interludes: egypt in blue
Some notes on jazz and its travels to Egypt. A prelude of sorts in preparation for its further travels to Dubai, where jazz might happen upon othered ears and lend them a belonging otherwise denied.
Tommy Ladnier and His Orchestra—Really The Blues (1938)
We begin with Tommy Ladnier on trumpet, Teddy Bunn on guitar, Cliff Jackson on piano, Elmer James on bass, Manzie Johnson on drums, Sidney Bechet on clarinet, and Mezz Mezzrow also on clarinet. Produced by French jazz critic Hugues Panassie and composed by Chicago-born viper king Mezz Mezzrow, who later penned a seminal autobiography of the same name. Mezzrow adored and styled his play after Bechet, often failing as a consequence to convince producers to allow the two to play alongside on one another until these sessions, which were somewhat a fulfillment of a lifelong dream.
Sidney Bechet—Saturday Night Blues (1940)
With Sidney Bechet on clarinet, Teddy Bunn on guitar, Pops Foster on bass, and Sid Catlett on drums. Recorded on March 27th, 1940. Best when listened to together with Dear Old Southland and Steady Rider, both of which were also recorded on that same day. Coincidentally, Bechet’s wide, oscillating vibrato in these recordings harmonizes perfectly with the clatter of uptown-bound trains between West 59th street and West 145th street in New York City.
Sidney Bechet—The Sheik of Araby (1941)
One of the first ever instances of overdubbing. Bechet plays all instruments herein; tenor sax, soprano sax, bass, drums, piano, and clarinet. Lamented by Mezzrow as a dirge for the era of Hot Jazz for its foreshadowing of the synthesizer, this tune was originally composed in response to George Melford’s madly bigoted exercise in film, The Shiek (1921). Popularized in New Orleans for its proximity to Arabi, a town which neighbors the Lower Ninth Ward and is believed to have been named after Egyptian nationalist and army general Ahmed Orabi.
Art Tatum—The Sheik of Araby (1937)
Jazz musicians and particularly stride pianists of the era often engaged in after hours cutting contests in which renowned musicians would challenge and attempt to outperform one another, improvising on the same tunes and runs. Tatum famously terrorized these gatherings, for which his arrival was the arrival of “god,” Tatum’s shorthand amongst fellow musicians. When Tatum was in the room, no one else dared to play.
Art Tatum—Tiger Rag (1940)
Tatum was the singular cause of the persistent nightmares and aborted careers of many piano players through the ages. His various renditions of Tiger Rag, particularly his 1930, 1935, and 1940 recordings, when heard in succession, describe some palpable space in which the thoughtful listener might find shelter in stormy weather. This place, perhaps unsurprisingly, is hidden behind its own maelstrom of counter melodies and dizzying runs.
Sun Ra and his Arkestra—Advice to Medics (1956)
Sun Ra on piano, electric piano, and space gong. Art Hoyle on trumpet, Julian Priester on trombone, John Gilmore on tenor sax, Pat Patrick on baritone sax, Wilburn Green on electric bass, Robert Barry on drums, and Jim Herndon on timpani. From the album Supersonic Jazz, the first album released on Sun Ra and Alton Abraham’s Chicago-based and artist-run El Saturn Records. “Beta music for beta people for a beta world.”
An absolutely incredible body of album art was also produced by the Arkestra under El Saturn. Ra’s reverence here is undeniable. You can hear Tatum whispering between the runs. Tatum aside, Ra’s influences spanned across a massive constellation which included astrology, Egyptology, Black Nationalism, sci-fi theory, and of course Afrofuturism, for which he and many, many other jazz musicians contributed to so profoundly.
Sun Ra And His Mythic Science Arkestra—Golden Lady (1958)
Sun Ra on electric piano, Lucious Randolph on trumpet, Nate Pryor on trombone, James Spaulding on alto sax, Marshall Allen on alto sax, John Gilmore on tenor sax, Pat Patrick on baritone Sax, Charles Davis on baritone sax, Ronnie Boykins on bass, Robert Barry on drums, and Jim Herndon on percussion. Originally titled The Lady with the Golden Stockings, from the album The Nubians of Plutonia, which itself was originally titled The Lady with The Stockings.
By now Ra’s experimentation with Middle Eastern sounds is heavily pronounced. This does not go unnoticed in Egypt.
Salah Ragab and The Cairo Jazz Band—Egypt Strut (1968)
From the album brilliantly and uncompromisingly titled Egyptian Jazz. Salah Ragab, father of Egyptian jazz, lieutenant in Nasser’s army, and member of Sun Ra’s Arkestra during an all too brief but very important time. Ra had a huge influence on Ragab, and consequently on regional landscapes of cultural production and conceptions of the self as relative to the State. More on this shortly…
(For further reading, spend some time with Ragab’s Egypt Strut in sequence with Herbie Hancock’s rendition of Watermelon Man.)
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