March, 2020 — Barbara Birge, volunteer — I love jazz. Anything that brings people together across boundaries, delivers pure ecstasy and pisses off Nazis is my kind of music.
As Ken Burns’ Jazz series from 2001 (now available for streaming) reminds us, jazz provided America’s first real opportunity for all to mix on an equal footing — a radical experience for most any American in the 1930s. It was in the wee hours at dance halls and speakeasies, that blacks and whites crossed the color line to learn from each other and play together in pursuit of the new music that called them like a siren’s song. And then came a moment when Benny Goodman, a Jew, shockingly integrated his band for all to see. Until then, fans didn’t realize the extraordinary pianist, Teddy Wilson, they’d been listening to on Goodman’s popular trio records was African American. Goodman ripped the blinders off, revealing music that was truly colorblind.
This was the music of freedom — uniquely American in its alchemy of influences. Who can wonder that, within the decade, the Nazis banned all jazz in the regions they overran, as the decadent music of blacks and Jews. Meanwhile, Glen Miller, Duke Ellington and a host of others, including Dave Brubeck’s integrated, all-soldier Wolfpack Band, inspired American troops and allies with the sounds of swing, giving WWII its soundtrack in our collective memory.
The jazz lovers won, and on the very afternoon I’m writing this, Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (JLCO) is live-streaming their performance before a huge audience in Hamburg, Germany, as Hitler spins in his grave. As The Jazz Room’s Curtis Davenport would have us say: Yeah!
JLCO’s leader, Wynton Marsalis, is not only one of the world’s greatest musicians, but a cultural commentator and philosopher. In Burns’ documentary, he articulates the essential interweaving of race and jazz in the American experience: “Race…for this country is like the thing in…mythology that you have to do for the kingdom to be well, and it’s always something you don’t want to do and it’s always that thing that’s so much about you confronting yourself. It’s tailor-made for you to fail, dealing with it, and the question of your heroism and of your courage and of your success at dealing with this trial is: can you confront it with honesty, and do you confront it, and do you have the energy to sustain an attack on it. And since jazz music is at the center of the American mythology, it necessarily deals with race….The thing about jazz: It’s a healing, but not by running. It’s the type of healing by engagement. It’s like, ‘Well, we have a problem, but we’re gonna heal it with some soul. But in order for us to heal it, we have to deal with it. And we can’t run from it. The more we run from it, the more we run into it.’”
Amen and amen.
Last summer, Marsalis spoke at Chautauqua Institution, addressing “Race and Culture in America.” He charged, “The type of optimism and realism that we are going to need to be who our heritage has led us to actually be at our best — we are a long way from that….This is the time for us to assess who we are and step up to the plate and be for real about what we are supposed to be about. We may have the will to do it, and we may be too fat. That’s up to us.” (Listen to his talk on Facebook .)
A month later, Marsalis spoke at the U.S. Embassy in Johannesburg during JLCO’s tour of South Africa. He wrapped up his talk this way:
“What jazz has taught us is we have a mutual ground that we have to nourish and we have to take care of…It is a music that has a lot to teach us. It is a music that is perfect for our time. It is a music of meaning and substance in its history and in its intention that we, in this very not-good moment across this globe, can start to say in community…we are going to take some action to act in the best of what this music is about and come together with other people with force and intensity and belief and a mission….Our (JLCO) tagline is ‘Bringing People Together Through Swing,’ so when you see us, be friendly, because we’re friendly, too.”
Jazz is friendly. It welcomes you to be yourself, relax, shout “Yeah!,” move your body and grin. It still invites us to cross boundaries and connect with each other if we so desire.
Have you noticed how friendly people are at THE JAZZ ROOM? How we talk with total strangers when we’re waiting in line at John’s bar? How we get to know other regulars? How Lonnie Davis and Curtis Davenport make you feel like you belong? These days with so much discord, I don’t take that kind of connection for granted, and being just old enough to remember “Whites Only” signs, I hope I never will. Maybe that’s why I’m passionate about volunteering at WeBop and watching three-year-olds learn to love jazz, each other and Dawn Anthony, or why I care deeply that JazzArts Charlotte gives students of all ages an incredible opportunity to grow in their craft.
I pray our American story — our mythology, as Wynton Marsalis terms it — will turn out to be a true hero’s journey, complete with the transformation and redemption that such tales require. We can’t yet know the ending, but in the meantime, every dedicated, underpaid musician as well as every courageous, unlikely, miraculous organization like JazzArts Charlotte is part of the story’s unfolding. Their day-in and day-out work of bringing jazz into our lives seems nothing less than heroic to me.
Written by Barbara Birge, long time JAZZ ROOM attendee and invaluable volunteer.