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Living With Music / Ralph Ellisons Jazz Writings' by Ralph Ellison

THE ETHIC OF INVISIBILITY

This article has been writing itself for the last couple of days as I was finishing this book. It initially attracted me in the bookstore because of a quote of Ellisons on the back cover: "In the swift whirl of time music is a constant reminding us of what we were and of that toward which we aspire. Art thou troubled? Music will not only calm it will ennoble thee."

I took the bait.

This book is a compilation of non-fiction fiction letters and interviews put together by Robert G. O"Meally who is a Professor of comparative Literature and founder and Director of the Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University. The non-fictional section is a group 12 articles which Ellison wrote between the 50's and 70's specifically about music and/or those persons connected with jazz. The second section is made up of parts of his books the most famous being INVISIBLE MAN. The letters section is comprised of several from another published source; they are written to his friend Albert Murray. And the last interview section consists of one radio interview in 1976 in his native Oklahoma and another in 1976 with the editor of this book.

Laying aside Ellison's rather conservative political views and perceptions of jazz I found that his writing is truly beautiful. Regardless of the fact that he did not care for bebop & had trouble assimilating the philosophies and presentations of LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) and Malcolm X Ellison was dedicated to the American traditions of his race and wanted to be certain to transmit that in every way possible. He believed that it was the responsibility of Black Americans to make themselves known: to free their spirits in what became the blues notably the South.

Ellison originally was a trumpeter. He was educated in classical music and had a sophisticated cultural viewpoint. He became a writer (and a well known jazz critic) to continue making music in another language and at that he was extremely successful. There is really something to the idea of carrying music through to words. The quality Ellison impacts on them exudes essence and lacks superfluidity. There are so many gems of philosophy throughout this group of writings that I was thrilled and warmed by each one that arose. It made me think that it really does not matter about whom or about what or in what context Ellison was writing. His words imply to me that our core soul and spirit is what drives us not with whom we associate. Ellison's sensitivity to the Black experience is well described and wrenching at that. It is perplexing to me how Ellison could have held the political position he did and steered toward his particluar musical predilections. Coltrane was not a favorite; somehow Monk fit into Ellison's leanings. The point is that Ellison knew the process of jazz more generally how the creative process works and as a result could translate it to stir the imagination of his readers as is shown in the excerpt from what O"Meally calls the Ofirst movement" of INVISIBLE MAN: The Music Demanded Action.

Ellison promulgated the anonymity of brilliance in jazz:

"There is in this a cruel contradiction implicit in the art form itself for true jazz is an art of individual assertion within and against the group. Each true jazz moment (as distinct from the uninspired commercial performance) springs from a contest in which the artist challenges all the rest; each solo flight or improvisation represents (like the successive canvases of a painter) a definition of his identity as individual as a member of the collectivity and as a link in the chain of tradition. Thus because jazz finds its very life in an endless improvisation upon traditional materials the jazzman must lose his identity even as he finds it..."

Ellison died in 1994. His artform was more music than writing although what he did write no matter how small an output constantly put into question how the Black Man could put himself into society. Ellison believed it was through the music of jazz.'This article has been writing itself for the last couple of days as I was finishing this book. It initially attracted me in the bookstore because of a quote of Ellisons on the back cover: "In the swift whirl of time music is a constant reminding us of what we were and of that toward which we aspire. Art thou troubled? Music will not only calm it will ennoble thee."'

Additional Info

  • Book Title: Living With Music / Ralph Ellisons Jazz Writings'
  • Author: Ralph Ellison
  • Publisher: The Modern Library Edition from Random House
  • Year Published: 2001
  • Book Type:: Autobiography
  • ISBN: 679640347
  • Rating: Five Stars
  • Number of Pages: 288
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