Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Boxing and Jazz



Sugar Ray and ongoing antagonist, Carmen Basilio
Miles
I just read Sweet Thunder, The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson by Wil Haygood. Sugar Ray Robinson (nee Walker Smith Jr.), one of the most successful boxers in history also had some skills as a dancer, singer, pianist and drummer and when his boxing career was on the ropes, he tried to make it as a performer. His fame got him gigs, but his talent was not enough to keep folks coming.

Still, his boxing stature, love of music, and his presentation as a confident, sharply dressed, widely esteemed black man put him in solid with Harlem's cultural elite and musicians like Billy Eckstein, Lena Horne, Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie. Miles was drawn into boxing through Robinson and it became an important part of the Davis mystique.

Mythically, as many have noted, jazz and the sweet science are linked through:
  • Improvisation.
  • Some kind of plan for a fight or a solo.
  • A repertoire of punches or "licks"(remember-"My daddy can lick your daddy")
  • Training and discipline.
  • Reflexes and senses finely honed and heightened enough to respond quickly to all cues.
  • A way out of poverty for African-Americans, Italians, Irish and Jews.
While there's a vibe that links them together, in many ways the resemblance is only-pun intended-skin deep:
  • For kids in poverty in 2015, sports and music are still a way out, but jazz has been replaced by hip hop and rock and boxing by basketball, baseball and football. 
  • As far as improvisation: in boxing, improvisation is reactive; the result of adapting to changing circumstances either forced by your opponent or by you, when you see a weakness and try to exploit it; two antagonistic forces with different plans trying to force the other to capitulate to theirs. In jazz, improvisation is collaborative (closer to the way professional wrestlers operate).
Jimmy and Tommy at Play


  • Of course, inter-personal enmity sometimes builds up on the bandstand, but with the possible exception of Charles Mingus or the Dorsey brothersit seldom leads to bloodshed.

  • In jazz, natural ability can make training and discipline less important. There are musicians who can play almost from the first time they pick up an instrument; who don't have to warm up; who never had to learn the musical nomenclature for a vocabulary they negotiate so well. A boxer may be a natural, but that's only a small opening that has to be developed by long hours of big and small bag work, running, skipping rope and sparring. 
All that said, there are boxers and jazz musicians who I think bring the same kind of energy to their work. Here are some who seem to me to be electro-magnetically aligned.

Jack Johnson (Fight actually starts at 5'27"):


And Jelly Roll Morton:


Joe Louis:


And Chu Berry:


Sugar Ray Robinson:


And Fats Navarro:


Muhammed Ali:


And, yes, Lester Young:


Those are some of my ideas. I'm sure you have your own.

Other jazz-boxing links:
Terence Blanchard's Opera about gay boxer Emile Griffith
Matt Shipp's and Patrick Gaucher's Combination performances

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