There used to be a time when, for me, Black History Month simply meant a few cool specials on PBS and maybe a new essay by Henry Louis Gates Jr. in The New Yorker. Yet as I’ve gotten older, and perhaps a bit more corny, Black History Month has come to remind me of my love for both jazz and Harlem.
A few days back, I stood outside of the stunning Harlem Grand bed and breakfast on 122nd Street. Born directly around the corner, I had recently moved to Philadelphia a few weeks earlier and was feeling homesick in the worse way. Chilling on the snow-covered stairs of that cozy brownstone, staring at a bubble of ice on a bare tree branch, I began romanticizing those jazzy yesterdays when traffic flowed smoother than a Sonny Rollins solo. After midnight jams then were all about Minton’s Playhouse. Count Basie blared from sweet-shop stereo speakers and Coltrane riffs were all the rage.
By the 1950s and ’60s, jazz became the soundtrack of the civil rights movement as Malcolm X screamed from his soapbox and demanded we release ourselves from the shakles of opression. Once brothers and sisters got a whiff of freedom from X’s voice, the revolution was on. As the phoenix of harmonic strcture emerged, artists became avant-garde and, once again, the music took on different shapes, colors and forms as riots spread in the streets and inside various recording studios. Bop became free, and free became fusion, and before you knew it, everybody had a copy of Bitches Brew on their turntable.
The reason I’ll always equate jazz with Harlem is because it was there that my cool Uncle Carl (himself an uptown boy who used to play ball at the Battlegrounds) first introduced me to the music. Sitting in the living room of his Riverside Drive apartment, where no one but him could touch the records or the stereo, he jammed classic sides and told me yesteryear tales about seeing Nina Simone singing at the Village Vangard, the dopeness of drummer Max Roach, his friendship with the Heath Brothers and other Sugar Hill stories.
Although I was AM-radio/WABC kid who listened to Elton John, the Jackson 5 and the whole Philly International roster, there was something about Uncle Carl’s brand of music that connected with me. Pollutated with funky stardust memories and soulful visions, the dark alleys of my consciousness became filled with the dazzling wonderlands of Roach rimshots and Monk’s magical piano playing.
Stealing the title from one of my favorite Harlem films, as I got older jazz was “The Cool World,” a place you could only enter if you knew the code that unlocked the doors of musical perception. With many creative folks, the music served as the soundtrack of inspiration, infusing itself into the paintings of Bob Thompson, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Larry Scott, the films of Shirley Clarke, Melvin Van Peebles and Spike Lee, the writings of Bob Kaufman, LeRoi Jones and Toni Morrison.
Uncle Carl’s stories about Miles Davis were the ones that enraptured me the most. He told me about Miles cursing out cops and turning his back on the crowd. But more than anything, he talked about the music and how Miles was the one dude able to ride the wave of whatever change came his way.
“He’s the future before the future,” Uncle Carl proclaimed. By the time I was in high school, I too owned a copy of one of Davis’s masterpieces, Kind of Blue, and stared at the album cover as “Blue in Green” played once again, wondering what kind of black magic was behind his closed eyelids.
In early 1981, when I was a senior in high school, his amazing On the Corner became my favorite album after I discovered it in my mom’s collection, with that vibrantly madcap Corky McCoy cover painting of ghetto folks hanging out.
On the Corner reminded me of the gritty streets of my youth, back when those booming boulevards were alive with the jumping jive of lowlife dudes in platform shoes, tight-wigged church sisters scrambling towards Bible study, slick numbers runners, and brown-skinned kids splashing in an open fire hydrants.
Overflowing with rhythemic energy, On the Corner was the sonic equivalent of those Harlem streets. The music was intense, funky and wild from the moment the opening track (“On the Corner/New York Girl/Thinkin’ One Thing and Doin’ Another/Vote for Miles”) jumps off the record. And it just got stranger.
With On the Corner, brother Miles took the listener underneath the underground. While most traditional jazz critics hated the disc—produced, sound effected, over-dubbed and tape-spliced by Teo Macero—neither he nor Miles seemed to care what anyone thought as they instructed their musical motley crew (bassist Michael Henderson, Mtume on percussion and Herbie Hancock on piano) through a strange soundscape.
In 2008, explaining their process in the New York Times, critic Ben Ratliff wrote, “Davis’s routine… was to record a lot of music in the studio with a band, much of it improvised and based on themes and even mere chords that he would introduce on the spot. Later Mr. Macero, with Davis’s help, would splice together vamps and bits and pieces of improvisation.”
On the Corner was full of rage, pain and a sense of electric cool that would go on to influnce the next generation of producers including the Bomb Squad, DJ Spooky, Tricky, DJ Shadow, Q-Tip and Massive Attack. In 1996, when Vernon Reid was recording his first solo album Mistaken Identity, he recruited Prince Paul and Macero as co-producers. “Teo knows what music can be,” Reid told me, “I love what he does.”
Walking down that Harlem street street a few days after the beginning of Black History Month, the cool world of jazz of played in my mind as I slid towards the corner.
Cultural critic Michael A. Gonzales has written cover stories for Vibe, Uptown, Essence, XXL, Wax Poetics and elsewhere. He’s also written for New York and The Village Voice. Read him at Blackadelic Pop and follow him on Twitter @gonzomike.