Slavery's Sad Song Swung—The American Slave Coast: A History of the Slave-Breeding Industry—Live, With Music

9781613748206Buy a ticket here.
Read on, and find out why you just did.
A New York Times Magazine piece by Rachel L. Swarns in April of this year bore the headline: “272 Slaves Were Sold to Save Georgetown. What Does It Owe Their Descendants?”
That university is hardly exceptional in its discovery or the issues it faces.
In the context of a consciouness that gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement, Ned and Constance Sublette’s long, rich and meticulously researched book, “The American Slave Coast: A History of the Slave-Breeding Industry” (Chicago Review Press) tells the harrowing and necessary story of how black lives mattered to a still-formative United States of America—as not just forced labor, but also product and currency.
At a moment when presidential candidates argue about jobs, the economy, race relations, international affairs and our country’s moral direction, the Sublettes show how all those issues were rolled into the single ugly truth on which much of what some seek to “make great again” was, well, made great.
As the publisher’s description states, the book offers “a provocative vision of US history from earliest colonial times through emancipation,” centered around “the brutal story of how the slavery industry made the reproductive labor of the people it referred to as ‘breeding women’ essential to the young country’s expansion. Captive African Americans in the slave nation were not only laborers but merchandise and collateral all at once. In a land without silver, gold, or trustworthy paper money, their children and their children’s children into perpetuity were used as human savings accounts that functioned as the basis of money and credit in a market premised on the continual expansion of slavery.”
I’ve written widely about Ned Sublette’s previous books. (You can find my reviews of his excellent books on New Orleans here and here.) In those volumes, and in “Cuba and Its Music,” ideas about cultural history are expressed via music against a common backdrop of the slave trade throughout the Western hemisphere.
Somewhere around the 400th of the 673 pages of narrative in “The American Slave Coast,” the Sublettes delve into the white supremacist leanings of Francis Scott Key, who wrote the lyrics for what would become our national anthem, including the rarely heard and objectionable third verse.
Music in this book, too, as is, in a larger sense, the long song of racism that still hums through life in the United States. I’ve also written about Sublette’s own propensity toward writing songs (one of which was covered by Willie Nelson).
It seems only natural to recite the elements of “The American Slave Coast” as spoken-word poetry. Why not set it to music?
That’s what the Sublettes are doing—for one night only, at Manhattan’s Symphony Space on Friday, October 28:
The American Slave Coast: Live” is a spoken word-and-music performance piece drawn from the pages of the book. Alto saxophonist and composer Donald Harrison will lead the band. Speakers will include Jonathan Demme, Nona Hendryx and Carl Hancock Rux.
Harrison, who is among the most important jazz musicians of my generation, is also uniquely qualified for this gig. Aside from leading jazz ensembles (he’ll lead a fine one at Symphony Space), he is, in his hometown of New Orleans, Big Chief of Congo Nation, which claims as its spiritual home Congo Square; enslaved Africans once drummed and danced there on Sundays, but until 2011, the city officially called the site “Beauregard Square,” in honor of a Confederate general.
Come join me on Oct. 28.
Meantime, here’s a brief interview with Ned and Constance Sublette.

Ned and Constance Sublette
Ned and Constance Sublette

When you two began working on this book, did you envision it in other forms?
Ned: We formally began work on it as a project in 2010.  It took five years, plus now that it’s been out for a year we’ve been taking it around and doing events, so six years now.  I hope this performance can be the beginning of a new cycle of events for it. Maybe we can even make it into a movie.
Did you ever imagine the book would be so timely and resonant with daily news?
Ned:  I think we did, though we didn’t know how it would play out.  At the time we were more worried about getting lost in the Civil War sesquicentennial deluge of books, which is now over.  I think the sesquicentennial was an interesting moment that — for the people who have been reading, paying attention, trying to understand — marked a new sophistication in our collective understanding of American history with slavery at its core.
It’s been astounding watching our book come to life in the news, in one way or another, in the last couple of years, right down to the third verse of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which is in there. Every generation has different questions that they look to history to answer, and this is the history we need to know right now.
Also, between the greater availability of research material in the post-Google era and the investigations of a new generation of scholars, we’re seeing all kinds of historians do really interesting work.  So I see this book as part of a movement of greater awareness of this issue.
Constance: During the course of researching this book I became more and more aware of our present situation as a war on people of color.  I became aware of white privilege in a way I never had before.
Why did you need to bring this from the page to the stage?
Ned: It seemed like a natural step to me.  There are lots of people who are never going to read a 673-page book but who might sit down and watch a performance version.
I love the idea of discourse with music. I’ve been producing episodes of the public radio program Afropop Worldwide since 1990, and that’s what we do, juxtaposing narration and musical beds, so after 25 years of cross-fades, it seemed very natural for me to imagine our text flowing back and forth with music, kind of like a living audiobook or a radio version.
This is my fourth book, and I’ve learned that you have to go out and perform your book, one way or another, after it’s published, so from the very beginning of working on The American Slave Coast, I was thinking of how to perform it.
Constance: We had to comb out all the bits that would make no sense to an audience hearing it without the context of the whole book.  Fortunately, we’ve been reading parts of the script ourselves on tour, which helped a lot and gave us a chance to workshop it a little.  On our book tours, at every stop, always, the Q & A at the end of a reading was transformational of the content, with all the varieties of communities that were present at our events — brilliant, passionate, people with their own insights.
Does this presentation change the meaning of The American Slave Coast?
Constance:  No.  But it adds the dimension of actually hearing the voices that are in our text.  It’s a tapestry of voices, so we hear from slave narratives — Charles Ball, Harriet Jacobs, William Wells Brown, Louis Hughes — as well as a unique letter from 1853, written by a woman named Virginia Boyd who was being held for sale in a slave trader’s yard in Houston in 1853. And there are voices from the Fisk University and WPA oral histories.  Plus everybody from Andrew Jackson to Karl Marx to contemporary scholars.
Ned: Second that.  This is a really exciting group of speakers to work with. There exists an audiobook (from Tantor) of The American Slave Coast — no music, just straight narration by Robin Ray Eller — and it takes up, like, 25 CDs.  So obviously we can’t cover but a small part of what’s in the book.  In my mind the full musical version exists and I would happily go on staging scene after scene.
Any idea what Donald Harrison will play?
Ned: I have no idea, other than that he’ll be working with a quintet that will have [guitarist/banjoist] Detroit Brooks and [pianist] Zaccai Curtis in it.  I’ll hear the music the night before the show, and we’ll hear it together with the seven voices on the day of, and then we do it, and then it’s over.  Blink and you miss it.  We’ve talked in general terms about what he would do, but I don’t know how he will respond to those conversations or to the script.  Whatever he does will by definition be right.
I remember Donald from when he used to live in Brooklyn.  I’d seen him play with Eddie Palmieri a bunch of times.  But I didn’t get to know him until Constance and I moved to New Orleans for a very significant year in 2004.  When I saw him in action as a Big Chief on Mardi Gras day 2005, I was knocked out, and his post-Katrina 2006 procession was the setting for the finale of my book The World That Made New Orleans.  I asked him if he would do this like, I don’t know, a couple of years ago, and he said yes.  He was my first choice for composer, and I didn’t have a second choice.  The way I see it, he brings the music, but he also brings moral authority.  As do all the vocalists.

Now Playing: Pick Hits, Essential Volumes and More

record-center-artinfoPick Hit:
Kris Davis Duopoly (Pyroclastic Records): Davis has for quite some time been one of the most distinctive of pianists on the New York scene to make a big noise without, well, making that much noise. There’s a grace and even quietude to her best work, which is not to say that her playing lacks energy, swing, or any other quality. Yet there’s something about her touch and her thinking (free, yet never wandering) that makes her an ideal collaborator (I loved her work in the trio Paradoxical Frog, with saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and drummer Tyshawn Sorey). The concept on this CD is a series of duets, pairing Davis with an interestingly curated cast: guitarists Bill Frisell and Julian Lage; pianists Craig Taborn and Angelica Sanchez; drummers Billy Drummond and Marcus Gilmore; and reed players Tim Berne and Don Byron. These are A-list improvisers, not to mention mostly rugged individualists who collaborate with compassion but bend to no one’s will. The first half of the CD cycles through each partner in composed pieces; the second reverses that order for free improvisations. If that seems contrived in theory, it doesn’t sound so in the results. There is instead a lovely balance and a coherent flow. Frisell heightens Davis’s innate sense of weirdness, and highlights the good use she makes of prepared piano (I’m pretty sure it was prepared, anyway; sometimes Frisell’s arsenal of sounds can make even a standard piano sound so…) and repetitive figures. Berne lures her into dark corners of harmony and a playful sense of form. A version of “Prelude to a Kiss” with Byron is the most creative and tonally logical combination of clarinet and piano I’ve heard recorded in this young century. And with Taborn, Davis shares something truly special—based on restraint, conscious of space, and something like floating. (There’s a DVD included in this package. Maybe it’s cool. The music was all I needed to understand what went on here.)
Essential library additions:
Miles Davis Quintet Freedom Jazz Dance: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 5 (Columbia/Legacy, Oct. 21): There was a time when I thought that maybe record labels shouldn’t be releasing all this bootleg session stuff. Maybe we didn’t need it. Maybe it was too much. Maybe there are even ethical problems (“The Complete Bud Powell on Verve,” which was among the earliest of the boxed-set reissue collections during the CD’s glory days, raised such questions in its expansive notes.) The answer—at least when it comes to anything from this Miles quintet is: Yes, please bring it on! These three CDs, from 1966-68, would be worth listening to simply for the studio chatter, which is as illuminating as it is cool. Included here is, as the press release states, “every second of music and dialogue that were taped for the ‘Miles Smiles album…” And, as they say on TV—that’s not all.. Personally, I can’t possible get enough of the making of “Nefertiti” or “Footprints.” If there were 10 more reels, I’d want those too.
David S. Ware & Matthew Shipp Duo Live in Sant’Anna Arressi, 2004 (Aum, Oct. 21): This second volume in AUM’s Davis S. Ware Archive Series, is essential listening for anyone who valued the magisterial possibilities of Ware’s playing and anyone who tracked, as I did, the work of his wondrous quaret, which included pianist Shipp. There are few musicians who could sustain what is essentially one album-length improvisation: Ware was one. There are also few musicians who would know how to channel that abundant energy and process its purpose: Shipp remains one.
Next up to hear:
Donny McCaslin Beyond Now (Motéma): This is basically David Bowie’s last band, the one he used for “Blackstar,” including saxophonist McCaslin, bassist Tim Lefebvre, drummer Mark Guiliana and keyboardist Jason Lindner, along with some additional guests. It’s not as if Bowie set McCaslin on this path; really, the plugged-in sound, rhythmic intensity and sense of ambient possibility heard on Blackstar was evident in McCaslin’s music since his 2011 release, “Perpetual Motion.” Yet there are few forces as animating and galvanizing as Bowie was to lend purpose and poise to an idea. I haven’t yet dug in, but I’m eager to hear what McCaslin took from that experience.
Aziza (Dare2): This quartet—bassist Dave Holland, guitarist Lionel Loueke, saxophonist Chris Potter and drummer Eric Harland—assembled for Holland’s Dare2 label is in one respect a fascinating elder master-plus-midcareer standouts ensemble. It also promises to be a fascinating left-of-center springboard for collective creations from four limber and free-thinking players. The name—Aziza—is drawn from the mythology of Dahomey, the African kingdom that encompassed Loueke’s homeland, Benin: in that tradition, Aziza is a small, elusive woodland creature that lends magic to artists and hunters in the woods. Holland isn’t a small guy, but otherwise he fits that bill.
Photo by Larry Blumenfeld

Join Me For Conversation and Live Music With David Virelles & Román Díaz on Oct. 18 (Special Offer for Pedrito Martinez Tickets!)

David Virelles, in conversation with Román Díaz and Larry Blumenfeld at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem Oct. 18
David Virelles, in conversation with Román Díaz and Larry Blumenfeld at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem Oct. 18

During my first of four sessions of “NYC: The Afro-Cuban Beat” at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, saxophonist and chekere player Yosvany Terry shared, among other things: secrets from his birthplace, Cuba’s Camagüey province; lessons from his father, Eladio “Don Pancho” Terry, a violinist and master of the chekeré; and new unreleased music from his innovative collective, Bohemian Trio.
If you missed all that, you’ll want to make it to the museum on Tuesday, October 18.
It will be an especially powerful session, thanks to the presence of pianist David Virelles and percussonist Román Díaz, two musicians who have invigorated the New York scene in several ways, including while playing together. The premise of my series is that Afro-Cuban traditions (not just rhythms, despite my title) have always coursed through New York City jazz; my “beat” covering that scene has revealed a recent flowering of that connection and its possibilities.
We’ll have discussion, recorded excerpts and live duo performance. Suggested $10 donation.
Here’s more on the program:
History, Mystery and Modernism: Pianist and composer David Virelles mines traditions of his native Santiago, Cuba, while using his current home in Brooklyn as a base for some of New York’s most striking and progressive music. Since coming to the U.S. in 1999, master percussionist, scholar and composer Román Díaz has been mentor to many musicians, key player in several ensembles, a spiritual guide to wide-ranging scene. Virelles and Díaz will discuss and demonstrate and discuss how musicology, mysticism and Cuban culture combine in their music.
I’ve written widely about both musicians. Here’s a blog piece on Díaz (which includes an embedded video from his Thursday night midnight rumba at Zinc Bar; and a Wall Street Journal profile of Virelles. Both articles out-of-date by now (these guys never stand still); we’ll be discussing what gave rise to thier music and how it continues to grow.
Here’s what’s coming up in the series in November:
November 7:
The Conversation Continued: Grammy-winning pianist and bandleader Arturo O’Farrill reflects on: the journey of his father, composer Chico O’Farrill, from Cuba to Manhattan; his own journeys in reverse; the founding and development of his Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra; the present diplomatic embrace between the U.S. and Cuba; and his dream of an expansive, borderless musical tradition.
November 15:
New Yor-Uba, Then and Now: More than 30 years ago, pianist and composer Michele Rosewoman’s parallel paths—jazz and Afro-Cuban folklore—merged into a compelling whole in New York through her New Yor-Uba ensemble. Rosewoman will describe the awakening that led to that group, remember her studies with the late Orlando “Puntilla” Ríos, and explain the cross-generational way in which she has rekindled that group’s flame.
About that special offer:
The National Jazz Museum in Harlem invites you to its 2nd Annual Harlem Shout Fall Benefit Concert featuring Grammy  nominated Cuban percussionist Pedrito Martinez his quartet at the historic Alhambra Ballroom in Harlem on Nov. 1.
Proceeds go towards supporting ongoing free Jazz for Curious Listeners programming and Born in Harlem education programs for Upper Manhattan schools.
I’ve written about Pedrito often. Of course, he’d be a great addition to my conversation series. Then again, he says it all with his drums, his chants and his band. Also, good as his band has been, I’m told that the wondeful Yunior Terry (brother of Yosvany) is now the group’s bassist; that news gives me chills.
While supplies last (as they say on TV), the Museum is offering 50% to Blu Notes readers at this link. See you there.

Happy Columbus Day From Nicholas Payton

1d380a883828c999-nicholaspayton1In honor of Columbus Day—a holiday I can neither grasp nor endorse save for the joy of suspended alternate-side parking in my neighborhood—here’s a celebration from Nicholas Payton—”The Egyptian Second Line” (two versions, in fact).
I first met Payton, a trumpeter, keyboardist and singer, while he was still in his teens (he’s 43 now). He was supporting pianist Ellis Marsalis in a band assembled for a morning TV show. It was the sort of publicity event that, 20-some-odd-years ago, supported the idea of a nascent neo-traditionalist jazz renaissance (with Payton as the latest young lion to follow in Louis Armstrong’s—and perhaps Ellis’s son Wynton’s—wake).

Payton had soaked in his history and his tradition, for sure, not least from his father, bassist and sousaphonist Walter Payton.
In the decades since, Payton has distinguished himself as a musician who questions categories and even the dogma of accepted history as much as, well, Armstrong did (do some research at the Armstrong House museum, and you’ll get a sense of what I’m talking about).
Payton is an intense and restless soul, and his thoughts and feelings spill forth with self-assuredness and defiant pride through both his music and his online posts. His music should probably raise more eyebrows than it does because, aside from its integrity and range, it generally doesn’t respect the party line heeded by many so-called jazz musicians. Payton’s blog posts—in which, among other stances, he refuses to wear the term “jazz,” and instead favors the acronym BAM (for Black American Music)—perhaps shouldn’t raise as many eyebrows as they have. At least, these missives can’t be dismissed as rants, which they’re not, or even radical, which they’re also not. The musicians involved in Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) said pretty much the same things 50 years ago.
I’ll not get into a long catalog of what Payton has written online and what was then written about him and what he then wrote in response (though it’s easy enough, and illuminating, to follow that chronology). Yes, it’s about race as much as music, as it should be: Yet whereas, say, the comments appended to articles in the Times Picayune of Payton’s hometown discusses race in a lowest-common-denominator who-can-hate-more style, Payton channels his own feelings (sometimes, yes, rage) into the sort of truth-telling that black trumpeters born and raised in the United States have long done. Amstrong and Miles Davis weren’t enamored with the term “jazz” either.
bf826304acace2f9-nichoalspayton3In a March post titled “#WorldSoWhite,” Payton wrote:
“Louis bowed and scraped so Miles could turn his back.”
He’s right about that.
And still, let’s not let all that distract our attention from Payton’s music, which keeps coming and never stays put.
Through an arrangement with his own music label, Paytone, Ropeadope Records will reissue five of Payton’s recordings and plans to release his “Afro-Carribean Mixtape.” (You can find his catalog at
The label describes the forthcoming release as “an exploration into the history of the African diaspora as it follows the original trade routes to this hemisphere”—which must naturally involve the slave trade.
c3e24e683a6d98b6-finalcovertheegyptiansecondlineRopeadope released a download of Payton’s single, “The Egyptian Second Line,”on Friday, October 7th as “a poignant statement in advance of Columbus Day, as much of the nation questions the version of history handed down by the colonists.”
The stuff is deeply funky, simple on the surface in both groove and structure, yet embedded with a complex and shifting set of cues, clues and hues, most through a dense layering of samples.
I’ll not say more about it until I listen more. And perhaps not until I get the whole album and can pen a proper review.
But here’s what Payton wrote about what’s in the mix:

In the spirit of reclaiming that which colonization sought to destroy, I’m releasing the first single from my upcoming album Afro-Caribbean Mixtape at the top of Columbus Day weekend. Like a piece of African patchwork, this track is comprised of a lot of different elements — some old, some new. The main body of this record was constructed from the end vamp of a tune I wrote for Dr. Greg Carr (chair of African-American studies at Howard University) called, “Kimathi.” In fact, throughout the piece, you can hear my turntablist, DJ Lady Fingaz, scratching a sample I chopped from one of his interviews. I constructed a new work by cutting and pasting the best moments of Kevin Hays and I playing keyboards on top of the extended jam, and superimposed that over the groove laid down by bassist Vicente Archer, drummer Joe Dyson, and percussionist Daniel Sadownick. I did this with the help of my mix engineer, Blake Leyh (The Wire, Treme).
Towards the beginning of the piece, you’ll hear a chant from vocalists Yolanda Robinson, Jolynda Phillips, and Christina Machado. It’s from a thing my father made up while walking through his childhood neighborhood of 13th Ward New Orleans back in the 1940s, “Na-na ni-ta ho-ho. Left, right. Left, right.” Thirty years later, as an elementary school band teacher at McDonogh #15, he had us chant this whenever we marched in second line parades. It recalls the syllabic prayers of ancient languages used in modern dance songs like Mani Dibango’s “Soul Makossa,” of which Michael Jackson borrowed for “Wanna Be Startin’ Something.”
The centerpiece of the single is a poem I wrote back in 2006 in the aftermath of the flood commonly referred to as “Katrina.” It’s called “The Egyptian Second Line,” recited by Nicole Sweeney, a deejay at WBGO. The gist of it toys with the theory that somehow Africans submitted to slavery in an attempt to become better versions of themselves. After the ladies chirp the hook, I step away from the keyboards and embrace the instrument I’m most known for — the trumpet — and blow a few before we take it out. With this song, I am channeling the energy of the ancestors to help give Africa back to herself in the best way I know how, through the power of music.
In New Orleans, a “second line” is the procession where we dance in the streets to music played by a brass band to celebrate either life or death. When I think about what an Egyptian second line looks like, I think of the imagery of that photo of Louis Armstrong serenading his wife, Lucille in front of the Sphinx — again Africans giving Africa back to herself.