The Ralph Ellison Project: Robert O’Meally, editor of Living With Music, discusses Invisible Man author Ralph Ellison

August 20th, 2002

Robert O’Meally,

editor of

Living with Music: Ralph Ellison’s Jazz Writings


While Ralph Ellison will forever be best remembered as author of the classic American novel of identity, Invisible Man, he also contributed significant essays on jazz that stand as compelling testaments to his era.  His work included an homage to Duke Ellington, stinging critiques of Charlie Parker and Miles Davis, and recognition of the changing-of-the-guard taking place at Harlem’s Minton’s in the 1940’s.  He wrote on musical topics from flamenco to Charlie Christian, and from Jimmy Rushing to Mahalia Jackson.

“I teach a class (at Columbia University) on jazz in American culture”, editor Robert O’Meally told us.  “For years now I have put together a handout for my students that consists of Ellison’s writings on music. About five years ago, it struck me that that stack of Xerox’s was the best book on jazz I knew.”  So, O’Meally went to Modern Books and set about compiling Ellison’s essays on jazz music that now exist between the covers of Living with Music, a practical introduction to the musical intelligence of one of America’s greatest literary minds.

In interview with Jerry Jazz Musician publisher Joe Maita, O’Meally discusses Ellison’s work, his views on bebop, his reach across a generation in impacting Ken Burns’ documentary on jazz, and on Juneteenth, Ellison’s posthumously issued second novel.






In the swift whirl of time music is a constant, reminding us of what we were and of that toward which we aspire. Art thou troubled? Music will not only calm, it will ennoble thee. – Ralph Ellison


JJM What is your background?

ROM I am a professor of literature in the English Department at Columbia University and I have been on that trail most of my life, which has led to a specialty in American literature and African-American literature. Along the way, studying Ralph Ellison, led me to think about the relation of music to literature and to recall part of my own background as a fledgling, amateur musician. I played a little bit in high school and into college. I grew up in a household where my parents were pretty good piano players who also had a very good record collection. So, I grew up in an era where music was very important. As a college student, the impact of Ellison’s work was very strong on me. I could “reclaim” a part of my own heritage, as somebody who likes music and knows something about it.

JJM Who was your childhood hero?

ROM I grew up in the 60’s, so I was dancing to the Motown stuff, and James Brown. I liked Maceo Parker in Brown’s band, the way he could dance with the alto saxophone. My real hero was Johnny Hodges, Duke Ellington’s famous alto soloist. When I was in the band, I was probably the only teenager within 1000 miles trying to make his horn sound like Johnny Hodges. I used to go hear the Ellington band, and when they came to town, to me, it was Johnny Hodges coming to town. It took me quite a while to begin to listen beyond the solo slot and realize Ellington had a pretty good band going too!

JJM How did you come to be the editor of this collection of essays by Ralph Ellison, Living With Music?

ROM As I mentioned, I am an English professor. Every time I give a course that touches on Ellison or on jazz in American literature – I teach a class on jazz in American culture – for years now I have put together a handout for my students that consists of Ellison’s writings on music. About five years ago, it struck me that that stack of Xerox’s was the best book on jazz I knew. So, I went to Modern Library and we began talking about what a volume of Ellison’s music writings might consist of. I was sure that Ellison was right in the league with Whitney Balliett and Albert Murray and perhaps beyond them, as arguably the most eloquent writer that jazz has ever had. That’s really where it began, but I have been playing music when I taught Invisible Man for 25 years, and thinking about the relationship of people like Johnny Hodges and Ellington and others to writing. It was clear to me that somewhere along that line that Ellison, who had been a musician who wanted to be a composer as a youngster, knew what he was doing when he was writing about these musicians. He was writing from the point of view of someone who had been on the bandstand and who tried to make it as a musician himself.

JJM What event in his life turned him away from seeking a career as a trumpet player and toward that of being a writer?

ROM Well, it didn’t happen all in one day, I don’t think. He was a music major in college during the depression, and he had come to New York from Alabama to try to get to work as a trumpet player, and he found there were a lot of good trumpet players in New York at that time. He couldn’t get any work, which is part of the story. The other thing is that on that trip to New York, he met Richard Wright, who was then barely known as a writer, and Wright encouraged Ellison to write a review for the magazine Wright was editing. Ellison said that once he found himself putting something on to the page, he felt hooked almost right away. Wright invited him to write a short story for the magazine, and that was it. Ellison put his trumpet away right away and said he wouldn’t go on any more professional gigs for fear that he would be diverted from his new career, which was trying to make the music happen in language.

JJM His first essay on music was on flamenco music…

ROM Yes, that’s right. In the 50’s he was invited by Saturday Review to do pieces for them. He had already published Invisible Man. Ellison had been in Europe, and he loved flamenco for some time, and got to witness some flamenco players, and felt that they were so close to the blues that he wrote wonderfully about flamenco as also a music of undefeated, oppressed people, made by people who like to swing and like to have a good time. It wasn’t for people to come and clap politely, it was a music that you needed to be a part of. He knew what that meant, as someone who had been to the Savoy Ballroom and places like that. So that really began a series of pieces for the Saturday Review, and one for Esquire, which add up to a very good series which is, as I say, the best book on jazz I know.

JJM He referred to America as a “still forming nation in a state of relative nakedness,” and he also observed that American life is “jazz-based.” What did he mean by American life being “jazz-based?”

ROM I think what he meant was that not only had jazz been America’s popular music for quite a while, but even beyond that period of the 30’s and the 40’s, something about the music formed a soundtrack of American life through the century. What he means by that is that this music that depends on improvisation, and depends on individual assertions, and soloing, and that depends on listening to those in the group around you, really expresses a superior form of democracy at its best . To be a member of the Basie band, you had to sit and listen to others play, then you had to stand up and be yourself. This is the American way of asserting your own individuality while honoring and feeling responsible for the people around you.

JJM You edited another book that touches on this a little, called Jazz Cadence in American Culture, that touches on what you described as Ellison’s definition of America being “jazz-based.”  One essay that I chuckled at a little relates American architecture in the 20’s and 30’s to jazz, and I can picture that easily in my head and understand the corelation…

ROM Ann Douglas writes about this, and she said that you look at Manhattan and the kind of strong backbeat of those streets crossing one another…You think of that as the rhythm section and think of the spires shooting up as a solo line of Gillespie’s, and you have a sense of what she meant when she agreed with Ellison that America is shaped by jazz.

JJM Ellison said, “I am not particularly religious but I am claimed by music.” His wife, Fanny, said “When he can’t find the words at the typewriter, he goes upstairs and plays the trumpet.” How was music a model and such a deep influence on him as a writer?  You keep hearing how he writes “rhythmically” and I keep relating that to Jack Kerouac…

ROM Kerouac is another great example of somebody for which jazz was a model. Leroi Jones (Amiri Baraka) was another who says that everything he writes has what he calls a “musical insistence.” In Ellison’s case, I think he was trying to write rhythmically, I think he presents jazz characters as heroic guides to the young men trying to find their way he writes about. He says that when you run into someone who knows a lot about jazz, then you have run into someone who is very wise. The other part that I think is fascinating is that as a musician who was trained classically but could also play jazz, he knew that it took more than a broken heart to play the blues. It took more than just sincerity and good intentions to write a novel. He went about trying to do so studying and practicing. He liked Hemingway, so he would take a Hemingway story that he liked and he would copy it out in long hand, just as he would playing a tune or a Bach piece, over and over again to get the music in his fingers. So, he thought that music as a kind of model for American society and the musicians were heroic Americans. But also the discipline of the musicians was heroic.

JJM He connected music with literature really early on, in fact, he was deeply influenced by T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Wasteland,” and he made a connection between Eliot’s poem and the “rowdy poetic flights of Louis Armstrong.”

ROM I love that phrase.

JJM He was quoted as saying this about the “The Wasteland.” “Somehow its rhythms were often closer to those of jazz than were those of the Negro poets, and even though I could not understand them, its range of allusion was as mixed and varied as Louis Armstrong.” Much as Ellison’s writings were rhythmic, what I am wondering about is…He left his readers in a similar position as not being able to necessarily understand what he was writing, particularly when he would get into this stream of consciousness writing so prevalent in Juneteenth.  Is he a difficult writer to connect with?

ROM Well, I think he tried so hard to throw out a line to the readers, quite literally, but he is a writer who says, “You are coming to my book, I worked hard to write this book, I want you to work hard to read it.” I read Invisible Man when I was in high school, and lord knows what I was getting out of it, but the story line pulled me forward. When I read it five years later, it knocked me dead, because it was all this commentary about American history, references to Melville and Poe and Richard Wright. I think he is a difficult writer, particularly in Juneteenth, because he knows so much and wanted to write the Great American Novel, to carry you along the story line, but he also wants to tell you everything he knows. I think it’s a tremendously demanding thing he asks of his reader, but I think the reward is that you can read it the rest of your life, and the more you know, the more you are able to draw from what he has written.

JJM I think he could make a case that Invisible Man is the Great American Novel. Enough people would people would get on that side…

ROM I get students from Korea and Pakistan and Africa, coming to me saying that they felt like the “Invisible Man” or “Invisible Woman” when they came to America. They identify with the green-horn in society, trying to figure out what to hold on to as they move forward. I think that the metaphor for invisibility is one for Americans but also for modern times. As you move around, you are starting over, no matter country you are starting from.

JJM I guess it’s more of a book about trying to find one’s own identity in difficult circumstances…

ROM Ellison said that the question for the American writer is a question of identity – that our society moves so quickly, that there are so many different kinds of people, that you are not able to just depend on who your father or who your mother was – you have to start over, and answer what is going to be your career, where you live, who are you? And nowadays, when that definition can change, people take several jobs during a lifetime, it’s an ongoing process of figuring out who you are.

JJM Let’s shift a bit to the music …Ralph Ellison wrote this about bebop. “The world evoked by this music is a different world. The music here is more abstract. It has become seperated from the ritual form of dance and the vocal definitions once supplied by song are missing. More important, the response of its audience is more intellectual. Indeed, it is mainly intellectual, and thus its participation is less immediate.” At one point, Ellison even referred to bebop as “decadent intellectualism.” Did Ellison feel as if bebop contributed to the fall of jazz as much as, say, the appearance of Elvis Presley?

ROM I would say that Ellison was a man of his own era and of his own place. He grew up in Oklahoma City, where blues-based, danceable, roadhouse and public dance music was the same. After he moved to New York, he went to the Savoy Ballroom once or twice a week. That was his music. Big band, with all the colors, and the blues always close in sight. So, for him, the small groups drawn from the big bands were never as interesting. Once the small groups took over for a variety of social and artistic reasons, the clubs hired these few musicians in smaller groups, he wasn’t as interested. He felt that once the dance wasn’t there, it wasn’t the community institution as it was when the dance was involved. I think he was put off by the solos he felt went on too long. I don’t think he felt jazz ever died, but I think he felt it was a false move.

JJM There seems to be something bordering on anger in his writing on bebop. He comes to the defense of Louis Armstrong when answering critics who felt Armstrong’s stage clowning embodied “Uncle Tom behavior.”  Ellison makes a case that Dizzy Gillespie’s stage antics, or Miles Davis’ performances of indifferences were also a means of “selling out.” He defends Armstrong further with the viewpoint that at least Armstrong was determined to keep his music “deeply meaningful and swinging.” How did the musicians of the bebop era, of Charlie Parker’s era, feel about Ralph Ellison?

ROM I have to say that while Ellison kept in touch with people he knew from the Basie band and from his own southwest travels, and Teddy Wilson, who he knew from his Tuskeegee connection, I doubt very seriously if Charlie Parker ever heard of Ralph Ellison.

JJM Good point. Parker was pretty preoccupied with other things in his life…

ROM Gillespie was a reader and he probably was listening carefully. He always was putting together a big band of his own, and did get above Armstrong in his own way. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Gillespie was a little annoyed at Ellison putting down bebop, but also intrigued by his defense of Louis Armstrong, who he also loved. Gillespie knew very well that Armstrong was nobody’s Uncle Tom, and when you go on stage, you are supposed to make the audience happy.

JJM I think what Ellison was defending, as you mentioned earlier, was the ritual of the dance. Bebop threatened the ritual.

ROM  It’s ironic, because Ellison’s critics, especially early on, accused him of being overly intellectual, trying to put too much in every paragraph. But Ellison did feel it was possible to go too far with intellectuality and away from the gutsy root of the art form. I think you are right, that once bodies aren’t moving on the floor, and once singer’s voices aren’t part of the ritual, they lost something. In Washington, D.C., where I grew up, people did a dance called “the bop”, and it certainly was possible to dance to the music, but it was much more difficult than it had been. I think that the main thing here is that we have a man from a different generation who is hearing the music as noisy – not as noisy as Elvis – I am sure he didn’t care for Elvis. He might have said “well, the blues are in there.” Ellison loved Ray Charles….

JJM Yes. Someone asked Ellison what he thought of Ornette Coleman and he shunned Coleman’s work and went into a discussion of what Ray Charles was doing.

ROM Yes, he said if you peel back those layers of blues by Ray Charles has much more complexity in there than anybody suspects. Ellison wants the complexity but is afraid that it can kind of run overboard and become self-indulgent. That is another word that he would use for the beboppers. In the case of Coleman, Ellison preferred players with a big tone, lyrical players, like Johnny Hodges and Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster, and here comes Ornette Coleman, with this stove-pipe sound, that more brittle kind of sound, and Ellison didn’t hear the bluesiness.

JJM Well, it’s as shocking to somebody that grew up in a different era as rap is to me as a person who grew up listening to R&B and rock and roll. It does take some getting used to…

ROM It’s one of the funny things for me, in this book Living with Music…When I interviewed him in the mid-70’s, Ellison was telling me about watching the TV show Soul Train, and somehow the image of the man who wrote Invisible Man propped in front of the TV watching Soul Train struck me as being very funny. Not surprisingly, he didn’t care for what he saw. He thought that the kids weren’t dancing with each other, they were dancing to be seen by the camera. With no band there, he thought they were trying to have a relationship with a machine. Of course, it’s not as interesting.

JJM In his notes to the novel Juneteenth, he wrote, “A great religious leader is a master of ecstacy. He evokes emotions that move beyond the rational on to the mystical. A jazz musician does something the same. By his manipulation of sound and rhythm he releases movements and emotions which allow for the transcendence of everyday reality.” I thought that was very cool. To me, I think of someone like John Coltrane as a “master of ecstacy,” especially the way he relates his music to this whole religious concept. Who do you suppose were Ellison’s “masters of ecstacy”, in his view musicians who moved their work from the “rational to the mystical?”

ROM That’s a good question. Let me say before answering it directly, that even when you are dealing with somebody that Ellison didn’t know, you can apply the terms that he used. That idea of “masters of ecstacy” without question applies to A Love Supreme and so much of John Coltrane. I think that Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way has that same kind of sense of epiphany. When you listen to My Funny Valentine by Miles, you get goose pimples, and it’s something like a religious sense that Miles is speaking beyond. It’s as if language wasn’t adequate to say what he wants to say. He was speaking beyond words. For Ellison, Jimmy Rushing would take him there. He talks about a sense of communion that was achieved at dances by Rushing, “Mr. 5 x 5”, would achieve a certain level. It was an ecstatic modality, taking what he calls a “communion of dancers” off into this other realm. I think he also talks about Ellington’s as a band through which you could hear the voice of God, especially if you didn’t go to church. It struck him that his mother, who was so religious that she never went to dances, told him that she wanted him to be a musician like Ellington was. His mother discerned this religious depth in Ellington’s music. As for Louis Armstrong, there is a great passage in the beginning of Invisible Man where he listens and he hears a woman wailing a spiritual. I think what he is saying there is that within “What Did I Do to Be So Black and Blue?” there is a whole history sounding, including a history of people praying for deliverance.

JJM Based on how much focus he puts on Armstrong in Invisible Man and some of the essays that are compiled in the book, I would have to put him there as well. In fact, of Armstrong, he once said he “made poetry out of his invisibility.” You sort of echo this when you wrote that “Armstrong made the most out of having a freer hand in the creation of his art form, precisely because white institutional powers failed to recognize him as an artist.” Can you explain that a little bit?

ROM People ask me what Ellison meant by the title, “Invisible Man,” and it’s like asking, “What did Melville mean by the white whale?” He meant so many different things by this metaphor. One thing, he was referring to African-Americans who at that time were called by sociologists marked for special treatment because of their high visibility – so they stood out so much that they weren’t as meltable into America’s melting pot. Ellison was playing with that and the fact that a racist never quite sees you for what you are, there is an underestimation, and a blindness that goes with that. There are lots of things like that that he meant, but also he meant that if you are in a society where the powerful people don’t take you seriously, it can be an advantage in the sense that you can go off and practice and do anything you want to do. You can experiment freely. Your invisibility can make you freer to discover new modes of expression, and make you more of an experimenter than the school marm or the official proctor ever would have allowed. He talks about jazz as developing in academies but most significantly in academies on the dance floor and in the jam sessions where the musicians and the dancers set the standards higher than most schools would allow. It’s a funny irony that for him, invisibility is a shame, but we might not have gotten Charlie Christian going off or Ellington or Parker without this…

JJM Ellison wrote this about Parker. “For all of its velocity, brilliance and imagination, there is in it a great deal of loneliness, self deprecation and self pity. With this there is a quality which seems to issue from its vibratoless tone the sound amateurish ineffectuality as though he could never quite make it.”

ROM  Man, that’s cold blooded.

JJM Yes, I can see this if he was talking about some high school kid blowing an alto or something, but this is Charlie Parker he is talking about here…

ROM I know, and I think Ellison was a fighter, and he’s defending Louis Armstrong against a Louis Armstrong detractor, and I think he is also coming right into the face of people who love Parker and saying, compare him with these huge toned players coming before him, and it is not as rich a sound. I can’t even fathom to tell you what Ellison was saying here. I don’t agree with him on that, because I am so moved by Parker. For Ellison, the big band setting, where for one chorus, or half a chorus, Johnny Hodges would come step up and take a chorus, that was enouugh. But the idea that the saxophonist would step up before the audience and play for half an hour, struck him as self-indulgent. So that’s why Ellison called it all the things he did, because he loved all the other things about jazz, this community based, ritual, religious music of understatement, not excess.

JJM In 1973, Ellison made reference to jazz as an American institution, along with the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The filmmaker Ken Burns feels there are three major themes of American history, the Constitution, baseball and jazz. How much influence did Ellison’s philosophy of jazz have on Burns’ filmmaking?

ROM I don’t know Ken Burns personally, but I think one thing we can say, in episode after episode, the narrator of the documentary would read from Ellison, over and over again. Somebody on his advisory team knew Ellison’s work. My guess is that since Albert Murray was so important in it, he was instrumental in that.  Stanley Crouch is important to the film, and he is an Ellisonian from the bottom of his heart. Wynton Marsalis is a very careful student of Ralph Ellison. So is Gary Giddins. I think there are lots of people who would say that if you are going to write about Armstrong or Duke, don’t forget about this or that. Even when they got to the Parker section, they were reading from Ellison. That was probably not the best place to read from. I honor Burns, and I think he pulled together a team of advisors who tried to write about the music to say about its impact on our society, and that’s very Ellisonian.

 JJM Something that you said earlier that you said also reminded me of something Wynton Marsalis said during the Burns documentary, and it was echoed by Burns, who used the term democracy also, where musicians play together and learn to get along, and this came through in much of Ellison’s work…

ROM I think if I could be as strong an individual as Lester Young was, and still as capable of fitting into that great reed section of the Count Basie Band, then I would be able to do two of the things democracy depends on, thinking for myself, having my own voice and being my own man, and at the same time listening carefully to other people and not blowing them away with my own selfishness. For Ellison, maybe more than any other point, he felt art was an assertion against chaos in general. I think that the idea that a jazz band is a perfect example of democracy in action is a masterful point in Ellison’s writing.

JJM What is your point of view on the legacy of Ralph Ellison. Beyond his obvious achievement of Invisible Man, what kind of a man was he?

ROM I think you have two questions there. What kind of a person was he? He was a very private man. He preferred not to make TV appearances, he wanted his best self put forward, and he felt he did that best on the printed page. He worked very hard to make every page as perfect as he could, but generally otherwise shunned a public role. To meet him was to meet a very quiet, reserved, retiring individual, but you were always aware of the magnitude of his intellect. He spoke in paragraphs, and it’s as if he was polishing every one as he created it. He was a very good public speaker for this reason, because he could get up there with no notes and make these sentences in front of your eyes. You could also feel the intensity of the man. You were talking earlier about what felt like anger when he was describing things he didn’t like, and you could feel some of that if you were with him, if a certain topic would come up. You could feel the effort to restrain himself. When James Baldwin was talking about the race problem in the United States, he called Ellison “the angriest man he had ever met in his life.”

JJM Yes, and Norman Mailer described Ellison as a “hateful writer.”

ROM I can see where he would say that, but there is another side to Ellison. If Ellison was relaxed and with people he knew, he was a terrifically funny man, a storyteller of life. He would reenact some story that he wanted to tell you. I saw him read material from what eventually became part of Juneteenth, and what he was reading was so overwhelmingly funny to the audience that Ellison had to stop for a minute to let himself just crack up before going on to the work. So, he was a complicated character, full of humor, and full of anger as so many people who are full of humor are. He was a very brainy, very ambitious man. Now, as far as what was his legacy, Ellison once asked in one of his essays, “What do we care of Sophocle’s wounds? Or what kind of man was Aristophanes?” What we care about is the art. Now that we have so much information about the artist we care about both, he is right in a way that art is long, and that’s the thing he will be known for. I think he will be known as the creator of this great metaphor of invisibility. I think he will be known as the creator of the character Rinehart. There is a kind of “Rinehartism” that applies across race and national lines. I think he will be known as the writer who felt that jazz itself was an institution before it was picked up by Lincoln Center or any universities. That the musicians policed the stage and the dancers policed the swing. I think he will be known as the one who said “American culture is jazz shaped.” If you look at our sports or listen to our speech or even look at the way we dress, there is a bit of Lester Young in there, Lady Day’s picture keeps turning up for us, it’s part of our national iconography. It has given us a sense of who we are as Americans. I think that insight, that we are the people who need to be resilient. In New York, you can walk down the street and go from the Indian section of town to Chinatown, to Korean parts of the neighborhood, to Dominican, and you have to have a certain kind of flexibility and generosity to be able to swing from street to street. I think that insight, that jazz is a way of life in America, is going to last a very long time.

JJM What is your take on Juneteenth?

ROM John Callahan did a job that was masterful, under most difficult circumstances. He is not Ellison, but he did it awfully close to being right. I teach that book. I have students doing their dissertations about it. I think it’s going to survive all these questions and take its place as a great American novel.

JJM For me, so much of his work in Juneteenth needs to be reread. It’s so much like reading poetry, you can’t read a sentence and just go on to the next one. You have to put the book down and absorb its meaning. This whole book is poetry……

ROM The character named Bliss, at one point, becomes a racist and Ellison is asking how that happened.  He is asking where it comes from, but he grows up an evangelical preacher taught by somebody who had been a blues player. It’s Bliss who said, “We seek not perfection, but coordination.” He’s got the kind of jazz aesthetic working there, even though he fails it in himself, he says that we need to not only check our balances, but to balance our checks. Check our checks and balance our balances. He is playing in a jazz-like way, calling for this same sense of resiliency, as opposed to a kind of frozen state, which actually does encase him.

 JJM I was trying to relate the character Hickman to Ralph Ellison, because Hickman was a trombonist who put the trombone down to become a preacher. I couldn’t help but think of the similarities between Hickman and what Ellison’s own life was because he put his trumpet down to basically preach in his own way…

ROM I think that’s a very insightful parallel, that Ellison is creating a version of himself – the musician who becomes a specialist at speaking – the word artist. I think it’s also fascinating that Hickman, at the point of the service when the spirit gets high, would still reach over and grab his trombone and take it out to what Ellison calls “the next level of undifferentiated cry.” This point beyond language. I think Ellison, as a writer, wanted both the language and all the rich imagery that we expect from a great preacher, and he wanted that music out beyond the words too. That’s why I think that Hickman is a great example of what Ellison wanted, and the fact that he is a preacher and had this other yearning for communion and ecstatic revelation, and all that, also makes this parallel a fruitful one.

JJM The other thing that was interesting to me was the fact that Ellison created the character, Senator Sunraider, who was a racist senator from New England, of all places, which to me is the least likely place for a racist senator to be from. I think of New England and its liberal heritage…What was that all about? Was that a message that racism lurks even in places where you least expect it?

ROM I think he did want to warn us that racism is a national problem, even the boy who was himself raised by African-Americans, becomes a racist. I think he is reminding African-Americans that we had better watch out too, that we don’t carry black pride so far that we are subject to commit the sins that were committed against us. When I lived in Connecticut, the klan was very active, right on top of us. They hated the Catholics, and they hated the Jews. I think Ellison wanted to say that yes, this is a black, southern problem, but watch out New England. Ellison also writes about New York, about how he first moves there, there were places that he wasn’t expected to go, and how he would just sort of iron his face and just walk on anyway. He knew there had been traditions of segregation in places we associate with great freedom.





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If you enjoyed this interview, you may want to read our interview with Richard Wright biographer Hazel Rowley


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2 comments on “The Ralph Ellison Project: Robert O’Meally, editor of Living With Music, discusses Invisible Man author Ralph Ellison”

  1. Thank you Jerry Jazz and Professor O’Meally for an insightful dialogue and discussion! As we fast approach the anniversary of Ralph Ellison’s death on April 17, 2016, Ellison would have been 102 years old on March 1, 2016, his work and memory is indeed long and relevant to our current times. Your interview is required reading for Ellisonians.

  2. Thank you Jerry Jazz and Professor O’Meally for an insightful dialogue and discussion! As we fast approach the anniversary of Ralph Ellison’s death on April 17, 2016, Ellison would have been 102 years old on March 1, 2016, his work and memory is indeed long and relevant to our current times. Your interview is required reading for Ellisonians.

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Creative artists and citizens of note respond to the question, "During this time of social distancing and isolation at home, what are examples of the music you are listening to, the books you are reading, and/or the television or films you are viewing?”


Ornette Coleman 1966/photo courtesy Mosaic Images
In a Jerry Jazz Musician interview, Ornette Coleman: The Territory And The Adventure author Maria Golia discusses her compelling and rewarding book about the artist whose philosophy and the astounding, adventurous music he created served to continually challenge the skeptical status quo, and made him a guiding light of the artistic avant-garde throughout a career spanning seven decades.

Spring Poetry Collection

A Collection of Jazz Poetry – Spring, 2020 Edition There are many good and often powerful poems within this collection, one that has the potential for changing the shape of a reader’s universe during an impossibly trying time, particularly if the reader has a love of music. 33 poets from all over the globe contribute 47 poems. Expect to read of love, loss, memoir, worship, freedom, heartbreak and hope – all collected here, in the heart of this unsettling spring. (Featuring the art of Martel Chapman)

Publisher’s Notes

On taking a road trip during the time of COVID...


photo by Veryl Oakland
In this edition of photographs and stories from Veryl Oakland’s book Jazz in Available Light, Dexter Gordon, Art Farmer and Johnny Griffin are featured


A now timely 2002 interview with Tim Madigan, author of The Burning: Massacre, Destruction, and the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. My hope when I produced this interview was that it would shed some light on this little-known brutal massacre, and help understand the pain and anger so entrenched in the American story. Eighteen years later, that remains my hope. .


Michiel Hendryckx / CC BY-SA
"Chet Baker's Grave" is a poem by Freddington


painting of Louis Armstrong by Vakseen
In Dig Wayne's "Iconolast," Louis Armstrong is responsible for saving the lives of every man, woman and child on the ball bearing line at the Radio Flyer wagon factory...


photo by John Vachon/Library of Congress
“Climate Change” — Ten poems in sequence by John Stupp

Book Excerpt

In the introduction to Dave Brubeck: A Life in Time – the author Philip Clark writes about the origins of the book, and his interest in shining a light on how Brubeck, “thoughtful and sensitive as he was, had been changed as a musician and as a man by the troubled times through which he lived and during which he produced such optimistic, life-enhancing art.”


NBC Radio-photo by Ray Lee Jackson / Public domain
In a Jerry Jazz Musician interview, acclaimed biographer James Kaplan (Frank: The Voice and Sinatra: The Chairman) talks about his book, Irving Berlin: New York Genius, and Berlin's unparalleled musical career and business success, his intense sense of family and patriotism during a complex and evolving time, and the artist's permanent cultural significance.

Book Excerpt

In the introduction to Maria Golia’s Ornette Coleman: The Territory and the Adventure – excerpted here in its entirety – the author takes the reader through the four phases of the brilliant musician’s career her book focuses on.


Art by Charles Ingham
"Charles Ingham's Jazz Narratives" connect time, place, and subject in a way that ultimately allows the viewer a unique way of experiencing jazz history. This edition's narratives are "Nat King Cole: The Shadow of the Word," "Slain in Cold Blood" and "Local 767: The Black Musicians’ Union"


Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Carl Van Vechten Collection
Richard Crawford’s Summertime: George Gershwin’s Life in Music is a rich, detailed and rewarding musical biography that describes Gershwin's work throughout every stage of his career. In a Jerry Jazz Musician interview, Crawford discusses his book and the man he has described as a “fresh voice of the Jazz Age” who “challenged Americans to rethink their assumptions about composition and performance, nationalism, cultural hierarchy, and the racial divide.”

Jazz History Quiz #140

photo by William Gottlieb/Library of Congress
Although he had success as a bandleader in the 1930’s, he is best known for being manager of Harlem’s Minton’s Playhouse (where Thelonious Monk was the pianist) during the birth of bebop. Who was he?


photo unattributed/ Public domain
In a Jerry Jazz Musician interview with The Letters of Cole Porter co-author Dominic McHugh, he explains that “several of the big biographical tropes that we associate with Porter are either modified or contested by the letters,” and that “when you put together these letters, and add our quite extensive commentary between the letters, it creates a different picture of him.” Mr. McHugh discusses his book, and what the letters reveal about the life – in-and-out of music – of Cole Porter.


photo by Fred Price
Bob Hecht and Grover Sales host a previously unpublished 1985 interview with the late, great jazz saxophonist Lee Konitz, who talks about Miles, Kenton, Ornette, Tristano, and the art of improvisation...


photo by William Gottlieb/Library of Congress
Con Chapman, author of Rabbit's Blues: The Life and Music of Johnny Hodges discusses the great Ellington saxophonist

Pressed for All Time

A&M Records/photo by Carol Friedman
In this edition, producer John Snyder recalls Sun Ra, and his 1990 Purple Night recording session


photo by Bouna Ndaiye
Interview with Gerald Horne, author of Jazz and Justice: Racism and the Political Economy of the Music

Great Encounters

photo of Sidney Bechet by William Gottlieb/Library of Congress
In this edition of "Great Encounters," Con Chapman, author of Rabbit’s Blues: The Life and Music of Johnny Hodges, writes about Hodges’ early musical training, and the first meeting he had with Sidney Bechet, the influential and legendary reed player who Hodges called “tops in my book.”


The winter collection of poetry offers readers a look at the culture of jazz music through the imaginative writings of its 32 contributors. Within these 41 poems, writers express their deep connection to the music – and those who play it – in their own inventive and often philosophical language that communicates much, but especially love, sentiment, struggle, loss, and joy.

“What are 4 or 5 of your all-time favorite Blue Note albums?”

"What are 4 or 5 of your all-time favorite Blue Note albums?"
Dianne Reeves, Nate Chinen, Gary Giddins, Michael Cuscuna, Eliane Elias and Ashley Kahn are among the 12 writers, musicians, and music executives who list and write about their favorite Blue Note albums

In the Previous Issue

Interviews with three outstanding, acclaimed writers and scholars who discuss their books on Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, and Cole Porter, and their subjects’ lives in and out of music. These interviews – which each include photos and several full-length songs – provide readers easy access to an entertaining and enlightening learning experience about these three giants of American popular music.

In an Earlier Issue

photo by Carol Friedman
“The Jazz Photography Issue” features an interview with today’s most eminent jazz portrait photographer Carol Friedman, news from Michael Cuscuna about newly released Francis Wolff photos, as well as archived interviews with William Gottlieb, Herman Leonard, Lee Tanner, a piece on Milt Hinton, a new edition of photos from Veryl Oakland, and much more…

Contributing writers

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