Those who followed music in the 1960s—whether soul, rock or rhythm and blues from Detroit, Memphis, Muscle Shoals or San Francisco, or the avant-garde jazz, soul and punk evolving along the East Coast in the 1970s and 1980s—will remember the music as documented through reviews and essays, both critical and laudatory, backstories and expository explorations in publications seeking to report on something about which many readers could only speculate, the pulse of evolving cultural movements and their accompanying music soundtracks.
Nothing But the Music: Documentaries from Nightclubs, Dance Halls & a Tailor’s Shop in Dakar by Thulani Davis fills this gap. In her latest poetry collection Davis provides synesthetic, documentary insight, a sonic-social history full of anecdotal and impressionistic responses to embodied experience of the music and its creators and followers in the places and times of its creation and sharing.
Davis goes aggressively for the jugular of the experience, following the soaring cycles and spirited flashes of inspired but ephemeral circuits of creativity as performed by the musicians, dancers, poets and choreographers she chronicles in these poems. She is drawn to document the raw feelings, the smoke in the air and empty bottles on the floor, the impulsive energy, the dance to celebrate humanity.
Featured musicians and dancers include Cecil Taylor, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Bad Brains, Henry Threadgill, Thelonious Monk, The Revolutionary Ensemble, The Commodores, MFSB, Dianne McIntyre, Ishmael Houston-Jones and others as experienced at historic venues like the Five Spot, the Village Vanguard, the Apollo, Storyville and Club Harlem.
Under this performance documentation is a foundation of in-the-moment struggle in a number of crucibles: civil rights, Black Power, the New Left, feminism and bohemian ferment on both coasts, San Francisco and New York, all of which leave their marks on the music—are the music—in both celebration and escape. Many of the poems in this collection include dates and location. As noted by Tobi Haslett in his introduction, “This little annotation slits the poem open; the world comes trickling in” (p. 13). Indeed. And animates and informs each poem with the history, questions, answers, eclipsed dreams and hopes on the horizon carried and/or pursued by each person included in the poetic context. So, another lens through which to read (experience) these poems is their insight into life backstage, between and beyond the performance time/event, aligned with what is happening beyond the concert halls, the jazz clubs, the living rooms and other sacred spaces where people seek to meld life with music, to make sense of struggle and love, to bend the arc of long experience between past and future to the present moment.
Thulani Davis is well (best) positioned to document and preserve this arc. She is an interdisciplinary artist working in poetry, theater, journalism, history and film, using all these approaches to engage with African-American life, culture and history and her concern for justice. While a student at Barnard College, Davis began her performance career putting her words to music by Cecil Taylor, Joseph Jarman, Juju, Arthur Blythe, Miya Masaoka, David Murray, Henry Threadgill, Tania León and others. Her bibliography includes libretti for the operas X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X and Amistad; scripts for the films Paid in Full, Maker of Saints and award-winning PBS documentaries; the novels 1959 and Maker of Saints; and other works of poetry. Her writing for the 1993 Queen of Soul: The Atlantic Recordings by Aretha Franklin was awarded a Grammy for liner notes, making her the first woman to receive this honor. She is an ordained Buddhist priest and an associate professor in the Department of Afro-American Studies and a Nellie Y. McKay Fellow at the University of Wisconsin.
This latest work, Nothing But the Music, while composed of poems that have enjoyed numerous prior anthologizations, is not simply a reprise of prior work but an important performance/statement that has the feeling of having waited for its time, like the jazz musician waiting for the right moment to launch a solo. Here, assembled for the first time, this collection is everything, including the music, and Davis holds the room and the moment with her journalistic experience and ability to incite serious political thought at a time when it is desperately needed. While Davis is a crucial figure in the cultural landscape surrounding the Black Arts Movement, her poems leak into the complex ecosystem of Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, Say Their Names, COVID-19, police murders, the tyranny and deceit of Donald Trump, nationalism, populism, activism, protests each night through the spring and summer and, always in the background, a solo musical performance spiraling through interpretations of the present moment where hope refuses to retreat, maintaining itself with gratitude, generous laughter, iterating future possibilities, unrehearsed but familiar from lived experience, eager to learn and experience what the soloist brings to the band.
Printed in a limited edition of 2,000 copies, Nothing But the Music is an important reference, one that you will want to carry with you and consult often, reread the soaring passages, contemplate the labyrinth of life and listen to the music, for there is much there .
This review is featured in Episode 2 of Leonardo’s podcast Between Art and Science: www.leonardo.info/podcast.