8 Bars with Robert G. O'Meally
Our guest is author and educator Robert G. O’Meally.
8 bars with is a series on educated guesses where we offer up 8 questions to a special guest for them to ponder and freestyle on. The questions aren't necessarily questions as much as they are prompts or linguistic ink blots meant to stimulate thought. The responses can be short and pithy, long and loquacious or somewhere in between.
Robert G. O’Meally, is the Zora Neale Hurston Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, where he is also the founder and director of the Center for Jazz Studies. He authored, edited and co-edited many books including, The Craft of Ralph Ellison, Lady Day: The Many Faces of Billie Holiday; The Jazz Cadence of American Culture; Uptown Conversations: The New Jazz Studies; and The Romare Bearden Reader. He earned a Grammy Award nomination for co-producing The Smithsonian 4-CD box set, The Jazz Singers, co-curated several arts exhibitions; and was a fellow at Columbia's Institute for Ideas and Imagination at the Global Center in Paris. He earned his BA from Stanford and his MA and Ph.D from Harvard.
1. Antagonistic Cooperation?
That’s the title of my forthcoming book. You see antagonistic cooperation almost whenever you see a jazz performance, in the sense in which jazz performance and jazz composition are built on the interplay of one horn against another, but it’s also against one another. So I see it as one of the foundations - along with the blues, and the impulse to elaborate on the 32-bar song - of jazz itself.
2. Writing books?
I find myself using what I learned from writing liner notes, which was to first write a sentence or two about each song, or each title I wanted to write about, and then see what it added up to. In other words, to let the particularities of what I was writing about inform what the whole thing was about. I'll go back and try to see what the whole discussion is all about, and comb through to make all of it cohere. Nobody wants a book of essays or lectures anymore. It has to be a book that’s coherent.
3. Albert Murray?
Albert Murray was somebody that I adopted as a literary father. I was also lucky to be really close to him. He enlisted me as one of his drivers for a while, and we got to the point where he would call me and say, hey, you know, there's gonna be a concert you shouldn't miss … He became a literary guide, and also a very, very dear friend, and an example of what he talks about as adoption as a way of choosing close associates that we dearly love.
4. Romare Bearden?
I met Bearden through Murray. One time, when we were in the Strand, I was trying to think what to teach in my writing class at Wesleyan, and Bearden took my journal from me and began to draw an image of me. As he drew, he was reciting lines from Hemingway … I think it might have been Farewell to Arms. But he said, the writing is so pictorial. Your students who are not interested yet in being writers, but who can see things clearly, will be drawn to Hemingway's visual acuity. I was lucky to have him as a mentor.
When I first saw him in person, he struck me as a football player with his big, broad back, and the athletic competitor in the man. There was something [ in him] of Jack Johnson, whom he admired, and Sugar Ray Robinson. He was somebody I chose, but who probably wouldn't have chosen me back. He wasn't so thrilled about people making up stories about Ralph Ellison, who weren't Ralph Ellison himself. So he and I had our own antagonistic cooperation. But for me, he was like a dear, dear family member that I loved and admired beyond words. I think of just the metaphysical force of his writing, and the sheer, physical presence of the big man.
5. Billie Holiday?
I can hear her voice in my head now singing “Am I Blue?,” in the interrogative voice, but also the accusative. She was so complicated and wonderfully evocative, that what Dan Morgenstern said of Dinah Washington was more true of her: She made all the rest of them sound like little girls. She had so much richness in her voice; so much love.
I learned more from my family than anybody else, especially from my parents, but also my great aunt, whom we called Big Auntie, who would say, you got to stop smelling yourself, young man. That would be all I needed to hear for about a year, trying to keep myself humble.
7. Professor/Poet Sterling Brown?
He taught me what it was like to stand there with [ W.E.B.] Du Bois, whom he knew. He had stories about James Weldon Johnson. But he also would look at me if I did something and I started apologizing. And he'd say, don't say all that. You did what you did. And there were almost kind of blues, compressed messages that Sterling would send my way that I never forgot. He gave me reading lists, and other ways of looking at Shakespeare and Langston Hughes.
My father died when I was 19 years old. And so as I look back, Bearden, Murray, Ellison, and Sterling, all were coming along at a time when I didn't want another father, but where I had my eye on certain older men who had things to teach me and who were surrogate fathers; teachers in a very, very broad sense.
I was always on the baseball team, from the time I was eight years old, till the time I played on the intramural team at Stanford.
nurturing a new generation of voices.