Tutors Talk (& Read) Books: Andy Kingston
May 12, 2021 | Story by Eve Tolpa / Video by Hannah Loomis
Tutor Andy Kingston joined the St. John’s Santa Fe faculty in 2005. Previously, he completed an interdisciplinary PhD program at Boston University on the intersection of music, literature, and philosophy, and he taught in the Boston area. He has also been a professional jazz pianist for many years; he performed in Boston regularly while in graduate school and is frequently heard in clubs around Santa Fe. Read the interview below and watch the accompanying video here, in which Kingston discusses being a jazz pianist and reads and comments on passages from “The Souls of Black Folk” by W. E. B. Du Bois, which is read during senior year in the undergraduate Program. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What made you choose W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk for this interview?
I’ve been thinking about the relationship between music and writing for a long time. One of my first encounters with serious writing about music was Albert Murray’s Stomping the Blues. What Murray calls the blues idiom in American culture is not just what we would think of as blues and jazz, but is an entire way of being in the world. We’re responding to the world through words, music, and voice. Murray talks about the blues as not simply recapitulating suffering, but as a response—an affirmative response—to the fact of the human condition.
It was only after reading Du Bois’s Souls of Black Folk in the senior seminar at St. John’s that I began to understand the tradition in which writers like Albert Murray are working. Du Bois’s book has a kind of call-and-response structure. The first two chapters are “Our Spiritual Strivings” and “The Dawn of Freedom.” There’s a back-and-forth between a poetic voice, which culminates in the story of the two Johns in the book, and a social science, critical voice. Du Bois presents a counterpoint between at least two voices, maybe more than two voices. It’s really important to hear all the voices Du Bois presents to us: the cry and the counter-crying, the call and response, the suffering and the affirmation.
What exactly is call and response?
There’s a Black American tradition of line singing in which the leader will call out a line of the text or the hymn, and the response will come from the congregation. The practice arises when there aren’t texts available to everyone in the congregation. This brings up an interesting question for us at St. John’s—what does it means to hear a voice from an oral tradition reflected in a written text such as The Souls of Black Folk? Call and response is a back and forth, where part of the hymn—the melody—is being called out, and there’s a response to it. We find, in the music program, that there’s often an “antecedent and consequent” structure to musical phrases, in which you’ll have the gesture and then the response. We hear that often as the arc of a particular melody, but there’s a way in which it’s also one voice reaching out and saying, “This is the introduction,” to which there’s an “Amen”—a response to that statement. It can be an affirmation, it can be a confrontation, it can be a dialectic, if we want to get philosophical about it. So the book itself does this. It calls out and then responds to itself, but it also demands a response from the reader.
How does that structure play out in the text?
The first chapter raises these questions about what Du Bois famously calls “double consciousness,” although I’ve heard some describe it as maybe triple consciousness, quadruple consciousness ... it’s not always clear that it’s just two perspectives.
Du Bois asks us to consider both how a Black American is seen in society, and how a Black American sees society—looking at the world and the promise of freedom as an idea, and then the reality of what the position of an individual human being is in the world, which may counter-state the professed ideals of a particular political or social order.
The second chapter is a story of Reconstruction and the failure of Reconstruction, or the seeds of the failure of Reconstruction, or the promise of what Reconstruction could have been and then was not—was violently revoked. We have to see the counterpoint between this promise and this violent response.
The most striking counterpoint, for me, appears in the epigraph to the second chapter, “The Dawn of Freedom,” which is a musical quotation from a hymn called “Oh, Lord, What a Morning.” And I’m not sure which way I’m supposed to hear “morning,” since only the music, and not the text, appears in the epigraph. You can find it spelled both ways if you look for it in printed versions of the hymn—both “morning” as in “good morning” and “mourning” as in “I’m mourning a loss.” So that doubleness, that ambiguity, is in the language of the hymn itself. The second chapter of The Souls of Black Folk is “The Dawn of Freedom”—as in the “morning” of freedom, but also as in the “mourning” of freedom.
There’s a way in which all the chapters are antiphonal to one another, and the parts of the chapters are antiphonal to themselves. And the music at the beginning of each chapter is a counterpoint to the prose, to the language, to the story in each chapter. Even within the song itself which introduces chapter two, the “morning” and “mourning” are both present; we must hear both of these meanings and both of these significations.
Do you see any similarities between the interplay of voices in the jazz idiom and the conversations we have at St. John’s?
In my second year at the college, one of my colleagues, Mike Bybee—we were teaching sophomore seminar together—said, “Isn’t seminar like a jazz improvisation?” I hadn’t thought about it. How is that? And now, 15 years later, more and more I realize, “Yeah, absolutely.”
So why is seminar like a jazz improvisation? It’s difficult, it’s full of risks. It doesn’t always come off well. It’s in a tradition: there are texts, there are tunes, there are standards that we’re playing on. We need to hear the voices, both of the tradition and the text and of those of us who are animating it and responding to it in real time with one another. It’s a practice. It takes time. And the thing that’s necessary for it to work at all is goodwill. There are lots of ways in which it goes wrong, and it goes wrong all the time—both on the bandstand and during off nights in seminar—the crowd’s not into it, right? There are all sorts of reasons why it goes wrong. But when it goes well, it’s spectacular.
We try to make St. John’s a safe home where we can speak to one another. This takes a lot of work, because there are risks, and we can’t take the risks if we don’t feel as though we’re among friends in the Aristotelian sense—that there are other selves around the table. It takes a long time to build that kind of community, and it is work. There’s a fine line between the performative aspect of being in seminar and the collaborative ideal. The best performances and conversations, for me, are always collaborations.
That doesn’t mean it’s all happy. There are cutting contests. There’s a kind of intellectual engagement, both in the seminar and on the bandstand. They are contests of goodwill, and that’s a tricky thing to try to negotiate. The contests have to come out of a place of love.
For me, the litmus test of a great work is if it makes us hear something new, and we hear new things each time we revisit the work. There’s lots to hear, and the overtones continue to accumulate as you spend time with the book. The same can be said of a great conversation or a great improvisation. We are constantly striving to hear something anew.