Cunard & Beckett


Robert Goffin & Ernst Moerman

Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 102 in 1999.

In 1934, Nancy Cunard edited and published an anthology titled Negro as an exploration of black politcal, artistic and social achievement. Within that volume, Samuel Beckett translated 19 pieces from French to English (some 80,000 words). His translations ranged in topic from the manifesto-like Murderous Humanitarianism by the Surrealist Group in Paris to the Note on Haytian Culture by Ludovic Morin Lacombe. The anthology was printed in a run of 1,000, many of which were destroyed in the bombings of London. In the Fall of 1999, the University of Kentucky Press will be bringing out a complete collection of Beckett's translations titled Beckett in Black and Red, edited by Alan Friedman.

Evergreen is pleased to publish here two of the works translated by Beckett from Negro, Robert Goffin's essay The Best Negro Jazz Orchestra, and Louis Armstrong, a poem by Ernst Moerman. They will soon be followed by a piece by Alan Friedman, detailing Beckett's relationship with Cunard and Negro.


The Best Negro Jazz Orchestra

by Robert Goffin
Translated by Samuel Beckett

From the Atlantic to the Pacific, from Harlem to 'Frisco, the fertile musical territories of the States are studded with the tumultuous capitals of fashionable jazz. There are certainly more good orchestras than there are states, which means that it is very difficult to be familiar with them all, at least as far as I am concerned, who have never been able to identify all the stars of the American flag.

The conscientious explorer must arrange to spend some time in the provincial towns and small villages if he wants to make himself acquainted with genuine local flavours and with the strange and passionate quality of the numerous orchestras whose function is to maintain the fever of their patrons at high pitch.

It is the Negroes, children of the sun, who have restored to America something of her old radiance, pouring forth a music whose charm is never wasted on the people that matter, and which has done more to further friendly relations between blacks and whites than all the laws and edicts ever issued.

Jazz is the supreme link between this lovable people and its ideal. At the present time black and coloured musicians participate on equal terms, like chess-men, in a disinterested collaboration. The Negroes, with their syncopated music, stimulating art and sensitive spontaneity in whatever they do, are founding a great cultural tradition in America.

In Europe too there are some vigilant spirits susceptible to the syncopated magic of the new Negro music and anxious to lose no syllable of the oracle as evoked at will from the spinning and flashing of the discs beneath the needle.

Oh you musicians of my life, prophets of my youth, splendid Negroes informed with fire, how shall I ever express my love for your saxophones writhing like orchids, your blazing trombones with their hairpin vents, your voices fragrant with all the breezes of home remembered and the breath of the bayous, your rhythm as inexorable as tom-toms beating in an African nostalgia!

The first ambassador of syncopated music to visit Europe was Louis Armstrong. I went to London to hear this colossus of jazz. His name is up everywhere in enormous letters, all the local musicians are in a ferment, the demented scales of his nostalgia are evoked in every conversation.

I hurried off to Victoria Station on the chance of seeing him. I waited for half-an-hour in a tumult of home-comings, screaming porters, rainbow-labelled luggage and the terrifying gravity of Cook's undertakers.

I see a man laden with flowers -- but I've wasted my breath, they are not for Armstrong. Then a Schubert-skulled tourist, but he is only a clerk and thinks that Armstrong is a celebrated lawyer; then an inexcusably beautiful woman looking boomerangs for all she is worth, and assimilating me to a universe of adorers; then a gentleman in a blue suit, flowing blue tie and beaver; his equatorial complexion and wet eyes decide me:

"Are you waiting for Armstrong?"

"Yessir, that's me."

Immediately he starts clapping me on the shoulder, calls me dipper and sacker-mouth, his rough voice crackles with petulance, his eyes go on fire with laughter like a child's, his mouth opens on the whitest of teeth.

He does not know who I am, but that does not matter. He assumes I am some sort of musician or manager or pugilist, a good pal anyhow whoever I am. When I give him my book he dances with pleasure, takes me in his arms, overwhelms me with cigarettes, threatens to have a shave in my honour. We fly about London in a taxi. Beside the driver there is a kind of metal drum beating the rhythm of the shillings -- and what a rhythm!

We arrive at a restaurant; I look at him beside me, he is simple, naive, jovial, sly, malicious, his mouth is a maw of laughter. His rosy-palmed hand beats a tattoo on the table or seizes me by the arm or plays on the imaginary pistons of a fork.

He is firmly established before his sugared baked beans and he is happy because his thoughts are of New Orleans, of Charlie Alexander his pianist, and the Southern cooking whose praises he sings in "When it's Sleepy Time Down South"; and perhaps also of me whom he is beginning to like.

There is a first rehearsal at six o'clock at the Studio in Poland Street, where the ten coloured musicians recruited in Paris are ready and waiting. I scrutinise him more closely: he is smaller than he appears in his photographs but his trumpet is bigger; he talks and gags with the ten musicians; continual use of the mouth-piece has put a tuck in his lips; he produces a few vertiginous notes, sees that his players are where he wants them, executes a pirouette, snatches off his coat and opens a huge trunk packed with bundles of music labelled: "Louis Armstrong and his Victor Recording Orchestra."

The tempest of "Rocking Chair" breaks loose and Louis plays, conducting with his eyes, sudden jerks of his hands, capers and contortions of his whole body, as though he wanted to terrify the three saxophonists who find themselves called on for a hotel ensemble. Then he sings softly, facing his public, his eyes lowered, his hands behind him splayed like a valve before the impact of the rhythm; he twists his mouth, mumbles his words, interpellates the pianist, lifts his leg and rocks with laughter. After "Rocking Chair" he gives us "Sunny Side of the Street", "Confessing", "You Rascal You", "When It's Sleepy Time Down South", "Them There Eyes", and finally "Chinatown", which explodes like a bomb.

In action Armstrong is like a boxer, the bell goes and he attacks at once. His face drips like a heavy-weight's, steam rises from his lips; he holds his trumpet in a handkerchief, passes into a kind of excruciating catalepsy and emerges Armstrong the sky-scraper, rockets aloft into the stratosphere, blows like one possessed and foams at the mouth; the notes rise in a wauling and the whole right side of his neck swells as though it must burst; then, summoning up all the air in his body for another effect, he inflates his throat till it looks like a goitre.

Soon he is lost in the rhythm, he is master of the rhythm, he is the rhythm, the force and energy of the music, so that the audience rises to its feet, sways and dances and laughs with Armstrong and tries to embrace him.

The players themselves seem electrified before their stands; they gesticulate and play as functions of Armstrong; a gesture of his hand and they stop -- another, and they resume.

I was present at the first performance, in a tense and over-heated hall. Armstrong was laughing, sure of his triumph. The vast hall of the Palladium was too small for his thunderbolts, the trumpeters broke their instruments on their way out.

I dedicated my book On the Frontiers of Jazz to Louis Armstrong because he is the king of rhythm. Apropos of this dedication, Henry Prunières, the French musical critic, expressed himself in the following terms: "Robert Goffin thinks that Armstrong is the greatest of them all; I myself admire him profoundly, but I consider him very inferior to Duke Ellington."

I do not think it is possible to compare an individual with an orchestra. Armstrong is the quintessential expression of "hot," the genius of improvisation; Duke Ellington represents the phenomenal achievement of the man-orchestra, he is the genius of cohesion, the leader of the finest ensemble in the world.

What words can express the sublime accomplishment of Duke Ellington? For years, with incomparable courage and temerity, he strove to enrich his race with a truly personal music. Now little more remains for him to do. Before we can realize the full extent of this amazing performance we must go back to his early records and listen to the quality of balance, attack and cohesive power peculiar to his unparalleled production.

I consider Duke Ellington as the most extraordinary phenomenon in the whole development of jazz. He took wing in a first period of enthusiasm, in common with other executants, for the undiluted spirits of "hot"; these early performers played in a kind of inspired trance, they were accumulators of musical energy and transmitted the flow of syncopation without comment.

This technique of production has been rationalised by Ellington, who has never ceased to cultivate, along with the essential "hot," the problems of arrangement and presentation. He realised that most of the best Negro orchestras had sublime flights of individual improvisation above the inferior level of a too much improvised ensemble, and it was this disproportion that he proposed to remedy.

The music of Duke Ellington tends away from the instinctive "hot" towards a style whose Organisation is miraculous. This unique conductor has gradually placed intuitive music under control. Never doubting the importance of his undertaking he has realised, in his glorification of jazz, the greatest achievement of his time.

Reference to his less recent records leaves us with no doubts regarding the quality of jazz as presented by Duke Ellington- brilliant, carefully gradated and proportioned, its rhythmic element scrupulously cultivated, the ensembles of brass full of original initiative, the arrangements fresh and stimulating.

Such is the personal achievement of Duke Ellington, to which must be added an extraordinary gift for exploiting the "hot" personality of his players. Thus the greater part of his magnificent "Tiger Rag" is devoted to a clarinet explosion from Barmey Bigard, and a long passage in "Don't Mean a Thing" to a vertiginous solo by Johnny Hodge.

Duke Ellington strengthens his position daily. I have heard his latest records: "Sheik of Araby", "Moon over Dixie", "Jazz Cocktail and Stars", and there is no doubt that this great conductor is pursuing his work in accordance with its initial conception. His realisations are emancipating themselves more and more from dance music and undiluted "hot" and tending to become concert music of the most definite description, full of a rare creative sense, a fertile initiative and an incomparable originality, analogous to that of the "Rhapsody in Blue", but more complete, because it is only under Duke Ellington that composition and execution coincide.

Ladies and gentlemen - the orchestra of Duke Ellington. It will bring jazz and Negro music to all those who are in love with the classical tradition, it will satisfy the cultivated aspirations of all those who up till now have been disappointed.

Not far below these peaks of Negro jazz we find others whose achievements are beyond all praise; I refer to the orchestras of Fletcher Henderson, Don Redman and Baron Lee; nor should we forget the celebrated Cotton Pickers, Luis Russell, Cab Calloway, Chick Webb, King Oliver, Bennie Carter, Noble Sissle, Sam Wooding, Earl Hines, Jimmie Noe, whose vitality makes the petulance of white orchestras sound a very poor thing indeed, with the sole exceptions of the Casa-Loma and Red MacKenzie bands.

It is impossible to consider in detail these orchestras and many others. They have all a well-developed personality, a sure sense of "hot," an originally organised rhythmic structure and executants of the first order.

Worthy of special recommendation, however, are the achievements of Fletcher Henderson, whose "Radio Rhythm" and "House of David Blues" are on a very high level indeed. Their imaginative Organisation is extremely powerful and bound together with the musical inspirations of such virtuosi as Hawkins, who is the greatest saxophonist in the world today.

Then there is the orchestra of Don Redman, who for so long was leader of the Cotton Pickers. His records are remarkable for their precision of gradation, inexorable rhythm and that instinctive propriety of atmosphere which imparts to such numbers as "Shacking the Africa" and "Chant of Weeds" an indescribable quality of beauty and nostalgia. Nor can I refrain from mentioning Baron Lee and his Mills Blue Rhythm Boys, whose highly personal performances are notable for the exquisite excursions of the pianist Edgar Hayes, the tenor Cass MacCord, and the trumpeter Anderson.

Some critic whose name I forget, speaking of the above-mentioned orchestras, described them as the "Big Five" and asserted their unquestionable superiority over all their rivals.

Space will not allow of my dealing with the endless cohort of satellites that attends these major planets, but I cannot conclude this study without naming the four musicians who have left an indelible mark on jazz, so much so that jazz would not be what it is but for the inspired contributions of these creators. First and foremost we have Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke (the latter a white man of Jewish extraction), whose powerful and original treatment of passages for trumpet have revolutionised the entire technique and theory of that instrument; then Hawkins, who more than any other has influenced saxophone playing, and it may be asserted that but for him even the finest exponents of that instrument would be incapable of evoking that atmosphere of instinctive power which is his alone and which we recognise in them as coming direct from him. And the fourth is of course Earl Hines, who a few years ago was an archangel of the pianoforte, astonishing all those who heard his records, and whose influence on pianoforte technique has been widespread and profound.

That is an approximate balance-sheet whose assets are sadly understated but which, I trust, is sufficiently informative to encourage all those who take an interest in the subject to explore for themselves and in greater detail this magnificent Negro music.

Jazz is abundantly and gloriously alive. All honour to those who, with nothing but their instinct to serve them, gave America this music of which she will one day be proud. And may these few lines be the first act of homage from a son of Europe to a race whose prodigies, north and south of the Line, are without number.


Louis Armstrong

by Ernst Moerman
Translated by Samuel Beckett

suddenly in the midst of a game of lotto with his sisters
Armstrong let a roar out of him that he had the raw meat
red wet flesh for Louis
and he woke up and he sliced two rumplips
since when his trumpet bubbles
their fust buss

poppies burn on the black earth
he weds the flood he lulls her

some of these days muffled in ooze
down down down down
pang of white in my hair

after you’re gone
Narcissus lean and slippered

you’re driving me crazy and the trumpet
is Ole Bull it chassés aghast
out of the throes of morning
down the giddy catgut
and confessing and my woe slavers
the black music it can’t be easy
it threshes the old heart into a spin
into a blaze

Louis lil’ ole fader Mississippi
his voice gushes into the lake
the rain spouts back into heaven
his arrows from afar they fizz through the wild horses
they fang you and me
then they fly home

flurry of lightning in the earth
sockets for his rootbound song
nights of Harlem scored with his nails
snow black slush when his heart rises

his she-notes they have more tentacles than the sea
they woo me they close my eyes
they suck me out of the world