Black & Blue, Part Two

trying to get deep down in this connection: the blues as “vertical sound in a horizontal world.”

Allen Lowe offers the tantalizing notion that the blues is a “vertical sound in a horizontal world.” This reminded me of a comment the saxophonist David S. Ware once said. I’m paraphrasing here, but he called his sound vertical too, and also remarked that he was interested in its velocity. I hadn’t the foggiest idea what they meant at the time, but Lowe’s notion of the blues as “vertical” made me think about what what Ware meant. Or maybe not what he meant, exactly, but what I might take to be the meaning of what he meant.

To say that the blues is a “vertical sound in a horizontal world” is to articulate the ways that this musical form took shape on an oppressive, insanely-constraining, terrorizing plane of social regulation—Jim Crow—as a means of both descending and transcending. The blues traversed the impossible conditions of Jim Crow by crossing the wires of the sacred and the profane. It became a temporary lifeline out of Jim Crow, a kind of musical terraplane with wings, fueled by sounds such as a rising, moaning breath or the bottle-necked energies of a guitar-string squeeze. At the same time, it became a rope for sinking down, down, down to the lower frequencies, where stark inhumanity had to be met by the search for a wellspring of life worth living.

Allen Lowe.

The blues allowed one to ascend to the celestial or dive into the disturbing muck and funk of life. It became a column of air between pleasures and pains, joys and sorrows, purity and impurity, dangers and liberations, frustration and consolation, restlessness and release. This notion of the blues as a “vertical sound in a horizontal world” allows us to hear the music as a means of transport: a ride up to an overview or a slide down into the subterfuge—and as a musical go-between between the two. The blues was a double helix. The blues was a vector.

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