[sixties-l] Martin Luther King's JAZZ

From: Marty Jezer (mjez@sover.net)
Date: 01/14/01

  • Next message: radman: "[sixties-l] George Harrison Says The World Is Going Mental"

    >From the Brattleboro (VT) Reformer, 1/12/2001
    By Marty Jezer
        How fitting it is that Ken Burns' PBS "Jazz" documentary is being shown
    at the same time as Martin Luther King's birthday celebration. As music,
    jazz stands on its own; but, like all great art, it is also an expression of
    place, time, and human aspiration. Burns has described "Jazz" as the final
    chapter (the Civil War and Baseball were the first two) of his trilogy on
    race in America. To dig jazz, the music, is to embrace the challenge of what
    race is to America.
        When Americans think of integration we usually think of racial and
    ethnic minorities integrating into some defining idea of what is meant by
    "white society." Jazz is unique because it's about white people wanting to
    become part of black culture; in jazz, the African-American experience is
    the standard. Burns' documentary tells us about a young white trumpet
    player, Bix Beiderbecke, a rube from Iowa, who hears Louis Armstrong playing
    jazz on a Mississippi riverboat, and knows in a flash that what he wants to
    do in his life is play music like Louis. As Wynton Marsalis says in the
    documentary (I quote from memory), "to love jazz is to love the musicians
    and come face to face with the humanity of African-Americans."
        The desire to shed one's own cultural skin in order to absorb something
    wonderful that is seen, heard, felt or sensed in the cultural presence of an
    "other" has been a powerful dynamic of American history. Because we all have
    difficulty talking about race, it's a fact that is rarely acknowledged --
    except, perhaps, when talking about jazz, where "reverse integration" has
    always been the model.
        I first heard jazz as a teenager, a ten-inch LP of dueling tenor
    saxophones - Illinois Jacquet and Flip Phillips. It changed my life. I was
    dismal as a saxophonist and so became a fan, collecting records, reading
    books and periodicals, submersing myself in jazz history and, because of
    that, black culture.
        Too young to be admitted to bars on my own, I'd stand outside jazz
    clubs, like Birdland ("The Jazz Corner of the World") in New York, and ask
    adult patrons to take me in. Once, I was escorted inside by two black
    hipsters. PeeWee Marquette, the emcee who doubled as ticket-taker, looked at
    us quizzically. "This here's my son," said one of the hipsters, placing his
    hand on my shoulder. Sitting in the "bullpen" behind the bar, sipping my
    two-drink minimum of coca cola, I got to hear musicians like Miles Davis,
    Clifford Brown, the Modern Jazz Quarter, Sonny Rollins, and the Count Basie
    band when they were all in their prime. I was wet-behind-the-ears but I knew
    I was listening to something important.
        Being white in a world essentially black was a great education. One
    lesson I learned, if ever so tangentially, was what it might be like being a
    person of color in a world whose standard was white. It's only recently that
    jazz has been acknowledged as a genuine art. Throughout its history it has
    been attacked by moralists as "devil's music," and by establishment
    intellectuals as merely popular; i.e., not to be taken seriously. These
    highfalutin judgements, of course, were smokescreens for racism.
        In high school I took music appreciation and was assigned to write a
    review of a concert. I attended and wrote about a concert by the jazz
    pianist, Erroll Garner. The teacher returned my paper ungraded and told me
    to write about serious music. I knew without a doubt that Garner was serious
    and that the teacher was a pompous fool. It was my first (but not last)
    experience dealing with the ignorance and arrogance of people with power and
        The culture of jazz has always impressed me as profoundly democratic.
    Musicians get together and agree to play a tune. That agreement, by
    consensus, involves the mutual acceptance of basic rules regarding rhythm
    and harmony, the structure of the tune. Knowing the rules gives them the
    freedom to improvise and create something new.
        In 1959 alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman (as Ken Burns will show, much
    too briefly, in a later installment) came upon the jazz scene breaking all
    the established rules. Instead of improvising on harmonic chord changes, he
    would improvise on the emotion, mood or dominant tone of a song. Coleman was
    harbinger of the liberating spirit of the "nineteen-sixties." But he was a
    disciplined musician steeped in the tradition of jazz and the blues. Only
    because he knew the rules was he able to break them. "It was when I realized
    I could make mistakes that I decided I was really on to something," Coleman
    said. Freedom, as an abstraction, is a futile goal. Only in the context of
    discipline, tradition, experience, and knowledge does freedom shine.
        This is one of the lessons of Martin Luther King who in his great
    speeches (e.g., "I Have A Dream") sounds like a great roaring tenor
    saxophonist riffing against the rhythmic beat. To celebrate King is to build
    a movement, not a monument. A new movement that reflects the teachings of
    King would be, like a great jazz band, inclusive and democratic. It would
    understand history and build on tradition. It would cherish individuality
    but respect the social collectivity upon which freedom thrives. It would
    defend those rules (like the Bill of Rights) that affirm human dignity and
    work to change those other rules that stifle the creative spirit.
        The trumpet player Art Farmer (in another documentary, "Great Day In
    Harlem," explains that jazz treats musicians who have passed as if they are
    all still living. We speak of Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Billie
    Holiday, Duke Ellington and Lester Young in the present tense as if they
    were with us, he said, because when we play their records we hear their
        And so it is with Martin Luther King whose spirit is still shining and
    still very much needed.
    Marty Jezer is a freelance writer who lives in Brattleboro, Vermont. He
    welcomes comments at mjez@sover.net.
    Marty Jezer, author
    Stuttering: A Life Bound Up in Words
    Abbie Hoffman: American Rebel
    Rachel Carson: Author, Biologist
    The Dark Ages: Life in the USA, 1945-1960
    Visit my website http://www.sover.net/~mjez
    Subscribe to my Friday commentary (just write subscribe by "reply. "  It's
    Copyright  Marty Jezer, 2001

    This archive was generated by hypermail 2b30 : 01/14/01 EST