I collected a small print of Basquiat’s picture Now’s the time from the framers at the weekend. I’d bought it at the Guggenhein in Bilbao in the summer, when I visited the exhibition of his works there. It was displayed there with a loop of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, made at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. He uses the phrase as a recurring motif in one of the most important passages in the speech (my emphasis):
We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.
Both Basquiat and King, of course, were drawing explicitly or implicitly on a famous track by Charlie Parker, recorded in 1945. Yes, the image is of Miles Davis, who also played on the session.
In his Parker biography Bird Lives! Ross Russell describes the track.
“Now’s The Time” is catchy and unforgettable, yet difficult to repeat. It has the extra-dimensional quality that distinguishes master works, however small. It is timeless. Its three minutes seem much longer. Ot is perfectly balanced, perfectly logical, haunting, eerie, the finest achievement of the boppers to that point. [p196]
There are other versions, but what for me connects this first recording to the MLK speech is the insistent piano at the the beginning, which demands the listener’s attention in the same way that King demands your attention as he repeats the phrase in that passage.
And one of the things I like about it is that part of that demand comes from the way that King breaks the so-called “rule of three,” and uses the phrase four times. Just when you think he’s going to move on, he insists that you hear it again. One more technical note: the use of a triad implies a completeness in the idea, but King’s rhetorical point is that the Civil Rights movement has not completed its work. He spells this out in the next paragraph of the speech (again, my emphasis):
This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. And those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. And there will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights.
“Now’s The Time” was recorded by Parker on 26th November 1945, and as far as the record label Savoy was concerned, this was the session at which the bebop sound clicked. (“The definitive session”, says Ross Russell.) This was despite the chaotic start to it. By Russell’s account, Thelonious Monk was supposed to play piano, but didn’t show, and Argonne Thornton, who happened to be in a nearby cafe, was drafted in. Gillespie was under contract to someone else, so he played uncredited. Miles Davis was nineteen, still at Juillard. Parker was late, and when he did arrive his reeds developed a squeak and a messenger was sent to midtown to get hold of spares.
And it attracted awful reviews. The jazz magazine Downbeat reviewed “Now’s The Time” together with “Billie’s Bounce”:
These two sides are excellent examples of the other side of the Gillespie craze – the bad taste and ill-advised fanaticism of Dizzy’s uninhibited style. Only Charlie Parker, who is a better musician and who deserves more credit than Dizzy for the style anyway, saves these from a bad fate. At that he’s far off form … This is the sort of stuff that has thrown innumerable impressionable young musicians out of stride, that has harmed many of them irreparably. [Ross Russell, p197]
Downbeat’s practice was to rate records on a scale of four down to one: the reviewer refused to rate “Now’s The Time”. But for his part, almost twenty years on, King knew his jazz. A year after the Lincoln Memorial speech he was at the Berlin Jazz Festival as the guest of Willy Brandt, then the mayor of West Berlin, and wrote an essay for the programme:
When life itself offers no order and meaning, the musician creates an order and meaning from the sounds of the earth which flow through his instrument. It is no wonder that so much of the search for identity among American Negroes was championed by jazz musicians.
Basquiat came back to Parker as a subject repeatedly during his short career, as explained in a fine post on the blog The Genealogy of Style. Here’s another picture, made two years before Now’s The Time, which celebrates that 1945 Savoy session.
The Basquiat exhibition had mixed reviews: Griselda Murray Brown in the Financial Times found it “a fine retrospective,” while Jason Farago, reviewing it for The Guardian in Toronto, thought it sometimes patronising and over-interested in celebrity. Brown liked the used of the King recording; Farago hated it. For my part, I realised that I’d skimmed too many glossy magazine articles about Basquiat and his work, and assumed (wrongly, I now realised) that he was a street artist who had lucked into some ’80s New York radical chic. Instead I found work that was both edgy and relevant, unlike the Jeff Koons retrospective running elsewhere in the Guggenheim, which was about as interesting in 2015 as the work of Edwin Landseer.
One final note. King, of course, was assassinated at 39, five years after the speech at the Lincoln Memorial. Basquiat died of an overdose at the age of 27, three years after he made the “Now’s the time” image. Parker, who sold all the rights to the song for $50, cash in hand at the session, died at 34, nine years after the session. For all of them: now was the time.