Thursday, September 23, 2010

Happy Birthday, Brother Ray

Ray Charles (1930-2004)
When I listen to Ray Charles--which is quite often--I like to imagine his face.  That's probably because there are so many pictures of his face--sunglasses on, head cocked back, mouth agape, cheeks tightened up.  If you didn't know him, you might think he's being tortured in such pictures (look right and think about it).  But it's also because his enunciation seems to require the whole face take part--like when he's reaching for one of those gravelly falsetto notes, staring up and squinting his eyes as though there's too much sun; or he's knee-deep in a blues, growling in breaths, frowning with seeming desperation.  I don't want to idealize a persona:  it's not that his emotions made him a genius.  He was a fabulous, hardworking pianist with one of the finest voices in music.  But when he looks in pain, I believe he is.

Ray Charles would have turned 80 today had he not died six years ago of liver cancer.  The cover of DownBeat's October issue pictures a black and white profile of his face, commemorating his eightieth birthday.  He looks solemn in that picture.  The accompanying article discusses Charles's liminal sort of relationship with jazz, bringing to attention his influence on jazz musicians, the jazz musicians who were his influences, his forays into jazz, his work methods.  I enjoyed the article because I learned a little more, but there was an underlying question that I believe did not need to be broached.  Did Ray Charles play enough jazz for jazz fans to claim him as a jazz musician?

It is true that Ray Charles played on records that are unabashedly jazz records, including, notably, "Soul Meeting" and "Soul Brothers," which he cut in 1958 with Milt Jackson, who had as much or more affinity for the blues as Charles.  They are fine records.  My favorite is "Fathead: Ray Charles Presents David 'Fathead' Newman," from 1960.  Listen to "Hard Times" from that album and try not to feel wistful.  There is "Genius + Soul = Jazz," from 1961, featuring such great jazz musicians as Clark Terry, Thad Jones, Al Grey.  But they do not make this album great.  In fact, the sharp, jarring sound of Charles's organ on this album makes it not great.  There is "My Kind of Jazz," recorded in 1970, produced by Quincy Jones.

So sure, let's claim Ray Charles as a jazz musician.  He did play jazz.  But wanting to claim him misses the point of his genius.  For he did play jazz, but the songs that made him great--"I Got a Woman," "You Are My Sunshine," "A Fool For You," Night Time is the Right Time," "Careless Love"--are not jazz songs.

Some might disagree.  In Gary Giddins's essay "Hard Again," he writes, "Ray Charles had one of the best hard bop bands of the '50s."  But Giddins does not pretend that Charles played strictly jazz when, he writes, "rhythm and blues was tweaking jazz for its loss of soul." (1)  And surely Ray Charles had soul.  Watch the video posted below (mentioned in the DownBeat article) and see for yourself.  (As you'll see, it wasn't just his face that moved with the words.)

Here's how I see it:  Ray Charles sang at the Republican National Convention in 1984.  Was he a Republican?  Maybe, but that shouldn't define him.  Ray Charles played jazz.  Was he a jazz musician?  Perhaps, but let's be thankful that's not all he was.  


(1) Giddins, Gary. Rhythm-a-ning: Jazz Tradition and Innovation in the '80s. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985. Print.  Page 133.

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