As listening trends move rapidly to the online interface, the knowing of music through the writing that accompanied ‘the album’ is, like the oral traditions that went before, a dying art. Ben Verghese recalls the poetry and consciousness that enlivened the musical arrangements of some the world’s greatest players
Liner notes, sleeve notes, album notes, writings on records; call them what you will, but for jazz geeks, music lovers and record collectors, the writing on a sleeve, gatefold or insert, is an essential component to any album’s arrangement.
Reeling off the names of the forefathers of liner-note writing, and their more progressive offspring, tells its own story: Leonard Feather, Barry Ulanov, George Avakian, Ira Gitler, Gunther Schuller, Orrin Keepnews, Nat Hentoff, Martin Williams.
In both the original Jazz and the White Critic and its later version ‘Thirty Years Later’, Amiri Baraka voiced contempt at the authors who monopolised liner-note writing. Baraka questioned how such figures, for all their enthusiasm and research, could truly understand, and echo, the emotional depth of the records they spoke of.
When Baraka, A.B. Spellman, Ed Williams, and Stanley Crouch were finally granted access to the gentleman’s club, they helped shake and awaken giant jazz labels – Atlantic, Blue Note and Impulse! Each writer brought their own respective poetry and consciousness. These textual advancements reverberated the musical shifts from bebop to modal and spiritual realisations.
“One of the most baffling things about America is that despite its essentially vile profile, so much beauty continues to exist here,” Baraka provocatively starts his notes for Coltrane Live at Birdland (Impulse! 1963). “Perhaps it’s as so many thinkers have said, that it is because of the vileness, or call it adversity, that such beauty does exist. (As balance?)”
Comparatively, Ed Williams saw a record sleeve as a place where ruminations on beauty (and love) could take place, doing so in his notes for Larry Young’s Contrasts (Blue Note, 1967). Williams, who also spoke through his show, “Maiden Voyage” on New York City radio station, WLIB-FM, presented ways of writing about music that the aforementioned jazz critics could seemingly not envisage.
“If you have not manufactured arms, caused wars or raised arms against your neighbours in battle, if you have not lied, cheated, stolen or taken advantage of your neighbours, then you may sit at the welcome table,” he wrote in his penultimate paragraph for Max Roach’s Members, Don’t Git Weary (Atlantic, 1968). “If you can listen with open ears and are capable of loving what you hear and knowing what you love, then don’t get weary, for truly the work is almost done.”
Of course, the work was only beginning. Building on this legacy, texts have emerged as works of art in their own right. Three writings demonstrate the heights liner notes can reach, each a new language for a new music. Two accompanied Miles Davis’s ground-breaking masterpieces, recorded more than a decade apart. One, a manifesto signalling a new millennium wrapped up in D’Angelo’s Voodoo.
Beyond the capitalised name and iconic image that adorns the front cover of Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, it is Bill Evans pulling the strings, moving from piano to typewriter. Evans’s essay, “Improvisation in Jazz”, which provides the album’s liner notes, paints parallels between an unnamed “Japanese visual art” and the state of readiness a “jazz or improvising musician” has in their in-the-moment explorations. “These artists must practice a particular discipline,” he wrote, “that of allowing the idea to express itself in communication with their hands in such a direct way that deliberation cannot interfere.”
By looking beyond a conventional source of comparison, “Improvisation in Jazz” mirrors the progressiveness of the legendary recording. As Davis’s quintet sonically survey the notes and silent spaces around modal chord changes, as well as the moods they provoke, Evans’s words help contextualise the jazzmen’s actions, adding to a Kind of Blue’s mysticism.
Deservedly, both sets of notes (written and musical) continue to be applauded. However, while the six-song LP is cited as being instrumental to changing jazz histories, Evans’s text did not become a blueprint for the shape of liner notes to come.
One writer who managed to uphold innovation and break the conventional structures in liner notes was the founding editor of Rolling Stone, Ralph J. Gleason. As John Coltrane stepped out of Miles Davis’s shadow, from sideman to bandleader and an innovator of his own, Gleason’s evolution can be seen on two of these records. In his notes for Olé Coltrane (Atlantic, 1961), Gleason played safe, filling the standardised three-column format with a widely-used quote-heavy formula. Here, Coltrane had space to talk, discussing how he likes to “play long” and providing a critique of his famed soloing.
Gleason’s second outing on talking ‘Trane for the Broadway-based label, Atlantic, Coltrane’s Sound (1964), stands as a bridge between the strait-laced style of the 1950s and 1960s and the literary free form Gleason would soon use in a genre-smashing Miles Davis release. Whereas more conservative writers may well have connected Coltrane’s playing to a jazz lineage of Duke, Dizzy and Bird, in Coltrane’s Sound Gleason presents Joseph Heller, Ken Kesey and Lenny Bruce as more apt creative artists to draw comparisons to. Littering his write-up with literary references, Gleason goes on to name-check Ernest Hemmingway, Nelsen Algren, Walt Whitman and James Joyce, as well as placing Stravinsky and Bartok in the mix.
As electronics entered into musicians’ choice of instrumentation, Gleason demonstrated that a time had come to also electrify liner notes. Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1970), proved to be the moment. Refusing to fall in line with dated styles, on the inner gatefold of Bitches Brew, Gleason verbally slaps his peeps into life with a stream of lowercase consciousness that leaves most liner-note writing (pre or post) seeming uninspired and stiff. Perhaps Rolling Stone colleague Hunter S. Thompson’s gonzo-leanings were rubbing off on him.
With his story-telling abilities embedded, Gleason’s fire that ignited Bitches Brew signals an alternative, hyper-impassioned way of writing line notes. A bitchin’ blueprint, a defiant lower-casing, refusing authority and challenging both the establishment and the political agenda that propped it up:
there is so much to say about this music. i don’t mean so much to explain about it because that’s stupid, the music speaks for itself. what i mean is that so much flashes through my mind when i hear the tapes of this album that if i could i would write a novel about it full of life and scenes and people and blood and sweat and love.
and sometime i think maybe what we need is to tell people that this is here because somehow in this plasticized world they have the automatic reflex that if something is labelled one way then that is all there is in it and we are always finding out to our surprise that there is more to blake or more to ginsberg or more to ‘trane or more to stravinsky than whatever it was we thought was there in the first place.
Gleason’s anti-establishmentarianism suite suited the mood of an era that saw more and more jazz artists ditching shirt and jacket for dashiki chic.
A similar poetic license fuelled independent enterprises, from Sun Ra’s Saturnian transmissions to Strata East (in New York), Tribe (in Detroit) and Nimbus (in LA), who presented aphoristic quotes or poems rather than lengthy texts to convey their messages.
And as a “plasticized world” aged into a digital epoch, a new voice again showed how to rewrite liner notes. This time, the beat poet of his generation, Saul Williams.
“In the name of Jimi, Sly, Marvin, Stevie, all artists formerly known as spirits and all spirits formerly known as stars,” came Williams to sanctify D’Angelo’s highly anticipated follow-up longplayer, Voodoo (Virgin, 2000). “We have come in the tradition of burning bushes, burning ghettos, burning spliffs, and the ever-burning candles of our bedrooms and silent chambers.”
Poetically placing the six-packed Soulquarian on a pedestal, Williams bore gifts while thrusting his style onto a flimsy 12” insert:
We have come bearing instruments and our voices: falsetto and baritone, percussion and horns. We have come adorned in the apparel of the anointed: leather and feathers, jeans and t-shirts, linen and cashmere, and even polyester. We have come to seduce and serenade the night and the powers of darkness. We speak of darkness, not as ignorance, but as the unknown and the mysterious of the unseen.
Coded with right-on references, Williams’ three-part essay goes on to ask the etymologically gender bending question: “Damn, is there any way to speak of that which is feminine without having masculinity right in the middle of it? Female. Woman.”
Keeping on, Williams lyrically blasts “peers more inspired by an artist’s business tactics than their artistry” and calls for “a new language to go along with this new age. And a new music”. The force of Williams’s writing demands listeners take note of D’Angelo’s relevance. Don’t be fooled by the bare flesh, sculpted cheekbones or pouting beauty on display – this is not another playa, playa.
With a shift in surface from twelve-by-twelve inch sleeves to smaller booklets for CDs and, in the digital age, PDFs, the next new languages for liner notes may come through a screen rather than in printed form.
By channelling raw adoration for the said record through prose, Saul Williams’s “Voodoo” and Ralph J. Gleason’s “Bitches Brew” exemplify written innovations to amplify the sonic originality. Though more sombre, Bill Evans’s “Improvisation in Jazz” demonstrates how liner notes can, along with artwork and the record itself – the undoubted centrepiece – complete and elevate a whole package.
Benchmarks set, if prospective liner note writers are stumped for how to create a text-based accompaniment to the music, then perhaps they should take heed of Ed Williams’s advice on Members, Don’t Git Weary: “Wise men will not try to speak for it, but will listen to what it has to say.”
Allowing creators to contact their audience directly, letters have often featured as, or as part of, liner notes. For A Love Supreme (Impulse!, 1964), John Coltrane famously wrote a dedication to his lord and saviour, inviting listeners to share in prayer. Comparatively, Alice Coltrane used the sleeve of Journey In Satchidananda (Impulse!, 1971) to praise her “own beloved spiritual perceptor, Swami Satchidananda”.
Such dispatches rarely receive written responses, yet three distinct voices heard back from one another when they used record sleeves to relay messages. Over multiple albums, Roberta Flack , Nikki Giovanni, and Donny Hathaway poetically show respect for one another’s prowess in print and public.
Nikki Giovanni’s notes for Donny Hathaway’s Extensions of a Man (ATCO Records, 1973) open the chain of correspondences: “A man extends himself when he shares his dreams, and we extend ourselves when we receive them,” wrote Giovanni, “All of life, I think, is about extending the options to include happiness, as we extend our options to exclude pain.”
Musing on Hathaway’s groove, Giovanni tells an anecdote about Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison and the invention of the telephone, then the phonograph. Continuing, she postulates how “we all know the wheel was invented in Africa, but our strong natural voices could carry so well we had no need for amplification.”
Whether read before, after or during playing the album, her words ready the listener for Hathaway’s music. As track after track demonstrates on what was to be Hathaway’s third and final solo album, vocals don’t get much stronger or more natural than his. By juxtaposing happiness and pain in her notes, Giovanni reflects the breadth of emotions Hathaway’s music triggers. She also presciently introduces the events that were to unfold.
On “the poetess” Giovanni’s album, The Way I Feel (Niktom Records, 1975), Roberta Flack makes known how all her life she has tried to be a poet and “tucked away in some old suitcase in my mama’s house is the proof of all my trying”.
Flack shares how “There is something very musical about Nikki’s writing, perhaps it’s her ability to make her words sing. I can do that, but I can’t make them poetic. I would be curious to hear the melodies that she hears inside her head.”
Can’t make them poetic? The potency of Flack’s vocal phrasing suggests otherwise, yet it is humbling to hear the magnificent singer question her greatness. Perhaps with fair reason. As with many famed singers, Flack was the front person for the words of others.
“Words,” Flack wrote on The Way I Feel, “the symbolic medium with which we communicate, are incapable of conveying the passion and intention of love’s message.” That may be, but it is through writing such letters that Flack and Giovanni were able to show their shared affection for each other and Hathaway.
Evidently, Flack was a respected source of inspiration and influence to many, as displayed in Eugene McDaniels’ dedication on Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse (Atlantic, 1971): “special thanks to miss roberta flack for not being afraid to help a brother, she, in my opinion, is a lady of quality, grace, humanity and talent of the highest order. i love you, bert — g.”
As well as her words for Giovanni, Flack also wrote extended inscriptions for albums by Les McCann, Quincy Jones, Donal Leace, Webster Lewis and The Blackbyrds. On the last of that list (The Blackbyrds, Fantasy, 1974), Flack begins her text by referring to her “good friend Donny Hathaway”.
Attempting to continue the three-way liner notes conversation, Hathaway’s own addresses to Flack (and, to a lesser extent, Giovanni) become conspicuous in their absence. However, reconsidering Giovanni’s notes, Hathaway had also already extended himself to share his dreams publically – through his song-writing.
Insights into Hathaway’s side of the story can be read, or heard, through the lyrics he wrote and Flack sung. “And I thought/ I thought we had a love/ That was true/ A love we shared/ Between me and you.// We live to see/ Each other everyday/ And we… thought/ We thought/ The same silly way,” wrote Hathaway, opening his heart on “Our Ages Or Our Hearts” (Roberta Flack, First Take, Atlantic, 1969).
By “Gone Away” (Flack, Chapter Two, Atlantic, 1970), it was all heartbreak: “I try to reason/ and I tell myself you’ll return,/ But you are gone / and I know, I know, I know you’re gone / You were mine for only a minute / and if I hurt you I didn’t intend it…”
The sentiments expressed in “Our Ages Or Our Hearts” or “Gone Away” make it easy to suggest romantic feelings lingered (unrequited or otherwise) between the two exceptionally skilled musicians. Where truth resides in Hathaway’s lyrics remains unclear. But as Giovanni stated on her LP, Legacies (Folkways, 1976), she thinks “we who write believe our poems”.
During the trying times when Hathaway’s mental condition darkened, Flack is on record as having tried to reach out to her “good friend” as they collaborated on their hit single, “The Closer I Get To You” (Atlantic, 1978).
The last words to be found in the public conversation come from Flack. On the back of Roberta Flack Featuring Donny Hathaway (Atlantic, 1980), an album which was intended to be the pair’s second collection of duets but changed key after Hathaway’s death, is a handwritten note:
Life is a funny thing
it hides many hidden messages
of a great many things
However, if given enough study
life will eventually reveal them all to you.
My life is beginning to reveal to me that –
Donny Hathaway Lived.
The note is signed, simply, “Roberta 1980.”
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