Porgy and Bess

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Mon Jun 19 10:12:35 MDT 2000

I remember it like yesterday--the Summer of 1961. I was in a local pizza
parlor on a Saturday night with friends. How excited I was. In September I
would start my freshman year in college and put all the unhappiness of
small town conformity behind me. Then all of a sudden a tune came on the
jukebox that sounded like nothing I'd ever heard before.

Instead of the usual sounds (Frankie Avalon, The Drifters, Connie Francis),
somebody had selected Miles Davis' "Summertime", from the "Porgy and Bess"
album released 3 years earlier. Miles, who played lead trumpet, was backed
by a big band led by Gil Evans, who also wrote the arrangements. This would
begin my life-long love affair with the music of Miles Davis and Gil Evans.

Last night at Carnegie Hall I heard Maria Schneider lead a big band in
performance of "Porgy and Bess" and "Concierto de Aranjuez", an arrangement
based on the Rodrigo classical composition that appears on another
Evans/Davis collaboration: "Sketches of Spain". Jon Faddis performed the
Miles Davis solos.

Davis and Evans had co-led the famous "Birth of the Cool" 1949/1950
sessions and then began collaborating on a number of other albums starting
in 1957 for Columbia, which besides "Porgy and Bess" and "Sketches of
Spain," include "Miles Ahead" and "Quiet Nights." They are among the
greatest jazz recordings of all time.

Miles Davis was the son of a well-to-do and socially prominent St. Louis
dentist. He came to NYC to study at Julliard in 1944, but soon dropped out
in order to become a sideman with Charlie Parker. From his earliest
recordings with the father of bebop, there is little hint of the kind of
music he would produce with Gil Evans.

Davis once said, "I have to change--it's like a curse." And what a change
"Birth of the Cool" was. Instead of playing frenetic, up-tempo Charlie
Parker tunes like "Donna Lee" or "Ornithology", the 1949/1950 sessions
featured tunes played at medium tempo, with solos restrained and lagging
behind the beat. Evans' arrangements were what made this music memorable,
however. There were icy-cool sonorities that combined Davis' trumpet
against French horn or tuba. Sometimes there were odd pauses in the music
that gave the impression of a reflective introspection, totally at odds
with the breakneck extroverted style of the beboppers. In some ways, the
showman Dizzy Gillespie was the quintessential trumpet player of the bebop
style, not the brooding Miles Davis who seemed to have found himself in
collaboration with Gil Evans.

Gil Evans, born in 1912, grew up in rural Canada. In 1933 he formed a big
band that performed on Bob Hope's radio show under the titular leadership
of singer Skinnay Ennis. By 1941, Evans was writing for the band of former
Ennis pianist Claude Thornhill, where he first experimented with the use of
tuba and French horn in arrangements and with the kind of intense but
laidback lyricism of the Miles Davis collaborations. Thornhill employed
some other remarkable musicians, including the teenaged Lee Konitz.

In the late 1940s, Evans' basement apartment behind a Chinese laundry in
midtown Manhattan became a meeting place for young musicians like Miles
Davis, Gerry Mulligan and John Carisi, all of whom participated in the
"Birth of the Cool" sessions.

Miles Davis had a powerful affinity for Gil Evans as a musician and a human

"Gil and I hit it off right away," wrote Davis. "Here was this tall, thin,
white guy from Canada who was hipper than hip. I mean, I didn't know any
white people like him. When I first met him, he used to come to listen to
'Bird' when I was in the band. He'd come in with a whole bag of
'horseradishes'--that's what we used to call radishes--that he'd be eating
with salt. I was used to black folks back in East St. Louis walking into
places with a bag full of barbecued pig snout sandwiches and taking them
out and eating them right there. But bringing 'horseradishes' to nightclubs
and eating them out of a bag with salt, and a white boy? Man, he was
something else."

The selection of "Porgy and Bess" was in some ways only made possible in an
interlude before black militancy exploded on the American streets. Although
Miles Davis was never as outspokenly political as Charlie Mingus or as
committed to authentic African-American musical traditions as Art Blakey
and other "hard boppers", he was always very proud of his racial identity.
On one occasion he was beaten by cops outside a nightclub for basically
having the wrong attitude. In other words, he wouldn't kowtow to them.

"Porgy and Bess" is a folk opera written by George Gershwin about the
denizens of "Catfish Row" in Charlestown, South Carolina. The main
characters are Porgy, a lame beggar, the tawdry Bess, and "Sportin' Life",
a gambler whose abuse of Bess drives her into the arms of Porgy. It is
filled with stereotypes of ghetto life.

Gershwin wrote the piece in a continuing bid to be accepted by the
classical tastemakers. Along with "Rhapsody in Blue," it was a sincere
attempt to create an American classical music based on folk idioms just as
Dvorak and other East Europeans had written symphonies utilizing native
dance rhythms. The problem is that Gershwin, of Jewish origin, had little
insight into the black experience.

The opera was based on a play by Dubose Hayward, a white Charlestownian,
which itself was based on a novel by the same author. It appeared on the
New York stage in the 1920s, where it was seen as part of a genre that
included Eugene O'Neill's "Emperor Jones." These authors were characterized
as "Negrotarians" by Zora Neale Hurston. The opera debuted in 1935, long
after Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes and other writers of the
"Harlem Renaissance" had successfully explored complexity of character in
poetry and prose. In comparison Gershwin's characters had more in common
with "Amos and Andy".

Duke Ellington described the whole Porgy enterprise as being borrowed from
many musical styles. It was the Duke's characteristically graceful way of
saying that the music was derivative. The cast that starred in the State
Department-sponsored tour of the musical during the civil rights movement
also had very mixed feelings. It seemed like American propaganda, but they
went along nonetheless. One can only suppose that the forced exile of Paul
Robeson made the transformation of such sentiment into open protest more

When it came time to cast the movie in the late 1950s, the scar left by the
stereotypes hadn't healed. Harry Belafonte refused to play the lead because
of its demeaning nature. The role went to Poitier, who initially balked,
and has regretted his eventual decision ever since. Poitier wrote that
"Porgy and Bess" insulted black people, and 33 years later refused to
include clips from the movie in his tribute at the American Film Institute.

And so what is one to make of Miles Davis recording an album based on the
Gershwin opera? Perhaps the only thing one can say is that it is fortunate
that the inspiration for it seems utterly detached from political
calculations. Oddly enough, Miles Davis, who counted Louis Armstrong as his
main artistic influence, seems to have shared at least one other trait with
"Pops" besides the architecture of a solo. Armstrong also was not above
using tainted musical sources like "When It's Sleepy Time Down South." By
taking such stereotypical songs and transforming then into great art, both
Armstrong and Davis left a legacy to the black cultural tradition that
transcended the material it was working with.

Louis Proyect

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