Art & Music with Ayana Contreras: The Q&A
Introduction and Q&A with DJ, producer, and author Ayana Contreras at our screening of The Cry of Jazz and Chicago Blues at the Logan Center for the Arts on October 20, 2018.
The event was presented by South Side Projections, the Smart Museum of Art, the Film Studies Center, and the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts as part of South Side Projections’ film series Chicago’s Black Arts Movement on Film, the Logan Center Bluesfest, and the symposium Unfinished Business! The South Side and Chicago Art.
Unfinished Business! and Chicago’s Black Arts Movement in Film are presented as part of Art Design Chicago, an exploration of Chicago’s art and design legacy, an initiative of the Terra Foundation for American Art with presenting partner The Richard H. Driehaus Foundation. Chicago’s Black Arts Movement in Film and Unfinished Business! are funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art.
Ayana Contreras’s introduction:
Ayana Contreras (AC): The thing about this film that is important—in my work, what really excites me is unpacking and looking at documentation of the music that has come out of Chicago. Looking at it afresh, and thinking about what it says about that moment in time, and what we can glean from those things as we all move forward collectively. So, I’m thinking about Chicago Blues, and I’m thinking about The Cry of Jazz, and I’m thinking about interviews I’ve done with a lot of the old cats in the music scene here in Chicago.
One person in particular is Tom Tom Washington, who is an arranger who is probably best known for being in Brunswick Records, where—Tyrone Davis, Chi-Lites, folks like that. But he’s also a jazz pianist, and he was in a group called The Interpreters, which was on a Chess-related label in the early 1960’s. Very talented cat. And when I talked to him for the very first time—he also arranged stuff for Earth, Wind & Fire, and The Emotions, if that means anything to people. [Laughter] You know, folks like that. A couple folks, yeah. So when I met him, I wanted to show him that I knew his work and that I revered him. You know, it’s kind of the equivalent of the Chicago “Who sent you?” type thing. I wanted to show him I’m legit. So I met him at a studio a little south of 79th and Stony Island, where they grew cabbage around back, and I had a big bag of his 45’s. I mean, huge. ‘Cause he produced dozens of really beautiful records. And I said to him, “So why do you have all these different names on all these different records?” He’s credited as “Tom Tom 84” on stuff by The Jacksons, recorded as “Tom Tom Washington,” “Tom Washington,” all these different names. “Tom Tom 2000,” at some point. I asked him, like, “What is that about?” And he’s, like, “Well, originally what was happening was for each genre, I wanted to use a different name. Like, ‘Tom Washington’ was for my jazz stuff, ‘Tom Tom’ was for my soul stuff, ‘Tom Tom Washington’ was for my Tyrone Davis stuff, ‘Tom Tom 84’ was—” It went on and on and on, and it was actually super funny.
But the next thing out of his mouth was, “But really, when I think about the music, it’s really about the music.” And when I’m saying “the music,” I’m putting emphasis on it because he taught me that genre is this artificial BS that has been applied to this black cultural musical force that has come out of this city. And these musicians who created this—whether it’s blues, or jazz, or soul, or gospel—it’s all the same cats, and it’s all the same energy. So that’s also why my book is called Energy Never Dies, because that energy is something I see with these young rappers that I used to teach, like Chance The Rapper, and Noname, people like that.
So watching these films is really cool because you get to see that particular crystallized moment in time in the city. Like, with Chicago Blues, I’m really excited about—I haven’t seen that particular one. I’m excited about seeing J.B. Hutto. I have a really old 78 of him with his Hawks. “Things Are So Slow,” is the record, from 1954. So it’s really exciting to see him. He passed away when I was a little thing, so I never saw him perform. The Cry of Jazz—I do want to note this, just because if I don’t note this I’m not being true to myself—I think it’s interesting how many controversial things are said in the film, including “Jazz is dead,” which is still controversial today. And the film is from, I think 1958, is that right? Okay, yeah. Very late 1950s. So, I think it’s automatically made to put people’s hair on end. And I think a lot of people are here because they’re big fans of the film, so I’m not here to put the film down. But my question to you is: where are the black women? Right? In the film, the way that the women are acting in the film is sort of, like, these push-back people. Like, asking about “the negro problem.” And I’m, like, well, where is the black woman? Because I feel like if there was a black woman in this film—right? You know where I’m going with this, right? I feel like they would be able to give some insight on what was going on in the jazz scene at the time.
And I say that because—and this is my last bit—I was at my grandmother’s house for Memorial Day. I promise this is on topic. And my aunt’s best friend, her mother used to date Marshall Allen. And she’s the most regular, ’round the way lady. Really sweet, regular, ’round the way lady. And the way she talked about Sun Ra—”Yeah, you know, he would wear a tin hat sometimes. It was cool. But, you know, he taught jazz. You know, whatever. It was fine.” [Laughter] And I thought about how, at this moment, Sun Ra’s music—which is in this film, The Cry of Jazz—has been created into this sort of high culture thing, that is somehow very different from, like, Eddie Harris, or somebody who was a more accessible artist at the time. And I think that that’s actually revisionist history, because Sun Ra was in the scene. You know what I mean? Maybe he had some ideas that were progressive, but he was out here in these streets.
So I just wanted to lay a couple of thoughts that I’m thinking about. I’ve seen The Cry of Jazz a number of times, and I know people really feel very strongly about it. But I just wanted to put those two thoughts out there for you. And I’m really excited to talk afterwards. So, thank you for joining us, and I think I kept it as short as I could.
[film screening occurred here]
AC: We have some comments. But before we start, I had some phrases that really caught my ear. So, in Cry of Jazz—wouldn’t a black woman have just made that film? That’s what I think, personally. Let’s just put that out there, as a thought. But also, this thought of a futureless future, right? And you think about that in context in the blues film. The thought of, “Well, we have hope, we have this hope just embedded in the culture.” I think about that. You know, in a lot of these academic settings there’s this idea of Afro-pessimism, and I think to myself that black people wouldn’t have gotten to where we are, and where we’re headed, if everybody was a pessimist. Like, that’s just not the nature of the African American—I don’t know, whatever. I think there is an embedded optimism within just the audacity to survive.
What else did I want to say? I was also interested in Muddy Waters in general, but specifically when he was making the distinction, like, “I’m playing the real home blues, whereas B.B. King is playing the urban blues.” Especially around this time, there was this delineation between different modes of blues as being more authentic than others. But I did think in this film they do a good job of describing the conditions that the urban electric blues was coming out of.
And also, one other thought, I was mentioning how the different genres, they’re all kind of really one. I was just really loving how both J.B. Hutto and Junior Wells’s bands were just swinging so hard the whole time. They were just swinging really hard. Especially J.B. Hutto’s drummer was just really in that pocket the entire time. That’s all. [Laughter] I thought maybe somebody might be able to riff off of that. You know, spirit of improvisation and all. Anybody? [Laughter] Also, Dick Gregory, right? I’m just so glad they had him in there as the Greek chorus. He needed to be in there to help set up the conditions of the city in a way that I think almost nobody else could have done. How ’bout them Bears? [Laughter]
Audience Member #1: I don’t know how many young people are here, but when I saw Maxwell Street, that’s something that a lot of young people—they will never, ever, ever get the chance to experience that. And that’s just something that Chicago, they had that. I mean, it might have looked grimy and everything to some people, but that was Chicago. That’s what people did. You know, if you didn’t experience that, too bad. I feel so sorry for you. [Laughter]
Audience Member #2: Can you talk more about Maxwell Street?
Audience Member #1: Oh, you want to know a little bit more about Maxwell Street. Well, as a kid, if you grew up in Chicago—and you had to really grow up here, you just couldn’t migrate here—Maxwell Street was a place that you went every Sunday. You wake up, you go down there, and you barter. “Could I get that right there? How much is that?” Then they would tell you, “That’s twelve dollars.” “I don’t have twelve dollars. I only have nine dollars.” So, you know, you’d keep going back and forth, and you’d get whatever item you wanted, because Maxwell Street had everything. You could buy clothes, whatever you name, you could find it on Maxwell Street. That’s just the way it was.
I mean, we didn’t even take it for granted. People started coming, and they looked at Maxwell Street like, “ew.” But really, it was Chicago. It was really a place to be in Chicago. You had to live in that time. Most young people now, they want everything to look all good, bright, marvelous. “Oh, it’s not fixed right. Oh, oh.” You wouldn’t have functioned on Maxwell Street. [Laughter] It was dirty, grimy, smelly, you name it. But you came out of there with some great, fantastic things. So that’s it from me.
Audience Member #3: If you’re interested, Maxwell Street still goes on. I go every other Sunday after church on Roosevelt and Halsted, a little bit off of Halsted Street. You’ll still see it. But it’s not as big, but like she said, that was the highlight of my childhood. I knew if it was Easter, Christmas, and—I hate to say this, but in the interest of being open, it was called “Jew town.” And we all know what that stereotype is about. But I knew—I would go with my granddad. It’s four girls, they can’t afford to buy all of the dresses, or the fluffy socks, or whatever, at the price that Little Colony in Homewood would charge. He’s, like, “Go down there. You get a treat afterwards. Let me get this for your mama and your dad.” And then we would go, and like she said, it’s like, “I want twenty dollars ’cause this is so-and-so kind of silk.” He’s like, “I ain’t got twenty dollars. I got four granddaughters, I’ll give you fifteen.” “All right, fine, fine,” you know, and it was just such an experience. Not to mention the food.
If you go today—I used to teach, and now I’m a North Shore nanny—but it’s the same process. “Oh, I’m running out of supplies, let me go over there on Roosevelt on Maxwell Street.” You know, I can get a whole pack of Sharpies, instead of twenty-four dollars, I can get it for, like, thirteen on Maxwell Street. And it’s still going on now, but compared to back in the ’80s and the ’90s, it was huge. Now it’s about, maybe two blocks. But if you want to experience it, you know, you guys can, up until—they’ll be out there until November-ish. They stay until the weather kind of shuts it down.
AC: I’ll be DJing on the 28th on the new Maxwell Street. Playing blues 45s from the 1960s. Don’t tell anybody, shh. [Laughter]
Audience Member #4: So, just bringing it back around, putting what you two said into context. As we talked about, the honorable Dick Gregory shared with us the numbers. And so it’s not such a pie in the sky regarding, you know, “You negroes started off this, and you have that, and you’re whatever.” He helped us to understand how little, actually, we came with when we came from the South. Everybody knows why we didn’t have money, right? And then what it took in order to survive here. And helping us to understand the dollars, that really, really touched me.
What else touched me, which I had never thought of, was how many people were contained in such a small area. And the children went downstairs, for some of the buildings, to school, and then right back up. What wasn’t really explained to me was—there was a statement that said something about the building of a political muscle from black people. Does anybody remember that quote? I would love to understand that. Huh?
Audience Member #5: The Democratic Machine. And Daley used to say that he would have all his votes there. So he could get a hundred thousand votes if he did certain things: passed out trophies, and passed out ham at Christmas, passed out turkeys at Thanksgiving.
Audience Member #4: Okay, got it. Got it, got it. So all of those personalities, who are the dollar and figure people, we should understand, also were the blues. The impact of the blues. Even if we have to take if from the dollar and cents survival scenario. Also, the first movie that I watched, it seemed like they avoided saying the word poverty. It was very intellectual, but they weren’t really, to me, talking about poverty. They avoided that word.
AC: They avoid a lot of words. [Laughter]
Audience Member #6: Hi. I’d like to say that I found The Cry of Jazz interesting from the perspective that they had a dialogue that we don’t have dialogues with today. And they were discussing issues that we often do not delve into. The other thing that I think was interesting is that my uncle was one of the script writers for this film. And I didn’t know that about him. He was actually a mathematician and a physicist at the University of Chicago. There was nothing about him regarding mathematics—when I looked him up, it was through music, and The Cry of Jazz. So that was another interesting piece.
AC: There’s definitely a level of audacity to the movie, if you look at it in context of the time frame that it came out. All I’m saying is, where’s Ernestine at? That’s all I’m saying. I think that she would have been invaluable.
Audience Member #7: So I thought that the blues film should have came first, then the jazz film. Because jazz came out of blues, and so it was kind of backwards. You know, when we’re talking about the cultural expression of people. It was almost talking about the baby when it was grown, and then reverting back to when it was born.
Audience Member #8: I just want to say really quickly, I think 1959 might have been the greatest year in jazz ever. So I just love the irony of them theorizing about the death of jazz when Miles, and Mingus, and Ornette had their greatest albums, and The Jazz Messengers, and ‘Trane had Giant Steps. So they’re in the nucleus of just, so much, and they’re kind of sitting in this living room and pontificating. But I loved it, it’s fascinating. That’s all I had to say.
Floyd Webb (in audience) (FW): One of the things that’s real interesting about Cry of Jazz, talking about the blues, is that everything Sun Ra does takes place at the intersection between jazz and blues, out of Club DeLisa. A lot of this film was shot in the Club DeLisa. Club DeLisa—everybody performed there. The Club DeLisa was where everybody’s mama and daddy went and got a picture, that’s sitting on their mantelpieces and in their photo albums. That period that Nelam Hill and Edward Bland were at the University of Chicago, Sam Green was also there. You have this brilliance that grows out of this period that includes Stokely Carmichael, it includes all the brothers from the Black Worker’s Congress up in Detroit. There was a brilliance that was developing after World War II.
And what we hear in this thing—you know, we talk about Afro-pessimism. This futureless future is what Sun Ra called “after the end of the world.” The futures that were dictated didn’t include us anyway. When we talk about Afro-futurism, you don’t see us. You don’t see us in anything. We didn’t exist in the future. Not in media, not in science fiction, not in comic books. It was mandated. We were mandated out of these things. We couldn’t have roles of agency in cinema. From 1924 to 1959, there were no black characters in science fiction films. Not until Star Trek. Rather, there were two foreign films—an Eastern European film, and there was an Italian film that included black dancers from Katherine Dunham. So it’s a real crazy thing.
But, that film, The Cry of Jazz—in 1959, in Film Quarterly magazine, in the fall edition, the very first line is: “The first anti-white film has been made.” And I saw that, and I was, like, “I gotta find this film.” [Laughter] I spent twelve years looking for this film. “The first anti-white film has been made.” It said, “Sun Ra,” and “the first anti-white film.” And I found it someplace, when I was in the British Film Institute or something, and I ran across this—”The Cry of Jazz, where was it?” And it was sitting there all the time, but nobody rented the film for a long time. So when we finally found the film, and we showed it to Blacklight Film Festival, we had somebody who came who was on the film. Is your relative Nelam Hill?
Audience Member #6: No, Eugene Titus.
FW: Eugene Titus? Yeah. We should talk, because, other people showed up. And they said that the film was investigated by the House Un-American Activities committee. So, think about that.
Audience Member #10: Before I leave, I just wanted to thank you all for actually showcasing that. For me, I’ve just recently moved to Chicago, and my great-great-grandfather, 97, and his wife, 98, both living—I visit them a lot, I talk to them a lot. And our conversations made me seek something like this out. And so, for one, I’m just thankful that you all showcased this. For two, I think it highlights a lot of things that he tells me. One thing being, no matter your plight in this country, you have to smile and dance through it all. And listening to these conversations, listening to people working for $1.25, listening to these scenarios and these surroundings that my relatives grew up in, it just really brought it all home. So, I don’t have a question or anything, I just really wanted to make that comment. Again, thank you all.
AC: I did want to say one thing. I think that blues movie, the Chicago Blues movie, is really powerful for me, personally, for a lot of reasons. But most of all, I love that they really captured a lot of different modes of the blues at the same time. There’s a lot of these films that kind of focus on the “country blues,” or focus on the more electric blues, or focus on more of the performative style, and less about letting the artists speak in their own voice. And I think all of that is in this, and I think for that reason it’s a really powerful document. And I really love the old Ultra Sheen and Duke and Raveen ads. Black hair care in Chicago, that’s a mode of self-determination. Folks who were here earlier heard that term. [Laughter] It’s a really important thing. The Joe Louis Milk, right? That came back. “You don’t have to be black to drink Joe Louis Milk.” Did y’all see that on that truck? Black owned business.
Audience Member #11: And if you notice what they did, they struck out “negro.” Because at that time the black movement was real prevalent. I love Chicago, I’m born and raised here, so when I looked and saw that church on the corner, I remember that church. That was Treadwell. It was a church called Treadwell. Everybody went there, including Mahalia Jackson. All the black singers went there to sing. They used to have the Treadwell Community Singers. So there was a lot of history in that film to me. Every time they would go past something, I would say, “Wow.” So this film for me, it was historical, and I liked the way that they filmed it. It clued into the blues, but it also gave you a little history, a little background on what Chicago really was. And people look at it now and they say, “Oh, Chicago,” you know, you wonder why people really love it. And people that have lived here for a long time have loved it so much. And that film kind of tells you why. Even though it was “bummy,” as people would say, they had so much history here. You can’t capture that again. Once you tear that history down, you can’t rebuild that history, it’s gone. So films like this give people like you, who doesn’t even know anything about that, the opportunity to get a glimpse into what it was like, so you have some comparative. That’s all I have to say.
AC: There’s one more person back there.
Audience Member #12: Thank you. Ayana, you might have to correct me, ’cause I feel like I’m gonna say something out of pocket. But for the blues film, I was also wondering, like, where are the women? Number one.
AC: That’s real talk.
Audience Member #12: But when I saw the scenes on Maxwell Street, two thoughts came up. One, seeing the little girl with her guitar, it made me think of Sister Rosetta Tharpe. And I’m not sure if she ever—I remember reading something, or watching a documentary about her, and seeing a glimpse of her on Maxwell Street. So I was wondering, when I saw that, where are the women in this conversation about blues in Chicago? The other interesting thought that came up looking at the Maxwell Street scene was how that was a space for young, lesser known artists to find a platform, to come out with their instruments and play along the sides of the festival row. And that seems like something that has continued here in Chicago. How we can discover young emerging artists at street festivals, and the local markets, neighborhood markets, and stuff like that today. So those are just two thoughts.
AC: And not even just that, but at the jam sessions and what have you. The other thing, the intergenerational thing that still happens a lot, is the beautiful tradition of the teaching artist in Chicago. Watching that interconnection between one generation and another, and seeing that happen. I mentioned Tom Tom Washington at the top. One of the things that he does is the South Side Community Big Band, which includes folks who played on those old soul, and jazz, and blues records, but also young cats. They all come on Monday nights and they jam. And they do his arrangements of—I don’t know, I’m just trying to think of a song—like, “Butterfly,” or just jazz standards. But they get to take that Chicago thing and pass it, and spread it, and disseminate it.
I don’t know why, I know there weren’t women talking in this one, but it didn’t bother my spirit as much. I don’t know, that was me. But yeah, that would have been wonderful to hear—I collect a lot of blues records, and there’s a lot of beautiful blues singers out of Chicago, male and female. It would have been nice to have heard from—
Audience Member #13: I know there’s a concert tonight in the main hall between secular and sacred. And I wonder how the black church—male-dominated in many cases, especially if you’re looking at Pentecostal, and Church of God in Christ, but yet women are central in terms of choirs, and singers, and Mahalia Jackson, and others that have come out of that tradition. So in some ways women were able to take a male-dominated space and make it their own, but it’s a safe, sacred space. And somehow the same is not as visible, or as publicized, in terms of the secular space that are blues clubs, past and present. Although certainly there are many more women that are performing blues as singers and as musicians now than before. So I would be really interested in that—gendered spaces, and safe spaces, and who’s “allowed,” and whose promoted, in one versus the other.
With both films, what I didn’t see—someone mentioned that they didn’t mention the word poverty in the jazz film, but we saw it, right—but also, what I didn’t see or hear, was that there’s a black middle class in Chicago that was not present in either of those films. Some of those black people who did come from the South worked at the CTA, and at the post office, in particular, in Chicago. I’m speaking from personal knowledge as the daughter of one. Who went from sharecropping to a black middle class. And a black middle class does not necessarily equal the same as a mainstream or white middle class, but not everyone lived either in the projects or in the Black Belt in poverty, in the way that we saw in both of those films. You know, there’s a history of people who went to HBCUs, historically black colleges and universities. So there’s a black experience that’s still missing from both of those films. Although certainly with young men in the first jazz film, it’s obvious that they’re educated. They’re in an educated environment, they’re interacting and having dialogue with their intellectual peers, at least. But, yes, where are their female black counterparts in that, who, I agree, would have a whole lot to say.
So I think when we see a film like the blues film—and I was born here in Chicago as well—that to see that film in Chicago means and feels a lot different than it might be to see it in London, or in New York, or in LA. Because we know these places. We know that “L” that used to be green that’s not anymore, and the #3 King Drive bus. For many of us, those are familiar places, today, tomorrow, and the next day. And I think it’s important to see films like this, that capture Chicago through music and through its history, at this moment when this city is changing in very profound ways. I mean, for me, to even see the opening credits of Good Times—that is gone. And I actually worked in a building that had that same view, and I sat there at my desk and looked out the window, and I heard that theme song in my head. Because I was looking at the Merchandise Mart down the tracks, and it’s the same view that’s in that opening credit from Good Times.
AC: There’s a little Volkswagen going by you?
Audience Member #13: Sorry, what?
AC: There’s, like, a little car—anyway, I know too much about that show. [Laughter]
Audience Member #13: I was in the presentation earlier with Ruben Santiago-Hudson, and he was talking about how we need to own our history, we need to keep our history, we need to be curators of it. He was talking specifically about African American people, and black music, and black theater, and black culture, et cetera. I don’t like to use truisms, but those who love that Chicago, as you mentioned—it’s fleeting now. Because it’s being erased, physically.
Audience Member #11: No, it’s being erased mentally. Because, like you just said, where were the women? When the women came up from the South, if you know anything about the southern traditions, women that came from the South, they were really spiritual, and they were really grounded. And they didn’t believe in going to those—that was frowned upon, to do blues, and stuff like that. So when you look at people like that, you have to kind of study a person like Mahalia Jackson, all of those gospel singers. ‘Cause women were mostly going—
Audience Member #13: In a sacred space.
Audience Member #11: Yeah, they were going to a secular space. So you may have a few, but then they start to come out. They start to say, “Hey, you know what, we’ve got a better life. You know, we’re starting to get this…” That’s probably why you really don’t see them mixing with the Muddy Waters, and the Willie Dixons, and—
Audience Member #13: But yet they’re present as waitresses, and as girlfriends—but as actors in that space. I would love to hear and see more around that. The contrast and contradictions of sacred and secular in that historical way. So, I’ll leave it there. Thank you.
AC: Yeah. Can I just, super quick? So, it’s interesting you’re talking about the class differential. There’s a book that I read for writing this other book. I’m gonna probably mess up this guy’s last name, but it’s called Right On: Blues to Soul in Black America, and it’s Mike Haralambos. And he’s connected to the University of Chicago, I think he went here for one of his degrees. But the point here is, it talks about how blues was really isolated, and one of the main modes of doing that was via the radio. It was played less and less and less, and they would show the charts at WVON, and all the major black stations, and how they played less and less jazz. And it became considered in the community as being lower and lower class, and it wasn’t something that a middle class person would listen to. And even in that first film—”Oh, you accuse us of crying the blues,” like it’s some sort of thing that’s beneath people. And I think that thing still reverberates on with some people, which is very unfortunate, because all of it comes from the blues.
FW: St. Clair Bourne came here in about 1984, and the first film I worked on was with St. Clair, it was called Big City Blues, which was basically a follow up to this film, looking at the new blues, looking at Queen Sylvia Embry. Does anybody remember her at all? She was a blues singer back in the 1980s. She went from blues back to the church, but she was really big. It was at the beginning of Sugar Blue’s career. So that film, if you can find it, it’s called Big City Blues, it’s by St. Clair Bourne. It was written about extensively back then. But it really brought women into the fold, because they had been there are along. Like this young woman playing on the street in Maxwell Street. Did anybody notice her? I’m sure you did, yeah. But there’s that intersection, and that change. When I was growing up, blues got played by E. Rodney Jones on WVON, from two o’clock in the morning till six o’clock in the morning. That’s where blues ended up. But blues was active in the clubs constantly—always, everywhere.
Audience Member #15: I just want to say quickly, I appreciate both films. Especially the blues. I believe it’s something that should be studied—well, both of them, but—looking at it as a musician’s point of view. How the music, even though it changed, still a lot is the same. And how it changes through the genres, and how powerful it is, not only then but also today. And I believe if we could bring these films for the younger generation, and all generations, to actually study and learn, we could actually grow. For all races—it would be best for all races, then we can grow and come together. That’s all I have to say.
AC: And also I love that the footage is coming from actual clubs, like Pepper’s Lounge, and spots like that, where a lot of the footage of these musicians is coming from Europe, or something like that, and it’s taken out of the club context. So to see them playing for the home team, I think, and seeing the reactions, for me, is really valuable.
Audience Member #16: So, this wasn’t touched on, I’m kind of really surprised that we’re, I think, about twenty minutes into it, and I can’t be the only black male who sat here and watched a fictionalized account of the black male body being fetishized by those white women in the first jazz movie. It’s fiction, but it was very funny. Good fiction is good fiction because it tells the truth in a very kind of pleasant way. But that was really creepy. But I think it’s very truthful. And to the complaint that was, jazz came from the blues so it should have been vice versa, I kind of disagree. Here’s the reason why—but I do think that’s valid—is I think the two films juxtapose the American black experience, or the specific black male experience, to what you were saying, in two different eras, even though it’s very close. One is pre-Civil Rights—the ability for a black person to vote—and one is after. So I think what you see here, in a fictionalized way in the first film with jazz, and you see it with this kind of fetishization of the black male body, and then the second one, in the blues film, that statement about this economic muscle, someone mentioned about the projects. But then they also brought in a comment about, there’s a large black middle class here. It’s the whole reason Barack Obama came to Chicago, right? Let’s just be honest here. And I think it’s interesting in a sense that the second movie talks about the black experience—the first one talks about it from the white gaze, but the second one talks about it from the black gaze. The blues one is more of a documentary, whereas the first one is more of a fictionalized account. I don’t know if anyone else picked up on that, but what I thought was interesting was how the black male body is fetishized in both. It’s just that one is telling from a fictionalized account of a white gaze, and the other one is telling from more of a documentary view, from a black view—that whole piece with Muddy Waters when he was, like, “No one can actually sing the real blues like I can.” So, that’s it, that’s my comment.
AC: Why are you looking at me, Floyd? You want me to say something? [Laughter] I don’t know, I think that white woman was fetishized pretty well by those shots. I don’t know, any directors out there? Those shots with those legs? What was going on with that? [Laughter] That’s just my vote. I think there was a little equal opportunity fetishization.
FW: But listen, it was Chicago. It was Chicago in 1959.
AC: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
FW: Black males at the University of Chicago in 1959, totally separated from the community in a whole lot of ways, except for—if you really want to get a good understanding of what that was like, Baghdad Blues by Sam Greenlee, who was at school at that time, and he writes about that specific time. It really gives you a picture of what it was like.
AC: Thank you, Floyd. No, no, no, no, better you than me.
Audience Member #18: Thank you, hi. I’m from the younger generation, I just want to say that I appreciate this event. I feel inspired to start collecting. Prior to this I didn’t really understand blues. I understood jazz, I understood spirituals, but I really didn’t understand how that intertwined. So I appreciate the opportunity. Anyway, I’m a University of Chicago alum, I studied biology, and I was on the phone today with a friend of mine that I went to medical school with, who is practicing now in California. She’s a black woman, very young, and she was telling me about some of her struggles in terms of interacting with her Caucasian patients. And I just really appreciate in the first film, this discussion of restraint versus freedom. And sort of having the freedom to be black women enrolled in medical school, and to earn these terminal degrees, but at the same time experience restraint in our day to day experiences of being a practicing professional. So I appreciated the first film sort of highlighting that. After I got off the phone with her, I felt very tense, and it was sort of, like, this tense, negative potential energy. So while the films didn’t really highlight black women, as a black woman I did feel a very satisfactory kinetic unfold in watching these films after having that conversation with my friend. So, thanks.
MP: Well, thank you all for coming. Like I mentioned, Chicago’s Black Arts Movement in Film series continues on November 10th at the South Side Community Art Center, with a program about the mural movement. We have muralists Eugene Eda Wade and Arlene Crawford there for a Q&A after that. We hope to see you there. Please leave your surveys out on the table, and feel free to sign up for our mailing list if you want to hear about more upcoming programs.
AC: And if you’re not sleepy yet, there’s a blues jam coming up tonight in this building, yeah? Like at ten o’clock? Is that what the word on the street—the word on the street is that. [Laughter] You know what I’m saying? I heard that from a little birdie. So if you’re not sleeping, that’s what’s about to be happening.