To Rush Would Be A Crime: After Shirley Horn’s Riffs on Albert Murray

Last Tuesday I joined Greg Thomas, Clifford Thompson, and Robert O’Meally on a panel celebrating Albert Murray’s writing and scholarship at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem on the occasion of Murray’s 100th birthday. Given the depth of their personal and studied familiarities with Murray, I’ll admit to being both honored and a bit daunted by the invitation to participate. The event was received enthusiastically and, as far as I could tell, seemed successful in both its stated goals and the spontaneous interaction among my fellow panelists and with our audience. I thought TRoS would be a suitable landing spot for my thoughts prepared for and reflecting back on the event.

In preparation for this event Thomas asked each panelist to identify two of Murray’s written passages, which we would share with the audience, along with thoughts on the context of the passages within Murray’s oeuvre and on how our work relates to them. Mine are below—I’ll get to them in a minute—but I’ll start here like I did that night, with a clip of Shirley Horn performing live at the 1990 Bern Jazz Festival in Germany.

I rediscovered this clip a few weeks before the NJMH event and couldn’t stop thinking about it. Usually that means there’s something to be written; it’s just up to me to keep listening until I figure out what that is. In this case, the performance of “Nice and Easy” is inspiration twice over: for my remarks at the panel discussion and this piece. The timing of the Murray event and the passages of his writing that I brought with me shed new light on Horn’s performance and offered me some clarity on how to contribute to a panel populated by elder generations of scholars and Murray experts.

I grew up listening to Shirley Horn. As a loyal teenage customer of the BMG Music Service, I bought a copy of Horn’s album The Main Ingredient when I was 15 or 16. It’s a fair bet that, like Oscar Peterson, Jobim, and Michel Petrucciani, I heard Horn first on Eric Jackson’s evening jazz program on WBGH 89.7FM (Boston), liked what I heard, and then committed the best 1/12th of a penny (shipping not included) I think I may have ever spent: that album was my introduction to Joe Henderson, Roy Hargrove, Billy Hart, and Horn’s rhythm section—Charles Ables (bass) and Steve Williams (drums), who also appear on the Bern Jazz Festival clip—and a bunch of great tunes. Though I liked the album and learned a lot about the music on it, there’s a lot I didn’t understand at the time, a memory ironically captured in Horn’s choice to include Bobby Troup and Leah Worth’s composition “The Meaning of the Blues” on the session’s line-up. Well, there you go: I dug the sound, but gleaned little from its true meaning and historical context. And, honestly, only in preparing my remarks for the Murray event did I come to understand some of what did and has always appealed to me about Horn and her music.

A few years before buying that album I remember participating in a master class—maybe during a music camp or regional festival—in which I was the only pianist. The combo, cobbled together from musicians I didn’t know and don’t remember, played through a tune (again, I don’t remember which), then sat nervously to wait for feedback. Really the only aspect of this experience that I can recall is one comment that one of the teachers made to the group about me: he complimented me for not playing on the first downbeat. For sitting out and listening first before starting to comp. He suggested that listening and trying to understand the flow of the music was paramount to asserting one’s individuality in an ensemble setting. (I do also remember that he didn’t use those words exactly.) Accompanying an ensemble as amplifying and/or augmenting but always leaving plenty of space is part of what appeals to me about Horn’s music; and that lesson I learned (at age 12 or 13) has stuck with me: it’s an important part not just of my playing but of my teaching and scholarship as well. Just before I said my piece at the NJMH event, Clifford Thompson read a short passage from South to a Very Old Place about the mission of “the Morehouse Man” that included the lines “a college education was a vehicle not simply for one’s own personal gain but for the uplift both social and spiritual of all of one’s people.” It seems to me that accomplishing that goal would involve a fair amount of comping behind others’ solos.

And so it was here—accompanying as complementary and complimentary playing that comes from listening first—that I found my own space from which to make a contribution to the Murray panel. In terms of “the meaning of the blues,” I’m still a long ways away from Murray’s knowledge and position; and the same could be said of my position vis-a-vis my fellow panelists’ knowledge of Murray and his work. So I returned again to comping and leaving space. With Shirley as inspiration I stepped up into a break between passages of Train Whistle Guitar recited by Thompson and Bob O’Meally to offer up my chorus—call it a representational anecdote if you like—to amplify and augment the words of my colleagues and Murray. I hoped to accent and riff off Murray’s legacy from my own perspective, while simultaneously honoring it and the personal relationships he forged with my fellow panelists. Nothing showy—no need to overstate—I just wanted to keep the groove.

I mentioned Sound Breaks, the symposium on improvisation at Swarthmore College that I curated last April and the occasion at which Greg Thomas and I first met. Murray’s and Ralph Ellison’s writings were the inspiration for that series of events that explored the relationships between improvisation, the liberal arts, and social advocacy through workshops, a roundtable discussion, and a capstone performance. During that weekend invited scholars, Swarthmore faculty and students, and community members all explored how improvisation in pedagogy and applied learning opens space for learning about and with marginalized and disadvantaged peoples with the expressed goal of raising awareness and creating opportunities for uplift through collaborative work. To help explain the concept of “the break,” I have relied on this passage from Murray’s Stomping the Blues:

“Customarily there may be a sharp shot-like accent and the normal or established flow of the rhythm and the melody stop, much the same as a sentence seems to halt, but only pauses at a colon. Then the gap, usually of not more than four bars, is filled in most often but not always by a solo instrument, whose statement is usually impromptu or improvised even when it is a quotation or a variation of some well-known melody. Then when the regular rhythm is picked up again (while the ensemble, if any, falls back in) it is as if you had been holding your breath.”

At the NJMH event, I amplified that passage with this one from an essay titled “Storiella Americana as She is Swyung; Or, the Blues as Representative Anecdote,” which is included in The Blue Devils of Nada:

“Nor is the break just another mechanical structural device. It is of its very nature, as dancers never forget, what the basic message comes down to: grace under pressure, creativity in an emergency, continuity in the face of disjuncture. It is on the break that you are required to improvise, to do your thing, to establish your identity, to write your signature on the epidermis of actuality which is to say entropy.”

The second quote speaks to applications of “the break” and improvisation to extramusical contexts, as we did with Sound Breaks. But, in the context of the Murray event at NJMH and Murray’s 100th birthday, one aspect of the first quote that I never really picked up on before was the language of normalcy that permeates the passage: a gap of usually four bars in the normal flow is most often filled by a soloist in a usually impromptu manner before the regular rhythm is resumed.

So there’s a conventional way the break proceeds, but Murray seems open to other possibilities. Listening back to Shirley Horn clip at the beginning of this piece with this in mind, I heard it in an entirely new way. The trio’s first time through the form takes one minute and thirty seconds, but the second time takes two minutes longer than that. Here’s a breakdown:

0:00-0:35 – intro
0:35-1:53 – head
1:53-2:03 – tag last phrase three times
2:03-2:09 – solo break
2:09-3:30 – head with embellishment
3:30-4:00 – tag last 2 phrases
4:00-4:30 – tag last 2 phrases
4:30-4:50 – tag last 2 phrases
4:50-5:05 – tag last phrase three times
5:05-5:22 – tag last lyric three times
5:22-5:32 – last chord

On further reflection, what struck me about Horn’s choices is that, using well-known devices (the iii-vi-ii-V turnaround, the “triple” tag) on a standard tune played in a standard fashion, she completely explodes the form—check out how she keeps Ables guessing throughout the second half of the tune—that opens up all kinds of space for more music. This is Murray’s break with the same efficacy but none of the boastful pageantry of either Louis’s “West End” or Sun Ra’s Afro-futurism. No ostentatious playing, just a solid grounding in the blues and the simplicity of a voice. A female voice. No doubt Ellison’s Invisible Man slipped into the “nodes of time” usually most often with a normal flow and regular rhythm, but how about this audible and visible woman? Through artful arrangement of existing devices, Horn shows quite deftly how “normal” is actually just “normalized” and puts the lyric and its message into action: she’s in no rush to lay out, wanting instead not just to invite us to take our time to listen but also to show us how to make space to do more within it. She doesn’t just take the break to get somewhere else, she lingers there to make sure we’re listening first before moving ahead.

And so why couldn’t I stop thinking about this performance leading up to the Murray panel? Shirley’s not the most apropos preparation for a talk on Murray: Louis, Duke, Billie, or Mary Lou would all have been better choices, particularly in light of the quotes I discussed. I think it was how Horn’s performance put into action some of the other breaks not articulated in Murray’s language of normalcy while remaining rooted in the same traditions that inspired his writing. How it pointed out that mere repetition is enough to expose and explode conceptions of “normal” as just complacency (remember Ables’s shifty slides back into those turnarounds?). To me, this is a clear (and really swinging) example of how not-so-regular perspectives on “taking the break” connects to making space for underrepresented voices in jazz, African American culture, and the communities of the world.

As with Horn’s refusal to take the “Nice and Easy” break in a traditional fashion, to me building on Murray’s work through education—lingering in pedagogical and scholarly “breaks”—is an invitation to explode established forms that render invisible so many underrepresented, marginalized, or non-normative perspectives. Repeating the same iteration of the form through tags and riffs—finding a way to linger within the break and work things out rather than beginning anew always in the same way—and her choice to focus on her voice rather than shift to instrumental improvisation align with Horn’s non-normative performance aesthetic that revises and plays off the heteronormative, masculinist conventions of jazz performance practice but always maintains its connection to the blues and swing. Listening to Shirley Horn through Murray’s concept of the break—and teaching others the processes of this kind of critical listening—doesn’t just allow for younger generations to join the successive repetitions of an established tradition but more importantly creates spaces for the voices that sometimes go unheard in the usual and normalized regular flow of things, so that each iteration is a fuller, more diverse chorus of people and perspectives. 

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