From Michael Jackson to Malcolm X: Gary Bartz NTU Troop’s “Juju Street Songs” (1972) vinyl
Gary Bartz at his best created music that heals the soul and lifts the spirit. This may sound trite to you. So be it. If language was sufficient to express what I hear in the best jazz musicians’ work, there wouldn’t have been any reason for them to compose and play it. The signifier and the signified. Beyond the reach of the word, this time, and found in the sustained note of a saxophone or the modal chord changes of an electric piano. The spirituality effervescing from this music is, perhaps, of a piece with the time it was created. A time when radical politics danced with eastern philosophy and African religious ideas, when Franz Fanon sat next to the Koran and the Sutras on the same bookshelf. I had an exchange, one of those conversations that is somewhere between a debate and an argument, about the idea of racial pride and specifically black pride. My interlocutor was stoically against the idea of any pride based around the concept of race. The argument was elaborated in a way that was similar to or identical to others I had heard before, on the streets of Chicago or in the halls of higher learning, or over drinks in the country that imported more slaves from Africa than anywhere else on the planet. On the level of abstractions, where most people contemplate such questions, the argument holds some water, but tends to leak like a British oil rig the minute flesh-and-blood people in actual historical contexts are factored in. It’s a reasonable enough argument usually found on the lips of white people, who invented the very idea of race as a means with which to categorize, catalog, and compare humanity along a sliding scale of value. And easy enough for whites to then discard the idea as of little analytical worth once it becomes inconveniently reclaimed and rearticulated by the racialized. White people can do this because of the common epistemology that they are colorless, some sort of neutral human template, rather than part of the dialogic process in which racial identities calcify. Do not think I’m skipping lightly over the heterogeneity that is glossed over by these terms — it is no more analytically rigorous or accurate to talk of “white people” than it is “black people,” merely chromatic poles in a spectrum, yet there are generalizations that can be made, MUST be made, as a starting point of any meaningful analysis. Dissimulation, the refusal to make assertions and critique, is a poor substitute for nuance. In a historical situation of dominance where deliberate concerted efforts were made to not only strip away a peoples’ cultural lifeways, but even their very ability to identify their own family – the forbidding of slaves to keep surnames, for example — we simply cannot look at “black pride” with the same optic we might use for “white pride.”
But in a way these thoughts were all beside the point. To throw a blanket statement over the fire of racial pride and (re)valorization, to call it essentially destructive and polarizing, is to utterly decontextualize the dynamic situations where such movements take place. And they are movements in every vibration of that term – collective, with a particular understanding of the past, and a particular vision for remaking the world. In the Afrocentric spiritual jazz of the 1960s and 70s you are dealing with musicians old enough to remember segregation, young enough to remember there was more to the civil rights struggle than just Dr. King, equally inspired by Charlie Parker and Motown, and emboldened by a solidarity, symbolic or otherwise, with the victims of dislocation, colonization, and imperialism around the globe. Musicians who were active when Nelson Mandela was considered a terrorist enemy of the state, and who watched as a score of African nations struggled for and won their independence in the 50s and 60s. A time when any hopefulness gained from desegregation and decolonization was tempered by the violence in the streets, of black and brown-skinned people as canon fodder in Vietnam, of the scourge of heroin in the ghettos. Ghetto, a word that dates to the seventeenth century and was used throughout Europe since that time and well into the twentieth century to denote a Jewish neighborhood. From Webster, Etymology: Italian, from Venetian dial. ghèto island where Jews were forced to live, literally, foundry (located on the island), from ghetàr to cast, from Latin jactare to throw. It also referenced the iron foundries and slag heaps of the Venetian island where the word came into usage. After the liberation of the concentration camps came the concentration of more and more brown and black skinned peoples into the marginalized landscapes of urban U.S. cities, populated by the human slag heaps of four hundred years of dehumanizing capitalist accumulation. The ghetto, a signifier so dire in its valence that even the most celebratory of Afrocentricities could not celebrate it. It is nearly always condemned as a particular circle of a Dantean hell; if spoken of with warmth or nostalgia it is accompanied by extreme qualifiers that leave no doubt as to its demoralizing enervation. This is different from the barrio of Puerto Ricans (many of them also black, but until right around this time more historically likely to distance themselves from the African-American as long as they bought into the white dream of upwardly mobile meritocracy). The barrio could represent resistance, preservation of cultural values across time and space and against odds for the Latino enclaves dislocated by transnational flows, or crossed by the border. The ghetto, on the other hand, was always only a few steps away from an ethnic cleansing by the dominant power. And in this case, that was white America. Not even Nina Simone, a luminous torch of the civil rights movement, could bring herself to thoroughly trust the white people around her in the music business. Smart woman, Nina.
So when Gary Bartz dedicated Harlem Bush Music to Malcolm X, we should really pay attention to that. It is not a footnote. It is an exclamation point and a wake-up call.
What does all this have to with me, with my comfortable middle-class childhood and existence? What does all this have to do with my mixed-race home and its aspirations to the American Dream? What does any of this have to do with me – culturally white, politically red, spiritually yellow? Perhaps nothing at all.* Maybe nothing to do with me or perhaps it’s better for me to do nothing.
But everything to do with me when I pick up this album on a night when I don’t know if I’ll make it through to the next day, and find there a spirit to meet me half way and whisper, “Time is running out, time is running..” Music that makes me close my eyes and open my heart and find the stain of self-hatred so old it’s faded, like scar tissue from a clumsy surgeon. When I play this record I am filled with the compassionate joy that the buddhists talk about. There is a comfort, not a reassurance, but a comfort and camaraderie in having someone else show you, with their music, that everything is NOT alright, but that you will survive. Because you have so far. And because there are few other choices. I want to be where you are. The longing for oneness, peering into the gaping maw of transcendent consciousness, obliterating the individual, the longing for union with god, with a lover, with one’s true self. Know thyself, you dig? In the first two minutes of this track we are brought through all the changes of death, repose, and rebirth – of solemn reflection followed by exultation to be simply alive.
Can it be I stayed away too long?
Did I leave your mind when I was gone?
It’s not my thing trying to get back
But this time let me tell you where I’m at
This song is one of Michael’s huge early hit songs, released in 1972, written by Leon Ware and T-Bone Ross. I doubt they ever imagined it played this way when first putting it together.
I understand better now why bassist Stafford James plays his electric bass through some type of envelope follower or flange pedal. It makes his playing more elastic, the attack of the notes more susceptible to coaxing out the bottom end of rhythm, supporting but not overwhelming Howard King’s drums. Bartz blowing his sax like a mad dervish, sometimes modulating it with a wah-wah pedal in small, choice musical phrases. He runs this slice of Motown through a melodic meat grinder and gives us prime grade-a. Listen to Andy Bey`s chord inversions around the vocal melody while Bartz veers outward and beyond on modal flights of fancy. The last three or so minutes of this (cut from the version on the anthology posted at Flabbergasted Vibes previously) see the ensemble swinging the main refrain with heavy funk before is total deconstruction approaching the nine-minute mark, playing in free time and destroying the love-lorn pleas into a pastiche, threatening to put them all back together again for one final chorus, but instead leaving us hanging and still wanting to be where you are.
The next track is even more Motown. “Black Maybe,” a song written for Syreeta by her producer and one-time husband Stevie Wonder. Like “I Want To Be Where You Are,” this song also dropped in 1972. The sessions for this album were cut in October of that year, showing just how little time the NTU Troop wasted in restocking their ammunition. Slowing this song down to a slow burner with a blues feeling, you can still here Stevie’s hand in the melody. Andy Bey may not have the same vocal magic as either Stevie or Syreeta, but I love the guy’s voice and he was a perfect fit for Bartz’s musical vision. On this track you can also clearly hear the double-mic technique Bartz was using to get part of his sound. The microphone panned to the right channel is clean saxophone, probably with the mic placed above and slightly out in front; the left channel is the modulated signal run through a wah pedal, with microphone mostly likely stuck damn nearly right in the bell of the sax. The result is a sound that envelopes the listener in the aural equivalent of a vice grip, death via saxophone, but so sweetly a demise has rarely unfolded on this earth. Lyrically one of Stevie’s most intriguing, complex, and radical songs tackling racial and identity politics with an urgency to unsettle the mentality of pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps-and-to-hell-with-your-brother that we can, once again, generalize as endemic to a white middle-class value system . If only people had listened more closely to the message of Stevie’s music more generally, MJ would never have bleached his skin and Will Smith would never have existed. Time is running out, time is running… out.
Bertha Baptist (b.1942, Atlanta, Georgia, d. 1980). Although having no familial relationship to Bertha Butt, the two were friends and frequently exchanged anecdotes and gossip at a Harlem hair salon. Due to her strict religious beliefs, Bertha Baptist was constantly turning down Bertha Butt’s invitations to go out for a night of dancing. Those places are for drunkards and hussies, she would say. However one day curiosity got the better of her and she accompanied Ms. Butt to a local jazz club (Miss Baptist kept calling it a “juke joint”), where as it happened the evening’s entertainment was Gary Bartz & NTU Troop. During one of Andy Bey’s funky electric piano solos, Bertha threw all modesty to the wind and astonished all onlookers as she performed dance moves she picked up working in a New Orleans brothel ten years earlier before she found The Lord her savior. It was the one and only time anyone in New York would ever see her dance. Bassist Stafford James wrote a song in her honor. He also looks curiously like Bertha’s only child, William, born about six months after this record was released.
Africans Unite. Feels like we´ve discussed this already. Pan-African transatlantic solidarity, percussion frenetic yet easy on the ears, a folk melody building to a chant of “Let’s do it now”. A Bartz original composition with fluid riffing over the stuttering rhythmic base. Teheran. Well it’s a few years too early to be about the Iranian Revolution. The song is as mysterious to me as it was probably intended to be, Bartz seducing us in serpentine Phrygian-mode rivulets of sound, a shimmering tapestry of gongs as a backdrop in the king’s palace, Howard King playing his toms and snare drums with mallets and laying down heavy on an open high-hat and cymbals. (Side note — this is the track that has the most ‘clicks and pops’ from the vinyl. The presence of so much sibilance from the cymbals and gongs and other percussion made it risky to try and remove these clicks and I opted to leave them in rather than potentially lose frequencies by trying to clean them up.)
Gary Bartz NTU Troop – Juju Street Songs
Prestige Records (P-10057) 1972
A1 I Wanna Be Where You Are 10:04
A2 Black Maybe 9:38
B1 Bertha Baptist 6:32
B2 Africans Unite 6:30
B3 Teheran 8:20
Vinyl -> Pro-Ject RM-5SE turntable (with Sumiko Blue Point 2 cartridge, Speedbox power supply) > Creek Audio OBH-15 -> M-Audio Audiophile 2496 Soundcard -> Adobe Audition 3.0 at 24-bits 96khz -> Click Repair light settings, remaining clicks removed manually in Audition -> dithered and resampled using iZotope RX Advanced
Alto Sax, Soprano Sax, Sopranino, Voice, Electric Piano, Percussion – Gary Bartz
Bass, Electric Bass, Voice, Percussion – Stafford James
Drums, Voice, Percussion – Howard King
Vocals, Electric Piano, Percussion – Andy Bey
Recorded at Fantasy Studios, Berkeley, California, October 1972.
Gary Bartz NTU Troop – Juju Street Songs (1972) in 320kbs em pee tree
Gary Bartz NTU Troop – Juju Street Songs in FLAC LOSSLESS AUDIO (16-bit, 44.1 khz)
Gary Bartz NTU Troop – Juju Street Songs in 24-bit, 96khz FLAC
Note that the file sets will actually have 1973 as the year, which is erroneous. Please correct this mistake yourself if it matters to you.
*(Look around the internet for some ‘user reviews’ of some Gil Scott-Heron albums — you the site I mean — and you may find the ranting of one reactionary man who insists Gil’s music has absolutely nothing of value to offer to white Americans like himself. Don’t take my word for it, go and look.)
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