a collection of insightful, masterful jazz writings from the musician-turned-writer Ralph Ellison. To him jazz was like poetry, as he pointed out in “On Bird, Bird-Watching, and Jazz,” a piece on Charlie Parker: “Consider that at least as early as T.S. Eliot’s creation of a new aesthetic for poetry through the artful juxtapositioning of earlier styles, Louis Armstrong, way down the river in New Orleans, was working out a similar technique for jazz.”

In “Homage to Duke Ellington on His Birthday,” Ellison skillfully captured the essence of Ellington’s nickname in one sentence: “Somewhere during his childhood a friend had nicknamed Edward Kennedy Ellington ‘Duke,’ and he had proceeded to create for himself a kingdom of sound and rhythm that has remained impregnable to the fluctuations of fad and novelty, even the passing on of key members of his band.” Isn’t that just beautiful?

Ellison also had no problem speaking with eloquentness when disagreeing with another critic. In “Blue People,” Ellison corrected Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones) for making an erroneous differentiation of the blues: “Jones makes a distinction between classic and country blues, the one being entertainment and the other folklore. But the distinction is false. Classic blues were both entertainment and a form of folklore. When they were sung professionally in theaters, they were entertainment; when danced to in the form of recordings or used as a means of transmitting the traditional verses and their wisdom, they were folklore. There are levels of time and function involved here, and the blues which might be used in one place as entertainment (as gospel music is now being used in night clubs and on theater stages) might be put to a ritual use in another. Bessie Smith might have been a ‘blue queens’ to society at large, but within the tighter Negro community where the blues where part of a total way of life, and a major expression of an attitude toward life, she was a priestess, a celebrant who affirmed the values of the group and man’s ability to deal with chaos.”

If that kind of thorough comprehension doesn’t prove Ellison was living with the music, I don’t know what is. He truly meant every word when he said, “In those days it was either live with music or die with noise, and we chose rather desperately to live.”