I’ve always thought jazz and poetry have a lot in common. Poets string together words in an attempt to create an overall image which elicits an emotional response in their readers. Which is more or less what jazz musicians do, except they use music instead of words. Both poets and jazz musicians will also occasionally create a series of works based around a theme or subject matter. Each of the pieces will represent one facet of the overall subject so when taken together as a whole they leave the audience with a complete picture.
On his most recent recording, trumpeter Marquis Hill has created a series of pieces representing the African American experience in Chicago, Illinois. Sounds of the City, distributed by Delmark Records, isn’t just about the city itself. It’s also about what Chicago represented, and continues to represent to its African American population. In the days of segregation it was the first major city north of the colour line. When buses reached Illinois, they could take down the curtain separating the front from the back of the bus and passengers were free to sit where they wanted. Chicago had been a destination for African Americans leaving the south since the years immediately following the Civil War. There was work to be had in the slaughterhouses and the freight yards, which offered hope of a better life than sharecropping in the South.
If the connection between Chicago and African Americans isn’t obvious in the music, Hill makes sure we get the message with three spoken word interludes. These short, poetic pieces establish the background for the music and leave us no doubt which city is being referred to in the title of the disc. Chicago has of course been celebrated in poetry, “The city with big shoulders” (Carl Sandburg), literature, and song. It’s as famous for its slaughterhouses, where they make use of everything but the squeal, as it is for its art galleries and music. If you’ve ever been there you know it comes by its nickname of “The Windy City” honestly, as the wind off Lake Michigan is funnelled up its wide avenues by skyscrapers. In short. there is plenty about this city to be captured in music.
Unlike other media, music can be enjoyed in its own right and you don’t have to look for any hidden meanings to appreciate it for what it is. In the case of this disc, that means a collection of expertly played jazz by some eminently gifted players. Each of the tracks, including the spoken word tracks, save for the bonus cut “Stablemates” by Benny Golson, were written by Hill. While each of the tunes are definitely jazz, you won’t be able to help noticing how Hill has allowed hints of other musical genres associated with Chicago seep into his compositions. Whether it’s the 1970s soul influence in “She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not”, with Milton Suggs’ mellow vocals giving it an extra touch of smoothness, or the almost pop sounds of “Like Lee” with its infectious melody and catchy beat.
However, don’t be deceived by appearances or first impressions when it comes to Hill’s music. “Like Lee” might at first sound light and frothy, but as you listen you’ll realize it’s much more complex then you originally thought. While the melody might initially bounce along, buoyed up by Hill’s horn playing, the complex interplay between the drums and bass are an indication there is more to this song then first met the ear. With each passing verse and the addition of a new instrument into the mix, the song gains in texture and intricacy. While the horn continues to provide a jaunty lilt, the addition of piano at about the piece’s halfway mark breaks up what has been an established pattern and introduces a hint of discordance. However, over the course of what remains of the song what was initially a jarring element is gradually blended into its surroundings until it becomes part of the overall environment. Throughout it all, the steady underpinning provided by the bass and drums continues unimpeded as if it were a separate entity.
Following right after “Like Lee” is the second spoken word interlude of the disc. While the first interlude spoke of the role music plays in the life of the people, this short bit speaks directly to African Americans making Chicago their new home.”We’ve come this far by faith/From the fields we found our way to a new home along South Parkway/Currently known as the throne of King Drive/And though it might not be perfect/We thank God we’ve arrived/We survived/And it feels so good to be alive in the city of the Chi”. Think of this in relation to the song prior, a people trying to find their feet in an already existing environment. How at first they are an oddity, a new element disturbing the surface, but life continues to go on, and gradually they become part of the overall whole.
Life in Chicago was far from perfect for many years for the migrants from the South and their descendants. While segregation wasn’t enforced by law, it was by society. African Americans were restricted to living in specific neighbourhoods, restaurants displayed white only signs and basically they were still second class citizens. However, as “To Be Free”, the song following right after this spoken word piece suggests, it was far better then what they had left behind for the hope of freedom to come it offered. Starting off with a blues-tinged trumpet stirring thoughts of hardship and hope, the song morphs into something wilder and freer. Greg Ward’s alto sax shakes off restraints and takes the piece into a new direction, one which doesn’t care about rules and thumbs its nose at society and its niceties.
To some, the sound of Chicago is the sound of ‘L’ train rattling by overhead, the stockyards, and the floor of the commodities market during trading hours. To others the sound of the city is the music made by its people. From the ragtime and dixieland jazz of the early 20th century, the blues and swing of the 1920s and ’30s, the excitement of bebop in the post-war years and electric blues of the ’50s, to the explosion of the avant-garde in the late ’50s, the hopes, fears, worries, and joys of Chicago’s people have been tied up in the music they’ve produced. The music’s continual rejection of the status quo, its continual breaking down of barriers and kicking open new doors is a reflection of its community’s refusal to stand still and be regulated to the back of the bus.
In Sounds of the City, Marquis Hill has written a collection of pieces that somehow manages to convey both the literal sounds of the city and the historical connection between music and Chicago’s African American community. The three spoken word pieces included on the disc introduce the themes he elaborates on with the music. Each song, whether through style or emotional content, fills in another piece in the overall picture he and his fellow musicians paint for us.
It’s indicative of the quality of the job they have done in performing this music that I became so wrapped up in appreciating the overall impression the music was making upon me, I forgot about their individual abilities as musicians. While you can’t help but notice some of the great solos throughout the disc, don’t be surprised if you find yourself remembering what the disc means to you more than any one individual’s performance. Like any great poem, it’s not the individual words that matter, it’s the impact they have on you when combined together that makes them memorable. Hill is a great poet and musician and will leave you with an indelible memory of Chicago.