b.O.s. 8.1 / Blues for Pablo / Walton Muyumba

Details, left to right: Miles Davis in the 30th Street Studios, 1962; Camal Pirbhai and Camille Turner, The New Brunswick 5, (Wanted series), 2017; still from American Gods, season 1, episode 2, directed by David Slade. 

Black One Shot is a series that stages brevity and precision in response to a single work of black art, contemporary and/or prescient. Using a 1000-word conceit, it references the pressures on scholars and curators to present complex discussions and formulations of blackness for public consumption, political action, and academic relevance. It disputes staid frameworks of interpretation that cannot or will not account for the speculative, ambivalent, and irreconcilable ways of black forms. It speaks to the ongoing case for black lives and art mattering. And it conjures up the necessary intimacy generated between a critic and their object.

As an assembly of strategies, impulses, and circuits, these pieces conduct an historiographic and aesthetic review of how blackness and the arts demand and distend. We circulate them as a new measure of art criticism, one keyed to the channels and frequencies of blackness, pleasure, and critical contemplation. Black visual and expressive culture and all to which it is connected is better for these queries.

With 30+ contributors, b.O.s. will run the course of summertime, when the living is (un)easy. We invite you to follow and share as new work is issued every two weeks. Thanks to all the contributors and special thanks to Abram Foley, editor of ASAP/J.

This eighth transmission (9.10.18) features Walton Muyumba on Miles Davis’s “Blues for Pablo,” Kimberly Juanita Brown on Camal Pirbhai and Camille Turner’s Wanted, and Michael Boyce Gillespie on “Mr. Nancy’s story” in American Gods.

– Michael Boyce Gillespie and Lisa Uddin (Editors)

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I once wandered Museu Picasso de Barcelona while listening repeatedly to Miles Davis’s Miles Ahead through headphones. In the rooms housing the painter’s improvisations on Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas (1656), Davis’s “Blues for Pablo” expressed a cool modernist vision shared with Picasso’s artworks. Noticing that Davis and Picasso made these works contemporaneously helped me understand that however “the modern” is coded, and whatever “modernism” encompasses, African diaspora experience and expressive practices are central to their definitions.

Miles Davis and Gil Evans in the 30th Street Studios in New York City (August 1962)

Across his versions of Las Meninas, Picasso’s cool emanates from the geometric symmetries balancing his canvases and his references to West African and Iberian masks.1 His paintings enact a “public mode of covert resistance” as he satirizes Franco’s ruinous reign.2 For Davis coolness is a musical attack and personal bearing, épée and mask, it “kept out the oppressive white gaze while enabling public artistic expression.”3 Call it third stream, “chamber bop,” cool jazz, no matter: on Miles Ahead and “Blues for Pablo” Davis’s cool—modernist, blues aesthetic, and Afro-diasporic—“is like a moral category;” an “indispensable” value for African Americans struggling for freedom.4

Recorded during five studio sessions in May and August 1957, Miles Ahead, Davis’s second collaboration with the composer-arranger, Gil Evans (and their first for Columbia Records), became a model for postwar large ensemble modern jazz performance. Upon its release the album exemplified Ellingtonian avant-gardism and became a kind of germinal spore for visionary works like Thelonious Monk’s The Thelonious Monk Orchestra at Town Hall (1959), Charles Mingus’s Mingus Ah Um (1959), and John Coltrane’s Africa/Brass (1961). Evans designed the musical suite to toggle between jazz numbers and European modernist compositions. The album’s central tune is Evans’s own composition, “Blues for Pablo.” Combining a Spanish bolero theme, swing band group play, chamber orchestra voicings, bebop harmonic principles, Evans uses the blues to direct the intersectional flow.

Evans’s arrangement accentuates Davis’s strengths: “lyricism, succinct phrasing, and a melodic sense of timing.”5 Playing flugelhorn throughout the album, Davis turns from bolero to blues in a breath. As the number begins, he blows a plaintive, piercing, eight-bar solo introduction that first sounds like music announcing the matador’s arrival to the ring, before descending, in its final notes, into an ensemble burst of blues play. With the rhythm section cooking behind them, the orchestra draws Davis into call-and-response exchange, oscillating between half and common time.6 They swing from Cadiz, Andalusia to Sugar Hill, Harlem. Amidst the music’s movements, Davis remains “relaxed, unruffled, quick-witted, reluctant to use aggression.”7 Coolness, par excellence.

Though “Blues for Pablo” is Evans’s tribute to an anonymous, fallen soldier from the Spanish Civil War, hearing Picasso in the tune may not be an auditory mistake because “Evans borrowed and transformed some portions of Manuel de Falla’s The Three-Cornered Hat, as well as some unidentified Spanish folk material, and worked them into his own composed melodies.”8 When Ballets Russes founder Sergei Diaghilev commissioned Falla to revise his original pantomime ballet, The Magistrate and the Miller’s Wife (1917), the renamed show premiered in London as The Three-Cornered Hat (1919) with Pablo Picasso serving as the set and costume designer.

Left: Pablo Picasso, Las Meninas, Cannes, October, 2 1957. Right: Pablo Picasso, The Maids of Honor (Las Meninas, after Velázquez), La Californie, August 17, 1957.

Forty-eight years later, Picasso sketched and painted 58 variations (isolated figures, heads, groups of characters and versions of the whole) of Velázquez’s masterpiece. His improvisations are beautiful because he unifies his various stylistic inventions in dazzling equilibrium: flattened perspective, cubist figurations, color misrepresentation, and facial features fashioned from masks.9 Davis’s soloing on “Blues for Pablo” is exciting because of his ability to imply bebop’s complexities within his flattened, minimalist melodic sequences. Against the orchestra’s lush coloring, Davis steps into the musical breaks improvising angular, two and three-note gestures. Darting in and out of the number, but always en pointe sonically, Davis cuts a stark, swaggering figure in performance.

Davis surveyed for possibilities beyond bebop’s clichés while touring with Coleman Hawkins’s quintet in 1948. During this period Hawkins was developing “Picasso” (1950), a solo piece for tenor saxophone. Just as Hawkins’s “Body and Soul” (1939) foretold bebop’s 1940s advent, “Picasso” forecast cool’s possibilities. Hawkins opens “Picasso” blowing two ascending, brush-like arpeggios as though the initial strokes of a surrealist portrait. His subsequent thirty-five phrases “are unconnected by harmonic progression or tempo (many of the stanzas are deliberately played at differing speeds) . . . At one stage (a third of the way through the piece) the patterns seesaw between twelve-tone studies and quirky runs played with ‘straight’ time values.”10 Davis’s “mellow,” “restrained” improvising on “Blues for Pablo” recalls Hawkins’s tonal balancing on the seesawing tempos of “Picasso” and concurrently foreshadows the Dorian modalities patented on Kind of Blue (1959).11

Davis blows both directions at once, mimicking Picasso’s attitude toward his impressionist antecedents and modernist contemporaries: “All of his tenderness is like a Minotaur gazing at a cow. There was sweetness in the regard, submerged in a primal animality.”12 In the groove and slightly behind the beat at once, Davis is blackest, coolest mythological bull, the “convergence of patience and lateness.”13 Improvising on Evans’s sonic allusions to modernist inter-art innovation and anti-fascist revolution, Davis performs the ferocious, indefatigable coolness animating the movements for black liberation (always deferred) throughout the African diaspora. “Blues for Pablo” is “jazz as a mode and a model for . . . performing among multiple aesthetic impulses,”14 and multiple political histories simultaneously. Duke Ellington recognized Davis’s multiplicities, dubbing him the “Picasso of jazz.” He also understood improvised Negro music as modernism’s apogee: “The Europeans who went to Africa came back with ‘modern’ art. What is more African than a Picasso? And what the bop musicians were doing was parallel to African art, if not to African music.”15 On “Blues for Pablo,” Davis’s attitude, “defiance with dignity,” is parallel to that of the black American freedom struggle, if not to the revolutionary movements for African independence and Spanish Republicanism.16

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This is one of three essays from the eighth transmission of b.O.s. (Black One Shot). Read the other essays here:

b.O.s. 8.2 / Wanted / Kimberly Juanita Brown
b.O.s. 8.3 / Mr. Nancy’s story / Michael Boyce Gillespie

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About the editors: 

Michael Boyce Gillespie is Associate Professor of Film at The City College of New York, CUNY. He has published on film theory, black visual and expressive culture, and contemporary art. Recent work includes co-editing (w/ Racquel Gates) the “Dimensions in Black: Perspectives on Black Film and Media” dossier for Film Quarterly 71.2 (Winter 2017). He is the author of Film Blackness: American Cinema and the Idea of Black Film (Duke University Press, 2016). He is currently working on his next book tentatively titled Death Grips: Film Blackness and Cinema in the Wake. He would rather live in Oakland than Wakanda.

Lisa Uddin is Associate Professor of Art History and Visual Culture Studies and Paul Garrett Fellow at Whitman College. She has published widely on race, space, and human/nonhuman entanglements in modern and contemporary visual culture, and is the author of Zoo Renewal: White Flight and the Animal Ghetto (University of Minnesota Press, 2015). Her current book project, Sunspots: Black Cosmologies of California Design, considers black expressive practices in formations of California architecture and urbanism since the 1960s. She is mid-tone beige.

Endnotes

  1. For basic insight into Picasso’s referencing of African and Iberian masks, statuary, and sculptures during his early and middle career see John Richardson’s A Life of Picasso, Volume II: 1907-1917 (NY: Random House, 1991): 11-27.
  2. Joel Dinerstein, The Origins of Cool in Postwar America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017): 14. Pablo Picasso produced Guernica twenty years before completing Las Meninas. Yet, the two works are cousins, the latter work continuing the former’s political protest in favor of the Spanish Republicans. In 1957 Picasso supported Amnesty for Spain, an effort petitioning for the release of Spanish Republicans still imprisoned two decades after the Spanish Civil War’s ending. See: http://www.bcn.cat/museupicasso/en/collection/mpb70-433.html; http://www.blogmuseupicassobcn.org/2015/08/the-chronology-of-las-meninas-of-picasso/?lang=en; https://www.pablopicasso.org/las-meninas.jsp; https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-liverpool/exhibition/picasso-peace-and-freedom/picasso-peace-and-freedom-explore-5.
  3. Dinerstein, 348.
  4. Dinerstein, 348. Farah Jasmine Griffin and Salim Washington, Clawing at the Limits of Cool: Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and the Greatest Jazz Collaboration Ever (NY: Thomas Dunne Books, 2008): 254. In his essay, “The World and the Jug,” Ralph Ellison remarks that among black Americans “their resistance to provocation, their coolness under pressure, their sense of timing and their tenacious hold on the ideal of their ultimate freedom are indispensable values in the struggle [for liberation.]” Ralph Ellison, Shadow and Act (NY: Random House, 1965): 114.
  5. Dinerstein, 366.
  6. Wynton Kelly on piano, Paul Chambers on double bass, and Art Taylor on drums comprise the rhythm section on Miles Ahead.
  7. Griffin and Washington, 254.
  8. Stephanie Stein Crease, Gil Evans Out of the Cool: His Life and Music (Chicago: A Cappella Books, 2002): 210-211. John Szwed, So What: The Life of Miles Davis (NY: Simon and Schuster, 2002): 143.
  9. Picasso expands tableau’s formal possibilities while reviving Spanish classical art “just when it was most anaemic, academic, and bleached of its eroticism.” Guy Davenport, The Death of Picasso: New & Selected Writing (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2005): 59, 65. Davenport suggests that Picasso’s “genius was satisfied in two forms only: still life and tableau.”
  10. John Chilton, The Song of the Hawk: The Life and Recordings of Coleman Hawkins (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1990): 261. Hawkins cited the solo work of another crucial Catalonian modernist, the cellist, Pablo Casals, as inspiring his crafting “Picasso.”
  11. Jeremy Yudkin, Miles Davis, Miles Smiles, and the Invention of Post Bop (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008): 35. Writing about Davis’s flugelhorn play on Miles Ahead, Yudkin writes that his voice was “mellow even when high and restrained even when loud.”
  12. Davenport, 59.
  13. Fred Moten, Black and Blur: consent not to be a single being (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017): 85.
  14. Walton Muyumba, The Shadow and the Act: Black Intellectual Practice, Jazz Improvisation, and Philosophical Pragmatism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009): 21.
  15. Edward Kennedy Ellington, Music Is My Mistress (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 1976): 109.
  16. Dinerstein, 356.