A Presentation Celebrating Jazz Appreciation Month
Probably the first music I remember as a child is jazz music. My household was not a musical one but somehow I got a mini-portable phonograph and some 10 inch long playing records. I think one of those was a collection by Louis Armstrong and His All Stars. Something about the music electrified me. I think I was attracted to the beat, the horn harmonies, the passion, and how all this stimulated my senses when turned up good and loud. Later I remember being so moved by early Klezmer music, what one might call Jewish jazz. Samples of Jewish jazz appeared in choruses embedded in spoof songs presented by the Mickey Katz orchestra.
Later on my musical listening gravitated to the New Orleans musical revival of the early 1950s, foregrounding not only Louis Armstrong but such younger imitators of the original jazz music, “Dixieland,” by such groups as the Dukes of Dixieland and Turk Murphy’s band. Other artists from the past such as Jack Teagarden became visible again. Popularizing of the jazz genre occurred as a result of Hollywood biopics about Glenn Miller (with Jimmy Stewart) and Benny Goodman (with Steve Allen). I have a vague recollection of the melding of live music and biopic when I saw a stage show of Louis Armstrong and His All Stars followed by the movie about Red Nichols, The Five Pennies, with Danny Kaye in the lead. The stage show and movie appeared at the old Chicago Theatre on State Street.
Later in the 1950s my friends and I came across the LP collection of Benny Goodman’s band playing at his famous Carnegie Hall Concert in 1938. Along with the jazz/klezmer renditions of Bei Mir Bist Du Shein and The Angels Sing, my friends and I were electrified by the awesome rendition of Sing! Sing! Sing! including Gene Krupa’s booming drums, a great trumpet solo by Harry James, and a totally unplanned piano riff by Jess Stacy, wrapped around a loud and driving finale with drums, horns, and clarinet.
Somewhere around this time, I think I was a senior in high school, I took a speech course. The final assignment was a researched, well-prepared speech. I signed up to present on the history of jazz. While I had been doing some reading, the teacher called on me to give my speech on a Friday, three days before I thought I was to give it on Monday. Totally freaked I got up and gave a lecture on the initiation of jazz and its spread across the North American continent, from New Orleans to St. Louis, Kansas City, and Chicago to New York, and then the world. Everybody said the best part of the speech was I did not appear to have any notes, speaking extemporaneously (perhaps like jazz itself). Nobody knew that I was going to prepare over the weekend and when I stood up at the podium I was just making stuff up.
Looking back on my youth and connections with jazz I suppose that a number of elements of its appeal to me then and now include the following. First it was a loud and passionate music. Later on I grew to appreciate music that was not loud such as that of the Modern Jazz Quartet and Miles Davis for example.
There was something about the rhythm and the sound that spoke to me, that made me in my naïve way feel this music was a “people’s” music. Of course the conscious framing of a people’s music would come to me much later but something about the proud and joyful trumpet of Louis Armstrong and the rhythm of Krupa’s drums resonated at the level of my emotions.
I had learned from my off-the-cuff speech that this was a music that came from the South. I did not know at the time that it came from Africa. I had a vague awareness that New Orleans jazz somehow was connected with slavery and the fundamental interconnections between the formation of the United States out of the sweat and blood of people with dark skins. The music, I intuited then, was a cry for freedom and an assertion of the humanity of those playing the new music. Ironically, the music also spoke to white audiences (and future white musicians) many of whom had some vague awareness of the history of racism and exploitation. Some in their own lives would share the passion for freedom and personal empowerment as well.
In addition, as I grew up with jazz I noticed that the playing of the music (whatever form it took: New Orleans or Swing, or Be Bop), was comprised of diverse ways of acting: soaring bouts of individual spontaneity coupled with a collective voice of the band members together playing in harmony. They played with improvisational freedom and thematically, that is according to script with notes on a page of sheet music. In other words, the jazz band represented individuality and freedom and community, the hallmarks of a just and good society. Even as the music reflected personal agony and pain, the performers acted as members of a community who shared their suffering and worked collectively to express it.
Jazz and Politics
I want to connect two academic narratives to suggest additional ways in which jazz is “political.” I have implied already that jazz is about passion for freedom, an artistic expression of outrage against oppression and racism, and presents in performance an alternative to alienation and powerlessness.
Michael Denning, in a book called The Cultural Front, analyzed how the mobilizations of the 1930s were among the most effective in U.S. history to bring about social, political, and economic change. He chronicled the massive uprisings around worker rights in that decade, focusing on the formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), the new labor federation which was committed to organizing industrial workers. Protests against violations of worker rights, including the right to form unions, spread across the South and the North. In 1934 alone there were general strikes in Akron, Ohio; Minneapolis; San Francisco; Seattle; and many other places. Millions of workers mobilized to protest their lot. Factory workers were joined by agricultural workers and clerical workers as well. The base, or substructure if you will, was the working class in motion in the context of the Great Depression.
Denning points out that the Communist Party USA (and other left parties) provided much of the organizing and the strategy and tactics designed to inform and mobilize workers. Socialist organizers mattered (and many of the more conservative trade union leaders knew this). Above these layers of labor and Communist militancy was a broad diverse “popular front” of activists, educators, cultural workers and artists. Painters, photographers, poets, novelists, journalists, folk singers, and jazz performers gave their support to movements of social change. Jazz performers did their share, whether it was playing benefit concerts to raise money for labor organizing, or performing powerful music with messages such as Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” or giving their talents to integrate their performances and by virtue of that making a statement against America as a racist society. Jazz was integral to the popular front.
A second historical moment, connecting the Cold War to jazz, is recounted in Penny Von Eschen’s book, Satchmo Blows Up the World. Von Eschen reminds us that the United States after World War II was engaged in an ideological struggle against the former Soviet Union. The world saw a United States that was among the most racist of societies in the world. But out of this racism came a musical form that had the same appeal worldwide that it had at home. To change the worldwide image of the United States, the U.S. State Department came up with a program to send U.S. jazz artists all over the world to display its primary indigenous art form and to convince dubious audiences that the US was not the racist autocracy that the Soviet Union claimed it was.
Great jazz artists like Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong, knowing full well that they were being used as U.S. government propaganda tools, chose to embark on the worldwide State Department tours to promote their music all across the globe. Von Eschen points out that for the jazz artists their music was international representing the migrations of people everywhere even from the U.S. Ironically the jazz tours spread the imagery of international solidarity at a point in time when anti-colonial movements were reaching success. The jazz tours spread the message of international solidarity, not the need to defeat communism on the world stage.
Von Eschen refers to a Dizzy Gillespie tour of Southern Africa in 1992, over twenty years after the first State Department tours were organized, when the trumpeter met with Nelson Mandela who had recently been released from jail. Mandela told Gillespie how his music had sustained Mandela through his 26 years in jail. Von Eschen writes about this encounter: “The meeting of Gillespie and Mandela, more than two decades after the height of the jazz tours, speaks to the power of the international movements of jazz and the abiding power of a democratic vision with roots in an earlier moment.”
Jazz music is entertainment. Consumers of the movement come to it for a variety of reasons. But part of its appeal is that it tells a story about America, critiques the racism deeply embedded in that history, and emboldens listeners to act both individually and as a community.