World According To Bill

Essays of Note

The Essays of Note radio program featuring Bill Banfield examines the music of a wide range of composers and musicians (push buttons below)


The Music of Igor Stravinsky
The Music of Maria Schneider
The Music of Quincy Jones
On Duke Ellington
The Collaboration: Miles Davis and Gil Evans
On Mingus
The Music of Nnenna Freelon
The Music of Regina Carter
The Music of Jaco Pastorious


A statement about making music in the world…


There were many mornings in those days I would slip down real early to see mom. You could smell the coffee that had already been brewed and you could hear the smooth pour of the half and half cream she used , but no sugar. The backstairs that led up from the kitchen two flights and around walls, channeled the aroma that crept under bedroom doors and summoned me. I awakened regularly and crawled away and out of my dreams in an almost mummy stagger, creeping slowly, stumbling down the stairs to see mom and have a talk. As I reached the kitchen, she had already been there I would bet by 5am. But where I would find her was in the dining room, lights off, quiet in her favorite chair. She would be there, just sipping her coffee. I would always ask her the same “kidly inquisitive” and rhetorical question,” Mom what are you doing?” The answer was consistent, “ I’m having my coffee baby”. That early morning cup of coffee and the silence of the room where she sat queenly, came to mean for me reflection and clarity. I am sure of it now, my mother’s clarity concoction was her morning coffee and the moments of order that she squeezed away to herself, sitting early way before the day’s business began, was how she claimed clarity. In those days, mom would have had it all already worked out long before my small ashy feet hit the kitchen floor.

I am coming to think that clarity is getting through the world around you, and you inside of yourself working in that world, and the means you are allowed to see clearly through and under the doors, widows, that also allow you to reach the seats assembled there for you to rest. Understanding yourself, following your faith, your goals, taking time to be caring and reflective, being set in your soul about your identity and who and what you love in this life; that is clarity. I’m pretty sure now that the word and the tones left to reflect what we see and know, are as valuable as anything we leave here standing to represent culture and the story of life as we live. My job as an artist is to document the culture as I live through and within it.

I often think about what I set out to do in 1983 as I graduated from college. We tried to get out there and make some music. We jammed, gigged, recorded and we inspired folk and we wanted to do something with our music. We weren’t trying to change or affect the world, but as I look back on it now, what we participated in was life changing. For the next twenty- five years without really stopping to think about it, I leaped into music as a way to find and define life, and that too has been life changing. And that should not be left standing as some kind of metaphysical magic, it's really much more simple than that.

There's something about doing music if you are fortunate enough to get to do it for what it is meant to be. Doing art puts in your grasp a language that speaks to the way people are moved inside, internally. It’s the most natural internal to external and back to internal enterprise you can imagine, and yet we know this experience with music since our birth. Some are called to be square in the middle of that creative sharing thing called music, art, and you spend your life with this, and all along the way lots of sounds and joy are made and people are moved. That movement of the soul, that joy can be life sustaining and life changing. People are greatly moved by music, really moved. I figured I'd try to have my life shaped by that moving in our world.

In Black Notes( 2004), I had written a book that combines uniquely, historical, personal narrative form, educational pedagogy, a musician's insight within a social- political- music/ media critique, and delivered in aesthetics, contemplative polemic framework. It follows Amiri Baraka's classic challenge in Blues People, to formulate a music- culture-sociological line of inquiry through the lens of the development of artistic life, and cultural values. I loved writing this book, my coming to what I called, approaching clarity. During the completion of my fourth book ( Cultural Codes, 2008), I became clear for the first time in my life at 46 years old. I knew then not only what I was dedicated to doing with my gifting, I could define it. I saw it in a trajectory coupled with others who had been doing this before in countless ways, black generation after generation. But I knew now for the first time why now and why me. Lastly, I talked about Black art as a “soul- ution” to our problems and not a pacifying, entertaining accompaniment.

So before I share this musicians tale, I had to say something about the cultural climate of the times I grew into. For me as a musician, the thing that provides the most connective tissue of these experiences was the music, and all the friends and family life, which somehow for me anyway, fitted into that, because my family and friends expected that I was happy doing what they knew me to be, a musician. Maybe I’m kind of weird in that way, but that’s how I remember it. Yeah I skated, dated played basketball, went to camps, but I gigged since ten years old and so the lens through which I saw not everything, but a whole lot, was making music. So for me now trying to relive what I can remember, it is that soundtrack of both cultural times and the music that weaved through it that helps me best describe what I have seen, heard and grooved through and believed in. Growing up in the 1970’s, and maturing through the 80’s, 90’s was a kind of fast way through time tunnel to our current point of modernity. Cultural shifts were swift, technology raced us even faster forward and the popular culture arenas seemingly allowed us to falsely believe we had created creativity, all by ourselves at the push of a button.
Our popular mega culture seemed to explode with very pervasive trends, styles and support mechanisms that grew multi -billion dollar industries that had not since our time been seen. And they sold us this reality as a common culture destiny, stardom, being famous was now an American dream, and being the “ American Idol” or “ the Apprentice or the Survivor, Last One Standing ”. And how to get there was any way fast, fabulous and furiously. This is where we live today through approaching cultural chaos in American culture, and it affects the ways we are learning to be creative, or non creative, living or walking deadened.

I saw in over forty years or so the rise and fall of popular artists through self destructive pop life, world cultural upheaval in social movement, war, assassination, new epochal eras defined by political regimes, the falling of evil empires( South African Apartheid), the rise of four major popular music movements( social protest/soul, punk, grunge and hip hop), unprecedented merger of popular music, TV/media, fashion and film, technology and terror which now rule world and cultural events, a second wave of great wars post World War 2 after Vietnam( Iraq, Afghanistan..) that still hold us from peace and sanity, the rise and the demise of great leaders and failed and faulty ones too.

Our world globally shacked, swelled, rumbled, burned, thawed, and the most troubling, there has been unprecedented unchecked political/social indecency, apathy and greed that has risen and rising to unbelievable atrocity and absurdity in our modern era. Before 2001, 9/11 seemed unthinkable, but after that we did our own attack to our own people with the Katrina flooding failure of fix, our inhumanity seemed now a permanent fixture in the future of American modern culture. Music was still a soiled and yet super soundtrack to all this.

This is what we listened to as Black music not so long ago:
Stevie Wonder, Jackson Five, Donna Summer, Sister Sledge, Kool and The Gang, LTD, Billy Preston, War, Gladys Knight and The Pips, the Spinners, Patti Labelle, The Isley Brothers, Al Green, Chic, Barry White, Four Tops, Smokey Robison and The Miracles, Marvin Gaye, The Supremes, Diana Ross, The Temptations, Booker T. and The MG’s, Otis Redding, The 5th Dimension, Wilson Pickett, B.B. King, Sly and The Family Stone, Jeffery Osboure, Earth, Wind and Fire, Natalie Cole, Patti Austin, James Ingram, Tina Turner, Atlantic Starr, Peabo Bryson, Roberta Flack, Donny Hathaway, Ohio Players, Aretha Franklin, Lou Rawls, Cheryl Lynn, George Benson, Johnny Taylor, The Dramatics, The Crusaders, Teddy Pendergrass, Millie Ripperton, The Chi-lites, Bob Marley, Commodores, George Benson, Rick James, The Pointer Sisters, Curtis Mayfield, Harold Melvin and The Blues notes, Bill Withers, Rufus and Chaka Khan, Lionel Ritchie, Ashford and Simpson, Cameo, Whitney Houston, The Emotions, The Brothers Johnson, Gil- Scott Heron/ Brain Jackson, The Staple Singers, Isaac Hayes, The Ojays, Barry White, Luther Vandross, Parliament/ Funkadelic, Shalamar, the Whispers, the Dazz Band, Gap Band. Can you even imagine what I’m getting at is the difference?

Even without the advantages of the technological choice and demand configurations that propel everything today, we lived in a musical making culture because the industry relied upon musicians making the music, dj’s who loved and knew the music and a distribution and a marketing outfit that fashioned itself out of how people liked musical artists that they connected with. I don’t think anyone is naïve to think that money was not a part of this, nor profit incentive drove business, it’s just that what we want to have is music first. Secondly we want to have music and cultural expressions that contribute to our lives and living. Music is supposed to be a meaningful, beautiful experience, energizing, mind and booty stimulating, but not a menacing, mechanized madness of beats regulated and controlled to sell stuff or engender apathy, selfish pursuits or champion indecent thinking as a way of life.

Nobody ever wanted music to be a drink of holy water either, but I came up as a young musician when music was notes played and sung by musicians, that’s music. So what happened to Black music, especially?

When I grew up as a child, I became entrapped by the imagery of a musician, Jimmi Hendrix. Now what is a kid who has my potential going to see when he/she looks at today’s popular music culture? Let me set this right. I don’t have a problem with the music culture being the sole ownership and direction for this generation, what bothers me the most is that we have now for the first time in my life, a generation of young people for whom there is no “musicians’ culture” being created. If your griots no longer tell the tradition, if that tradition has been completely hijacked by corporate outsiders, how will the people find their centers again? That’s the question I ask, daily?

I was encouraged by my parents to be my naturally creative self, and I fell in love with playing the guitar and following my creative gifting. Years later I became a man reckoning with what to do with that shaping, and my creative gifting while living in a time that needed transformation, because our culture had become broken and disillusioned from the abandonment of the 1980's and 90's(the new era) and in need.

When I came up as a musician things were kind of different, actually, “very different” musically and culturally. I am not suggesting we want to turn back the hands of time and go into era mythologizing and dreaming backwards, but some of that “ back in the day”, we want back.

The concerns, needs and processes for addressing the mega- cultural fallout in the 21 st century is tremendous It suggests that we must be concerned, dedicated, focused on addressing and working on the social, cultural and spiritual well being and furtherance of our society. It means you view the history as sacred canon and see the possibility of greatness and achievement in those lines of living, those dances, those Hughes blues verses and the reality of life in those exaggerated Jacob Lawrence cartoonish expressions, and clashes of identity in Beardon's collages. Their work was solidly multi- cultural. For them it started on the block, in their community and moved toward the embrace of the role of human citizenry.

In this configuration of cultural representation, value transfer is huge. It’s how wisdom is shared and maintained generation and family to family. It’s how cousins learn from aunts how to be a great loving woman from an aunt who owns a business. It’s how uncles teach young Black boys how to dance, talk to a lady, tie a bow tie, or golf, shoot a free throw or paint. My uncle trained me weekly how to paint with precision and patience. Culture is trained and transmitted through value transfer and these are cultural codes which define how people become and are sustained in that becoming. I think in this cultural configuration there is too much time spent on getting attention, adulation, praise and fame. To feel good, be famous, an “Idol or star”, and to bypass focused hard work, discipline, excellence and the long haul of perfecting your skills, is fast becoming the norm, the center practice and not in the margins at all. Disenchantment, pushing the easy button and complacency has seemingly replaced competency. We do have in fact a generation of young people who through their large and always giving “mega -culture mom and dad”, are being taught they can do anything now because they have access to it and can push a button to get what they see they want. Because of corporate greed, the proliferation of unchecked violent popular culture, substance-less success real fast prescriptions, mega- cultural suffocation of gadgets, video games and consumer junk, weakened family and church/spiritual structures, and broad and far range social incompetency, younger people, all people are being sold a bad bag of tricks. Someone is writing a bad program and selling it as normative when it’s clearly dysfunctional. I see this as we being systematically deprogrammed and cut off from our human centers.

My group laments these current cultural configurations constantly, choking even on its fumes. The questions we ask ourselves is do we even fit in anymore? How do you make your art, besides the fact that you are older, but where does your expression fit into an environment for which there is no definition publicly for what you do? It’s not a crybaby’s song, or a need for attention because you are getting older, it’s being at a fundamental crossroads of meaning actually.

So as an artist, I’m not really singing my song until I address the state of our cultural demises. And the questions today becomes too, whose call is this to accountability?; mom, dad, community, churches schools, leaders, government policy, entrepreneurial investment, common people in the streets, our rehabilitation investment in the industrial prison complex, political bloggers, health care system,(mental, physical) information technology/ info-culture, music, entertainment, sports heroes and she-roes, media mega cultural industry? These are the players in this mega dialogue. We can only look to models of societal success which are immediate, attractive, valued possibilities and can be seen and sustained visibly. We have to be courageous and innovative as Black folks have always been. There needs to be a re-positioning, a balance of visible and real options, values, pay-offs presented so that where there is a lack of resources, there is a hike on the values that imbue kids with a desire to seek higher goals that make them independently, self propelled, creative, innovative. If there are fewer resources at home, there needs to be a higher impacting presence in the schools, churches to fill in the gaps. If there are failing family structures in society, there needs to be a more visible projection of what makes a family functional. We don’t need to be shown “more dysfunction” is desirable, normative nor entertaining. We need to encourage younger people to make a better way for their families, friends, communities. I can only speak as a common person who is a musician and who teaches. In our culture creative arts are powerful image, identity carrying and effective expressions that change peoples’ lives, and sustains those identities and ideas. Creative culture seeks a deeper engagement, impact and make us, me, you, see and feel a deeper valued world.

So I try and show this story by examining our creative history, heroes, and their conventions and commitments to cultivate music, a practice in life that raises values that are markings of our best beat in human potential. Everybody has to be accountable for this kind of re-tooling. Profit and greed drives our cultural blind -nesses but the drive for greed must be slowed. But all this circles around value transfer I think, transmission and sustainable valued information, and these must be the center again of our existence in culture. We have to believe again in them and live out within deeper values spaces of what constitutes the “ good life”. The artificially produced plastic set of market values has taken our minds off the center that was necessary to sustain people-hood.

This is a mega cultural formula that we can conjure up, mix, prescribe and disseminate. I truly believe this is the challenge to re-tool, and we must take a vow to make good on it. Arts and education that cultivates creativity and reflective thinking are bulwarks against a society seemed destined to fall into upholding problematic values and identities that push us to celebrate and glorify mean spirited competitiveness, hatred, divisiveness, violence and indecency as normative. Cultivating our culture is one of the investments we can make in ensuring we are the best we are becoming. The safeguards to social chaos at this point so close to our edges of incivility, is a careful and caring concern for one another.

So, what does this have to do with being an artist you say?
For me it has everything to do with it. Everything I am coming to believe about our society, making music, reaching people and being Black is being dynamically shaped by these societal trends, movements and the exchanges we are all having, trying to make sense of this deafening and defying tempo of our turbulent yet fascinating times.

This is an artistic poetic, educator, philosopher, writers', musicians’, artists' framing of a “moment of becoming”, and possibly raising and mobilizing movements of ideas, reflection and critical action to touch people to be about something that changes the thinking of the world we inhabit. Not that this is essentially non- politics, business and entrepreneurial. I think too we must be “many disciplined”.

More importantly this moment needs us to mobilize and support a younger group coming into mainstream empowerment right on our heels, so they may shape their kids to live out these " high ideas and ideals".

I still believe with that powerful, poetic griot Balwin, who spoke of our living in the jaws of the teeth of terrifying odds and still achieving unassailable and monumental dignity, and reminding us that we come from a long line of great poets who muse so meaningfully we cause the dungeons to shake and the “chains to fall off.” The identity, role of the 21 century artist could be the idea of a rising up of those high minded, and gifted, who like the ones of two generations past, spoke directly to the needs of the younger generation who were expected to change and carry the times. I am representing culture, I magnify mine office.

We must Spring Forward again.
Essay by Bill Banfield From Representing Culture, 2011, Scarecrow Press