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February 15, 2021

Harold Jaffe's Playlist for His Book "Brut"

Brut by Harold Jaffe

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Roxane Gay, and many others.

Harold Jaffe's Brut profiles an eclectic collection of artists, philosophers, and films, offering glimpses not only into their lives but also the times that formed them.

Larry Fondation wrote of the book:

"Harold Jaffe's BRUT could not be timelier. The book broadcasts the vision of a master conjurer--a writer who sees through walls, who dismantles both assumed truths and false truths, who celebrates the dialectic of creation and destruction that is the authentic act of imagination. Jaffe's selection of artists is impeccable; his brief biographical vignettes are not just illuminating, but revolutionary."

In his words, here is Harold Jaffe's Book Notes music playlist for his book Brut:

My volume, BRUT: Writings on Art & Artists, is fundamentally a transfiguration of extreme emotional pain into artistic beauty, what Yeats called a “terrible beauty.”

BRUT means “raw” in French and was coined by the artist Jean Dubuffet to refer to what he called “Art Brut,” paintings, sculptures and imaginative writings by self-learned artists confined to mental institutions in France and Switzerland.

It is that implied transfiguration of severe pain, depression, and even schizophrenia into a tragic art that fuels my volume. What may be called transformative music functions throughout.

For example, among the artistic figures I address directly are Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, John Coltrane, Dick Gregory, the 1959 Samba tragic film Black Orpheus, with its theme written by Antonio Carlos Jobim, and Sylvia Plath, who listened to Gustav Mahler, the 19th and early 20th century German- Jewish composer of symphonies and “heart-rending” songs of deep melancholy.

In my brief text “‘Trane” the musician is invited to Nagasaki not long after the US dropped its atomic bomb, but when the state-sponsored limousine stops, Coltrane does not get out because he is practicing notes on his flute. When the Japanese host asks him what he is doing, Coltrane says that he is trying to find the right chords to express his feelings about the terrible tragedy of Nagasaki.

I think of 'Trane playing A Love Supreme, in 1964, or Coltrane and the bass-baritone Johnny Hartman recording Billy Strayhorn’s Lush Life, in 1963.

Each was in my mind as I wrote.

Billy Strayhorn, who composed songs with and for Duke Ellington, was a melancholy gay black man who found it hard to fit into a hetero black jazz culture, and his melancholy is elegantly rendered by ‘Trane and Johnny Hartman in “Lush Life.”

I have a longer passionate narrative on Nina Simone in my volume.

Nina Simone, whom I first saw live at a concert memorial to the three young civil rights activists lynched in Mississippi in 1965, knew pain, lived it, sang it.

She was a very young woman in 1965, but sitting at a piano with a microphone, she held the several thousand bystanders rapt with her plaintive rendition of “Strange Fruit,” the somber song about lynching that was written for Billie Holiday.

Later, Simone’s version of Bob Dylan’s spiritual “I Shall be Released,” has never been sung with the passion and artistry with which Nina Simone sang it. And Bob Dylan evidently said as much.

I include a story about Dick Gregory, the comedian turned spiritual figure, who referred to lots of music in his routines, especially jazz and blues, and I thought of one of the bluesmen I love, Lightnin’ Hopkins, who like Dick Gregory, would be talking offhand to his audience, but abruptly, when he turned serious, his voice would drop an octave. Brother Greg did the exact same thing.

I write a narrative about the all-black 1959 samba-tragedy film Black Orpheus. The film takes place during Carnival in the favelas above Rio where the black poor live, and the entire film is a samba-fest with tragic undertones, since it retells the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.

When, though, Orpheus sings to Eurydice while playing his guitar, it is not the samba but the haunting ballad, “A Felicidade,” written by Antonio Carlos Jobim from his LP Black Orpheus.

I have two texts on Marlon Brando in the volume, the second taking place on the set of Last Tango in Paris, 1972, directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, who was known, among other things, for his eccentric love of the tango, which he managed to infuse into many of his films. The tango is in Last Tango, dotted through the film, and responded to ironically by the severely depressed Brando character who improvises most of his lines. The composer-musician Leandro Barbieri was responsible for the bits and pieces of tango scattered throughout the film.

In my text called “Che, Fidel, Camilo,” there is a photo in Havana’s National Museum, of the three revolutionaries on horseback trotting triumphantly into Havana after the revolution. Che is in his familiar beret, Fidel wears his army cap, and Camilo Cienfuegos, who died soon after the revolution in a plane accident, is in his white sombrero.

I thought of the 1963 Cuban-Soviet documentary I Am Cuba regarding the music accompanying the triumphant march with poor Cubans cheering from their windows.

The music is a compilation headlined by the New York-Cuban composer-musician Machito’s Afro-Cuban rhythms spliced together by the Cuban-born composer Carlos Fariñas.

I include several mostly brief Native American texts in the volume featuring Crazy Horse and Black Elk, both shamans; as well as a fantasy figure I call the Queen of Hearts. Musically, I refer especially to the “Ghost Dance,” created by a Norther Paiute shaman, which spread throughout Native American communities, including the Lakota Sioux, to which Crazy Horse and Black Elk belonged.

The Ghost Dance was alleged to protect Native Americans from cavalry bullets so long as they continued dancing and wore a “ghost shirt.”

The shamanic protection didn’t work, at least not in this life.

The music accompanying these brief texts are Lakota prayer songs.

The final text in the volume, called BRUT, and based on the French schizophrenic Antonin Artaud’s journal writings, is, on my side, a defiant but also intuitive and borderline unconscious text.

Oddly, one might think, the dominant song that is not cited but alive in my mind is NWA’s righteously wrathful “Straight Outa Compton,” long before Ice Cube became a millionaire and Trump supporter.

Harold Jaffe is the prolific, controversial author of nearly thirty books of fiction, non-fiction, and docufiction including PORN-ANTI-PORN (JEF Books, 2019), GOOSESTEP (JEF Books, 2016), Revolutionary Brain; OTHELLO BLUES (JEF Books, 2014); PARIS 60 (JEF Books, 2013); OD: DOCUFICTIONS (JEF Books, 2012); Induced Coma; Anti-Twitter: 150 50-Word Stories; Jesus Coyote; 15 Serial Killers; Beyond the Techno-Cave: A Guerrilla's Guide to Post-Millennial Culture; Terror-dot-Gov; Straight Razor; Sex for the Millennium; EROS ANTI-EROS (City Lights Publishers, 1990); False Positive; Beasts; Mourning Crazy Horse; Madonna & Other Spectacles; and Dos Indios. Jaffe's writing has been translated widely, most recently in Romania, Turkey, France, Japan, Italy, and Cuba. Jaffe is editor-in-chief of Fiction International.

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