Writing about music is like dancing about architecture

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

THE WATTS TOWERS AND JAZZ RECORD SLEEVES





The Watts Towers in Los Angeles are fascinating examples of outsider art, public art, community art, and inventive engineering.
They have come to stand as symbols not just of the place in which they were build, the Watts area of Los Angeles, but also of racial politics in California as well as the United States.
I am fascinated by them, both as a unique work of art and as structures that have developed symbolic meaning that go well beyond anything their creator may have envisaged.
In his phantasmagorical autobiography, Beneath the Underdog, Charles Mingus, who grew up in Watts describes the Watts Towers thus: "At that time in Watts there was an Italian man, named Simon Rodia - though some people said his name was Sabatino Rodella, and his neighbours called him Sam. He had a regular job as a tile setter, but on weekends and at night time, under lights he strung up, he was building something strange and mysterious and he'd been working on it since before my boy was born. Nobody knew what it was or what is was for. Around his small frame house he made a low wall shaped like a ship and inside it he was constructing what looked like three masts, all different heights, shaped like upside down ice cream cones. First he would set up skeletons of metal and chicken wire, and plaster them over with concrete, then he'd cover that with fancy designs made of pieces of seashells and mirrors and things. He was always changing his ideas while he worked and tearing down what he wasn't satisfied with and starting over again, so pinnacles tall as a two storey building would rise up and disappear and rise again. What was there yesterday mightn't be there next time you looked, but another lacy-looking tower would spring up in its place.
Tig Johnson and Cecil J. McNeeley used to gather sacks full of pretty rocks and broken bottles to take to Mr Rodia, and my boy hung around with them watching him work while he waited for Gloria Stopes, one of his classmates who happened to live across the street....
Mr Rodia was usually cheerful and friendly while he worked, and sometimes, drinking that good red wine from a bottle, he rattled off about Amerigo Vespucci, Julius Caesar, Buffalo Bill and all kinds of things he read about in the old encyclopedia he had in his house, but most of the time it sounded to Charles like he was speaking a foreign language. My boy marvelled at what he was doing and felt sorry for him when the local rowdies came around and taunted him and threw rocks and called him crazy, though Mr Rodia didn't seem to pay them much mind. Years later when Charles was grown and went back to Watts he saw three fantastic spires standing there - the tallest was over a hundred feet high. By then Rodia had finally finished his work and given it all to a neighbour as a present and gone away, no one knew where."
Buddy Collette,. who grew up with Mingus in Watts, described Rodia and his creation in this way: "Simon Rodia was a little Italian guy with an old, dirty hat; a very quiet man, who didn't seem to have any friends and lived alone. Most of the neighbours ignored him and he didn't talk much. I don't know if he spoke English. Although he was a full-grown man, it seemed he weighed only about 100 pounds. He carried an old burlap sack on his back that he'd fill with little rocks, bottle caps, broken bottles, shells and all that material he was gathering to build his towers. Mingus and I would take these gum machines and put them on the railroad tracks. When the Watts Red Cars would come by, they would break the cast iron bottoms, which held all the pennies, maybe five dollars worth, which was a big haul. There would be a lot of litter like that among the tracks and Rodia would pick it up and make the most of it. Simon knew what he was doing with it, but we had no clue. Most people thought, 'That crazy guy, what's he building?' We had never seen anything like that before and he just kept adding to the structures. It wasn't until later that we could see that the guy was very artistic and knew what he was doing."
Rodia built the structures, as outlined in the above descriptions, by hand from found materials. He did not use a scaffold, a blowtorch or power tools. Instead he used a system of pulleys to winch himself and thousands of tonnes of cement and materials up and down the towers. In 1954, having worked on the towers since 1921, he stopped work, and as outlined by Mingus, gave his land and towers to a neighbour and disappeared. He never explained his work or attempted to justify or recreate it.
As Mingus and Collette's descriptions show, while he was building the towers, his neighbours gave him little encouragement and failed to empathise with his work. Watts during the 1930s and 1940s was a racially mixed area but Rodia seems not to have made any effort to mix with those around him. Instead he worked alone and without any need to consult local opinion.

However, four years after he disappeared Harold Land released Harold In the Land of Jazz (my copy is a later issue retitled Grooveyard).
This was Land's first record as a leader, and although not born in California he was by this time a stalwart of the West Coast jazz scene.
West Coast album sleeves of the period were, in my view, beautifully designed and photographed, in particular those for Pacific Jazz by William Claxton.
However, if they did include references to LA or California these tended to be of the beach or the sea, sometimes of the desert as in Sonny Rollins Way Out West sleeve or other rural locations such as that for Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section.
In just four years the Watts Towers had gone from weird aberration to structures that conveyed a message. What was that message?
In 1958 the Towers were under threat of demolition by the city authorities who claimed that they were unsafe and dangerous to local inhabitants. Instead a local, grassroots group bought the Towers with the intention of preserving them. The city authorities, already engaged in a programme of closing public arts programmes, attempting to control sites of cultural activities and suspicious of contemporary art, through attempting to close down what was a local symbol only succeed in creating a local movement.
Could Land's album cover be a comment on the repressive efforts of local government as they attempted to control the LA arts scene, is it a comment on pride in a racial mixed area, or in unity of a local movement, or could it simply be a statement about pride in a predominantly black area of the city in which he lived? I like to think that there is a similarity between his sax and the structures behind him.

 It wouldn't be until 1968 that the Watts Towers would appear on the cover of a jazz record.
Big Black's Message to our Ancestors is, as you might expect, a showcase for his impressive percussion skills. With only a flautist and some vocal encouragement accompanying him, this record is largely a percussive tour de force. Black, who played with Olatunji, Freddie Hubbard and Randy Weston amongst others, was well versed in African music (he also played with Hugh Masakela).
As you can see from his leopard print shirt and hat, he was at this point in his career fully "an exponent of African music" as the sleeve notes state.
What, then is he doing in front of a structure made by an Italian in Los Angeles?
In 1965 Watts was the centre of one of the largest civil uprisings in US history, requiring the National Guard to suppress it. A frustrated response to high unemployment, a dire educational system, a lack of social services, a history of police violence and a dearth of public transportation, the riot left 34 people dead, 1,032 injured and about 4,000 arrested.
The riots immediately changed how the Towers would be seen as they changed how Watts was perceived. Watts become associated with violent crime, urban blight and black revolution.
Big Black's Afrocentric stance, in his music and clothes, therefore chimes with his positioning in front of the Watts Towers. He is saying not only that he has pride in his African ancestry, a pride that was becoming more widespread and strident amongst black Americans but also that this pride in his ancestry was linked to contemporary events and actions in the United States. The Towers post-Watts Riots now served as a symbol of embattled racial politics as well as racial pride.

 Willie Bobo's 1971 record, Do What You Want to Do isn't really a jazz record,. But I'm including it not just because of his jazz credentials but also because I think it shows another shift in the symbolism of the Towers.
Bobo's group, the terribly named Bo-Gents, included black, white and latino musicians. While this may not have been anything special in 1971, the fact that they chose to be photographed in front of the Watts Towers is significant.
The Towers have changed from symbolising a type of black militant ism to symbolising great equality. Given that the 1970s saw the hardening of conservative opinion towards inner city areas which led to a lack of empathy and reduced financial support, Bobo's statement of racial unity specifically located at a site that was known as place of racial tension was a brave move. However, I think it has a wider significance beyond the Watts area. The Towers are a symbol of urban LA, perhaps one of the few that is instantly recognisable to people outside of California. Was Bobo making a point about the wider situation in the city, one where racial tensions and property development were mixing to undermine what little unity there was in the city's population as so brilliantly exposed in  Mike Davis's City of Quartz?

Don Cherry's Brown Rice is an incredible record and deserves a review of its own (which I will probably give it as some stage).
Cherry, of course, had come to prominence in LA as part of Ornette Coleman's group and had been instrumental in developing what would become termed free jazz.
For Brown Rice, Cherry drew on Arabic, African and Indian music to create a truly unique sound.
Yet, on the cover of the LP he is posing with the Watts Towers in the background. Interestingly for the CD reissue the photo is cropped to cut out the Watts Towers.
The racial unity expressed by Willie Bobo on his sleeve is now extended beyond the city of LA to the whole world. The Towers have come to symbolise not only the potential of Watts but of the whole world, perhaps as people are brought together through music.

From the localised message of Harold Land's record through to those of Cherry's we have seen how the Tower's meanings have changed and been adopted by jazz musicians who are seeking to use them to express their own messages. Situated in a neighbourhood that has seen enormous racial tension, famously exploding into violence, the Tower's have come to symbolise not just local pride but also racial (and musical)
openness.

That sense of the music uniting different people has been adopted since 1977 by the Watts Jazz Festival.

Not a great record (although Willie Bobo's contributions are suitably cooking) but it is an incredible photo of the Towers.

The jazz festival continues to this day.

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