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Is That Jazz?

August 1, 2015

Gil Scott-Heron: Reflections

Something just doesn’t feel right.  I have a vague sense that there is something pending; a problem to resolve or otherwise deal with to avoid some potential future disaster.  But there’s no substance to the sensation.  I worry I am forgetting something, though I know I’m not.  This happens to me on occasion, more often than I’d like.  It likely results from a recent conflux of minor inconveniences; a letter warning of a late fee if my daughter’s first month’s dorm rent is not paid on time even though the payment has been made and the letter itself cites an owed balance of $0, a response to an online inquiry about a factory-defective ice tea brewer that gives only a rote instruction to “return it to your retailer” even though my message clearly stated the defect was only discovered after the seller’s allowable return period due to my recent move, a missive indicating the mailbox at the rented house back home where my family resides without me is out of compliance with neighborhood regulations regarding lean angle and must be straightened within ten days or the landlord will be fined.  None of these things can be fixed with my 3,000-mile screwdriver.  In the end, all will be solved or fade away of their own or someone else’s volition.  There is no imminent doom, and yet my mind is heavy, weighed down by nebulous worry.

“And you don’t need to check on how you feel, just keep repeating that none of this is real.”

I first heard the album Reflections by Gil Scott-Heron in mid-1985.  My buddy Brett and I had driven my ’74 Volkswagen Super Beetle from Utah to Chicago to welcome Bill-o back from his Mormon missionary service in Peru, service the two of us had also completed just a few months before.  I considered Bill my best friend and confidante at the time and thus was prone to his influence.   A “smooth soul” enthusiast, Bill had filled my head with talk of Luther Vandross, Teddy Pendergrass, and Al Green during our shared time in the land of the Incas, but none of it really took for me.  Reflections stuck hard however when Bill played it as background music during an impromptu gathering of friends there in his suburban home.

“I take pride in what’s mine – is that really a crime – when you know I ain’t got nothing else?”

Unlike my current unjustified anxiety, Reflections soundtracks actual impending doom in the face of apparent happy reality.  The music is funky smooth, with bright horns riding on grooving bass, jazzy snares, and punctuated piano.  Whether singing or speaking his poetry, Gil’s voice is silky suave and welcoming.  But listen to his words and sense the looming upheaval behind the sheen.  The shit is about to go down and it is going to take your ignorant ass by surprise.

“The storm is coming, it rolls on the waves.”

It’s hard to imagine now the effect that the foreboding, angry messages of the song/poems “Inner City Blues (Poem: The Siege of New Orleans)” and “’B’ Movie” had on this obliviously sheltered small town boy when I first heard them.  I had grown up deep within what would become Reagan country in the 1980s.  My earliest political memory is being ardently teased at the age of 8 with chants of “Nixon Nixon he’s our man, McGovern belongs in the garbage can” by older neighborhood kids who I’d told of my outlier parents’ expressed preference in the 1972 U.S. presidential election.  The number of black students in my high school graduating class of over 300 was easily in the single digits.  By the time of my 1985 road trip to Chicago however, I’d spent 18 months preaching door-to-door in the urban plight and underdeveloped mountain villages of Peru.  I thought of myself as worldly and informed.  Gil Scott-Heron showed me otherwise.

“Yea, it makes me wanna holler, and throw up both my hands.”

Gil’s stinging takedown of the Reagan mandate in “’B’ Movie” and distressingly intimate chronicle of inner city struggle in “The Siege of New Orleans” invigorate and shame in equal measure.  I outwardly act as a fellow traveler with the narrator; anti-establishment and pledged to the ranks of the oppressed.  But in the back of my mind I uncomfortably recognize myself entrenched in the system being railed against vice marching in the vanguard of the coming revolution.  Even in the beautiful, touching messages of love found in “Grandma’s Hands” and “Morning Thoughts,” I’m a stranger against my will.  Gil’s not making this music for me; he’s making this music in spite of me.  I only hope my willingness to listen and learn partially mitigates my innate guilt.

“This ain’t really your life, ain’t really your life, ain’t really nothing but a movie.”

This is gorgeous music, articulate music, genius music.  I think everyone can be moved by its glorious groove, regardless of age or background.  That said, I’d suggest listening to it is a must for anyone over 45 years old.  With an understanding of its context and references, you’ll be both amazed and disturbed at how much Gil’s concurrently angry and hopeful message from 1981 resonates in 2015.  Yes, this is jazz, and yes, it is smooth, but it most definitely ain’t no smooth jazz.

Gil Scott-Heron – ‘B’ Movie: (Listen now!)


B, B, and Me (far right) - Chicago 1985

B, B, and Me (far right) – Chicago 1985; “So, you’re saying we can’t join the revolution?”

From → Ideas, Music

  1. I was pro Reagan until my old unit got blown up in Beirut. It was then I realised he was like a little child playing with toy soldiers except the ones he played with couldn’t be stood back up again. It was meeting like minded people during that time that I got introduced to Gil. He was instrumental in the anti- Reagan movement. Thanks for sharing.

    • I appreciate your comment, metalman. I remembered your mention of having a personal connection to the tragic Beirut bombing. It’s amazing to me how quickly we (Americans) as a people lose context for and even simply forget the details and nuance of our recent history. There’s a line in one of Gil’s songs on this album that goes something like “John Foster Dulles ain’t nothing but the name of an airport now.” You could say the same for Reagan with regards to the younger generation today, while there concurrently seems to be a developing cult among older folk, especially conservatives, that views the Reagan years as the new good ol’ days, which they most certainly weren’t, regardless of one’s personal political leanings. One thing about spending so much time overseas, I’ve certainly learned what short memories we have in comparison to many other nations/cultures.

      • So very true. I think the old 90s TV show Thirtysomething hit the nail on head when one character said that “Our history book is the last issue of People magazine.

  2. Very enjoyable piece, VotF. I appreciated your openness in reflecting on how the environment of our formative years tends to stay with us like a surrounding bubble, irrespective of where we go or what we do.
    Having said that, I’m entirely with you on listening and learning. I’m not so sure about innate guilt, though. Seems a bit unfair to feel rubbish due to the accident of our births – though I guess first world guilt can be either personal or global. Perhaps the test is what we do about it. And sadly, that’s where my guilt kicks in, big time. I squirm regularly about my armchair liberalism.
    Back in music-land, thanks for a reminder of the skill and passion of Gil. I don’t have much of his music but recall when I first heard ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’ how powerful its impact was. Will check out this album (and it’s fab cover) now.

    • Thanks as always, VC, and good call; maybe “innate guilt” is wrong,.. more like “passive discomfort about my relative comfort”?

      If you do check this one out, I’d love to hear. I’m not sure it gets a lot of attention as compared to the earlier 70s stuff such as ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’ but maybe because I have more personal context for it, I view it as even more powerful.

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