The Second Oldest Profession? (Part 4)

The Second Oldest Profession? (Part 4)

A connection I have with Dave Brubeck is the state of Indiana, where both of our paternal grandfathers are from, but in all of the obituaries I’ve read about Brubeck there is no mention of his Native American background, a point vital to his music as well as jazz in the big picture.

Written By

Ratzo B Harris

To bring the theme of music as the oldest, or second oldest, or beyond the realm of oldest profession to a close, I’d like to start with a brief mention of pianist-composer-educator Dave Brubeck, who passed away two weeks ago. I don’t think it’s my place to write an obituary or eulogize Brubeck; many have already done so, and they have done so very well (although none, in my mind, are as heartfelt or important as Chris Brubeck’s celebration of his father’s life which was posted on this site two days ago).

Volumes of journalistic tribute to this icon of American music mention how Dave Brubeck began playing on his father’s cattle ranch and how his original ambition in life was to live in that culture—going as far as to enroll at the College of the Pacific (now the University of the Pacific) as a veterinary major—until he became obsessed with playing jazz (in a sense, Jabal and Jubal rolled into one!). Reading through them reminded me of the ambiguous connections I have with Brubeck, beyond a distant friendship with one of his other sons, Dan. One connection is through Cal Tjader, my first long-term employer, who played drums in one of Brubeck’s first award-winning groups. Another is the University of the Pacific, where I studied jazz performance during their summer camp sessions (this was before UOP had a full-blown jazz program or housed the Brubeck Institute) with Bob Soder, who also studied with Brubeck’s composition teacher, Darius Milhaud. Yet another connection I have with Dave Brubeck is the state of Indiana, where both of our paternal grandfathers are from, but in all of the obituaries I’ve read about Brubeck there is no mention of his Native American background, a point vital to his music as well as jazz in the big picture. In his book, Cats of Any Color: Jazz, Black and White, Gene Lees looks at the undercurrent of racism that has permeated the world of jazz music since its inception through interviews with various jazz artists. Brubeck’s anti-racist philosophy is well documented; but, in the book’s chapter, “The Man on the Buffalo Nickel: Dave Brubeck,” he admits “there’s maybe a fourth Modoc” Indian lineage on his father’s side (p. 42). According to the book, Brubeck’s mother, a classically trained pianist, didn’t want Dave to be aware of it, telling his father, “don’t teach him that nonsense” (ibid), but the Brubeck ranch was large enough to serve as the site of a Miwok Indian reservation and the young Brubeck made life-long friendships there (p. 44).

Of course, the Paul Desmond composition, “Take Five,” takes center stage in any discussion of Brubeck. The song’s impact on American music can not be overstated as nearly every jazz musician born after 1950 has spent a significant amount of their practice regimen working on mastering improvisation in odd meters. But Desmond didn’t feel that he was the sole composer of “Take Five” because it was Brubeck who told him to write out different lines and then combined them into the piece heard on the 1959 Columbia recording, Time Out. This kind of collaboration, a kind of “composing-by-committee” is fairly common in Native American culture; but, while I wouldn’t say that Brubeck was consciously accessing that culture with Desmond, I would say that the underlying pulse of the piece, which alternates between 3/4 and 2/4, bears a strong similarity to the irregular two-beat that accompanies Native American round dance, only in reverse. The dissimilarity is in how the 2/4-3/4 meter of the round dance is fluid, seeming to drift between 2/4-2/4 and 1/4-2/4—a quality that extends to non- dance or -drum songs—while jazz, being inclusive of Eurocentrically oriented Western art music elements, is based on a motoric pulsation. So, the not-quite 3/4 underpinning of Native American song, which is indispensible to jazz phraseology, is “frozen” in time. This is apparent even in James P. Johnson’s composition, “Charleston.” This piece features a rhythm that is commonly written as a dotted quarter note followed by an eighth note followed by a half rest:

Charleston Rhythm

But Johnson recorded two versions of the song on piano rolls: one in 1923 and the other in 1925. Both versions clearly demonstrate his playing a rhythm that expresses a division of the measure into quarter-note quintuplets:

Johnson Charleston Rhythm

In his book, James P. Johnson: A Case of Mistaken Identity, Scott E. Brown relates Johnson’s composing pieces like “Charleston” and “Carolina Shout” for the working class dancers from South Carolina and the irregular, shuffling dance style they exhibited at the after-hours dance hall in New York City’s San Juan Hill where Johnson worked. The Carolinas as well as the entire area of the United States considered the “Deep South” is the area originally inhabited by Creek Indians. They were a huge nation that comprised many tribal subgroups and were—along with the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Seminole Indians—part of the original Five Civilized Tribes. (The Seminoles were actually a militant faction of the Creeks.) African American slaves often escaped their “owners” to become enslaved by Native Americans, but life as a Native American slave was far superior to life as a plantation slave. For one thing, slaves of Native Americans could keep their names and language and express their culture. In fact, an intermingling of cultures among Native Americans and escaped slaves occurred throughout the South. The history of the so-called “Black Seminoles” is an amazing compendium of the resistance to occupation and slavery in the New World and, I believe, is far from finished. For one thing, the influence of something as simple as “Charleston” on American culture cannot be ignored. Although it flies in the face of the logical argument of an apolitically pure musical experience, the influence of musicological elements such as improvisation, unfixed meters, and shifting temperaments can break down the deafening discipline needed to perform the music of the Eurocentrically-oriented Great American Culture Machine. But more discourse about this can only lead to an argument about music as a profession, which is what I’m trying to avoid now.

Still, the inclusion of Native American influence on American music has been ignored far too long by nearly every facet of the GACM. It’s as if there was a concerted effort to erase the ancient indigenous cultures of the Western Hemisphere off the face of the Earth and replace them with idealized ancient African cultures. Dave Brubeck actually saw this long ago. According to Lee’s book:

Dave has an abiding interest in the welfare and culture of the American Indians. He said, “I wrote a piece called They All Sang Yankee Doodle. It opens with an Indian song that Al Walloupe [a Miwok cowboy who worked for Brubeck’s father] had taught me.

“The conductor at the concert at Yale University, Erik Kunzel, said [to the audience], ‘Dave starts this piece with an Indian song because he wants us all to remember they were here first.’ There was a ruckus in the audience, and this man got up from his seat and made his wife and son, probably, follow him and leave the auditorium. The piece used national anthems or songs from the melting pot, as we used to call it, all with Yankee Doodle going against O Tannenbaum and Meadowland and the Portuguese Holy Ghost March. And then it ends with the Indian song, which is important.”

Although similar in concept to Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Hymnen, Brubeck dedicated They All Sang Yankee Doodle to the memory of Charles Ives. This was only one of many large-scale works that Brubeck composed for orchestra and chorus. His best known is probably The Real Ambassadors, a nearly hour-and-a-half long musical recorded in 1961 and first staged at the 1962 Monterey Jazz Festival that addressed the hypocrisy of post WWII U. S. State Department tours and the civil rights issues raised around them. The work’s opening lines, recited by Louis Armstrong, ask, “Could God be black?” (Armstrong had turned down a State Department tour of the Soviet Union in 1957 because of the treatment of African Americans in the Deep South. It should be noted that Armstrong’s refusal to tour for the State Department was controversial to the point that Van Cliburn would not perform with him on the Steve Allen Show. The interviewer who broke the story, Larry Lubenow, was relieved of his position at the Associated Press. This was, of course, centered around the incident in Little Rock, Arkansas where Governor Orval Faubus was defying the U. S. Supreme Court by denying integration in the public schools.)

In wrapping up my theory from last week that education is really our oldest profession, I’ll say that today’s higher education is a high priced commodity with its own subculture(s) of detractors, supporters, salespeople, brokers, and usurers. Fortunately there are regulations that guarantee access to all for an education of some sort, but marketing is also a large part of curriculum building and where there’s marketing, there’s demographic analysis and manipulation. Let’s assume that the current accepted theory of jazz being created solely by African Americans is true (although I insist that American Indians were seminal to the topic), just as we accept the current theory that the human race originated in Africa (which I do agree with, but I could be wrong). And let’s also assume that all Africans came to America via the Atlantic slave trade that began in the 16th century, even though this notion could be Eurocentric chauvinism at work. (There’s plenty of conjecture citing archeological evidence that African cultures had the technological wherewithal to, and did, cross the Atlantic before Leif Erickson.) After all, this same chauvinism has perpetuated tensions between groups of American immigrants classified by the fallacy of race since before the abolition of slavery 157 years ago. This chauvinism keeps the scales of social worth tipped toward the side of a male, white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant cultural elite, a point that was driven home to me by Susan Lindauer in a lecture I saw on television which became the impetus for the content of this week’s post. Without going into too much detail, Lindauer describes her ordeal of being wrongly imprisoned for over a year beginning in 2004. She relates how the prison officials held sway over her and her fellow inmates’ lives according to a set of values that, possibly out of necessity, were Draconian to say the least. One story related to her audience was of an inmate who was a piano teacher (I’m assuming that she was arrested on marijuana-related charges). She was an African American and, according to Lindauer, was asked by the officials:

“Well, you teach jazz, right?” She said, “Yeah, I teach jazz. I teach R&B. And I also teach Chopin [and] Mozart”…. The idea that a black woman would think that she was qualified to play Mozart, or interpret Mozart, or to understand Chopin; or to teach Mozart and Chopin to another student—to a white student? I’m not making this up … this is a factual case

Lindauer continues describing her fellow inmate’s predicament as if she were the official interrogating the piano teacher:

A black woman teaching Mozart to a black child? Do you think they’re qualified to do this? Do you think a black child is gonna understand that? Don’t you think you’re risking the black child’s integrity and self-esteem by exposing them to this?

Lindauer explains that the woman was declared incompetent to stand trial on the grounds that she harbored “middle-class aspirations.”

As I prepare to feast at my wife’s family’s annual Christmas celebration, I also take away a lesson from this story. It is about the necessity of respecting our culture’s diversity, a diversity that has been a part of it since its very inception. If we don’t count bison, beaver, and other indigenous species, America is populated entirely by immigrants and ancestors of immigrants and its culture is shaped by them all. It’s also not too far off-point to mention that our nation was founded as a business, essentially a nation of profiteers. Fortunately, the best thinking of them agreed on the need to embrace diversity and advertised their nation’s government as a haven of respect for the lives and hopes of all individuals, regardless of their social status, physical appearance, or national origin. While I continue celebrating the holidays, I’ll be thinking of Anton Dvořák, telling his employers that a unique American musical identity has to be inclusive of all of the peoples living in its geographical borders. Whether or not there is truth in the Founding Fathers’ advertising campaign is really a matter of how we decide to receive our culture, educate our fellow citizens, and do business.