An exclusive interview for Wonderlance

Unique in his own compositions and considered by many to be the great grandfather of Hip-Hop, Ed Bland produced in 1959, the first Hip-Hop film, 'The Cry of Jazz'. Willard Van Dyke, pre-eminent American film documentarian (and head of the Film Division of the Museum of Modern Art NYC), said that the "Cry" predicted the riots in the American cities of the '60s and '70s. This essay film is also quoted as the ultimate reference to the history of Jazz.

Throughout his versatile career he has also collaborated with worldwide-known artists and personalities such as Jimi Hendrix, Maya Angelou, Dizzy Gillespie and George Benson, amongst many others. Some of the groups that have performed Bland's works are the Baltimore, Detroit, Memphis, and St Louis Symphonies, the Chicago Civic Orchestra, and the Brooklyn Philharmonic and have been sampled by international artists such as Fat Boy Slim, Cypress Hill and Beyonce, and more.


WONDERLANCE: Ed, thank you so much for taking part in this interview, we’re honoured. You’ve dedicated your life to music, as a musician, composer and arranger, and you also created the now considered, not only as the ultimate reference to the history of Jazz, but also as ‘the most prophetic film ever made’: Cry of Jazz (1959). But first, we’d love if you told us a bit about your background, your childhood, what was your first instrument?

ED BLAND: I grew up in Chicago, Illinois. Born in 1926. I was forced to take piano lessons in order to get permission to go out in the backyard and play baseball. I became interested in music when I went to the high school admission ceremonies for freshman. The high school dance band was playing. The proverbial white light went off in my head, and I felt I had to play saxophone in a dance band or I would die. My father was a literary critic who worked in the post office. We were all lucky he had a job, especially since the Great Depression of 1929-1941 was in full bloom. My father was a Marxist, my mother practiced Voo-Doo. She believed in a variety of magical practices and had many daily conversations with deceased relatives. Naturally these deceased relatives had many messages for me and my younger sister pertaining to our behaviours and the correctness of our attitudes.

There were lively verbal interchanges between my parents concerning the coming dictatorship of the proletariat, and the wisdom descending from my mother’s dead relatives.

Among the visitors to the many literary soirees at our house that I was forced to attend were Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Gwendolyn Brooks, Countee Cullen, the composer Ulysses Kay, my uncle Aldon Bland and Margaret Walker. Lawrence P. Jackson a professor at Emory University just published a book “The Indignant Generation” (Princeton University Press and Oxford 2011), which includes a bit of information about my father and uncle’s efforts.

WONDERLANCE: That's what we could call a fairly interesting upbringing; amazing stories that make up real history!. You’re widely known for your unique and flexible composition and arranging skills, the result of your synthesis of three musical canons: Western, Jazz and West African Drumming, which have made it possible to find your work in such varied areas as film music, orchestra and even rock and poetry records for artists and personalities like Jimi Hendrix, Maya Angelou, Dizzy Gillespie and George Benson, among many others.

Ed, from your extensive and varied career, which do you feel have been your most enjoyable and at the same time surprising ‘collaborations’?

ED BLAND: Ace Records (an archival record company) in your country has recordings of a collaborative effort I did with The Pazant Brothers back in the mid-1960s, which is focused primarily on funk and soul. Some of those recordings have been rediscovered and are considered old school classics. Some licensees of these works are Atari, Beyonce, Cypress Hill, and Fat Boy Slim. In addition, several recording labels have approached me about producing, arranging and composing a new spate of funk/soul recordings in my mid ‘60s style. This interest in my mid ‘60s style is most surprising, as is the parallel interest in “The Cry Of Jazz,” which was begun in 1956 and released in 1959.


WONDERLANCE: How do you arrive to the project for ‘Cry of Jazz’, Ed? What was your inspiration to embark in this filmmaking venture, which has been referred to as an historical document by many American and British press and critics’ sources?

ED BLAND: We, the producers of the film, were noticing the claims by many liberal American whites that they had created many products that were, in fact, created by American blacks. Years later, these products would come to be known as parts of “Black Culture.” For instance, clothing styles, black slang such as the word “cool,” dance, Jazz, the emergence of Rock and Roll -- Elvis Presley was Little Richard in white face. Wasn’t slavery thievery enough? We needed to set the record straight!

WONDERLANCE: Fair enough: 'Give to Caesar what is Caesar's...'. As an essay film, one of its arguments is that ‘jazz is dead’ but also that Black American life shares a structural identity with jazz. Please, Ed, it would be phenomenal if you could share with our readers, especially the youngest, about the structure to these arguments and their relational nature, as well as events that made the film so prophetic.

ED BLAND: The film was prophetic on a number of levels; among them were:

1 — It foretold the riots of the ‘6os, ‘70s, ‘80s, etc.
2 — It predicted the need for the birth of “free jazz.”.
3 — It predicted the musical import (not the literary import) of Sun Ra.

The basic formal unit of jazz and/or most popular vernacular music is the chorus. The chorus is what holds the music together. That which holds the chorus together are the harmonies. The Jazzman calls them “changes.” These changes repeat with a pre-determined periodicity. The jazz soloist elaborates on these changes, resulting in new and additional melodies or lines. Such elaborating is called improvising.

The constraints on Black American life can be seen as the chorus, and the improvisation can be seen as one’s personal solution. However, if a Jazzman desired to explore and become a freer person or artist, he had to deal with the restraining elements of Jazz, which leads us to the death of Jazz.

The musical reasons for the death of jazz center around the restraining elements of jazz. The restraining elements are the form and the changes. If any attempts are made to develop the form and/or the changes, the swing or the spirit of jazz is lost. Since the jazz body cannot grow, it can only repeat itself. In so doing, it is stagnant; in so doing, it is dead. The three reasons for the death of jazz are: (1) that the changes cannot evolve and retain the form; (2) that the form cannot evolve and retain the swing; and (3) that both the changes and form cannot evolve simultaneously and have jazz. In all three alternatives, we have no growth in jazz. And this is what is meant by the death of jazz.
Due to the exhaustion and contradiction of the musical materials that constitute jazz, those materials no longer function as adequate means for the creation of the worship of the vividness of the present moment. New musical means will have to be forged in order to achieve the end of constructing those works, which articulate the esthetic and religious dimension opened up by jazz.

While jazz as a minimal response served both as a holding action and a delineator of the vividness of the present, it is now incumbent on the hardcore of black creators and musicians who choose to create thru the American Black experience to enlarge on the legacy that jazz has left. Otherwise the Black as he stands now is dead, for he exists in either the ridiculously stilted snobbish and anxiety-ridden Black middle class or the smooth fluid amorphous “white” Black scrounging around trying to find some way of identifying with white America.


WONDERLANCE: As you commented earlier, most of the music to the film’s soundtrack was composed and performed by the late jazz great Sun Ra and his Arkestra. Sun Ra was a prolific jazz composer and also a rather controversial philosopher, but which of his opinions on the state of things would you say were spot on?

ED BLAND: The music we used for the film had to meet certain demands:

1 - It had to contain the elements we needed for the various essay points to be made in the film’s 3 sections during which the narration occurred, namely:

A - What is Jazz?
B - A historical survey of jazz
C - The Death Of Jazz

2 - The music had to have for its time period (early and mid –fifties) a significant degree of originality.
3 - The music had to have an emotional incisiveness that would marry profoundly with the images used in the narration sections A, B & C.
4 - Sun Ra and his companies (both publishing and recording) had to agree for us to use his music free of charge in any way we wanted. We wouldn’t charge them anything for featuring them, and they wouldn’t charge us anything for using their property. They would get full screen credit and any attendant publicity that would adhere to this project.

Sun Ra’s philosophical insights were of no interest to us, as we had our own propagandistic themes to exhibit. Personally his literary thoughts struck me as quite cartoonish. But his musical insights qua musical insights were somewhat significant and original for that time period, and of much higher quality than his literary ones.

Here are some personal recollections of Sun Ra in 1956-57:

'In Chicago in the early ‘50s, a few years after moving from playing jazz to musical composition, I asked one of my jazz buddies if anyone was currently doing anything innovative in jazz around the city.

Sun Ra was brought to my attention because of his harmonic originality, arranging and orchestration abilities, and his informal lecture series held in Washington Park on Chicago’s South Side. In those sessions, attended by various jazz musicians, he preached that he was the Sun God of Jazz, Le Sun Ra. He, Le Sun Ra, descended from—or was related in some fashion to—the Egyptian Pharaoh Iknathon. I was not interested in his lecture series but was interested in his musical achievements. His work seemed to me like a continuation of Ellington and Monk. A while later, after beginning the pre-production phase of my film, "The Cry of Jazz," it became apparent to me that some of Sun Ra's music recorded on Saturn (his own record label started with Alton Abraham) would be quite appropriate for the sound track of "The Cry" to illustrate some musical points the narration was making. I subsequently met with him and Abraham to arrange for the use of the music. We agreed that, in return for using some of his works recorded on Saturn, he would receive major credit, his band would be photographed performing the music, and he would figure in whatever publicity the film received. This was a godsend to me and the other producers of the "Cry" because it meant we had a substantial beginning for our musical tracks, that we had tracks of high musical quality, and that we had obtained them at no cost. Also, I was saved the time, work and cost of writing and producing the tracks myself.

When meeting with Sunny he regaled me about his being the "Sun God of Jazz." I ignored his preaching and concentrated only on what I considered his musical achievements. During this time, he heard some of my chamber music and remarked that I was "hip to space music also and wasn't bound to earth music". It was apparent to me that in addition to his gift of musical originality, he had a secure foundation in the craft of musical composition.'

Sun Ra & his Arkestra - Saturn (from 'Jazz in Silhouette')

Fat Boy Slim - 'Weapon of Choice'

What is your personal description of ‘cultural warfare’ and how would you say it can be most easily identified in today’s Western life-styles?

ED BLAND: There are at least three simultaneously competing values at work in a jazz situation. One is the idea of swinging and vitality, another is spontaneity, and another is improvisation.  Often these values are interchanged and at times confused with one another.

Improvisation can occur in any musical style or genre. In fact, the most adept improvisers are Protestant church organists, one of whom, was J.S. Bach. Improvisation doesn't mean that the results are good, only that a certain portion of the piece was supposedly created on the spot. Its value is primarily a musical political one and not a statement of musical worth. Spontaneity is a quality of performance and also can be a quality inherent in the composition. It is usually considered a desired quality. One of the charms of jazz and most Black American popular music is a high degree of vitality and spontaneity.

Big band ensemble jazz from the mid-twenties to the mid-50s was written out. As a result, more time was given to the ensemble reading their written parts than the time given to their improvised solos. Yet those bands were famous for their swing and vitality. So swing and vitality are not at all necessarily connected to the improvisatory nature of jazz. A sense of swing seems to be of the essence of what makes jazz and all Black American music attractive (Ragtime, Blues, Funk, Gospel, Soul, R&B, Jazz, and Hip Hop). The objective basis for the swing is based on the conflict between two types of rhythm, namely, stress and of length. This conflict makes for rhythmic structures that are polymetric and polyrhythmic. Except for a small work by Charles Ives ca. 1919, polymetric structures did not exist in Western music prior to the infusion of Black American music into the West. The aesthetic gain from swing is an emphasis on the celebration of the nowness of existence. This emphasis is evident in West African Drumming and the attendant Pagan religious ceremonies.

By virtue of the importation of slaves into the Americas, a different way of coping evolves or another way of putting it: Another culture is formed. Thus the basis for the cultural warfare that American political commentator Pat Buchanan and Yale University professor and literary critic Harold Bloom have noticed. The warfare really became evident with Ragtime. After passing through Blues, Gospel, Spirituals, Jazz, Swing, Bebop, Rock and Roll, Soul, R&B, the whole world is now captured by Hip Hop and Funk.

The weapons that Black Americans have chosen by and large in this warfare are those of “soft power” contrasted with the “hard power” of The American and other empires. The tools of soft power, such as charm, the arts, and food, are all essentially qualitative aspects of a power situation contrasted with coercion thru military and/or economic means. If one can get the offspring of your tormentors to speak, act, dress, walk, choose and dance like you, someone has lost the war.

Gil Scott-Heron (RIP), considered to be the godfather to Hip-Hop

WONDERLANCE: You’re considered the great grandfather of Hip-Hop. As we also commented earlier in this interview, many of your works have been sampled by Hip-Hop artists leading to sales in excess of 30 million CDs, Fat Boy Slim and Cypress Hill being some of those artists. Will Hip-Hop eventually die?

ED BLAND: Hip-Hop is not a musical discipline. It is a poetical one. Its future depends primarily on how long its main purchasing demographic remains youngish American white males, as they are the main determinates of recorded music sales.  Youth throughout the world are making Hip-Hop recordings (including China, India, the over 60 countries in Africa, Latin America and the Middle East combined). Possibly Hip-Hop could have a longer life if it lost its mysogynistic stance, and integrated more musical feminine and poetic sensitivity into its product.

WONDERLANCE: Wise words from the wise. Ed, outside Hip-Hop, other worldwide known artists such as Beyonce have acquired licenses to sample your compositions as well as major video game companies, but if you had to choose one of your creations and offer it for a collaboration, which one would it be, and to whom or what for would you offer it?

ED BLAND: I am much more interested in developing my own projects than in collaborating, with anyone. Whatever past collaborations I’ve done have been with a view of earning money to pay the bills.

WONDERLANCE: What are you working on at the moment and do you have any plans to dive into filmmaking again in the near future?

ED BLAND: Among current projects are the recording of 31 solo piano works entitled “The Urban Counterpoint Series.” I am searching for classical pianists to record them. The curse of pop music and jazz is that they are too predictable. Ideally art music should demand unpredictability. In these piano works, the musical language used is in the vernacular (which is the language of pop music and jazz).  Unpredictability is introduced into this setting through a rampaging polyphonic/polymetric texture. Because of the importing of unpredictability into the mix, the listener is forced to think about the musical relationships.  What would ordinarily have been a vernacular pop/jazz situation is now replaced by a serious/art music situation.  This replacement is what the 29 short piano works (Vols.1-4) and the longer Classical Soul and Three Chaconnes in Blue (Vol. 5) address.
The 29 are stand-alone pieces. A unifying factor can be found in the effects these works give of Tatum-like improvisation in a contrapuntal situation. The five volumes of the Urban Counterpoint series are:

Vol. 1 Blues (1 -7)
Vol. 2 Gospel/Soul (8-15)
Vol. 3 Jazz (16-22)
Vol. 4 Film (23-29)
Vol. 5 Extended Works (30 & 31)

Following the release of  “The Cry Of Jazz,” Nelam Hill (one of the producers of The Cry”) and I labored for a number of years to create a sequel. The sequel was entitled “The American Hero.” Needless to say, this feature film was rejected by at least 105 studios and film companies. Because of the renewed interest in “The Cry,” I looked through my trunks of never completed projects and discovered the script for “The American Hero.” I am now discussing with various writers the possibility of revising it for production. It has lain in a trunk for 40 years. I am also in the midst of composing a 15-minute duet for acoustical piano and a virtual percussion ensemble. And finally, I have finished a 15-minute electronic work, Penderecki Funk (working title) for a virtual percussion ensemble. Some Hip-Hoppers and classical performers consider this project to be Hip-Hop classical.

WONDERLANCE: Wow, you certainly are busy. We're so looking forward to listen and/or watch all these new works! Again, thank you so much for your participation in this interview; we truly are honoured by it.

ED BLAND: Thank you for the interview.





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