by Todd Stoll
Aretha Franklin, another great master of American music and arts, has passed. With that comes the important moments spent contemplating not only her place in the continuum of our culture, but also her connection to and influence on jazz and jazz education. For many decades, jazz and popular music were inextricably intertwined. From Pops to Frank to Sarah and Miles, popular music was the source material for many great performances, recordings, and compositions. The common thread – the blues – has always been apparent, and to her, it was always paramount.
Ms. Franklin was a cultural and musical giant; towering over nearly all of her contemporaries and much of the generations after her. Anyone who doubted her prowess in her later years need only view her performance at the Kennedy Center Honors ceremony in 2015. In this rendition of “A Natural Woman,” (a piece 50 years old at this point!) you not only feel her energy, but understand immediately how she connected so many traditions and influences into a performance for the ages. Hell, she received a standing ovation for removing her coat! Gospel, blues, jazz, and popular music, their common birthright on display, meeting in complete, soulful, and inspiring coordination courtesy of the Queen of Soul.
I had the privilege of playing behind her twice in pops orchestras (neither performance was truly memorable) but what has remained is the feeling of the music. Even at its most banal, she created an atmosphere of down-home sophistication that welcomed all to her bountiful table; and that table, like Duke Ellington’s, embraced all levels of human discourse, from the sophisticated to the lowly. Kings, queens, and heads of state mingled equally with the rest of us common folk, all sharing in the banquet she had prepared. This common thread through all of her music, this common understanding, is the element that allows us to understand the human pathos in her art, regardless of our station in life. It still draws us in, wraps its arms around us, and says, “Baby, it’s going to be all right.” Louis Armstrong had it, Ray Charles had it, so did Ella and Frank, (along with countless others) and Ms. Franklin had it more than most.
Her understanding of her own place in that continuum, her “ancestral instinct” as one writer put it, was the stuff of mystics — listening to her conversation with a renowned jazz artist taught me that. She knew all of the “cats,” from John Kirby to Coltrane. She knew their recordings, their stories, the asides, and most importantly, our mythology–those values and ascendant creatures that our culture has clung to in times of distress and aspired to in times of plenty. As with many of our great artists, the medium in which they work is merely the earthly stuff that leads to a greater understanding of our shared humanity.
As jazz educators, we have the sacred duty to lead our students to her table, and that of so many others, as we meet the daily challenge of inspiring them and communicating the highest achievements of our music. Rest in peace Aretha Franklin.
Todd Stoll has spent nearly thirty years as an educator, performer and leading advocate for jazz. He currently serves as Vice President of Education for Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City where he oversees programs that reach more than 200,000 people each year. His leadership at JALC has revived the institutions commitment to the underserved while embracing 21st century technology as a means for greater access to the music. Since his tenure began in 2011, the education department at JALC produced nearly 20,000 individual events both in its home at Fredrick P Rose Hall, throughout the US, and abroad.