Friday, July 27, 2007

Brand new BAG

reading books is hard, no? well, more accurately, it's finishing books that's the really hard part. if i'm reading a book, a lot of times, i'll only dip into it on the train, which leads to fitful and extremely protracted reading.

some books, though, just sort of read themselves. when i say "i couldn't put that book down," it tends to be not necessarily b/c it's the greatest book ever written, but simply b/c i am utterly fascinated with the topic.

the latter was very much the case with the book i just finished, "'Point from Which Creation Begins': The Black Artists' Group of St. Louis" by Benjamin Looker. don't know that i've really mentioned the Black Artists' Group (i.e., BAG) on here too much, but it's been a pretty big deal to me in recent months.

more accurately, it's Julius Hemphill, one of the key BAG members, that i've been incessantly obsessed with of late. check out this Destination Out post and this Darcy James Argue post for some helpful background on the 'Hemp. more importantly, track down "Dogon A.D." and "Coon Bid'ness." first one has never been on CD to my knowledge and the second is kinda tough to find (there's an edition under the name "Reflections" floating around), but you'll often see LP editions of them from the Arista Freedom catalog floating around at used-record shops.

anyway, so this book. it's by a pretty young dude, and i guess what i'd say to begin with is that it's a really good read. not revelatory, but i definitely learned a whole lot. one thing that really struck me about the book was that it succeeded in engaging me with the nonmusical portions of BAG, which is kind of a huge deal.

as a fan of jazz and improvised music, i've at times been frustrated by multimedia collaborations (dance, visual art, poetry, film, etc.) that seem superficial, or extramusical additions that detract rather than enhance. i'm not going to name names and i know this is an extremely biased and blanket sort of statement, but it's really just been a taste issue for me. the bottom line is that i haven't seen too many performances of this sort where i've come away thinking "WOW."

anyway, but BAG (active in St. Louis from '68-'72) was an inherently multimedia collective, and Looker makes sure to drive that home. he talks time and time again how BAG's musicians (most visibly, Oliver Lake, Julius Hemphill, Hamiet Bluiett and several others) were really the group's ambassadors to the world, but how the group was much more than a jazz guild. when i first got the book, i cherry-picked it and read only the parts on Hemphill and Co., but this time i went straight through and i was glad i got hipped to poets such as K. Curtis Lyle and Ajule Rutlin, painters such as Emilio Cruz and dancers such as Luisah Teish. it was pretty to awesome to read about how closely BAG's various divisions worked together and how each production incorporated as many of those elements as possible.

the book is pretty open about the fact that BAG was kind of a failed experiment. a lot of it discusses the group's intense struggles to find a niche in St. Louis and how its fortunes were intimately wrapped up with the civil-rights struggles of the day. ultimately it seems like one of the main things that wore BAG down was the fact that members disagreed over how political the organization should be. though there was dispute over this issue, it's pretty amazing how the group was able to integrate itself into the community--it's hard to imagine artists today not only living in impoverished areas but directing their performances toward the residents of those areas. Looker tells of countless BAG shows inside housing projects. as Hemphill said, "This ain't a conservatory. This is out of the neighborhood. That's where my impetus comes from." and crucially, that's where he and the others applied their gifts too.

another cool thing about the book is it gives you an intense feeling for how important Midwestern artists were in general for the development of avant-garde jazz. the AACM--which is the shining example for this sort of collective--and BAG enjoyed a really awesome interchange, which was facilitated by trumpeter Lester Bowie, who went to high school in St. Louis and then later moved to Chicago and joined the AACM. they really opened a lot of doors for BAG; one of the coolest tales in the book is of how the Art Ensemble of Chicago visits Paris, gets a great reception and then returns home to encourage the BAG dudes to get to Europe as quickly as possible (Bowie apparently told them: "Just get there. You'll work."). there's this sense that Chicago and St. Louis only had a finite amount to offer these genius artists and that they had to work together to find out where to go next, namely Paris and on to New York.

the epilogue is the success story of some of the BAG dudes' arrival in New York, where they made a splash on the loft scene with their individual units and with the World Saxophone Quartet. as w/ the Chicagoans, a lot of listeners recognized that BAG had a unique spin on avant-garde jazz--heavily theatrical, eclectic and R&B-influenced--that really stuck out among the post-Coltrane blowouts that were the norm in New York.

the WSQ was really the icing on the cake, in a ton of ways. the BAG dudes (Hemphill, Lake and Bluiett) really got the recognition they deserved out of that endeavor. not to diminish the importance of BAG's nonmusical wings, but it's likely that if it weren't for the WSQ, Looker's book might not have been written. maybe that's a stretch, but they were certainly the crown jewel in the group's extended history.

anyway, the book is highly recommended if you've got an interest in either these musicians in particular or just the struggle of avant-garde arts to flourish outside of major cosmopolitan cities. it's a fascinating process, and Looker does a great job of showing how BAG was both enriched and beaten down by the culture of St. Louis.

one caveat: Looker did a ton of original interviewing for the book, but in my opinion, he does not include even remotely enough quoted material from the participants. time and again, i found myself frustrated my measly quotes of sometimes just a word or a phrase. long stretches feature no quotes at all. this kind of bummed me out, but Looker really makes this into more of an essay than anything. it's *his* account of this scenario, which has both advantages and disadvantages. that said, i learned a lot and i'm thrilled that he undertook a serious history of BAG at all.

now the next step is obviously George Lewis's AACM history. cannot wait for that. anyone have any release date news?

here's a World Saxophone Quartet track to take you out... Julius Hemphill's "My First Winter" from the "Live in Zurich" disc. it's kind of inappropriate as a coda to this entry b/c the main soloist is non-BAGger David Murray, but it's a sick track nonetheless:

My First Winter

by the way, Looker's tome is available here. the book ain't "Forces in Motion" or "Dixonia" (probably my two favorite jazz volumes), but it is a very serious addition to the canon.


Harris Eisenstadt said...

hey hank

thanks for the headsup here. will have to check it out... sorely undersung outfit.

curious how wsq=bag seems equivalent in, ahem, common parlance to art ensemble=aacm

looks like george's book is mid-late fall 07 (


Prof. Drew LeDrew said...

Great review of a book I really want to get to. You ever check out Geoff Dyer's BUT BEAUTIFUL? Some crazy kind of imagined jazz biography that I think you would really dig. I've been reading Ben Ratliff's upcoming Coltrane book and it's really really really good. Really good.