The Temperature of Death
You want your obituary to communicate the best ideas you have about yourself. You are pleased, of course, that the New York Times took notice of your departure. Only the best people have death notices in the Times. You have a small measure of gratitude to National Public Radio. The use of expensive air time to make a verbal portrait of the artist is not something at which you sneeze. It was the luck of the draw to have death words splashed in the Washington Post before the paper becomes digital funk. You do wish that person who did a credible profile of you in the New Yorker some years ago had done a more decent eulogy for The Root. What he wrote says more about literary commerce than it does about the elegant respect that ought to be accorded to a national treasure. You know in your heart you are better than that.
In this new century, taste and decorum are in low cotton, and the temperature of death is so easily miscalculated. Something told you, you should have written your obituary last year. You did not listen to something.
Yes, you did riff in the American mindscape as did Ralph Waldo Emerson, Ralph Ellison, Jean Toomer, Samuel Clemens, William Faulkner, Walt Whitman and other gentlemen who embraced what is genuinely Omni-American. Yes, you did excoriate the betrayal of patriotism and the poverty of class aspiration among proponents of the Black Arts Movement. You do not deny that these features are appropriate in the social science fiction of the photograph. You are superior to all that. You are more sublime than that. You are more elegant and profoundly iconoclastic than that. You and Mr. Ellison and Mr. Ellington have style that men of obscene wealth are too impoverished to purchase. To be frank, style cannot be bought.
But an obituary is not a photograph. It is, if it is properly done, a full-length portrait of the artist in the birthpain splendor of the blues and the glory of jazz, 1916-2013. Unlike the photograph, the portrait tells a better story about the movement of the storyteller from Magazine Point, Alabama to Magazine Print, New York. You are the consummate teller of tales. You wish the obituaries gave more attention to the fine brushwork of your mind.
To get back to the matter of the representative anecdote. My primary vernacular, regional, or indigenous, or yes, down-home source is the fully orchestrated blues statement, which I regard and have attempted to define and promote as a highly pragmatic and indeed a fundamental device for confrontation, improvisation, and existential affirmation: a strategy for acknowledging the fact that life is a lowdown dirty shame and for improvising or riffing on the exigencies of the predicament. (The Blue Devils of Nada)
In truth, it is literature, in the primordial sense, which establishes the context for social and political action in the first place. (The Hero and the Blues)
You did not listen to something. Something told you, you should have written your obituary last year.
Jerry W. Ward, Jr. BLOG August 21, 2013