Two tracks. Experimental jazz, as if jazz is anything but experimental. Within the world of it’s 35:47 runtime, there exists a place of solace where the listener can search out those personal sufferings, grief, joys, graces and failures that convolute the human soul with intimate aplomb.
I searched out this rather obscure composition after hearing the opening melodies of its first track on one of my favorite hip hop joints of all time, A Tribe Called Quest’s “We Can Get Down,” which comes midway through their third effort, Midnight Marauders. The piano lilts into highs and lows, beautiful, but haunting, eventually quickening it’s pace as the building of the percussion section hits its culmination in the first movement before taking over at the midpoint of the fifteen minute track. The piano melodies succumb to seeming chaotic machinations of percussion, sax, and guitar, among other instruments. That melody seeps in and out of the chaos within the run of the first track. It is a reminder that beauty underpins chaos, uncertainty and instability in life. All of this takes place within only the first track of the album.
What is this album, you ask? Oh yeah, I suppose I should tell you, though you will probably not know it or the band. The album is self-titled: Badfoot Brown & the Bunions Bradford Funeral & Marching Band. The first track on the album that was sampled by ATCQ? “Martin’s Funeral.” The album was released in August of 1971, three years after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4, 1968. The piece was composed as a reflection, a grieving over the death of the man most instrumental in the African-American Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. The track oozes grief and suffering over King’s death and marks the continued movement forward and the chaotic uncertainty of the same movement in the shadow of his death. The track is potentially the most beautiful fifteen minutes I have ever heard.
The second track, “Hybish Shybish,” has almost the beginnings of a 1960s psychedelic rock guitar riff but eventually dissipates into sleigh bells and light percussion, though it remains ever vigilant in the background. The 20 minute track builds and builds, more instruments join the procession, after all this is a funeral and marching band. The seeming chaotic notes of the first 3 minutes end up being taken up in order with a growing percussive beat until the song explodes into something identifiably ordered and melodic before then sinking into variations, riffs on melodies and beats that have introduced the song. As jazz is wont to do, it exudes emotion. Improvisation is creative force. Take what comes before, play off of it, break it down, accentuate instruments or play the instruments off each other. Rules are negotiable, but these moments of experimentation always veer back into that which is melodic, recognizable, united.
It is the perhaps the ultimate musical allegory of unity within diversity. Depleting neither the individual nor the community. Within the microcosm of jazz ensembles, and more specifically this album’s sound, life in all of its distinctions and nuances can be found. Conflict and release, joy and sorrow, war and peace, etc. While “Martin’s Funeral” may be the emotional gut punch of the album, “Hybish Shybish” aims to show life after death, life after grief in all of its complexities, chaos and surprisingly beautiful moments of unity. The grief and lamentation of the first track fade into the diverse affectations of life when moving through suffering and finding hope on the other side.
It is a complex composition. One that I return to time and time again because it is endlessly able to manifest itself in new ways and interact with whatever conflict or emotional baggage I am carrying as I listen. I live within its world and it gives me space to work out my thoughts and feelings. It’s lives within me, living within the spaces of my mind, melodies flooding in at seemingly random moments in a day. It dares me to explain it and then laughs and defies my explanation. It is contained and yet endless as I move further and further in. This is living music.
It is also music of a tortured soul; a man that you will recognize the name of because of his recent brush with infamy. The composer and jazz piano player in Badfoot Brown is Bill Cosby. Few people knew that Cosby moonlighted as a rather talented piano player working with the likes of Quincy Jones, among others. This album was a personal response and reflection on the death of a great man who was for a time able to grab society by the neck and move it a little closer to the kingdom. Bill Cosby, too, has always been outspoken about the plight of black communities even though he was oft a more conservative voice in the maelstrom of voices trying to break through the blind spots of white people’s privilege to show them that black people were suffering.
However, Cosby himself has been shown of late to not be a true follower of his own principles. His witness is largely destroyed. The voices of numerous women speak judgment on him. And the nature of justice says that this judgment is deserved. These women deserve justice for what was done to them. Of this I have no qualms.
But I struggle with the Bill Cosby I know now—and retrospectively view in this new light—and the Cosby that elicits such a strong emotional resonance from me through this jazz record. It speaks truth of death, suffering, grief and the joy that drunkenly stumbles in the door in the midst of it all. Can these two men be reconciled? No. Not in this world at least. I can accept the emotional resonances of his art when they strike as true and beautiful, but there is a taint, a poison in the blood of his art now. It will always be there.
The hard implications, though, of this whole problem is that we are all tainted by our sins and failures and crimes. From a purely human point of view, all we can pray for is that a light is not shown on our dark secrets so our reputation and witness is not destroyed. From a divine perspective, our witness is already seen, tainted, we are crooked sticks and God graciously and mercifully uses us to draw straight lines in this world where such lines can’t always be seen from our limited perspectives. The more blunt hard words are: we are all Bill Cosby, capable of utter evil and creative, resonating goodness.
The point is not to diminish the crimes of Cosby, for they shouldn’t. Those women’s voices have been silenced long enough and they must be heard. But I don’t want his actions to keep me from listening to Badfoot Brown and thinking about the pain and anger and sadness that surrounded those dark days of 1968. I feel like this record tangibly gets at the emotional truth of that year and the shock waves that soon followed.
This record, regardless if the rest of Cosby’s stuff falls away from my favor, mustn’t be forgotten just because he is a crooked stick. This record is a straight line drawn and still resonates within the racial tensions of present day America. And I, too, think its experimental compositions provide a soundtrack for us to live in, to think hard about the plight of our brothers and sisters, to see where we have come from and to where we will go. We need to allow its emotional resonances to soften our hearts to the guidance of God towards His kingdom. I still believe music has that power if you have ears to hear. Badfoot Brown oscillates between chaos and order, grief and joy, matching the rhythms of the heart. Our hearts need this provocation and this album provides the spaces where we can live and pray in those tensions.