Bye Bye Blackbird

Simone_AtVillageGateNina Simone’s rendition of the 1920s Tin Pan Alley standard ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’, which appeared on her 1962 album At the Village Gate, provides a fine example of the artist’s classically-flavoured style. The version recorded by Simone and her band is an instrumental one; shorn of the familiar lyrics, the resulting performance showcases instrumental virtuosity, in particular the musical alchemy between Simone and guitarist Al Shackman. Simone’s piano introduction is restrained and elegant, initially offering few clues to the identity of the song, then allowing fragments of the melody to enter. After nearly two minutes, Simone shifts to comping at the piano as if for a standard jazz rendition of ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’ and Shackman assumes the spotlight, the growing dynamism of his guitar work amplified and underlined by Bobby Hamilton’s drum fills. At 3:32 Simone asserts her leadership via an insistently repeated note that pecks at the “Blackbird” melody before developing first into a jazz solo, then alternating scattered jazz notes with waves of tones and scales more associated with the teleology of classical style. Yet, even as she channels the techniques of European virtuosi from Bach to Liszt, the addition, at the six-minute mark, of wordless, scatted vocals, “blackens” the music, claiming it for a jazz-singing tradition that leads from Louis Armstrong to Abbey Lincoln and beyond. To use a less explicit term (though its use is no less resonant in its racial implications), we could follow Farah Jasmin Griffin and Salim Washington in their description of the way Billie Holiday “blued” the material she performed.

This description of ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’ runs the risk of suggesting that there are clear points when Simone switches from one style (jazz) to another (classical). For the purposes of analysis, of course, it is necessary to identify decisive, illustrative moments in the recording. Analysis requires at least the fantasy of stasis, of moments frozen long enough for interpretation to take place. Music, however, is a flowing, temporal experience and, while its temporal qualities do not make it resistant to analysis, we must remain alive to the ways in which various elements coalesce, mutate, relate, respond to, reflect and feed each other. The processes of “blackening” or “blueing” suggest ways by which we can recognize such flow in Simone’s work. The interlacing, or overlaying, of the scatted vocal with classical piano style on ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’ highlights the extent to which we should stay alive to the hybridizing processes of musical performance even as we apply our attention to particular musical objects. Such processes are often recognized in discourse about music, for example when artists are described as “jazzing” or “jazzing up” pieces of music not previously associated with the genre of jazz. Nina Simone’s work invites us to see classical music as a process too, to note the inclusion into popular songs of certain signifiers of classical style (certain types of motivic figures, certain conventions, sections which are not “jazzed”, which stay close to “the rules”). Describing the music of Chicago, in his poem ‘The Windy City’, Carl Sandburg used the memorable phrase “they jazz the classics”; perhaps we could see Simone’s contribution to black classical music as a determination to “classicalize” jazz.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: