Swing State

Politics, protest & the president's impact on jazz music today

Swing State: Politics, Protest & the President's Impact on Jazz Music Today
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Terri Lyne Carrington (photo by Tracy Love)
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Antonio Sanchez (photo courtesy of the artist)
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Branford Marsalis (photo by Eric Ryan Anderson)
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Saxophonist Jimmy Greene with daughter Ana Grace Márquez-Greene (photo by K. Rifkind)
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Wadada Leo Smith (photo by Maarit Kyto Harju)
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Sonny Rollins (photo by John Abbott)
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It’s a snowy January Saturday during Manhattan’s Winter Jazzfest, and there’s a trio onstage: a drummer, a journalist and a wonk. It’s not an impromptu jam session but they’re certainly riffing, at a WJF-sponsored panel on the subject of “Social Justice and Jazz,” the theme of the festival for 2017. The trio—drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, […]
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It’s a snowy January Saturday during Manhattan’s Winter Jazzfest, and there’s a trio onstage: a drummer, a journalist and a wonk. It’s not an impromptu jam session but they’re certainly riffing, at a WJF-sponsored panel on the subject of “Social Justice and Jazz,” the theme of the festival for 2017. The trio—drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, writer Siddhartha Mitter and A.C.L.U. policy research manager Megan French-Marcelin—are at the New School’s Fifth Floor Theater, discussing the recharged political consciousness that has increasingly taken hold of the jazz scene.

“I would venture to say that the current wave of political jazz begins with the Iraq War—or maybe with Hurricane Katrina,” says Mitter, the moderator. “And then it continues on up to the Black Lives Matter movement. It extends to the surveillance state and, of course, the current national…” He struggles, then finishes: “…situation.”

The small room, perhaps a third full, laughs. Nobody needs clarification on what the “national situation” means.

This panel takes place two weeks before the inauguration of Donald J. Trump and two months after he is elected President of the United States in a shocking upset against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. New Yorkers are more keenly aware of his presence than most; Trump’s home is in Manhattan, and his security detail has created an ongoing traffic nightmare some 40 blocks up Fifth Avenue from the New School. The jazz community feels it more keenly still. Many, if not most, of its members are people of color. Many are immigrants or the children of immigrants. Some are Muslims. A solid and growing percentage are women.

These are groups that Trump spent his presidential campaign vilifying, mocking, degrading, even threatening. He boasted about committing sexual assault in a leaked tape. He aligned himself with white nationalists, eventually hiring the head of one of their Internet hubs as his chief strategist. He is now the leader of the free world, and many in the jazz community fear they’ll become the targets of that power.

“Right from the get-go, it was disastrous,” says drummer Antonio Sanchez. In June 2015, when Trump announced his candidacy, he included a broadside against Mexicans who illegally cross the border into the United States. Sanchez immigrated from Mexico legally, attaining citizenship last fall. “I have mixed feelings about becoming a citizen right at the same time when all this was happening with Trump,” he says. “The way I feel the world is looking at us right now, it’s like, ‘Wow. What happened to you guys?’”

As Mitter notes, jazz musicians’ politics generally tend toward “social justice,” a somewhat amorphous term that’s identified with the political left. Few supported Donald Trump for president; fewer still expected him to win. “I was with a friend the night before who worked in the Obama administration and also on the Clinton campaign,” Carrington says. “She really thought [a Clinton win] was a done deal. I think we all did—that was the problem.”

Pianist Matthew Shipp and trumpeter Jeremy Pelt both cashed out around 10:30 p.m. in New York. “Once the map started really looking red I went to bed, hoping that what was looking inevitable would turn out not to be,” Pelt says.

“I didn’t want to see the graphic come up when he got to 270 [electoral votes]; I just went to bed with a pit in my stomach,” adds Shipp, who’d already called his wife and told her he thought Trump had won. “I think I was already starting to go into denial.”

Saxophonist Noah Preminger, a diehard Bernie Sanders supporter, had long believed that Clinton couldn’t win; he took a gig in rural Massachusetts on Nov. 8 rather than watch the news, and members of the audience refused his request for updates. “I guess I was fortunate,” he says. “It pulled my brain in a different direction.”

But Preminger’s reaction when he finally learned the news was not one of vindication. “It’s bleak,” he says. “It’s frightening.”

Other reactions were of a piece. “I was shocked,” Carrington says. “I had to go the next morning and teach at Berklee. Everyone was crying.”

“Everybody’s feeling the bite of it,” Pelt says. “It’s the kind of thing that makes you lose faith in everything.” The day after the election, Pelt embarked on a two-week tour of Europe. That morning he tweeted, “Not saying Europe is without its own problems, but I’m DAMN sure looking [forward] to getting on that plane today. Need to leave USA for a few.”

“This has nothing to do with right, left, Republican or Democrat,” says Shipp, an admitted liberal. “Some other right-winger could get elected and I’d be bummed out, but you know, that’s life, and you go on. … But this is different.”

To understand why Trump’s ascension would seem so catastrophic, one must go back several years before he declared his candidacy. In 2011, when he was flirting with the idea of running, he identified himself not through immigration but via then-President Barack Obama and the “birther” movement. Trump joined that group of conspiracy theorists in loudly questioning whether Obama, whose late, estranged father was from Kenya, had actually been born in the United States as required by the Constitution.

Birtherism—and Trump’s alignment with it—were widely seen as a racially motivated smear campaign. The most recent campaign cycle, which found Trump in ads and speeches attacking Mexicans, calling for a ban on Muslims and mocking Asians and the disabled, among other acts, reinforced the already-established perceptions of his bigotry. “[The media and liberals] considered Donald Trump to be dumb; Donald Trump actually knew the pulse of the nation,” says avant-garde trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith. “This nation, underneath all of this, is actually a White Power nation. America has never understood that, but he understood that about America. And you see that a white man could run on a racial platform and become elected. That’s a very powerful vision inside of America itself.”

“It speaks to how far we have yet to go as a country, embracing our differences,” argues saxophonist Jimmy Greene. “I’m very concerned with the fact that there’s been so much that’s come from his mouth, and so much that’s been displayed by his actions, not just now but in the past. The fact that there’s been so much open bigotry is a huge cause for concern, as a person of color.”

But if Trump’s bigotry angers and worries jazz musicians, it’s far from their only concern—as Greene himself evidences. The saxophonist’s daughter, Ana Grace, was one of the 26 people murdered by a deranged gunman in December 2012 at Newtown, Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School. She was 6 years old.

Greene and his wife have since become activists for gun safety and responsibility. Trump’s campaign promises, however, involved more guns and less regulation.

Worse yet, among the allies Trump made in last year’s campaign is radio personality Alex Jones—who believes that Sandy Hook was a staged event designed to win support for restricted gun rights, and that neither Ana Grace Márquez-Greene nor anyone else died there. “Trump has not come out and denounced these people and their really sick rhetoric about conspiracy theories,” says Greene, whose second album-length tribute to his daughter, Flowers, will be released on April 28. “It is so incredibly hurtful and damaging to us. That makes the pain of our loss, every
moment of every single day, worse.”

Sanchez, too, has concerns with Trump aside from his incendiary stances on immigration. The drummer’s family and many of his friends remain in Mexico, and the Trump administration’s foreign policies affect the people he loves. “Immediately after Trump got elected, the peso crashed,” he says. “It’s crazy how bad that is for Mexico’s economy.” And in the end, it’s not unrelated to the immigration issue. “He’s made threats about NAFTA. If he gets rid of it, or modifies it in a way that’s detrimental to Mexico, the Mexican economy is going to start doing worse and worse, and what happens then? Well, Mexicans flock to the U.S. to work. So if what he wants is to get rid of illegal immigrants, then he’s in for a surprise.”

One issue hits especially close to home for musicians. The day before his inauguration, news broke that Trump’s staff would propose drastic cuts in government spending. These include privatization of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which provides funding for most of the few remaining radio stations in America that play jazz, and the outright elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities, which fund arts and cultural events and institutions of all stripes. The NEA also sponsors the Jazz Masters Fellowship program—which, despite much speechifying about jazz being America’s artistic contribution to the world, is the only official honor that jazz receives from the U.S. government.

Preminger is disturbed. “In terms of funding for artists, the United States doesn’t have a lot of funding to begin with,” he notes. “To have what’s there cut? That’s tragic.”

Any concern of Shipp’s is undercut by his fatalism. “Funding cut off at the NEA? That doesn’t affect most jazz musicians day to day,” he says. “And we’re the bottom of the barrel anyways! I don’t think it could possibly get worse for jazz musicians, as far as policy goes!”

Now 86, Sonny Rollins, the tenor saxophone legend who was named an NEA Jazz Master in 1983, isn’t fazed by much when it comes to politics and the arts. He has previously expressed dismay at proposed cuts to arts funding in America; today, he suggests that they’re to be expected. “It’s always been difficult for art. People are more inclined to make sure they have food on the table than to go out and look at a Rembrandt,” Rollins says. “As far as jazz is concerned, in this society it’s always the last to be recognized. And so to me, it’s not a big jump to hear people say, ‘We’re not going to have any more societal appreciation of jazz.’ It’s not something I expected always to be there, because I know history.”

As for the substantial cash grant— $25,000 in 2017—that comes with the NEA honor, “Sure, that money was appreciated,” Rollins says. “But it didn’t stop me from doing what I was doing, and it didn’t make me do what I was doing. I would have done that regardless. Jazz survived before there was an NEA recognition, and jazz will always survive, because it’s a very important part of trying to make sense of this world.”

Rollins is not alone in his reluctance to raise hue and cry about the Trump era. The Marsalis brothers, who often buck the trends of their jazz colleagues, advise restraint, and perhaps perspective. “I think that as liberals, we ought to avoid the emotional repulsion and tactics of the [Republican-associated] Tea Party,” saxophonist Branford says, a few days before the inauguration. “I object to some of President Trump’s speeches and some of his beliefs. But there are also piles of examples in history where really unsavory people have done really good things.

“I’m not willing to predict the future, particularly in light of how I remember opponents of Obama reacting to his election. Obama was gonna destroy the country too—and as I remember, George W. Bush was too. And shit just keeps churning forward. We will survive whomever. It is what it is. He’s not my favorite, but you don’t always get what you want.”

Two days before the inauguration, Branford’s brother Wynton made a statement on Facebook about the ceremony, an event widely boycotted by musicians and entertainers. “Would I perform, if asked? Yes,” he wrote. “Would [I] protest the accepted outcome of the election? No. … I’ll at least wait for him [or them] to actually do something that I feel should be protested against. … [M]any of the people boycotting this inauguration seem to have forgotten our democratic mandate to participate and our responsibility to be present. Now is not the time for leaders to disappear. … Participation is the way to honor all of the sacrifices of our ancestors and to create the world we would like to bequeath our descendants. Let’s be present.”

As it happens, one of Wynton’s former protégés was asked to perform for Trump. After much deliberation, pianist Eric Lewis (a.k.a. ELEW) declined for political reasons—but not necessarily his own. “I got a call from Trump to play a luncheon for the Joint Chiefs of Staff,” Lewis explains. “However, the reality is that most of the money I make comes from elite leftist liberals. And because Donald Trump used the tactics that he used to get elected—expressing himself in ways that were hyper-antagonistic, hyper-polarizing, ways that actually embolden certain types of behavior—that creates a penalty as far as I’m concerned.

“Because I can’t count on the GOP to provide me with a career. Even if I was to charge him 40K or 50K—which is something that was being talked about—that’s not enough to fund my career after all the Meryl Streeps got wind of it.”

In Trump’s America, it seems, even attempts to rise above politics must give way to politics.

As jazz embraces social justice ever more closely, a question becomes apparent: How will Trump inspire or figure into musicians’ work? As with so many other questions related to the new president, the answers vary.

For Carrington, Trump’s influence began the day following his election. At the Berklee Global Jazz Institute, a program that stresses humanitarianism and fellowship in addition to rigorous musical training, Trump was the center of all class discussions. “[BGJI Director] Danilo Pérez said that we should consider that the Midwest, where Trump won so crucially, needed our musical outreach more than ever,” she recalls. “That resonated with me.” Carrington had just days before canceled a gig in Indianapolis with her Money Jungle project, because the pay was too low; hearing Pérez’s words, she called that day and put it back on her calendar.

At Winter Jazzfest, Carrington premiered a new band called Social Science, featuring guitarist Matthew Stevens, pianist Aaron Parks and multi-instrumentalist Morgan Guerin. The band addresses the election in a song called “The Waiting Game,” but takes on other social issues as well; there’s a song about police-violence victim Philando Castile, and one called “Pray the Gay Away.” “I just don’t see how we can be upset with Donald Trump and not upset with Kim Burrell,” she says, referring to the renowned gospel singer and pastor who came under fire in January for lambasting homosexuals. “The Trump election is unifying people on the one hand, but on the other hand it’s making people observe each other and ask, ‘Where do you stand?’”

Preminger, too, is tackling issues directly. On Inauguration Day, Jan. 20, he released a protest album, Meditations on Freedom. It features some classic protest songs, including Bob Dylan’s “Only a Pawn in Their Game” and Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” in addition to four original tunes that Preminger wrote about issues such as women’s rights, climate change and the Native American protests at the Dakota Access Pipeline—all struggles that Trump has promised to undermine. “As an artist, as a musician and just as a human friggin’ being who cares about others, I thought this was an important project to make,” Preminger says. “We stand behind that instrument or that microphone or whatever, thinking, ‘How am I actually making a difference?’ And this is one way that I feel like I was able to do something that could potentially bring awareness to these issues.”

Sanchez has just completed a solo project on which he plays drums and synthesizers over recordings of his Mexican grandfather with a mariachi band. “I am trying to find ways that will honor Mexican culture, Mexican heritage, and will also make a point about ‘we’re here to stay,’” Sanchez says. “‘We’re not going anywhere, and there’s more of us by the minute.’” The name of the record, Bad Hombre, comes from another of Trump’s denigrations of Mexicans.

Other artists say that Trump’s ascent will play an indirect or abstract part in their music. Shipp points out that all of his music is abstract: “I don’t do anything with a literal political connotation—other than the fact that being a jazz player comes out of a certain political tradition. But to be frank, I don’t want Donald Trump to occupy my music!”

Similarly, says Marsalis, “His presidency will affect me, and it will be in my music, but I won’t be able to specifically point to a thing. I believe that musicians have, or should have, political and spiritual beliefs, whatever they are. I don’t believe that music can support those beliefs, reflect those beliefs in a specific way. I’m thinking about writing a blues called ‘The Election Day Blues,’ but it’s more satirical than angry. And if you change the title of the song, nobody would think the song’s political.”

For Rollins—whose 1958 recording Freedom Suite was perhaps the first jazz piece to engage with the civil-rights movement—the key to engaging with or resisting the new administration is in one’s life, not their art. “I feel that every human being has to live a certain way,” he says. “This election that’s got people so upset, it’s got to make them realize individually that they have to be the best person they can be. That’s where change comes from.

“I believe in the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” Rollins continues. “I don’t expect everybody to believe in the Golden Rule, but those of us who do, we’ve got to show it. That’s how we have to live. And if we’re not living like that, then we can’t complain about Donald Trump.”