Jazz is Activism

Jazz is activism: it requires training, commitment, belief, and action. It is brought to life through fire, resolve, imagination. Now practiced by peoples of all colors and tongues around the globe, jazz was born of African-American musical traditions and the lived experience of oppression. Music of the church and of the fields voiced hopes for a better tomorrow whether in the North or in heaven.

The explicit sounding of discontent and political demands came later. Billie Holiday’s singing of “Strange Fruit” or even Louis Armstrong’s version of the Fats Waller lament “Black and Blue” were indictments of racism (though the line “I’m white inside, but that don’t help my case / Cause I can’t hide what is on my face” was heard by some to ricochet right back at Pops, the greatest of jazz entertainer.)

Ellington’s Black, Brown, and Beige laid out the sweep of African-American history. A work of symphonic ambition, it was first heard in that citadel of high culture, Carnegie Hall, in 1943.

As the struggle for civil rights took to the streets and the courts, it was also waged on vinyl.

With magnificently poised insolence, Charles Mingus’s “Fables of Faubus” of 1959 mocked racist Arkansas governor Orval Faubus for deploying the National Guard to stop the integration of the Little Rock schools two years earlier. Issued initially without its lyrics, the song was recorded live  in 1960 with the band’s ragged, grumbled singing a taunting send-up of fearful prayer. Mingus’s unruly, improvising congregation militantly refused to shuffle off into the shadows:

Oh, Lord, don’t let ’em shoot us!
Oh, Lord, don’t let ’em stab us!
Oh, Lord, no more swastikas!
Oh, Lord, no more Ku Klux Klan!

(The claim, repeated on Wikipedia, that Columbia Records suppressed the lyrics on the original 1959 disc is a myth.)

Another radical amplification of the latent protest of Ellington, Holiday, and Armstrong came the same year as “Fables of Faubus” with the scalding intensity of We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Suite. As soon as the needle drops on the opening of “Driva Man,” Abbey Lincoln’s voice lashes at Oscar Brown’s poetry as she accompanies herself—hits herself—with the tambourine in a frightening evocation of the white overseer:

Driva’ man he made a life.
But the Mamie ain’t his wife.

Choppin’ cotton don’t be slow,
Better finish out your row.

Nothing is more terrifying and more beautiful than Lincoln’s lone work song, not even her screams on the middle section of “Triptych: Prayer, Protest, Peace” heard later on the record.

The following year of 1961 Art Blakey poured his high octane fuel onto the same fire with the seven-minute drum solo, “Freedom Rider” (released by Blue Note in 1964 on the album of the same name). His percussion sermon begins with cymbal crash and a volley of floor-tom thunder, then builds fiercely, its contagion spreading in all metrical directions. What is the sonic image of diversity, indeed democracy, if not Blakey’s polyrhythms, his four limbs seemingly independent beings able to agree in their sublime disagreements? The elemental Blakey growl—its own instrument, but also seemingly part of the bass drum or somewhere beneath it—wells up from deep inside, stoking the urgency. At the close, the freedom train chugs into the distance to the relentless locomotion of the Blakey hi-hat, then careens back for a final steam blast of fury.

From these musical monuments of percussive protest we come to a woman who by rights can be seen as the inheritor of the activist mantle: Terri Lynne Carrington. A drumming prodigy who at the age of ten played with famed trumpeter Clark Terry, Carrington went on to work with many other jazz legends, has won Gammy awards, and holds the Zildjian Chair in Performance at Berklee College of Music in her native Boston. She is now to be counted among the greats herself, and not simply because of her lone status as a woman in jazz—indeed at the drums, long the sole domain of testosterone-powered titans.

I heard Carrington at the Starlight Lounge in Boston’s Back Bay in 1987 behind venerable saxophonist James Moody. She was then in her early twenties. The night began with the trio—Kirk Lightsey on piano, and Moody’s long-time sideman, Todd Coolman, on bass—ripping through the swingingest “Stella by Starlight” on or off record. It was a group effort of unforgettable exuberance and charge, but it was clear to all that a surplus of sizzling energy was being given back to the musical grid by Carrington.

Thirty-two years on, Carrington brought her sextet to Bailey Hall on the Cornell campus in Ithaca, New York last Friday night to kick off the university’s main concert series, a prestigious program offering a varied line-up of soloists and ensembles of international standing.

Carrington calls her current band Social Science, which, according to the publicity for the concert, “uses their eclectic blend of jazz, indie rock, and hip-hop to explore critical themes impacting society. The band takes on topics such as social justice, racial equality, gender and sexuality, mass incarceration, and ongoing sociopolitical concerns. At its core, this project seeks to reflect conscious thought and interest in the human condition. More specifically, the music of Social Science looks to inspire and elevate a deep regard for humanity and freedom.”

That didn’t sound too specific to me, and in the event, the music wasn’t either. It ambled along to a rock beat at a more-or-less constant pace, unthreatening, almost amiable. There were occasional surges of intensity and moments of relaxation, but for the most part the ensemble reverted to an unthreatening default setting, numbing rather than galvanizing. This bland medley of shifting harmonies and slack improvisation was more a bureaucratic hymn than Blakeyian manifesto. A couple of Carrington drum solos, however impressive, did little to rouse the spirit of resistance or the musical imagination of the listeners, spread out sparsely and somewhat anti-socially through the vast neo-classical auditorium rather than clustered in shoulder-to-shoulder solidarity.

The evening began with a tender ballad sung by the evening’s most compelling performer, soprano Debo Ray. Her voice has a vast technical and emotional range—soaring effortlessly, nimble and clear, but also capable of expressing gritty defiance. The band’s keyboardist and musical director, Aaron Parks, is a subtle pianist and musical colorist. He accompanied Ray at the outset with finesse and sympathy: exceptionally on this evening of failed communication her words could be understood. Sung to imploring melodies came lines about “what may come from the Devil’s wisdom” and the unlikely—and seemingly redundant—assertion that “complacency has its place.”

After this promising prelude, the majority of the words were overwhelmed by an electronic haze emanating from large speakers to either side of the stage. The medium murdered the message.

Guitarist Matthew Stevens wasn’t oppressive with his chordal backings nor with his fleet and cutting solos, but the amplified aggregate was impossible for me to penetrate, what with Carrington’s relentless commentary, Parks’ chords and tuneful fragments grabbed at electronic keyboard or miked Steinway, the gravity and punch of Morgan Guerin’s bass lines, rapper and DJ Kassa Overall’s non-verbal sounds mouthed into his microphone and his lobbing of sampled speeches into the electronic melée. (I think I heard James Baldwin at some point.) A talented poet and on-stage presence who excels at the paradoxes of intimacy (“just to have good sex, we’d fake a fight”) and the randomness and precision of violence (“the officer’s gun on the interstate”), Overall’s rhymes were delivered with clarity, humor, and edge. Ironically, given Carrington’s avowed commitment to gender equality, it was Ray’s words that were rendered inaudible. The effect, though unintended, was like that of Lincoln’s textless flights on Max Roach’s “Prayer.” Undaunted, Ray’s song escaped its electronic shackles.

As the decibel smog thickened, I made my way through the program note, a bland cocktail of social justice and inclusivity bromides. The unobjectionable, but hopelessly vague claim that “music transcends, breaks barriers, strengthens us, and heals old wounds” was clinched by Carrington’s technocratic tag-line: “Music is Social Science”—as if Max Weber not a disciple of Max Roach were at the drum set, this one richly appointed with Zildjian cymbals.

More than once during the ninety-minute set did I want to rise from my seat and, Brando-like, shout, “Hey Stella! Stella!”

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com