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The Clippings File: Jazz Speaks up for Freedom

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Friday, Nov 2, 2007
Civil Rights Memorial in Alabama by Maya Lin

Civil Rights Memorial in Alabama by Maya Lin


When I first started hearing reports on the protests by Burmese monks a couple of months ago Wayne Shorter’s musical portrait of the democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi came to mind. Not the sparkling stillness of the version on the 1997 album he made with Herbie Hancock but the version recorded live on a concert tour in 2001, released on an album called Footprints - Live. It’s played faster and louder and momentum has gathered around the tune’s strong, clear heart.


Burmanet reports that internet access has been cut off within Burma and a man has been jailed for speaking to the foreign media:


A spokesperson of the main opposition party, the National League for Democracy [Aung San Suu Kyi’s party], Nyan Win, who is also a lawyer, said that talking to the media is not illegal in Burma. However, there is also no real rule of law in Burma so people sometimes are sentenced to prison for talking to the media.


“The media gives information to people,” said Nyan Win. “Giving information to media means you are contributing to the good of society. If he was arrested for talking to the media, it is a big mistake.”


However, in Burma there are frequent reports of people arrested and sentenced to prison for giving information to foreign media and even for listening to foreign language news media, such as the BBC, VOA and Radio Free Asia.


Burmanet. Nov 1, 2007


In October, at the beginning of the recent series of protests by Burmese monks, which included marches past the house where Aung San Suu Kyi is being held under arrest, Pankaj Mishra wrote an opinion piece in the Guardian on the moral authority the monks inspire.


Certainly, the Burmese generals know the way the world works. Apparently isolated, they play shrewdly the game of international realpolitik, buying the silence of their two rising and needy neighbours, democratic India as well as authoritarian China, with oil, gas and timber. However, to such a ruthlessly amoral politics, based on purely rational self-interest, the moral and spiritual values of religion can and often do pose a challenge.


No doubt devotees of science and rationality will continue to call for a religion-free politics. But what the Burmese demonstrators prove is that, as Gandhi said, “those who think religion has nothing to do with politics understand neither religion nor politics”.


“I find it impossible to listen to music while writing, but I cannot imagine traveling or indeed almost doing anything else, without it. And nothing matches music’s ability to create specific moods, or briskly evoke places and times remote from me,” Pankaj Mishra said when compiling a playlist for the New York Times Book Review’s blog, Paper Cuts. On his list is music from jazz performers Billie Holiday, Dexter Gordon, Thelonius Monk and John Coltrane. Last week in The New York Times Pankaj Mishra reviewed a book about John Coltrane and the way that the personal hardships and spiritual yearnings that jazz musicians express in their music have become powerful symbols in struggles for freedom around the world. 


In his book Coltrane: The Story of a Sound, Ben Ratliff writes:


His work became unofficially annexed by the civil rights movement: its sound alone has become a metaphor for dignified perseverance. His art, nearly up to the end, was not insular, and kept signifying different things for different people of different cultures and races. His ugliest music (to a certain way of thinking) is widely suspected of possessing beauty beyond the listener’s grasp, and the reverse goes for his prettiest music — that it is more properly understood as an expression of grave seriousness. There is more poetry written about him, I would guess, than about any other jazz musician. And his religious quests through Christianity, Buddhism, Kabbalah, and Sufism are now embedded, ex post facto, in his music. In pluralistic America, it has become hard not to hear Coltrane’s modal music — in which an improviser, freed from chordal movement, becomes free to explore — as a metaphor for a personal religious search.



Pankaj Mishra observes that John Coltrane’s later abstract compositions resembled the “scalar complexity of North Indian classical music more than anything in the Western tradition” and reports that Coltrane read widely, “from Aristotle to Krishnamurti, and borrowed from ancient Indian ragas as well as Western atonal music”.


Ratliff is too young to fall for the strident 1960s interpretation that Coltrane’s more maniacal music reflected black rage and frustration. Instead, he suggests, intelligently and persuasively, that Coltrane had, among other attributes, a “mystic’s keen sensitivity for the sublime, which runs like a secret river under American culture.” “Coltrane,” Ratliff writes, “was acutely self-possessed in his identity as an artist, at a time when a lot of celebrated American art had become seen as a kind of sanctuary, an escape from military conspiracies, war and television.”


Certainly Coltrane was serenely indifferent to the easier commercial and political temptations of the 1960s. It was after acquiring a mainstream audience with “My Favorite Things,” a big radio hit in 1961, that he expanded his experiments with modal music, which he then interrupted to record some beautifully melodic ballads. Anyone committed to confronting a white middle-class audience with the musical equivalent of Bobby Seale’s speeches wouldn’t have recorded “Lush Life” with Johnny Hartman or so wonderfully and definitively reconfigured “In a Sentimental Mood” with Duke Ellington.


Yet John Coltrane also reported clearly and unambiguously on that often explosive territory where religion and politics meet. His song,


John ColtraneAlabama, is a tribute to four young girls killed in the bombing of a Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963.


In 1963 Martin Luther King decided to launch a non-violent assault on Birmingham, Alabama—the bastion of segregation. Within days 2,500 protesters swamped Birmingham jails. After ten days the authorities caved in. Birmingham was the civil rights movement’s biggest victory. The protests had a massive impact—there were 758 demonstrations against racism and 14,753 arrests in 186 US cities in the ten weeks that followed Birmingham, culminating in the historic march on Washington.


Coltrane never described himself as a political activist—he was a musician first and foremost. He was also a deeply religious person. But it was his deep-seated humanity that drew him towards the civil rights movement. In 1964 Coltrane played eight benefit concerts in support of King. He also recorded a number of tracks inspired by the struggle—‘Reverend King’, ‘Backs against the Wall’ and his album Cosmic Music was dedicated to King. Events in Birmingham would also move him to write ‘Alabama’.


On the Sunday morning of 15 September 1963 a dozen sticks of dynamite were planted by white racists in the basement of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. At 10.45am the bomb went off, killing four young black girls aged between 11 and 14.


Coltrane wrote the song ‘Alabama’ in response to the bombing. He patterned his saxophone playing on Martin Luther King’s funeral speech. Midway through the song, mirroring the point where King transforms his mourning into a statement of renewed determination for the struggle against racism, Elvin Jones’s drumming rises from a whisper to a pounding rage. He wanted this crescendo to signify the rising of the civil rights movement.


Martin Smith. Socialist Review. October, 2003


Denzel Washington as Malcolm X in Spike Lee's 1992 movie

Denzel Washington as Malcolm X in Spike Lee’s 1992 movie


Jazz Demands Action Now


Contemporary jazz musicians Terence Blanchard and Branford Marsalis wrote and performed music for the soundtrack of Spike Lee’s movie about Malcolm X and all three have commented upon and become involved with reporting on the way Hurricane Katrina broke the heart of New Orleans. Spike Lee made the documentary “When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts”.


An interview with Spike Lee runs on the HBO website.


HBO: What was the thing that devastated you more than anything, about what happened in New Orleans?


Spike Lee: The thing that’s very hard for me, and I think’ll be hard for any filmmaker who has to ask difficult questions, especially when you’re asking people who’ve lost loved ones, is that, as a filmmaker and as a storyteller, it was my job, it was my duty to ask some difficult questions that I knew would stir up feelings…that would make people break down. Now, that was not my intention. But we have people talk about how their whole life has been changed.


So it’s very important that the audience, not just here in the United States but all over the world, hear these stories from these individuals, these witnesses, who saw the horror of what happened in New Orleans.


HBO: There were so many stories, and I’m sure even today you still hear stories that you haven’t heard that just horrify you. How did you decide which you were gonna go with?


Spike Lee: Well, when you choose the stories a lot of it depends who’s telling the story and who can convey that story. Everything you shoot cannot make it into the final film. So, myself along with my editor and producing partner Sam Pollock, we thought long and hard about what goes, and what stays.


Branford Marsalis, his father Ellis and brother Wynton are all jazz musicians and the family is from New Orleans. Terence Blanchard is also from New Orleans and he and Wynton Marsalis are featured in “When the Levees Broke”.


Musician Wynton Marsalis considers music to be central to the everyday lives of New Orleaneans, saying, “The reason music came from us is we had a lot of ceremonies that required music. We have produced great musicians in every type of form you can think of - jazz, blues. It’s all a part of people’s everyday lives.”


Fellow New Orleans native and jazz musician Terence Blanchard, a musician and composer on several of Lee’s films, including WHEN THE LEVEES BROKE, believes artists will find inspiration from Katrina. “Out of this experience there’s going to come some amazing music, because the musical culture of this city has never been driven by anything other than pure honesty and pure passion,” he notes. “And with the artists that are from this city, there’s going to be some amazing things that’s going to flourish as a result of this.”


HBO synopsis for “When the Levees Broke”.



Within a year Terence Blanchard had released “A Tale of God’s Will (A Requiem for Katrina)” based upon the music that he wrote for Spike Lee’s documentary. And on the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina Branford Marsalis became the first guest editor of the jazz magazine, Downbeat, and reflected upon how the disaster had affected the musicians of the city. He asked the New Orleans Times Picayune writer Lolis Eric Elie to write about how the architecture of New Orleans has influenced the city’s music, in the way that the houses were built close together in New Orleans, allowing parades led by musicians to gather a big, fast “second line” following a wedding or a funeral.


“The term ‘second line’ is an evolving one. Years ago, brass bands accompained funeral processions in many parts of the country. New Orleans was different, though. After the traditional dirges accompanied the body and its mourners to the graveyard, we processed back to the church social hall with the sound of happy, dancing music. The family and the band, they were the official parts of the procession, the first line if you will. The second line was that group of folks who chose to join the procession as dancers and onlookers. Eventually the term second line was being applied not only to these people but to the dance they did and to the whole parade itself. In other parts of the country the tradition of lively music at funerals died out. Here it evolved and strengthened. These days, most second line parades are organized by social aid and pleasure clubs strictly for fun, not funerals. Still, one of the bumper stickers you see around town reads, “New Orleans: We put the ‘fun’ in funeral”.


Lolis Eric Elie. Downbeat. September, 2006


In May this year NPR reported that many of the marching bands in New Orleans are short on funds. One of the most successful bands to have come from this tradition, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, re-interpreted Marvin Gaye’s essay on the civil rights era, What’s Going On?, song for song, as a response to Hurricane Katrina and to raise money to help their local musical colleagues. 


“It just made sense in light of all that happened with the storm,” says trumpeter Gregory Davis, who with fellow Dirty Dozen co-founders Roger Lewis (baritone and soprano sax), Kevin Harris (tenor sax) and Efrem Towns (trumpet, flugelhorn), make up the group’s core.  “But even beyond that, to ask ‘What’s going on?’ in the world makes sense.  What happened with 9/11, what happened with the tsunami, what happened with the earthquakes over in Iraq and Afghanistan, what’s happening with the so-called war.  What’s really going on?”


“It’s a timely question,” adds Harris.  “What the hell is going on?  It’s been freaky out there.  Bad enough when human beings are snapping at each other left and right, but when nature is drowning thousands of people with tsunamis and hurricanes and scourges?  Things are changing, getting strange.”


Dirty Dozen Brass Band website


Joni Mitchell and jazz musician Charles Mingus

Joni Mitchell and jazz musician Charles Mingus


Joni Mitchell. For Free.


I slept last night in a good hotel
I went shopping today for jewels
The wind rushed around in the dirty town
And the children let out from the schools
I was standing on a noisy corner
Waiting for the walking green
Across the street he stood
And he played real good
On his clarinet, for free


Now me I play for fortunes
And those velvet curtain calls
Ive got a black limousine
And two gentlemen
Escorting me to the halls
And I play if you have the money
Or if youre a friend to me
But the one man band
By the quick lunch stand
He was playing real good, for free


Joni Mitchell. “For Free.”


About five years ago Joni Mitchell explosively bowed out of the mainstream recording industry but not music itself, and her new album Shine seems to receive more press for the fact that it’s on the Starbucks recording label (which has had hits with albums by Ray Charles and Paul McCartney) than its content. The critics debate whether a multinational chain of coffee stores is more or less ethically bankrupt than the multinational entertainment conglomerates. Paul Sexton, writing in The Guardian in May wrote that Mitchell’s first venture with Starbucks was selecting some of her favorite jazz standards for a compilation album for them in the late 1990’s. “Her rebirth came about, improbably, when she asked her management if they could arrange for her to compile a CD for Starbucks’ Artist’s Choice series,” he writes. Mitchell ... “listened to everything I ever loved, to see if it held up, and much did. So I put together one that starts with Debussy, then takes a journey up through Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday and Miles Davis, and then Louis Jordan. That joyous music was conceived in such terrible times - and it was such a great relief to the culture at the time. That’s the trouble with now. Now we’ve got a horrible culture, horrible times and horrible music.” Sexton identified the ultimate hopefulness of Shine. “But Mitchell is determined that, concerned though she is about the state of the world, her return to recording does not come across as embittered heckling. It shouldn’t. Pieces such as “Shine” and “If” (inspired by Rudyard Kipling) emanate bruised but unbroken optimism, not to mention an absolute refusal to be musically classifiable: one moment she’s jazz, the next classical, then occasionally pop.”


Australian composer and music writer Andrew Ford, who is a skilled and warm interviewer on The Music Show on ABC Radio National, wrote a review of The Joni Mitchell Companion edited by Stacey Luftig, for the Sydney Morning Herald in 2001. He wrote that the difficulties Joni Mitchell has encountered in being taken seriously for her excursions into jazz may lie with how she was perceived early in her career when young women took her music deeply to heart in the way that they’d also embraced Sylvia Plath’s poetry. The soft and tender musical enthusiasms of these young women wouldn’t have extended to jazz. “But the female artists—Mitchell, Plath, and Elizabeth Smart, the author of Grand Central Station—explored human feelings with searing honesty, exposing their emotional nerve endings in a manner that would first have embarrassed then terrified most men,” Ford wrote. “And who was it that, for the most part went on to become music critics?”


On Court and Spark she recorded “Twisted”, Annie Ross’s famous verbalization of Wardell Grey’s saxophone solo, and she did it as though born to the jazz purple. Now she began to work regularly with jazz musicians such as John Guerin, Jaco Pastorius, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Don Alias and the Brecker Brothers. The climax of this period was her collaboration with the dying jazz great Charles Mingus. Taking a handful of Mingus’s instrumental compositions, Mitchell put her own words to them. For the most part, they’re rather wistful numbers (melodically and lyrically), but on “The Dry Cleaner from Des Moines”, there’s a playfulness in Mitchell’s vocalese that reminds one of “Twisted”.


It was not, perhaps the wisest change of direction ever taken by a pop singer, since it disaffected precisely the two groups of people whose support was needed if the move into jazz were to succeed. On the one hand, and notwithstanding Mingus’s seeming approval of Mitchell, the jazz aficionados sneered, as jazz afficionados will. And of course on the other hand, the college girls were terribly disappointed. They had spent the early 1970’s memorising Joni’s songs, learning to play them on their retuned guitars and growing their hair. For their pains they were now being offered Wayne Shorter’s saxophone solos.


Andrew Ford. Sydney Morning Herald, 2001.



When he released River: The Joni Letters, an album of his interpretations of some Joni Mitchell songs recently Herbie Hancock told the Associated Press: “She has the courage to express what she really feels and believes in,” he said. “She’s not afraid to openly voice her viewpoint on the crises of the era ... and she does it in such a beautiful and imaginative way. ... And so as a humanitarian, Joni Mitchell really reflects her belief in the dignity of human life and its relationship to our environment.” He includes two instrumental pieces that he suggests link Joni Mitchell to jazz: “Solitude” from a Duke Ellington collaboration with Max Roach and Charles Mingus in 1962, and “Nefertiti” which Hancock and Wayne Shorter first played with Miles Davis in the 1960’s. 


In February Joni Mitchell talked to David Yaffe of the New York Times about a ballet based around her songs, called The Fiddle and the Drum, that she was collaborating on with Canadian Jean Grande Maitre of the Alberta Ballet.


She thought about how the Maya calendar ends in 2012, about the 2004 tsunami and Hurricane Katrina. What, she wondered, what do you write at the end of the world?


“I haven’t written in 10 years, and what’s coming out of me is all sociological and theological complaint,” she said while staring at the lighted end of an American Spirit cigarette. She sees herself as a proud heretic: “At first I thought I was going over new territory, but then I realized that many of the people who went over this territory were killed.”


“The Fiddle and the Drum” features two of her new songs: “If,” based on the Rudyard Kipling poem about war and stoicism (“Just about my favorite poem,” she says), and “If I Had a Heart, I’d Cry,” criticizing what she calls the current “holy war.” The rest of the ballet, named for a 1970 antiwar ballad from her second album, “Clouds,” is dominated by material from her ’80s and ’90s albums, which are more rhythmically charged (and hence better for dance) than her earlier work.


The backdrop is composed of stills from Ms. Mitchell’s mixed-media art exhibition. One night while she was flipping through “The Gold Diggers of 1937,” CNN and the History Channel on her ancient television (she is something of a Luddite and only recently got a decent stereo system), her screen went on the fritz, blurring images and turning everything a radioactive emerald. Faces melted away, and lines of bodies seeped into the frightening indistinctness of nightmare, as though the malfunctioning television were offering a metaphorical political commentary. She could no longer tell soldier from chorus girl, battle casualty from lover, the dancer from the dance.


 


 


 


 



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