Ralph Ellison: “Remembering Jimmy (Rushing)” (1958)


Steel-bright in its upper range and, at its best, silky smooth, it was possessed of a purity somehow impervious to both the stress of singing above a twelve-piece band and the urgency of Rushing’s own blazing fervor. On dance nights, when you stood on the rise of the school grounds two blocks to the east, you could hear it jetting from the dance hall like a blue flame in the dark, now skimming the froth of reeds and rhythm as it called some woman’s anguished name — or demanded in a high, thin, passionately lyrical line, ‘Baaaaay-bay, Bay-aaaay-bay! Tell me what’s the matter now!’ — above the shouting of the swinging band. Nor was there need for the by now famous signature line: ‘If anybody asks you who sang this song / Tell ‘em / it was little Jimmy Rushing / he’s been here and gone,’ for every one on Oklahoma City’s ‘East Side’ knew that sweet, high-floating sound…

For Jimmy Rushing was not simply a local entertainer; he expressed a value, an attitude about the world for which our lives afforded no other definition. We had a Negro church and a segregated school, a few lodges and fraternal organizations, and beyond these there was all the great white world. We were pushed off to what seemed to be the least desirable side of the city (but which some years later was found to contain one of the state’s richest pools of oil), and our system of justice was based upon Texas law; yet there was an optimism within the Negro community and a sense of possibility which, despite our awareness of limitation (dramatized so brutally in Tulsa riot of 1921), transcended all of this, and it was this rock-bottom sense of reality, coupled with our sense of the possibility of rising above it, which sounded in Rushing’s voice.
Ralph Ellison, “Remembering Jimmy,” (1958) in Living With Music: Ralph Ellison’s Jazz Writings, edited by Robert G. O’Meally, Random House, 2001.


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