This is the second of my Jazz Diaries for Black History Month. It is important to recognize the significance of Jazz in the march towards desegregation and then later as an artistic expression of civil rights. Jazz is part of the reality based community, in fact we probably invented it back in the 20s. Jazz stood in the face of segregation and oft didn’t hesitate to treat segregation to the middle finger it deserved. And as a music for whose origins and most innovations have come from African Americans, Jazz has often been an expression of the African American experience in the United States.
I have six tunes for y’all. Songs of anger and songs of horror and songs of hope.
Please join me below the orange squiggle of anti-corporate music…..
So lets start with one of the most outspoken women in Jazz…Nina Simone. You may have heard this one before. Jazz has most definitely been a boys' school. There are a variety of reasons for that. This song gives voice to roles available to black women through much of our country's history.
Nina Simone has found her way into the popular culture narrative. “Four Women” has been covered by some of our best R&B singers like Pattie LaBelle. Im not sure, but I think even Beyonce has performed this one. The last of 6 tunes is also by Nina Simone and its really quite an amazing performance, so please don’t skip that one!
Next….well, is Gil Scott Heron a jazz musician? Er…..no, not really. He was a poet. He was obviously familiar with jazz. And sadly, he died the way many Jazz musicians die…from addiction. But if this tune isn’t a Jazz composition, than nothing post-Coltrane (died 1967) is a jazz composition. I just love this tune and if I ever got the chance to perform it, Ild add a dedication to the Rev. Al Sharpton. This is a song, largely of celebration tinged with challenge, for black men.
Of course Jazz has faced the issues of African Americans as far back as the 20s, if not earlier. And sadly, I also said that I would give you songs of horror. This next tune has also been covered many times over. Thing is, as you watch Billy Holiday sing this…remember that for her and others at the time, lynching was not 80 or 90 years in the past, it was 10 or 20 and probably didn’t feel like it was actually in the past at all. Plus, Billy Holiday had a rough life, always…did she ever see a lynching or know a victim? I don’t know. But she certainly could have.
Its hard to follow Billy Holiday. So here’s John Coltrane.
This piece is called Alabama written for the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham by the KKK which killed four little girls on Sept 15, 1963. In a free country, even the KKK have a right to exist…but personally I think we should round them all up and just fucking shoot them in the head. Or put them in detainment camp. Ship their sorry asses to Gitmo? And I do apologize if I just offended any member of the KKK…wait, fuck no I don’t. FUCK THE KKK.
Emotionally destroyed yet? Crying? I am after those two songs.
Next up…Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln (married at the time). The “Freedom Now Suite” from 1961 is exactly what it sounds like it will be. But take a moment to consider something: This performance is from 1964 and was on television in Belgium. Max is internationally known at this point. I have to admit some ignorance for Abbey Lincoln career, but I assume at this stage in the game she is NOT as well known as Max. The two of them are both incredibly intelligent and sophisticated and very very talented. In Europe they were treated like stars and geniuses. In much of the United States, they were treated like…a word comes to mind that I wont print, even with one letter and a bunch of asterisks. If I did, Max would probably rise from the grave to kick my ass. One well known story about Max is how he once walked on stage and punched Ornette Coleman because Max thought he was fucking up jazz. There are other drummers as good as Max; Art Blakey, Elvin Jones, Roy Haynes. But no one is better.
This whole thing is long, so here’s just part.
Jazz can bring you down to the deepest depths of sorrow. And it can uplift every heart to sing. This next one is a celebration. And if you want to really understand Jazz’s influence on Rock and Roll, look no further than the guitar-organ groups. Grant Green is one bad ass guitar player that more non-Jazz musicians should know about. And on the Hammond is one of the best ever, Larry Young.
OK, one more. However, before we get to that… Please take some time to read this article written by the great jazz critic/historian/journalist Nat Hentoff about Jazz and the Civil Rights movement.
He addresses how jazz challenged segregation and did so long before the 60s. Plus, I am only 46 not 86. So, with props to shit for brains Ken Hamm…I wasn’t there! (hehe). Thing is, Nat Hentoff was.
Time to end our odyssey: One more Nina Simone. On a subject like this, she should have the last word. And this song is not only very hopeful (and written by Dr Billy Taylor), but I didn’t discover this particular performance until I went looking on Youtube a few days ago for the specific clips for this diary. In my opinion, its just amazing.
I will do two or three more diaries about Jazz before Black History Month is over. And I do intend to continue after that.There are many musicians who deserve their own diary—Monk, Cannonball, Clifford Brown, Dizzy, Art Blakey, the list is long—and Im hoping to maintain a weekly diary to promote Jazz and Jazz musicians. This is the soundtrack to modernity. Now that we have entered neoliberal post-modernity, it is incredibly important that we don’t lose the cultural heritage we spent a century creating. And it is also important that we embrace sophisticated and intelligent things. The only “high art” we make these days is in television of all places!