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THEY LIVE THROUGH THE LIVING: MIXTAPE OF A CONTINUUM

Before he wrote the Grammy-winning A Tale of God’s Will (A Requiem for Katrina) in 2007, Terence Blanchard never considered himself an activist. In 2015, the trumpeter/composer reaffirmed his status as such with the release of Breathless, its title a reference to Eric Garner, who had been killed the year before by an NYPD officer’s chokehold.

“It’s hard as an artist to witness those things and try to write ‘don’t worry, be happy’ music,” Blanchard said in CSO Sounds & Stories, a publication of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, in 2018. “I can’t do it in good conscience. Because people are dying… You can’t sit on the sidelines. People have to fight for their freedom, and we’re going to have to fight for justice. It’s a test of the soul of the country.”

In a similar vein, pianist/songwriter Robert Glasper told the Irish Examiner in 2016, “When stuff is happening, I try to address it…take some action. I feel I have to say something… musically. Every day there is something… It’s hard to swallow. As a Black man, I cannot allow my son to have toy guns. He says, ‘My friends have them,’ and I have to explain why he can’t. His friends are white. There are no white kids getting shot because they have toy guns. I have a voice and a platform, and I have some responsibility to talk about these things.”

Saxophonist/composer and frequent Glasper collaborator Kamasi Washington said in The New York Times in 2016: “Music is an expression of who you are, and—at least in that sense—I think I epitomize Black Lives Matter. I’m a big Black man, and I’m easily misunderstood. Before I started wearing these African clothes, people would assume that I was a threat and that it was OK to be violent toward me. The harsh reality in our communities is that the greatest representatives of order, the police, are basically against you, so you feel as if you live in a society without order.’’

“The Black Lives Matter Movement has emerged alongside the prevalence of cell phones and the 24-hour news cycle. Now we all witness the murder of a Black man, a Black woman, Black children,” says journalist, radio personality and Mother of Black Music Month Dyana Williams. “But we know that this has been going on for hundreds of years, so the articulation of frustration is nothing new. As long as Black folks have been able to communicate with the drum and use music to express their condition in America, they’ve been doing just that.”

“When I study jazz, I don’t just study the music; I study its relationship to where it was in the history,” pianist Jason Moran, composer of the score for Ava DuVernay’s 2014 Oscar-winning film Selma, told Tribes in 2015. “Selma is set in the ’60s, when John Coltrane was about to make his most profound work, [1964’s] A Love Supreme, which is about the way he felt about the things that were happening with the Civil Rights Movement, as well as the four girls who were bombed in a church [in 1963]. John made a piece about that, so our relationship to each other has always been extremely close. It’s daunting to think about, but that’s also how I’ve been working for my entire life as a creative artist.”

Echoing Moran’s connection to Coltrane, composer, musician and author Nicholas Payton describes the musical continuum on which he works in spiritual terms. Calling his gigs “a sacred space via which the elders may visit and walk through on any given night,” he relates, “There are certain times within the set where I might be playing piano and Bud Powell wants to walk through—and almost guides my hand. This is the cornerstone of what liberation is—that our elders don’t die, and their teachings don’t die. They live through the living.”

Bassist and composer Christian McBride acknowledged his own debt to those who’ve come before when he began developing The Movement: Revisited—original music juxtaposed with the words of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali and Rosa Parks—in 1998. The election of President Barack Obama (when McBride was Creative Chair for Jazz Programming for the L.A. Philharmonic) inspired him to add a piece called “Apotheosis.” When the album finally dropped in 2020, the twilight of the Trump years, it took on still more historical resonance.

“I hope that someone who hears this piece of music will be moved by it, but I also hope it makes people who might not know about certain aspects of these historical figures and their journeys curious enough to look them up,” McBride says.

For bassist William Parker, moving people is itself potentially an act of activism. “If it changes your consciousness, it’s political,” he told Jazz Right Now in 2015.

Payton asserts that the Black musical tradition has always been political by virtue of its role early in America’s history as one of the few sanctioned forms of expression available to Black people. The achievements of the creators in that setting very simply changed the world; African music and experience shaped the field holler, the work song, the gospel call-and-response—and ultimately the blues.

“This blues tradition was the very foundation of what many centuries later became the genesis of American popular music,” Payton affirms. “This is in part centered right where I live in New Orleans, Congo Square, which might be the only place in North America where enslaved Africans were given the space to practice their drumming and dance rituals and singing and playing. That energy, many years later and in the same city, created the world’s first pop star, Louis Armstrong.”

“Armstrong redefined music, not just Black music,” Payton continues. “He redefined the feeling of the quarter note. He created swing. He created scat music. He created so many platforms and ideas. He created the feel of the 20th century. If you enjoy pop music, you owe a debt to Louis Armstrong.”

Yet this trailblazer toured the world as a cultural ambassador for a country that declined to extend to him the rights and benefits of full personhood.

In 2011, Payton penned an essay called “On Why Jazz Isn’t Cool Anymore.” In fact, he disdains the term “jazz” and has called what he creates “postmodern New Orleans music.” For him, “jazz” is insulting, a residuum of antebellum minstrelsy and an emblem of the white power structure’s commodification and ghettoization of Black tradition and invention.

“Part of the reason I find the term ‘jazz’ offensive,” he says, “is because the first recorded jazz band was The Original Dixieland Jass Band,” elaborating: “First of all, they’re not original. Secondly, Dixieland, as we know, is tied to the Confederacy. Third, jazz was originally spelled ‘jass,’ which was a hybridization of ‘jackass,’ and the first record they released was ‘Livery Stable Blues,’ which was basically a group of racist white men making animal sounds, jungle sounds, mimicking and minstrelizing this new art form we had crafted and developed.” The band’s founder, Nick LaRocca, Payton emphasizes, saw himself as “refining” something “primitive.”

Ultimately, though, what has come to be called “jazz” despite the designation’s ignominious origins shook off that appropriation. “The music is the first civil rights movement,” Payton told Downbeat in 2020, allowing, “All due respect to Martin Luther King—this music was the first time post-colonization where Black people were put on the same level as Beethoven and Stravinsky and Picasso and a lot of the white purveyors of art. Now, they had to look at Duke Ellington in the same light as they do Mozart. So, these were the first people to begin the process of rehumanizing, in a sense, these Black people who had been dehumanized.”

As Payton has confronted the injustices framing what is often a freeze-dried history of the genre, other artists have stared down its further exclusions.

“Why is [jazz] so ass-backwards when it comes to gender?” asked drummer and Berklee Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice founder/director Terri Lyne Carrington in a 2019 Downbeat profile. “Racial justice mattered to many of the people who created this music because it was affecting them directly. And gender justice may not be as important to the men at the helm of this genre. But all of these [issues] are interconnected. I don’t see how you can be concerned about racial justice and have no concern about gender justice. Pushing jazz to imagine what it can potentially become when patriarchal obstacles are removed allows us to think not only about the benefit to women but to the entire field.”

As all these voices make clear, jazz is part of a larger story, not only in its capacity to effect and be affected by social change but in its influence on newer forms; just as gospel and blues and waltzes flowed into it, so did soul and rock and hip-hop flow out of it. Rap has constantly saluted this heritage, in Stetsasonic’s “Talkin’ All That Jazz,” Guru’s Jazzmatazz, recordings by The Roots and essential albums like A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory and Erykah Badu’s Baduizm, among others.

Yet while we have a bead on rap’s vital importance in the social upheaval of the last several decades—from “The Message,” “Fight the Power” and “Fuck Tha Police” all the way to Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” and Lil Baby’s “The Bigger Picture”—the notion of jazz as a protest music is perhaps less familiar.

From the earliest days of the 20th century, however, as you will see in these pages, composers and players have indeed answered repression with freedom, injustice with tenacity, brutality with beauty.

 

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