Blue MondayColumnsEssaysFeature

The Sidewinder

Race, resistance, and the blues

“I merely took the energy it takes to pout, and I wrote some blues.” -Duke Ellington

In the past week I have thought often about “The Sidewinder.”

“The Sidewinder” is a famous jazz standard written by the late, great trumpeter Lee Morgan, which appeared on his 1964 album of the same name. A 24-bar blues tune with a distinctive “boogaloo” rhythm pattern, it is often considered an iconic recording of the mid-1960s genre of “soul jazz.” Morgan was a trumpet phenom from Philadelphia who played in the style of Clifford Brown. (Philadelphia was indeed an incubator of post-bebop jazz greats, including Morgan and Brown, but also John Coltrane, Benny Golson, the Heath brothers — Jimmy, Percy, and Albert “Tootie” — McCoy Tyner, Bobby Timmons, of course “Philly” Joe Jones, and a great many others; Billie Holiday was also born in Philadelphia, a generation before, though she grew up in Baltimore.) When he recorded this tune, Morgan was already a star who had made a number of classic recordings of blues-inflected, “hard bop” jazz for the Blue Note label, and had made a name for himself on the front line of one of the many versions of Art Blakey’s great Jazz Messengers group; had had his career sidelined, like many of his colleagues, by heroin addiction; and was experiencing a “musical comeback.”

Many readers have probably heard this tune without knowing it. Catchy and even danceable, it has a very simple melodic and harmonic structure and a propulsive beat.

The story is that the tune was written hastily by Morgan on toilet paper in the bathroom of Rudy Van Gelder’s famous Hackensack, New Jersey studio, in order to fill space on the album that eventually became known for it. The album became Blue Note’s best-selling record ever, reaching No. 25 on the Billboard chart. The tune was a “top 100” hit on the pop charts, and indeed served as the theme for a Chrysler television commercial that aired during the 1965 World Series.

A sidewinder is a snake. In the words of Wikipedia: “also known as the horned rattlesnake and sidewinder rattlesnake, [it] is a venomous pit viper species … found in the desert regions of the southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico.” The term has come to have a broader meaning, as The Urban Dictionary conveniently explains: “Formerly, a species of snake; now more commonly referred to as any individual whose devious and deceitful nature is readily apparent, and as a result, they can’t follow the straight and narrow. Instead, they sidewind you! They can’t be trusted as far as you can throw them, they perpetually prevaricate, are prone to larcenous activity, etc.” Lee Morgan knew this. According to the liner notes of his album, what he had in mind when writing the tune was the distinctly human variety of viper, a prototypical “Western” movie villain, a very bad guy.

Readers of my previous pieces at Public Seminar will have figured out paragraphs ago where I was going with this.

Donald Trump.

Just days ago Rob Porter, one of Trump’s chief White House aides, was forced to resign after credible allegations of domestic violence by his two ex-wives were made public, along with the revelation that over a year ago the FBI had refused to grant him a security clearance. The White House knew about both of these. Yet Porter, like Jared Kushner, served for over a year in the White House without clearance, with access to every single piece of classified information intended for the President. Chief of Staff General John Kelly, he of the comments about lazy ass Mexicans, whose malevolence becomes clearer with each passing day, supported Porter and even defended him after the allegations went public. Only when the news of Porter’s awfulness was joined by a photograph of his battered first wife did Kelly, after slithering from one explanation to another, fire Porter.

Within hours Donald Trump was before television cameras, praising Porter for doing “a very good job in the White House,” saying that he is very “sad” for Porter, that he wishes him a “wonderful career,” and closing by echoing his earlier comments about accused pedophile Roy Moore: “He says he’s innocent, and I think you have to remember that.” Not a word of concern for the two ex-wives with remarkably similar stories. Not a word about how domestic violence and sexual harassment in general are bad. Nothing. Hours later Trump followed up with a Tweet bemoaning the fate of poor misunderstood men such as Porter, “whose lives are being shattered and destroyed [by] mere allegations.”

His closing sentence: “Is there no such thing any longer as Due Process?”

This from the man whose entire political career was fueled by racist “Birther” smears; who has done everything in his power to obstruct the FBI investigation into Russian meddling; who conspired with Devin Nunes to undermine the House Intelligence Committee and who just refused to release the Democratic rebuttal to Nunes’s memo; who regularly denounces the press as “enemies of the people”; and who last week denounced Democrats in Congress, with special nod to the Congressional Black Caucus, as both “un-American” and “treasonous” for refusing to stand up and clap for him.

In a July speech to Long Island police, Trump delivered one of his most memorable encomiums to “due process”:

When you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon, you just see them thrown in, rough, I said, please don’t be too nice. Like when you guys put somebody in the car and you’re protecting their head, you know, the way you put their hand over. Like, don’t hit their head and they’ve just killed somebody. Don’t hit their head. I said, you can take the hand away, okay?

Thus spake the Orange Sidewinder, the larcenous viper who everyday disparages and debases some individual or group or law or constitutional value, and all in the name of the American people that he supposedly represents. In our name.

Yes, of course, we live in a deeply corrupt and unequal society. Of course our liberal democracy is profoundly attenuated, and it does not live up to the values it professes. And yet these values matter. And so when Trump flouts them with contempt, this matters too, in both a practical and a symbolic sense.

Trump always prevaricates, and is prone to larcenous behavior.

He is also prone to express great solicitude toward those who use violence against those less powerful than themselves.

Because Trump’s White House is a den of vipers, I’ve been thinking a lot this past week about “The Sidewinder.” But I’ve also been thinking a lot about Lee Morgan. Morgan was a brilliant young African-American man who lived hard and died young. Like so many of the great jazz musicians of his era, his life was marred by racism, police brutality, addiction, and exploitation. That World Series Chrysler commercial featuring “The Sidewinder,” for example: it came as a shock to him, because his permission had never been sought. He pretty much labored in obscurity. And yet he persisted, and resisted, through his musicality, in a way that continues to resonate.

In a 2001 NPR segment on “The Sidewinder,” critic Murray Horowitz offered this comment:

I truly believe in the music speaking for itself, but we’re living in a time right now when doing even the most routine activity seems to take on a new significance. It’s like we have to rethink everything. Well, this music was recorded on December 21, 1963, barely a month after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Yet there’s this undaunted quality about it. It’s uncompromisingly progressive. It’s always driving and moving forward. And then, to achieve the kind of beauty and elegance that they do — and that Lee Morgan does especially well…

Morgan was indeed politicized by the events of the sixties. Within months of his Sidewinder album, he was in the studio again, recording the plaintive, gospel-infused album Search for the New Land (recorded in 1964, it was released in 1966).

As one commentator has noted of his music:

The pre-eminence of blues and subsequently R&B and soul was not solely borne of a desire to simplify jazz. It was about expressing the truth, and gaining a greater proximity to a black audience. … Morgan would go on to teach and also campaign on behalf of iconic African-American militants like Angela Davis. As a major name in jazz in the Sixties and Seventies, he had to reconcile his desire to see the music institutionalised in order to survive economically with his espousal of Black Nationalism.

Morgan also participated in the Jazz and the People movement led by multi-reedist Rahsaan Roland Kirk, an effort to assert the value of jazz music as a uniquely Black art form marginalized by white society, and to demand proper recognition for jazz musicians as creative artists. One way of doing this was to call attention to the lack of venues for jazz music, and also the exclusion of black musicians from studio work and from the big bands employed by television personalities such as Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett, and Merv Griffin. As a commentator describes one of the movement’s tactics, musicians would plan “to attend these shows as audience members and then disrupt them by blowing whistles, holding signs (some reading ‘More Jazz Music On TV’ and ‘Honor American Jazz Music’), and wreaking basic havoc on show schedules. This was so successful that Ed Sullivan invited Kirk to appear as a guest on his show so it wouldn’t be victimized by Kirk’s loud protests from the audience.” Morgan indeed himself participated in one of these disruptions, storming the stage of the Merv Griffin show with fellow musicians holding placards declaring “Stop the whitewash now, hire more black artists on TV” and “Tom Jones rose to fame singing black songs.”

It is impossible to tell the story of jazz without telling the story of racism in America and of the struggles against it.

Lee Morgan died in 1972, at the age of 33, at the height of his musical powers. The story of his death is one of the most tragic, and well-known, in the history of modern jazz. While playing a gig at a club called Slugs in Alphabet City, Lower Manhattan, he was shot to death by Helen Morgan, his common-law wife, the woman who had by all accounts literally picked him up from the gutter, nursed him to some semblance of recovery from his addiction, and had in every way supported and made possible his musical comeback. The story of this tragic denouement of an unusual and special relationship is a story of race and class and gender, of masculinity and co-dependency and violence, and it is told with incredible nuance, power, and sympathy in Kasper Collins’ 2016 documentary I Called Him Morgan (I highly recommend the film, and also Adam Shatz’s review of it in Paris Review).

I have long been a fan of Lee Morgan’s music, and indeed my band, the Postmodern Jazz Quartet, regularly includes some of his tunes in our repertoire. Here is a version of Morgan’s famous “Ceora” featuring Pat Harbison (trumpet), Jeremy Allen (bass), Chris Parker (drums), and yours truly (piano):

But only recently did I discover how interesting was his life story, and how resonant it remains today. If his “The Sidewinder” brings to mind the snake who currently resides at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (when he is not at Mar-a-Lago or some other Trump resort), it also evokes a pulsating, upbeat, persistence. Resistance. And so it also brings to mind those Jazz and the People performances of music and of civil disobedience in which Morgan participated.

And this brings to mind another “Philadelphia story,” the story of the Philadelphia Eagles, the NFL team that just last week won the Super Bowl. The 2017-18 NFL season was defined by the defiance of Colin Kaepernick, whose 2016 refusal to stand during ritualized performances of the national anthem, in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, led to his being blackballed by the league and his being denounced, along with those who followed his example, by the Sidewinder in Chief who, in a September 2017 neo-fascist stump speech in Huntsville, Alabama, declared: “That’s a total disrespect of our heritage. That’s a total disrespect of everything we stand for. . . Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘get that son of a bitch off the field right now, he’s fired?’”

Among the most outspoken supporters of Black Lives Matter was Eagles star Malcolm Jenkins, who for most of the NFL season stood with arm raised and fist clenched, Tommie Smith and John Carlos style, during the anthem. Indeed, many of the Eagles stars have declared very publicly that they have no respect for Donald Trump, who they regard as a racist, and will refuse to attend any White House ceremony so long as Trump is President (last year the NBA champion Golden State Warriors similarly boycotted the White House). This is a powerful and inspiring message, and like other recent messages, associated with the Women’s March and #MeToo and Dreamers, it represents some real hopefulness for the future. And yet it would seem overshadowed by the other message sent in celebration of the Eagles’ victory. A statement by the Philadelphia branch of Black Lives Matter says it best: “It is nothing new to us that hordes of predominantly white fans setting fires, flipping over cars, and destroying property are viewed as ‘rowdy’ and engaged by police in a nonthreatening manner, while crowds of predominantly black and brown people blocking traffic or even holding candle light vigils to protest state violence against black and brown people are met with scores of hostile police and viewed as ‘violent.’”

We have much work to do.

Also for you:

Jeffrey C. Isaac

Previous post

The Speaker’s Grovel

Next post

The Flu, Chief Wahoo, and Female Pain