AFRO-AMERICAN MUSIC INSTITUTE CELEBRATES 31 YEARS
THE PITTSBURGH SOUND
Thoughts by Nelson E. Harrison, Ph.D.
The jazz tradition in Pittsburgh began in the first decade of the 20th century establishing it as one of the earliest caldrons of refinement and influence in the primeval development of its roots.
The musicianly sophistication of black jazz in Pittsburgh surpassed that of any other river city including New Orleans. --- William Howland Kenney (Jazz on the River – 2005)
Historically there has been and still is a Pittsburgh Sound in the jazz tradition preserved on numerous recordings, fortunately, but not heard nearly as often in the community as it was in the former village. The black musicians founded Local #471 of the American Federation of Musicians in 1908 as they were not welcome to join the white Local #60 that was established in 1906. Each Local maintained a “clubhouse” that was open 24/7. The Local #471 clubhouse was originally located on Wylie Avenue and was the place where member musicians and their guests could meet, play, socialize, learn, and share work opportunities. The “Club” was the heart or hub of the village where the elders held forth like the Griots of the African traditions.
America was clearly segregated for most of the 20th century so there was little interaction between black and white musicians in the professional world although the Pittsburgh public schools were integrated. White musicians, who on rare occasions visited the Local #471 club, gained some exposure to the flavor of the musical language the blacks were speaking. Black musicians never visited the Local #60 club and they closed it upon the 1965 merger to avoid interacting with the blacks on the social level.
For the majority of the 20th century jazz was loved by many though not yet well respected in the society at large. Music schools were adamantly and often vehemently averse to recognizing jazz as a valid art form. The post-1970 jazz-gone-to-college movement is yet remiss when it comes to oral history and field research. The colleges are reluctant to present indigenous progenitors (presently an endangered species) to their students. The research methodology of modern academia misses the boat when it comes to cultural field research available in the communities among the living tradition and culture bearers. Formalized jazz education paradigms, though they have accomplished the wider acceptance of jazz as an art form worthy of study, tend to emphasize permutations and combinations of borrowed motifs (licks) from the recorded literature in lieu of in vivo call and response communication between performers and audience that never happens the same way twice yet has been known to change the lives of the chosen few fortunate enough to tune in to the frequency of the creative moment. The practice of sending students into the library stacks instead of out to the living libraries is a virtual exercise in futility when it comes to living folk traditions. The most effective research is gleaned by observers embedded in the culture sufficiently to gain the trust of the culture bearers or by culture bearers being able to speak for themselves.
To me our society has become a monster civilization and very little culture. There's no balance, at one time you had civilization and culture. Now it's all civilization and very little culture... The University still has a tendency to look down upon us because we're dealing with jazz music… The cultural part of the school is always looked down on. When it comes to funding we get the lesser of the funds. I don't see it being corrected anytime soon. ---Charlie Persip, April 2012
The Pittsburgh Sound of its jazz tradition developed and flourished when there existed a village of indigenous black people largely segregated into a small cultural village wherein the elders of the village fulfilled the roles of ancestral links by transmitting folk wisdom, renewing the community spirit in the next generation, breathing life back into the village by emphasizing the joy of shared memories, the rewards of teamwork and high-quality lasting relationships, encouraging members of the village to bind together their history and needs with respect and continuing a commitment to the indigenous group. This was a vibrant, vernacular thread that was reflected in the music and its authenticity was understood by performer and audience equally. In fact, the ability of the performer to express authentic (traditional) sounds signaled an indigenous kinship to the listener through dialect, i.e., it functioned as a code that established instant resonance with the village culture.
The black voice is almost absent from the literature. ---Toni Morrison
Audiences have become increasingly less attuned to the Pittsburgh Sound as in the first 100 years of jazz in Pittsburgh until there is a dearth of support or awareness in the marketplace (including live venues, airways and online streaming modalities of the 21st century). The classroom has invaded the night-club, entertainment values are attenuated, performers are more Presbyterian than Baptist (if you know what I mean) and qualities like the Pittsburgh Sound have become a mystery. We need to put the flavor back in it.
The language itself would be the most pertinent thing to be examined.
---Fela Sowande, Life Styles in Encounter, 1974
This essay will examine music as a language using the tenets of oral culture that derive from the very ancient expressions of communication both by humans and even more primordially by nature itself. Discussing music as an art form does not begin to penetrate the depths required to understand or discuss music as a language but rather confines music to the realm of its tangibles. One must remove the constraints that have encroached upon our understanding of music in order to regain the higher understanding of its powers that was known in the ancient world.
When people believe in boundaries, they become part of them. ---Don Cherry
Music may be the highest science because it has no shelf life, i.e., once it is right, it is always right. It reaches directly into the eternal present. Modern science, on the contrary, manifests an increasing state of revision. From the world being seen as flat to being recognized as round, to the atom as the smallest particle of matter to string theory, from spontaneous generation of life to the discovery of germs, from blood-letting to dialysis, to the discovery of gravity and radiation and germs it would seem that science is in a constant state of revision. A closer look may reveal actually that the only thing that has changed is our appraisal of the tangibles in our relative ignorance of the intangibles as there is plenty of evidence in earthly artifacts that there were those who knew better and more than perhaps we even know today thousands of years ago. They knew music as science and its powers of application in the physical, emotional and spiritual world.
It may not be too much of a stretch to say that perhaps our reduction and constriction of music to the realm of an art, has caused us to forget what was once known by the wise of antiquity.
If physics leads us today to a world view which is essentially mystical, it returns, in a way, to its beginning, 2,500 years ago.... This time, however, it is not only based on intuition, but also on experiments of great precision and sophistication, and on a rigorous and consistent mathematical formalism. ---Fritjof Capra
First we will discuss music as a language in this essay but we will not stop there, as doing so would still constrain our discussion without acknowledging the more esoteric or metaphysical dimensions of music buried deep within its intangibles.
The roots of meaning attached to any significant human event or experience have a broad array of possible variations depending on the context of use and the intention of the writer or speaker. The semantics of experience cannot be side-stepped in the identification of problems or the search for solutions. The viewpoint of the observer may either be on-target or at wide variance from the true essence. The endeavor to discover basic causes and basic remedies must be approached from the root or as close to it as one can get. That is to suggest that a counter-cultural (etic) perspective contributes little value to our understanding as compared to an indigenous (emic) perspective. This is further modulated by degree based on the subjective value system the observer identifies as primal. Nothing connects a word or symbol with the thing it stands for except common agreement. Our modern focus on the tangibles of manifestation has effectively restricted our awareness to the realm of surfaces and away from essences.
When I escaped from the tyranny of the model and small canvas, I focused on the language of color and shapes and movement. Freed of static imagery, I began to fly. To soar! Reaching everywhere for ideas, triads, words, … I found that digging into the unconscious where there are no boundaries, was most liberating. Words and pigment were the tools I used to reveal the human being trying to stand tall.
---Stanley Blum, visual artist
The Oral Tradition:
The oral tradition is an intangible of the African Diaspora that has survived displacement, oppression, falsification, genocide, disparagement in literature, science and religion in every context it finds itself in the Western world. It, therefore, represents a most viable place to begin our present exploration of improvised music and musical dialects.
The Africans believed in Nommo, which means the generative power of the spoken word. Nommo
was believed necessary to actualize life and give man mastery over things.
The Griot = (djeli, jail, guewel, gawlo, igiiw, igawen): e.g., the Aunt Esthers and Old Moses of the village, function as the cultural guardians, elders and repository of the oral tradition, responsible for maintaining an oral record of tribal history in the form of music, poetry, dance, rituals and storytelling preserving the genealogies and oral traditions of the village. They were the musician-entertainers of western Africa whose performances include tribal histories and genealogies. Drawing on his/her own sources of inspiration, the griot recites poems or tells stories of warriors, including vocal expertise for gossip, satire or political comment. Their wit can be devastating and their knowledge of local history formidable. The griot must know many traditional songs without error and must also have the ability to extemporize on current events, chance incidents and the passing scene. A reasonable and doable step toward this goal would be enhancing community-based cultural enrichment interactions and exposures among and between the generations.
The fondness for rhetoric that comes via oral culture is a beautiful, primitive art that addresses the autonomic nervous system and not the cerebrum, thus becoming dear to the heart of the common man everywhere. It flourishes like a weed on fertile soil through subliminal channels into the consciousness of the culture. This offers a key to how hip hop was born and proliferated into a nation (Diaspora) of global proportions that penetrates the barriers otherwise encountered by verbal language differences. And most certainly music has always possessed this intrinsic power.
There are other languages in common use which escape this limitation. With such languages the symbols, once their use is learned, become actual projections of the objects whose experience they signify. Such projective languages are used in music and mathematics. ---Carlos Suares
Language is species specific and is maintained by inner-species communication over time. Inter-species language requires some type of translation mechanism. Spoken language is basically frequency modulation. One can experience a good portion of beauty of a spoken language without being able to understand the actual words. That’s how babies learn to talk, how animals learn their master’s voice commands in any language and so on. It is also closer to how nature speaks and animals and plants communicate with each other. There are increasingly numerous studies emerging that examine how trees talk to each other and how water communicates. Audibility is also circumscribed by the frequency range of the auditory receptor. Technology is constantly endeavoring to extend the perceptible auditory range of humans in both directions. Sound can also be felt and there are devices (oscilloscopes, cymatic membranes, etc.) that can represent the frequency variability as well.
According to Sowande the use of a generalized language that includes description and projection enables us to realize archetypal principles of structure that can be projected into our consciousness. It has been said that the original spoken languages of man had the power to speak things into existence or physical manifestation just as the Creator spoke the Universe into existence. (The science of cymatics can demonstrate this phenomenon quite clearly but this article will resist going deeper into that subject at this time.)
The most accessible contemporary example we have of projective language is improvised music. Improvised music is auditory traffic and a map cannot adapt to the present moment dynamics of traffic A musician develops an inner ear with which he can hear musical sounds in thought, dreams or while reading a piece of sheet music just as if it were actually being played. But just as we use ordinary words to talk about music, yet the words themselves are not the music, so the experience of the qualitative concepts can only be imperfectly conveyed in our ordinary language (absent the projective language of music as sound associated with the direct experience of it.) The improvisational musician breaches the metaphysical boundary when he draws from his spiritual center, through the depths of his psyche and manifests sounds that can be experienced by another in the present moment. The music is a complete manifestation from the invisible realm into a structure that can then be captured by technology for appraisal and examined by descriptive language after the fact. This is also true of the arts in general to a greater or lesser extent making them the most viable transmitters of cultural enrichment available to the human experience.
Sound transmits in ways that light cannot penetrate. It is also more difficult to block out sound than it is to close our eyes. When music is heard in the mind, it is registered in the musical sensory cortex as a sound pattern with all the peculiar nuances and idiosyncrasies associated with it. Musical retention naturally flows from hearing and only unnaturally from seeing if at all.
People used to go out to hear music. Now they go to see music. ---Archie Shepp
Exposure to a frequency, dialect or sound will over time enable a person to gain increasing awareness of associated intangibles initially on a subliminal level. Just as we learned to speak in our infancy based on the sounds of the significant others in our social and nurturing environment, we tune in to the commonalities that we experience on a regular basis. As we grow toward adulthood in a home with our parents, for example, we will adopt their dialect subconsciously over time. One day we may answer the phone as a teen and the caller will say, “You sound just like your mother/father” depending on our gender. They won’t say you sound like my mother/father or anyone else’s parent but like your own parent. You may not be able to hear it but they can. Or you travel to another part of the country to visit for an extended stay or go to school in a region that speaks a discernable dialect. When you return home you will be told that you talk like where you have been.
“When two systems are oscillating at different frequencies, there is an impelling force called resonance that causes the two to transfer energy from one to another. When two similarly tuned systems vibrate at different frequencies, there is another aspect of this energy transfer called entrainment, which causes them to line up and to vibrate at the same frequency.” (Richard Gordon)
In music you will do exactly the same and your preferences will be determined by your most familiar exposure to the sounds you hear or imitate. Your parents will be the mentors and masters you listened to in your acquisition of the sound of the musical language. If you become a performer, you will not be a carbon copy in your maturity but there will be idiosyncratic elements in your musical expressions that represent your exposure to a dialect flavored by your individual life experience. Mimicry through constant exposure to indigenous older masters with some mentoring leads to meaningful self-expression upon maturity. This paradigm uses hermeneutics (empathetic/interpretive listening) to achieve semiotics (cultural meaning). This is not so easy for adult learners or counter-cultural group members, i.e., if your exposure or identification is counter-culture (etic), you won’t be able to fake it convincingly to a native any more than a trained actor can fake a foreign dialect convincingly to a native of the indigenous culture.
The practice of “Blindfold testing” can be a very effective aid to our ability to tune in to the intangibles of a musical dialect or individual voice or style. This was a common practice among jazz listeners that is increasingly neglected today. One can see photographs of the audience in a jazz club during the ‘40s – ‘60s sitting in the front row only a few feet from the live performers, listening with their eyes closed. Jazz magazines used to feature “Blindfold test” articles and DJs would feature them on the air with their audiences. Of course before the era of television and now the big screen listeners were limited to the radio or records for access to the sounds. Often you might not even know what your favorite artist looked like unless you saw a photograph or were able to attend a live performance.
Although we identify regional sounds in music and language readily, there is a tendency to attribute the distinctive idiosyncrasies to the geography and not the people. Nevertheless, culture is created by the people not the land or the elements. There is something in the water…not!
The experience of the Pittsburgh Sound (or any other colloquial dialect) necessitates a connection or re-connection between the descriptive and projective language of a culture that provides access to its intangibles and roots, potentially preserving and expanding the well-spring of the culture’s survival. However, just as a similar fate has mitigated and visited extinction to hundreds of verbal dialects, musical dialects are at increasing risk in today’s environment of standardization and generic mass production. The arts are not exempt from the mindset of formulaic proliferation in lieu of creative innovation.
The audio-linguistic predicament:
An audio-linguistic predicament arises when we focus on playing the right notes instead of on playing the notes right. Have we fallen into the trap of training students to elaborately talk about music without also acquiring the ability to produce it any better than a machine or computer?
The instant you speak about a thing you miss the mark. ---Fritjof Capra, The Tao of Physics
It should become increasingly obvious that when a machine can produce something more efficiently and at less cost than a human being, the human being will soon be eliminated from the equation. Multi-timbre keyboards, drum machines, and algorhythmic devices are tools useful tools that are increasingly being used to replace the human orchestras in live performance. Live performances are becoming more visual than auditory and music is being relegated to the realm of background noise not designed to attract our attention but to put us to sleep.
The discoverer of sentic forms and father of the term “cyborg” offers an example of this distinction.
One day when Casals was teaching Haydn’s "Cello Concerto", he asked a participant, a young master in his own right, to play the theme from the third movement. His playing was expert, sure and graceful. But for Casals something was missing. The master stopped the performance. “No, no!", he said, waving his hands. “That must be graceful!". He took up his own cello and played the same passage. And it was graceful, a hundred times more graceful than we had just heard. Yes --- it seemed as though we had never heard grace before. We had experienced one of the least understood forms of human communication --- a powerful and clear transmittal of feeling without words, a feeling that penetrated our defenses and transformed our states of mind. Casals played the same notes, and at similar speed. But the muscles of his hands and arms acted precisely together with his cello according to his very clear idea of grace. How was his possible? How, precisely, was Casals’ expression different from the student’s? And how did the sound of his cello carry the idea and feeling of grace from his mind to ours? ---Manfred Clynes
It takes special competence to deal with the intangibles of a person or lifestyle effectively and even then it rarely goes beyond the upper levels of intangibles. Learning in adult humans is most effectively accomplished through identification and adaptation according to the theory of neurolinguistics. Imitation combined with identification tends to hard-wire the brain to the configuration of the set of variables focused upon. What you focus on expands in your experience.
Jazz music is an aural souvenir of mankind's attempt to express the intangible,
the heart, the soul, through art. --- Maxwell Chandler
The case for tradition:
One should know where one has come from even if one does not know where one is going.
--- Yoruba proverb
A tradition is a belief or behavior passed down within a group or society with symbolic meaning or special significance with origins in the past. Traditions are evident wherever there is continuity of human groups or societies and span the range of every aspect of human activity from birth, death, religion, food, family arts, etc. We will focus here on the specific aspects of the American experience that have influenced the creation of the various traditions of jazz emerging initially from the black culture.
It might surprise you to realize that the most influential contribution to the creation of the jazz language in music by the culture of whiteness was the tradition of segregation which through clearly structured apartheid created the local and national village that concentrated Africans physically and culturally. Overt as well as subtle vestiges of the same racial/cultural ostracism continue to permeate American musical culture academically and in the marketplace even into the 21st century.
Jazz will survive as long as there is racism. ---Howie Alexander, III
Though cultural traditions have enabled a people to survive or even thrive for eons there are opposite traditions that have the potential to obliterate those traditions to the detriment of the species. It is necessary to acknowledge that the tendency of sighted/academic/analytical culture to favor separation, competition and conflict as primary goals is leading toward a time when the machine culture will supplant the human culture.
Black survival in that context required the invention of secret codes of communication that the oppressor could not recognize, hence, could not punish. Eubie Blake said that we had to pretend that we couldn’t read music although we could. It was too dangerous. He also half-jokingly explained why so many of the rags were written in Ab, Gb, and Db by saying, “The black piano players were afraid to touch the white keys.”
It was the enslaved Africans who brought their music with them to the new world, naked, in the hold of a ship. That music was their language. Those very Africans that were extracted from their societies and brought into a foreign society as slaves have succeeded in influencing that society much more than is being consciously or formally recognized even by its descendants.
The better it gets, the fewer of us know it. --- Ray Brown
The most well-documented example of its power is the story of John Newton, a slave ship captain, who wrote the words to “Amazing Grace” to the African melody coming from the hold, turned the ship around (returning the slaves to their African homeland) and proceeded back to England to become an abolitionist.
I am so happy I listened to Amazing Grace in the Black Keys. It touched my soul. I had chills. I could not help but to imagine the [enslaved Africans] in the ships and the conditions they were subjected to. I had tears because that song touches the inner most part of your being. ---Jaqueline
A parallel to the individual or society can be profitably applied to a life-style or dialect. Its tangibles would correspond respectively to the ordinary consciousness of the individual and the habits, customs, language, religious and social codes and all other formalized structures… the projected part of the iceberg. These intangibles can be isolated, identified, labeled, examined, analyzed, classified, evaluated, etc. in the same manner as a person’s height, weight and physical parameters can be. Anyone with normal intelligence can deal with his own or another’s tangibles. When a people's history is written by someone else, it becomes precisely that… his story.
A life-style is a living entity in its own right with an intelligence, mind, soul and will of its own. Societies are cast in the mold of life-styles not vice versa. Destroy a life-style and the society ceases to exist. Disrupt a society and scatter its indigenous people far and wide and you may find that all you have done is extend the area of influence of that society’s life-style. --- Fela Sowande, 1974
What is needed is an examination of indigenous music or art from the indigenous perspective as contrasted with the exogenous perspective. The major problem with present transmissions is that young artists are being indoctrinated into the codified tangibles of the music by largely exogenous teachers or systems of instruction, rather than mentored by indigenous elders in the oral tradition, on the assumption that they will be able to transfer or translate their skills into any ethnic or folk tradition.
The blues is the simplest music to play and the hardest to master. ---B.B. King
The major problem obviously is that the village (circumscribed and isolated by segregation) no longer exists due to gentrification and integration that resulted in the dissipation, destruction, abandonment and neglect of indigenous institutions. The 1965 integration of the erstwhile segregated locals of the American Federation of Musicians is the obvious example. In addition the psychological village (Diaspora) also is disappearing due to a shift of identification within indigenous youth culture away from their elders’ values (kinship, survival, mutual uplift and empathy, i.e., human values) to the values of the majority culture (money, fame, bling-bling, i.e. material values).
Jazz is music made by & for people who have chosen to feel good in spite of conditions.
---Johnny Griffin -
Concomitantly the elders are dying off and losing common peer camaraderie while having less access to succeeding generations as was the case when the tradition was flourishing while opposed and rejected by the counter-culture.
You can’t teach what you don’t know and you can’t lead where you don’t go. ---Robert Harrison
The traditions of materialism have always tended to encroach upon the traditions of humanism and often to the benefit of humanity. Though we still have pockets of cultures on Earth still living the same way they did thousands of years ago, we are perhaps more aware of the benefits of technological advances that have improved the human condition over the last hundred years particularly. Since this time-frame coincides with the era of recorded music and the trunk of the tree of jazz history, we must point out some caveats that have emerged that can very quickly shift from human benefits to actual threats to human survival. Wireless electromagnetic energy has been shown to cause the reduction in the bee populations and in many species of birds. Our food supply is threatened by genetic technology. War technology is expanding exponentially. World leaders are openly speaking of reducing the human population by several billions. In short, we are losing the beat that used to move our feet and keep our spirits alive and tuned in to our common humanity.
I'm playing dark history. It's beyond black. I'm dealing with the dark things of the cosmos. ---Sun Ra
Astronomers have gazed at the skies for thousands of years only to realize in 2012 that they were only observing 4-5% of the universe while ignoring 95-96% which is dark matter. Science has only in the last decade even attempted to listen to the universe. One report suggested that the nearest black hole to our solar system plays a Bb 57 octaves below the human auditory spectrum. Yet the ancient philosophers in Kemet and later such as Pythagoras spoke of the music of the spheres. Sight divides and sound unifies. Sight distinguishes differences while sound harmonizes and unifies common frequencies. We are losing our ability as a species to recognize each other as kin.
If a tree is severed from its roots, it cannot continue to grow, becomes lumber and ceases to grow new branches or produce fruit. It is well-documented historically that any language or dialect severed from its roots suffers a similar fate. Filtering the transmission of jazz through the primarily didactic format of the classroom is an increasing trend. There are throngs of students seeking a device to turn them into Charlie Parker in 6 easy lessons. And there is no dearth of devices or systems that promise to do just that. Inherit in this pathway is a de-emphasis on the human element (roots, history, feelings) in favor of technique, standardization and perfection. We are becoming so attached to the codified tangibles that we are losing our awareness of the existence of the intangibles.
We risk slipping into the matrix by disconnecting from our cultural roots. Robots (e.g., DARPA) are being developed to be able to play jazz in context with human beings. It may be true that a robot can reproduce a John Coltrane solo, but John Coltrane would not have been able to play the same solo twice nor would he want to do so.
I've found you've got to look back at the old things and see them in a new light. ---John Coltrane
When we were taping a show for 60 Minutes in New Orleans in 1978, Dan Rather asked Count Basie what his secret to over 47 years of success was. Basie answered, “Pat your foot.”
Tutu is just like an advertisement, you know. In person it’s different. There’s not a record there that we do. When you hear it, it’s 100 times different. Like when I lay down a cassette, it’s like an advertisement of what we’re gonna do when we do a concert. It says, come to see us. ---Miles Davis to Bill Bogg
We need to listen to hear the Pittsburgh Sound or any other human dialect in language or music. Through listening and re-attuning ourselves to the human elements of sounds, we may once again become aware of regional dialects, individual voices and ultimately hear the wisdom and messages we may have been missing while we were listening to the machines. I am hopeful it can be done if we can tune into the dark matter, i.e., Afrofuturism.
Space is the place. ---Sun Ra
Why do you need to know about Afrofuturism? I don’t think Afrofuturism is post-black, but it is certainly post-Postmodernism. It is Social Art with a global sting. Make way for the future. Language play and humor is part of the Afrofuturism tool kit, but if you step back, the darkness and despair is unbearable. The Afrofuturist escape to the future, whether folkloric, artistic or mythic, should tell us something. As strange as it may seem, a malady can be discovered through and even defined by its antidote. --- John Perreault