Jazz: Music of Inclusion and Individuality
by Caleb Chapman
I was surfing social media today and saw a CNN interview with iconic sports broadcaster, Bob Costas regarding the recent protests in the NFL and other professional sports. The interviewer said he appreciated Mr. Costas’ commentary on the situation and suggested he become more involved in political reporting. Mr. Costas replied that he preferred to “stay in his lane” by reporting primarily on sports and only bring up politics when they intersected with that. That intersection seems to be happening more and more lately.
Social issues have always found their way into sports and entertainment, but the political climate of the day does seem to be overtaking the headlines in a way I don’t remember seeing previously. And I imagine we can plan on that trend continuing with more athletes, musicians, actors, and other members of the entertainment industry weighing in. And however you feel about the appropriateness of protesting during a country’s national anthem, the fact remains that these individuals feel the need to call attention to the racial injustice present in America today.
This led me to reflect on how proud I am of the role jazz has played in social issues, especially when it comes to racial equality. The music has provided a home to songs of protest for decades and has been inextricably linked to the civil rights movement. In the 1950s and 1960s especially jazz musicians were eager to shine a light on bigotry and inequality. Charles Mingus, Max Roach, Nina Simone, Sonny Rollins and other prominent artists tackled this openly in their music while others made statements in different ways. There are scores of powerful examples but there are a few that jump immediately to my mind.
In 1935 a majority of orchestras marketed themselves as whites-only bands. Benny Goodman made a huge statement that year when he added Teddy Wilson, a black man to his trio. It wasn’t long before he also invited Lionel Hampton to perform with him, as well. Not only was racial integration on the bandstand not happening prior to that, it was actually illegal in some states. It was indeed a bold move.
In 1939 Billie Holiday put the spotlight on racial injustice when she added the song “Strange Fruit” to her setlist. The lyrics detail the lynching of two black Americans less than a decade earlier. It was such a powerful message that it became a sort of anthem for the civil rights movement. Her emotional delivery from the stage night after night shined a bright spotlight on the horrible act.
In 1963 Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. That same year John Coltrane became drawn to the civil rights movement and lent his music to the cause. He played several concerts and wrote music in support of Dr. King. In fact, the song “Alabama” was written with phrasing modeled after the words spoken by Dr. King at the memorial service for the girls killed by white supremacists in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombings in Birmingham, Alabama. While not outspoken by nature, the deeply spiritual saxophonist believed his music could be a vehicle for the message of a higher power.
The fact is that jazz has been – and continues to be – music that boasts both inclusion and individuality. On the bandstand musicians are asked to improvise and share their own musical ideas while still working within the framework of the group. My good friend and master trumpeter, Rashawn Ross commented to me that the idea of being entitled to one’s own musical voice, and combining that with other unique voices with the end goal of making great music as an ensemble is a parallel that should be drawn for our world. I would have to agree.
Even though the dialogue has spilled into politics, it remains at its core a human rights issue. As jazz musicians, educators, and enthusiasts, we have a responsibility to embrace the diversity of cultural backgrounds, race, and unique individual experiences that have woven the fabric of our music from its inception. Jazz is, after all, the perfect example of the beauty that is possible when music, thought, and experience from many different world cultures are combined. In fact, the Jazz Education Network was formed with that exact idea of inclusion and acceptance at its heart.
As JEN President, I really have tried to “stay in my lane” and avoid any discussions tied to politics. But I do feel a responsibility to speak up on this critical issue. We need to look beyond the politically charged climate of the day to see this issue being protested for what it really is. And as a community, we need to each do our part to ensure that jazz music continues to demonstrate that bigotry and racial inequality have no place in our world!
In addition to his role as JEN President, Caleb Chapman is Founder and President of Caleb Chapman’s Soundhouse, Director of the Crescent Super Band, and Artistic Director for Pioneer High School for the Performing Arts. He serves on several boards including the Utah Arts Council, and is an award-winning musician, producer, educator, author, and speaker. To learn more about Caleb, please visit www.ccsoundhouse.com.