Celebrating the anniversary of the Harlem Cultural Festival with a musical showcase in Harlem featuring Talib Kweli, Alice Smith, and even Freddie Stone, the lead guitarist and one of the original members of Sly & the Family Stone.
The first time I saw him, Igmar Thomas seemed awfully young. He’s a thin guy with quick eyes and an easy manner, and he often wears a black-on-black San Diego ball cap, a reminder of where he’s from. He was chatting with people downstairs at the Cornelia Street Cafe, including Dave Douglas, the trumpet player and also the president and co-founder of the Festival of New Trumpet Music (FONT), a non-profit organization started by Douglas and Roy Campbell, Jr. in the early 2000s.
Thomas was there to perform the music he had written for the first Roy Campbell, Jr. Commission awarded by FONT, after which he would join about 16 other trumpet and brass players on the small stage for a “trumpet conduction” that would climax with the whole group playing a beautiful theme by Campbell himself, who died in January 2014 of heart disease at 61.
At the concert, Douglas recalled coming to New York and meeting Campbell when they were playing in rival street bands, trading ideas and becoming friends. Dave Douglas is a white guy from the New Jersey suburbs, while Campbell grew up in the city, a very talented African-American who would live a rich artistic life, including a formative stint in the Netherlands.
Does race matter in jazz? You bet it does.
Thinking about the role of race in jazz is more than a simple year-end column can do. But letting the subject pass at the end of 2014 — at this particular moment in our nation’s history — also seems wrong. Jazz is often called America’s original art form, but let there be no doubt: jazz at its origins and core is African-American. White musicians are quick to acknowledge this. Pianist Aaron Parks, in a conversation with me this fall put it this way: “This music, the trunk of the tree — it’s black music. That’s a given.”
What Thomas did on the stage of the Cornelia Street Cafe that night with a quintet — including Zaccai Curtis on piano, Corcoran Holt on bass, drummer Dana Hawkins, and saxophonist Troy Roberts — was marvelous: an hour of crackling hard bop that suggested his connection back to Miles Davis and Freddie Hubbard without making him seem like an imitator. But the highlight was a tune called “The Hunted”.
Even if Thomas had not preceded the composition with a few words explaining its origin, I’m certain the audience would have understood. I was sitting about six feet from the edge of the stage when it started, somewhat chaotic and mournful, the band setting up a swirl beneath Thomas’s plaintive tone, arcing out over the room. It felt like music that was trying to get its bearings. Then, slowly, the music dissolved into a silence that hung for a moment before it was interrupted by exactly six extremely loud shots on Hawkins’s snare.
The shots came in the three groups, syncopated and violent. I jumped in my seat. It was as if I was punched in the ears and the gut. Because six shots, played just that way, well, they could mean only one thing in 2014.
Without words, the band proceeded to write the story of Michael Brown’s killing in sound. There was frustration and anger. There was history and the way a certain kind of history can smear a darkness across a whole culture.
The audience was black and white, which is often not the case in jazz clubs, where something about the music seems to create some segregation. The band was black but diverse in its own way, with players from different cultures. And FONT, the organization that helped “The Hunted” to happen, was doing its job, literally fulfilling its purpose.
FONT’s mission is to support “new music by a diverse community of trumpet and brass players and the presentation of their work to the public”. Among its goals: “Confronting and challenging traditional boundaries of gender, race, and culture in the music field by presenting the broadest possible idea of who a trumpet player can be.”
The killing in Ferguson made me feel helpless. Even without delving into the details of the situation, it was plain that the event was tied to a long history. The ruthless and immoral institution that had been enshrined in our very Constitution may have been abolished, but it was not erased. Hatred and fear haunt this country. What can one person do about it?, I felt. Even as I try to live my life each day granting dignity and respect to all, regardless of race, I know that my skin color and background places me above the fray.
Listening to Thomas play, of course, did not contribute to making America a better place. It didn’t stop a prosecutor and his grand jury from whitewashing the incident this November. Nor did it inspire the protests that have followed, which might be the kind of action that could inch the culture forward a bit.
But the music itself, the artistry of Thomas and his band, with the support of Douglas and his organization, may be the kind of good that we count on in this culture. (As this column is being submitted, Thomas is headed into the studio to record “Then Hunted”, just days after yet another grand jury failed to indict a different police officer in a different murder.)
Jazz, Black American Music, whatever you choose to call it, was born of tragedy and triumph. The spirit of the blues is not one of sadness but one of optimism, of overcoming adversity. From Louis Armstrong to Igmar Thomas, what you hear in jazz is human dignity and intellectual achievement, an ideal of heart and mind, a truly daring feat that the finest musicians spend years honing and perfecting. Few of them make much money from it, but they pursue it with love, as a calling.
For me, the music is this culture at its best. That night, seeing Douglas and Thomas talk and then play together, everything made sense. As the night closed and the 17 jazz musicians improvised over that tender theme written by Roy Campbell, Jr., every musician was playing directly for Campbell’s sister, who happened to be seated right next to me. They were squeezed onto the stage, shoulder to shoulder, and they mourned her brother’s passing, and they reflected back out to all of us the gorgeous and free sound Campbell made with his talent, with his horn.
It was the blues incarnate, a callback to a New Orleans funeral with the second line taking you from tears to triumph. The band was America as we dream of it: black and white, woman and man, gentile and Jewish, old and young, east/west/heartland, united in love and remembrance, sharing a language in music.
In a year when “jazz” felt somewhat divided or even divisive at times, Igmar Thomas reminded me that at its best, this culture crosses divides. The music does that more gracefully and routinely than we do, of course. It shames our behavior with its grace and potential.
It’s a profound lesson. It’s why I listen with such care and with such hope.