Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

In Memoriam – Gil Scott-Heron

Songwriter, poet and novelist Gil Scott-Heron, one of the greatest musical artists of the past half-century, died yesterday at St. Luke’s Hospital in New York after returning from Europe, where he had fallen ill. He was 62. Scott-Heron’s signature style combined jazz, soul and funk with wryly literate, often savagely critical, socially conscious lyrics. Tall and charismatic, with a machete wit, he was a consummate live performer who used catchy, anthemic songs to deliver a potent message. Enormously influential on several generations of hip-hop artists, Scott-Heron was considered one of the pioneers of rap. While his relationship with the genre was ambivalent at best, his 1969 debut album, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox is often credited with being one of the earliest hip-hop albums since it features spoken-word pieces (including the iconic The Revolution Will Not Be Televised) set to simple percussion.

Scott-Heron’s biggest hit, The Bottle, chronicled the toll that alcoholism takes on inner city life, though told with characteristic humor from a drunk’s point of view. His most enduring song, We Almost Lost Detroit hauntingly recalls a narrowly averted nuclear disaster caused by a near-meltdown at a Michigan nuclear power plant. Scott-Heron was also one of the first major American artists to address the horrors of apartheid, with the scathing Johannesburg. Throughout his career, he championed progressive causes and lampooned the right wing (most memorably with the scorchingly hilarious 1981 anti-Reagan broadside B Movie). As a recording artist, his peak period was from the mid-70s to the early 80s, notably his collaborations with pianist Brian Jackson and their group the Midnight Band. Many of those albums, including From South Africa to South Carolina as well as the 1988 Live Somewhere in Europe are bonafide classics.

Scott-Heron was also a legendary bon vivant who took that lifestyle to extremes. A heavy cocaine user in the 80s, by the following decade he’d developed a serious crack habit. Throughout that time, he remained an intense, charismatic performer, but he recorded sporadically and erratically, and as his crack use escalated, his performances and career suffered. Persecuted and jailed for cocaine possession multiple times during the zeros, he had recently been on the comeback trail, releasing a new album last year titled I’m New Here, which sets poetry to samples much in the same vein as his earliest work. His recent live shows had been remarkably strong as well, all the more impressive considering that he’d once again become a regular crack user (we reviewed his surprisingly high-spirited, energetic concert at Marcus Garvey Park on August 5 of last year). Our deepest condolences to his wife and daughter. Funeral arrangements are pending.

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May 28, 2011 - Posted by | funk music, jazz, Music, music, concert, obituary, soul music | , , , , , , , , ,

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