Africa Speaks, America Answers: Modern Jazz in Revolutionary Times

Robin D. G. Kelley

Four jazz musicians from Brooklyn, Ghana, and South Africa demonstrate how modern Africa reshaped jazz, how modern jazz helped form a new African identity, and how such musical crossings altered the politics and culture of both continents.

Africa Speaks, America Answers: Modern Jazz in Revolutionary Times

Publisher: Harvard University Press
Price: $24.95
Author: Robin D. G. Kelley
Length: 272 pages
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2012-02
Excerpted from the Prelude from Africa Speaks, America Answers by Robin D. G. Kelley, published by Harvard University Press (footnotes omitted). Copyright © 2012 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.
Jazz, America’s own music, is a happy gift which Negroes have given to the whole world. We can be right proud of our musical present wrapped up in the rhythms of Africa that have now gone around the world, refashioned, and back again.

-- Langston Hughes, quoted in the Chicago Defender, 1955

The October 19, 1962, issue of Time magazine ran an unsigned editorial titled “Crow Jim” admonishing a new generation of jazz musicians for embracing black nationalist politics. The essay described a coterie of “angry young men who are passionately involved in the rise of Negro nationalism. Jazz compositions these days bear titles like A Message from Kenya (Art Blakey), Uhuru Afika (Randy Weston), Africa Speaks, America Answers (Guy Warren), Afro-American Sketches (Oliver Nelson). Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite—We Insist includes tunes like ‘Tears for Johannesburg,’ a lament for the Africans shot down in the Sharpeville massacre.”

Most of these artists were not self-identified black nationalists, nor were they all “American Negroes.” One, Guy Warren, was from Ghana, and he was incensed over being thrown in with the lot. In a long, unpublished letter to the editor, Warren made a point to distance himself from the other musicians and insisted that his album, Africa Speaks, America Answers, in no way shared the politics or aesthetic sensibilities of the artists included in the article. He took them to task for jumping on the “African bandwagon” and credited himself with bringing African music to American jazz. He recalled how he had introduced African rhythms when no one was interested. Then “the miracle happened! Africa began to stir from her deep sleep, and to stretch out her strong hands. The Black giant was ready to take her place in world affairs... the flame of freedom began to burn through everything and anything that stood in its way... suddenly AFRICA BECAME THE THING! It became the gimmick in the trade, and every s.o.b. jumped on the wagon to MAKE MONEY... So Max Roach, Art Blakey, and many other musicians started to play their so-called African music, and to give such aggressive titles to their music.” Warren dismissed all of this music as “racial and prejudicial,” “hollow,” and “meaningless.” And he was unequivocal in declaring that “IT IS NOT AFRICAN MUSIC.”

An African drummer committed to fusing jazz and African rhythms, Warren had spent the previous seven years struggling for recognition and fighting to get his unique brand of music heard. By 1962, he found himself competing in an overcrowded field. And yet, there is no denying that Africa had become “THE THING.” It was the age of African independence, the Sharpeville Massacre in South Africa, Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser’s unprecedented stand against imperialist power, Patrice Lumumba’s tragic assassination, the era of Bandung and the rise of the Third World—events and movements that profoundly shaped the politics and the music of the period. On the other side of the Atlantic, Africa’s descendants were embroiled in their own freedom struggle, from Montgomery to Memphis, Birmingham to Brooklyn. But even as U.S. struggles for racial justice and equality intensified, for many black activists and artists their vision of a liberated future included Africa. African nationalist leaders visited the United States and made pilgrimages to Harlem while African Americans formed liberation support committees and looked to the continent to blaze a more hopeful future for the diaspora. Consequently, during the era of decolonization we witness an explosion of jazz recordings bearing African themes. Besides those already mentioned, the list includes Buddy Collette, “Tanganyika”; Sonny Rollins, “Airegin”; John Coltrane, “Liberia,” “Dakar,” “Dahomey Dance,” “Tanganyika Strut,” and “Africa”; Max Roach, “Man from South Africa,” “All Africa,” and “Garvey’s Ghost”; Horace Parlan, “Home Is Africa”; Lee Morgan, “Search for the New Land” and “Mr. Kenyatta”; Cannonball Adderley, “African Waltz,” to name but a few.

Although anticolonial movements and a nostalgic conception of Africa as a lost homeland inspired musicians to compose paeans to the continent, identification with Africa was hardly universal among black leaders and artists during this period. The force of Cold War anticommunism and the ongoing quest for full citizenship compelled many prominent African Americans to close ranks with U.S. nationalists and distance themselves from Africa and the struggles of colonized people. Whether motivated by a genuine belief in the conceits of the American Empire’s democratizing project or a genuine fear of Cold War repression, a parade of black leaders bent over backward to prove their loyalty and membership in the American “family.” Roi Ottley, Walter White, Adam Clayton Powell, and many others praised the material abundance and liberties African Americans enjoyed and, while acknowledging inequities and the persistence of prejudice, argued that America at its best still offered a beacon of freedom against the tyranny of communism. When Congressman Adam Clayton Powell attended the historic meeting of nonaligned nations in Bandung, Indonesia (without support or sanction from his own government), he defended his country against allegations that the persistence of segregation rendered the United States a hypocritical freedom fighter, at best. “Second class citizenship is on the way out,” Powell told his critics. “To be a Negro is no longer a stigma.” Powell had personal motives for painting such a rosy picture of race relations. Faced with the blacklisting of his wife, pianist and singer Hazel Scott, for her alleged communist leanings, he felt compelled to establish his loyalist, anticommunist credentials. But Powell’s defense of the United States as a genuine racial democracy in the making cannot be dismissed as merely a cynical ploy. Powell was part of a chorus of voices promoting the idea of putting black progress on display through State Department–sponsored jazz tours. Musicians like Dizzy Gillespie, Wilbur de Paris, and Louis Armstrong were designated “goodwill ambassadors,” leading racially integrated bands to the world’s “hot spots” in order to showcase American talent and mask racial turmoil at home.

Even black intellectuals and leaders independent of U.S. diplomatic institutions often chose to close ranks with fellow Americans rather than see themselves as a part of what Malcolm X once called a “tidal wave of color” beating back global white supremacy. Indeed, in 1956 when Martinican critic Aimé Césaire characterized racism in the United States as an extension of colonialism in a speech before the Congress of Black Writers and Artists in Paris, several black Americans in attendance took issue. John A. Davis, a political scientist and founder of the American Society for African Culture (AMSAC), also brother of the distinguished anthropologist Allison Davis, vehemently rejected the analogy, insisting that America itself has a long and distinguished anticolonial history. James Ivy of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) went even further, arguing that “The Negroes in the United States are the most quintessential of Americans,” having more in common with Europe than Africa. Even James Baldwin, a sharp critic of U.S. policy, dismissed the colonial analogy; he, too, felt there was something exceptional about being an “American Negro” that resulted from living in a “free” country.

Cold War liberalism, alongside domestic struggles for racial justice and international movements for independence (both national sovereignty and nonalignment), profoundly shaped the political climate in which artists engaged both Africa and America. Most of the African American musicians discussed in this book pushed back against the notion of a unique black American identity, choosing instead to identify with Africa. They also embraced the metaphor of family, but their family was global, universal, and it knew no boundaries of place or race—although it did privilege Africa. For someone like Guy Warren, however, America was exceptional. First, it was the heartland of the music he loved dearly, then a territory to conquer and revitalize with his African rhythms, and finally a place of corruption, commercialism, and crass exploitation—a crumbling, bankrupt empire whose black inhabitants proved too ignorant or self-absorbed to embrace the riches of African music and culture.

By exploring the work, conversations, collaborations, and tensions between both African and African American musicians during the era of decolonization, I examine how modern Africa figured in reshaping jazz during the 1950s and early 1960s, how modern jazz figured in the formation of a modern African identity, and how various musical convergences and crossings shaped the political and cultural landscape on both continents. This book is not about the African roots of jazz, nor does it ask how American jazz musicians supported African liberation or “imagined” Africa. Rather, it is about transnational encounters between musicians, or what the ethnomusicologist Jason Stanyek calls “intercultural collaboration,” and encounters between musicians and particular locations (such as Lagos, Chicago, New York, or Cape Town). In other words, it hopes to explain how encounters with specific places, people, movements, cultures, provided fertile ground for new music and musical practices.

Robin D. G. Kelley is Gary B. Nash Chair of U.S. History at the University of California, Los Angeles.

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