Woog's World / Saving Ralph Ellison from the dumpster
Published 7:41 pm, Thursday, September 23, 2010
In the summer of 2006, Todd Weeks learned that Ralph Ellison's vast record collection was headed for destruction. He was given the opportunity to save it -- if he could find a proper home for it.
He had just 48 hours to do it.
Weeks -- a 1982 Staples High School graduate who, using the professional name Todd Bryant Weeks, is both a noted jazz writer and jazz rep for the Associated Musicians of Greater New York Local 802 -- dropped everything. By the deadline, he'd rescued the important collection from oblivion.
Today, the 500 records and tapes -- including 125 78 RPMs, all amassed between the early 1930s and late 1980s -- reside in the National Jazz Museum in Harlem.
Weeks is both a likely and unlikely savior of Ellison's collection. Twenty years ago -- not long after high school -- Weeks was an aspiring actor. He got a break when he was cast as Bix Beiderbecke, in a biopic of the influential jazz soloist.
Weeks -- a trumpeter himself, who was interested in early acoustic music when his friends were listening to hip hop -- became enamored with jazz. In 2004 he earned a graduate degree in jazz history and research from Rutgers University.
Though Ellison was an author, literary critic and scholar best known for his penetrating novel Invisible Man, he took a multidisciplinary approach to his work. According to Weeks, Ellison "drew on music, photography and the fine arts as sources of inspiration and cultural pride. He saw music as a key to individual expression and the universality of experience." His own writing honored the influence and impact of a variety of sources, from Beethoven to Bessie Smith. In turn, it helped expose new listeners to innumerable jazz and blues singers.
Weeks calls Invisible Man "a profound book. Ellison had an incredible ear for dialogue, and a great eye for characters and situations. Because he writes about race, the book is both real and surreal. It's beautiful, and gratifying to read."
But, Weeks adds, Ellison "really writes about America. His characters reveal a big story."
Weeks was unsure what he'd find, once he examined the collection. Much was what he expected: music that Ellison had written passionately about, including Mahalia Jackson, Charlie Christian and cante flamenco.
But there were many revelations, he says: a "truly varied range of 17th to 20th century classical, pop items, spoken word and much more. Ellison was one of the great writers of the 20th century. When you see what he had on his turntable, you can understand his writing more fully."
Ellison's background is intriguing, Weeks says. Born in Oklahoma City, his original goal was to become a classical composer. He grew up during the emergence of big band jazz, and heard many legendary artists perform live -- for example, Louis Armstrong. Throughout his literary career, Ellison championed Armstrong.
While he played trumpet in high school, he also studied harmony. At Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, he examined original Prokofiev scores.
Weeks calls Ellison's audio collection "a necessarily subjective take on the man and his inner world."
That world -- encompassing the "intellectual elite" -- included popular albums of Glenn Gould's Bach performances, and Brahms played by the German Philharmonic, along with records by divas Joan Sutherland and Leontyne Price.
There was Basie and Ellington too, along with "racy" blues (Ethel Waters' "No Man's Mama"/"Shake that Thing") and novelty items like the Harlem Hamfats' "Give Me Some of That Yum Yum."
Also included: Eric Burdon and War's "The Black Man's Burden," and "Guess Who's Comin' Home: The Black Fighting Man Recorded Live in Vietnam."
Ellison wrote extensively about music, and was highly influenced by jazz. "He held it up as one of the greatest achievements of African-Americans -- really, all Americans," Weeks says. "He thought of himself as an American first, a black man second."
Taken together, Weeks says, the collection informed Ellison's "distinctly pluralistic viewpoint, and were behind his marked insistence that, apart from our race, we each of us must identify as Americans first and foremost. I believe in him as a voice of American letters. Understanding his legacy through jazz is important."
He quotes Ellison himself: "In the swift whirl of time music is a constant, reminding us of what we were of that towards which we aspire. Art thou troubled? Music will not only calm, it will ennoble thee."
Weeks will be speaking on the Ralph Ellison Recorded Sound Collection at the Westport Public Library on Thursday, Oct. 7, at 7:30 p.m. His audience, he says, is "anyone interested in expanding their knowledge of the black experience, as expressed by music and literature."
Weeks plans to talk about the connections between Ellison's writing and music collection, and play a sound collage. He will answer questions about the writer, about jazz, and -- hey, why not improvise -- any related topics anyone wants to discuss.