This year’s Angel City Jazz Festival featured two concerts at UCLA’s Royce Hall. Vijay Iyer’s closing show capped the festival the day after Bill Frisell’s quartet performed music keyed to Bill Morrison’s otherwise silent documentary on the great heartland disaster of 1927, The Great Flood. This is Frisell’s third collaboration with Morrison and his quartet is on tour with the film through early next year.
This was the first time I had seen Frisell live since viewing the 2009 documentary Icons Among Us: Jazz in the Present Tense. I referenced the film at the very end of Blue Notes in Black and White, suggesting it as a counterpoint to Ken Burns’s 2000 film Jazz. As per the title, the film argues for the vibrancy of contemporary jazz in all its global manifestations. Something I did not write about in the book has twisted around in my mind ever since. The filmmakers interviewed both Bill Frisell and another Puget Sound resident, Seattle Times jazz critic Paul De Barros. Both were modest in appraising the social import of Frisell’s music.
“If you look back at what we now consider a ‘Golden Age’ in the music, in the fifties and sixties. . . you think of more than music. You think of integration, the civil rights movement, you think of a kind of bohemian outsiderism . . . The problem that jazz faces right now, is that if you say ‘jazz’ to somebody, they don’t have something obvious in the present culture they can connect it with. What is it actually saying?
“If you ask Lee Morgan and Sonny Rollins what their music was saying, they’d say ‘Well I’m a black person in a white society and I need to be heard.’ That was part of the message behind that music. That was part of the urgency of it . . . we understand the relationship between Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and Ornette Coleman with black freedom. We do not understand what the relationship is between Bill Frisell and the society.”
Given the terrain covered by Blue Notes in Black and White, I had better be prepared to get with De Barros here. But it is the last line, the one about Bill Frisell, that still troubles me. For one thing, the statement seems to disqualify Frisell from social relevance because he cannot be part of the black freedom movement—that moment, or at least one very public phase of it, has passed. We can also point to race as an issue, but that is more than implied. Perhaps Frisell might have qualified for “outsider bohemianism” status back in the day (is that what Bill Evans was about?), but apparently that sun has set as well.
Here is what Frisell himself says in the documentary, as if in answer to De Barros:
“Music is a place I can go where things work right, where people are together and no one gets hurt or anything. It’s like, you can just do anything. I mean, I like to think of it as a reflection of what life could be, somehow. You know, it’s just where there’s infinite possibilities.”
Sounds pretty idealistic, perhaps bohemian, and even utopian. That also sounds something like the world the civil rights movement was trying to create.
De Barros, a respected writer and one of the few surviving jazz critics at a major newspaper, has likely heard quite a bit about his comment—offhand as it may have been with regards to the guitarist—since the film premiered, and I don’t intend to belabor a moment that is already itself quickly receding. But I think it possible that neither De Barros nor Frisell himself have quite put their fingers on the connection between Frisell’s music and American society. Specifically, if the music of Bill Frisell is not obviously connected to contemporary politics, I suggest that it is via its embrace of American social history and of its associated imagery.
For many years now, Bill Frisell has not only created music that explores aspects of American music as varied as blues, country, and classical, but he has branded his music with the American documentary photographic tradition and with a particular period in American history that saw disaster, depression, and the flowering of the cultural left. The Great Flood is only the latest project to do so. Frisell’s first two albums on Elektra, Have a Little Faith and This Land, used the photography of the Farm Security Administration for artwork. These were obvious reminders of the 1930s cultural front during the early Clinton years. Using a Walker Evans or Russell Lee photograph could perhaps qualify as nostalgia, but Frisell has fairly consistently explored in his music and later use of imagery a vein of American life that is situated in the working class, what the 1930s would have called the Common Man. In so doing he suggests alternative values to get-rich-quick dot.com schemes, corporate political dictates, and, yes, the machinations behind the 2008 recession.
Have a Little Faith may contain his startling, effects charged Madonna cover “Live to Tell,” but the heart of the album is his arrangement of Aaron Copland’s Billy the Kid. Translating Copland’s populist Americana for 1990s, Frisell’s efforts to comment on popular music was both ambitious in its range and firmly within the jazz tradition in its intent. That This Land (is your land?) contains a two-part version of Frisell’s “Jimmy Carter” suggests that there is something about rural America that appeals to and feeds the guitarist’s aesthetic, but it could also be that he thought Carter represented noble values or intentions absent in the politics of the day.
Frisell’s Nashville album from 1997, the one where he finally took the plunge and went all in for country with Jerry Douglas and other newgrass players, evoked the world of Hank Williams and earlier, when connection to the land was a matter of life, death, and often sorrow. Much later, when he recorded an album based on the striking and unusual 1930s portraits made by Arkansas photographer Mike Disfarmer, (Disfarmer, 2009) Frisell’s identification with the Common Man reached a new level of subtlety. His graceful, elongated lines evoked Disfarmer’s often gaunt subjects while conveying the photographer’s idiosyncratic eye. Through music that comments on earlier roots traditions and imagery centering on the working class, Frisell pays the respect to working folk they rarely receive today from their employers, from the media, from their political leaders, from their Supreme Court, from anyone really.
All of the above could be filed under “tasteful and clever marketing for the NPR crowd” (Frisell is often heard as cue music on NPR programming), a kind of hip nostalgia for those whose hands never touch the soil their ancestors tilled but who insist on eating organic. After all, who buys this music? I once sent the Nashville album to a friend who likes contemporary country. The recipient had been hoping for someone wearing a cowboy hat, I think. Bill Frisell does not wear a cowboy hat.
Which brings me to The Great Flood. Bill Morrison’s film uses remarkable archival footage of the flood mixed with other period imagery—a fast flip through the 1927 Sears Roebuck catalog the showiest—to recreate the feeling of desperation and reality of dislocation the disaster created. He is especially attentive to the protocols of race in the South. A sharecropping section focuses on black farmers in Mississippi, tilling the land behind mules, families picking the harvest just as though it were 1857. I vividly remember driving through the Missouri bootheel and the Mississippi delta for the first time on my way to New Orleans. The very sight of the cotton fields took my breath away. Here was the crops of crops, “King Cotton,” the justification for slavery and segregation, the tissue connecting North and South so closely that when the sections finally came apart, the bloodletting and destruction far exceeded anyone’s nightmares. Morrison’s images, with Frisell’s bluesy accompaniment, brought me back to that moment.
The nineteenth-century American landscape painter Frederic Edwin Church understood how to work an audience. His Niagara (1857) upped the ante on images of this famous American icon by not only its giganticism but the vantage point. There is no solid ground upon which the viewer could possibly see this roiling, powerful cataract. In The Great Flood, Morrison takes full advantage of footage shot from boats launched in the midst of the flood that often leave the boat itself out of the frame. Like the driftwood, stranded people and animals, and detritus floating by, the viewer very nearly seems to be at the mercy of the waters too. Morrison embraces damaged nitrate film stock, and the sense of the film itself having succumbed to the waters, molded and deteriorating, gives the documentary an authentic feel.
“They’re trying to wash us away,” sings Randy Newman ruefully in his “Louisiana 1927.” He seems to mean the politicians, lampooned in Morrison’s images and Frisell’s music for The Great Flood as less conniving than clueless. The historical record indicates that those who did see timely relief had a much better chance if they were white. And this is the film’s major theme: Morrison interprets the flood as a diasporic event. He creates sections on black migration to the North—specifically Chicago—in the flood’s aftermath, then ends with footage of blues guitar players and of the crowded South Side in the late 1940s or early 1950s. The World Wars are generally thought of as important stimuli for the Great Migration, but vulnerability of blacks to the Mississippi’s caprices and the inhumane treatment of black flood victims by the white power structure led to renewed movement out of the region. Morrison’s images of black prisoners bolstering the levees at gunpoint as the waters rise symbolizes the position of all blacks in the Jim Crow South. The film reminded me of Richard Wright’s harrowing short story “Down by the Riverside,” in which the main character Mann runs afoul of white authority as he tries to save his family from a Mississippi flood. The game was rigged, all right, and the flood’s black victims would need more than the prayers offered up by John Steuart Curry’s characters in an iconic regionalist painting of the period.
At Royce Hall, Frisell’s quartet found the balance between performance and accompaniment, avoiding obvious emotional cues (except for a reference to “Old Man River”) and settling into elegaic interplay between Frisell’s guitar and Ron Miles’s trumpet. In their voices the music of the river was recast, a melding of blues, jazz, and country that reminded me that as much as the river has taken away, and as much pain and privation those in its reach have suffered, it has also given much. That river is the highway for America’s musical culture, from New Orleans to Memphis to St. Louis and out from there. In his understanding of this and in his willingness to ally himself with imagery from the social documentary tradition, Bill Frisell continues to present music from deep within the American grain.