Excerpts from The Blues: What Does Martin Scorsese Know, a panel discussion

Excerpts from The Blues: What Does Martin Scorsese Know, a panel discussion

For a CDR of the complete discussion, contact Howard Mandel -- $10 + postage ($3 domestic, $5 outside North America)
transcribed by Joe Petrucelli
copyright © 2003, JJA

Don Palmer, blues columnist, Jazziz
Jerry Rappaport, reissue production Sony, Universal, Polygram
Olu Dara, musician
James Brown, manager, Sweet Rhythm
Bob Porter, WBGO-FM, producer for Fantasy Records
Robert Browning, concert producer, World Music Insitute

On media coverage of the blues in NYC compared to the rest of the country:

Browning: The biggest change was when Robert Palmer [music critic for the New York Times] died [in 1997]. There's no room for previews anymore, you can't get the message out to your audience, and what reviews there are, are pretty minimal.

Porter: Anywhere is better than here. Blues is not New York City music, at least in terms of the ways it's followed and the way it's supported. In cities like Memphis, New Orleans, and Chicago, it's a big deal, and to a certain extent, in those cities, it competes with, and sometimes even outpaces, jazz. In the hinterlands, blues is doing fine, and the thing that's made a vast difference blues community in the last 10-12 years is the explosion, the literal explosion, of blues festivals. From early April through the middle of November, you have a choice of blues festivals to go to every weekend; sometimes there are four or five operating on the same weekend.

On the stratified audience for the blues:

Porter: There are two separate and distinct blues audiences in the country. One is built around the fast guitar slingers, Stevie Ray Vaughan being the idol of that entire community. But if you go down south, where you will find a much greater percentage of black people who go out and enjoy the blues, you have soul blues artists -- Marvin Seas, Bobby Rush, Denise LaSalle -- people who are huge stars down south, who we rarely ever hear about up here. It's a completely different audience, and the two rarely ever come together.

Brown: The demarcation line I would use is blues as "art" and blues as "entertainment." Usually when people are talking about blues as art, it's something that's only available on record or some old films. And the blues that's available as a living, breathing music, we don't really see a lot of it here. For a lot of people in the north, I don't now how many times that when I've mentioned the blues, people say, "Yeah I love that old stuff." It's already, in their minds, something that used to exist.

Reactions to "Martin Scorsese Presents: The Blues:"

Rappaport: Anything like this that happens is beneficial to the music in the long run. Universal never had any intention of doing a J.B. Lenoir package before this came along, it was a glaring hole in the market place. As with the Howard Tate set I produced a couple years ago, there was no motivation in house, and there rarely is, for the more esoteric artist. What there Scorsese thing did was give a focus, give a marketing angle, which is what ultimately drives the industry.

Brown: I think that ultimately the success of the Scorsese series, on the ground level, depends on how much emphasis is on living musicians. If it ends up being something that glorifies the blues as a legendary music, which it is, but doesn't do a lot to talk about the music as a living, breathing thing, then it may not have much impact. As was true with the [Ken Burns' Jazz] series, if there's a lot of emphasis on musicians who aren't around anymore, then people who look at it will say, "Wow, that really was some great music," but everything will be in the past tense.

Palmer: What I thought was missing was the context for what these musicians or people have been doing all their lives, if they weren't touring or whatever. What do they do? Day in, day out, they have to make a living. Yes, Bobby Rush tours all the time, B.B. King tours, but where has Henry Gray been at age 84, and various people? I feel like that put them in a strange, precious place: national treasures, hidden secrets. That is not realistic for the lives of much younger people [who need] to look at this and say, "There's a commitment here." You may need to work at the post office and raise your family, and decide at age 52, "Okay, I go back to music now, because I need to do this one thing." These people are not freaks and aberrants, they're often nice, hardworking, working middle-class people who play this music, or play a form of music. I felt that was somewhat missing in the series. I work at a arts agency [the New York State Council on the Arts], and I tell artists all the time, "What do you do to get money for a project? It's called a J-O-B."

Brown: There's a cultural history, a cultural memory -- the blues as this glorified, sentimentalized music doesn't completely make it for me. There are things about the blues that the general public will never understand. It's not just about some guy with a guitar. What about those juke joints on Saturday night where ultimately someone was going to die, because there just too much pent-up emotion, too much moonshine, too much a whole lotta things. You can't just take it and say (stamp) Blues, (stamp) Blues.

On labeling and defining, "the blues:"

Brown: We all know that the reason we have these ideas about the music is because it's been marketed to us in these ways, and when we get down to what is the essence of something, it has nothing to with the label that's put on it.

Browning: Folklorists, ethnomusicologists, and scholars of any kind tend take a point of view and put things into a pigeon-hole. There's the blues in everything.

Dara: The question is, what is the definition of the blues in this time? To me, the blues is not somebody who lived a hundred years ago and played. To me, I hear the blues every day with the young people. It's just another beat. It's no different, when I hear the rhythm and blues kids are doing today and hip-hop they're doing today -- some of them even have the same sounds, the tongue, their voice and every thing, some of them even have the same beats -- it's just young people with another beat, but to me, it's nothing but the blues.

Brown: The great disservice that has happened is that these musics exist for a certain amount of time and then they're put in a jar, a little mason jar, and you put that on the shelf, and everybody can come and look at it, but it doesn't breathe anymore, it never becomes anything else. It's not something of its own time, its always something that speaks of the past. Especially in black American culture, the reason that people aren't listening to bebop in large numbers is that people feel like, "We lived that, we've gone through that, that already happened," and to keep reviving it and putting it up there like museum music -- certain people don't want to hear it.

Porter: Nowaday's you'll go a long time before something leaps up and grabs you. But I was astonished by Robert Randolph, who went down and played the W.C. Handy awards in Memphis this past year and absolutely destroyed the place. He is, in many ways, a future of the blues. Look at Shemekia Copeland, she's not strictly a "blues" performer. I don't think she has a 12-bar blues in her book -- she may have, but she doesn't perform them all that often. But she's got the feeling, and she will absolutely tell you that she's a blues artist. She understands the lineage, she understands the heritage. These things are happening right now, and if you're not paying attention, they're going to go right by and you won't know about them.

(Also mentioned during the course of the discussion as exemplars of ineffable contemporary music: Chris Thomas King, Guy Davis, Corey Harris, and OutKast)

Dara: Fortunately, I get a lot of young people interviewing me, and they don't divide things up, saying, "This is the blues, this is not." They basically look at it as the same thing -- just different degrees of the same thing. One young guy was talking about, "What do you think of the new blues artists like Nelly, Busta Rhymes?" He didn't look for a man on a front porch with a guitar, he's looking at it the way it really is: the blues is like a feeling. It's still here, it's more popular than ever, but they call it hip-hop, or rhythm and blues. What's the difference? The journalists are the ones who define what the blues is. So many young people are actually doing the nuances and blues sounds, the way they pronounce words, the whole thing is right there -- all you're doing is substituting one name for another. Take the name away and just talk about American music.

Brown: We're talking, on one hand, about music that comes from the essence of individuals and their need to express their humanity, and, on the other hand, about industry, about [executives] who are dependent on these kinds of music to get their paychecks. So there's a clash.

C o m m e n t s

Excerpts From The Blues 1 of 1
Anna Immanuel
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November 24, 03

Where a market meets a need, success is assured. Where a market creates a dependence on that need, addiction is created. If the need is artificial, or not in the public or personal interest, the market is accordingly corrupt. Where the need is authentic and purely met, a happy convergence of individual, public and industry interests exists.

Anybody remember B.B.King's Prison Concerts? He was Daniel in the Den and when the lions heard his Blues they roared with approval. Those lions had scores to settle, but not with Daniel. He shared their pain, he knew where it came from, he understood their spirit and knew that there was good in low places and bad in high, and singing Rock Me Baby kept a focus on what was real.

Arnie remembers going into a Prison Riot to do a concert.

In fact, in certain necks of the wood, it happens all the time.

I had the privilege of doing a Silent Night Blues with Evelyn Blakey and Arnie under heavy cross-fire between Bethlehem and Jerusalem in the Auditorium of The Vatican Center on the border between the two. It was two years ago and terror and violence were ripping society to shreds, and the realler the music, the greater the possibility of improving the soundtrack.

When the choice is between shooting and singing about different kinds of arms, or between art that is camouflage and art that is real, we know what side we're on. The force of the Blues is its protection of the essential. The truth - in love, despair and joy.

The purity of the Blues is no posture. It's as true as the story it tells, and as deep as the suffering it comes from, and it aspires to a relief from suffering. It celebrates life. As long as you're singing, you're not only alive, you're winning.

It should be no more difficult to reawaken taste for real music than to effect a return to, say, breast-feeding.

Support the Great Lady Day Concert Series In Association with Josephine's Dream - Josephine Baker's Rainbow Tribe,France For The Protection of The Lives of All Children in Regions of Conflict Worldwide The International Artists Conclave GOD BLESS THE CHILD Anna Immanuel, Executive Director

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