Gottlieb, W. P. (1947) Portrait of Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Brown, Milt Milton Jackson, and Timmie Rosenkrantz, Downbeat, New York, N.Y., ca. Sept. United States, 1947. , Monographic. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https
Credit: Portrait of Louis Armstrong, Carnegie Hall, New York, NY, ca. Apr. United States, 1947. Monographic. [Photograph], by Gottlieb, W. P. (1947). Retrieved from the Library of Congress.
B.B. King https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:B.B._King_07.jpg
International Jazz Day: Jazz and Democracy
Thu, Mar 31, 2022, 12:32pm | By Andy Kingston
In 2011, UNESCO teamed up with the Herbie Hancock Institute of Jazz to designate April 30th as International Jazz Day “in order to highlight jazz and its diplomatic role of uniting people in all corners of the globe.” The 10th anniversary of International Jazz Day in 2022 was intended to be a celebration of the worldwide return to live music performance after a two-year hiatus because of the global COVID-19 pandemic. This year, jazz would once again unite people around the world.
However, rather than marking a global reunification, 2022 International Jazz Day will be overshadowed by a war in Europe and ongoing conflicts around the world. As I write this, the map of Jazz Day events on April 30th still indicates that two concerts are planned in eastern Ukraine. Such concerts are unimaginable given the present war in Ukraine, but the Black American art form born in New Orleans that has come be be known as “jazz” across the world has always been an affirmation of human possibility in the face of adversity.
War introduced Black American music to Europe in 1918 when James Reese Europe and his “Hell Fighters” infantry band played for Allied troops in France, but no one was quite sure what to call his music. The exact moment when African-American spirituals, the blues, and ragtime piano and band music transformed into “jazz” is a subject of great controversy. In fact, the term “jazz” itself has been rejected by musicians ranging from Duke Ellington to Nicholas Payton as a name that was given to the music by white critics rather than by the musicians themselves. Albert Murray designates “the blues idiom” as the particular approach to music making and artistic statement that originated in Black communities in the American South in the late 19th century and moved north with the Great Migration of the 20th century, evolving into the musical traditions that come to be known as blues, jazz, and R&B. The recording industry that grew up with the development of blues idiom music translated a regional musical dialect into a worldwide language. Records made Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Ella Fitzgerald into international artists and communicated the blues idiom around the world.
From the first deployment of American bands to Europe in 1918, blues idiom music has been engaged in a complicated dance with democracy. Segregated at home, Black American artists often found a new audience and a new voice abroad. During the Cold War, the popularity of American artists around the world came to be seen by the American State Department as an opportunity for cultural diplomacy. The irony was not lost on many artists that a nation struggling with racial segregation at home should turn to those denied full participation in American democracy as ambassadors of American ideals abroad. Yet musicians still signed up to represent American music to the world, even if their relationship to American democracy was fraught. Albert Murray speaks of the character of the “blues idiom statement” as an “equipment for living” that enables us to cling to the possibility of affirmation in the face of overwhelming adversity. Perhaps it is in this light that we can best understand jazz and blues idiom statements as democratic in nature. Rather than succumbing to the noise of the whirlwind or subjecting the individual voice to the tyrannical demands of the state, the blues idiom artist participates in a collective improvisation that makes room for each individual voice–but an individual voice that is not simply idiosyncratic but speaks from a tradition and in an idiom that works to discover a counter statement to any given situation. That is to say, life may be down and out, but the blues idiom musician knows where it’s at and what time it is. Not only is the voice of Louis Armstrong immediately recognizable around the world, the careful listener will hear in his trumpet a movement that embodies transformative grace.
To know what’s up and say so is a civic virtue in a democratic society. To “say something” is the aspiration of the blues idiom musician. Many democracies fall short of their self-proclaimed ideals, and many blues idiom musicians are capable of producing a whole lot of nonsense, but the drive to speak the truth motivates the greatest improvisers, whether it be on the bandstand or the world stage.
What is the “diplomatic role” of jazz that UNESCO seeks to highlight on International Jazz Day? What is the aim of a blues idiom performance this particular April in Ukraine? The answer may be found along the lines recently articulated by Cornel West:
Certain kinds of democratic processes are precious and fragile. That’s why we try to hold on to them. We’re losing those, too. And that’s why these days are so grim and dim. And that’s why we have to be committed to being certain kinds of persons, no matter what the possibilities are for triumph. We have a chance of a snowball in Hell of fighting for freedom. We fight anyway, because it’s right and because it’s just. And we just get crushed when we get crushed, but we get crushed with a smile.
That’s the blues. That’s B. B. King, you see. With a smile, you up there. You know you getting crushed, but you still got to smile because there’s a triumph in your spirit, but you can’t execute it in any serious way outside of the performance space. You know what I mean? After you finish singing a song in Mississippi, the Klan going to get you if you don’t act a certain way. I don’t care how much you singing, too. But that don’t mean you stop singing your song. That don’t mean you stop writing your poetry.
That don’t mean you stop organizing and mobilizing and loving your children and loving other people.
Certainly, the International Jazz Day events in Ukraine cannot go ahead exactly as planned, but there is no doubt that the voice of the blues idiom artist has spoken loud and clear to all of those who stand up for the strength of human possibility in the face of violence and negation.
This column was generously funded by a grant from the Mellon Foundation to explore the question of Democracy and the Informed Citizen.
Andy Kingston teaches at St. John’s College in Santa Fe and plays piano in Jazz, Latin and R&B bands around New Mexico.
Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this blog post/article does not necessarily represent those of the New Mexico Humanities Council or the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in these blog posts/articles do not necessarily represent those of the New Mexico Humanities Council or the National Endowment for the Humanities.
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