Thriving on a Riff: Jazz and Blues Influences in African American Literature and Film

Thriving on a Riff: Jazz and Blues Influences in African American Literature and Film

Thriving on a Riff: Jazz and Blues Influences in African American Literature and Film

Thriving on a Riff: Jazz and Blues Influences in African American Literature and Film

Synopsis

From the Harlem Renaissance to the present, African American writers have drawn on the rich heritage of jazz and blues, transforming musical forms into the written word. In this companion volume to The Hearing Eye, distinguished contributors ranging from Bertram Ashe to Steven C. Tracy explore the musical influence on such writers as Sterling Brown, J.J. Phillips, Paul Beatty, and Nathaniel Mackey. Here, too, are Graham Lock's engaging interviews with contemporary poets Michael S. Harper and Jayne Cortez, along with studies of the performing self, in Krin Gabbard's account of Miles Davis and John Gennari's investigation of fictional and factual versions of Charlie Parker. The book also looks at African Americans in and on film, from blackface minstrelsy to the efforts of Duke Ellington and John Lewis to rescue jazz from its stereotyping in Hollywood film scores as a signal for sleaze and criminality. Concluding with a proposal by Michael Jarrett for a new model of artistic influence, Thriving on a Riff makes the case for the seminal cross-cultural role of jazz and blues.

Excerpt

Thriving on a Riff is a contribution to the growing body of work on jazz, blues, and their multiple influences in other forms of African American and American culture. The provisional term for this relatively new area of discourse is jazz studies, although there may be a case for Sun Ra’s tongue-in-cheek neologism “jazzisticology,” which (considered etymologically) appears to mean the study of the “jazzistic,” in other words, that which aspires, or pertains, to being like, about, or in the style of, jazz. While jazzisticology seems unlikely to catch on, it does have the advantage of marking a distinction between the study of jazz itself (in a nuts-and-bolts musicological sense) and the study of things that are jazz related. Thriving on a Riff belongs to the latter category and sharpens its focus further to examine two of the many cultural forms affected by African American music: literature and film.

While that music has become hugely popular and influential far beyond the communities that produced it, its role within African American culture has been especially profound. Numerous black writers have confirmed this: from James Baldwin’s bald assertion, “It is only in his music … that the Negro in America has been able to tell his story,” to Bob Kaufman’s more poetic coinage:

Dirt of a world covers me
My secret heart
Beating to unheard jazz.

This recognition of the music’s crucial importance, both to African American culture and beyond, can be traced back to W. E. B. Du Bois, who referred in The Souls of Black Folk to the gifts that Africans had brought to America, notably “a gift of story and song—soft, stirring melody in an ill-harmonized and unmelodious land.” That gift was tempered by the tribulations of slavery and . . .

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