Sovereign Beatscapes Set Against a Rising Sun

From the slaves comes the freest of all music, jazz, which flies without asking permission.

– Eduardo Galeano, Century of the Wind

William Parker © James Oscar

The susurration of beat

“As beats ensnare you in the parallel complexity of the amplified jungle, your skin starts to feel what your ears can’t. At these convergences, beats phase shift, cross a threshold and become tactile sensations that susurrate the body. Fleeting sensations of feeling skim across the skin, seizing the synapses. Senses swap so that your skin hears and your ears feel. Dermal ears. Your skin turns into one giant all-over ear. Ear tactility. Your ears start to taste sound. Now you’ve got flava in your ear. […] 

Looping the break tricks the ear into hearing a continuous beat. […] As you’re ambushed by beats, charging breaks dock at your joints, tug at the muscles of your mind. Treacherous underfoot, they build a new psychomotor from the old you.”

Kodwo Eshun, More Brilliant Than The Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction, Quartet Books, 1998

Fugitive soundscapes

The susurration of (jazz, blues) beat underfoot, inside. A similar inside as in Cecil Taylor’s rounded words, with Taylor evoking the “whitened eyes inside a lion’s belly,” his “wish to be a hued mystic” and “to disappear, or as sovereign,” “to dip and grind.” A susurration inside a chasm. Within the chasm’s depth, a piercing harmony—jazz, blues, beat—fugitive—subtly weaving into the intervals, the chiasma.

In the intertwining between agent (bluesperson) and structure (authority), between sound and sound, be beat, fresh rhythm / offering a new beat that rebels within, alongside, against, and surmises and surpasses authoritarian control over space and time. Cornel West refers to such rhythmanalysts as “bluespeople,” a vanguard offering what he refers to as “prophetic resonance.”

Within the cleavage in Time, a fissure and sacred anvils (jazz, blues, beat) lodge inside the intervals of prevailing versions of Space and Time, presenting the new beat. Fugitive sounds as sovereign entities lighting up what Rajath Suri describes further on as “the barren concrete, the ashen gray.”

William Parker © James Oscar

This issue of Montréal Serai that I am guest editing answers our call to convene a gathering of reflections, resonances, voices and perspectives delving into blues, jazz and beat as embodiments of fugitive literature. The term “fugitive” evokes hidden sanctuaries and pathways of resistance—sovereignty operating discreetly beyond authoritarian lines. 

Philosopher Fred Moten’s writing on blackness profoundly embodies the concept of fugitivity, which is notably evident in his deep understanding of how jazz, blues and beat have nurtured and circulated within the sphere of “blackness.” In his typically terse prose, Moten articulates “the fugitive law of the movement of black social life”:

What’s at stake is fugitive movement in and out of the frame, bar, or whatever externally imposed social logic—a movement of escape, the stealth of the stolen that can be said, since it inheres in every closed circle, to break every enclosure. 

[…]This fugitive movement is stolen life, and its relation to law is irreducible neither to simple interdiction nor bare transgression. Part of what can be attained in this zone of unattainability, to which the eminently attainable ones have been relegated, which they occupy but cannot (or refuse to) own, is some sense of the fugitive law of movement that makes black social life ungovernable […].

Fred Moten, “The Case of Blackness,” Criticism Vol. 50, No. 2, 2008

For Moten, playing jazz is playing spirit and is commensurate with “modes of radical performativity,” black radicalism being like black music. It is perhaps in consideration of jazz/blues/beat as an irruption that Moten finds contemporaries like Cornel West intimating similar tones to such rhythmanalysts.

It is in that spirit that I introduce this special edition of Montréal Serai, bringing together writers, ideas, ideations, sounds, unsound, beats and “visual sound” that can be said to embody the spirit of fugitive players and the imperative in our current world to craft fugitive sound, nascent vocabularies, and “literatures,” so to speak.

We start with my own interview with philosopher-dancer Jassem Hindi, speaking of the unsaid as being the power of beat, the off-the-table, the silent in-between. In our dialogue, we set the palette for the issue in our consideration of beat as properly informed by particular historical processes but not bogged down by preset outcomes—beat in its fugitive essentialities. Jassem and I speak to this (very global) moment and of the very “counter-beat” (beat as a fugitive literature) that we fervently hope can come into existence.

Rajath Suri offers an insightful review of “Driving in Palestine,” a recent exhibition by artist Rehab Nazzal, whose emblematic cover photo for the issue highlights the word Palestine, going beyond strict representation of a place, tragedy or people. Her multimedia installation depicts and at the same time transcends conventional notions of time, space and place, reflecting on the interminable allegory of indigenous versus settler, echoing the “cleavage” referred to above. 

Rajath Suri’s contemplation of Nazzal’s photos that yield a “profound examination of mundane dislocation” echoes our theme. Suri describes how Nazzal’s exhibit “narrates the impediments and obstacles to circulation and travel between Gaza and the occupied territories. The visual landscape and concrete horizons are nearly devoid of any human presence, yet witness the marginalized experience of a life relegated and subjected to the control and machinations of an apartheid environment. What is engendered is a culmination of brutal scarcity and oppressive atmospheric sentinels […].”

The counter-beat here, so to speak, is in the manner the photos themselves are displayed: “photographic architectural frames are presented in a serial wall mount, the unique traits of each wall surface, tower or militarist building become signatory of the omnipotent as a collective presence, as one views the spectacle of oppression. Void of colour, the sense of an impermeable orchestra of light and line delineates the confines of the all too real edifice, which are the literally manifest occurrence of an architectural gulag.”

“[…] The video works alternate with and reiterate the imagery of the still images – signs warning of the dangers of trespassing, breaching protocol or otherwise deviating from the circulatory restrictions imposed by the Israeli apartheid state on Palestinian citizenry.” The everyday morphology of space and time of Palestinian life, marked by “what life is like when one aims to depart from point A and arrive at point B”: pervasive obstacles, relentless bleakness and emptiness.  

Paul Serralheiro’s poems in “Prisoners of Bebop” offer an immediate glimpse into the hidden backstage of forgotten jazz beat histories, where we meet Montréal-based jazz musician Steep Wade, seated, absorbed in listening and playing right at the threshold:

In his room by St. Antoine, in a stone house
Steep Wade sits on the edge of his bed and listens to the train,
hears the grumble of the wheels, the squeal of the brakes
while in his hands and fingers the ghosts of Tin Pan Alley tunes sleep.

We observe fleeting glimpses from Montréal’s “lost” jazz narratives, from when the city stood as a pivotal global hub for figures resembling Cornel West’s notion of the “bluesmen”:

The curtains, diaphanous but stained a faint brown,
filter sunlight from the street. The ashtray
fills with butts from the cigarettes he smokes, one after the other
in patient meditation, as a song sails through his soul.

Fugitive souls, including numerous Afro-American jazz musicians who migrated in the early 20th century, cultivated a fugitive sound within the “free” space and time of Little Burgundy. This locale fostered generations of both discrete and impassioned black and outlier performers—individuals who, having had enough of the vicissitudes of North American life, pondered alternative possibilities. Serralheiro, in his poems in this issue, speaks of Boogie Gaudet in his tones of space and transcendence:

“We’re going to do one last one
then we’ll head to the bar for a transfusion.”

Musing about Oscar Peterson, in “Dropping Notes”:

we still hear the silence he has left us as a reminder 
of the glitch that eventually gets us all.

And Charles Ellison:

He was teaching how to play the blues
in a meaningful way 

[…] He also says how the beat is the great gift from Africa. 
What a treasure it is with so much depth and simplicity
Underestimated and not treated respectfully […]

Emerging artist Collin Black presents a progressive buildup of a looping beat in his audio contribution, “Lush Chaos,” an endless fugue to somewhere, echoing Hindi’s reference in our interview to patience with sound—sound not having a temporality and thus taking its time, and seasoned listeners being content to wait without presuming what might or might not unfold.

This essence mirrors the embodiment of jazz, blues and beat. Black’s track anticipates the title of his evocative poem. I might suggest a shift from “Burnt Records of a Forgotten Past” to a title such as “Burnt Records of a Forgotten Present,” anchoring it to our perpetually still twilight global moment with recurring beat. As Black rightfully suggests, invoking black surpassing mere skin-deep description, delving into the expansive gray fog, we need to penetrate with the black of black obsidian. (See Cecil Taylor’s poem epitaph up top.) Black eloquently yet forcefully states (epitomizing the eloquence and force of jazz):

They got us praying now
Forcing ideas down our throat like we’re on the boat
They didn’t hope we float

My truth is in the black
Call a spade a spade
When I see it clear I’m calling that

In “Storytelling and Connectivism,” Montréal legend and DJ/jazz educator Andy Williams aims to place the “jazz metaphor” at the heart of learning, and recalibrate pedagogical norms. Interviewed by musician and poet Paul Serralheiro, Williams posits jazz not merely as motif or music but as a literal learning mode. He advocates for this approach in his DJ practice and academic discourse, viewing jazz, blues and beat as educational parallels that can innovate curricula:

Jazz is a great example of the way a medium can draw attention and create inclusivity in an educational scheme, which allows one to be free while living within the structure of sound.

Andy Williams

Poet Carolyne Van Der Meer muses on “the shape of humanity,” “the lengths of corporeal suffering,” grief and our animal kinship, and explores the delicate boundary between the inevitable decay of bodies and the various states that precede or follow it. Within her tender lines, she seeks to discover another rhythm amid it all. 

Returning to and reflecting on Rajath Suri’s suggestion, we consider Roland Barthe’s idea of the “punctum” to describe artist Nazzal’s powerful vistas, where what we see (or hear) points to particular meanings devoid of any easily recognizable set of symbols. This brings us to the core insight: jazz and beat as sovereign idioms whose action as fugitive literature gives them the necessary cloak and dagger to move through adversarial contexts.

In “Native bloodlines of blues, jazz and beat,” Serai editor Jody Freeman prompts us to dig into the intertwined roots of jazz, beat and blues that weave a complex tapestry of narrative and origin stories within the vaster landscape of the musical genres.

Beneath the most visible African bloodlines of blues, jazz and beat lies the complex history of the African-American experience unfolding on Native land. Over the years, extensive efforts have been made, largely by Indigenous musicians, researchers, scholars, filmmakers and other cultural workers, to […] shine the spotlight on Indigenous influences in blues, jazz, gospel and a host of other musical genres.

The evidence makes it imperative to acknowledge the Indigenous foundations within these genres.

Naomi Klein’s book Doppelganger: A Trip into the Mirror World is reviewed by Serai editor Maya Khankhoje: “[Klein] conceived the idea for this book when the public started confusing her with Naomi Wolf, an erstwhile feminist author turned right-wing conspiracy theorist. […] The subjects covered in Doppelganger range from COVID, autism and the anti-vaxxer perspective, to the mutability of personal identity, fascism and the extreme right.” 

In relation to our theme, Klein’s work could be seen as illustrating resistance fugitivity. Klein would fit right in with Cornel West’s “bluesmen,” as she meets his criteria for the vanguard of prophetic resonance: critiquing from the margins; bearing witness; operating with skilled vision; wisdom-speaking; and defying conventions whilst embracing the discordant yet enthralling melodies of jazz, blues and beat. 

Ultimately, in contemplating fugitivity, we’re urged to transcend the linear A-to-B progression, recognizing how these sounds both echo and move beyond stolen lives, playing and dancing beyond conventional thresholds. As Serralheiro beautifully notes, “a patient meditation, as a song sails through his soul,” reconfiguring and recalibrating the neoliberal appropriations that seek to co-opt everything, including these musical expressions. 

Reflecting on power and the opposing beats of the imagination, Nigerian playwright and activist Wole Soyinka says: “You can build atomic bombs, you can build space rockets but you cannot replicate the essence of transition from one zone of being to the other. It’s this luminous area where we find the images of imagination.” (Wole Soyinka, 2023, Louisiana Channel)

The one thing that can never be stolen from us is the experience of transitioning from one state of being to another as part of our artistic immersions. Jazz, blues and beat serve not just as fugitive languages and literature but also as conduits facilitating that journey. 

Dive into the interval of the beat inside the beat!

James Oscar, Guest editor

P.S. Watch for a special interview with one of Canada’s seasoned jazz thinkers, Winston Smith, to be added in the coming weeks.

James Oscar’s work converges at the crossroads of art criticism, curation, and anthropological inquiry. He honed his craft under the close tutelage of Martiniquan poet Edouard Glissant, an influence that deeply shapes his approach. Notable collaborations include ventures with Cornel West, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Art Gallery of Ontario, McCord Museum, City of Montreal, Canadian Museums Association, CBC (SRC) TV, Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique, and the Fonderie Darling (where he held the position of Curator in Residence in 2022). His latest venture involves co-founding the Musée des Arts Libres des Amériques et du Monde, where he assumes the role of chief curator.