Mel Cooke, Writer, Jamaica Gleaner
Hague, Miller Locate Jamaica In Jazz – Perceptions Of Being An Elitist Music Form Refuted
The title of last Sunday’s third lecture in the Grounation series, on in February at the Institute of Jamaica, East Street, Kingston, was a query. And if there were any doubters that the question of what jazz has to do with Jamaica would be satisfactorily answered, a literal deluge of information from Myrna Hague and Herbie Miller – who moderates the Grounation series – should have made them believers by sundown.
First Hague, then Miller, identified and discussed to varying lengths a number of Jamaican musicians who play jazz to a high standard, a large number of them on the big stage outside Jamaica. Addressing a question about elitism and jazz after her presentation, Hague said: “When jazz was coming together as a music form, you have to realise it was people who did not have the right to speak. We who grew up in it understood what it was saying.” Hague said what has happened now is that younger persons do not understand what jazz is saying because they have lost the language. And part of losing the language is misunderstanding the tone of jazz. Hague said she had heard people saying jazz was soothing, and that was “rubbish. If you know the language, you hear the anger”.
Before starting his presentation, Miller, who is also curator of the Jamaica Music Museum, said jazz is “probably the most democratic music”, because after the melody has been established each performer becomes a composer In his or her solo. However, he said, “In Jamaica, it has taken on an elitist air, so we have everything else but jazz presented as jazz.” The talks were followed by a performance from Ozou’ne along with the Pon Fyah Band. Hague paid homage to one of those musicians – a very close one, her husband Cecil ‘Sonny’ Bradshaw, musician and bandleader who passed on in 2009 – as a fount of information. “Over the 50-60 years of his career, he never played anything he did not write down,” Hague said. That included material not only for himself, but for every band he played with. “I feel so lucky to have been married to him. I’m showing off, I know,” Hague said, smiling, as the audience members in the Institute’s lecture hall applauded.
Hague identified the members of various early bands before going on to single out individual musicians. Among the bands were the Milton McPherson Band, the Roy White Band, the Earl Deans Band, the Lenny Hibbert Combo, and the Sonny Bradshaw Quartet, the forerunner of larger aggregations, including the famed Big Band. Among the standout individual musicians were saxophonist Bertie King, who ended up touring Australia, New Zealand, and the Far East. Hague also underscored the tragedy of Joe Harriott, a pioneer in free-form jazz who died in the 1970s. Hague said Harriott arrived in England as a teenager with little support and was among those who had to make their way in that white space of marginalisation. ”He did not survive,” Hague said, adding that Harriott “died of neglect and emotional drought”. Trumpeter Roy Burrowes played with Miles Davis and Max Roach, among others; tenor saxophonist Wilton ‘Bogey’ Gaynair settled in Germany; and pianist Monty Alexander continues to carry the Jamaican flag after a half century of playing and making music.
“In the second generation now, we have people doing great stuff. I am one,” Hague said, to more applause. She emphasised Jamaica’s place in jazz. “It is not foreign, it is not new, it is not something we went and found somewhere,” she said. While acknowledging music forms which have followed jazz in Jamaica, Hague said: “We cannot abandon the road we have travelled to get here now. You cannot drop down the ladder and pretend we got here yesterday.”
Jazz Caribbean Roots
In an audio-visual presentation, Miller gave evidence to support his argument that “while jazz was born in America, its progeny was in the Caribbean; its
mother and father were from the Caribbean”. He noted that from New Orleans, Professor Longhair did calypso, while Jelly Roll Morton referred to the Caribbean, and in Louis Armstrong’s recording, King of the Zulus, a Jamaican crashes the party. Miller argued that while the early jazz of New Orleans and Kansas City was very different, both showed a Caribbean influence, and he positioned New Orleans as more a Caribbean than a US port. Some of the musicians Hague spoke about also came up in Miller’s presentation at the end of which, as long as it was, he indicated there were many who had not been touched upon. Dr Leslie Thompson played with Duke Ellington in England, Dizzy Reece is alive and well in New York, and there was an extensive musical exploration of Joe Harriott and his forays into what became world music with John Mayer. Among the visuals Miller presented was the only known, live recording of trombonist Don Drummond, Seymour ‘Foggy’ Mullings on piano in the band.
“We could talk for days about the contribution of Jamaicans to jazz,” Miller said, noting that almost all the persons he spoke about came out of The Alpha Boys’ School. And for those who left Jamaica, there was a sombre footnote. ”Not one of these musicians came back. Not one,” Miller said.