It’s an artist’s duty to reflect on the times in which we live.
In celebration of Black History Month, we will be focusing on Black artists, their contributions, and their impact on the jazz idiom throughout the years.
Jazz is an art form with roots in African-American musical traditions, and it was born in New Orleans, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, from a mix of slave songs, ragtime, and blues.
Over the years, many jazz artists have used this medium to share their feelings and experiences about racial inequality, social injustice, and everyday struggles. This week, we are going to take a listen to some of these powerful songs.
Through the Years…
Starting in the 1920’s, here is a song composed by Fats Waller, and made famous by Louis Armstrong, with some tweaks to the lyrics, “(What Did I Do To Be So) Black and Blue”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?
‘Cause I can’t hide what is in my face
How would it end? Ain’t got a friend
My only sin is my skin
What did I do to be so black and blue?”
In the late 1930’s, and in an integrated club in Greenwich Village, Billie Holiday first performed “Strange Fruit,” a song that would become her signature tune for the rest of her career. This powerful piece was based on a poem about the lynching of two African-Americans in Indiana, written by Jewish schoolteacher Abel Meeropol.
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees”
In the early 1940’s, Duke Ellington composed a jazz symphony titled Black, Brown and Beige, written to reflect the African-American experience. Along with the music, he had penned a narrative that was left unpublished. The work is comprised of four movements: “Harlem,” “Black, Brown and Beige”, “New World A Comin’,” and “Three Black Kings. In 1943, this piece was presented for the debut performance at Carnegie Hall of Duke Ellington and his Orchestra.
Here is the movement “Black, Brown and Beige”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?
The Civil Rights Movement
In 1959, Charles Mingus wrote his piece “Fables and Faubus” in response to the actions of Arkansas governor Orval Faubus, a man who sparked the Little Rock Crisis of 1957 by calling in the National Guard to prevent the integration of the Little Rock Central High School. For the original recording, Columbia Records would not allow the lyrics to be sung, but they were included in a later recording, done on an independent label.
Oh, Lord, don’t let ’em stab us!
Oh, Lord, no more swastikas!
Oh, Lord, no more Ku Klux Klan!
Name me someone who’s ridiculous, Dannie. [the drummer]
Why is he so sick and ridiculous?
He won’t permit integrated schools.”
Originally started by Max Roach and Oscar Brown to celebrate the Centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1963, the creative process was sped up to respond to the growing Civil Rights Movement on the work that became We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite.
The album consists of 5 tracks: “Driva’ Man,” “Freedom Day,” “Triptych: Prayer, Protest, Peace,” “All Africa,” and “Tears for Johannesburg,” This work was one of the first to address racial and political issues through jazz music:
John Coltrane’s powerful piece “Alabama” was written in response to the 16th Street Baptist Church shootings of September 15, 1963, where Ku Klux Klan members lined steps of church with dynamite, killing 4 children, injuring 22 others. In writing this piece, Coltrane took inspiration from the speech MLK gave days after the shooting, echoing the rhythm of his speech in order to convey a range of intense emotions: https://www.youtube.com/watch?
One artist known for her extensive work in the Civil Rights Movement, both musically and beyond, was Nina Simone. Throughout her career, she always included music that reflected her African-American heritage, such as “Brown Baby.” One of the first songs she sang that truly addressed racial inequality was “Mississippi Goddam,” which was in response to Medgar Evers’ murder, as well as the 16th Street Baptist Church shooting. Other notable protest songs she recorded include “Backlash Blues,” “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free,” and “Why? (The King of Love is Dead)”.
In 1970, she and Weldon Irvine adapted an unfinished play by Lorraine Hansberry into the song “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?
“When you’re feeling really low
Yeah, there’s a great truth that you should know
When you’re young, gifted and black
Your soul’s intact
How to be young, gifted and black
Oh, how I long to know the truth
There are time when I look back
And I am haunted by my youth”
One of our own CJO members, saxophonist Chris Coles, has also created a work in response to racial injustice and violence. He developed a multimedia experience titled Nine Lives that celebrates the lives of the nine who were killed in the 2015 Charlotte Emanuel AME Church shooting. This piece combines his composition, spoken word, animation, and dance, and it premiered in 2019 at the Akron Rubber City Jazz & Blues Festival. He is hoping that this work will prompt his audiences to reflect, and hopefully also inspire change.
This past fall, his work was highlighted by WOSU: https://radio.wosu.org/
AND just last month, he was named one of Cleveland Magazine‘s Most Interesting People of the Year!:
The Impact of SHUFFLE ALONG
Karamu House, America’s oldest African-American producing theatre, will present a month of virtual events to celebrate Black History Month, including a free concert in partnership with The Musical Theater Project, available to stream on-demand all month long.
Beginning February 1, Karamu House and The Musical Theater Project (TMTP) present a multimedia concert of Shuffle Along, a legendary African-American production that was the first-ever jazz musical and one of the first-ever Broadway productions to be written and performed by an all-Black cast. This special presentation from Karamu and TMTP, The Impact of SHUFFLE ALONG, celebrates the musical’s 100-year-anniversary with a virtual concert of songs, rarely seen video clips and images, and narration of this trailblazing production story from Bill Rudman, TMTP founding director, and Tony F. Sias, president and CEO of Karamu House.
The Impact of SHUFFLE ALONG will be available for free, on-demand access throughout the month of February. While free to access, individuals must register on the Karamu website to view the program: https://karamuhouse.secure.
Bop Stop Livestream!
Later this month, you can catch the CJO Little Big Band for another Bop Stop livestream concert.
Join us for “Exploration, Travels and Romance”!
The show will feature trumpeter & bandleader Dominick Farinacci and percussionist Jamey Haddad!
Mark your calendars for Saturday, February 13th at 8 p.m.!
In anticipation of a more “normal” summer, the CJO is starting to book some outdoor performances. We’d love to bring a group to your community!
The CJO can send out a soloist, small combos of 3-6, the CJO Little Big Band, or the entire CJO!
For booking info, contact:
Dr. Scott Garlock