Sunday, January 16, 2005

Basie, Williams, and the Blues

Joe Williams, Count Basie Orchestra "Every Day I Have the Blues"
By Michael Palmer

In the Opposites in Music class, I've been seeing how Eli Siegel's principle, "The resolution of conflict in self is like the making one of opposites in art," is true about music as such, including music I've cared for.

The song I speak about is one that affected me very much when I first heard it on the William B. Williams disk jockey program--sometime in the 1950's‑‑the wonderful baritone Joe Williams singing "Every Day [I Have the Blues]" with the Count Basie orchestra. At that time in my life I was feeling pretty low, thinking I'd gotten "bad breaks"--not knowing what I was to learn later from Aesthetic Realism, that my own aloof, disdainful attitude towards the world and people was taking the life out of me. And I had no idea that the reason this music stirred me is because in it the Basie band and Joe Williams take that feeling so many people are prone to, of "having the blues", and give it a form, an energy and liveliness that definitely contradicts the very mood of what is being said. Here is how it begins:

[PLAY :00 through :48 & FADE]

In Eli Siegel's lecture, Poetry and Cheerfulness, he said: "One of the important things about art is that it can take something sad and sincerely put it into a swift rhythm."

And that's what happens here. As we heard, Count Basie himself is at the piano, setting the blues mood in his distinctive way, with both major and minor sixth on the way down the scale: [Edward Green demonstrates].

A beautiful thing here is the rhythm, the way Basie takes that downward shuffle and gives it critical, energetic edge with those sharp, staccato right hand chords. [EG demonstrates]
Then Basie turns the scale around, goes up, and signals the band to come in; and they do--with that deeply swinging rhythm.

[PLAY :09 to :31 and fade]

We feel immediately something sad has a cheerfulness and form as the brass begins, with the saxophones following, and all the while, the rhythm section of Basie at the piano, Freddie Green on guitar, Eddie Jones on bass, and Sonny Payne on drums keep a steady and lively beat.

As Joe Williams comes in, he sings with tremendous energy and a smile in his voice on the complaining words:

Every day, Every day I have the blues
Every day, Every day I have the blues

He shows that something and someone matters to him; he's not cool and aloof like I was:

Well you see me worry baby
Because it's you I hate to lose.

He is affected, and the orchestra is affected as well. Williams and the saxophone seem almost to be in a conversation with the sax sympathizing with him as he sings:

Nobody loves me, nobody seems to care.
Nobody loves me, nobody seems to care
Speaking of bad luck and trouble
Well you know I've had my share.

[PLAY from 1:23 through 2:28 fast fade]

The message is sad, but as Williams emphasizes certain words, and exchanges phrases with that sassy saxophone, played by Marshall Royal, it sounds lively.

I once felt there wasn't much to get too excited about. In fact, I didn't even think things were worthy of outwardly complaining about. Unlike Joe Williams in this song, I went for inward brooding, worked hard to maintain a smooth exterior, and increasingly felt remote from people and dull. In an Aesthetic Realism class, Mr. Siegel explained:

"Aesthetic Realism says every state of mind has a cause, whether it's moderate, bitter or depressed. Does your feeling moderate have a cause?....Do you feel right now that your living pitch is high enough? Would you like to be keener in your sense of life?"

I answered "yes," and Mr. Siegel said, with kind humor that I love, "If I had my way, I'd have you go through the motion of a Russian kazatzka and yell at the same time." He explained:

"Once we make reality a failure, we ourselves feel a failure and dull. Do you get a triumph in making reality not a success? Would you like all the clocks to run down?"

This was exactly what I was doing, and I'm happy to say what I heard that day marked the beginning of a big change in my life. I've seen that there's nothing uglier, more unethical than getting a triumph out of hoping reality is a failure. It is contempt, and it's the cause of every injustice and cruelty in the world today. And I've seen the joy, the exhilaration that comes from trying to be honest about reality, seeing it truly, is the real success in life.

I've learned in the "Opposites in Music" class that the Blues themselves arise from like of the world--an affirmation of form in sound even as a person wails, complains, and is sad. The way Joe Williams and the Basie band work together, we feel anything but "clocks running down." Instead, we feel reality matters, it gets to us, and we're excited and composed at once.

There's precision in the arrangement, which is by Ernie Wilkins, but the band and soloists do things in a wild, delight­fully unexpected way. When Williams comes back to the refrain "Nobody loves me/Nobody seems to care" a second time, he just throws his head back and shouts it out in a way that's anything but moderate, smooth. In fact, it's so raw, it startles you--this is no cool customer--and we respect him. There's beautiful courage in that sound. I learned that Joe Williams studied operatic singing but was prevented by the racism of the time from pursuing a career in it. Meanwhile, he loved the blues tradition, and he became famous for what was called his "voice breaking" cries. On the liner notes for this recording, it is said

"They call Joe Williams a "blues bawler" and they say that when he sings he has a "bawl," which is largely true."

Yes, and there's honesty in that bawl.

[PLAY 2:29 to 3:53 and fade]

And Williams concludes on a surprising, very long and very high note on the sound of oooo. I think the sense of wonder after all that complaint and misery is great--and it has an ethical message. To end so sweetly and gently after all that wailing is a tribute to the Aesthetic Realism idea that every person's deepest desire is to like the world, and that the criterion for an honest complaint is whether it enables us to care more, feel more for the whole world. I think this music definitely answers yes!

[Play 4:20 or 4:21 to end]