This is part of the introduction (an excerpt of which is reprinted below with kind permission of the author) to a book by Jazz writer and journalist. There will be a series of book launches with the author and special guests including Gilad Atzmon and Jack Dejohnette, all with free admission:
Tuesday 18th November
Ray’s Jazz at Foyles,
Charing Cross Road, London WC2, 7 pm.
Friday 21st November
The Front Room at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre, London SE1, 6 pm.
(with Sibongile Khumalo and Jack Dejohnette,
chaired by Kevin Le Gendre, admission free)
Saturday 22nd November
5 Caledonian Road,
Kings Cross, London N1, 3 pm.
As Indymedia London wrote:
Chris Searle’s book ‘Forward Groove’ is a survey of recorded jazz from its beginnings to the present, seeking to show how its musicians always reflected in their music the issues of their day, from mass migration and the struggles against racism, to a hatred of war, the assertion of internationalism and the aspirations towards a fair and just world.
Searle looks at attempts to resist racism through music, including the Civil Rights movement in the US and the continuing fight against racism in the US and Britain.
This book will appeal to jazz lovers everywhere and those interested in culture and music as an expression of real history - jazz reconciles scattered cultures with diasporan sounds and instruments.
Jazz and Syncretism
What has been the basis of selection of the jazz ‘texts’ described in this account, for the eighty years of the recorded history of the music shows thousands of brilliant jazz performances that could have been chosen. So why have I picked out those particular waxed jazz moments that follow? Mainly because they sometimes very obviously, and other times less obviously, allude to a real and specific situation in social or political history that shows how the music can never be divided from its circumstances, and the real world which produced it. And the musicians involved achieve this with an undoubted musical artistry and imagination, as well as a consciousness of the events around them, which they may have expressed not only in their notes, but also their lyrics, through their titles, or in the commentaries that they may have spoken or written about their music.
Finally, I try to give special importance to a unique feature of jazz: its sense of syncretism – begun in New Orleans when so many apparently different musical discourses fused: African, French, Spanish, Caribbean, Christian, indigenous, maritime, riverine – to create a music so hybrid as to defy precedent. Thus arrived jazz as the reconciliation of scattered cultures and diasporan sounds and instruments, the unity of sound and lyric, new demographies and new musical amalgams, fresh realisations of dynamic new alliances – cultural, musical and political, new metaphors of sound forged with old instruments. The world was made again in music with the sound of the unexpected, with the embrace of the diverse – all have been essential to the syncretic power of jazz throughout its history in many places in and out of the Americas. Here’s an example among thousands, now spinning on my turntable. It is November 26 1972, three weeks before what became known as the Christmas bombing of Vietnam, when US B52 and F111 bombers flew some 1700 sorties. By 29 December one hundred thousand bombs had been dropped, causing 1318 deaths in Hanoi alone, many of them children. In a New York studio a group of jazz musicians led by an Armenian-American drummer, Paul Motian, a white American bassist, Charlie Haden, a woman flautist Becky Friend and an African-American violinist, Leroy Jenkins, record ‘Inspiration from a Vietnamese Lullaby’, their music moved and energised by the suffering and struggle of faraway children and the mothers being slaughtered by American airmen. It became part of an album, Conception Vessel, issued by ECM, a Munich-based label. This I have learned through fifty years of listening: syncretism and the struggle for peace are two of the essences of jazz.
Nowhere more so than in the musical life of the Israeli alto and soprano saxophonist Gilad Atzmon. ‘I was brought up to be an oppressor,’ he declares in the sleevenotes of his 2001 album Nostalgico. ‘A role which didn’t suit me and which I couldn’t accept.’ Atzmon was born in Israel, and grew up in Jerusalem, surrounded by Arab musical influences. ‘The Palestinians are completely right – it is their land. The Jews in Israel have abused their kindness for fifty years,’ he told me. ‘They ask for forgiveness from God, when really they should be asking for forgiveness from the Palestinians.’ In 1994 he arrived in England to study philosophy at the University of Essex.
By 1998 jazz was Atzmon’s livelihood, and rock and roll too as a member of Ian Dury’s Blockheads and, like another brilliant exile, the South African Abdullah Ibrahim, he began recording for the German label ENJA, playing jazz of an astonishing hybridity in his first album for them, The Orient House Ensemble. On it there is an Algerian-style version of Wayne Shorter’s ‘Footprints’, a witty waxing of Ellington’s ‘In a Sentimental Mood’, redrawn as a dedication to the ‘cows of Britain’ and re-titled ‘In a Semi-Mental Moo-ed’. His quartet, the Orient House Ensemble, remembers the building (later seized and occupied by the Israeli army), which was designated as the official home of the Palestinian Authority in Jerusalem, and is composed of two Israelis: himself and drummer Asaf Sirkis, who plays the bandit – an Arab side drum – as well as a conventional kit, and two young Englishmen (pianist Frank Harrison and bassist Oli Hayhurst). On this first ENJA album, the most moving and passionate performance is that of Atzmon’s own ‘Balladi’. The name is Arabic for soil, and its composer says: ‘I wrote it in empathy with the Palestinian people in my determined wish that they will regain their land – the land which belongs to their children.’ Listening to Atzmon’s choruses of righteous anger and love, I remembered lines from the poetry of the Palestinian laureate Mahmoud Darwish in his poem ‘Homeland’:
This land is the skin on my bones
And my heart
Flies above its grasses like a bee
This is the extent of the long journey of jazz, from New Orleans to Palestine, and then forced into exile – into a world, as Atzmon says of Nostalgico: ‘of unfulfilled dreams and fragmented melodies’. Within this album Ellington’s melodies grow again, this time along the margins of Asia Minor, as Atzmon’s rendition of ‘I’ve Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good’ (originally a part of Ellington’s 1941 musical, Jump for Joy, and a tune which became associated with defiant anti-racist resistance, as will be shown in Chapter 2) recalls Duke to the shores of Palestine, and to Israel itself, called by Atzmon in his sleevenotes, that ‘small, colonial, nationalistic province in the eastern corner of the Mediterranean Sea’. There is also an echoing reinvention of Sidney Bechet’s ‘Petite Fleur’.
Then, in 2005, Atzmon dedicates his album Musik/Re-arranging the 20th Century with this pregnant sentence: ‘Sooner rather than later musik will free itself and so will the Palestinian people.’ Musik: even the word is a hybrid; emblematic of Atzmon’s art, and his wit, beauty, virtuosity. He weaves poetry into the album, the words of a veteran jazz-rocker, Robert Wyatt, and a true fusion of music and language from a host of different peoples and tongues – astonishing and revolutionary musical alliances of the Arab and the Jew, the Greek and the German, the Italian and the English, to name but a few. And such hybridity is to set aside and replace the betrayals of the last century. ‘A market value was attached to every bar,’ he avers. ‘Music became furniture, a matter of style, a mass global product, an extension of Levi jeans or a secondary product to Coca-Cola.’ Not so Atzmon’s music. He calls his bandmates ‘the soldiers of liberated beauty’ – perhaps Ellington might have called the loyal members of his orchestra the same, and ‘musik is music when it is stripped of its market value.’ The simple, naked melody of his track ‘Music’ exemplifies this unmercenary sound, but it is in the performance of the wartime popular song, ‘Lili Marleen’, that folklore becomes jazz and hope becomes music. As Atzmon’s horn howls out the barely discernible melody, at first unaccompanied and then no longer alone, the agony and struggle of a generation at war in the dawn in a new century becomes everyone’s life and everyone’s beauty.
The future of jazz is embedded within its internationalism. Its migratory powers, personified by Atzmon and many others have taken its blue and joyous notes across the world, and they have frequently – as the jazz ‘texts’ of this book will show, been welded to a message of peace, justice and political freedom. In the sleevenotes of Atzmon’s finest and most audacious album called simply Exile (2003), he writes:
in the album we try to tell the story of Palestine, a beautiful and historically ecumenical land that was suddenly stormed by radical Zionist zealots. It is an image of harmony shattered by bloodshed and destruction . . . This album is a call for attention to Palestinian suffering. It is a prayer for the world to acknowledge the Palestinian essential right of return.
A true cause of jazz, and one that is at the heart of every note that Atzmon and his musical friends create – is their birthplace, the land of Palestine. For Exile is a passionately realised and beautifully crafted work of art and aspiration. It begins with Reem Kelani’s shattering vocal of Monzer El Dajani’s lyrics, proclaiming that those who ascend into Heaven have ‘their rock’ on Palestinian earth. She sings above bowed bass, accordion and a fusion of eastern Mediterranean sounds:
No matter how long it takes me
My children and I
And my children’s children,
We’re going back to our homeland.
And taking the same road is Atzmon’s mysterious soprano reed and Sirkis’ dancing drums in ‘Al-Quds’, with Kelani singing the Arabic words of Darwish:
My night has been long
Stretched over garden walls,
But I have not lost the way.
Atzmon’s white hot irony is explicit in his composition ‘Jenin’, a story of Zionist hatred and murder, its tune inspired by a Jewish ballad telling the tale of a city destroyed in a pogrom: ‘The decision to make use of Jewish and Israeli tunes was very deliberate,’ writes Atzmon. ‘Jewish history is an endless story of persecution, agony and anguish,’ mirroring that of Palestinian neighbours. In ‘Jenin’, Atzmon’s saxophone voice is full of mourning and Yaron Stavi’s bass booms like a forest of consciousness. ‘Ouz’ seems like a dance of joy, until you realise it is a dance of Israeli occupation and expulsion. Then the elation takes on a sudden brutal edge, as Harrison’s piano chorus seems to tell two stories – and the power of Atzmon’s saxophone makes you think that perhaps a whole martial reed section is playing.
Exile is a signal album, and one which I believe truly looks into the ear of jazz. Its musicians are inventing new syncretic cultures actually as they carve out their sounds, mocking the separatist chauvinisms that beset their part of the world. It is a shout of jazz unity, of an integral music that creates a way of hearing, seeing and living in the world, that is truly worthy of that ‘ecumenical’ land for which they hope and strive.
‘If you read the titles of the tracks of my new album, Refuge, one after the other, they make a poem’, Atzmon told me in October 2007 as we walked up Ecclesall Road in Sheffield before a gig. So I did, and here they are:
Autumn in Baghdad
Spring in New York
In The Small Hours
The Burning Bush
Just Another Prayer for Peace
‘That is what the record is about. I don’t care if we talk about divisions or categories of musical styles, whether it’s Jazz, World Music, Soul or whatever. If there’s anything we can produce as artists, it’s beauty. And since our elected politicians are producing nothing else but ugliness, in particular for the people of Palestine and Iraq, we artists must produce beauty.’
‘Sometimes I think that Refuge is a story, a humanist story of a journey from Iran to Venezuela. I travel all over the world. In Europe, all across the EU, I see and feel alienated countries and their peoples who have lost contact with themselves, cold and with so much that is inhumane. But when I go to places like Istanbul or Argentina for example, I can feel the humanity much more.’
‘I was born in Israel. Now, three of the members of the Orient House Ensemble are from Israel. So I know deep inside me that the Hebraic identity is the most radical version of the idea of Jewish supremacy which is a curse for Palestine, a curse for Jews and a curse for the world. It is a major destructive force. That is the beast still inside me, the beast that every day I try to turn into beauty through my music. For an Israeli to humanise himself, he must de-Zionise himself. In this way, self-hating can become a very productive power. It’s the same sense of self-hating that I find too in Jews who have given the most to humanity, like Christ, Spinoza or Marx. They bravely confronted their beasts, and in doing so they made sense to many millions.’
These words were some sharp preface to a performance in a South Yorkshire jazz club, with most of the tunes coming from Refuge. Before I heard them again live, I read what Atzmon had written in his sleevenotes. He remembers that when he founded the Orient House Ensemble in 2000, he believed that music could be a ‘message of peace’, but now, ‘eight years later, I must admit that I may have got it wrong. This is our fifth album. We have performed hundreds of concerts around the world and somehow peace is nowhere near. Every day a new conflict comes to life. Once a week a newly-born fear is shaped into a sinister agenda wrapped in an image of Western goodness. As far as my homeland is concerned, peace has never looked so far away.’
Atzmon now says that music is not the messenger, it has become the message as well as a refuge. And it has given him new hope. He told me a story close to his life: ‘The morning after I played at the concert for Medical Aid for Palestine, I went to an assembly at my son’s school in north London. The school is lucky because it has a wonderful music teacher, a man who loves jazz and the children love him. He’s a fine musician too and he gets the children playing beautiful things. This morning he had 700 of them singing along with Louis Armstrong on ‘What a Wonderful World’. And as the record ended, they were all singing, and they just carried on, without Louis. Well, my son is very young and so are his schoolmates. They didn’t know about Bush and Blair, and it made me think, perhaps it is a wonderful world like Louis sang, if we can only defeat and go beyond the politicians’ sinister agenda. I felt this optimism, listening to Louis and all those children. I felt the future, it affected me a huge amount – and now I play ‘What a Wonderful World’ to end all my performances.’
As soon as you listen to the album’s opener, ‘Autumn in Baghdad’, you can hear how Atzmon’s saxophone voice has changed during a decade. His sound is much fuller, much more sodden with experience, much more enfolding, and as he plays you can almost hear his words, so vocalistic is his timbre. Sometimes I thought that I was hearing the horns of Rahsaan Roland Kirk, or Yusef Lateef, or in particular the late Native American, Jim Pepper. The tune has an Ellingtonian beauty and simplicity, a pure melody beginning from a sound close to exhausted quiescence with pianist Frank Harrison’s lone piano preceding a crying Atzmon alto, the sound searching, questing, wandering, sorrowing, growing towards a crescendo of empathy. ‘When I first came to London,’ Atzmon told me, ‘I met some Iraqis. They had wonderful things to say about Baghdad. Look at the wreckage now. What have we done? We elected the leaders who did this.’
That ‘Spring in New York’ should be juxtaposed to the late year in Iraq’s mauled capital is a sonic irony in itself. Yet the repeated soprano riff, the electronica, the discord and assumed assurance all betray a sound of the insecure, the attitudinised and the vulnerable, the persona of power stuffed with emptiness. It is only in ‘In the Small Hours’ that there is time and space enough to reflect and contemplate, with the troubled sounds of Atzmon’s alto and Harrison’s tapped-out Fender-Rhodes chorus before Asaf Sirkis’ grilling drums, that the enormity and price of the sorrow can be reckoned.
I asked Atzmon whether ‘The Burning Bush’ was a reflection of the US President. ‘It is,’ he said. ‘He represents a major destructive force in the world, with few brothers or sisters like him in history. And beyond all the destruction and lost lives, Bush and Blair have committed it all on our behalf. They are our elected leaders. They have turned us too into criminals.’ And the wailing, tormented notes spear towards Palestinian and Iraqi skies with distant, chanting voices and a gradual acceleration of sounds, as the victims of imperial violence deal with their compounding pain and rage in a world which, in Atzmon’s words, ‘is becoming more and more hostile’. As the track ends, Sirkis’ drums are like mountain peaks, spectators to human agonies which grow and crescendo, then fade into pained continuity.
After such cataclysmic sounds, ‘Her Smile’, starting as an Atzmon/Harrison duet, radiates a sudden harmony, with the soprano horn picking out paths of ecumenical beauty over Yaron Stavi’s bowed bass. ‘Her Tears’ must follow, as they do, with Stavi’s bow still brushing his deep strings with lamentation. As Atzmon writes: ‘Submerged in tears, one comes to realise oneself, a music prevails,’ and ‘Her Tears’ are transformed into a Levantine blues, a deep song of real life, pain and enduring survival. While at the centre of ‘My Refuge’ is a horn cadence, a falling on an immense scale, before the music ascends to a joyous, almost Latin American carnavallic conviction with the infusion of Paul Jayasinya’s singing trumpet.
‘Just Another Prayer for Peace’ is the album’s final track, prompted by Sirkis’ subliminally ironic martial drums, provoking thoughts of US soldiers in Baghdad, British marines in Basra and Israeli troops and armed settlers across the West Bank, as Atzmon’s horn sings as a voice of human resistance steeped in invasion and the pain of foreign trespass. The naked lucidity of his sound and that of Harrison’s picked-out, crystalline notes become a unified human song to other humans to promote the blessings of peace and freedom for lands that are occupied, shattered and starved – in Palestine, in Iraq, anywhere and anytime.
I asked Atzmon about his hopes for a liberated Palestine, and how the ecumenical vision of his own music, taking from Hebraic, Arabic and Turkish traditions within a jazz framework, could find its true home there. And what would be the first tune he would play in a free Jerusalem?
‘There will be a free Palestine,’ he said assuredly. Then he laughed. ‘It’s going to happen for sure, and my ambition is to become the first Palestinian Minister of Jazz. Palestine will be liberated and the Israeli empire, the Bush empire, the Neo-Con. Empire will all have to clear the stage. And I will play the tune ‘Al-Quds’ in the new Jerusalem. It’s a Hebrew song, but we have Palestinised it! For it is not only about liberating Palestinians, it is about liberating Israelis from themselves. It is about liberating the world!’
© Chris Searle 2008. The right of Chris Searle to be identified as author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
Not to be reproduced without the permission of the publisher:
Northway Publications, 39 Tytherton Road, London N19 4PZ, UK.
You can order this book and many other books on Jazz at Nortway Books