Jazz Musicians in the Public Square

In 1955, when the late Nat Shapiro and I put together Hear Me Talkin' To Ya: The Story of Jazz Told by the Men Who Made It--in which only musicians spoke--a primary reason was to counter the notion at the time that jazz players were only articulate on their instruments but otherwise had little to say of interest about public issues.

Since then, of course, Max Roach, Charles Mingus and others have spoken vigorously and publicly about controversies outside of music. Particularly notable was Louis Armstrong's reaction to Arkansas Governor Orville Faubus's blocking the integration of public schools in Little Rock. "The way they are treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell," said Armstrong. And when President Eisenhower spoke of extremists on both sides" of that conflict, Armstrong trumpeted: "The President has no guts."

These days, continuing that legacy of public citizenship, Wynton Marsalis, writing in the November 7 edition of New Republic about Hurricane Katrina's devastation of New Orleans, placed the blame not only on clueless politicians but on the citizenry of that city, and the country.

"It was also we who watched as money to fix the levees was removed from the federal budget in spite of the warnings of dire consequences from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers," wrote Marsalis. "As we look at what happened in the Crescent City, we are brought closer to this simple truth: The ingredients for social disaster are present in cities all over the United States... we are too busy to worry about poverty, public education, homelessness, drug addiction, the arts, even the political process."

Marsalis has already shown that as a music educator--on television, and in his young people's concerts at Jazz at Lincoln Center--he is the Leonard Bernstein of our time. But he also controversially expanded his educational views during a celebration in New York of the sponsorship of the Eagle Academy in the Bronx by the 100 Black Men organization. As Stanley Crouch wrote in his November 14 (New York) Daily News column, this school provides mentors for the all-male student body, "in order to make sure that the boys become accustomed to seeing and knowing successful [black] men who are not corrupt and corrupting and with whom they can talk and from whom they can get advice." Present at the event, Wynton Marsalis not only cited the value of mentoring programs but also--as Crouch reported--emphasized that "black American culture, which once produced so many musicians of worldwide importance, is being debased and now pumps out trash that pollutes and weakens the community.

"Marsalis said that it was important to salvage the greatness of black American culture because of its human importance beyond all lines of color, sex, religion or nationality. Jazz, he said, represented not just the triumph of a single ethnic community; it represented the triumph of the human spirit." (Emphasis added.)

The blues, from the beginning, were open and often ironic about sexual relationships, but did not--unlike much of the rap lyrics Marsalis indicted--debase women and glamorize preening violence.
In his New Republic article, Marsalis probed deeper than rap music into the continuing racial dissonances in this land: "The race issue has always been used to polarize the lower classes. Many of the calls I receive from New Orleanians decry an increase in racism. Friends of mine from high school tell me that they have never seen such vitriol, and these are white comrades talking about their friends and family, not victims of the rap game." Marsalis ended by making the historic point that "The development of jazz showed what Americans can do when we come together... Swing is a philosophy of steadfastness... Anyone can swing for a few measures--but swinging is a matter of endurance. It tests the limit of your ability to work with another person to create a mutual feeling... Will we now recognize that we are in this land together?"

He doesn't answer the question because he can't. This nation hasn't been so bitterly divided--on the war in Iraq, on the abuse of the Bill of Rights at home, and on the gaping inequalities in health care, etc.--for many decades. Jazz can't cure any of this; but as Wynton notes, he--as a product of this legacy of the American experience--can speak out in its name "to work...to create a mutual feeling" in the public and political square. Jazz shows it can be done. That's why it's encouraging to see its growth in schools.

Another outspoken jazzman, Charles Mingus, prophetically spoke of much of our current condition years ago: "It's not only about color any more. It's getting deeper than that... People are getting so fragmented, and part of that is that fewer and fewer people are making a real effort any more to find exactly who they are and to build on that knowledge. Most people are forced to do things they don't want to most of the time. And so they get to the point where they feel they no longer have any choice about anything... We create our own slavery."

Through the years, I've learned a lot from many jazz musicians, and not only about music. They don't have the solutions to what divides us, but their music continues to show the world what Wynton Marsalis calls "the wisdom in the enduring jazz principle of swing." Because of what they've learned about themselves in the mutuality of growth in this music, jazz men and women do have something of worth to say in the public square.

Originally published in March 2006

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