Premature Autopsies

by Stanley Crouch
Though we are told to mourn it, we must know that it was a noble sound. It had majesty. Yes, it was majestic. Deep down in the soul of it all, where the notes themselves provide the levels of revelation we can only expect of great art, it formed a bridge. That's right, a bridge. A bridge that stretched from the realm of dreams to the highways and byways and thoroughfares and back roads of action. To be more precise, let me say that this sound was itself an action. Like a knight wrapped in the glistening armor of invention, of creativity, of integrity, of grace, of sophistication, of SOUL, this sound took the field. It arrive when the heart was like a percussively throbbing community suffering the despair imposed by dragons. Now, if a dragon think it is grand enough, that dragon will try to make you believe that what you need to carry your through the inevitable turmoil that visits human life is beyond your grasp. If that dragon thinks it is grand enough, it will try to convince you that there is no escape, no release, no salvation from its wicked dominion. It will tell you that you are destined to live your life in the dark. But when a majestic sound takes the field , when it parts the waters of silence and noise with the power of song, when this majestic concatenation of rhythm, harmony and melody assembles itself in the invisible world of music, ears begin to change and lives begin to change and those who were musically lame begin to walk with a charismatic sophistication to their steps. You see, when something is pure, when it has the noblest reasons as its fundamental purpose, then it will become a candle of sound in the dark cave of silence. Yes, it was a noble sound.

I say that it was a noble sound because we are told today that this great sound is dead. We are told that because it did not cosign the ignoble proclivities of the marketplace, because it did not lie back and relax in the dungeon with riff raff, because it had and attitude of gutbucket grandeur, and because it sought to elevate through elegance, for all of these things it has died, for some, a most welcome death. But we must understand that the money lenders of the marketplace have never EVER known the difference between an office or an auction block and a temple, they have never known that there was any identity to anything other than that of a hustle, a shuck, a scam, a game. If you listen to them, they'll tell you that everything is always up for sale. They recognize no difference or distance between the sacred and the profane. For them, everything is fair game to be used in THEIR game. Oh, they chuckle when they hear that the coffin for this noble sound has been built; they offer to donate more nails. The send bouquets instead of wreaths. They feel this sound began to outlive its usefulness the moment it could no longer be abused in the world of prostitution, that world where the beautiful and wondrous act of intimate romance and procreation is reduced to one pitiful fact; a sham ritual in which the customer's appetite for lies is equaled by the prostitute's willingness to tell those lies in whatever detail he is ready to pay for. The tones of lies are vulgar facts but they are not noble sounds.

But there is another truth and that truth passes through time in the very same way that an irresistible force passes through an immovable object. That's what I said: this truth is so irresistible that it passes through immovable objects. It is the truth of a desire for a refined and impassioned portrait of the presence and the power and the possibilities of the human spirit. Can you imagine that? I said: a desire for the refined and impassioned depiction in music of the presence and power and the possibilities of the human spirit. That is the desire that lights the candle in the darkness. That is the desire that confounds dragons who think themselves so grand. We have heard the striking of the match and have felt ourselves made whole in the glow of the candle for a long time.

It is possible that we who listened heard something timeless for those who are descendants of the many who were literally up for sale, those whose presence on the auction blocks and in the slave quarters formed the cross upon which the Constitution of this nation was crucified. Yet, even after that crucifixion there were those who rose in the third century of American slavery with a vision of freedom; there were those who lit the mighty wick that extended from the candle and carried it; there were those who spoke through music of the meaning of light; those who were not content to accept the darkness in the heart that comes of surrender to dragons who think themselves grand; there were those who said - LISTEN CLOSELY NOW - who said, "If you give me a fair chance I will help you better understand the meaning of democracy". Yes, that is precisely what they said. "If you give me a fair chance I will help you better understand the meaning of democracy". These are they who were truly the makers of a noble sound.

But as we mourn the passing of this noble sound, we are told to accept the idea that no longer are those blessed who are endowed with majestic inclinations. We are told that no longer are those blessed who have the intentions of refining those majestic inclinations into rhythm and tune. If we accept that, however, we might find ourselves ignoring the democratic imperatives of our birthright. We might fail to understand what was meant way back in the day when the sun of liberty had been cloaked by the ignoble practice of slavery. We might fail to understand that those living in the dragon's shadow of bondage fashioned a luminous and mighty chariot that could swing low and carry us back to the home of all human hope, which is heroism. I say heroism because it is ever the quality of bravery, of devotion, of the will to nobility that underscores the marvelous phrases of this music. It swung low and it swung upward and it wore wings. It knew that it's shining armor would fit it well, because it tried that armor on at the gate of slavery's hell. It was the ethereal aerodynamics of musical art in America. It was democratic because it proved over and over that the sound of human glory knows no social limitations, that the sound of human glory has no concern with pigmentation, that the sound of human glory transcends all definitions except those of the human soul itself. Without a doubt it was a noble sound.

Some people might ask, "What is this man doing talking about nobility? Doesn't he know that is a dragon spawned and blood encrusted century? Doesn't he know that the dragon breath of our time is breathing down the neck of the year 2000? Doesn't he know that this is the era of flash and cash?" I will say to them that the interwoven labyrinths of greed and manipulation are as old as the FIRST lie. When you lie, you are trying to manipulate; and when you try to manipulate especially for false profit, you reveal your greed; and when you swallow that dragon dust cooperatively, you reveal yourself as a chump, and a sucker, one of those folk P.T. Barnum said was born every minute. But I will answer them also by saying that nobility is always born somewhere out there in the world, and when you live in a democratic nation you have to face the mysterious fact that nobility has no permanent address, you have to face the fact that nobody has nobility's private phone number. Nobility is not listed in the phone book. Nobility is not listed in the society column, nobility shows up where it feels like showing up, and where it feels like showing up might be just about anywhere. If it could rise like a mighty light from among the human livestock of the plantation, you know it can come from anywhere it wants to. You see, nobility is listed though. Yes, it is listed. Nobility lists itself in the human spirit, and its purpose is to enlist the ears of the listeners in the bittersweet song of spiritual concerns.

As we gather here to mourn the passing of this noble sound, we should take the pains to remember something. There are some of us who don't accept the dreams of dragons as their own, no matter how grand those dragons might say they are. Yes, there are some who will refuse to drop the candle even when pushed into a dark cave and locked there behind the stone. Don't forget the people like Duke Ellington, who will not leave the field once it becomes obvious that the sound of a cymbal swinging in celebration is more beautiful than the ringing of a cash register. Remember that there are those who, like Duke, are willing to face the majesty of their heritage and endure the slow painful development demanded of serious study. There is, you must recall, a kind of serious study that will give you the confidence to strike your match to the mighty wick that will illuminate yet another portion of the darkness. Out there somewhere are the kind of people who do not accept the premature autopsy of a noble art form. These are the ones who follow in the footsteps of the gifted and the disciplined, who have been deeply hurt but not discouraged, who have been frightened but have not forgotten how to be brave, who revel in the company of their friends and sweethearts but are willing to face the loneliness that is demanded of mastery.

In order to carry the candle, you have to accept the fact that when the wax on that candle begins to melt it will slide down and burn you hand. You must be willing to accept the fact that the pain is a part of the process of revelation. You have to be willing to take the field and stay on the field the way Duke stayed on the road, traveling in raggedy cars, traveling in private Pullman railroad cars, traveling by bus, traveling by boat, traveling against his will sometimes in airplanes. Duke accepted all the pain and the agony and the self-doubt and the disappointment he was faced with because he had been inspired! Duke was inspired he heard coming for the musicians of all hues and from all levels of training. Duke heard the constitutional orchestra of American life and transformed it into musical form. Whenever they said this music was dead, Duke was out there, writing music and performing the meaning of his democratic birthright in an artistic language that uttered its first words way back on that first day that a slave sang a new song in this new and strange land.

I am here to tell you that there are some who do not accept the premature autopsy of a noble art form. There are some of us out here who are on a quest, and in the process of that quest who find ourselves having to perform conquests. There are some of us out here who believe that the majesty of human life demands and accurate rendition in rhythm and tune. Duke performed with Sydney Bechet, with Louis Armstrong, with Coleman Hawkins, with Charlie Parker, with John Coletrane and wrote music for almost all of them. His own orchestra was described by Mahalia Jackson as a sacred institution. The Duke Ellington Orchestra was a manifestation of the elaborately fabricated drum he called this music. He was dedicated without reservation. He knew that you would have to listen to a noble sound. You see, you have to watch out for a tradition built on the intention of putting noble inclinations into rhythm and tune. You have to beware of premature autopsies. A noble sound might not lie still in the dark cave where the dragons have taken it. A noble sound might just rise up and push away the stones that were placed in its path. A noble sound might just rise up on the high side of the sky, it might just ring the silver bells and tear through the cloak of the dragonŐs shadow that blocks the sun. You got to watch those early autopsies. A noble sound is a mighty thing. It can mess around and end up swinging low and swinging high and flapping its wings in a rhythm that might swoop over the limitations imposed by the dreams of dragons. I said: you better check those autopsies. A noble sound, the birthright understood so clearly by Duke Ellington, just might swing low and it might tell you to get on board. It might move with so much grace and so much confidence that you will have to remember what I have been telling you: you had better not pay much attention to those premature autopsies. This noble sound, this thing of majesty, this art, so battered but so ready for battle, it jut might lift you high enough in the understanding of human life to let you know in no uncertain terms why that marvelous Washingtonian, Edward Kennedy Ellington, never never came off the road.