As I scope out Denver's upcoming concerts, checking the calendar for any hint or mention of an act associated with blues, jazz, gospel or old school soul, I am left feeling a bit stranded. I can't say homesick because I was born and raised in Colorado. But my spirit and soul - at least were the jams are concerned - were born and raised elsewhere. I was always within earshot (thanks to radio, stereo and television) of a musical megalopolis like New Orleans, Chicago, Memphis, Nashville, New York or Philadelphia, to name several bastions of hell-raisin' great music. And the remainder of the sounds I enjoy most migrated to the mainstream, traveling miles and decades through obscure rural Southern back roads and byways.
That's not to claim Denver hasn't hosted some badass, kickass tunesmiths. Undoubtedly, there's been some sinfully soulful sounds to hail from home. Glenn Miller (who wasn't born in Colorado but briefly attended the state's flagship school, CU-Boulder, and launched his professional career playing gigs in the Denver area) and Phillip Bailey might be two of the most celebrated, but less stellar names populated the Centennial State. Today, Hazel Miller can be stupendous. Reaching back a distance, Marian Morrison Robinson, her father George Morrison, her brother George Morrison, Jr. and her relative Hattie McDaniel all premiered and perfected their considerable talents here in Denver. Paul Whiteman, a colleague of Morrison, Sr., went on to international fame.
Sure, their artistic expression was more jazz than blues, but, in those days, a close bond - actually, a familial, almost incestuous relationship, somewhat like kissing cousins - existed between the genres. In juke joints and dance halls, onstage and backstage, even in back seats, blues and jazz met, made out and gave birth to modern music. Or, perhaps it was blues and gospel getting it on, with jazz playing the role of godfather, baptizing rock's infancy with a cool cat strut, tempering the frenetic fusion of sacred and sexy sounds of early rock and roll. The progeny from this relationship includes everything from rhythm and blues to rock. At the 1995 concert for the Grand Opening of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, Little Richard yelled out that rhythm and blues had a baby and they called it rock and roll. Actually, as I later wrote, rhythm and blues was a midwife, helping deliver the sound produced by the scandalous mating and marriage of blues and gospel. And even if church folk considered the birth to sinful and sacrilegious, not to mention out of wedlock and basically a bastardization of the Lord's music, this unholy heirloom created the spirit of rock and roll.
But have successive generations of pop fads and foibles diluted the genetics? Among today's emerging artists, it's difficult to trace any direct lineage to blues, jazz or gospel. Sure, some might argue the bloated pyrotechnics, histrionics and melisma of a few would-be soulsters and rockers make an earnest attempt to recall the past. But, mostly, the result is a caricature; any resemblance or kinship between the past and present is usually strained. The true blue artistry of people like Louis Armstrong, Mahalia Jackson, Muddy Waters, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker or Bessie Smith appear in contemporary music's genetic makeup as a recessive gene at best.
So the blues (or lack thereof) isn't brought on simply by the genre's paucity in Denver. This is a national drought. My blues - the soulful, swampy, muddy sound of the Mississippi Delta - is running on empty. It's almost like as if the mighty Mississippi has run dry. Or perhaps the blues has been overwhelmed by modern technology and our culture of instant gratification, immediate pleasure, and metaphysical angst. Why do we need the blues when the latest New Age shrink can banish the pain? Perhaps the style has evaporated, not a casualty of global warming but global culture - washed up or washed away by the flood of teen queens, jukebox heroes, reality shows and American Idols.
While I cry the blues about the lack of the real deal; not only in Denver, but everywhere, an essay I wrote several years ago in advance of Martin Scorsese's excellent series, The Blues, comes to mind. The series spanned centuries. The blues epoch also claims both sides of the Atlantic, leaving fans with a mutant version of African music performed long before slave ships delivered their cargo to American soil. The series traveled from the African continent to the Mississippi Delta. It also transported authentic blues into the 21st Century when it aired on PBS in 2003.
The nearest to the real deal has been a slew of aging rockers living their second childhood; returning to their roots and youthful influences. Rod Stewart has released several marvelous collections of chestnuts. And it's almost requisite that fading rock divas discover the blues as their careers decline. Before Linda Rondstadt scored with Nelson Riddle in the '80s, and after her last rock album fizzled, she recorded and shelved an album worthy of Lady Sings The Blues. She teamed with Jerry Wexler and several of the greatest living jazz musicians in an ensemble aiming for the depression of a smoky dive and femme fatale who bled tears, bile, and rasp into a mike while patrons obviated despair with foreign weed and domestic moonshine. Like all of Wexler's productions, the recordings steam, but rather than sizzle with the sound of chitlins and pig's ears, Rondstadt's interpretations break a sweat like a martini glass on a summer evening.
While Rondstadt isn't the reincarnation of Billie Holiday, she swung a respectable punch, and like the Alison of her pop hit, Rondstadt's aim was true, even if the shot wasn't a bull's-eye to the heart, it ended somewhere near the solar plexus. Speaking of hitting shots, Pat Benatar's best left some critics crying for the wrong reasons. Benatar attempted Rondstadt's post-rock path, but as one critic noted, in order to sing the blues you have to live them first.
The real deal might seem archaic to contemporary radio. It's hip to have Rickie Lee Jones and Chaka Khan blasting bluesy jazz. Jazz has always entertained a certain hipness ever since white intellectuals loitered in Harlem nightclubs soaking up the sounds as if osmosis might transform themselves into something nearly as dizzying and dazzling as the music. There was nothing hip about the blues. Urban intellectuals envisioned themselves as cool, sophisticated, and cultured - something rural America wasn't. Both hillbilly and blues music were stranded in watering holes until the factories transported a substantial percentage of the Southern population north and west to Chicago, Detroit, and Los Angeles.
Despite their cosmopolitan allure, the cities claimed their share of ghettos, and some blacks discovered that, damn it, they still couldn't lose their blues. Some considered gospel music a panacea, but others dismissed the jubilant shouts proclaiming better times nothing more than a foolish palliative to their dilemma, one that was better soothed with a shot of whiskey. Toothless geniuses belted out the blues and no dictionary was required to define their music. It was pain pure and simple - the kind of pain drunk on anger, despair, and bitterness. Wimps sang for salvation. Bluesmen sang for their supper in a world where the meat a knife sliced was more often human than cattle.
Even the women were brawlers. The Rolling Stone Album Guide describes Bessie Smith - universally praised as Empress of the Blues - as a woman:
fueled by rage and anger. A woman of overpowering passions, she had a reputation as a hard drinker whose temper was of the hair-trigger variety that would sometimes result in physical attacks, the most memorable being the occasion where she learned of her husband's infidelity and proceeded to trash both their hotel room and him. One can hear in her dark, powerful voice the brooding intensity of someone who has been deeply wounded and sees no light ahead.
Mahalia Jackson emulated Smith's power, bringing the powerhouse vocals into gospel, but even in the worst of times, there was always a flicker of hope in her artistry. While Jackson was anticipating the promised land, Smith figured she didn't have a prayer. But if she was the Hellbound Express, she was hell-bent on picking up as many passengers as possible at every chance and stop along the way.
Archetypal snapshots of the blues greats linger around the periphery of the public consciousness. When the blues are mentioned, suburbanites envision the battered faces, bad choppers, and defeated demeanor. But the blues are more than surrender. Blues greats take no prisoners on their way down; as the music attests, their demise is seldom quiet. Their defiance gave rock 'n roll its bad boy persona with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards assuming more than the bluesman's art. Richards' gravely face is etched with past exploits of too much whiskey, drama, and trouble. The difference is that Richards is celebrated as a global icon with endless wealth while the average bluesman was derided as a community hazard often finding himself a resident of either a jail or pauper's grave.
Several years ago, Martin Scorsese shed some light on those, like Bessie Smith, who saw none ahead. As I search for a reincarnation or even a decent imitation of the blues greats, I'm in Bessie's boat. Well, on second thought, every once in a while, I do hear someone giving off a flicker of hope, even if they exactly aren't lighting or carrying the torch. Maybe I should stop whining, spin an old Etta James disc and have a blue Christmas anyhow.
Writer's Note: Several portions of this post appeared in an earlier article I wrote several years ago on Martin Scorsese's "The Blues."
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