In a wonderfully entertaining and informative 2004 New Yorker piece titled “Ralph Ellison’s Record Collection,” Richard Brody reminds us of the Invisible Man author’s passion for jazz music — what he referred to as “American music” — and of his somewhat controversial (for the time) opinion of the musicians coming up. While often revering the music of Armstrong, Ellington, and Lester Young (and who can blame him?), of Charlie Parker’s music, he wrote “there is in it a great deal of loneliness, self-deprecation and self-pity,” and, in a letter to friend Albert Murray following a 1958 Newport Jazz Festival performance, described Miles Davis as “poor, evil, lost little Miles Davis.” He famously characterized bebop as “a listener’s music” that “few people are capable of dancing to it” — although this critique was probably more of a lament of a lost culture.
But the crux of the story is not Ellison’s opinion about music, rather the recordings he collected, reported by Brody as “vast amounts of Ellington; one Skitch Henderson but no Fletcher Henderson; more Mahler than Billie Holiday; plenty of Glenn Gould and Kathleen Ferrier; one each of Bartok and Schoenberg, three records of Charlie Parker, three of Ornette Coleman, and nothing of any other modern jazz (such as Miles Davis or John Coltrane).”
At the time of Brody’s piece (which you can read by clicking here), Ellison’s collection was exhibited at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem. You can still view the entire collection (and make your own observations about Ellison’s taste in music) by clicking here.
For those interested in Ellison, over the years I hosted conversations with several Ellison authorities, including his friend and cultural critic Albert Murray, biographers Arnold Rampersand, Lawrence Jackson and Horace Porter, literary executor John Callahan, historian Robert O’Meally, filmmaker Avon Kirkland, poet Michael Harper, and critics Stanley Crouch and Gary Giddins, You can get to those interviews by clicking here.
A 1966 filmed interview of Ralph Ellison