“Hear Me Talking to You”: Improvisation and the Auricular Imperative in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Keywords:jazz, blues, improvisation, film
Students of August Wilson’s play have heretofore focused almost exclusively on the title song and have thus not heard that the plot actually revolves around an auricular imperative set forth by another tune recorded at the session, “Hear Me Talking to You.” Its rehearsal and recording augur that the deadly violence is ultimately propelled by a failure to listen much more so than by the racial exigencies of America’s Jazz Age. Unlike the solitary act of writing, collective music-making depends crucially on aural connectivity—just as actors on stage must also listen to each other. This auricular imperative, then, is also an ethical one as it demands an openness and receptiveness to the story of the other. In music, especially in improvised music, self-actualization is subject to an ethics of responsible listening: successful music-making therefore comes with an interpersonal accountability to the sonorities of the others’ stories. Combining the two defining blues tropes of travel and of love gone wrong, the auricular imperative issued by “Hear Me Talking to You” applies to Ma Rainey, the Mother of the Blues, as much as to Levee Green, the young, upstart jazz modernist. Hence, Wilson’s play dramatizes listening as a profoundly ethical act, a paramount act whose obviation can bring tragic consequences. Ironically, George C. Wolfe’s cinematographic transposition of the play mutes the auricular imperative, returning the characters to the same old spiraling groove of the American race “record” instead of ending, as Wilson’s script does, on the self-actualizing potential inherent in musical improvisation.
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