Rhythm in the Rocks

I submit that there is nothing that anybody in the world has ever done that is more civilized or sophisticated than to dance elegantly, which is to state with your total physical being an affirmative attitude toward the sheer fact of existence.”—Albert Murray

Years ago, I played guitar in a California cover band booked to play a wedding. It was a good group, and we had worked together before. But the rehearsals got stuck in the mud.

Hot Jazz Jubile

I don’t know where I got the idea, but I turned to them and said, “Follow me outside.” It was a warm day on an L.A. city street. Cars passed. I started striding down the sidewalk. “Move with me,” I said. We got into a rhythm, swinging our legs, moving. It felt good.

Back inside, we picked up our instruments, and the music, too, began to move. We had kicked up dust.

The phenomenon was not without precedent. But it was a while before it made sense to me.


A few years later, I began researching what started as a screenplay about Louis Armstrong. The work would molt through incarnations and become a book about Joe “King” Oliver, which I continue to work on. In the process, I stumbled across a key element of jazz rhythm.

“A jazz musician have to be a working class of man, out in the open all the time, healthy and strong,” recalled the early New Orleans string man Johnny St. Cyr. “A working man have the power to play hot, whiskey or no whiskey….”

“Working”—as in “Work it, mama!” or “Taking care of business.” “Working”—as in action.

Young Armstrong worked the New Orleans street trades—as a newsboy, dishwasher, grave cleaner, coal cart man, junk wagon hand, banana boat hand, milk wagon helper. His early days with the Karnofsky family helped define his work ethic. Strutting in second-lines, he said, “All the people would leave their worries behind.”

Regarding those early New Orleans musicians, Leonard Bechet (Sidney’s brother) said, “See, these hot people they play like they killing themselves, you understand? That’s the kind of effort that Louis Armstrong and Freddy Keppard put in there. If you want to hit the high notes those boys hit, brother, you got to work for that.”


My own second-line experience freed my spirit over the Bourbon Street earth, “through a glass lightly.” It happened during a funeral. Ironically, my worries did fall away, if they had ever existed. The music mixed with the march and swagger to bring a new color of steam and, for me, a rebirth. Who I thought I was, was gone. I feel sure the day the first jazz band played, the sky came a little closer to the earth.

Yet when jazz music first showed its face, plenty of people scowled. “The road to hell is too often paved with jazz steps,” wrote one source. Some conservatives “cited ‘scientific data’ showing that ragtime would ‘stagnate the brain cells and wreck the nervous system.’” In Chicago, dance hall overseers made sure couples stepped lively so they wouldn’t rub against each other and make horrible things happen.

My pet theory about this has always focused on church resistance. If, through jazz music, people found themselves reborn here and now, why would we need an afterlife?


The great Albert Murray seems to confirm my belief:

The church is not concerned with the affirmation of life as such…, (but) to eternal salvation of the soul after death. What the blue devils of gloom and ultimate despair threaten is not the soul or the possibility of everlasting salvation after death, but the quality of everyday life on earth.

You want that kind of quality? You got to work for that! Music is for more than just sitting and listening. “Through tens of thousands of years of evolutionary history, music has nearly always occurred together with dance,” writes Daniel Levitin. “Even today, most of the world’s languages use a single word to mean both music and dance.”


In these uphill days, “work” usually means putting one foot in front of the other. With work, you may hit your stride, what the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called “flow.” When I am out walking, I have learned when I let my legs swing from the hips, like a pendulum, the walk becomes resonant. It makes waves, which can bring pitch.

Gunther Schuller has discussed slave “rowing tunes,” where at least two observers wrote of the “rattle of the oars in the rowlocks” or the “rhythm of the row locks.” The sound drove the work and the song. Schuller wrote that the slave, conceiving “all rhythms as ‘rhythmicized’ melodies…maintained a basic, internally self-propelling continuum in his music,” a quality that “survived in jazz as ‘swing.”

In 1947, Alan Lomax visited Mississippi’s infamous Parchman prison farm. The work songs he recorded tell the story of American music. In “Black Woman,” the laboring prisoners sing with a tumult, with every ounce of their human being-ness.

I don’t want no sugar in my coffee (pound)

It make me mean, it make me mean. (pound)

The pounding of their pile-driving hammers moved them down the track into hollering unity.

When you meet my long-haired woman,

Just bow your head, just bow your head….

In an alchemical act, singing transformed hard labor into freedom. The work brought the music. In their full-body groove, the men found community. An African adage says it keenly: “Without a song the bush knife is dull.”

I am a synesthesiac. My first awakening to this weird confabulation came years ago on a Cape Cod beach strewn with stones. As I moved down the shore, I saw a pattern in the array—what I began calling “rhythm in the rocks.” They weren’t moving—but they had moved, thrown there by the sea. Looking at them, I felt the residual momentum. Each rock related to the next, like kittens in a litter. The potential energy was palpable.

(photo submitted by Peter Gerler)

One can hear that energy in a work song between two Mozambique women pounding maize (Music from Mozambique, Smithsonian Folkways F-4310, Track #6) The first makes vocal sound with each thump, then begins a chant on one. The music and work—they are one. Writing in 1936, Alain Locke observed, “Just as music can be carried without words, so rhythm can be carried without the rest of the music system; so intimately and instinctively it is carried. From this mustard-seed the whole structure of music can sprout anew.”

The New York swing band leader Eyal Vilner understands the dance/music synesthesia (as George Balanchine had it, “Dance is music made visible.”) Vilner has put together weekly jams where dancers and musicians “improvise and learn about each other’s art form. It really changed the way I write and play music,” he says on his YouTube. It was his 10-piece, modern-trending aggregation that backed the dancers in last October’s NYC show Sw!ng Out, where, the NYT reported, “the arrangements are new, tailored to these performers, the improvisatory sections responsive to the dancers’ improvisations.

Swing rhythm, as many readers here know, depends on finding the “pocket”—that weightless moment in spacetime. Medium tempos make it easier. Brass band players do not sprint! The music wants to stroll and stride. In the Uptown dance halls, the baseline movement was the carnal “slow drag.” Danny Barker of New Orleans left us with a pearl of wisdom: “You got to pluck that bass or play that instrument a certain way, a certain lilt. Nobody’s in a hurry—all that runnin’ and jumpin.’ No, you take it easy.”

Joe Oliver knew something about this. For one thing, he was all about camaraderie—being a “band man.” This is ultimately where he and Armstrong parted ways. He wanted Louis to “play the lead”—the melody common to all. He would have included the moving mob in his music.

Johnny St. Cyr recalled, “I believe that was why Joe Oliver was such a sensation – he had such a variety of tempos, and the rhythm was always perfect, right there with the beat. That was one of the things that made Joe very popular.” And in his Louis Armstrong: Master of Modernism, Thomas Brothers notes that musicians admired Oliver’s “knack for determining just the right speed, one appropriate for the piece and for the audience”—which was, in those days, flooded with dancers.

My favorite selection for Oliver’s dead-on tempo is the 11/18/27 Dixie Syncopators’ cover of the NORK’s “Farewell Blues.” The Syncopators take a laconic pace, out for a breezy stroll through the park, sky showing through the leaves. Their pace—about 25 percent slower than the NORK’s—is a fine example of what I call “long-wave swing.” As Louis wrote in Swing that Music, “I want to explain that ‘hot,’ as swing musicians use the word, does not necessarily mean loud or even fast.” With the Syncopators, not just the phrasing, but the whole thing swings. At the out-chorus, spring breaks, and all the flowers bloom. The band wasn’t going anywhere, because they were already there.

Years after my cover band experience, I found myself playing rhythm guitar in Boston with the electric Stan McDonald and his Blue Horizon Jazz Band. Our great bassist Al Ehrenfried pulled no punches in directing me to the pocket of swing. You can’t explain it, he said. It’s a mindset, a notion.

But it’s also a motion. In my book research, I had uncovered a new class of “rhythm rocks,” stories from the early Crescent City masters. And they were legion.

“The guys called the Dixieland players today think the louder you play, the better you are,” recalled Pops Foster. “Most of them are just loud. Back in the early days we used to play soft and hot. Most of the time it was so quiet you could hear the people’s feet shufflin’ on the floor.”

Recalling King Oliver at Chicago’s Plantation club, Albert Nicholas remembered, “The secret of Oliver’s band was rhythm and, no noise….Joe wanted to hear those feet on the floor; the feet of the dancers. He’d say, ‘When you don’t hear those feet, you’re not playing music; you’re making noise.’

In New Orleans, I knew Danny Barker, who awakened me to a few things (probably all I could handle). “Buddy Bolden would say, ‘Simmer down, let me hear the sound of them feet,’” Danny recalled–describing how the Bolden band would just “let the rhythm have it.” (Translation: “If You Don’t Shake You Don’t Get No Cake.”)

Earlier, James P. Johnson recalled, “I’d use pianissimo effects in the groove and let dancers’ feet be heard scraping on the floor. It was used by dance bands later.”

So I’m thinking, the feet scraping is part of the music. Satchmo tapped the same idea when asked how he saw himself as an entertainer: “Just like those people out there in the audience.”

So one night on a Blue Horizon gig, I decided to test the theory. I started watching the dancers’ feet and translating their moves into my guitar action. Right away, it all came home—the slipping, sliding, rocking, pounding: the moment of swing. I had let the rhythm have it, and the floor shook.

The great Ralph Ellison, whose Invisible Man cleared prejudicial cobwebs from my eyes, spoke to Stanley Crouch about the pre-Basie Oklahoma bands. “Something was happening to the rhythm of the music,’” Ellison told Crouch. “’Not only did we hear it, we saw it, because you listened to the band swing the dancers and watched the dancers swing the band.”

It all emerges if you can see and hear the music, if you let the rocks move. Maybe you’ll even get cake.

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Peter Gerler has written about jazz since the early 1990s. He has been published in American Legacy, DownBeat, JazzTimes, Humanities, The Boston Globe, New Orleans Gambit, Moultrie Observer, WBGO, Upbeat, www.jazz.com, www.nejazz.com, and other venues. He has presented on early jazz at Satchmo Summerfest, River Road African American Museum, Classic Jazz at Lincoln Library, Cambridge Center for Adult Education, Newton Lifetime Learning, and numerous senior facilities in the Boston area. Visit him online at www.jazztalks.com.

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