One of my remarkable and precocious 8th grade students yesterday made a connection between the Apollo Theater in Harlem (where Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Sammy Davis Jr., James Brown, Jimi Hendrix and a host of other luminaries got their start) and the Greek God who challenged a satyr Pan to a contest a few millenium ago. (The connection was the idea of a music contest, which was part and parcel of the Harlem Theater’s Amateur Night).
Apollo in Greek mythology was a complex god, with many roles and attributes. Amongst them was the leader of the Muses and the god of music and poetry. His instrument of choice was the stringed lyre. In one story from the King Midas myth, a satyr named Marsyas, follower of Pan and player of …well, panpipes… challenged Apollo to a music contest. The Muses were to judge and after several pieces, the result was a tie. In one version, Apollo plays his lyre upside down, which Marsyas couldn’t do on the panpipes and thus, won. In another, Apollo sang and played at the same time, also difficult for Marsyas (he hadn’t heard Jethro Tull yet) and that’s how Apollo won.
This was a symbolic victory on many levels. Apollo was associated with reason and logic, Dionysius (the God of Wine and cohort of the satyrs), with emotion, instinct and ecstasy. One created a distance from life through analysis and cool objectivity, the other a full participation through ecstasy and creation. In ancient Greek thought, the two were a necessary counter-balance and the conversation between them the art of living well. (The German philosopher Nietzche would take these threads up again in his treatise on the Apollonian and Dionysian, The Birth of Tragedy.)
This story suggests the turning point when Western rationalism turned the two against each other and proclaimed victory of one in no uncertain terms. In the story, Marsyas is punished for his loss by being flayed alive by Apollo and his skin hung up on a tree. End of conversation. And the beginning of a few thousand years in the West of mind over heart and body, leading to skyscrapers, nuclear weapons, space travel, computers, nanotechnology, music written on paper, school exams, flush toilets, vaccines and a thousand other things that we both enjoy and suffer from today.
In my jazz book Now’s the Time, I suggest that Marsyas was reincarnated at Marsalis and the stringed lyre now the piano played by father Ellis, the flute now the horns of Branford, Wynton and Delfeayo, the flayed skin the drums played by Jason, the full spectrum of human expression finally brought into accord.
And I thought of that coming together of spirit and soul, intellect and emotion, plucked strings and blown horns, while listening to Billie Holiday’s extraordinary album, Lady in Satin. The “satin” is not only a marketing technique to give Lady Day the class and panache her image demanded, but the smooth, silky sounds of strings backing up her always soulful singing. Jazz came from drums and horns in New Orleans and that big, bold, brassy sound is a big part of its soul. But any jazz musician, from Charlie Parker to Clifford Brown to Miles Davis, who has had the good fortune to lie down on a bed of backing strings before rising to blow their horn, has cherished the experience. When Billie Holiday heard some of Ray Ellis’ stringed arrangements, she said, “I’ve got to sing with him. I want this album more than anything else and I want it to be good.”
And it was and it is. The theme was unrequited love, Billie’s specialty, and the songs some of the finest expressions of that universal experience. The title’s alone reveal much: I’m a Fool to Want You: You Don’t Know What Love Is; I Get Along Without You Very Well; You’ve Changed: The End of the Love Affair and more. (The latter has one take with Billie singing alone with no instruments. So I accompanied her on the piano and now can put it on my resumé “played with Billie Holiday.”) J
Apollo Greek/ Apollo Harlem. Marsyas/ Marsalis. Nietzche/ Billie Holiday. A bit of a stretch to connect all those dots in a mere blog, but hey, welcome to my world. Hope it was at least a little bit intriguing. Now go listen to that album, where it all comes together.