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American Quarterly 52.2 (2000) 388-396
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Mo' Better Bebop
Guthrie P. Ramsey, Jr.
Spike Lee's 1991 film, Mo' Better Blues, tells the story of trumpeter Bleek Gilliam, a young musician whose star is rising on the New York jazz circuit. During a party, Bleek engages in a heated debate with fellow band member and rival, Shadow Henderson. The scene sizzles. As the two men argue about artistry, commercialism, and the racial composition of contemporary jazz audiences, Bleek proclaims that "I have my own voice." His voice was that of the virtuoso jazz soloist. Lee modeled Bleek after the "young lions," the score of young, dapper and primarily African American musicians who appeared on the jazz scene in the mid to late 1980s, each armed with recording contracts and a pocketful of hard bop riffs in their Italian cut suits. In Bleek's view, African Americans under-appreciated his artistic voice and the larger jazz tradition within which he expressed it. Jazz, Bleek insists, was black people's music--their heritage and culture--but they seemed to prefer "crossover" music from "other" people like Kenny G.
The equally talented Shadow rejects Bleek's artistic stance, saying that the people don't come because "you grandiose motherfuckers don't play shit that they like." The two characters find no middle ground in the Great Artist vs. the Unwashed Masses divide articulated by their respective positions. The larger cultural wars within which this fictional account circulates show little sign of abating. Moreover, the [End Page 388] scene, indeed the film itself, is filled with ironies. An unintentional one is represented by the use of the composition, "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy," which plays, providing a subtext, at the party. Written by Joseph Zawinul, a white Viennese pianist who rose to fame in Cannonball Adderley's very soulful bop group and who made a mark as an electronic keyboardist and co-founder of the fusion band Weather Report, the tune enjoyed commercial success during the 1960s soul jazz era. As one of the possible musical progenitors responsible for the appearance and growth of the "smooth-jazz-Kenny-G-crossover" format that so irks Bleek (and many others), Zawinul's music in this scene reminds us of both the illusive quality of authenticity debates and the slipperiness of racial discourse in contemporary jazz.
The combustible issues of race, artistic production, commercial success, and musical style evolution raised in the film have had a specific and dynamic historical trajectory within the jazz tradition. While many of these issues certainly formed an important role in jazz's early development, they seemed to come to a head during what is known as the bebop era, ca. 1945-1960. The importance of bebop has been recognized in a string of textbooks, celebrated in the music of rap groups like Digable Planets and A Tribe Called Quest, and canonized in the work of contemporary jazz musicians, but a definitive history of the style had not been written until now. The publication of Scott DeVeaux's The Birth of Bebop: A Social and Musical History marks a watershed in the historiography of jazz, in black music research, and in the field of American studies, the latter producing an ever growing list of musical studies.
DeVeaux is a historical musicologist and jazz pianist. Like Bleek, in Mo' Better Blues, he certainly has established his voice in the field of jazz and American music studies. As one of the most visible musicologists to earn a Ph.D. working on a jazz topic, and as a scholar who has produced a series of field defining articles since the late 1980s, DeVeaux's first book-length study has been eagerly awaited by those of us in American music circles. Working from within a field that is gradually losing its reputation for insularity, DeVeaux's The Birth of Bebop should help further open up musicological discourse to other fields and to general audiences.