In a wonderfully entertaining and informative 2004 New Yorker piece titled “Ralph Ellison’s Record Collection,” Richard Brody reminds us of the Invisible Man author’s passion for jazz music — what he referred to as “American music” — and of his somewhat controversial (for the time) opinion of the musicians coming up. While often revering the music of Armstrong, Ellington, and Lester Young (and who can blame him?), of Charlie Parker’s music, he wrote “there is in it a great deal of loneliness, self-deprecation and self-pity,” and, in a letter to friend Albert Murray following a 1958 Newport Jazz Festival performance, described Miles Davis as “poor, evil, lost little Miles Davis.” He famously characterized bebop as “a listener’s music” that “few people are capable of dancing to it” — although this critique was probably more of a lament of a lost culture.
But the crux of the story is not Ellison’s opinion about music, rather the recordings he collected, reported by Brody as
One of my more interesting experiences as publisher of Jerry Jazz Musician was producing a series of interviews that focused on the work of the novelist Ralph Ellison. Invisible Man was a favorite novel of mine as a young man, but it wasn’t until I reread it in the 1990’s before I began to understand the enormity of its cultural significance. At that time, Ellison’s second (and unfinished) novel Juneteenth was being published, and a variety of books on Ellison were released at the same time – among them Living with Music, a collection of Ellison’s writings on jazz music edited by Columbia University scholar Robert O’Meally, and Trading Twelves: The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray.
Although it only encompasses about six square miles, the New York City neighborhood of Harlem has played a central role in the development of American culture. Originally rural farmland, then an affluent suburb, since 1911 Harlemhas been predominantly an African American community. Its residents havehad a disproportionately large impact on all aspects of American culture,leaving their mark on literature, art, comedy, dance, theater, music, sports, religion and politics.
Ralph Ellison is justly celebrated for his epochal novel Invisible Man, which won the National Book Award in 1953 and has become a classic of American literature. But Ellisons strange inability to finish a second novel, despite his dogged efforts and soaring prestige, made him a supremely enigmatic figure. In Ralph Ellison: A Biography, Arnold Rampersad skillfully tells the story of a writer whose thunderous novel and astute, courageous essays on race, literature, and culture assure him of a permanent place in our literary heritage.
While Ralph Ellison will forever be best remembered as author of the classic American novel of identity, Invisible Man, he also contributed significant essays on jazz that stand as compelling testaments to his era. His work included an homage to Duke Ellington, stinging critiques of Charlie Parker and Miles Davis, and recognition of the changing-of-the-guard taking place at Harlem’s Minton’s in the 1940’s. He wrote on musical topics from flamenco to Charlie Christian, and from Jimmy Rushing to Mahalia Jackson.
Author, intellectual and social critic, Ralph Ellison was a pivotal figure in American literature and history, and arguably the father of African-American modernism. Universally acclaimed for Invisible Man, a masterpiece of modern fiction, and more recently for the posthumously edited and published Juneteenth, Ellison was recognized with a succession of honors, including the 1953 National Book Award.
Lawrence Jackson’s Ralph Ellison: Emergence of Genius is the first thoroughly researched biography of Ellison.
Village Voice writer Gary Giddins, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, and who is the country’s preeminent jazz critic, joins us in a June 21, 2002 conversation about Invisible Man author Ralph Ellison.
The child of the fundamentalist South with an eighth-grade education, a self-taught intellectual in the working-class Communist Party of the 1930s, a black man married to a white woman, and an expatriate in France after World War II, Richard Wright was always an outsider. He went well beyond the limits of the times in which he lived, and sought to reconcile opposing cultures in his work.
“How the hell did you happen?” the Chicago sociologist Robert Park once asked Wright. In Richard Wright: His Life and Times, biographer Hazel Rowley shows how, chronicling with the dramatic drive of a novel Wright’s extraordinary journey from a sharecropper’s shack in Mississippi to international renown as a writer, fiercely independent thinker, and outspoken critic of racism.
The first book to reassess Ralph Ellison after his death and the posthumous publication of Juneteenth, his second novel, Jazz Country: Ralph Ellison in America explores Ellison’s writings and views on American culture through the lens of jazz music.
In Jazz Country, Porter addresses Ellison’s jazz background, including his essays and comments about jazz musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Charlie Parker. Porter further examines the influences of Ellington and Armstrong as sources of the writer’s personal and artistic inspiration and highlights the significance of Ellison’s camaraderie with two African American friends and fellow jazz fans — the writer Albert Murray and the painter Romare Bearden.
Filmmaker Avon Kirkland’s career as a chemist was cut short by his desire to create social change. The path he chose led to filmmaking, and along the way he has profiled great men, among them Booker T. Washington and Thurgood Marshall.
His latest film is on Ralph Ellison, the great American writer whose classic book of identity, Invisible Man, stands as a monument in literature. Ellison’s wide range of intellectual breadth and profundity surprised even Kirkland, and is documented in Ralph Ellison: An American Journey, the Sundance Film Festival nominated film that has found an audience via PBS.
Stanley Crouch is an essayist, poet, former musician, jazz critic and author of the novel Don’t the Moon Look Lonesome. He is outspoken, controversial, clever, and right more often than many seem willing to admit. He is also a very thoughtful admirer of Invisible Man author Ralph Ellison, whose work and friendship touched Crouch enough that, when asked if he considered Ellison a mentor, without hesitation answered “Yes!” Crouch takes part in a very lively conversation about Ellison and a variety of associated topics, including Charlie Parker, and music’s place in American ritual.
When Albert Murray arrived at Tuskeegee Institute in 1935, Ralph Ellison was an upperclassman who was, in Murray’s words, “dressed like a ‘Joe College’ right out of Esquire magazine.” According to Murray, Ellison “represented the type of aspirations that I had been expecting for myself.”
While their paths split geographically, the two kindled an emotional and intellectual friendship that gained momentum during the era of Ellison’s creative peak, when his timeless novel of identity Invisible Man was being written, distributed, reviewed, and rewards reaped upon. They honored successes, encouraged intellectual growth, and shared a deep love of music. They were best friends.
Being named literary executor of any writer’s estate would be quite an honor, let alone if the writer whose works you now caretake is Ralph Ellison, author of one of the 20th century’s greatest novels, Invisible Man. For long time Ellison friend John Callahan, “It was a challenge, and it was intimidating, exhilirating…”
Among the work left for Callahan was editing Ellison’s long awaited second novel, released as Juneteenth in 1999.