John Coltrane’s “Alabama” is music that I’m passionate about. For starters, it’s a beautiful song beautifully played in 1963 by the John Coltrane Quartet of Coltrane on tenor saxophone, McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass, and Elvin Jones on drums. If you’re not familiar with the performance, seek it out for a listen – it can be found on the John Coltrane, Live at Birdland album (though “Alabama” is not actually live at Birdland – the album contained three songs that were recorded live at the Birdland club, and originally two studio recordings [with now a third studio track added to the CD issue], one of which is “Alabama”). I also find the song interesting to think about sociologically and historically (in relation to the state of Alabama and the Civil Rights movement and events) as well as in terms of the relationship between music and “content” or between art and world.
Jazz and Civil Rights
In the 1950s and 60s, and into the early 1970s, many jazz musicians used their music to speak to civil rights issues in a variety of ways. There was a natural reason for this. As I discussed in a previous post, “Art, Black Art, and Seriousness in Bebop,” while in one sense jazz has no color (because it’s music comprised of sound), in another, jazz was music produced largely (though never completely) by black men and was certainly perceived by many as “black music.” Many jazz musicians were concerned to produce simultaneously music that was legitimate art and black art. Also, it’s clearly not insignificant that at the time there was a huge region of the country with a very large black population where black jazz musicians, as anyone black, were not treated legally as the social equals of whites.
Some jazz musicians dealt with events related to the civil rights era or made claims for freedom and full civil rights quite explicitly. I have in mind here Sonny Rollins’ “Freedom Suite” or Max Roach’s “We Insist: The Freedom Now Suite” or Nina Simone’s “Old Jim Crow” or “Mississippi Goddam” or Charles Mingus’ “Original Fables of Faubus” (“dedicated” to Arkansas governor and integration opponent Orville Faubus) or perhaps most famously, and earlier, Billie Holiday’s performance of “Strange Fruit.”
Others dealt with civil rights more implicitly. A number of Duke Ellington’s compositions celebrate pride in black people generally, e.g. the extended suite “Black, Brown, and Beige.” (We can also see Ellington in the 1960s as an early proponent of “multi-culturalism” with his incorporations of a variety of non-European musical traditions into his big band jazz, e.g. “The Latin American Suite” or “The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse” or “The Far East Suite” [which frankly would be better called the Near East or Middle East Suite].) Miles Davis’ album A Tribute to Jack Johnson paid homage to the first black heavyweight boxing champion of the world. The Free Jazz of musicians like Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, or the later work of Coltrane technically didn’t refer to anything in the world outside of music, but it certainly fit with the ethos of (at least some factions of) the civil rights movement and the emphasis upon freedom. A number of other works by Coltrane could be considered to implicitly refer to race relations and the civil rights context of the time, e.g. compositions like “Africa,” “Liberia,” “Song of the Underground Railroad,” or “Spiritual.”
“Alabama” is simultaneously explicit and implicit in its relation to the events in Alabama of the early 1960s. By its title and its recording date of November 18, 1963, just two months after the September 15, 1963 Birmingham church bombing that killed four girls and injured several other people, the song stakes out an explicit reference to the horrific events on the ground in that southern state. But beyond the title, given the piece’s existence as pure sound without words, any evocation of content is implicit.
Art and Content / Art and World
There are two slightly different though related questions here. What is the relation between art and content, and what is the relation between art and the world?
In an earlier post, “Charlie Parker and Shostakovich: Art, the Artist, and Culture,” I addressed the relationship between artist’s biography and the meaning of art. Here is a three paragraph selection from that earlier post:
“On the 1946 recording of the song “Lover Man,” Charlie Parker plays one of the most searing, mournful, and heart-rending saxophone solos (or any kind of solo) in the history of recorded music. As is often the case, there is a further story behind the music. Parker had accompanied Dizzy Gillespie to California (where “Lover Man” was recorded) on a tour of the west coast, and had stayed behind to play jazz clubs in Los Angeles when Gillespie returned to New York. Parker had also turned to heroin again, and while he was playing those sad, searing tones immortalized on the “Lover Man” recording, he was in fact experiencing heroin withdrawal. In fact, later that same day, he was arrested in relation to a fire that broke out in his hotel room, ultimately ending up at Camarillo state mental hospital for a stay of some months. (“Relaxin’ at Camarillo,” recorded in early 1947 after that stay, is one of Parker’s jauntiest, happiest sounding recordings.) How much difference do, or should, such biographical tidbits make in our appreciation of the recording?
In his column in the recent special Awards 2006 issue of Gramophone magazine (V. 84, p. 37), Armando Iannucci raises similar questions. Speaking of Shostakovich’s viola sonata, he writes, “The sonata, the final slow movement in particular, is one of the most beautiful, anguished and intimate pieces of 20th-century chamber music I’ve heard…There’s a pain here that’s not dramatic but real. But it is also the last piece he wrote. How much does that matter?” A bit later on, “What does it do to the music knowing it’s the last thing Shostakovich wrote? Knowing that he knew he was dying.” Speaking of other composers, he argues, “You can’t doubt, for example, that the popularity of the Pathetique Symphony, Strauss’s Four Last Songs or Mozart’s Requiem owe an awful lot to our knowledge that they came at the end of each composer’s life.
In cases such as these, knowledge of artists’ biographies and the circumstances surrounding a piece can enhance the experience of art (even if it’s not always clear why that would be the case). Certainly knowledge of artists and the production of art in general in all forms is of historical, sociological, and anthropological interest in its own right. Still, art doesn’t depend upon, isn’t sustained by, and isn’t determined by the artist’s biography, cultural context, etc.”
I made three further points about the relationship between artists’ biographies and their art. First, art does not depend on the artist’s biography. You don’t need to know anything about Parker or Shostakovich to appreciate and enjoy “Lover man” or the viola sonata – it might add to your appreciation in an extra-musical sense, but it’s unnecessary.
Second, art is not sustained by the artist’s biography. The fact that Parker was experiencing withdrawal while recording “Lover Man” might be interesting in its own right, but if the music wasn’t good – if it sounded like someone going through heroin withdrawal – it wouldn’t be good art.
Finally, art is not determined by the artist’s biography. Certainly the cultural context into which any individual is socialized has a profound effect on them, but it never determines what individuals do in detail. David Nice (in the liner notes to Annette Bartholdy’s recording of the viola sonata, Naxos records, 8.556231) writes (parenthetical note added):
“Shostakovich is never afraid of saying it (i.e. dealing with death), though in the most refined form possible, in the Viola Sonata of 1975, last of a harrowing line including the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Symphonies, the last three string quartets and the song-cycle settings of Michelangelo poems which examine death from every conceivable angle. None is a conclusive last word – ‘maybe I’ll still manage to write something else’ was always the composer’s response – and that could even be said of the present work which turned out to be his swan-song, completed just before his death on 9th August 1975.”
It might be natural for an artist clearly approaching death to explore death as a theme, but nothing determined the way he went about it, not the anguished sounds we hear in some movements, nor the playful approach to death in others, nor especially the combination of the two, for example in the last symphony’s musical quotations from Rossini’s William Tell Overture (the theme known to most Americans as the “Lone Ranger” theme) alongside motifs quoted from Wagner’s operas Die Valkyrie and Tristan und Isolde associated with fate or longing and suffering.
I’d like here to make similar arguments with regard to Coltrane’s “Alabama,” though in this case my arguments concern the relationship between a work of art and its content or reference (in this case the Birmingham bombing and other events in Alabama). Art does not depend on its content. Content does not sustain the work of art. Content does not determine the work of art.
Art does not depend on its content
Art cannot depend on its content for its worth as aesthetic object – much art, abstract painting or pure music, has no content at all. “Alabama” can be appreciated as a beautiful, lyrical, mournful piece of music without any knowledge of the context of its production or the events of Alabama 1963. Just as I had loved Parker’s recording of “Lover Man” before knowing anything about Parker’s biography (to a large extent, loving the music was what made me want to find out more about the artist), I had come to love “Alabama” (and not just Coltrane’s performance, but Kenny Garrett’s much more recent recording of the song as well) before being spurred by my passion for the music to find out more about its context. Given the title, I did of course immediately wonder whether it had any reference to the civil rights movement, but I didn’t have to know anything about the song’s “content” to appreciate it.
Content does not sustain the work of art
The Birmingham bombing is one of the more tragic events in 20th century American history. Alabama in general in 1963 was a tragedy. Knowing the referent of the song heightens an already profound appreciation for it, but an inferior work of art would not be made into good art just by having content that is profoundly meaningful. A lesser evocation of the bombing or other events associated with the civil rights movement in the south might touch us, but only by indexing events that in themselves move us, not by creating a work of art that is moving in its own right.
Content does not determine the work of art
For art with content, there ideally should be a relationship between content and form, a certain degree of iconicity or systematic relatedness between referent and the work. I mentioned earlier Miles Davis’ A Tribute to Jack Johnson. I’m fond of this work (I’m one of those people who have not only the album but who also bought the 5 CD box set “The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions” – so yeah, I like the music), and I think it works quite well as pure music. I don’t think it works so well as a tribute to Jack Johnson – there’s no real iconicity or systematic fit between the music and Jack Johnson the boxer or Jack Johnson the flamboyant, no-apologies public persona (there is a certain fit between Davis’ public persona and Johnson’s, but not so much between the music and Johnson).
So, when I say that content doesn’t determine the work of art, I don’t mean there’s no relationship there. It’s more that given the plethora of qualities that any object or event in the world has, there are any number of ways to go about creating a work that fits its content. “Alabama” creates a musical correspondence to the events that’s compelling and iconic (and “iconic” in both the vernacular and technical semiotic senses). The two most apparent elements of the music are Coltrane’s horn and Jones’ drumming (though I think that Tyner’s and Garrison’s contributions are crucial as well, especially in creating a sense of foreboding at the beginning of the song with the throbbing rhythm they lay down – just not as prominently apparent to a casual listen). The combination of Coltrane’s haunting saxophone, creating mournful lyrical passages that at times seem hopeless and others hopeful, with Jones’ always intense drumming, that is at times notably restrained and other times bursting out in intense explosions of energy, creates an icon for 1963 Alabama: simultaneously hopeless and hopeful, restraint and repression with the hope of freedom, but also the possibility, very real at the time, that everything would end in an immense explosion of violence.
I’ll close with a quotation from Leroi Jones’ original liner notes for the Live at Birdland album (parenthetical note added):
“If you have heard “Slow Dance” or “After the Rain,” then you might be prepared for the kind of feeling that “Alabama” carries. I didn’t realize until now what a beautiful word Alabama is. That is one function of art, to reveal beauty, common or uncommon, uncommonly. And that’s what Trane does. Bob Thiele (the session producer) asked Trane if the title “had any significance to today’s problems.” I suppose he meant literally. Coltrane answered, “It represents, musically, something that I saw down there translated into music from inside me.” Which is to say, Listen. And what we’re given is a slow delicate introspective sadness, almost hopelessness, except for Elvin, rising in the background like something out of nature…a fattening thunder, storm clouds or jungle war clouds. The whole is a frightening emotional portrait of some place, of these musicians’ feelings. If the “real” Alabama was the catalyst, more power to it, and may it be this beautiful, even in its destruction.”