The music we call “Black” is like Black people themselves: defined not by race, but by ethnically distilled ergs of self-consciousness—granulated, grainy, and smudged. Pianist Cecil Taylor defines the manifestations of this molten and motelike consciousness in music as the practice of a “Black Code Methodology.” Black music, then, is a readymade prefix ready to signify to the world. It generates a field of expectation and grand cultural difference through grandly performative acts of radical and liberatory cultural resistance. Spooky actions at a clarifying distance, made possible by the Africa raging within You People and riding You from the Motherland like ground control.
In the simplest terms, what we are talking about is how culture becomes sonically literate as—and embodied in—the philosophical, ideological, and political bent of a people’s song-powered desiring engines. The intonation of our hungering Blacknuss reconsidered as a forcefully tactical musical ideation. The sound of freedom, of escape velocity, of self-determination, has always been the foremost objective of the music we call Black. And also like black people themselves, “The Music” has been driven by practices of nomadology, maroon fugitivity, and what my friend Arthur Jafa refers to as our “troubled consciousness.” This is an obvious revision of the idea of “double consciousness,” W.E.B. Du Bois’s famous contribution to Western psychoanalytic thought, and a sly reference to what one nineteenth-century musicologist noted as Negro singers’ tendency to trouble and worry the note.
We’d even go so far as to say that inside the American democratic project, one of Black musical kulcha’s fundamental imperatives has been to continually break down the acceptable boundaries between the troubled free person of color and the worried, delusional master race. To unite the disobedient slave-citizen and self-emancipated outlaw, and to worry the law with expressions of troubled consciousness. Scholar Fred Moten boldly embraces the notion that Black-folk have a tendency toward deviant behavior, because engaging in conversations about pursuing freedom has been against the law for them—a violation of what’s considered “proper.” In a world where lynching is tacitly legal, Black lawbreaking is damn near compulsory and emancipatory—especially in music. It is flipping the script by any other name and pressuring Western musical orthodoxy to implode from within.
The history of Black American music cannot be accurately rendered without detailing the parallel evolution of Black American political thought and activism. One could argue the same is true of Black American athleticism. We have neither the time nor the interest in subjecting either assertion to absolute proof here. But we will say that three of the most important Black activists of the antebellum era were also the nation’s first ethnomusicologists of any great significance: Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Bishop Richard Allen, founder of the AME Zion Church in 1794.
Instead, what we’ll attempt to affirm is that the electronic jazz created in the early 1970s by Sun Ra, Miles Davis, George Clinton’s Funk Mob, and Herbie Hancock was compelled by the triple muses of Black Cultural Nationalism, the Black Arts Movement, and what Ishmael Reed calls Neo-HooDooism. This is not to say that those movements gave these musicians political consciousness. Rather, it is to say that their most mature musical statements of the period were provided with a viral Black sociality by the nationalist HooDoo of the Black Arts. Nascent Black cultural-nationalist impulses fueled by the Black Arts also drove Scott Joplin, who composed his seminal HooDoo-centric opera, Treemonisha, in 1910. These strains also provoked the emergent radicality and globally transfixing transbluesency heard in the music of Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith, and Louis Armstrong in the 1920s. The electronic-jazz moment of the 70s is also when those aforementioned artists—Ra, Davis, Clinton, and Hancock—all created the works that would identify them as avatars of Black Futurism, a term whose musical projections theorist Kodwo Eshun once described as “black sonic fiction.”
It is always worth remembering that the term futurism comes from Western visual modernism and is most closely identified with racialized nationalism of another kind—that of Italian Fascism. This futurism predates the rise of fascism in Europe by a decade because Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, one of Futurism’s leading lights, merged his Futurist party with Mussolini’s Fascist party—thus imbuing all subsequent futurist projects with a fascist reek. Could even the taint of the tar brush redeem Marinetti’s stank?
From its inception, Euro-futurism celebrated art, youth, speed, new technology, and violence. As Spyros Thalassinos describes it: “They repudiated the cult of the past and all imitation, praised originality, ‘however daring, however violent,’ bore proudly ‘the smear of madness,’ dismissed art critics as useless, rebelled against harmony and good taste, swept away all the themes and subjects of all previous art, and gloried in science.” The movement emerged from the graveyard that twentieth-century warfare would make of Europe’s open and grassy battlefields during World War I.
Euro-futurism produced many manifestos—none more relevant to the contemporary music scene than Luigi Russolo’s 1913 “The Art of Noises.” As Wikipedia puts it: “Russolo argues that the human ear has become accustomed to the speed, energy, and noise of the urban industrial landscape; furthermore, this new sonic palette requires a new approach to musical instrumentation and composition. He proposes a number of conclusions about how electronics and other technology will allow Futurist musicians to ‘substitute for the limited variety of timbres that the orchestra possesses today the infinite variety of timbres in noises, reproduced with appropriate mechanisms.’ … Russolo sees the futurist orchestra drawing its sounds from ‘six families of noise’:
1. Roars, Thunderings, Explosions, Hissing roars, Bangs, Booms
2. Whistling, Hissing, Puffing
3. Whispers, Murmurs, Mumbling, Muttering, Gurgling
4. Screeching, Creaking, Rustling, Buzzing, Crackling, Scraping
5. Noises obtained by beating on metals, woods, skins, stones, pottery, etc.
6. Voices of animals and people, Shouts, Screams, Shrieks, Wails, Hoots, Howls, Death rattles, Sobs.”
Note that all of the dynamics—and contrasting dynamics—Russolo spoke of as the Futurist orchestra’s palette were already present in early Delta Blues and the earliest music of Jelly Roll Morton and Duke Ellington. Playing the blues is an invitation both to bring the noise and to bring the liminal from the gutbucket interior to the open frying pan, from the wounded psyche to the killing floor, as it were. What modern jazz and urban blues began to lose in the post–World War II period was a mass black audience—particularly the young baby boomers who preferred hearing their immediate reflection in the many splendored (and then newfangled) genres of doo-wop, rhythm and blues, and rock ’n’ roll. (Folks forget that funk and soul were terms originally attached to forms of post-bop jazz that brought the heat and musical devices of Pentecostal church services into the 50s jazz mainstream.) A renewed turn toward Africa prompted by postcolonial African independence movements could also be heard in the music of Art Blakey, Max Roach, Yusef Lateef, and Randy Weston as the cool age in jazz gave way to the space age and its “Out There” cousin, the age of Black rage. Space is a term that would take on literal and figurative meanings as outer-space exploration began to impose designs on folk’s inner space.
The recognition of this transition in jazz could be heard in Sun Ra’s Sun Song, George Russell’s Jazz in the Space Age, Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come, Oliver Nelson’s Blues and the Abstract Truth, Albert Ayler’s Spiritual Unity, Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch!, and John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, and Sun Ra were genuine outliers of anybody’s jazz mainstream and arguably remain so today. They also represent the first queering of jazz machismo—a topic for a future LGBTQ jazz scholar to pursue with more diligence than we will (if they haven’t already).
Cleveland-born saxophonist Albert Ayler quickly followed that estranged triumvirate; by the mid-60s these four figures had stormed and transformed jazz modernism into a form concordant with the dissonances of early blues, New Orleans-style collective improvisation, and the anarchic formalism of bebop. What we call the jazz avant-garde was a radical return to the most primal roots of Black American music as a thing marked by the way it eschewed middle-class respectability, assimilation, and comfort. In this aspect, these musicians found their greatest champion in Amiri Baraka, whose books Blues People of 1963, and Black Music of 1967, read now as a rapturous manifesto calling for a fiery rapprochement between Black-power politics and what some called “Fire Music” or “Energy Music” or “Avant-Garde” or “The New Black Music.”
In Black Music’s concluding essay, “The Changing Same (R&B and the New Black Music),” Baraka proposes forging a “Unity Music” between Motown, James Brown, and the sonic extremes then being conjured up by Ra, Cecil, Ayler, Ornette, Trane, and Archie Shepp. In the wake of the Watts rebellion of 1965, federal money suddenly flooded urban hoods to quell a possible fire next time. Baraka was able to bring these musicians and a new generation of firebrand young poets and playwrights to the streets of Harlem. Baraka was building on a desire to inculcate a populist modernism in the Black community. What Miles Davis did when he dropped Bitches Brew in 1970 was create an audience for this kind of populist modernism in jazz, a form that proved popular with the young and racially diverse college audiences who’d abandoned jazz in the early 60s for Motown, James Brown, and the Beatles. The impact of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme on rock ’n’ roll and soul musicians and audiences had actually set the stage for Bitches Brew five years earlier. After A Love Supreme spread the love on nascent hippiedom, modal improvisation became all the rage in progressive rock of the later 60s. At concerts by The Byrds, Cream, and Jimi Hendrix, three-minute hits would alternate with long, five- to ten-minute improvisations built over two-chord vamps.
The band Miles assembled to play on the Bitches Brew sessions were even younger than the young band he’d ride or die beside from 1963 to 1968. They were also acolytes of the freedom-swing musicians—Ornette, Dolphy, Cecil—whom Miles disdained or openly despised in his DownBeat interviews of the period. Miles often embraced the very musical qualities he once claimed to have loathed. (You can even find one late-50s interview where he effetely and disgustedly sniffs at how loud an electric guitar was during a DownBeat blindfold test. Blink twice, though, and suddenly Miles has three guitarists in his band who chased the rainbow, shadowing Hendrix, in pursuit of the Holy Grail.) Miles was ever the contrarian provocateur muhfuh: Listen to what he plays and you can often hear the opposite of what he says.
Two young people who would directly affect Davis’s course of action from 1969 until his death in 1991 were former Motown bassist Michael Henderson, who was playing with Stevie Wonder when the Prince of Darkness snatched him up in 1971, and the interdisciplinary life-diva Betty Davis, who stole Miles from Cicely Tyson in 1968. Neither woman had any idea who Davis was when they met him. As hard as that is to fathom now, understand that in a period where Hendrix was selling out fifty-thousand-seat stadiums and James Brown was dropping platinum singles every other week, a jazz record was considered a bona fide smash hit if even twenty thousand people dropped a dime on it. Davis and Henderson rerouted Miles’s ear (and his career) toward the low-end onslaught then rising up from the funk of James Brown and Sly Stone.
If you read Davis’s interviews from the period, you’re left with the impression that the only music he was interested in was being made by Sly Stone, James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Al Green, Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young, or Karlheinz Stockhausen. Journalists who interviewed Miles in this period were incredulous, but these stuck-in-the-mud, late-to-the-party jazz journalists were the only serious listeners in America who weren’t listening to James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Sly Stone, and Al Green. Davis never named which Stockhausen album he was listening to, but we always imagined it was the man’s Telemusik and Sternklang series of 1966 and 1971, respectively. Certainly, these are the recordings whose sonorities will be most familiar to those who know Davis’s oeuvre from On the Corner through Agharta. Telemusik contrasts processed, percussive sound-events with gaping, pregnant silences. Sternklang has organ and wah-wah trumpet sounds that we would now call Miles-esque.
These sounds were produced live onstage with Miles on trumpet and Farfisa organ, Pete Cosey on percussion and guitar, and James “Mtume” Forman on conguero and electronic percussion. (Mtume was the son of Davis’s still-
bopping buddy Jimmy Heath.) Cosey and Mtume had been members of Black Nationalist organizations in Chicago (AACM) and New Jersey (Baraka and Maulana Karenga’s Kawaida Nation House). The rhythmatized percussion and keyboard drama Miles attributed to Stockhausen had long been in Sun Ra’s repertoire as well. Particularly if we listen to albums like 1965’s The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra, vols. One and Two, 1967’s Atlantis, 1970’s The Night of The Purple Moon and My Brother The Wind, and 1971’s It’s After The End of the World where Ra abuses a Moog synthesizer in ways that have never been replicated by any other human organism.
In this same period, Alice Coltrane released a series of albums featuring her grand innovations on four instruments: harp, organ, piano, and the symphony orchestra. Not long after those albums’ release, Coltrane retired from the world of concert performances and recording to raise her family and to lead an ashram in San Francisco, where she created a choir that bridged gospel vocalizing and Vedic chanting. All this music pointed, as Coltrane’s did, toward a deployment of improvisational forces that could sonically ignite conversations about ethics and ethnic identity, sound and vision, mysticism and transcendentalist materialism. It also represented a secularization of American spiritualism that was populist, modern, and ecumenical.
Other jazz musicians got religion when they fully plugged into the ’70s electronic jazz circuit. Miles disciple Herbie Hancock formed his Mwandishi band and then his Headhunters group while fellow rising-sun Wayne Shorter cofounded Weather Report with Joe Zawinul (another pivotal member of the Bitches Brew ensemble), and Chick Corea created the band Return to Forever. Note that Hancock and Shorter became Buddhists, Corea morphed into a Scientologist, and John McLaughlin of the Mahavishnu Orchestra became a follower of the guru Sri Chinmoy (as did Carlos Santana).
When Miles was asked what he thought of McLaughlin’s guru, the darkest of Magi scoffed and tersely replied, “I’m his guru.” (In recent interviews, McLaughlin has expressed his agreement with Davis.) As close as sinner Davis got to admitting to a come-to-Jesus moment may have been when he told Santana that praying and playing were one and the same—and that he once heard God tell him not to do some cocaine. In this respect, he echoes his own musical guru, Charlie Parker, who, when asked about his religious affiliation, replied, “I’m a devout musician.” Other clues are offered by a close reading of liner notes Davis composed for Joe Zawinuls’s 1970 solo album Zawinul: “In order to write this type of music you have to be free inside of yourself and be Joe Zawinul with two beige kids, a black wife, two pianos, from Vienna, a Cancer, and ‘cliché-free.’” Even in his attributions to his friends, brilliant Davis hedges his bets with astrology, Zawinul-ism, shade-ism, piano-ism, Vienna-ism, Goddess worship (or Black Woman-ism) and, of course, the greatest love of all: Miles celebrating a colleague for being both sui generis, and supernaturally abhorrent of all things corny.
If anyone had ever been so bold as to ask Davis about his religious affiliation, he would have given the same answer as Charlie Parker. If we use the song titles of Bitches Brew as any indication, though, Davis was a scattershot agnostic who kept all his bets open: “Pharaoh’s Dance,” “Bitches Brew,” “Sanctuary,” and “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down” cover a wide swath of popular mysticism. Five years later would come Agharta, and then in ’76, Pangaea, and in ’77, Dark Magus.
From 1975 to 1977 the popular mysticism we saw in the Bitches Brew song titles became blended with titles that referenced African anticolonialism and radical politics. Magus is an ancient Persian word for sorcerer, “Agharta” is the name of a mythical city in Tibetan Buddhist lore that is thought to exist within the earth’s hollow core, “Pangaea” is the revered name given to a supercontinent that existed three hundred million years ago, before breaking off into the seven continents we know today. Pangaea, the album, also contained one track named after the African nation—“Zimbabwe”—that was then achieving independence, and another, “Gondwana,” a Sanskrit word given to a different supercontinent. Davis would also title a thirty-minute track on his 1973 album, Get Up With It, “Calypso Frelimo” after the organization of revolutionary freedom fighters then liberating Mozambique from Portuguese colonial rule. Dark Magus contains the song titles “Moja,” “Wili,” “Tatu,” and “Nne.” Nne is an Igbo word for mother, while Tatu is the codename Che Guevara took when he was doing clandestine work in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but it also refers to the number four in Swahili; wili is the word for the number two in Swahili; moja means “oneness” in Swahili, and is also the name of a city in Pakistan.
Hancock scored big with the Headhunters band, but his shorter-lived Mwandishi group was more critical for those of us enrolled in jazz futurism and newfangled platforms for collectively improvised and electrified cosmic consciousness. This group left behind only three albums—Mwandishi, Crossings, and Sextant—but each one contributed major formal and experimental advances to our sense of the Hancock canon. The sextet members all took Swahili names as part of their band-bonding procures: Hancock was Mwandishi, bassist Buster Williams was Mchezaji, drummer Billy Hart was Jabali, trumpeter Eddie Henderson became Mganga, while trombonist Julian Priester chose to be hailed as Pepe Mtoto, and reed-player Bennie Maupin was called “Mwile.”
Priester had played with Sun Ra in 50s Chicago, while Detroiter Maupin had studied extensively with Alice Coltrane when both were living in the Motor City, and was also present during the Bitches Brew sessions. (Maupin was the only member of the sextet asked to join the Headhunters unit.) This group was also later joined by the singular Moog synthesizer player Patrick Gleason. Equally rare was how the Mwandishi group carried their own quadraphonic sound system and had their own traveling sound engineer—Philly’s own Fundi Billy Bonner. Fundi brought a dubwise sensibility to mixing the band’s multiple effect-units that was light-years ahead of the curve. The Mwandishi album opens with “Ostinato (Suite for Angela)” dedicated to Angela Davis, then on trial for her life against the U.S. government and a global cause célèbre for progressives everywhere. The ensemble’s second album, Crossings, had an album cover that depicted a nineteenth-century West African fishing village about to be raided by what look to be Portuguese agents of the slave-trading Middle Passage. The record’s three tunes, “Water Torture,” “Quasar,” and “Sleeping Giant,” instrumentally narrate a trans-temporal journey from enslavement, to escape, to dream-dusted emancipation, revolution, and transcendence. Other members also contributed albums to the group’s prophetic legacy: Eddie Henderson’s Realization and Maupin’s The Jewel in the Lotus both extend the spatial, glacial, and elegiac range of the electrified mojo aesthetic flush into our own ambient-headroom R&B era.
Get Walker Reader in your inbox. Sign up to receive first word about our original videos, commissioned essays, curatorial perspectives, and artist interviews.