I think about that encounter quite a bit. As our paths continued to cross on occasion, Morrison became my foremost model for writing about music as black radical action.
She was, in my mind, a rebel sister theorist of music. Likewise, there have been tributes that celebrate her revolutionary spirit , or rightly liken her black feminist vision to that of our most iconic musicians. Her novel gifts us with more challenging theories about a music invented by black folks that responded to and helped to give birth to the modern era. Jazz lays out the philosophical profundities of black life, illuminating the ways that African Americans brilliantly and tenaciously played through the changes of Reconstruction and its end, Jim Crow segregation, domestic terror, and the shibboleths of American democracy.
Jazz is also the work that led me to listen more closely to the Morrison who was musical off the page, a multifaceted artist in her own right.
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Before that, as she noted in her foreword to Jazz , she was a black girl forever curious about the mysterious allure of the culture swirling all around the music. I needed to know what those adolescent years had been like for her growing up in Lorain, Ohio. What I found were meditations on the preciousness of her childhood—and so much more about the music of her life that seemed to sit at the very core of her being.
None of them could read music, but all of them could hear music and then repeat it. She worked with composers to produce magisterial theater works and chamber pieces.
She performed in the round with her luminary counterparts in music and dance. She surfed genres.
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Her collaborations ranged broadly, from Degga, a performance piece with bebop drummer Max Roach and experimental choreographer Bill T. Classical music would prove a repeated draw, perhaps because of the scale and grandeur it conveys, perhaps because some of our most skillful black female vocalists have disturbed the whiteness of that universe and used their virtuosic powers to convey histories of sorrow and survival. Late in her career, as she assumed Nobel Prize-winning goddess status in the public mind, she undertook many ambitious joint projects in this world.
It seemed to sum up the capaciousness of her repertoire, the excellence of her formalistic precision, the magnitude of her artistic ambition manifest in her sound. No wonder that Simone gravitated to Morrison, seeking her out to assist with an autobiography. Her manipulation of lyrics was so unique, so scorching, so heartbreaking, I knew mine would pale in that company. Words literally failed me.
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