Tuesday, June 15, 2010

It's a Rap

Marc Myers' recent blog revisiting Disco and its relation to Jazz (here) started me thinking along different lines completely. From Johnny Ace and Sam Cooke to Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur, the celebrity life for too many a Black artist has ended too soon in death.

Whether the cause be drugs or murder, health issues or accident, doesn't really matter--it's those absent friends who do: Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, Bob Marley, Jackie Wilson, Chuck Willis, Curtis Mayfield, Jimi Hendrix, Teddy Pendergrass, Peter Tosh, hell, even Robert Johnson and Little Walter. And from Jazz, Chu Berry, Billy Strayhorn, Clifford Brown, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Sonny Criss, Wardell Gray, Tina Brooks, Paul Chambers, John Coltrane, on and on.

Consider the people lost. Imagine the music that never got made. Unplayed, unsung. Unhearable... unbearable.

What's that expression from Funkadelic--"America eats its young"? (Funkmaster George Clinton might have been echoing Robespierre's bitter words, "The revolution devours its young," but the action is true of certain non-human animals too.) To put it simply, Success is a bitch. And too much of it too soon usually leads to problems--and that's regardless of race, creed, or color.

Think of our young, stupid movie stars, our over-the-top pop music idols, the vast and ridiculous cult of celebrity, the ludicrous, debasing premise of most reality TV shows, the selfish actions of today's overpaid athletes, all that senseless "bling, blang, it's ma thang."

Yo, all you sudden rich, what up? All that sturm und drang, your private lives gone public, your wishful thinking run amok... will take you nowhere. Or maybe I mean straight to Nowheresville: The Big Nada: a morgue slab and a pine box. Or if you're lucky, just detox--and maybe a second chance. Can I send out my own wish that you learn from some wiser folks somewhere? That you work to live long and prosper? That you just cool it? (Would "Chill" mean more?)

Making music is a lifetime proposition, and a pretty good gig, money or no. Why shorten your life and sell your life short? Some great artist entertainers, Black or no, men and women alike, have enjoyed fame and wealth and carefully worked out, wisely structured lives, correcting any youthful mistakes and then reaping the rewards (big or small) for many decades thereafter. A few names off the top of my head: Harry Belafonte, Lena Horne, Benny Carter, Bill Cosby, Sonny Rollins, Sidney Poitier, Abbey Lincoln (and Max Roach too), Clark Terry, Morgan Freeman, James Moody, Cecily Tyson, Hank Jones.

I'm white and 67, a cancer and Parkinson's survivor (so far, anyway); some Southern, some Northern, but Pacific Northwestern most of all. I don't have a dog in this hunt, or any agenda other than to see lives come to fruition and music go on, in whatever form the players proffer and the listeners prefer. Not quite supply and demand; more like create and communicate, contend and comprehend.

Well, here's my contention: forget the phoney publicity and the artificial stimulus; there's rapture enough in love and friendship and raising children, in finding good work and doing some too, in leaving the world a little bit better at the end.

Life is too glorious to waste. Making music too miraculous. T.P. had everything and then, baby, he lost it; yeah, Teddy had the right to be way more bitter, but still he kept on: "Life is a song worth singing. Why don't you... sing it?"

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