Page One

a column by
Bill Shoemaker

The Legacy of JAH, 25 Years On

Julius Hemphill, 1990                                                                                         © Michael Wilderman

In the 1970s, many composer/improvisers deflected questions about their materials and motivations by saying their music spoke for itself. Julius Hemphill was not one of them. He spoke and wrote about his music in exacted terms. In conversation, this could lead to lengthy pauses as he finessed a thought. Hemphill’s attention to syntax was the glaring virtue of his writing. His was a mind that saw a world of difference between six and a half dozen.

Hemphill also understood the record to be permanent, that what he said and wrote could and would be recycled time and again for years, if not decades. Subsequently, he controlled the narrative. Even though he was an overtly friendly person, and had a fascinating manner in beginning a comment or sentence innocuously, only to drop a delicious, even stinging punchline, Hemphill steadfastly answered questions without granting interpretative leeway.

Delivery was also crucial to Hemphill being a great storyteller, but no more so than having great stories to tell. His free-flowing Coda interviews with Bill Smith and David Lee, and the oral history taken by Katea Stitt for the Smithsonian, are peppered with vivid episodes, some propelled by coincidences and mishaps, while a few have a surreal tinge. These anecdotes suggest that conceiving projects like Sweet Willie Rollbar, Roi Boyé & the Gotham Minstrels, and Long Tongues: A Saxophone Opera did not require quantum imaginative leaps, but slight twists of perspective.

Subsequently, Marty Ehrlich’s conclusion to his annotations to The Boyé Multi-National Crusade for Harmony (New World) – the 7-CD collection he culled from Hemphill’s collection housed at NYU – is spot on: “He would never tell you what his music meant.” Hemphill’s longtime collaborator chalked this up to an aversion to self-aggrandizement. This was certainly the case; but there was also an artistic agenda to Hemphill’s adroit, syntactically knotty sidestepping of potentially pigeonholing questions: Keep them guessing.

Arguably, this proclivity was promoted by Hemphill’s exposure to theater and poetry in the BAG years. One measure of this was his repeated molting of onstage personae throughout the 1970s with African styled robes, Roi Boyé’s satin tuxedo and jaunty chapeau, and the shaved head, garnished with a hoop earring. To a degree, this obscured the agenda of early works like the chronically overlooked collaboration with poet K. Curtis Lyle, The Collected Poem for Blind Lemon Jefferson: exploring the methodologies of mystery – conjuring, ritual, accessing hermetic wisdom.

This endeavor is exemplified by the iconic “Dogon A.D.,” inspired by the West African people who revealed portions of their rituals while withholding the most sacred parts, a quintessential example of controlling the narrative. Hemphill was much the same way, perhaps in a more teasingly obscurant manner – decades passed before it was commonly known that “A.D.” stood for “adaptive dance,” which referenced the Dogon’s accommodation of the outside world.

Hemphill was dismayed by the cover collage for the Arista-Freedom reissue of Dogon A.D., as it was not faithful to his research into and his respect for the Dogon. Its central, foregrounded figure wears Dogon ritual garb, replete with a massive wooden mask, and holds an alto saxophone. Dogon dwellings loom in the background, the concocted celebrant surrounded by apocalyptic fire erupting from the earth. Notably, Hemphill had no editorial input.

The privileging of mystery led Hemphill, compositionally, to the crossroads of the vernaculars running through African American music. He articulated this by transforming the old – everything from dusty rural blues to city-slick syncopation – with a critical distance reflected in odd meters (“Dogon A.D.”), abrupt changes in line and tempo (“The Hard Blues”), and tightly knit, yet viscous voicings (his arrangement of Coleman’s “Lonely Woman” for Lester Bowie’s Fast Last!).

Yet, it is Hemphill’s deft touch with tables-turning satire – titling a thoroughly abstract work for solo saxophonist and taped materials Roi Boyé & the Gotham Minstrels, and a potentially breakthrough album Coon Bid’ness – that set him apart from the largely earnest lot identified with loft jazz. This thread in his work hit full stride with the tuxedo-sporting World Saxophone Quartet’s second album, Steppin’ with the World Saxophone Quartet. Hemphill’s four compositions are impressively varied: the strutting title piece’s evocation of a centuries-long dance tradition; the swirling translucent textures of “Dream Scheme;” the Ellington-tinged adagio, “Hearts;” and the barnstorming “R & B.” Heard together, they paved an iridescent path from the Hot End of Fort Worth to the lofts in Soho.

WSQ’s unlikely spike to prominence further facilitated what Hemphill admitted to Lee was his penchant to develop multiple projects. This pursuit is fleshed out on The Boyé Multi-National Crusade for Harmony in an unprecedented manner. That such a survey took almost 25 years after Hemphill’s death to be released speaks to a problem that plagued him during his lifetime; that his worsening health – which, for starters, caused his dismissal from WSQ – and tectonic shifts in market conditions and institutional funding priorities prevented him from fully realizing every aspect of his music. Throughout his life and for years after, there was the sense that we had only seen the tip of the iceberg, that there was so much more to Hemphill’s music that went unheard. This revealing, richly rewarding collection confirms this, but with the proviso that this is the first of potentially several tranches Ehrlich, the presiding scholar of the NYU collection, could bring to light.

The box set confirms that, for the most part, Hemphill’s music was realized in the gig economy. He operated on the margins, without the security of a university post, subject to a fickle market, domestically and in Europe. Commissions came his way increasingly in his last decade, and projects like Long Tongues received respectful underwriting in its later incarnations. However, the bulk of the material culled from Hemphill’s US performances for this collection occurred in grassroots venues like Soundscape, The Foxhole, and d.c. space; and much of it was recorded on the fly by colleagues like Baikida Carroll or audience members – tenuous circumstances for preserving a legacy as consequential as Hemphill’s.

Ehrlich cleared a high bar by sequencing each CD so that it could stand on its own as a satisfying album. This is not only the case when an entire disc is dedicated to a through-line like Hemphill’s duo with Abdul Wadud, but also when multiple ensembles share a disc. There will always be instances in collections as large and sweeping as this where an additional track or two from a session would make the difference between a tantalizing tease and a satisfying set. That’s certainly true with The JAH Band, who somehow all but escaped documentation during its three tours – “the music that got away,” according to Alex Cline. However, for listeners for whom this ‘86 performance of wistfully gliding “One/Waltz/Time” with Cline, his brother Nels, Alan Jaffe, and Steuart Liebig, is not enough, they have the recourse of revisiting Georgia Blue.

That is not the case with two other sterling units: a quintet with Carroll, John Carter, Roberto Miranda, and Alex Cline, caught at LA’s Century Playhouse in 1978; and a quartet with Jack Wilkins, Jerome Harris, and Michael Carvin, captured at NYC’s Lush Life in 1982. The blend of Hemphill’s soprano and his middle school teacher’s clarinet adds piquancy to “Dimples: The Fat Lady on Parade,” a tune that toddles with whimsy and cheek, portraiture on par with Horace Tapscott’s. On the bop-inflected cooker “Pigskin” and the supple, nuanced “For Billie,” Wilkins, Harris, and Carvin are faithful to the idiosyncrasies of Hemphill’s music while subtly mainstreaming it.

Conversely, the collection brings unprecedented light to several scantily documented aspects of Hemphill’s work. It doubles the issued output of his 1980 quartet with Wadud, Olu Dara, and Warren Smith, confirming their swagger and daring, and revealing them to have had a thicker, more varied book of compositions than suggested by the infrequently cited Flat Out Jump Suite. A full disc is dedicated to The Janus Company, Hemphill’s heretofore unheard late ‘70s trio with Carroll and Alex Cline, one of two musicians – Dave Holland being the other – who Hemphill praised for immediately nailing his 11-bar “The Hard Blues.” Exemplary of the fragmented documentation of Hemphill’s music, no complete recording of the four interlocked numbered compositions he wrote for the trio exists; the three that survive suggest a panoramic canvas, spattered with soaring figures and spaces for freewheeling improvisations. Whether or not this ranks among Hemphill’s major works remains an open question.

Another missed opportunity for Hemphill was not having the late ‘70s quartet with Carroll, Holland, and Jack DeJohnette contemporaneously and properly recorded while all four lived in Woodstock – a potential gamechanger. The disc-long set recorded at Joyous Lake, a now-legendary local venue, spans spacious themes and gutbucket boogie. Holland’s serpentine lines and propulsive vamps, and DeJohnette’s simmering cross rhythms and fat back beats, were great complements to Hemphill and Carroll’s chemistry. Again, Carroll’s cassette recorder was the difference between tangible history and mere hearsay.

As rewarding as they are, five of the box set’s seven CDs canvases his work in the jazz arena, which presents a question of proportionality in portraying Hemphill, one that dovetails with the real issue of available archival tapes. Limiting his work with Lyle and actor/dramatist Malinké Robert Elliott, with whom Hemphill germinated what became Long Tongues after several iterations, to a single disc arguably understates how this crucial aspect of Hemphill’s work differentiated him from other composer-improvisers. Rehearsal tapes where Lyle and Hemphill try different approaches to materials reveal the specificity they sought (and attained on the cathartic “Drunk on God,” the centerpiece of Big Band). The unmixed multi-track tapes of Elliott’s improvised text, Hemphill’s horn, and their sound piece, “Bells” – recorded at midnight in an Oregon salvage yard; previously used in Roi Boyé & The Gotham Minstrels – is a reminder how aligned Elliott and Hemphill were as conceptualists. Lyle refers to Hemphill as a “Blues Surrealist,” the best shorthand for Hemphill’s aesthetic ever uttered. Hemphill got the blues in Texas; his work with Lyle and Elliott locates the surrealism.

Hemphill’s late-life recognition by the contemporary classical music establishment unfortunately came too late for him to compile a large body of works, even though he had already composed incisive chamber works like the two untitled quintets for winds and brass included in this collection. Without commissions, the jazz market only bore minimal traffic for such works. Despite the hurdles, Hemphill managed to present these extended pieces – performed by Ehrlich, John Purcell, Janet Grice, Bruce Purse, and Ray Anderson – at Soundscape in 1981. They reveal a rare facility to convey the fluidity of improvisational exchanges through a score. However, the two other chamber works included in the box set – “Parchment” for solo piano and “Mingus Gold” for string quartet – respectively reflect the traditional insularity of the new music community, and the rash of trendiness that broke out in chamber music beginning in the late 1980s.

It is no surprise that Hemphill’s most affecting chamber music – “Parchment” and “One Atmosphere,” a piano quintet – was penned for his life partner Ursula Oppens, then already one of the most internationally acclaimed pianists working in the rarified field of new music. With the advantage of in-house consultation, Hemphill wrote music that was thoroughly pianistic, yet fully utilized his compositional idiosyncrasies. Subsequently, “Parchment” is brimming with subtle shifts in attack, elastic phrasing, and sly provocations. One of Hemphill’s great assets as a composer was his ability to invite the listener to hear between the lines, where he daubed the deepest colors and fragrances – they permeate this piece. Oppens’ unique position to summon these essences is confirmed with this captivating performance.

It is difficult not to be fundamentally ambivalent about “Mingus Gold” despite its obvious virtues – a command of textures and dynamics comparable to Ravel’s; the supple segue ways between such high-contrast templates as “Nostalgia in Times Square,” “Alice’s Wonderland,” and “Better Get Hit in Your Soul;” and its vivid, at times tender portrayal of Charles Mingus – all of which are promoted by the Daedalus String Quartet’s granular engagement with the piece. In 1988, Kronos Quartet commissioning an ascending African American composer-improviser to memorialize an iconic African American composer-improviser with a string quartet was widely received as a measure of progress; that new forums were being availed to composers of color identified with jazz, and, therefore, classical music was becoming less white and bourgeois. The overhang of this gesture – an example of what Ta-Nehisi Coates dubbed “solutionism” – is central to why “Mingus Gold” has not aged as well as Hemphill’s other chamber works. Even those indisposed to counterfactuals have to consider how a Nonesuch recording of Kronos playing a from-scratch, late ‘80s Hemphill string quartet would have shaped the landscape then, and remain a landmark now.

“Mingus Gold” is just one instance where Hemphill played the hand he was dealt as deftly as possible. In this way, he was not different from the vast majority of composers and improvisers. Being a working musician or composer means taking the gig, and making the most of it. However, Hemphill was singular, as The Boyé Multi-National Crusade for Harmony makes plain. The rub remains that he had so much more music to make than his time allowed. Yet, the half glass Hemphill left is to be cherished, especially now, 25 years after his passing.

JAH still rules.

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