Early Jazz, New Orleans, and the Will To Survive

The Video/Audio below is an excerpt from the 4th show of my radio series Voices and Freedoms: A History of Jazz, based on my 1976 book of the same name.  The episode is about Early Jazz, the importance of New Orleans in Jazz’s birth, and the will to survive the often brutal mechanisms of racist culture. The 16-part series played across the nation for five years in the late 70’s/early 80’ and holds its relevance—or is even more so—today than it was back then. The excerpts present about 6 to 8 minutes of the original 30-minute broadcasts. The link above takes you to information about the book and our plans to re-release it and provide access to the full-length original shows. Go HERE for a complete list of shows and links to all excerpts.

 

James Reese Europe’s military band (see last paragraph below)

I wish I could pronounce the “ou” combination like Australian and some English and Canadian folks do, especially in the word “out,” but it escapes me no matter what I seem to try. And the same goes for New Orleans.  So below in the excerpt of Show #4 on Early Jazz and New Orleans there’s a twinge of regret every time I hear myself say “New Orleans” so crisply, with that bright “e” sound not present in the lovely drawl of those who can say the name of that iconic town correctly. It doesn’t make much sense to say the Blues originated in this or that town, and while Jazz certainly was born in several important locations, New Orleans was so special that it does make some sense to call it jazz’s birthplace.

It was, for one thing, a heavily Catholic town with a creole essence that made the blending of races and cultures seem normal and gave those Creoles greater freedom to move through many more levels of society. There was a greater economic laissez faire, too, that gave even slaves greater freedom, at least in their off hours.  And when soldiers who served in military bands returned from the Spanish-American war and sold or hocked their instruments, these fell into the hands of blacks who had previously been confined more to string instruments, and the brass bands and marching bands that formed soon turned out the music that shortly became jazz.

When the U.S. took over, so much changed, especially as intense segregation ramped up during the Reconstruction period after the Civil War.  In many ways, though, even these horrendous times couldn’t stop the new music from fermenting and growing.

In the show below we don’t begin with New Orleans, though, but with the tremendous musical activity of the late 19th Century: military bands, brass band novelty tunes, jug bands, minstrelsy, Cake Walk music, and, especially Ragtime.  But perhaps most important we talk about the appropriation of Black culture, that phenomenon—ongoing and powerful to this day—the template of which was set in this time period just as jazz was born.  We spend some time on minstrelsy because it was through this music and entertainment and the very process of minstrelization that dominant white culture both embraced black culture and took it over while shutting blacks out, stereotyping them and using myriad ways to keep them “in their place.”  Musically, minstrelsy began that supremely ironic situation where blacks had to conform to white standards of the music they had created. Later, Ragtime’s popularity once again put blacks on the losing end. Because the music was fairly easy to write down and its rhythms were easier because of their closeness to marching band music, it was easier for whites to play and quickly spread, especially after the perfection of piano rolls and the player piano.  Soon it often seems that Ragtime was a white music blacks only participated in, or, at best, a black music that only reached perfection in white hands.

Ragtime was also much less vocal. At the beginning of this post there’s a picture (above left) of James Reese Europe’s military brass band (Reese stands at far left). The band caused a sensation in Europe because of the tremendous vocal qualities of its music. There are stories of people inspecting their instruments to see if they were the normal. They were. But the musicians playing them and the importance of the Blues and of the human vocal sounds of the Blues were not normal. Once again, the vocal quality of jazz—its obsession with human voices—made the difference in its instrumental sound. More than that, it once again testified to the survival of the human urges for freedom, equity, and dignity.  Voices and Freedoms.  Both were so hard to keep alive in the earliest days of jazz.

Go to the Diversity Training and Teaching page on this site.

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Juneteenth Now More Than Ever

It’s Fall 2022 in earnest now.  For a couple of nights we’ve draped towels over our outdoor flower pots to protect against freezing temperatures, hoping to make the blooms last just a little longer. And we look back with nostalgia on Summer, here specifically at Juneteenth 2022, and even a few months further back when it seemed Americans really did want to talk seriously about race.  Those days seem nostalgic, too.  These days we need Juneteenth more than ever, so the VIDEO below shows a few seconds—98 of them—of one of the oldest celebrations in my state: the Aurora, Illinois, celebration.

For a short while after the murder of George Floyd it seemed like people were willing to talk about race in the U.S., but no more. This is a year of backlashes, just the current one of many, many, many others.  Now, mention systemic racism or white privilege and you are accused of being racist. We don’t want to read about it, so let’s go after every book that even hints of it. We don’t want our children to “feel bad”—though some emerging research seems to indicate they don’t feel that bad at all. In fact, they’re fascinated by the history of slavery and racism. It is, really, their parents who don’t want to feel bad. No shame, no guilt, no bad feelings of any kind.  Sometimes we’ll focus on some individual thing that’s egregious, like the Maine insurance company that put this sign in its door this Juneteenth: “Juneteenth—it’s whatever. We’re closed. Enjoy your chicken and collard greens.”  Something like that goes viral, but not discussions of the deeper systems of thinking that give rise to such signs, to say nothing of the systems that block all kinds of equity for blacks and other people of color in virtually every area of life.

Ironically, Juneteenth celebrations help fulfill part of this longing to forget hard things and celebrate just the good times, and why not?  The video below does focus on good times.  The AAMOU (African American Men of Unity) have put on this event for many years, and last year one of their long-time leaders, Rickie Rodgers said this:  “The way we celebrate Juneteenth in Aurora, it’s not to shame whites but to gather the whole community together to have a good time and embrace the heritage.” The operative words here are the last three.

In my article on last year’s Juneteenth celebration in Aurora, which explains the holiday in more detail, I also spent some time looking at the famous Johnson brothers’ song “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” known as the Black National Anthem, and the video below does begin with a few words from it. It may be possible for some people, mostly white, to embrace just the good-timey Juneteenth celebration, but most Blacks—a growing number of them—can’t help but embrace the entire heritage: walking the way that has been watered with tears, with the blood of the slaughtered, with hopes that have died unborn. This way continues to be walked every day still by Blacks and other people of color.  It would do well for everyone to embrace these realities, too.  As is always the case, these sorrowful realities make joy more vibrant, alive…and real. These sorrowful realities, once faced, makes possible the deep, true development of all our humanities, and this, in turn, makes meaningful community and oneness possible.

I’m also writing this just as we’re beginning, after a Summer hiatus, to do our Becoming the Beloved Community (BBC) anti-racism workshops again. I hope you enjoy the video below, but it is fairly shallow.  For deeper videos look at some of the videos listed at the BBC link just above. Without embracing all of the heritage, we’re left with just fairly shallow good times.  These days we do need even those kinds of good times, yes, but we should be hungering for much more.

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Basie, KC, and Swing

The Video/Audio below is an excerpt from the 9th show of my radio series Voices and Freedoms: A History of Jazz, based on my 1976 book of the same name.  The episode is about Swing, the style and era when jazz dominated the American musical scene. One of the most important musicians of that era was William “Count” Basie. The 16-part series played across the nation for five years in the late 70’s/early 80’ and holds its relevance—or is even more so—today than it was back then. The excerpts present about 6 to 8 minutes of the original 30-minute broadcasts. The link above takes you to information about the book and our plans to re-release it and provide access to the full-length original shows. Go HERE for a complete list of shows and links to all excerpts.

 

Though jazz entered the American musical mainstream in the 1920’s, in the decade between 1935 and 1945 it came to dominate American music.  It was sold coast to coast as Swing Music, and it followed a familiar pattern: the White groups that popularized the music—the Goodman Band, the Glenn Miller Orchestra, the Dorsey Brothers, etc.—were outrageously popular and made most of the money. Even as stellar a Black band as Duke Ellington’s made about half the money of popular White bands.  Of course, this story of cultural appropriation and money-making pre-dated Swing and continues through Rock ‘n’ Roll and beyond to today and into the foreseeable future.

Black bands which had created the music were playing it in the early 30’s, even the late 20’s. Duke Ellington and Irving Mills wrote their hit “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got that Swing” in 1932. Chick Webb, Bennie Moten, Earl Hines, Louis Russell—these were among the many Black bands playing Swing early, and the leader in the movement was Fletcher Henderson, whose band started a historic re-engagement at New York’s Roseland Ballroom in October 1924.

The excerpt below discusses the main ideas, band divisions, and musical structure of Swing before playing a 1932 Henderson classic, “Wrapping It Up.”  It spends more time with one of the most influential jazz musicians of all time, Count Basic, whose big band is one of the most seminal in jazz history, employing the likes of Walter Page, Joe Jones, and Lester Young.  In the full show I spend a lot of time talking about Basie’s first big hit, the wonderful “One O’Clock Jump.”  In the excerpt below we bring it up at the end of Basie’s opening piano solo and play only Lester Young’s full solo, a solo built on spontaneous reaction to the last few notes of the preceding trombone solo, and backed inventively by the drumming of Joe Jones. The excerpt ends with the last seconds of “One O’Clock Jump,” just giving you a taste of some of the most inspired contrapuntal riffing in jazz history.

Kansas City played a big part in Basie’s career.  He was stranded there when a traveling show he had joined, Donzel White and His Big Jamboree Review, ran out of money.  “In jazz history” is a phrase we use a lot describing Basie’s music and career, and this was the most productive piece of hard luck “in jazz history.”  Kansas City was home to some of the best Swing bands in the country, including Bennie Moten’s, for whom Basie played piano before forming his own band, many of whom were Moten alumni.  On the edge of the Southwest, Kansas City had that Southwest feeling of openness which I believe played a part in creating a more open musical structure.  It was also closer to the South, and therefore closer to the culture and sound of the Blues, plus the more Southern jazz tradition which gave prominence to the soloist.

Basie seemed to give it all over to his soloists, and some initially reacted poorly to his music.  While someone like Ellington created a highly textured, highly orchestrated blend of voices. Basie seemed to give everything to the soloists, and some initially thought of his Swing pieces as nothing more than a string of solos with minimal ensemble involvement.  But listening to “One O’Clock Jump” reveals a highly integrated whole with soloist and band in an exciting give and take, the best give and take in all of Swing.  Jazz, at heart, may be a soloists art, and it seems definitely most at home the closer it is to Blues form, attitude, and voice.  Basie had his musical cake and ate it too by bringing the soloist and Blues voice into the big band, Swing format.

Go to the Diversity Training and Teaching page on this site.

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