This latest national tragedy of a young unarmed African American man being killed by police, this time in rural Colorado calls to mind an artist who started out in the L.A. arts vanguard scene where poets, musicians and experimental theater folk work out their material in low to no cost venues like cafes, repurposed store fronts in struggling neighborhoods where rents are still low and developers are speculating on artist types raising the property values over time. Anybody here ever heard of Stew and the Negro Problem?
Living in PoTown, Ore since 2005 when I followed a job up here from the Bay Area where my day jobs couldn’t keep up with the gutting of rent control and the soaring cost of living I had occasion to hear a live recording of Stew and the Negro Problem, his tight combo headed by his musical collaborator and then main squeeze the bassist co-composer Heidi Roedewald.
The one track I heard was on a compilation issued by just that sort of storefront on just the sort of street (Mississippi Avenue) that was once a booming black neighborhood where housing restrictions for African Americans and red-lining in other parts of the racialist founded state of Oregon forced African Americans to concentrate long enough for some civil rights legislation to kick in.
Paradoxically that also opened the door for gentrification and speculation and pretty soon the spare former African American congregation church in that store front on Missississippi Avenue became the musical incubator across styles known as Mississippi Studios.
Stew and Heidi would tour up from their home base in L.A. sometimes with The Negro Problem as backing band, sometimes doing their own 2-person work-outs of experimental theater projects. Each year that neighborhood along Mississippi Avenue became white and whiter with high-rise condos and Wellness Spas and successful young professionals finding it to be the only neighborhood within briefly booming Portlandia where any middle class person could afford to buy a home. Welcome to Speculationandia…
That is how “BLACK MEN SKI” reached me not long after I moved up here in 2005. Stew and Heidi kept returning to town doing more and more challenging work and pretty soon the Berkeley Repertory Theater in the town I could no longer afford to live in due to gutted rent control was developing a full theatrical rock musical by Stew and Heidi with The Negro Problem taking character roles in the production and working as the onstage accompanying band.
“Black Men Ski” that short quasi spoken word piece that to my ears recalled what radical poet Jayne Cortez (who for a decade or more was creatively and maritally partnered with new jazz innovator Ornette Coleman) was doing bridging spoken word, alt narratives and improvised music onstage.
Remarkably few people I’ve encountered in my own journeys covering some of the creative netherworld of the Pacific NW for alternative culture and music magazines have heard of Stew and the Negro Problem or even of the fact that after the success with the work-shopped production of Stew & Heidi’s full-length musical play PASSING STRANGE further development in the downtown NYC dramatic and music scenes led to a Broadway run, with Spike Lee funding the filming of the closing night using 13 cameras to capture the feel of a live Broadway performance of such a dynamic experimental production attaining success “On Broadway” (apologies to George Benson…and currently ailing Musical Memoir innovator who won a Grammy for writing the liner notes to Benson’s BREEZIN’ the great poet, performer, novelist and teacher currently ailing after being stricken, Al Young. To whom I send healing thoughts and pray for a speedy and complete recovery).
In light of the Elijah McClain tragedy and its setting along with what seems to have prompted the Colorado police who wound up not restraining but killing this apparently autistic young man wearing the ski mask and walking down a road in rural Colorado with ear-buds and likely transported as people are when they are tuning out the world and taking a familiar environment that provides them with a sense of security and well-being around in their mobile personal audio device, think of what writer Stew was and still is trying to communicate with “Black Men Ski” through his most recent recordings and theater productions that have not attained the attention that briefly focused on the more-relevant-than ever sub-text of Stew’s autobiographically composited play PASSING STRANGE.
After tracking down the DVD release of the Spike Lee shoot of closing night on Broadway, that play and the rest of Stew and the Negro Problem’s tracked down discography have changed me profoundly. Even if few friends, counting among them some of the most open-minded and nimbly imaginative creative artists, often like me multi-ethnic, despite their work and play on a number of scenes that clearly moved audiences in similarly profound ways, have ever acknowledged having had anything like this same reaction to Stew or his work. If they were even familiar with the indie band Stew and Heidi led called The Negro Problem on the low-profile L.A. scene throughout the 1990’s and early aughts. So few that I’d met in hipster culture dominated PoTown, Ore had even sought out PASSING STRANGE for viewing and enjoying much less discussing and ruminating over. Even as PoTown, Ore became a kind of center of Alt White Right v. Antifa Conflict:
Stew: “Black Men Ski”
•May 18, 2007
Mitch Ritter\Paradigm Sifters, Code Shifters and Song Chasers
Lay-Low Studios, Ore-Wa
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