36: Dark Matter, Black Matters and All That Jazz
Stephon Alexander is a first class jazz musician as well as a first rate physicist and a professor at Brown University. As the New President of the National Society of Black Physicists, Eric sits down with Stephon over a good deal of wine to discuss particles, politics, blackness and STEM, and other matters as they look back on the last decade of their friendship and their sprawling discussions across music, politics, mathematics, physics and beyond.
- Athletic Greens: athleticgreens.com/PORTAL
- Boll and Branch: bollandbranch.com promo code PORTAL
- Skillshare: skillshare.com/PORTAL
- Four Sigmatic: foursigmatic.com/PORTAL
Table of contents
Hello, it’s Eric. I wanted to talk about the death and the afterlife of the blues. Now, the difficulty in talking about the blues is that people do not have a common picture of what I mean. Some will hear in the phrase “the blues” a reference to mood. Others will associate it with the music that fits a depressed state of mind. And musicians will hear it as a reference to a class of structured music analogous to sonata form in western classical music, or the ritualized three part structure of a classical Indian concert.
Well, permit me to pretend that you were where I was as a young man coming of age, which is that I knew nothing about it. All I knew was that I loved rock and roll, and that within rock, there were certain songs more than others that I would listen to over and over again. And oddly, I would notice several names recurring on the song credits. For example, W. Dixon, who the hell was W. Dixon? And the other name that came up repeatedly clearly sounded like a patrician blueblood Senator, McKinley Morganfield. There were others, of course, as well. Ellis McDaniel sounded Scottish to me as a name, but he wrote like he was straight out of Texarkana. This was confusing. All these rock bands knew about these guys and played their songs, but these names weren’t listed on any performances.
So who were these people? And why did I love everything that they did? I asked around in my circle of family and friends, and no one had an answer or even thought the question particularly interesting. So one day, in the days before the internet, I went to the Tower Record store on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, near where we lived, and determined that I would screw up my courage to ask.
Now I say that for the benefit of those of you who may not regularly visit record stores or musical instrument shops, because you may not understand who works behind the counter and on the floor. Music is a weird sector of the economy, because it behaves somewhat like a legal drug, which some people can handle, while others cannot. And as a result, many musicians of near infinite ability exist who still cannot earn much living doing what they love most, which is playing music. Thus, almost everyone working in any area that touches music is usually overqualified by orders of magnitude. And Tower Records on Sunset was effectively a university-level music and folklore department, with shaggy professors manning the cash registers on the floor. I would have my parents drop me off there just to listen to the conversations at their classical music annex across the street from their larger popular music store.
But on this one particular day, I got up the courage to go to the general information desk and ask my question.
“May I help you, young man?”, the bearded gentleman said to me, with what sounded like it might have been a faint snort of contempt.
“Yes, sir. Who is W Dixon?” I said meekly.
Never heard of him. Sorry. Next?
“Wait!” I exclaimed desperately. “I’m not done with my questions.”
“Go on, then”, the bearded man said.
Who is McKinley Morganfield?”
Suddenly the man’s face brightened. “You mean Muddy Waters?”
“No”, I protested. “It’s not a body of water or a song. It’s a person, a songwriter.”
The man called over some associates to laugh over the situation I was creating.
“This young man is trying to discover the blues and he’s never even heard of Muddy Waters!” The man said.
I was now panicking as this was fast becoming an embarrassing scene with lots of grown men laughing at me and my questions. Let’s try my last question instead.
“Who is Ellis McDaniel?”
All the men laughed and said the same word simultaneously, “Bo Diddley!”
Then the bearded man said, “Oh, and that mysterious W. Dixon you asked about is going to be a bass player out of Chicago named Willie Dixon.”
“Then you know what I’m talking about. So why are you all laughing at me?” I asked.
“Because your life is about to change today, and you don’t even know it or just how much”, said the man.
“How can you know that?” I demanded.
“Well, you’ll see,” said he.
The bearded man then got up and walked me over to what was not much more than a single bin or two in the huge store labeled “blues” off to the side of the jazz section.
As he left I started going through the records and started seeing all of the song titles that I had loved, only they were no longer being performed by the Rolling Stones or The Doors. And what was more, almost all of the musicians were black, but often in the same configurations as white rock groups—electric guitar and bass, keyboards and drums, for example. Sure enough, there was a singer called Muddy Waters, a guitarist named Bo Diddley, and a world of people I’d never heard of. I decided to take a risk and bought two of the cheapest of these mysterious records, a collection of BB King songs, and a double album of John Lee Hooker.
I got the records home and, feeling humiliated, I determined never to go back to that store again. I opened the shrink wrap and took the BB King record out of the paper sleeve first. And I remember watching the stylist drop down to the vinyl and I waited nervously listening to the scratches over a tiny eternity for whatever was to come next. The song started and my life changed in under 10 seconds. I felt like I was being born so, I’m not going to sugarcoat this. Put on the song you upset me baby, and you’ll find that it begins with a tasty, upbeat guitar that introduces the mood. I felt like I wanted to dance immediately. I didn’t feel at all depressed. It made no sense.
Then I heard BB King’s voice for the first time. The lyrics, or the description, without apology, I might add, of a woman who is “36 in the bust, 28 in the waist, 44 in the hips, she got real crazy legs…”
Well, growing up in a progressive household, I was mortified and excited all at the same time as I dove for the volume knob to turn it down. What was I listening to? And wasn’t that like eight inches larger down below than what I was taught were the fabled perfect measurements? And this BB King, he wasn’t embarrassed at all. I mean, he was literally shouting her measurements to the world, like he expected she would find that flattering, rather than feeling objectified or needing to diet.
But it wasn’t the lyrics that got me. It was that I had swum upstream and discovered the distilled essence of Rock and Roll, without knowing that there was anything there to discover. If this was a scene from Kung Fu Panda, I would be stumbling upon The Pool of Sacred Tears, where it all began. I liked this music so much more than Rock and Roll that I couldn’t get enough of the sound. This was audio heroin to me. I went to the piano my family had downstairs, and tried to figure out the notes, but they didn’t fit the Do-Re-Mi scales I had once learned in six months of failed piano lessons.
Well, what I soon learned was that there was a musical art form called the blues that was more dance music than Moke fest. Oddly, it wasn’t well understood by anyone I seem to know. And it was based on two main secrets. It is perhaps easiest to say what they are while sitting at the piano. The first secret is that the left hand in the bass plays a repeating 12 bar cycle of three chords in a particular sequence known as the blues progression. The other secret is that the right hand improvises using a scale known as the blues scale that is neither major nor minor, and that cannot even fit onto the white keys alone in any key. This was literally music to my ears. Many of these blues musicians like me were unable to read music. A good number of them were even blind. Yet they had developed a mature art form like Haiku that used a largely rigid formula to produce work of infinite variety and emotion.
Why was I never told that this existed? Why was this never even offered to me as a possible alternative to classical music? The short and perfect answer is race. The Blues, even more than jazz, really is black music, which black Americans had largely outgrown by the 1960s, if we are honest, just as some white musicians, we’re learning how to master it. There’s a famous song by Muddy Waters about what he calls the story that’s, “never been told”, where the title and main line of the song is, “The Blues had a baby, and they named it Rock and Roll”.
The reason for my confusion is that there’s often no real difference between Rock and Roll and the Blues. You can look on YouTube for Keith Richards showing how the Stone song “Satisfaction” is actually a disguised country blues hidden in plain sight, or you can hear Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin tell the audience that “Whole Lot of Love” really derives from Willie Dixon’s “You Need Love”. And if we are honest, there is a certain financial premium to be earned by white musicians for simply taking the work of black blues musicians and repackaging it for white audiences Rock and roll. Before we even get to it, they have legitimately added as true innovation in a collaborative process.
It is also true that it represents different cultural norms. I remember my grandfather who was not a bigoted man telling me that he personally disliked this music and that I was bending guitar notes and trying to sing with melisma and wide vibrato. “Why not listen to a Schubert song cycle instead?”, he asked. To him and others, I was clearly going in an unexpected and disappointing direction away from the formal regimented western classical music that my parents and grandparents held up as the gold standard.
Yet exactly what my grandfather detested was what I loved most. The warmth, the excitement, the improvisational brilliance. By the time I snuck out of the house at 15 to see Ray Charles at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium with my friend Ed Tuttle, I could see that this was really another world. The audience was part of the show, or at least that was true in black musicians played before black audiences. People would stand up in their seats and shout at the stage, or dance in the aisles, and the performers would talk back, sometimes in words and sometimes with their instruments. When I went to see BB King years later in Boston in two back to back concerts over two nights, the first one was in a black area of town, and it was joyous and raucous.
The next night’s event however, it was like looking at an autopsy of the previous evening, by comparison. The white concert hall audience waited respectfully until the end of every song to clap vigorously as if they were seated at a symphony. I didn’t want to be black necessarily, but I wanted to be in with black America. If blues was developed largely around call and response, the white audience simply did not understand how to give back to the musicians and the music always suffered as a result.
So what is the blues and why does it matter? Well, accept for a moment that, if American classical music means anything at all, and we’re really talking about the art form known as jazz, blues is in a certain sense an ancestor to jazz as well as Rock and Roll and R&B, with the so called Talking Blues, a forerunner of hip hop and rap. Thus, despite black audiences largely turning away from the blues as an art form, it can’t really ever die, because it is the foundation for so much of the American contribution to world music. Further, it is a place for musicians to meet. When two musicians who do not know each other or their respective styles want to play together for the first time, in my experience, they’re most likely to try to play a 12 bar blues the way strangers would shake hands and introduce themselves.
It is also a superpower waiting to be discovered in the life of everyone who dreams of playing music. Because it is based on just two musical rules, the initial overhead for entering the world of blues musicianship is quite a bit lower than other forms, while the limits of virtuosic elaboration within the idiom have never been found and tested even by the likes of Art Tatum or Jimi Hendrix. If you think you can’t play music at all, but you have too strong working arms, start with a guitar and a slide, like a coffee mug, and a chart of the 12 bar blues cycle. You can probably play your first blues song within 15 minutes with a little bit of instruction from a friend who is knowledgeable.
Now you may be guessing that there is a payload to this story, and there is. I fell deeply in love with black America completely by accident before I was 14. It was from afar at first, having few black friends, but love turns to progressive understanding over decades, and infatuation turns to a deeper appreciation of gifts, quirks, and flaws. At this point, I don’t even have a strong sense of distance and objectivity, as it is all through my life by now.
One of the things I found was that I had developed a very different picture of black Americans than almost anyone I knew as a result. And central to that picture was that black Americans took merit and meritocracy as seriously and definitionally as any group I ever met, with the possible exception of Soviet Russians.
As a folklore minor at the University of Pennsylvania, I advanced the thesis there that I want to share with you all. And that is this: We non blacks are missing the history and role of merit, and particularly genius, in black culture. Having been fenced out of white institutions by discrimination, and having been stripped of their heritage by slave owners who wish to erase their past, black Americans came up with an ingenious solution to rebuild their identity in the space of the hundred years since slavery. They would use open head-to-head high stakes competitions in, well, just about everything. In the school yard, they called it The Dozens and it was a game of insult played for keeps. At open mic night they called it head-cutting competitions to see who could blow the other clear off the stage. When it came to the spoken word, they would have pitted Robert Frost against TS Eliot, had they both been black and at a poetry slam. Regular chess often took too long, so they hustled at Blitz style chess in public parks against all comers. In comedy, competitive roasting and the blow torching of hecklers reigned supreme. And in hip-hop, the concept of a rap battle is well known to all.
And this is why I don’t really get the race and IQ discussion, because this is a genius-based culture, whose principal gift, after all, lies in out thinking the rival with creative generative solutions, under maximal pressure, that will never be found on a multiple choice test. This is exactly how Eminem could win at rap battling, because fairness and judging is how blacks maintained an air of superiority over whites, who needed to cheat by exclusion.
I have threatened for years to come up with an IQ substitute test that favored blacks based on my study of black history. It would involve multiple people competing directly against each other head to head in real time to solve open ended analytic problems under maximal pressure, where no answer was known to begin with to those making up the test.
But despite my reverence for black genius, I also came to see flaws and faults as one does in any deep cross cultural relationship of sufficient length and depth. For example, where I learned to see the white society to which I belonged as being systemically violent in ways that I had never understood or imagined, the initial unparalleled warmth of black society that mirrored my Jewish upbringing, eventually peeled back to reveal a comfort with the idiosyncratic horror of Louisiana red sweet blood call that made me physically sick the first time I heard both men and women clapping and joking about what seemed like misogynistic madness beyond any murder ballad I had ever heard.
Now, what am I to do with all of this? On the one hand, I cannot pretend that I would even recognize the US without the black contribution. If there were a crime of cultural appropriation, I would only be let off the hook for attempting the crime without succeeding. That is how badly I wanted to understand and learn from Art Tatum, Richard Pryor, Harry Belafonte, the Nicholas brothers, Paul Robeson and Louie Armstrong, Eric Lewis, Stanley Jordan, Dick Gregory and my other heroes.
But we outside the black community, in our modeling guilt and performative shame, are now in the process of losing the ability to meet our own amazing subculture of black America as equals. Think about it. We fear, we idolize, we covet, we desire, we condescend, and we steal from them. We feel as if we have no right to meet our own people as intimates due to the fear of offense. And there is no true love where we cannot share what it is that we see and pass through the valley of offence to deeper understanding. This alienation is, in fact, the origin of the stock character from cinema of the magic Negro possessed of otherworldly wisdom, but who is always a supporting character as drawn, propelling the Caucasian narrative ever forward. And, quite honestly, I see in our shame that we don’t have enough of the deep friendships between blacks and whites, where we might actually come to love each other from a position of intimacy and knowledge, rather than an oscillation between idolization and demonization.
So I will leave you with this thought. Those of us in white America who believe most in our black brothers and sisters are not going in for this groveling performative bullshit. We have already many times stood with our friends in shock when the cab which slowed to pick us up, then sped off when it saw who we were with, and I can assure you that we were never called something so genteel and euphemistic as N-word loving race traders as we were physically bullied in school. Just as my black colleagues can mostly understand anti-semitism, I can get most of anti-black prejudice too. Sure, maybe not the whole thing, but this pretend divide has to end. What is the purpose of the heights of black oratorical skill, if not to make us understand each other better?
And speaking directly to black listeners: we are equals and very lucky to have each other. I’m so very glad you are here and I wouldn’t be who I am without your gifts. Forgive me, but no true friend of mine has ever asked me to wear a hair shirt for my connection to racial crimes of slavery committed by people who vaguely looked like me, decades before any of my family ever came to this country. I will support you and do believe that you have triumphed over the humiliation of oppression. But don’t ask me for Reparations, to abolish the police, to repeat lines that you feed me, to kneel when you instruct, or to accept lower standards of empathy between people because of the uniqueness of your pain. I’m not going to simply take your word for it that no white person fears the police, nor am I going to ignore statistics that in turns both confirm and cast out on so called lived experience. Daniel Shaver was white and died on camera in an Arizona hotel room. Be honest, had he been black, you would know that racism was behind the deed. And yet, because he was white, we know that it played no role. The true solution to race problems isn’t competing to demonstrate just how guilty we are. It is true love and friendship and critique and offense and fumbling in the dark until we get it right. We Jews do have a problem with sexual predation. Our Muslim brothers have had problems with terror. Blacks have problems with violent crime. And if you have true friends, who are any of these, you discuss these things in an arena of trust. As a black friend of mine once said, “I cross the street when a big guy with a do rag comes towards me. I’m not sure why I feel just a bit weird that you do it too.” But above all, thank you for immeasurably enriching my life. It will be an honor to try to help your children do for science and technology what you have already done for culture, letters, music, comedy and national character.
This country of ours isn’t perfect, but it’s not 1840 anymore, and no group of us has the right to scuttle this beautiful ship we share called America. Let’s reform prisons and law enforcement like grownups. I’m saying this because I believe in us as intimates, and not because I’m trying to hold on to an insulating layer that others built into the system.