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Edward Bland

Edward O. Bland, controversial composer and arranger, who worked with musicians ranging from Sun Ra, Dizzy Gillespie, Lionel Hampton, Jimi Hendrix, and Country Joe and the Fish, and the director and co-writer of the incendiary 1959 film, The Cry of Jazz, died at his home in Smithfield, VA. on March 14th. He was 86. The cause was adenocarcinoma, according to his wife, the writer Mary Batten Bland.

Though Mr. Bland was equally adept in classical, jazz and rhythm & blues, and spent most of his life invested in all facets of the music business, he could never shake the shadow cast by his lone foray into making films. Spurred by late night conversations held in various taverns near the University of Chicago, Bland, along with three friends—a mathematician, an urban planner, and a novelist—formed an all-Black production company, KHTB, and embarked in 1956 on what would become The Cry of Jazz. "We'd…get in these arguments with all these jazz-critics-to-be," Mr. Bland told this writer in a 2006 interview. "They were mostly White, and I felt there was a racial angle too; I felt they were trying to…wipe the Blackness out of jazz."

Not only did the resulting thirty-three minute, semi-documentary black and white film cause a minor stir at screenings in Chicago and in New York City with its thesis that "jazz was dead" (Esquire called it "a wretched little hymn of racial snobbery," whereas the London Observer's Kenneth Tynan wrote "it is the first film in which the American Negro has issued a direct challenge to the white, claiming not merely equality but superiority"), but it also featured a then unknown Sun Ra and his Arkestra. "Shortly after the film's debut Jonas Mekas recruited Mr. Bland for his nascent New American Cinema Group, which included the likes of Shirley Clarke and Peter Bogdanovich. In 1971, noted filmmaker Willard Van Dyke credited The Cry of Jazz with foreshadowing the race riots of the 1960s. The film was inducted into the Library of Congress' National Film Registry in 2010.

Edward Osmund Bland was born July 25, 1926 on Chicago's south side. His mother, Althea, was a spiritualist, and his father, Edward, a US postal worker and dedicated Marxist and known intellectual, who frequently hosted political meetings with such friends as Gwendolyn Brooks, Richard Wright, Ulysses Kay and Ralph Ellison at the Bland home.

Mr. Bland showed no interest in his father's politics, however, instead being wowed by the renowned music programs of DuSable High School, where he enrolled as a freshman. Settling on clarinet and saxophone, he quickly excelled and began seeking late night jam sessions around Chicago's south side. It was at one such Art Tatum jam session where Mr. Bland first heard Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring," which would change his approach to composition. After serving in the Navy during WWII, Mr. Bland returned to Chicago, where he was hired to arrange and write for studio sessions at the blues-oriented Chess Records, and glimpsed pop music morphing into rock n' roll.

He would apply what he learned at Chess to a number of record label and consulting jobs in New York City throughout the 1960s and '70s, including the Museum of Modern Art's "Jazz in the Garden" concert series, as well as at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and also became executive producer for Vanguard Records, where he recorded artists such as Elvin Jones, James Moody, Clark Terry, Big Mama Thorton, and the Pazant Brothers. Moreover, Mr. Bland served as a presidential commissioner for the White House Record Library under President Carter, then later pursued Hollywood studio work in the 1980s. At the same time, he focused on his chamber and art music compositions, many of which would be performed by the Brooklyn Philharmonic, Detroit Symphony, Baltimore Symphony among others. Decades later his work would be sampled by the likes of Cypress Hill, Fatboy Slim and Beyonce, among others.

In an 1960 article for Film Culture, Mr. Bland wrote, "If Negro creators can transcend their present-day American demon thru the legacy left by dead jazz—if they can transcend their American experience with a total response instead of a minimal one, they will have executed a truly heroic act. And if white America can accept the Negro as the American hero, white America will have come of age."

Perhaps he was his father's son after all.

– Matt Rogers