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Margo Jefferson Discusses Ella Fitzerald and Childhood Icons

wesley morris

I’m Wesley Morris. I’m a culture writer at The New York Times. And I’ve been thinking a lot about the ways in which culture is a kind of parent and the idea that both art and culture basically help us show us who we are. And in the middle of thinking about all of this, an amazing book came into my life that performs and interrogates and inhabits all of these questions. And so today on the show, we’re going to hear about understanding one’s cultural self from the author of that book, the Great American critic Margo Jefferson.

[music]

This is “Still Processing.”

Margot.

margo jefferson

Yes, hello, Wesley. I was a little overwhelmed temporarily by that introduction.

wesley morris

You needn’t it. It is all true. Welcome to the show.

margo jefferson

Thank you. Glad to be here.

wesley morris

I want to start with a cultural memory.

margo jefferson

Good.

wesley morris

You write so beautifully about Ella Fitzgerald. And I want to focus on one extremely distinctive and surprising aspect of Ella Fitzgerald that relates to her perspiration. I don’t know. Would you call it an irony that one of the most eloquent sounding women in the history of recorded sound also sweats —

margo jefferson

Yes.

wesley morris

— like a pitcher of water in July?

margo jefferson

There we go. I like that you used an object rather than a gender.

wesley morris

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

margo jefferson

Yeah, yeah, and it’s what we think of as a masculine right, almost — that men have license, whether they are laboring on a railroad or creating beautiful, dazzling music in a concert hall or a club. They can sweat, they can grimace. They can twist themselves into all those laborious positions. Yeah, they get exposed because the genius is what we’re looking for in everything — including beads of sweat and a grimace become signs of that genius in process. Women have a whole series of rituals, demands, requirements for how they look, conduct themselves, comport themselves.

wesley morris

Comportment.

margo jefferson

Even comportment amidst what’s supposed to be transports of creativity. Comportment still holds.

wesley morris

I want to actually look at Ella Fitzgerald performing and perspiring.

margo jefferson

And pumping her arms, yeah.

wesley morris

Everything.

margo jefferson

Everything, that’s right.

archived recording (ella fitzgerald)

(SINGING) High, high the moon, though the words may be —

wesley morris

So, in 1960 — is that right?

margo jefferson

Berlin, you mean?

wesley morris

Yes, the Berlin concert.

margo jefferson

‘60 or ‘61.

wesley morris

Yeah, she does this —

margo jefferson

Yeah, ‘60.

wesley morris

— epic famous concert in Berlin. And one of the highlights is her doing what they’re calling “How High the Moon,” but is really everything. There’s, like, 16 songs in this performance.

archived recording (ella fitzgerald)

[VOCALIZING]

wesley morris

She’s wearing a great, looks like a satin dress. And it’s got a great belt in the middle. There’s sequins on the bottom. She’s got one strand of pearls.

margo jefferson

And she’s got delicate little pearl earrings.

wesley morris

Yep, and her hair has been pressed, right?

margo jefferson

Oh, very definitely. It could be a wig.

wesley morris

And it could be a wig.

margo jefferson

Probably a wig, yeah.

wesley morris

And it got — a wig would withstand the sweat better than a pressed hairdo would.

margo jefferson

Much. She does not have to think about that.

wesley morris

Right, right.

archived recording (ella fitzgerald)

[VOCALIZING]

wesley morris

I mean, she’s dabbing at the sweat with a giant scarf.

margo jefferson

Yeah, that’s right. It’s not a hanky.

wesley morris

No.

margo jefferson

It’s not a diminutive hanky.

archived recording (ella fitzgerald)

(SINGING) Though the words may be wrong through this song, we have to like high, high, high, high, high, high, high —

margo jefferson

There she goes.

wesley morris

She just —

margo jefferson

Just dab it.

wesley morris

Just dabs.

margo jefferson

Dab it away. That’s right.

wesley morris

The scarf that she’s using to wipe the sweat is just like an accessory the way the microphone is an accessory.

margo jefferson

That’s great. Yes, it is.

wesley morris

Right?

margo jefferson

That’s absolutely right. You know the other thing she does that I love, the way she puts her hand right near her ear, as if to sound out her own pitch, which is perfect.

archived recording (ella fitzgerald)

[VOCALIZING]

margo jefferson

Listen to that.

archived recording (ella fitzgerald)

[VOCALIZING]

wesley morris

I mean, that is just extraordinary.

margo jefferson

Phenomenal! The mimicry is transcendent.

wesley morris

One of the songs she samples is “Smoke Gets in My Eyes,” but instead —

margo jefferson

At the end, bless her heart, transcendent, triumphant.

archived recording (ella fitzgerald)

(SINGING) Sweat gets in my eyes.

margo jefferson

Sweat gets in my eyes. And you go, you daring warrior bucaneer.

[LAUGHTER]

[APPLAUSE]

wesley morris

And so, what is it about the sight of Ella Fitzgerald, queen of scat, one of the preeminent musicians in American music — what is it about her comfort with her perspiration? Like, what is the story that that water is telling you?

margo jefferson

Well, depending on how old you are and how much you’ve pushed against comportment or are willing to, the story is telling you different things. When I was a child listening to Ella, the sweat was very unsettling because ladies didn’t sweat. And I was being raised to be a lady. As I aged and could cast off a lot of this, the sweat becomes a sign of absolute commitment to the work and the play of making her art — and of taking it, because as you say, she’s the queen of scat. The sweat also shows, I’m totally comfortable. I’m totally transcendently at ease with what I’m doing, with my art.

wesley morris

So one of the things I wanted to really talk to you about are the ways in which, as a Black American woman, American culture helped make you, you. So I’m really wondering, what about Ella Fitzgerald made, would you say, made Margo Jefferson, Margo Jefferson?

margo jefferson

Ah. Well, my parents, who were sophisticated about music, the pleasure they and their friends — almost ecstasy — took in a musician like Ella, their pleasure in how she could take any lyric, many of which were white-created lyrics, and make it her own. The way her voice did not read as a, quote “typical Black voice,” but she could move into any kind of tonality or, yeah, timbre that she wanted. As I grew older, I have very much associated women scatting with not only claiming certain musical improvisatory right, but with saying, I don’t have to just interpret this lyric. And there are wonderful song lyrics around, but —

wesley morris

And she sang many of them, but she had this other mode.

margo jefferson

She had this other mode, but she could do it all.

wesley morris

I mean, I’m just really struck by this idea that — I mean, you seem to have had it as a girl, that there was a way in which being respectable or, quote, unquote, “respectable,” it was preferred. I mean, this is the thing that you’ve been writing about for years, the ways in which being a proper Black child —

margo jefferson

Yes, propriety of an haute bourgeoisie, yes.

wesley morris

Right, and I mean, and I had that, too. I mean, I grew up poor without any of the kind of refinement in my house in the way that yours had. But my mother really wanted us to be the best.

margo jefferson

Yeah, of course.

wesley morris

And she emphasized goodness and grace. And she, too —

margo jefferson

And good manners and speaking —

wesley morris

And good manners.

margo jefferson

Yes, well, to your elders and —

wesley morris

And all of those things, because there’s a way in which we can think about these things as being performed for white people.

margo jefferson

They were performed for us, too, though.

wesley morris

Yes, exactly.

margo jefferson

Yeah, exactly. They were marks of how we, as a people, were conquering, coping and also communicating — and then accenting it with our own particular gestures, expressions.

wesley morris

And that’s the thing about scatting, I think, that really — I don’t know how — I mean, not that she’s — Ella Fitzgerald is not underrated.

margo jefferson

No, no, no, no, no, no.

wesley morris

She had a hard life. And she just kept it — I mean, you write that she never even talked about it. She just wouldn’t ever indulge it. And the closest you’re ever going to experience with her in that regard, it seems to me, is the sweat.

margo jefferson

Ah, the labor, and making that a part of the art of jazz and popular song, yeah, yes, yeah — along with the heft, which she does not conduct herself as if she’s ashamed of.

wesley morris

No, I mean, what could she do?

margo jefferson

Yeah, it’s not like I’m billowing sleeves that are covering how they are. No, those arms are out there, and she’s moving —

wesley morris

Those dresses fit.

margo jefferson

And she does have style.

wesley morris

Yes.

margo jefferson

But she’s not sexy.

wesley morris

Right, she’s “matronly.” And this is a word that you use to describe her.

margo jefferson

I keep using it, that’s right, which, as a pre-adolescent or adolescent, that’s not what you want to identify with.

wesley morris

So you came to the conclusion that you needed something else. And the thing that comes along that you gravitate toward, it couldn’t be farther away from Ella Fitzgerald.

[music – ike and tina turner, “nutbush city limits”]
wesley morris

And that’s Ike and Tina Turner. And these forces come along. And they speak to you.

archived recording (tina turner)

(SINGING) A church house, gin house, a schoolhouse, outhouse.

wesley morris

And I’m really curious about what Ike and Tina said to you that was not being said to you by an Ella Fitzgerald.

margo jefferson

Well, first of all, you’ve got R&B, rhythm and blues, soul music. You’ve got the world that is saying, yeah, we sweat, you know? We slap. We are out there. This is so-called down and dirty. I’m 12 years old, 12 to 13 in 1960. I am primed. You can’t become an interesting teen or move into adulthood if you don’t care about R&B, soul music, rock and roll.

Tina was gorgeous, sexy, but she was not an aspiring haute bourgeois in manner, not at all, or voice or dancing. This was like funky Black life and a huge, not just — I mean, I don’t want to jump ahead of myself and say, of course, it was a source of some of our most powerful cultural whatevers. You’re having a good time. You’re excited. It’s glamorous. And also, as a member in training of the Black bourgeoisie, it was a little forbidden.

wesley morris

But what I like about this idea is that you had a sister, Denise.

margo jefferson

Yes, three years old.

wesley morris

And this music would come on, and you guys would do what many kids do, which is just want to be the people that you were hearing.

margo jefferson

First of all, I have a powerful older sister. We’re imitating. I’m not, because I’m three years younger, as grounded in soul music or rock and roll. I’m still eyes pressed against the glass. And Denise says, all right, I’m Tina. And she dances also, my sister. I’m Tina. You have to be Ike and the Ikettes. So that’s what I have to do. I have no choice.

archived recording (tina turner)

(SINGING) Rolling on the river.

archived recording (ike turner)

(SINGING) Rolling on the river.

margo jefferson

Then I try to practice Tina alone in my room. I’m not as good at it as Denise is. And my little teenage vanity, those little fits you have of pique all right, then, I just won’t do it. I go to a few slumber parties. They’re better at it than I am. It’s a little bit like my friends who could smoke and look cool. And I would not inhale. That’s the only way I could do it. And then someone would say, you’re not inhaling, Margo.

[LAUGHTER]

So I start thinking.

archived recording (tina turner)

(SINGING) Rolling on the river.

archived recording (ike turner)

(SINGING) Rolling on the river.

margo jefferson

How can I make Ike interesting?

archived recording (ike turner)

(SINGING) Rolling.

margo jefferson

Let me watch Ike.

archived recording (ike turner)

(SINGING) Rolling on the river.

wesley morris

So it’s, let me watch Ike Turner.

margo jefferson

I’m not attracted to him. He’s unsettling to me and even a little repellent, but he gives off controlling power. Tina is sublime, and she’s the lead, but Ike is controlling that beat. And as it turns out, he’s controlling —

wesley morris

He’s controlling everything.

margo jefferson

He’s controlling everything. But that spareness and the intensity was fascinating to me. And not having to say much, but being able to exude power, this was not in my range. And it really did interest me.

wesley morris

Mm-hmm, OK.

margo jefferson

And it was a very good way to dilute and kind of push over to the side all that perky Midwestern propriety that I had. Hi, how are you? I was a very — I was a cheerleader. I was an outgoing girl who integrated very, very well. Hi, how are you? I’m Margo. People would always say, you’re so cheerful. And it was things like that. It was lines like that it made me cleave onto someone —

wesley morris

Yeah, there’s an Ike Turner in here y’all don’t know.

margo jefferson

You want cheer? I’ll show you cheer. Yeah, exactly. When all the horror about his abuse of Tina came out, and suddenly, there I was, reviewing her memoir and —

wesley morris

Yeah, yeah.

margo jefferson

But a hardcore feminist, but even then, I realized he’s still interesting to me.

wesley morris

So I wanted to talk to you because I’m really interested in the ways in which culture informs who we are. Looking back, you can see that all of these experiences were amounting to a self. And so your book is called “Constructing a Nervous System.” And well, first of all, what do you mean by a nervous system?

margo jefferson

Ah, that’s tricky. Nervous system for me is a constantly circulating set. It’s cells. It’s nerve endings. It’s all of these things that can be your emotions, your thoughts, your sensations, your speculations. And they’re always in motion. And, which is not true of our actual nervous systems, in my imagining, you can rearrange. You can —

wesley morris

Yeah, yeah.

margo jefferson

Any artist can do that, the same way you can decide to play the same piece of music two, three, four or five different ways. We’ve heard versions of Ella doing this a little differently.

wesley morris

Yeah, it’s never the same way twice with her.

margo jefferson

It’s never the same way twice. And you always have the right inside yourself to make that change and to transmit it to the world. It’s, OK, now this disperses. Now a new set of elements is put together. I’m watching, I’m drawing on them, I’m combining them.

wesley morris

Yes. I am wondering — I knew I was going to talk to you today, and I was really thinking about your Tina Turner, Ike Turner split, right, where Tina just didn’t fit.

margo jefferson

Acting teachers, when I was young, would say, everyone has their limits in terms of range. That’s out of your range. Tina was out of my range.

wesley morris

I read that about you and Ike and Tina, and I was struck by — I was like, do I have something like this? And I was a big R.E.M. fan. It could have been Michael Stipe, but that didn’t feel —

margo jefferson

It wasn’t —

wesley morris

Yeah, it’s true, but it’s not right.

margo jefferson

It wasn’t obsessive enough. It wasn’t driven enough. It wasn’t instinctive, almost.

wesley morris

No. I think the person that I most wanted to imitate as a kid was Jackée Harry, a.k.a. Jack-ay —

margo jefferson

Jack-ay!

wesley morris

— who played Sandra on 227.

archived recording (jackée harry as sandra)

My latest boyfriend, Phil, he’s a stockbroker, and he’s taking care of all my assets.

margo jefferson

Now how old were you when you first started watching her on “227,” about?

wesley morris

Oh, God. 11.

margo jefferson

Mm, that pre-adolescent.

wesley morris

Yeah, it would have been 11 or 12. And the way old sitcoms used to work is, there’d be a neighbor. There would always be some neighborly intrusion.

margo jefferson

Yes, and things could happen and be said and done that weren’t going to otherwise.

wesley morris

And they didn’t have to stay. So Sandra, on “227,” was mine.

archived recording (jackée harry as sandra)

Oh, careful, honey! I just paid 50 bucks to get quaffed.

wesley morris

And I don’t know what it was about Jackée.

archived recording (jackée harry as sandra)

Show him some leg.

wesley morris

She had great, erect posture so that her — she led with her bosom, right? Her chest was always out.

margo jefferson

It was always out.

wesley morris

And Sandra would come into Mary’s apartment.

archived recording (jackée harry as sandra)

Hi, Mary.

wesley morris

And she would have this delivery that was just —

archived recording (jackée harry as sandra)

Maa-ry.

wesley morris

— hi, Mary.

margo jefferson

[LAUGHING]

wesley morris

And the audience would go crazy. I would be in the house with my family going crazy. And I can remember going to class, biology class — Mr. Murowski, I think, was the teacher. And Sandra must have said it on the show, because I think he just went from desk to desk to desk and asked everybody what they got for Christmas. And I sat at my desk, and I said “a cashmere sweater wardrobe.”

margo jefferson

No! You didn’t!

wesley morris

I did. That’s what I said I got for Christmas. I don’t even know what cashmere is at this age, right? I don’t know what cashmere is, but Sandra had it. And so I wanted it for Christmas.

margo jefferson

And you delivered it.

wesley morris

And I told the whole class!

margo jefferson

What was the reaction?

wesley morris

Like explosion after. I mean, a couple of people still remember it.

margo jefferson

Fondly.

wesley morris

I don’t know. I mean —

margo jefferson

Were you embarrassed afterwards? Or did the laughter carry you?

wesley morris

This would have been the seventh grade. I think I can remember being embarrassed by that. But I remember I was embarrassed by a lot of things that I remember having done, but they were all along those lines, right? They were all about me drifting into a different gender zone.

margo jefferson

Yes, exactly. Exactly.

wesley morris

And I —

margo jefferson

It always involve some things that are forbidden to us in our assigned gender zones, yes.

wesley morris

And I just was like, I guess I’m resisting this now, right? I didn’t want this.

margo jefferson

And I didn’t fully want to be or want, particularly in the grown-up years, Ike Turner. There was a period after the Tina abuse when I wouldn’t even admit that I had once found him alluring and fascinating. There was no way — I couldn’t find the language to explain that, while not having to prove, of course, I’m a feminist. Of course, he’s also a monster.

wesley morris

Yeah, yeah, and I think —

margo jefferson

Of course I prefer Tina!

wesley morris

And I think maybe — I mean, you identified something about the Jackée thing that is also true. Like, I was attracted to confidence. She just seemed confident in a way that other people found ridiculous, right? But she always got what she wants. She was never wrong. But we also knew that the comedy of her was in contrast to how staid and law-abiding and stuck in their roles everybody else was.

margo jefferson

Yes, these families, these gray, descended from — yes.

wesley morris

She didn’t have a family. She didn’t have a family. They never gave her a kid. She never got married. I mean, I am basically Sandra right now, you know? I wound up becoming Sandra. Happily, by the way.

margo jefferson

Happy to make your acquaintance, Sandra. Yes, happily, exactly. Yes, by finding your own way to violate all of those dreary, predictable, scripted norms.

[music]
wesley morris

So, Margo.

margo jefferson

Yes.

wesley morris

I’ve been thinking a lot about nostalgia and the different ways it can be used and the different uses for it. And nostalgia is a subject you’ve been writing about for a lot of your career, often without even having to name it. And I’m wondering how you understand the distinction between wishing for a place that you once were in, and revisiting a place that you once were in for information.

margo jefferson

The way we tend to define and experience nostalgia, you are going back. You are revisiting, you are reliving — largely to recreate, in some perfectly realized way, what you think of, remember, as the best of that experience. I’m thinking of nostalgia for, can you have nostalgia for a very painful experience? You can, but let us —

wesley morris

That’s a whole another thing.

margo jefferson

That’s a whole other thing. We’re not going to do that right now. No, mm-mm-mm-mm. So you’re going back to create, recreate and perfect, in some way, the past. Otherwise, you wouldn’t bother to go back. You’re convinced you can do something even more acute and exciting. And you can revisit with curiosity about what you can find there, see there that is possibly also the same, but that is different or that is assembling itself in a different way. It does become a journey into the new via the old.

wesley morris

I also think that it is — I mean, the bad version, of course, is that it’s a retreat from the new into the old and the familiar and the allegedly safe. And that gets me to this other part of what I think we carry around in this nervous system that we’re talking about. And that is some dimension involving shame, right?

margo jefferson

And it involves kinds of shame you thought you were over. If anything, I take, I’m almost proud of, yes, the ways in which my neurosis can be useful, can be interesting. But I was growing up a little, even as a grown-up, somewhat ashamed of my father’s melancholy. And I think that had something to do with gender. You know? Yes, he succeeded in the world, but a melancholy man suggests a kind of withdrawn passivity that I clearly have still taken in. I’m not entirely comfortable with. I’m ashamed of that. But there it is.

wesley morris

But I mean, to stay with your father for a second, do we call that blues? I mean, what are what are some of the literary romanticizations that we can lay on that so that it’s, quote, unquote, “acceptable“?

margo jefferson

We could call it a more introspective, and that there’s a whole tradition of the introspective blues. We could call it — it’s no accident that my father loved, among Duke Ellington’s musicians, Johnny Hodges — who is the master, the genius of a kind of expressive melancholy and lyricism. Lawrence Brown also.

wesley morris

Another one, yeah.

margo jefferson

Yeah, and of course, Black masculinity is so fraught. We can find all kinds. For example, Ellington and his absolute love of embellished beauty, as well as swing, yeah.

wesley morris

I mean, that tradition does exist. I mean, you’ve got James Baldwin, who even when he wasn’t explicitly writing about his blues, he didn’t have a name for what they were.

margo jefferson

No, that’s true.

wesley morris

But you could feel in the work, the work was kind of telling you what was going on. I mean, we’ve been talking about labor, the labor of performance.

margo jefferson

Of art making.

wesley morris

The way it makes you sweat when you don’t sound like you’re sweating at all. We’ve been talking about the labor of accepting what culture is telling you, you are or can be.

margo jefferson

Yes, which is race labor and gender and sexuality labor, and psychological and psyche labor, yeah.

wesley morris

But what’s striking to me is that living in this country means that in some way, you are going to be asked or expected or institutionalized or, to go quite far, brainwashed maybe, into looking at things a particular kind of way with a particular set of eyes. And we have a term for that. It is called the gaze, the G-A-Z-E gaze. And the thrill of critical thinking is that you realize that you don’t have to perform for that gaze. And you don’t have to use that set of eyes. You can put those down.

margo jefferson

And that there are materials, you know? There’s information. There is scholarship. There are all sorts of materials you can use to retrain your gaze. Politics, history, all of that. I was 12, 13 in 1960. That means I could take on the training of the new left, beats and bohemians and bop — everything from civil rights to Black power, the women’s movement, the particulars of Black feminism, queer rights in theory.

All of that was available to me, these canons that were being busted, revised, changed. And I had all this other material that I could mix it up with. So I was lucky historically in that way. A critic needs to draw on all those materials, those disciplines, those ways of thinking, being, researching, that will counter the main mythological or ideological narratives.

wesley morris

I mean, basically, we need all the eyes we can get.

margo jefferson

Exactly, and we need to know that we need not to settle.

[music]
wesley morris

Margo Jefferson, I can’t believe I got to sit in a studio with you.

margo jefferson

Mm, yes, you did. This was so fun.

wesley morris

Thanks for coming. I appreciate it.

margo jefferson

Thank you.

wesley morris

That’s our show. Margo Jefferson’s book, “Constructing a Nervous System, A Memoir,” is — oh, my God, it’s one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. And you all need to go read it yourselves, please. And get a copy of “Negroland,” while you’re at it. And then, while you’re at that, get a copy of, “On Michael Jackson,” which is the definitive — it’s like, it’s the best thing written about Michael Jackson as a cultural phenomenon and as a legal phenomenon, too.

“Still Processing” is produced by Elyssa Dudley and Hans Buetow. It’s edited by Sara Sarasohn and Sasha Weiss. The show is mixed by Marion Lozano and recorded by Maddie Masiello. Digital production by Mahima Chablani and Des Ibekwe. Our theme music is by Kindness. It’s called, “World Restart” from the album, “Otherness.” And we will be back next week. Margo Jefferson was on our show.

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