Academic journal article African American Review

Body and Soul: Bob Kaufman's Golden Sardine

Academic journal article African American Review

Body and Soul: Bob Kaufman's Golden Sardine

Article excerpt

The poetry of sound ... marks the beginning of a new era ... of revolt against the trite outworn language of the understandable. (Langston Hughes, qtd. in Rampersad 64)

If jazz is music of revolt, it is a revolt towards more natural, wholesome, normal human relationships. (Kenneth Rexroth 64)

My head is a bony guitar, strung with tongues, plucked by fingers & nails (Bob Kaufman, Cranial Guitar 82)

One day in February 1926, musicians Lil Harlin, Kid Ory, Johnny Dodds, and Johnny St. Cyr, along with a young trumpet player from New Orleans, prepared to make their second recording for Okeh Records. The young trumpeter had received quite a bit of notoriety as a protege of King Oliver and had acquired the reputation of being one of the exciting innovators of this new, hot music called "jazz." The group was performing a song called "Heebie Jeebies." But something went wrong during the recording process, and Louis Armstrong leaned into the microphone and began singing a series of nonsensical syllables, slightly mimicking the tone and timber of his horn. This new sound was to create a vocal sensation called "scat," placing emphasis on the human voice as an additionally important component in jazz music. Armstrong's recording of "Heebie Jeebies" was The Hot Five's first hit record and transformed the direction of jazz. During that same year, Langston Hughes's jazz-influenced collection of poems The Weary Blues w as published. And, somewhere in New Orleans, Louisiana, two-year-old Bob Kaufman was probably uttering his first full sentence.

Louis Armstrong's experimentation during that 1926 recording had a major impact not only on jazz singing but on poetry as well, for several African American poets began using a similar technique. In his excellent book The Power of Black Music, Samuel A. Floyd, Jr., quotes a 1955 study in which Willis Lawrence James provides insightful speculation on the folk origins of scat singing in the vocals of Armstrong and Cab Calloway, who somehow found the trick of using old folk cry

principles to supplement the normal means of singing.... Being gifted in voice projection, Calloway invented or adopted a series of nonsense syllables and fitted them into his songs of jazz rhythms. When this was done, people realized the thing as a part of themselves, but they did not know why. They did not realize that they were listening to the cries of their vegetable man, their train caller, their charcoal vendor, their primitive ancestors, heated in the hot crucible of jazz, by the folk genius of

Calloway and Armstrong until they ran into a new American alloy. It is possible that neither Calloway nor Armstrong realized what took place. If so, the more remarkable. The response of the orchestra in imitating the cries of Armstrong and Calloway carried the cry into the orchestra itself. (qtd. in Floyd 117)

James's observations can be extended to apply to "non-musical" African American art forms as well. Several poets from Langston Hughes to Amiri Baraka have made use of scat singing by placing runs of nonsensical syllables at crucial junctures within the text when language seems to collapse. In jazz poetry, scat phrasing acts as a kind of verbal release that alludes to the instrumental quality of the human voice. Moreover, scat transcends conventional notions of "meaning" and emphasizes the importance of music as a key ingredient of the text.

Armstrong's scat singing also influenced the singing technique of bebop innovator Dizzy Gillespie, who first began recording bebop in 1944 with saxophonist Charlie Parker. Both Armstrong and Gillespie used scat singing because it could expand the musical ideas they were expressing through their horns. Although their scat vocabularies were unintelligible, they had in them a rebellious quality that defied the musical status quo. Gillespie expressed the connection between bebop and language in his autobiography To BE, or Not. …

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