Thursday, February 24, 2022

Marsyas Meets Marsalis

Apollo was the god of Logos, the carrier of reason and logic and the clarity of the intellect. The stringed lyre was his instrument. Dionysus was the god of Wine, the carrier of Eros and intuition and unbound emotion. His favored instrument was the flute and his cohorts were the satyrs, half men, half goats. 


One day the satyr Marsyas found a flute invented  by Athena, who in her vanity threw it down to earth when she discovered her cheeks bulged when she played. Marsyas learned to play it so well that he decided to challenge Apollo to a contest to determine whose music was superior. The Nine Muses were the judges and after each had played, they couldn’t decide who was superior and called it a tie. Apollo requested one more chance and turned his harp/lyre upside down and played it. He challenged Marsyas to do the same, but when he blew into the wrong end of the flute, no sound came out and Apollo was declared the winner. He then flayed Marsyas and made a drum of his skin. 


This Greek myth, alongside Plato’s elevation of reason over the poetry of Homer, helped move Western civilization toward the Age of Enlightenment, tilting the faculties of the human psyche and the culture that grew from it away from Dionysian intuition, ecstasy and connection with nature and toward the removed Apollonian intellect, cold objectivity and domination of nature. It led to the glorious achievements of Bach and Mozart and the scientific revolution, but at the expense of the feminine side of culture (the Witch Trials), the poetic imagination (Shelley’s argument titled “In Defense of Poetry”), the genocide of Native Americans and enslavement of African considered “primitive” because they lived close to the earth, played drums and danced ecstatically (in the spirit of Dionysus’s wine but without the wine). 


In the European music world, this Apollonian tilt favored the strings (Apollo’s instrument) in the symphonic orchestras, evolved a complex musical theory and large orchestral forms and put composition at the top of the musicianship hierarchy. In the African musical world, the instruments played by breath (flutes, horns and the singing voice) expressed the more immediate and soulful side of the psyche, accompanied by the earthy vibrations of drums (Marsyas’s skin), kept music connected with dance and valued improvisation (inside of composed forms). 


And so when the Apollonian West European father brought its dominating mentality to the Dionysian West Africa mother, there was a hierarchical forced marriage that took place in the New World in which a child was born, an African-American child who lived inside the father’s forms, structures and language without ever losing the qualities of the mother that alchemically transformed everything they touched. In plainer language, the enslaved African peoples in the U.S. spoke a new language, sang English hymns, copied the quadrille dances they saw at the plantation house and later the couple dances they saw in the ballrooms, later began playing the piano, trumpet, saxophone, double bass and more, all European instruments.  But out of that encounter grew a new music unrecognizable in either England or Ghana, a proliferation of new styles known as field hollers, blues, ring shouts, Lindy Hop dances, and jazz, jazz, jazz. 


The Western side of things had Louis Armstrong mastering the technique of the trumpet, but infusing it with his sense of swing with slides and swoops and growls. It had Duke Ellington following the legacy of Mozart and Beethoven by composing large works with notes written down, but always with space for his orchestra to improvise within in and often, with dancers dancing to it.  By the time the be-bop masters came on the scene, they continued to ascend into the upper Apollonian regions of advanced harmonies, but always with their feet rooted in the soil of the blues and with the breath-based horns leading the way. When Charlie Parker played with strings accompanying him, he sincerely loved the sound of them supporting his Icarus flights into the stratosphere, but the key image here is the strings supporting rather than dominating. When Dizzy Gillespie’s cheeks bulged out when he played, he looked more strange than Athena did, but did not worry about his appearance knowing the Soul was streaming out of the horn. When Ella Fitzgerald won the contest at the Apollo Theater, it gave a new dimension to the theater’s namesake.


Jazz progressed by balancing and re-balancing Apollo and Marsyas, until the latter was re-incarnated as Marsalis, that extraordinary musical family. Father Ellis sat at the piano (a stringed instrument) and his sons Wynton (trumpet), Branford (saxophone), Delfayo (trombone) and Jason (drums) continued the Marsyas flute and drum side of the matter. Alongside the stringed bass, the Land of the Symphony that split off the Isle of Jazz into Mainland/ Island with a Sea of Dischord between them now build the Bridge of Harmony between them where the Strings and the Horns married. 


The above is the story from a Disney cartoon called Silly Symphony—Music Land made in 1935 (part of a series of 74 other music cartoons made by Disney). It astounded me how it captured so many of the points in my fanciful look at how this ancient Greek myth continues to play out in the music world today, particularly in the world of jazz where the instruments, techniques, music theory and function in society of the European inheritance meet the sensibilities, rhythms, new techniques and functions from the African inheritance. Check it out!


        Silly Symphonies- Music Land (1935):



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