Ralph Ellison’s Record Collection

The New Yorker

By Richard Brody

One of the greatest American novelists, Ralph Ellison, is also one of our greatest writers about music, as evidenced by the volume “Living with Music,” which collects his writings about jazz. Ellison’s life with music is thrust to the fore by a noteworthy exhibit that just opened at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, “Ralph Ellison: A Man and His Records,” on the occasion of his centennial (with an asterisk: his biographer, Arnold Rampersad, gives Ellison’s birth date as March 1, 1913). Ellison, who died in 1994, was a big collector of jazz records—indeed, of records of many kinds of music. The museum has acquired his collection, which is the centerpiece of the exhibit.

To capture the appeal and the delight of the show, with its selection of citations from Ellison’s work and evocative archival images, it’s worth glancing at just how Ellison lived with music. He was born in Oklahoma City, which, in the twenties, was a major musical hub—it was the home of Walter Page’s Blue Devils, a band that later became Count Basie’s. (Page was the innovative bass player whose walking beat was crucial to the band’s gliding swing.) Ellison went to a public school where students learned music appreciation and theory. A trumpeter, he was also a bandleader in high school, even as he imbibed, first-hand, the very finest in music: he grew up with the seminal and short-lived guitarist Charlie Christian; the singer Jimmy Rushing was Ellison’s father’s employee and a family acquaintance; he saw Lester Young in 1929 (remembering him from a jam session in a shoeshine parlor), along with other great musicians of the time—Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Duke Ellington, King Oliver—when they played in one of the city’s theatres.

Ellison majored in music at the Tuskegee Institute (and met Ellington there). Moving to New York in the mid-thirties, he again met Ellington, and narrowly missed sitting in with the band. In New York, he was an habitué of the jazz scene, paying particular attention to the jam sessions at Minton’s, in the Cecil Hotel, where the new generation of musicians, such as Christian, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and Kenny Clarke, tested themselves against the likes of Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Roy Eldridge, and Young.

In short, Ellison and music were inseparable. In the title essay of his collection, he tells the extraordinary story of his passion for records, which was sparked, in 1949, by his attempt to cope with extraordinary noise (musical and otherwise) from neighbors while writing his novel “Invisible Man” in his apartment. He decided to fight fire with fire, but found that “between the hi-fi record and the ear, I learned, there was a new electronic world.” He decided to build an amplifier:

And still our system was lacking. Fortunately my wife shared my passion for music, so we went on to buy, piece by piece, a fine speaker system, a first-rate AM-FM tuner, a transcription turntable and a speaker cabinet. I built half a dozen or more preamplifiers and record compensators before finding a commercial one that satisfied my ear, and finally we acquired an arm, a magnetic cartridge and—glory of the house—a tape recorder. All this plunge into electronics, mind you, had as its simple end the enjoyment of recorded music as it was intended to be heard. I was obsessed with the idea of reproducing sound with such fidelity that even when using music as a defense behind which I could write, it would reach the unconscious levels of the mind with the least distortion. But it didn’t come easily. There were wires and pieces of equipment all over the apartment.

For Ellison, music had always been material, whether as a student, a performer, or part of a crowd of revellers, dancers, enthusiasts. Though he writes of having heard Louis Armstrong, on records, in the twenties, before seeing him live, the preponderance of his musical experience was immediate and physical, inseparable from his life with family and friends, from his school and his wide web of personal connections. He knew, played, and loved so-called classical music—European music—but he lived jazz—or what he called simply American music.

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