Ralph Ellison’s record collection and when to stay underground (with guest appearances by Maya Angelou & Stuart Hall)

The Jazz Museum of Harlem has an exhibit up on Ralph Ellison’s record collection, and a few weeks ago Scheme and I went by to check it out. Before I went, I caught Richard Brody’s piece about the collection which sparked a lot of thoughts, I’ll try to weave them together below.

The first thing that struck me was how that piece recalled that jolt of excitement I felt reading what  Isaac Julien wrote in tribute to Stuart Hall after that great man died a few months back. Julien said, about their first meeting: “it is somehow fitting that it was not at a march, conference, screening, lecture or exhibition that I met Stuart, but at a nightclub.”

The receipt recirculation of the great Maya Angelou dancing with Amiri Baraka at the Schomburg center (RIP) is a sad, lovely reminder  of how music, nightlife, social experiences involving bodies and sound, are intimately connected with living radically.


The potential power of this experience is what informs Ellison’s critique of bebop and “modern jazz,” Ellison says “Few people were capable of dancing to [bebop], it was more a listener’s music… Very often Dizzy and Bird were so engrossed with their experiments that they didn’t provide enough music for the supportive rite of dancing.” This, as Brody points oiut, cuts the new jazz off “from the general black public, from the tradition of popular music from which it arose, and from the historical experience and civic realm that animated it.” Ellison is talking about popular music, embodied in playing AND dancing, as a democratic force – a focus on collective creativity and bodily engagement.

It makes me wonder what factors led to jazz being engulfed by a hierarchical system stratified by class as well as gender. Jazz, it seems to me, no longer speaks for or from underclasses in any particular way  and the push to enshrine it as “america’s classical music” hasn’t helped jazz resist white supremacist capitalism – venues and labels are still, perhaps more than ever, not owned by Black people.

When jazz moved off dancefloors and into the (admittedly sometimes glorious)headspace – takes power and authority out of the audiences and the dancers. I wonder what that does to the capacity for Jazz to remain autonomous from white supremacy and for jazz to remain rooted in Black communities? (And by the way since dance floors have almost always involved more women, and Jazz for dancing also had more women in it – so moving from the dance floor pulls jazz (farther) away from women’s experiences and expressions too). While Ellison is critical of the discotheque, he talks about “the exchange between the orchestra and the moving audience,” which sounds like he hasn’t paid attention to the DJ -he only talks about the phonograph.

But in Brody’s discussion of Ellison’s record collection, he describes how Ellison also saw the separation of recordings from musicians as a mystical distance that allowed music to connect to the unconscious levels of the mind. What he calls a “shuddering mystery of technological solitude.”  That mystery changes when records are broadcast – it’s no longer necessarily solitude being evoked because listening (or watching) is often communal.

Ellison clearly respected the power of communal watching and listening  -  I hadn’t known, before going to the museum, that he was involved in broadcast media: Ellision was on the Carnegie Commission for Educational Television and co-authored the report (PDF) that set up the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

The other thing striking about this is how it demonstrates Ellison’s belief in his right (and Black people’s right) to make claims on “America,” including on state institutions. And at that time, he was recognized, at least in part. Perhaps at that time the dominant power structure in the US could be captured or reined in by the more inclusive rhetoric (although the language of “America” already is limited since it erases indigenous claims). But that’s a chancy way to claim power. I’m all for state funding of the arts, and I do think it can create space for conversations that would not be possible with corporate funding. But sadly, that funding has dried up (for so-called ‘public’ television too).

Although I want that money to go back into public cultural support, I don’t think it’s enough —culture needs to flourish in the dark and duty as well. Maya Angelous knew this (as many have pointed out), radicalism comes from the experiences and relationships we build on the dance floor and in other low and dutty places. Precisely because nightlife is often looked down on, kept outside of systems of power, it can provide a space for people and communities who were never intended to flourish within the system.

This explains the power and importance of illegal warehouse parties, shebeens, illegal raves and street dances. And as well, pirate radio (which is my next writing project), especially where it has bloomed in the neglected spaces of public infrastructure. If state-funded media supports a shared sense of community, illegal media can support communities whose existence is a problem or a challenge to state power. Those illegal spaces are especially important for marginalized people in ways that cannot be supported by legal, regulated radio, or regulated internet radio either. (The recent, terrible demise of East Village Radio shows how vulnerable online media “broadcasting” is to predatory regulation). Thus we need Exilic spaces and experiences to help us transgress and ignore the old racist, colonial, hetero/cis/sexist value systems.

 A site that is outside and in opposition in this way is an exilic space not because of the intent of the people, but because it privileges marginalized people’s access to it -especially through location and (il)legality.  To be a site for resistance and restoration for marginalized people, cultural practices have to be in some ways outside of the state and corporate capitalist regulation of life. For example, my dissertation looked at Jamaican street dances (not coincidentally the root of Dj culture) as exilic spaces: a haven against hostile culture and a place of resistance. The conditions that allowed these dances to BE resistant were the fact that they were illegal and happened in poor neighborhoods where it was easier for poor people to be present in the space than it would be for rich or middle class people. Recordings in this scene are necessary, as are djs and sound systems, but it is the audience that defines the politics. How to bring together an audience – the right audience – is crucial.

So while Ellison reminds me of the optimism he had about making collective claims to culture, and the role of dancing to music, the fate of some of his projects reminds me of how fragile those claims for community are when based in the state. We have to find the cracks, abandoned spaces, beneath the radar, defend and cherish the relationships we build with each other there.