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More 1970s Reflections - Learning about music and more through historical time

The Soul Train "Stroll"

“We run the risk that the whole humanistic enterprise of trying to understand ourselves is coming to seem peculiar. For various reasons education is being driven towards an increasing concentration on the technical and the commercial to a point at which any more reflective inquiry may come to seem  unnecessary and archaic, something that at best is preserved as part of the ‘heritage industry’. If that is how it is preserved  it will not be the intelligent and passionate activity that it needs to be.” Bernard Williams (1929-2003)

I have been thinking everyday now not only how to evoke and articulate how I came to be interested in the particular kinds of arts I did but on the connection between these specific art styles and the larger era or lifestyles in which they were related. I am curious too about the nature of the word “lifestyle” - itself a 1970s word and concept.

I lived a certain lifestyle for the entirety of my adult life until the age of 52, when unfortunate circumstances forced me to move to an entirely different physical location where such a lifestyle is simply not possible. This was made more complicated still by the additional burdens of realizing that the new lifestyle I now am living is not only one I do not particularly like but that the former lifestyle that I loved - and one I really assumed (and only now realize, deeply hoped)  I would die living - was one I had become adept at living thought many decades of practice.

Assertions in the public sphere about the free exercise of diverse choice in one’s life are in large part disingenuous if only because many or most people tend to be rather uniform in much decision making; in essence never really putting to the test modern and contemporary society’s stated valorization of capacity of choice. All choices are throughly created as much by  the necessity of an always already unasked for environment at least as much as they are by the truly free volitional desire or act of any person. The more time I have spent reflecting upon my pasts the more this seems to me a largely empirical matter.

Sometimes it feels as I am trying to find ways to make a work of (prose) art out of my life thus far, yet I am faced with many different periods of my life upon which to reflect.I can see both freedom and constraint as decisive in every moment. One general guide is to see these not as alternative, binary choices but as mysterious continuums and spectrums if my formulation of that difference at all makes any sense.

For example, I consider my childhood or boyhood one long stage of my working life that includes my adulthood, willfully putting to the side all very contemporary and fashionable anxieties about what a correct or proper childhood should be and so on.

The fact is that I had a working schedule as one of the founders of Aubrey Organics Inc.

Original Aubrey Organics Art Work

It is a little bewildering to me to think that not only I was on an assembly line in the late 70s and early 1980s but I was simultaneously in an office beginning to speak with people on a phone.

I don’t think an awful lot about the sometimes numbing and repetitive nature of that kind of labor; indeed it is only in middle age that I now recognize it as represented by those particular adjectives.

I did have an internalized sense that what we were making was deeply important. In that sense I “believed” in it, for lack of a better formulation.

I came up with my idea of the snapshot as a way of making sense of my life, in particular the need to live life spontaneously and possessed with a part of oneself that actually likes the unpredictable nature of how this act of living while ware of an objective array of facts, including but never limited to environment, that come at all of use from the outside, even if it is as simple as what is for lunch in a school cafeteria, or the family into which any human being is born, or a popular song or style of music in an era.

Snapshots also have to do with a sense of dreaming of other places and worlds that were concurrent in time but cut off  in geography. in particular my rides with father in his red Thunderbird for which I have no personal document but of which a generic example can be found here:

Red Thunderbird reminiscent of Aubreys'

Inside this red Thunderbird I felt a certain freedom even though it was my father who was  at the wheel. In apart it was freedom from the life at Aubrey Organics. In part it was freedom to dream of other places. It was the red Thunderbird where I went to hundreds of movies when I was in Tampa and it was the red Thunderbird where I got to attend some inspiring concerts at the Tampa Theatre or Bayfront Center. I think the outrageousness of its very presentation and design, its slick loudness, for example was attractive to me. There was a freedom from good taste and propriety, qualities which I happened to end up embracing some years later.

Then there was the mysterious nature of the allegedly dubious character of the man who had sold it to my father - about which there was much  rumor and gossip, for example, that he had blown up his television set with a rifle, (upon hearing some unappealing news reports) an action that made his wife flee him.  I had seen behavior like this in some  of the movies I flocked too, especially the so-called “exploitation” ones, (created in part by the late, great Roger Corman). Yet I had always assumed it was a cliche in movies with “rednecks” as characters, assuming it could not be based on “real-life”, literal  events.

The feeling of being inside the car had many physical peculiarities alongside a positive one of freedom: there was the acrid stickiness of the synthetic materials, the white vinyl top that seemed semi-permanently down.

Yet all of this was eclipsed  by what was for me the almighty 8 Track deck with all of it sonic glories and a collection that was largely chosen by an eight or nine year old me! It is was in this car that we would go to see hundreds of movies  accompanied by all of this music of the era. All of the music was mostly curated by me and it excluded practically all of the rock oriented music of that period since I didn’t care for it. (With the notable exception of Frampton Comes Alive!) Of course a great part of the era was the so-called fusion music I followed at that time.

The recordings of acoustic jazz music were fewer but all the more precious to and beloved by me for that. In addition to the Heath Brothers, there were particular classic Charlie Parker recordings, the  triumphant return of tenor saxophone giant Dexter Gordon in those years, Freddie Hubbard’s Super Blue album, and anything I could gleam from Downbeat and Contemporary Keyboard Magazine - both of which I had started to read before I ever touched a piano. If I had to pick only one album in those years that I listened to  the most it would have to have been this album recorded live of Herbie Hancock’s since it encompassed three very different bands and respective styles of music.

Indeed the very first of the many times I would see Hancock perform not only did I have him sign this album; I sat at the piano after the show and played one of the very first piano pieces I ever learned.  I played this incredibly simple, I would have to say simplistic beginner’s piano piece for him backstage. Thankfully for me, it happened to be a blues.

I spent hundreds of hours creating my own 8 Tracks from recordings of so many vinyls.

None of them were this album.

Then there were the many recordings that I purchased from Peaches or Sound Advice or Record Hunter in 8 Track form with all of the eccentricity of that technology - its loud clunks or clicks like  some kind of door slamming many times in the very middle of a song - as the song was split among more than a single track. I accepted all of this because it was all that was there and I wanted to listen to certain music out of what was probably a rather limited availability of musical choices. I remember that there were all these deals and sales in those years - especially on these 8 tracks which would collect in dusty bins of alienating metal or cardboard.

One of those discounted, bargain 8 Tracks was an unusual one from pianist Stanley Cowell, a musician with which I had no familiarity until that point. Now there are many most interesting things about this 8 Track.

The first and most interesting is that he would be my piano teacher and mentor literally ten years later in the later 1980s.

But in 1977 my perspective was only based on this singular physical document of this deeply rhythm and blues and soul influenced music that nevertheless somehow fit into the “jazz” category. The album was titled Talking About Love and there was so little information on this 8 track cassette, only this sole photograph of a woman.

Further research found this blurb as well.

"All selections are excerpted from the Cowell-Scott musical "Karma" which was inspired by Hazel Bryant's Afro-American Total Theater, New

York City, 1977."

This was about a year before I started listening to the Heath Brothers who then had Stanley Cowell as their pianist. My journey with the arts, in this case music, like my journey with every aspect of my life with which I am aware, always starts from some kind of detail, something of uniqueness and particularity. Only much later do I even entertain and develop a sense of where the detail fits or coheres into some larger whole and even at this more comprehensive level it is never a linear path but missing parts that must be included to aid that sense of a whole.

I really liked the music I heard on this 8 Track.

It was both similar to the jazz to which I was already listening and yet had this popular, song oriented quality, a quality that I did not like as much as the more jazz oriented elements on this 8 Track, but nevertheless reminded me of one of my first concert experiences - seeing the Jackson 5 at Madison Square Garden in 1972. I certainly liked that concert.  There were some harmonic and language similarities to the more “complex” jazz as well as important differences: the centrality of vocalists for example and the grooves of funky and disco rhythms. Then there was difference in instrumentation, with electric keyboards of all kinds and electric bass.

If you had told me as a nine year old that not only one day I would be studying with Cowell as a young adult but that he would have been one of the most significant influences on my musical life, I would have thought this most unlikely and even astonishing: something outside of all of my experiences to that point. I only began studying piano the following year.

I have some regret that when I finally studied with Stanley Cowell exactly ten years later as a nineteen and twenty year old that I never asked him about this Karma project, even though I would learn with him couple of his songs from the musical. 

We were so immensely busy on so many other things: the legacy of Art Tatum, Cowell’s many compositions other than this  obscure and forgotten musical, the vast musical languages of Bebop and sing styles, piano technique itself and so on. That year remains one of the most incredible of my entire life. It was the first time I gained a sense of what the piano meant as an instrument and my place in the world of music. It also gave me an incipient sense of the interconnection of all of the arts.

But back in childhood at the same time as my discovery of the Stanley Cowell 8 Track I began watching Don Cornelius and Soul Train on Saturdays. Again like the many 8 tracks I acquired, I was making choices with all of this material and environmental stimulus, trying to find some kind of continuity with what I had loved that had come before. What I did not know at that time, and in fact would not really know well into until adulthood, was that I genuinely loved soul: the attraction to Soul Train was a part of that.

It is not for nothing that on my first Hard Listening album I composed a piano work titled Don Cornelius and that Crooklyn remains one of my favorite Spike Lee films.

I remember my astonishment too at some of the artists who would emerge on Soul Train, artists for whom I turned to the radio station WTMP in Tampa to hear.

One of these was Michael Henderson. 

Henderson had been an electric bassist for many years with popular and rhythm and blues groups. In subsequent decades you could hear or read Keith Jarrett’s account of being disappointed that Henderson did not have the adequate jazz vocabulary to play Stella By Starlight when Miles Davis dared to interrupt his usual fare in this period with such a nod to his past.

Interestingly, the bands at this time that had Keith Jarrett in them and had either Dave Holland or Michael Henderson in them on the bass were my favorite of Davis’ bands in this era perhaps because the music sounded more relatable than what came later in 1973 or ’74.  Or perhaps it was because these were the Miles Davis bands that sometimes had two or three pianos simultaneously. How could I not love a Miles Davis band that had Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea playing at the same time in them?

As a young boy of course I really didn’t understand any of this. I didn’t even understand that the reasons had something to do with my love for the piano and associated keyboards above all else, to the point of obsession.

I was exposed to all of this culture which might have been what was most important. But you can be exposed to a thing but it might be a separate matter how your respond to it and what you do with it, or how or what you resonate with it, or even that you resonate. Understanding and a fuller comprehension would have to wait until I was really an adult. I was partly in awe of these artists and their accomplishments. But the thing that made me literally jump into the air and get real close to the Magnavox was that this man talked about working with miles Davis as an electric bassist. How could a bass player playing with miles Davis in the 70s become a pop singer?

Yet here he was doing just that.  Here is an excerpt of this very episode preserved on, well, where else? YouTube:

One of the many problems with interests like this  is that I had no support for  it outside of my own isolated curiosity. My dad had only interest in straight ahead and acoustic jazz music for the most part and my mother listened to outright muzak on the radio. Both were very much interested in Broadway musicals - far more than was I. Any human contact I had were with other kids and, because they were white kids in Tampa were working class kids for the most part they really hated this music I loved. They were interested I guess in KISS and maybe Pink Floyd and the like.

Chuck Klosterman summarizes this popular culture and indeed entire lifestyle when he says that in the small midwestern town in which he grew up the only music anybody liked would have been either some kind of hard rock or some kind of country music. While Tampa was more cosmopolitan, I recognized some similarities to Klosterman’s account of his rural Midwest. Also because I was a child I did not have access to those parts of the city that were adult and because of  my young age and geographic separation I was cut off from much that would interest me.

I did not come into contact with many African-American kids who would have also been watching Soul Train and in general been into the same music. The adults who would have been going out to the disco were well, adults. (I did learn enough disco dance steps to win a dance contest in 1979 but that is a whole other story). And I had little to no exposure to any children involved with music. When a decade and a half later I would learn that most of my peers were involved in all sorts of band camps, choirs and choruses, and orchestras of all sorts as children I looked upon them as inhabitants of some exotic and advanced milieu even if it had only been, say, Lexington, Massachusetts or Albany, New York.

To make matters still more complicated, when I began studying piano this happened far later than I had wanted and the instruction was strictly classically oriented as I had a very good Italian piano teacher.

This made me most torn: I saw the need to learn to play classical piano and I respected the boundless benefit of technique; I even liked a lot of classical piano literature, but certainly not all of it, and not enough to ever want to be any kind of concert pianist. Yet every available and surrounding force was pushing me towards mainly classical or concert piano, and still later, classical composition. That was as they say the “track” I was on and I was also fully aware that my “ears” did not yet have the strength of comprehension to absorb all of the complex jazz instrumentals I wanted to learn. 

This strength would thankfully come later as did other forms of progress. Yet the journey I was on was one that I really only understand now as in ht immediacy of time as it was lived was so much of a zigzag to be any clear path or plan. There was a profound disconnection between what I felt I had to do to be acceptable in this music world which I did not at the time conceptualize as in fact “classical" and what the greatest or deepest  part of me yearned to do, which was to play a very different kind of instrumental music and improvise on the piano rather than play pre-written scores. In time over the next decades the course of my life would change but this change would involve yet again the worlds of mostly written music, usually the preferences of those who had influence and capital to make certain projects possible. 

I state all of this in this post only with the empowerment of hindsight, in the attempt to move towards giving an account in prose of my life in those years and how it might connect to where I find myself today in 2024.

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