Perhaps an in depth analysis of this trend (the institutionalization of jazz) would have yielded a sound explanation for what appears to be the diminishing role of this music in social activism.
Submitted on behalf of Russ Musto
The timeliness of Lincoln Center's Jazz and Social Protest panel discussion was ominously appropriate, convening the evening following Bush's prime time delivery of his St. Patrick's Day Iraq manifesto. All of the members of the gathered group of educator-speakers - revolutionary writer-poet-performer Amiri Baraka, activist playwright-poet Sonia Sanchez, musician-composer-arranger Cecil Bridgewater, and its moderator, author and professor Robert G. O'Meally, Director of the Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University - possessed unimpeachable "battlefield" credentials for expounding on the subject, guaranteeing a lively, intelligent discussion. A Village Voice article, “FIRE MUSIC: Lincoln Center thaws its cold war on jazz activism”, which pitted the arguments of Baraka, Archie Shepp, David Murray and Oliver Lake against those of Jazz at Lincoln Center representatives Todd Barkan, Albert Murray and Stanley Crouch, published the previous week, seemed to promise something more raucous or contentious.
However, for the major part of the evening, the event (perhaps inevitably considering both its design and venue) merely adhered to its subtitle's agenda as “A(n) historical consideration of jazz as a component of social protest for activism in the 20th Century”, with the panelists' expositions, the interesting and important tales of veteran jazz warriors, predominantly limited to events of the last century, more reminisces than calls to action. Moderator O'Meally's incisive (but not terse) introduction of the speakers followed by an overview of the topic (featuring video clips of Louis Armstrong singing “Black and Blue” in Africa (before an integrated audience that included the President of Ghana), excerpts of Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach performing “Triptych: Prayer, Protest, Peace” from We Insist! Freedom Now Suite, and an interview with Duke Ellington discussing My People was comprehensive. But considering the background of many of the attendees, this could have been considered "preaching to the choir" and might have been better covered in the program notes in order to leave more time for interaction between the panelists and questions from the audience. Unfortunately there was little of the former and none of the latter.
Sonia Sanchez began the evening telling tales of her father, a high school teacher in the South, who played drums during the summer to support his family. She remembered how one night he risked his life by refusing a drunken white listener's demand that the band dance and play Dixie, illustrating the principle that the act alone of playing jazz was revolutionary during the music's early days. She went on to discuss the power of her revolutionary performances with saxophonist Archie Shepp and concluded her introductory statement with a spontaneously improvised poetic recitation.
Cecil Bridgewater spoke of America's changing role from an exporter of products to that of a consumer whose only major export is war and of his many years of experience with Max Roach, the inspirational organizer of many political actions involving jazz musicians throughout his career; but it was in his discussion of the current state of jazz and education that he was most telling. The trumpeter noted that many of today's jazz players are accomplished musicians who have never performed for the people, having learned their trade not on the bandstand with elder statesmen of the music, but in the university. Perhaps an in depth analysis of this trend (the institutionalization of jazz) would have yielded a sound explanation for what appears to be the diminishing role of this music in social activism.
As one may well have expected, it was Baraka who cut to the heart of the matter, immediately attacking Bush and the "imperialism that has reduced us to a uniform organism." He remembered when "revolution was the main trend in the world, not reactionism," and warned "the most dangerous weapon of mass destruction is bullsh*t," but his statement "The art follows the people and the most progressive artists follow the most progressive people," seemed more a nostalgic lament than a description of the current state of the art of jazz.
As the panel discussion neared its conclusion, Sonia Sanchez raised her voice to ask the audience "Can you say peace?" After several rounds of call and response she asked, "Can you walk?" She concluded the program advising the audience to march against the war in Iraq on the upcoming Saturday. Leaving the Kaplan Penthouse at the end of the evening many of the audience members, mostly veterans of the revolutionary jazz movement of the last century, privately voiced the opinion that the discussion should have started where it ended.
I was first exposed to jazz circa 1973, when I met a fellow who ran Kappy's Record Store over near 10th Ave., on 42nd St. in NYC. We really clicked and when I told him I played piano and went to Music & Art HS, and had just started at City College of NY as a music major, he asked if I liked jazz...I said yes but I didn't know much about it, but that I did have sheet music for many popular 1920's through 1940's tunes by noted composers (Porter; Gershwins; Irving Berlin; Rodgers & Hammerstein/Hart; Jerome Kern; Lerner & Loewe; etc.) that my mother had sung beautifully starting in the 1940's including tons of famous show tunes, and I played many of those songs already
I was first exposed to jazz circa 1973, when I met a fellow who ran Kappy's Record Store over near 10th Ave., on 42nd St. in NYC. We really clicked and when I told him I played piano and went to Music & Art HS, and had just started at City College of NY as a music major, he asked if I liked jazz...I said yes but I didn't know much about it, but that I did have sheet music for many popular 1920's through 1940's tunes by noted composers (Porter; Gershwins; Irving Berlin; Rodgers & Hammerstein/Hart; Jerome Kern; Lerner & Loewe; etc.) that my mother had sung beautifully starting in the 1940's including tons of famous show tunes, and I played many of those songs already. SOOOO... he started me off LP's by Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum, Bud Powell, Errol Garner, Bill Evans, Monty Alexander, Charlie Byrd, and Dave Brubeck... does it get any better than that? ...No, it doesn't. I was hooked!!
I met and had a master class with the late music giant John Lewis, leader of the Modern Jazz Quartet! This was at CCNY in 1977. I was blessed! It was an incredible class... how could it have been anything else?!?!
The first jazz record I bought was...I bought numerous records from my friend at the record store, as mentioned above. He introduced me to nothing but music giants/legends! I think The Dave Brubeck Quartet, Greatest Hits, was actually the first one.
My advice to new listeners... study first--understand the rudiments--solfeggio, keys, scales, and basic chords. Read a book or take a class that includes the study of chord progressions, especially in jazz. It should ideally be a piano class so you can play multiple notes together. Have a good EAR or else it's not really worth it in my view...to become a musician, a good EAR for music is about as fundamental as breathing! Learn to read chord charts--i.e., lead sheets - wherein you play various voicings of the chords--major, minor, dominant 7th (alterations of these, you can learn over time - the basic chords are most important for starters), plus the melody, on the piano or keyboard. If you have to read the exact notes, then it's not the same as actually internalizing it & getting it all into your head. If you can do this, I think you're ready not only for listening to jazz, but understanding many concepts of it! Of course...anyone can listen to jazz... but I think it's so good to also have a grasp of it.