The Many Fables of Faubus

Every social movement should have its own music.

That, at least, is the view of local bassist, composer, arranger, and educator Marcus Shelby. His latest project, Soul of the Movement: Meditations on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Porto Franco, 2011), a result of many years of exhaustive research, travel, and creative work, forms a kind of musical catalogue of the American Civil Rights Movement.

With beautifully written liner notes including lots of amazing B&W photos from the 50’s and 60’s—a portrait of the smiling Rosa Parks in Montgomery, Alabama, strikers in Memphis holding signs that simply say “I am a man,” walking single file between a line of pointed bayonets and a row of tanks, black protesters in Washington demanding “integrated schools” and “decent housing,” contrasted with photos of white protesters from Arkansas demanding an end to integration—it is easy to get a sense of that troubled period in American history.

But there’s a deeper connection to be found in this album and that, of course, is through the music. An orchestral suite containing a mixture of traditional spirituals and freedom songs, re-arrangements of some jazz hits associated with the movement, and many swinging compositions from Shelby himself, the music conveys a real sense both of the monumental struggles of the Civil Rights Movement and of its unassailable spirit

Shelby began his work on Soul of the Movement with a Charles Mingus track, “Fables of Faubus,” the piece from the civil rights era that first revealed to him “how music can open up consciousness.”

Fables has an interesting history.

Mingus originally released the track on his 1959 album (clear your throat as you say this) Mingus Ah Um. The song was inspired by events in 1957, when the Arkansas National Guard prevented a group of nine black teenagers from entering the previously whites only Little Rock Central High School, in which they were newly registered students. It was three years after Brown v. Board of Education, which had ruled that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. But changes were slow coming and, in some cases, especially in the South, vehemently resisted.

Leading the segregationist effort in Little Rock was Orval Faubus, then governor of Arkansas. Faubus ordered the National Guard to block the nine black teens from entering the high school and, many contend, engineered the entire crisis by stirring up racial fear and hatred amongst the white population of Arkansas. Thanks to Faubus and his machinations, not only were the Little Rock Nine prevented from entering the school, but they also had to deal with crowds of angry white segregationists who verbally abused, spat on, and threatened them.

Several weeks after what should have been their first day, the students were finally admitted to Central High School under escort of the US Army, a directive from President Eisenhower. For the next year, the nine students faced daily hostility, harassment, and violence at the school.

Like many others at the time, Mingus was outraged by this incident, and wrote what is considered to be his most overtly political song. Ironically, Columbia Records refused to allow Mingus to record Fables with the original lyrics he had written for it, so it was first recorded (and became a hit) as an instrumental.

By current standards, the lyrics could hardly be considered offensive, opening with the rather reasonable request, “Oh Lord, don’t let them shoot us.”

As Shelby says, “In retrospect, they’re not that explicit, not that charged. But in 1957/58, I imagine that they would be to the Southern ear. But they’re basically saying, ‘Oh Lord, don’t let them kill us. Oh Lord, don’t let them lynch us. Oh Lord, no more KKK.’ So…” Shelby pauses in reflection, “that’s how ridiculous things were back then.” Indeed, the greatest insult Mingus irreverently hurls in the direction of Faubus is that he is “sick and ridiculous” for teaching hate—pretty mild language given the latter’s egregious offences.

According to Shelby, that kind of reaction to political music was typical at the time. “A lot of the artists’ original works that spoke out against racism and segregation were banned by the big labels,” he says. Shelby also notes how two decades earlier, Columbia had similarly refused to release Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” the powerful song about lynching in the South. In the end, Holiday had to record the song with Commodore, a smaller, alternative jazz label.

 

When I first discovered and became a fan of “Fables of Faubus,” I had no idea of this rich history. I just really liked this swinging, irreverent tune with its unforgettable opening theme. The track has multiple themes and tempo changes, so there’s lots of variation with room for some great solos to keep things interesting, and it’s always so satisfying to return to that cheeky opening theme.

Shelby describes Fables as “quite a modern composition for its time” because of its long form. With angular, multi-layered melodies, which, he says, are typical of Mingus, and a beautiful harmonic construction containing a diversity of colors, textures, and voices, the piece offers many different expressive possibilities for a jazz orchestra.

Not surprisingly, Fables is a favorite of many jazz musicians.

When the New York saxophonist and bandleader Mitch Marcus was still based in San Francisco, it was one of those tracks his quintet regularly performed at the Wednesday night jazz jam at Amnesia (which continues now with guitarist Mike Abraham). For Marcus, the political aspect of Fables is important, but it’s not the main attraction. “I’m such a huge fan of Charles Mingus’s music,” he says. “I can’t think any of his tunes that I don’t like, and that one is just . . . it definitely speaks to me, very deeply.”

Marcus recorded his own version of Fables a few years back, not for release on any album, but just to have a recording of this favorite from the Amnesia sessions. As he describes it himself, it’s “real loose—just a jam session, but in the studio.” Although there are some differences in instrumentation, e.g. guitar instead of piano, Marcus doesn’t mess too much with the piece. “I’ve always found Mingus’s music to be so perfectly, so thoughtfully arranged,” he says, “that I’ve never felt much need to do too much, other than put your own voice on it.”

Contrast Marcus’s version with The Nice Guy Trio’s recording of the tune on their debut album  Here Comes The Nice Guy Trio (Porto Franco, 2009), which features their usual mix of trumpet, accordion, and bass, as well as special guest Dave Phillips on pedal-steel guitar.

“I love it!” Marcus says of this unusual arrangement by Nice Guy trumpeter Darren Johnston, who, coincidentally, also plays trumpet on both Shelby’s and Marcus’s recordings of Fables. “The pedal steel is from bluegrass and country music,” Marcus explains, “and I don’t think I’ve ever really heard a pedal-steel player play jazz, let alone play Mingus. That just kind of knocked me out.”

Although the particular instrumentation may be unexpected, in terms of rhythm and melody, Johnston’s arrangement also stays true to the original. “All we do is shake it up instrumentally,” he says. With its many counter-melodies, arranging Fables for the trio felt very natural for Johnston, and its obvious humor made it a good fit for the Nice Guys, who “are basically a bunch of goofballs.” The newly-formed trio had just started to incorporate the tune into their repertoire, when they began a collaborative project with Phillips. For Johnston, having Phillips play on Fables was “a perfect match” and he especially liked how the pedal-steel sounded on that whimsical intro.

But, of course, the whimsy inherent in Mingus’s composition belies the fact that it was written in response to a very serious matter. So, what of the political nature of this song? Was knowing the historical context in which this tune was composed part of Johnston’s motivation for recording a version of Fables?

“If anything it would almost make me hesitate,” he says. “I’m always drawn to protest songs and I’ve written quite a few. I tend to be thinking about human rights and civil rights all the time, trying to do what I can, seeing art and music as a form of activism. But The Nice Guy Trio is three white guys. We’re not an integrated band. And it’s a song about the American Civil Rights struggle. So, you just have to make sure your own intentions are in check, I guess.” Smiling, he adds, “I hope that Mr. Mingus would not disapprove of our arrangement.”

In many ways, the fact that a bunch of white guys are celebrating the music of Mingus, mixing it up in new and exciting ways, is an indication of how much progress has been made since the Civil Rights Movement. “Back in the 60’s this wouldn’t have happened,” Johnston says. “We were more polarized then.”

These days, you’ll find many non-black musicians honoring Mingus with interpretations of Fables.

New York’s contemporary chamber ensemble Project Trio, consisting of bass, cello, and flute, can be seen here rocking out in a short-form version of Fables.

Amongst others, I also discovered a fantastic blues/reggae version by UK artist Tony Menzies AKA “Tony Mingus” (who sings the original Mingus lyrics with great style and sincerity); a dub version with flute by a Peruvian artist; a glitchy electro-house interpretation by a French DJ/producer; and a strange, slightly creepy, and so not swinging Logic demo of an arrangement of Fables for string quartet.

Oklahoma’s top-notch Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey does a wonderful piano-heavy version on their album The Sameness of Difference (Hyena Records, 2005). Interestingly, their most recent album, The Race Riot Suite (The Royal Potato Family, 2011), tells the mostly forgotten/suppressed story of Tulsa’s 1921 race riots, in which the city’s affluent African-American Greenwood District was intentionally burned to the ground, resulting in hundreds of deaths and thousands of injuries amongst the black population there.

It seems a safe bet to say that Mingus’s work, particularly Fables, has inspired generations of jazz musicians, black and white alike, to create music that challenges and subverts the status quo of inequality, prejudice, and denial. As a result, consumers of that music start to ask questions. “That’s the very least that music can do,” Shelby says. And “Fables of Faubus” is one of those songs, he says, that makes people ask questions. Its cryptic title alone provokes curiosity. “Every composer wants to know what that means,” he says. “And every musician who plays that song.”

So, what does it mean?

An obvious interpretation is that the song simply tells the story of Faubus, a tale that we can perhaps learn something from. Fables are, after all, supposed to have a moral to them. Shelby, however, points out another possible interpretation, one that makes sense of the plural “fables” in the title. Governor Faubus, he believes, was actually more alarmed about the situation than the white community in Arkansas initially was. His reaction to the possibility of Central High becoming an integrated school was so severe that it directly influenced the community’s response. “And part of that was him telling all these stories, these ‘fables’,” Shelby says. “He was making up stories about what would happen if these kids entered this high school to try to scare these white parents.” So, the “fables” of Faubus are these stories Faubus made up in an attempt to incite racial fear and hatred.

On his travels through the South, Shelby met and ended up becoming good friends with historian Dr. Adam Green, son of one of the Little Rock Nine, Ernest Green (the first black student, and only one of the nine, to graduate from Central High). Adam Green is responsible for writing the wonderful liner notes on Shelby’s album.

Shelby and his family also visited Central High and took a tour together. It was important for him to share the experience with his two young daughters. “Kennedy, my oldest one, was very much inspired by this whole thing,” he says. “As I was.” When he started the project, he felt like he already knew a lot about the history of the Civil Rights Movement. But through his extensive research and travels—immersing himself in the music of the period, meeting the families of key figures in the movement, visiting historical sites in the South with his own family, and uncovering new connections to the movement—Shelby began to develop a greater and deeply personal insight into the immense power music has as a form of communication that can inspire and instigate important social change.

It should not be surprising to learn, then, that Shelby’s current project, Green and Blues, is a suite inspired by the sustainability movement. It will premiere in September this year.

The Riot of Spring, 2011

A strange thing happened recently. On Sunday June 5th, after writing Zero Point (a post, in part, about avant-garde art and the challenges audiences may face in “getting it”), I attended a concert at the Royce Gallery, a small venue in the Mission District. It was an evening dedicated to the much-neglected viola—or, perhaps, to the much-maligned violist—curated and produced by experimental composer/performer Pamela Z. This particular installment of Z’s “ROOM: Avant-Chamber” series was called “Longer Burning.”

In case you didn’t get it, the title of the event comes from the punchline to a joke that starts, “Why is the viola better than the violin?” Yeah. . . because the viola burns longer. Get it? The Facebook page advertising the event used a photo of a viola sitting on top of some burning logs in a fireplace, though Pamela Z assured us in a comment on the event page’s wall that “No violas will be harmed in the making of this concert!”

This, for better or worse, was not to be the case.

Starting the program was Charlton Lee, violist and founder of Del Sol String Quartet. He performed three solo pieces, the first of which—Edmond Campion’s “Melt Me So”—was written for solo cello, violin, or viola with a live interactive computer accompanist. The computer takes input, in this case from Lee’s viola, and analyzes it to enhance “temporal, spectral and gestural details of the performance.” (Program Notes) It was fascinating to watch this novel interaction between musician and computer.

Lee’s second piece, the charming “Calligraphy “by Iranian composer Reza Vali, Lee explained, explored Persian tuning, rhythm, and form. His third, local composer Matthew Cmiel’s “Insistence,” was a thoroughly modern piece, though nothing that ventured too far “out” there. In the program notes for this last piece, Cmiel (presumably) writes: “It is really fun to ask someone to go insane for you on stage in front of an audience. This piece comes from Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony portrait of Stalin, from Mozart’s Queen of the Night Aria in The Magic Flute, Berg’s title character throughout Wozzeck, and Stravinsky’s elders in The Rite of Spring.”

It would not be the only time Stravinsky’s Rite would be referred to that evening.

The second solo violist to perform that evening was JHNO (pronounced juh-no) AKA John Eichenseer, who describes himself as “a nomadic musician, recording artist, and music technologist.” He has written music software for Bjork, Laurie Anderson, Brian Eno, and Thomas Dolby and has performed with Todd Sickafoose, Scott Amendola and Nels Cline, amongst others.

I had never heard of him before this event. Charlton Lee of Del Sol and Kronos Quartet’s violist Hank Dutt, who was performing in the second half, were the main attractions for me that evening. The program did not give much information about JHNO’s piece, other than it was “Untitled” for viola and electronics.

When the performance began, a viola sat on the floor while Eichenseer, a tall, long-haired young man, fiddled around on a computer. It’s difficult to remember much, given what unfolded afterwards, but there was some kind of amplified feedback system between computer and viola and the effect that was generated was more soundscape than music per se. (I say this recognizing, of course, that what counts as “music” is a complex question, especially when the avant-garde is concerned.)

While it seems to be unpopular to say this now, I was not especially enjoying Eichenseer’s performance. I worried a little about my friends, one of whom had just arrived the day before from Thailand. I had dragged them to this concert, so I felt some responsibility for their enjoyment and I guessed that they were most likely not enjoying this piece much either.

Not long into the performance, an elderly couple in the front row (I was sitting behind them in the third) started to become visibly agitated. Eichenseer had picked up the viola by this point, but he was still not “playing” it, in any traditional sense of the word. Its movement in space and Eichenseer’s occasional plucking seemed to affect the noise that the computer was generating. The old woman in the front row fussed with her purse and the couple looked like they were about to walk out. But they didn’t.

Instead, the old man began to applaude loudly, shouting, “Bravo! Bravo!” It was clear he was trying to stop the performance, perhaps hoping that others in the audience would follow his daring lead. But nobody did. The protest eventually stopped and the performance continued.

A member of staff approached the couple, whispering something to the old woman. Audience members looked around at one another with vaguely amused faces. While many of the performances I attend—both dance and music, it seems—involve at least one person in the audience walking out, I had never been to a concert where someone had actually tried to stop the performance because he didn’t like what he was hearing. It was bizarre, to say the least. I wondered again what my friends must be thinking of it all.

Now Eichenseer had the viola tucked under his chin and was playing it with a bow. After a short time, the old man raised his hands for the second time and began to applaud, repeating his shouts of “Bravo! Bravo!” Eichenseer seemed to increase the intensity of the sounds he was making in response to the heckling. Tension in the room mounted. My sense was that people wanted this old dude to shut up, but nobody knew what to do.

As the old man’s heckling continued, Eichenseer suddenly stopped playing and, like a petulant teenager, threw his viola to the ground and attempted to storm off the stage, though he got tangled in the black curtains that covered the side door. After a few seconds negotiating the curtains, he disappeared. A loud slamming was heard and we all sat there completely stunned by what we had just witnessed.

Meanwhile, the amplified feedback from the viola continued. I and others had to cover our ears, such were the noise levels. Eventually a member of the audience—a local musician and friend of Eichenseer—walked on stage, knelt down and slowly turned over the mangled viola, finally ending the feedback. That image is indelibly etched in my memory. The broken viola, the mess of strings, the horrible sound, the palpable tension in the room. I had never seen a musician destroy his own instrument and I never expected it would be a viola at a chamber concert. It was a very sad moment, indeed.

Another member of the audience, a young man, got up from his seat, announced that he was also a violist, and called for a “real round of applause for the performance” we had just heard. In solidarity with the artist whose performance had been so rudely and abruptly brought to and end by this old geezer in the front, the audience clapped and clapped. Pamela Z announced that this was the end of the first half and requested we return after an intermission.

A chorus from the audience then started to confront the old couple, telling them they ought to leave, that they had destroyed everyone’s else enjoyment, that if they didn’t like something they could just go. The elderly man defended himself, saying, “I am a violist and this was not music. It was a desecration!” One man in the audience responded to this, repeatedly telling the old man that he was nothing more than “an asshole.” Again, the old man defended himself, restating that he was, in fact, a violist, to which one woman, possibly Joan Jeanrenaud, rebutted, “Violists can be assholes too!”

The couple was not moved in the slightest by any of this and stayed, unapologetic, for the second part of the performance. I exited to the lobby to drink some wine and calm my nerves a bit. Discussion with the couple apparently continued inside.

Outside, others had the same idea as me. We were definitely grateful for the wine that was being served liberally. People tried to make light of the situation and joked around with one another to relieve the stress we all felt. My Thai friend, who was feeling quite upset by what she had just seen, was assured that this was not normal for performances in San Francisco.

Already by this point references were being made to the 1913 opening night of the Ballets Russes’ The Rite of Spring, where a riot broke out in the theater in response to Stravinsky’s score and (what these music folks never seem to remember) Nijinsky’s groundbreaking choreography. Let me make it clear: what we had just witnessed was nothing compared to that, either in terms of the artistic innovation of the performance or the violance (pardon the spelling!) of the reactions, but it was as close as any of us had ever gotten to it and probably ever would.

We returned to the house for the second half, which featured Hank Dutt playing three pieces, the first a solo piece by Nils Bultmann inspired by Bach’s cello suites, the second a classical Hindustani composition by Ram Narayan, and the third, “Waiting” by Jeanrenaud, a multi-layered solo composition, originally written for cello, created using live looping. Eichenseer, to his credit, reappeared onstage to accompany Dutt in the Narayan piece, this time playing a droning tambura with Z on shruti box (something akin to a harmonium).

Z then did a mesmerizing solo performance using voice, samples, and MIDI processing. The finale was a group improvisation for voice, electronics, and violas with everyone except Eichenseer, who could not participate for obvious reasons.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The next day, everywhere I went friends were talking about the “Viola Riot.” The story got told and retold and I heard many versions from people who had not actually been there themselves. I started to record exclusively second-hand versions of the so-called “riot,” including, most notably, Brian Rosen’s account. Rosen, a composer himself, is responsible for coining the term “ViolaGate” in his blog piece about the incident he also calls a “mini-riot.”

A few days after Rosen’s post, which got a lot of attention in the music community, the New York Times picked up the story, calling it “an artistic melee more appropriate for a Metallica show.” In the Times’ story, Pamela Z is quoted making the comparison with The Rite of Spring premiere.

So, what is it about this minor kerfuffle that has ignited passions and sparked such controversy? And why is it that the incident, dramatic and upsetting as it was at the time, is so often described in hyperbolic terms? Some of these overwrought descriptions are clearly intended to be facetious, but some seem like they are meant to be taken seriously.

No doubt, part of what has attracted so much attention to the story is the identity of the old geezer, who, as it turns out, happens to be a well-known and respected eighty-five year-old violist, Bernard Zaslav. To get his side of the story, see the considerable comments section of Rosen’s post, where Zaslav alleges the “desecration” was to his sensitive hearing, and not to his aesthetic sensibility, which, by all accounts, is surprisingly forward-looking. For what it’s worth, I don’t buy it, and neither did a number of others who were also in attendance and witnessed the events first-hand.

Certainly, the high drama, the unexpectedness and (it must be said) childishness of Eichenseer’s response to Zaslav’s equally childish heckling makes for a great story. Even before the heckler’s identity was revealed, people were already talking and tweeting voluminously about the episode.

In one second-hand version of the story I recorded, the storyteller, a local composer, is interrupted at the point when Eichenseer has thrown his viola to the ground, breaking it “into a million pieces,” and is storming off stage.

“That sounds awesome!” another local musician/composer interjects.

“Yeah,” our storyteller continues, “It sounds fucking awesome!” They both wished they had been there to witness the drama for themselves.

In another version, the storyteller, also a local musician, has little sympathy for either party:

And then the viola motherfucker apparently, like, who doesn’t even—I heard he doesn’t even play viola, so that fact that he gets away with “out” music when he doesn’t even necessarily know how to play “in” music anymore is pretentious as fuck anyway. And so, because his artistic integrity was insulted so much by some old fucking beyotch, he broke his viola instead of giving it to somebody who would actually play it. Yeah, they can all kiss my fucking ass. That’s the version I heard.

It is curious to behold mythologies in the making.

With all the additions and exaggerations that inevitably come with subsequent retellings, combined with the many allusions to The Rite of Spring, I began to wonder how we distinguish myth from history, even after only a short amount of time has elapsed since the episode.

Then I began to wonder about the events of Paris, 1913. What in the accounts now familiar to us was fact and what was fiction? And how, almost 100 years later, might we ever pull those two apart?

According to music scholar, Richard Taruskin, author of “A Myth of the Twentieth Century: The Rite of Spring, the Tradition of the New, and ‘The Music Itself'”:

As early as the 1920s (the time, as I say, of the real “breaks”), Stravinsky was busily revising the history of The Rite and erasing its past. It was in 1920 that he first told an interviewer that the first inspiration for the ballet had been not a vision of its final dance (as he had previously stated) but a musical theme, and that consequently he had written “une oeuvre architectonique et non anecdotique” (an architectonic and not an anecdotal work).

Taruskin’s point is that this revisionist history, which many music scholars seem to follow without question, mistakenly relegates Nijinsky’s choreography, as well as the interdisciplinary conditions under which Stravinsky’s score was composed, to history’s backseat. We now know very little of Nijinsky’s original choreography for The Rite—it was lost, some say deliberately suppressed, after its last performance in 1914—though it was, disputably, “reconstructed” by Millicent Hodson in 1987 for the Joffrey Ballet.

Stravinsky’s score, on the other hand—”the music itself”—was, of course, preserved, though interestingly, the score was not published till 1921. Both extant score and lost choreography now have reputations of mythic proportions, due, in large part, to the ballet’s infamous opening night. But, according to Taruskin:

It took a long while for the score to achieve the awesome reputation we now assume it possessed from the beginning. In 1913 it was not the primary object of attention. The most cursory perusal of the Paris reviews of the original production, conveniently collected in Truman C. Bullard’s dissertation, reveals that it was the now-forgotten Nijinsky choreography, far more than Stravinsky’s music, that fomented the famous “riot” at the premiere. Many if not most reviews fail to deal with Stravinsky’s contribution at all beyond naming him as composer.

Indeed, the noise levels were so high in the Paris theater, the music was mostly inaudible. It is said that Nijinsky had to shout musical counts to his dancers from the wings, such was the racket in the theater.

It is ironic that Zaslav now claims it was not “the music itself” but the decibel level in the small theater in San Francisco that compelled him to so rudely disrupt Eichenseer’s performance. While I don’t doubt, as some apparently do, that noise levels contributed to his irascibility, it was obvious to all present that there was more to the story than this.

For Eichenseer, an unknown young composer catapulted from obscurity into the limelight, the results couldn’t be better. Like Stravinsky, the fact that his composition ultimately went unheard on its debut has not prevented him from receiving ample attention for it. On the contrary, it is precisely because his music ultimately went unheard that it has gained such notoriety. History, or mythology, whatever the difference is, will eventually reveal whether or not he will be known for anything more than this, his smashing debut.