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Tender and Fierce Blessings: Malcolm, Coltrane and My Mentor Nat Hentoff

Christine Passarella By

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Although Trane said he plays Trane, and was not fond of labels, the broad category which is called jazz, is indeed a source of raw truth. You wrote that "Jazz is a continual autobiography, or rather a continuum of intersecting autobiographies, one's own and those of the musicians with whom one plays." Coltrane told us that it is the whole question of life itself. You also wrote, "John Coltrane, for instance, was perpetually examining and reexamining his life; and since there was no division between his music and his life, the recordings he has left-and the memories of his live performances-are a fascinating odyssey of perhaps the most philosophical (in music, not in words) of all the jazz musicians so far." So, the treasure stays with me as your fortified spirit and brilliance empower, and I am guided by and learn from other Coltranian human beings as well.

Nat, your dedication to educating people about the Constitution of the United States of America and the importance of understanding the Bill of Rights will always be part of your legacy. I have been thinking of the First Amendment heavily in the last few months, and I know you would be very concerned with the present political environment. I know you believed deeply in free speech. It is disconcerting to me to hear racist sentiments spewing up more and more in our current social and political atmosphere. I know you believed when people are allowed to speak their beliefs that is how we can get at the truth in a democracy. This political rhetoric is quite challenging to me. The children are listening. Is this the standard they will learn from? Will it make them demand more from our country? Will they dig deeper and develop critical thinking and a democratic fight back or live in a world that becomes fascist? Your fight against racism and prejudice of all kinds is the foundation of your service to humanity. One of my favorite Wall Street Journal articles written by you is "How Jazz Helped Hasten the Civil-Rights Movement."

Nat the love you have for children of the United States of America and the battle against certain stifling elements in the educational system are part of what brought our lives together. Indeed, one has only to read your 1966 book Our Children Are Dying to know this is part of your legacy. What are the children being exposed to in 2018 America when they must hear the battling and hypocrisy from the leadership of our country? What will the young have to compare it to if this is what they know to be a standard at such a tender age? I remember your book was an eye-opening journey which you took with the principal, Elliott Shapiro, and his students attending Public School 119. In fact, you were present when the students received a visit from civil rights leader and award-winning thespian Ossie Davis. As he walked around the school with you he assessed a need for all black children to learn their grand culture all through the year. He stated, "First you need knowledge of and pride in your own culture. And then you go on to discover that at the core of every distinct culture are the common imperatives of all men." Principal Shapiro wrote a paper for educators on this vital topic. He stated, "The history of Africa's earlier civilization has been virtually omitted from textbooks and curricula of schools at every level from elementary to college, everywhere in the world." It was clear he felt Africa did not get its due in our school curriculum.

We can all ask why the curriculum was so limited in this area and still is. I shudder when I remember the words of writer and civil rights activist James Baldwin on education. He answered a question posed to him about public education specifically in reference to black children. Baldwin's response to a question about education in the United States was, ..."You can't talk just about schools, you know they're talking about cities and the cities are in the hands of financiers... and education is a billion-dollar industry and the least important part of an industry is a child. I think this is criminal but this is the way it works. Now the public education in the city in which I grew up you know is enough to break the heart... and when we try, and again we try it over and over and over again to educate our children ourselves, to be responsible for the teaching this curriculum, for the books. We did that for three years in New York some years ago and the experiment succeeded...and because it succeeded it was crashed, it was smashed by the Board of Education, the Teachers' Union, and Albany. You know so that's what you're up against..."

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