U. Aldridge Hansberry in Paris. Photo: Laurence Pratt.
A Road Less Traveled
by U. Aldridge Hansberry
Conveying why I came to live in Paris can be compared to explaining the “why” of an on-going tempestuous love affair. Certainly we all want to think that the reason we were first attracted is also the reason we continue in a relationship – but the reason we start is rarely the reason we stay….
Paris, in its great history, has given shelter to a host of non-French who have contributed to its creative community – Frédéric Chopin, Marie Curie, Josephine Baker, James Baldwin, Pablo Picasso, Vincent Van Gogh, Nathalie Barney, Samuel Beckett, Gertrude Stein, Sidney Bechet, Richard Wagner, Richard Wright--to mention just a very few of those who distanced themselves from their native lands to explore other ideas. This alone could be enough to influence one to seek “l’aire de Paris.” Being from New Orleans could also be considered an element for me, as children in Louisiana learn French history first because New Orleans, which existed within the French colony for many years before being sold to the United States, has no English history. And during my childhood, the first foreign language studied was generally French. In fact, we usually have French surnames or, as in my case, at least a French first name.
But all this is has little to do with the direct influences that steered me toward France in my quest to experience some other aspects of the planet. Neither did the Eiffel Tower, the Champs Elysées, nor the fashion scene measure in my considerations.
No, it was the French writers – particularly Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Regis Debray, and especially Jean Genet—who espoused the political-philosophical thought of the day, coupled with the fact that France had harbored a growing population of American musicians whose music was taken “seriously” there, as were they themselves. This was an outstanding feat for the epoch. Anthony Braxton, Steve Lacy, Sunny Murray, Alan Silva, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Clifford Thornton, among a whole host of artists who were changing pre-conceived ideas of what music was and where it could go, all made Paris their home for a time. Although they may have been critical among themselves, they resolutely defended each other’s right to another idea of creativity.
So I had the idea that here was a community. And in fact, there was a community but it was as virtual as Web-based communities are today. There was no particular place to gather except the clubs, bars, or concert hall dressing rooms. This meant that one had to have the budget to go to these concerts or personally know the musicians. Of course there were, for some, apartments, which were most often the apartments of admirers, or girlfriends. None of these places were openly accessible. Understand that, of course, the players were mostly men. Some of these forward thinking men were light years ahead in terms of music, and some in their socio-political idealism, but many hadn’t yet left the “cave” in regards to how women fit into the scheme of things. But as always, there existed individuals who were not trapped in their epoch. (They are all around us, but we must recognize them.) And for some reason, I was fortunate enough to have met quite a few.
One of the constraints I’d set for myself was that I would not stay within the confines of an expatriate community as I was determined to speak French more fluently. This proved double-edged because one more or less withdraws from the English-speaking community as well as catapulting oneself into a community that is intolerant of non-French speakers and barley tolerant of poor speakers. I’d studied French in school before college (my university studies were in German), and spoke French in Geneva where I lived before moving to France, but that community was at least bilingual and more often simply polyglot. The monoglots (as I call them) demanded to be addressed only in French.
The advantage was that I spoke to everyone – the baker, the cheese seller, the hardware store people, the music theorists, political protesters, etc. And, not knowing many people in town, I listened, played, taught, and composed. In fact, I think I was less distracted than later as I came to know more people. The downside was that I was distanced from Americans and other English speakers.
This less familiar community provided an inroad to other cultures in a more organic, natural way. The melodies, the cadences of the languages, the colors, smells, and tastes, even the subjects of conversation contained unanticipated discoveries.
In her book Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler's principal character says, “All that you touch, you change. All that you change changes you.” And try as we may, we cannot unlearn what we have learned. It is not always what we wanted to learn, nor do we recognize that we have learned it.
So the importance of certain writers diminishes, or perhaps it becomes intertwined with other aspects of living. And the idols that were distant figures become the musicians that people one’s community – one’s neighbors - and are mixed in with those one had not expected to meet.
As in any art form, a creative work (in this case, a composition) is always an exercise in how to get from point A to point B or various other “points” that present themselves along the way. Some of the things I have written emerged from socio-political realities, personal triumphs, hardships or dilemmas, or the desire to understand how a musical problem could be solved or simply how a musical “device” works.
Clockwise from top left:
U. Aldridge Hansberry and Rasul Siddik.
U. Aldriddge Hansberry playing flute.
U. Aldridge Hansberry with flute trio No Sax, Paris.
U. Aldridge Hansberry in Guadalajara, Mexico. Photo: Charley Reuvers.
Point A to Point B
I will not pretend to give even a brief summary of the different lineages of Jazz here; it is not the purpose of this short piece and is too vast a subject. I would like in any case to be clear as to how some artists who were writing/performing at a certain period in my development affected my initial direction in composing and performing.
For many on the branches of the “Jazz Tree,” getting from point A to point B is pre-determined. For some erudite boppers, and post boppers, chords, scales, and modes, either extended or altered, mapped the paths of their improvisational discoveries. Ornette Coleman coined the term “free Jazz” with his albumFree Jazz: A Collective Improvisation (1960). (This should not to be confused with the Free Jazz of the late sixties through the early eighties and beyond.) His writing and playing clearly showed that “melody” was sufficient (once again) to inspire an improvisation. Coleman’s first American publisher was MJQ Music that was officiated by John Lewis, the pianist, composer – arranger of the Modern Jazz Quartet. (The MJQ was one of the principal groups of the sixties with precise arrangements and spare improvisations. John Lewis had much respect for more “adventuresome” music – though quite honestly, the mixing of classical music forms and musicians are evidence that Lewis was a precursor in the Third Stream school of thought. But I’m getting ahead of myself....)
My informal studies were largely around Ornette Coleman’s harmolodic principles and George Russell’s “Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization.” Many of my initial compositions were influenced by these ideas either in writing or in improvisations. Now, whether my work reflected these influences in a clear and orthodox manner is open to debate, but they were certainly vehicles that directed my thinking and playing at the time – and remain reference points even today.
The common thread of these rather different ideologies is that they very naturally underscored the elements of research and gravity in what was called “Jazz.” For years, the violin and acoustic bass were included in compositions and ensembles. But the inclusion of other “orchestral” instruments was minimal and their importance in the composition marginal or decorative. (This is in no way an insinuation of a lack of richness and audacity in writing. There are a host of spectacular composers and arrangers in the Jazz idiom, strictly speaking. But frankly, Duke Ellington’s sacred music had already left the constraints of what is categorized as Jazz. And Mary Lou Williams, in both her compositions and improvisations, was – and is - incredibly contemporary, to name just two gigantic figures closely associated with the Jazz idiom.) For a time in 20th century music, Jazz and classical music were considered the antitheses of one another. But more and more, the two genres overlapped in writing and timbres. In the 1960s, Gunther Schuller referred to this overlapping or removal of boundaries as “Third Stream.” John Lewis co-founded, with Gunther Schuller, Orchestra USA, dedicated primarily to it.
I had a very natural affinity for this music - the flute finding a place where it was not asked to imitate saxophone bop solos. Apart from Brazilian music and Afro-Cuban music, the role of the flute was reduced to ‘pretty’ interludes in Jazz when not trying to be an alto saxophone. One of its great interpreters was Eric Dolphy who, though he was a hard bopper, added another dimension for this instrument as well as introducing the bass clarinet to small Jazz ensembles. His writing was less formatted by what was considered Jazz in his day. His 1964 album Out to Lunch features the young Tony Williams playing the drums as a grouping of percussion instruments – which is, of course, what the trap set is.
For brevity, I’ll turn to the percussions that I play that are strongly influenced by the great heritage of New Orleans and sixties Jazz, as well as contemporary classical idioms using percussion for time as well as emphasizing timbre. Having started the snare drum at 4 with my grandfather, who had been the departmental head of the music at Mills College (Alabama) long before my birth, I was always a drummer at heart.
I studied in the Paris area at two conservatories, one being regional (this means little outside of France but is an important distinction here). I wanted to advance in technique and was plunged into contemporary percussion composition and skills. As we are all sponges of our environment, this affected my ears as well as my compositions.
All this is to say that my reasons for coming to Paris were not to teach, learn French fluently, discover distant non-French cultures, study contemporary percussion, etc. These were the unexpected gifts that came from locating the “Jazz” community, struggling through immigration procedures, finding housing, dealing with melancholy, and on and on….
So in my compositions, and indeed in my playing are all these elements. They are sometimes recognizable and sometimes so fused that one doesn’t see the connections.
Here I offer some compositions that reflect different aspects or problem solving (in a compositional way) of my French residency.
1 Culture Collision
This piece was written in 1985-6 and has as its motivation and rhythmic source a 5/4 rhythm from the Magreb culture. Harmonically, it follows more or less the harmonic suite of Francis Poulenc’s Sonate pour Flûte. The title was inspired by by the death of the student Malik Oussekine killed by the police after a demonstration.
2 End Of A Season
I wrote using neo-classical technique on a basic blues progression in the Locrian mode. The death of the great American artist Georgia O’Keefe occurred just as I was naming the piece.
3 Plaintive (& Ms Ann)
The first part of this recording was written for a theatre piece called Abolition non-stop in homage to the abolition of slavery in France, though it was restored (slavery, that is) two more times – hence the “non-stop.”
4 If ever time stood still.mp3
This composition was used in the same theatre piece, though it was written independently.
5 Liberty's Mama
This was written in the early 90’s but this is a very recent recording (January 2010).
6 Test One
The harmony theoretician, George Russell, calls the 1st exercise of one of his seminars “Test One.” Except for a minor change, this was my proposition.
I conceptualized, played all the voices, and did the mix for this short theme (in French, “générique”) that was for the DVD of the National Museum Consortium in France (RMN). A volume on the instruments and “music” of pre-historic times was edited for their series on Art History and released in 2006.
Paris based composer, U. Aldridge Hansberry is a New Orleans native who performs as a drummer-percussionist, and flutist in Europe and North America. You can find out more about her work from these links:
Improvisation trio (with music – in French):