How Josephine Baker Went From Homeless Street Performer to International Superstar, French Resistance Fighter & Civil Rights Hero

There has maybe never been a better time to critically examine the granting of special privileges to people for their talent, personality, or wealth. Yet, for all the harm wrought by fame, there have always been celebrities who use the power for good. The twentieth century is full of such figures, men and women of conscience like Muhamad Ali, Nina Simone, and Paul Robeson—extraordinary people who lived extraordinary lives. Yet no celebrity activist, past or present, has lived a life as extraordinary as Josephine Baker’s.

Born Freda Josephine McDonald in 1906 to parents who worked as entertainers in St. Louis, Baker’s early years were marked by extreme poverty. “By the time young Freda was a teenager,” writes Joanne Griffith at the BBC, “she was living on the streets and surviving on food scraps from bins.” Like every rags-to-riches story, Baker’s turns on a chance discovery. While performing on the streets at 15, she attracted the attention of a touring St. Louis vaudeville company, and soon found enormous success in New York, in the chorus lines of a string of Broadway hits.




Baker became professionally known, her adopted son Jean-Claude Baker writes in his biography, as “the highest-paid chorus girl in vaudeville.” A great achievement in and of itself, but then she was discovered again at age 19 by a Parisian recruiter who offered her a lucrative spot in a French all-black revue. “Baker headed to France and never looked back,” parlaying her nearly-nude danse sauvage into international fame and fortune. Topless, or nearly so, and wearing a skirt made from fake bananas, Baker used stereotypes to her advantage—by giving audiences what they wanted, she achieved what few other black women of the time ever could: personal autonomy and independent wealth, which she consistently used to aid and empower others.

Throughout the 20s, she remained an archetypal symbol of jazz-age art and entertainment for her Folies Bergère performances (see her dance the Charleston and make comic faces in 1926 in the looped video above). In 1934, Baker made her second film Zouzou (top), and became the first black woman to star in a major motion picture. But her sly performance of a very European idea of African-ness did not go over well in the U.S., and the country she had left to escape racial animus bared its teeth in hostile receptions and nasty reviews of her star Broadway performance in the 1936 Ziegfeld Follies (a critic at Time referred to her as a “Negro wench”). Baker turned away from America and became a French citizen in 1937.

American racism had no effect on Baker’s status as an international superstar—for a time perhaps the most famous woman of her age and “one of the most popular and highest-paid performers in Europe.” She inspired modern artists like Picasso, Hemingway, E.E. Cummings, and Alexander Calder (who sculpted her in wire). When the war broke out, she hastened to work for the Red Cross, entertaining troops in Africa and the Middle East and touring Europe and South America. During this time, she also worked as a spy for the French Resistance, transmitting messages written in invisible ink on her sheet music.

Her massive celebrity turned out to be the perfect cover, and she often “relayed information,” the Spy Museum writes, “that she gleaned from conversations she overheard between German officers attending her performances.” She became a lieutenant in the Free French Air Force and for her efforts was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Medal of the Resistance by Charles De Gaulle and lauded by George S. Patton. Nonetheless, many in her home country continued to treat her with contempt. When she returned to the U.S. in 1951, she entertained huge crowds, and dealt with segregation “head –on,” writes Griffith, refusing “to perform in venues that would not allow a racially mixed audience, even in the deeply divided South." She became the first person to desegregate the Vegas casinos.

But she was also “refused admission to a number of hotels and restaurants.” In 1951, when employees at New York’s Stork Club refused to serve her, she charged the owner with discrimination. The Stork club incident won her the lifelong admiration and friendship of Grace Kelly, but the government decided to revoke her right to perform in the U.S., and she ended up on an FBI watch list as a suspected communist—a pejorative label applied, as you can see from this declassified 1960 FBI report, with extreme prejudice and the presumption that fighting racism was by default “un-American.” Baker returned to Europe, where she remained a superstar (see her perform a medley above in 1955).

She also began to assemble her infamous “Rainbow Tribe,” twelve children adopted from all over the world and raised in a 15th-century chateau in the South of France, an experiment to prove that racial harmony was possible. She charged tourists money to watch the children sing and play, a “little-known chapter in Baker’s life” that is also “an uncomfortable one,” Rebecca Onion notes at Slate. Her estate functioned as a “theme park,” writes scholar Matthew Pratt Guterl, a “Disneyland-in-the-Dordogne, with its castle in the center, its massive swimming pool built in the shape of a “J” for its owner, its bathrooms decorated like an Arpège perfume bottle, its hotels, its performances, and its pageantry.” These trappings, along with a menagerie of exotic pets, make us think of modern celebrity pageantry.

But for all its strange excesses, Guturl maintains, her “idiosyncratic project was in lockstep with the mainstream Civil Rights Movement." She wouldn’t return to the States until 1963, with the help of Attorney General Robert Kennedy, and when she did, it was as a guest of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the organizers of the March on Washington, where, in her Free French Air Force uniform, she became the only woman to address the crowd. The visual recounting of that moment above comes from a new 600-page graphic biography that follows Baker's “trajectory from child servant in St. Louis,” PRI writes, “to her days as a vaudeville performer, a major star in France, and later, a member of the French Resistance and an American civil rights activist.”

In her speech, she directly confronted the government who had turned her into an enemy:

They thought they could smear me, and the best way to do that was to call me a communist.  And you know, too, what that meant.  Those were dreaded words in those days, and I want to tell you also that I was hounded by the government agencies in America, and there was never one ounce of proof that I was a communist.  But they were mad.  They were mad because I told the truth.  And the truth was that all I wanted was a cup of coffee.  But I wanted that cup of coffee where I wanted to drink it, and I had the money to pay for it, so why shouldn’t I have it where I wanted it?

Baker made no apologies for her wealth and fame, but she also took every opportunity, even if misguided at times, to use her social and financial capital to better the lives of others. Her plain-speaking demands opened doors not only for performers, but for ordinary people who could look to her as an example of courage and grace under pressure into the 1970s. She continued to perform until her death in 1975. Just below, you can see rehearsal footage and interviews from her final performance, a sold-out retrospective.

The opening night audience included Sophia Lauren, Mick Jagger, Shirley Bassey, Diana Ross, and Liza Minelli. Four days after the show closed, Baker was found dead in her bed at age 68, surrounded by rave reviews of her performance. Her own assessment of her five-decade career was distinctly modest. Earlier that year, Baker told Ebony magazine, “I have never really been a great artist. I have been a human being that has loved art, which is not the same thing. But I have loved and believed in art and the idea of universal brotherhood so much, that I have put everything I have into them, and I have been blessed.” We might not agree with her critical self-evaluation, but her life bears out the strength and authenticity of her convictions.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Calm Down & Study with Relaxing Piano, Jazz & Harp Covers of Music from Hayao Miyazaki Films

Calling all pediatric dentists!

Cat Trumpet, aka musician and anime lover Curtis Bonnett, may have inadvertently hit on a genius solution for keeping young patients calm in the chair: relaxing piano covers of familiar tunes from Studio Ghibli’s animated features.

The results fall somewhere between pianist George Winston’s early 80s seasonal solos and Ryuichi Sakamoto’s soundtrack for the film Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. Let us remember that most of these tunes were fairly easy on the ears to begin with. Composer Joe Hisaishi, who has collaborated with director Hayao Miyazaki on every Studio Ghibli movie save Castle of Cagliostro, isn't exactly a punk rocker.




Many listeners report that the playlist helps them stay focused while studying or doing homework. Others succumb to the emotional riptides of childhood nostalgia.

Tender prenatal and newborn ears might prefer Cat Trumpet’s even gentler harp covers of seven Ghibli tunes, above.

Meawhile, the Japan-based Cafe Music BGM Station provides hours of jazzy, bossa-nova inflected Studio Ghibli covers to hospitals, hair salons, boutiques, and cafes. You can listen to three-and-a-half-hours worth, above. This, too, gets high marks as a homework helper.

 

Cat Trumpet’s Relaxing Piano Studio Ghibli Complete Collection

00:00:03 Spirited Away - Inochi no Namae

00:04:14 Howl's Moving Castle - Merry Go Round of Life

00:07:16 Kiki's Delivery Service - Town With An Ocean View

00:09:31 The Secret World of Arrietty - Arrietty's Song

00:13:29 Laputa Castle In The Sky - Carrying You

00:17:05 Porco Rosso - Theme

00:19:55 Whisper of the Heart - Song of the Baron

00:22:33 Porco Rosso - Marco & Gina's Theme

00:26:19 Only Yesterday - Main Theme

00:29:07 From Up On Poppy Hill - Reminiscence

00:34:12 Spirited Away - Shiroi Ryuu

00:37:06 Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind - Tori no Hito

00:41:14 Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind -  Kaze no Densetsu

00:43:25 My Neighbor Totoro - Kaze no Toori Michi

00:47:48 Castle of Cagliostro - Fire Treasure

00:51:38 Princess Mononoke - Tabidachi nishi e

00:53:07 Tales From Earthsea - Teru's Theme

00:58:17 My Neighbor Totoro - Tonari no Totoro

01:02:35 Whisper of the Heart - Theme

01:06:03 Ponyo - Rondo of the Sunflower House

01:10:34 Howl's Moving Castle - The Promise of the World

 

Cat Trumpet’s Relaxing Harp Studio Ghibli Collection Playlist

00:03 Spirited Away - Inochi no Namae

04:01 Spirited Away - Waltz of Chihiro

06:43 Howls Moving Castle - Merry Go Round of Life

09:45 Howl's Moving Castle - The Promise of the World

13:15 Laputa Castle In The Sky - Main Theme

16:55 Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea - Main Theme

20:15 Tonari no Totoro - Kaze no Toori Michi

 

Cafe Music BGM’s Relaxing Jazz & Bossa Nova Studio Ghibli Cover Playlist (song titles in Japanese)

0:00 海の見える街  〜魔女の宅急便/Kiki's Delivery Service

4:10 もののけ姫  〜もののけ姫/Princess Mononoke

7:28 君をのせて 〜天空の城ラピュタ/Laputa, the Castle of the Sky

11:09 風の通り道 〜となりのトトロ/My Neibour Totoro

16:26 ひこうき雲 〜風立ちぬ/THE WIND RISES〜

19:48 空とぶ宅急便 〜魔女の宅急便/Kiki's Delivery Service

25:05 人生のメリーゴーランド

〜ハウルの動く城/Howl's Moving Castle

28:07 いつも何度でも 〜千と千尋の神隠し/Spirited Away

32:08 となりのトトロ 〜となりのトトロ/My Neibour Totoro

36:40 さんぽ 〜となりのトトロ/My Neibour Totoro

38:40 崖の上のポニョ 〜崖の上のポニョ/Ponyo

42:08 ねこバス 〜となりのトトロ/My Neibour Totoro

46:06 旅路 〜風立ちぬ/THE WIND RISES

49:16 アシタカとサン 〜もののけ姫/Princess Mononoke

53:38 おかあさん 〜となりのトトロ/My Neibour Totoro

58:19 旅立ち 〜魔女の宅急便/Kiki's Delivery Service

1:02:25 風の谷のナウシカ 〜風の谷のナウシカ/Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind

1:06:59 やさしさに包まれたなら 〜魔女の宅急便/Kiki's Delivery Service

 

Tune in to Cat Trumpet’s Spotify channel for his relaxing takes on Disney and anime, as well as Studio Ghibli. They are available for purchase on iTunes and Google Play, or enjoy some free downloads by patronizing his Patreon. He takes requests, too.

Tune in to Cafe Music’s BGM Spotify channel for Studio Ghibli jazz, in addition to some relaxing Hawaiian guitar jazz and a selection of nature-based mellow tunes. They are available for purchase on iTunes.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Discover Langston Hughes’ Rent Party Ads & The Harlem Renaissance Tradition of Playing Gigs to Keep Roofs Over Heads

Both communities of color and communities of artists have had to take care of each other in the U.S., creating systems of support where the dominant culture fosters neglect and deprivation. In the early twentieth century, at the nexus of these two often overlapping communities, we meet Langston Hughes and the artists, poets, and musicians of the Harlem Renaissance. Hughes’ brilliantly compressed 1951 poem “Harlem” speaks of the simmering frustration among a weary people. But while its startling final line hints grimly at social unrest, it also looks back to the explosion of creativity in the storied New York City neighborhood during the Great Depression.

Hughes had grown reflective in the 50s, returning to the origins of jazz and blues and the history of Harlem in Montage of a Dream Deferred. The strained hopes and hardships he had eloquently documented in the 20s and 30s remained largely the same post-World War II, and one of the key features of Depression-era Harlem had returned; Rent parties, the wild shindigs held in private apartments to help their residents avoid eviction, were back in fashion, Hughes wrote in the Chicago Defender in 1957.




“Maybe it is inflation today and the high cost of living that is causing the return of the pay-at-the-door and buy-your-own-refreshments parties,” he said. He also noted that the new parties weren’t as much fun.

But how could they be? Depression-era rent parties were legendary. They “impacted the growth of Swing and Blues dancing,” writes dance teacher Jered Morin, “like few other periods.” As Hughes commented, “the Saturday night rent parties that I attended were often more amusing than any night club, in small apartments where God-knows-who lived.” Famous artists met and rubbed elbows, musicians formed impromptu jams and invented new styles, working class people who couldn’t afford a night out got to put on their best clothes and cut loose to the latest music. Hughes was fascinated, and as a writer, he was also quite taken by the quirky cards used to advertise the parties. “When I first came to Harlem,” he said, “as a poet I was intrigued by the little rhymes at the top of most House Rent Party cards, so I saved them. Now I have quite a collection.”

The cards you see here come from Hughes’ personal collection, held with his papers at Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Many of these date from the 40s and 50s, but they all draw their inspiration from the Harlem Renaissance period, when the phenomenon of jazz-infused rent parties exploded.  “Sandra L. West points out that black tenants in Harlem during the 1920s and 1930s faced discriminatory rental rates,” notes Rebecca Onion at Slate. “That, along with the generally lower salaries for black workers, created a situation in which many people were short of rent money. These parties were originally meant to bridge that gap.” A 1938 Federal Writers Project account put it plainly: Harlem “was a typical slum and tenement area little different from many others in New York except for the fact that in Harlem rents were higher; always have been, in fact, since the great war-time migratory influx of colored labor.”

Tenants took it in stride, drawing on two longstanding community traditions to make ends meet: the church fundraiser and the Saturday night fish fry. But rent parties could be raucous affairs. Guests typically paid a few cents to enter, and extra for food cooked by the host. Apartments filled far beyond capacity, and alcohol—illegal from 1919 to 1933—flowed freely. Gambling and prostitution frequently made an appearance.  And the competition could be fierce. The Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance writes that in their heyday, “as many as twelve parties in a single block and five in an apartment building, simultaneously, were not uncommon.” Rent parties "essentially amounted to a kind of grassroots social welfare," though the atmosphere could be "far more sordid than the average neighborhood block party." Many upright citizens who disapproved of jazz, gambling, and booze turned up their noses and tried to ignore the parties.

In order to entice party-goers and distinguish themselves, writes Onion, “the cards name the kind of musical entertainment attendees could expect using lyrics from popular songs or made-up rhyming verse as slogans.” They also “used euphemisms to name the parties’ purpose,” calling them “Social Whist Party” or “Social Party,” while also slyly hinting at rowdier entertainments. The new rent parties may not have lived up to Hughes’ memories of jazz-age shindigs, perhaps because, in some cases, live musicians had been replaced by record players. But the new cards, he wrote “are just as amusing as the old ones.”

via Slate

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Sound of Avant Garde Jazz: Stream 35 Hours of Experimental Jazz by Sun Ra, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane & More

Jazz has become institutionalized, for both good and ill. On the upside, it has found a permanent home in prestigious performing arts centers like Jazz at Lincoln Center, where its memory will be preserved for generations. High priests like Wayne Shorter, Wynton Marsalis, and Herbie Hancock pass on the traditions to young jazz acolytes at universities. The American art form has achieved the level of respectability that some of its most innovative practitioners, such as Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus, had always sought, the recognition of the high art world.

On the other hand, we too easily forget how dangerous jazz used to be—how thoroughly cutting edge and disturbing to middlebrow sensibilities. But of course, jazz has passed through many cultural cycles, with each generation of artists shocking its elders by pushing against musical decorum. Late 40s and 50s bebop gave us the lean, mean combo as a challenge to the big band swing era, and produced superstar improvisers who veered thrillingly off script in every performance. But this incarnation of jazz, too, threatened to become staid as the sixties neared.




And so a handful of artists created, to take the title of Ornette Coleman’s groundbreaking 1959 album, “the shape of jazz to come,” free jazz, which represented, writes Chris Kelsey, “a final break with the music’s roots as a popular art form, casting it in an alternative role as an experimental art music.” The sixties saw profound innovation in jazz, as artists like Coleman, Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Sun Ra, Pharoah Sanders, and others expanded its possibilities. But to read this music as solely experimenting “along the lines of the European ‘classical’ avant-garde” is to ignore the deep cultural wellspring from which it came.

As Amiri Baraka wrote in the liner notes for a 1965 compilation, The New Wave in Jazz, avant-garde jazz was a “touch stone of the new world,” a form that transcended the conditions of slavery, miseducation, and social control; it was the “music of contemporary black culture.”

The people who make this music are intellectuals or mystics or both. The black rhythm energy blues feeling (sensibility) is projected into the area of reflection, intentionally. As Expression…where each term is (equally) co-respondent.

     Projection over sustained periods (more time given, and time proposes a history for expression, hence it becomes reflective projection.

     Arbitrariness of Form (variety in nature)

     Intention of performance as a Learning experience

These were the distinctive “new world” qualities of experimental jazz. Its hip signifiers, Baraka wrote, mark it as “an invention of Black Lives"; it is not music to lull and soothe but to instruct, with force, if necessary. “Getting hit in the head with a stick,” he writes with a wink, “can do you as much good as meditating.” It might be hard for us to hear, now that the music has been so thoroughly enshrined in academic departments and conservatories, but avant-garde jazz once had the power to thoroughly shock and surprise, as the statement of a culture both in dialogue with and revolt against oppressive traditional forms.

In the playlist above, The Sound of Avant-Garde Jazz, you recover a sense of the music’s edginess with recordings from some of its most experimental gurus, including Coleman, Sun Ra, McCoy Tyner, Yusef Lateef, Alice Coltrane, and many, many more. The playlist spans the last 60 years or so, featuring later white adopters like Pat Metheny, John Zorn, and Bill Frisell, and including rocking electric jazz from diverse, eclectic bands like Tony Williams’ Lifetime, whose “Proto-Cosmos,” at the top, epitomizes the expansive range of 70s fusion. The overall experience of this comprehensive playlist may not only shake up your preconceptions of jazz, but may, as Baraka writes, change your preconditioned sense of “the normal feeling of adventure.”

The playlist offers up 350 tracks, and runs 35 hours. If you need Spotify's free software, download it here.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Cab Calloway Stars in “Minnie the Moocher,” a Trippy Betty Boop Cartoon That’s Ranked as the 20th Greatest Cartoon of All Time (1932)

The cast of Dave Fleischer’s 1932 cartoon, Minnie the Moocher, above, are a far cry from the candy-colored ponies and simpering dragons populating today’s cartoon universe.

There’s not much of a narrative, and the closest thing to a moral is an unspoken “don’t be cokey.”

Who cares?

The lyrics to bandleader Cab Calloway’s crossover hit were ample excuse to send a rebellious Betty Boop and her anthropomorphized pal, Bimbo, on a trippy jaunt through the underworld.




While there's no evidence of Betty or Bimbo hitting the pipe, one wonders what the animators were smoking to come up with such an imaginative palette of ghouls.

The ghosts are prisoners sporting chain gang stripes.

A witch with an outsized head prefigures Miyazaki's commanding old ladies.

A blank-socketed mama cat, leached dry by her equally eyeless kittens, conjures the sort of nightmare vision that appealed to Hieronymus Bosch.

The most benign presence is a phantasmagoric walrus, modeled on a rotoscoped Calloway. The Hi De Ho Man cut a far svelter presence in the flesh, as evidenced by the live action sequence that introduces the cartoon.

Betty’s home sweet home offers nearly as weird a landscape as the one she and Bimbo flee at film’s end.

Its many inorganic inhabitants would have felt right at home in PeeWee’s Playhouse, as would a self-sacrificing flowering plant, who succumbs to a sample of the hasenpfeffer Betty’s immigrant mother unsuccessfully urges on her. As for Betty's father, Fleischer struck a blow for teenagers everywhere by having his head morph into a gramophone on which a broken record (or rather, cylinder) plays.

Minnie the Moocher was voted the 20th greatest cartoon of all time, in a 1994 survey of 1,ooo animation professionals. We hope you enjoy it now, as the animators did then, and audiences did way back in 1932.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  She’ll be appearing onstage in New York City this June as one of the clowns in Paul David Young’s Faust 3. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

An Aging Louis Armstrong Sings “What a Wonderful World” in 1967, During the Vietnam War & The Civil Rights Struggle

It's not uncommon to have a knee jerk response to Bob Thiele and George David Weiss’ now-ubiquitous “What a Wonderful World.”

The quality of your reaction is likely determined by your worldview.

A misty-eyed bride-to-be browsing tunes for her upcoming reception’s father-daughter dance will not be coming at things from the same angle as the directors of Bowling for Columbine, Good Morning, Vietnam, and---unexpectedly---Madagascar.

The first version, sung by an aging Louis Armstrong, remains definitive, though it was dismissed at first by record execs, who hoped for another rollicking chart topper along in the “Hello, Dolly!” model.




As Jack Doyle notes on the Pop History Dig, Armstrong dug the song, and performed it often, hoping to strike a chord of hope and optimism during a period of great civil unrest:

Seems to me it ain’t the world that’s so bad but what we’re doing to it, and all I’m saying is: see what a wonderful world it would be if only we’d give it a chance. Love, baby, love.  That’s the secret…

The song's white authors shared his view, and hoped his crossover appeal would promote feelings of racial harmony on all sides of the record-buying public. It was a hit in the UK, but a slow starter in the US, not really catching on until its appearance on Good Morning, Vietnam's soundtrack (1987).

Half a century after its release, "What a Wonderful World” has entered the pantheon, as anyone with a television and ears can attest.

Its simple lyrics involving roses, rainbows, and babies have resulted in a number of hideously syrupy covers. With so many choices, it’s almost impossible to pick a least-favorite. Their gooeyness does a disservice to the power of the original.

What’s so poignant about the performance, above, are the moments where the darkness cuts through the treacle, ever so briefly. Check out Armstrong’s expressions at :25, :50, and 1:49, and interpret it how you will.

It’s worth noting that the nightly news was monopolized by reports of the war in Vietnam and the struggle for civil rights at home. Armstrong's health was in decline. The realities of his own New Orleans childhood were far more complex than the crayon-bright vision painted by the lyrics.

A montage of bombings and peaceful demonstrators being stomped underfoot would’ve seemed premature at such an early stage in the song’s history, so Armstrong smiled through, as he laid the groundwork for later performers’ layered interpretations. Some of the ones we find most compelling are below:

Nick Cave & the Pogues’ Shane MacGowan unhappiness has them reeling off their stools, even as they shake hands to comic effect.

Ministry’s sinister take opens with a lovely lonely piano that, like the listener’s eardrums, gets plowed under by a massive attack of industrial noise.

Joey Ramone had already been diagnosed with the cancer that cut his life short when he recorded his version, that ends on a note of unabashed pop-punk joy.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

John Coltrane Draws a Picture Illustrating the Mathematics of Music

Physicist and saxophonist Stephon Alexander has argued in his many public lectures and his book The Jazz of Physics that Albert Einstein and John Coltrane had quite a lot in common. Alexander in particular draws our attention to the so-called “Coltrane circle,” which resembles what any musician will recognize as the “Circle of Fifths,” but incorporates Coltrane’s own innovations. Coltrane gave the drawing to saxophonist and professor Yusef Lateef in 1967, who included it in his seminal text, Repository of Scales and Melodic Patterns. Where Lateef, as he writes in his autobiography, sees Coltrane's music as a "spiritual journey" that "embraced the concerns of a rich tradition of autophysiopsychic music," Alexander sees “the same geometric principle that motivated Einstein’s" quantum theory.

Neither description seems out of place. Musician and blogger Roel Hollander notes, “Thelonious Monk once said ‘All musicans are subconsciously mathematicians.’ Musicians like John Coltrane though have been very much aware of the mathematics of music and consciously applied it to his works.”




Coltrane was also very much aware of Einstein’s work and liked to talk about it frequently. Musican David Amram remembers the Giant Steps genius telling him he “was trying to do something like that in music.”

Hollander carefully dissects Coltrane's mathematics in two theory-heavy essays, one generally on Coltrane’s “Music & Geometry” and one specifically on his “Tone Circle.” Coltrane himself had little to say publically about the intensive theoretical work behind his most famous compositions, probably because he’d rather they speak for themselves. He preferred to express himself philosophically and mystically, drawing equally on his fascination with science and with spiritual traditions of all kinds. Coltrane’s poetic way of speaking has left his musical interpreters with a wide variety of ways to look at his Circle, as jazz musician Corey Mwamba discovered when he informally polled several other players on Facebook. Clarinetist Arun Ghosh, for example, saw in Coltrane's "mathematical principles" a "musical system that connected with The Divine." It's a system, he opined, that "feels quite Islamic to me."

Lateef agreed, and there may be few who understood Coltrane’s method better than he did. He studied closely with Coltrane for years, and has been remembered since his death in 2013 as a peer and even a mentor, especially in his ecumenical embrace of theory and music from around the world. Lateef even argued that Coltrane's late-in-life masterpiece A Love Supreme might have been titled "Allah Supreme" were it not for fear of "political backlash." Some may find the claim tendentious, but what we see in the wide range of responses to Coltrane's musical theory, so well encapsulated in the drawing above, is that his recognition, as Lateef writes, of the "structures of music" was as much for him about scientific discovery as it was religious experience. Both for him were intuitive processes that "came into existence," writes Lateef, "in the mind of the musican through abstraction from experience."

Related Content:

The Secret Link Between Jazz and Physics: How Einstein & Coltrane Shared Improvisation and Intuition in Common

John Coltrane’s Handwritten Outline for His Masterpiece A Love Supreme

John Coltrane’s ‘Giant Steps’ Animated

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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