33 And 1/3 Under 45 – Track Twenty: A Tribute To Jack Johnson

33 and ⅓ is a monthly music column by Ryan Lynch, exploring the records that keep him inspired in a cynical world.

You can find episodes on frondsradio.com and be sure to subscribe on iTunes, Google PlayStitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. If you have any suggestions or thoughts, my twitter handle is @stoopkidliveson and I’d love to hear from you. You can find Ryan’s band, Premium Heart, on facebooktwitter, or instagram for upcoming releases and shows.

This column was written on June 14th, 2020.

Johnson portrayed Freedom – it rang just as loud as the bell proclaiming him Champion.

All forms of expression, whether artistic or not, are statements of values from the creator and are inherently political. If you can’t accept that and wish people didn’t have to be so political in their art, go fuck, and I can’t stress this enough, yourself.

In 1970, just about a year after Miles Davis recorded his groundbreaking jazz fusion album, In A Silent Way, he recorded the soundtrack to an upcoming documentary on the boxing champion, Jack Johnson. Johnson was one of the first black boxers who was “allowed” to box a white man and become the world heavyweight boxing champion, owned and operated several desegregated nightclubs in the 1910s, and was arrested, charged, and sentenced by an all-white jury for violating the Mann Act because of his relationships with white women before the Act was even passed.

In years, we’re about as removed from this record as Miles was from most of the events that made Jack Johnson a household name. But just like I feel that this album is as relevant today as ever, Miles felt a deep connection to Jack’s story. Not only as a trailblazer for Black Americans, shattering boundaries that White America fought (and still fights) so hard to uphold, but also as a victim of the system. In 1959, after releasing the masterpiece Kind Of Blue, Miles was beaten and arrested by the NYPD for not “moving on” from the steps of the club he was playing an Armed Forces Day benefit at (the Birdland, one of the most important Jazz clubs in Manhattan) after walking a white woman to her cab. Despite pointing out that he was on the marquee and had every right to be there, (“I don’t care where you work, I said move on! If you don’t move on I’m going to arrest you.” said the cop) Miles was beaten bloody and dragged off. From his autobiography:

Now I would have expected this kind of bullshit about resisting arrest and all back in East St Louis (before the city went all-black), but not here in New York City, which is supposed to be the slickest, hippest city in the world. But then, again, I was surrounded by white folks and I have learned that when that happens, if you’re black, there is no justice. None.

Around this time, people — white people — started saying that I was always “angry,” that I was “racist,” or some silly shit like that. Now, I’ve been racist towards nobody, but that don’t mean I’m going to take shit from a person just because he’s white. I didn’t grin or shuffle and didn’t walk around with my finger up my ass begging for no handout and thinking I was inferior to whites. I was living in America, too, and I was going to try to get everything that was coming to me.

For everyone that says it’s only about class and that if we pursue economic justice, racial justice will follow suit, you’re still as wrong as people who said that to Miles in 1959 were. As wrong as the people that said that to Jack Johnson in 1912 were. It doesn’t matter if you’re rich, a racist system is still going to abuse you if you’re not white. And then make you the villain for being angry. You’re the real racist for fighting against the system.

From Davis’ liner notes for the record:

The rise of Jack Johnson to world heavyweight supremacy in 1908 was a signal for white envy to erupt. Can you get to that? And of course being born Black in America… we all know how that goes. The day before Johnson defended the title against Jim Flynn (1912) he received a note “Lie down tomorrow or we string you up – Ku Klux Klan.” Dig that!

Now I don’t know a whole lot about Jack Johnson and I’ve never seen the movie. But I can still really feel what Miles is trying to convey in his soundtrack. The first side, “Right Off” starts with a very rock and blues feeling electric guitar, drums and bass, that immediately invoke the presence that a man like Jack Johnson, a man like Miles Davis, always invokes when they walk into a room. He lets John McLaughlin’s guitar, Michael Henderson’s bass, and Billy Cobham’s drums tell the story for a few minutes, alternating between big fills and mellow lows until Miles comes in at about the 2 and a half minute mark. And he makes it clear that he’s the star here. His trumpet fills the space and reminds everyone that people like him are the reason we have jazz. The reason we have the blues. The reason we have rock n roll. Together, they build the song up to something truly magical. Until about 10 and half minutes in, everything drops out but Miles’ muted trumpet. Just long enough to remind you that hidden behind every jam that takes music to this kind of level, there’s a deep, solitary pain behind it. As much as Miles Davis was the coolest band leader who ever lived, he was still just a man. A man mistreated by the society that he made so much richer and better, just by expressing himself. But then it gets big again, and the party starts right up. For a few minutes at least. Until we get a similar bridge, this time with Steve Grossman’s sax and the bass, alone, but together. And this time, when everyone comes back in, Herbie Hancock adds his organ and it’s bigger and fuller than ever, together.

Miles always strikes a perfect balance between the highs and lows. The highs of his persona, the lows of how he was treated. The highs of his talent, the lows of everyone else’s appreciation. He saw a lot of kinship in Jack Johnson and fought against a lot of the same hateful bigotry. From his liner notes:

His flamboyance was more than obvious. And no doubt mighty Whitey felt “No Black man should have all this.” But he did and he’d flaunt it. There wasn’t a “smile-smile chuggin’ along” implication in his broad grin that seemed to always be on his ebony face – in other words he was putting them on! What was a reality to Johnson was a living-color nightmare for the anti-Johnson Americans who couldn’t get ready for his “truly sophisticated attitude.” And the more they hated him, the more money he made, the more women he got and the more wine he drank.

“Right Off” continues along the same kind of groove for a while, then about 18 and a half minutes in, until it completely changes into a heavy funk riff no one can see coming. This evolves into a groove that beautifully carries the energy of the song to it’s natural conclusion. Jack and Miles both knew that they could never become predictable or take it safe, otherwise the bigotry steeped in our culture would attack them at any opportunity they allowed. It didn’t matter that Jack was the champion of the world. Or that Miles was… well… Miles Davis. They couldn’t just be the best at one thing, they had to be the best at everything. As soon as Jack won the “fight of the century” and proved that white supremacy was a fallacy, Congress has to step in and outlaw fight films. The state stepped in to damage control the reputation of the white man. People couldn’t see that they could fight back; can’t let anyone get any ideas. Again, from the liner notes.

Hate is the opposite of Love and both gain momentum.” He won all his fights, when he wanted and how he wanted – including “The Great White Hope” Jim Jeffries on July 4, 1910. On July 5th they got it on with a riot – that’s right, fire, at least ten dead, and the later (1911) Congressional law barring fight films with interstate commerce.

The second half of the record, “Yesternow” is a slower growth and more driving song. A bass melody carries the first half of it while the rest of the band peppers in phrases on top. For about twelve minutes, the band build upon this very minimalist idea until abruptly, everything stops and samples from In A Silent Way come in and remind you of the larger narrative that Davis is in the middle of. He’s still building jazz fusion, a brand new genre, just like Jack Johnson was building a new world for black athletes. But as soon as you start to fall into those comfortable, familiar habits, a new bass melody comes in. Harder, with more punch than before. The structure may seem the same on paper, but the comfortable familiarity is gone as the song jumps to a completely new place. Always keeping the audience on their toes, Davis reminds us how relentless his fight is and how he can’t let up for a second, otherwise they’ll just knock him out in the next round. The funk fades out and we’re left with a haunting trumpet melody, heightening the dissonance instead of comfortably resolving the album, and, as is becoming more and more clear every day, society follows suit. And as the final hints of melody fade out, we hear the only spoken words on the album, from the movie:

I’m Jack Johnson, heavyweight champion of the world.
I’m black.
They never let me forget it.
I’m black all right.
I’ll never let them forget it.

33 And 1/3 Under 45 – Track Five: In A Silent Way

33 and ⅓ is a monthly music column by Ryan Lynch, exploring the records that keep him inspired in a cynical world.

You can find episodes on frondsradio.com and be sure to subscribe on iTunes, Google PlayStitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. If you have any suggestions or thoughts, my twitter handle is @stoopkidliveson and I’d love to hear from you. You can find Ryan’s band, Premium Heart, on facebooktwitter, or instagram for upcoming releases and shows.

The original column was published on January 15th, 2019 and can be found below.

Shhh. Peaceful. Silent.

Happy new year, everybody! It’s January, and while I’m generally not one to make resolutions, there is still something about changing out my calendar that gets me thinking about where I should go next. 2018 was a big year for me and I feel like I’ve grown a lot. But that always pushes me to think “Ok, so I did all that, now what?” And I found myself gravitating towards music that asks the same questions.

There’s something about Miles Davis. Every single time I hear his trumpet come in over any of his incredible rhythm sections, I can’t help but think “why the hell don’t I listen to more Miles Davis?” But for Davis’ In A Silent Way, it doesn’t even take that long. It takes this record 7 seconds to kick in and it does not let up until it’s over. It opens with Joe Zawinul’s low organ hum until Tony Williams’ hi-hats, John McLaughlin’s guitar, Dave Holland’s bass, and Chick Corea’s and Herbie Hancock’s electric pianos kick in and just like that jazz fusion was brought in to the limelight, all in 7 seconds. Rounding out the band is Wayne Shorter’s beautiful soprano saxophone. And then, there’s Miles. His trumpet is unparalleled here. Sure, most people prefer his deeper exploration into the murky waters between rock and jazz in the following year’s Bitches’ Brew, but for me, In A Silent Way is where it’s at.

By the late 60s, Miles Davis was already an incredible musician and a huge force in the jazz world. In 1968 he had just gotten married to Betty Mabry, who introduced him to a whole lot of funk, soul, and rock throughout the New York scene, and as I talked about in my previous few columns on Prince and Bowie, newlyweds discovering music together is something I can really get into right now. But even though they were divorced the following year, her impact on his music was hardly a temporary thing. With 1969’s In A Silent Way, Davis had fully integrated the guitars, electric pianos, and organs of rock music into his jazz ensemble. There had been a handful of artists pioneering this mix of jazz and rock (eventually called fusion), but few had the jazz world’s respect that Davis had. As he continued to explore with dissonant and challenging mixes of genres throughout the 70s, he became so controversial and reviled in the jazz world, he went in to retirement for a bit, but very little of that strife is heard here.

The record is two acts, one on each side. Side A is an 18 minute suite of “Shhh” and “Peaceful.” As I said up top, this piece is one of my favorites. The bass, drums, and pianos hold a perfect rhythm while the leads go explore. Davis lets the guitars and keys explore for about two minutes before he comes in. This is the kind of improvisational jam you would later hear on albums like The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers or The Grateful Dead’s Europe ’72 tour, but here, it’s more… adventurous. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking those fantastic records. But when rock bands jam, you feel the music building heavier and heavier and the focus is often on the dynamics, to give the musicians and the audience the release of an explosive crescendo. The exploratory jams are some of my favorite things in rock, for sure, but it’s a different vibe. You can feel the band’s energy as they push the jam bigger and bigger. But on this record, Davis grows the music sideways instead of up. The bass and drums never get more intense, they just evolve. The keyboards never start hammering away, they only add different kinds of texture. Just about all of my improv experience is through rock, so when I really listen to an improvisational piece like this, I’m always amazed at where the musicians choose not to go. When they choose to just stop and let someone else completely take over. Davis spends a lot of the song in the background while the guitars and keyboards complement each others. Every time the song builds up to just when I’m really feeling it, the band stops. Waits a second. And comes back in, just like before. With that organ hum, then hi-hats and bass. But this time, it’s somehow even better. I love a lot of Davis’ earlier work, but In A Silent Way is truly a whole other animal.

Side B is another suite, this time the Zawinul-penned titular track, sandwiching the Davis number “It’s About That Time.” “In A Silent Way” is a beautiful, soft ballad between guitar and keyboard that lets every note ring and flow just long enough to make me nostalgic for a time I don’t quite remember. But when Davis’ trumpet comes in with an overlaid melody, be still my beating heart, I feel like I’m falling in love for the first time again. But after a few minutes, the underlying harmonies start to get just a little darker and the melody starts to get a little more dissonant and just when I start to feel it, it ends and the funk-infused “It’s About That Time” kicks in. This one doesn’t have the same driving rhythms that “Shhh” and “Peaceful” had and it takes its time on the main themes longer than Side A, but the melody in the organ is just as strong, if not stronger. This is where Shorter’s sax really shines, too. The entire midsection of this piece is playing off a simple, but perfect melody that I never want to end, but of course, like all things on this record, it suddenly stops just when it really starts to hit its stride, going right back into the reflective and tranquil beauty of “In A Silent Way,” but this time closing out the record with a flawless reprise.

Miles Davis was never satisfied doing the same old thing over and over again. He could’ve easily kept cranking out albums derivative of some of his earlier masterpieces like A Kind Of Blue or Sketches Of Spain. But he didn’t. He pushed fusion into the mainstream, often up against the derision of both critics and audiences, and brought jazz into the world of so many new listeners. His entire “electric period” is brilliant, but my favorite is the one that really started it all. Yes, he hinted at a few of the things to come on the record or two before it, but In A Silent Way stands out as his testament to always push forward. Building from where he was, but never afraid to show just how far he was willing to go. Heading in to 2019, I think that’s as inspiring a message as I’m gonna find, and I hope for just a fraction of the creative bravery found on this record.