I’m a cold weather person so today marks my countdown to the end of summer. While the living ain’t easy, I take some comfort in the cool versions of one of my favorite songs, George Gershwin’s “Summertime.”
June is Black Music Month. This June marks the 95th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. For two days (May 31-June1), white vigilantes massacred hundreds of black residents, looted and burned to the ground the most prosperous black community in the United States.
The riot took place in the Greenwood District, known as the Black Wall Street, the heart of which was bounded by Greenwood Avenue, and Archer and Pine streets. Tulsa natives, brothers Charlie, Ronnie and Robert Wilson’s band name pays tribute to one of the worst race riots in U.S. history.
Black Wall Street, a hotbed for jazz and blues, was a stop on the famed Chitlin’ Circuit. Bandleader Walter Barnes was one of the most colorful characters on “the stroll.”
The tour [Walter Barnes and his Royal Creolians] kicked off in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the week before Thanksgiving, where Barnes found “Black Wall Street” bustling. “Greenwood is the name of the colored district of Tulsa, and one can get anything here from a shoe shine up.” Barnes highlighted the stroll’s musicians, dance promoters, dance halls, and its dentists, barbers, pharmacies, cafes, cab companies, and lodgings, always stressing the up-to-date. “I stopped with my entire orchestra at the modern and exclusive Small Hotel” in Tulsa, “one of the best equipped in the country, having newest electrical fixtures, telephone in each room, bath in every room, and modernistic furniture.” The Kings of Swing played the Crystal Palace Ballroom, “the last word in beauty,” and hung around the Goodie Goodie Club, Cotton Club, and Del Rio. “There’s plenty niteries here.”
In 1940, Barnes was killed in a fire while performing at the Rhythm Club in Natchez, Mississippi. The tragedy was memorialized in tribute songs by blues musicians, including Howlin’ Wolf and John Lee Hooker.
Jazz is perhaps the most honest reflection of who we are as a nation. Because after all, has there ever been any greater improvisation than America itself? We do it in our own way. We move forward even when the road ahead is uncertain, stubbornly insistent that we’ll get to somewhere better, and confident that we’ve got all the right notes up our sleeve.
That “honest reflection of who we are as a nation” became an instrument of cultural diplomacy during the Cold War. Jazz musicians-turned-cultural ambassadors toured in more than 35 countries in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, Latin America and the Middle East. Jazz diplomacy was intended to win hearts and minds and promote a positive view of America as the land of freedom.
The irony of being ambassadors of freedom was not lost on jazz musicians who were treated as second-class citizens at home and subject to Jim Crow segregation.
Dizzy Gillespie was the first Jazz Ambassador. The legendary Adam Clayton Powell Jr. was the catalyst behind the tour. His son, Adam Clayton Powell III, President of the Public Diplomacy Council, recently wrote:
Americans underestimate the impact of jazz on audiences around the world. And in a way that contributes to the power of international tours by U.S. jazz musicians, including and especially tours sponsored by the U.S. State Department.
During the Cold War, America’s most prominent “jazz ambassadors” included Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong – at a time when segregation was the law of the land in much of the U.S. and the civil rights movement was at its peak. And that created a conflict for many of musicians.
“You had people being hosed down with fire hoses and dogs sicced on them, and you had these reports going out across the world,” said [Willard] Jenkins. “So it did create a real issue for many of the African American musicians who were selected to make those tours.”
Then Jenkins read from instructions given to musicians by the State Department: “‘Remember who you are and what you represent. Always be a credit to your government.’”
All good things must come to an end. Jazz Appreciation Month is going out on a high note. On Saturday, April 30, America’s classical music will be celebrated across the globe, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe.
UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova said in a statement:
Jazz was born in the U.S. and traveled the world as a music of tolerance, freedom and human dignity. This is why UNESCO created International Jazz Day and we are extremely pleased that in 2016 Washington, DC has been designated the host city for this global celebration, with a unique All Star Concert at the White House, hosted by the President of the United States Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. This event reminds us Jazz is more than music – it is a universal message of peace with rhythm and meaning.
UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador Herbie Hancock added:
We are thrilled that President Obama and Michelle Obama are hosting the International Jazz Day All-Star Global Concert at the White House, and are truly grateful for their commitment to jazz and its role in building bridges and uniting people around the world. Over the past five years, the innovation and creativity of Jazz Day has been a beacon of light to millions of people who find common ground and communicate through the values inherent in jazz. On April 30th, people of all ages in all corners of the globe will participate in International Jazz Day. A wide range of momentous events will take place in thousands of neighborhoods – and the streets will be alive with the sounds of peace and freedom.
The lineup is a real-life fantasy jam session.
The all-star global concert will air on ABC-TV at 8pm ET.
It’s probably no coincidence the two art forms are celebrated during the same month. After all, the Harlem Renaissance gave birth to jazz poetry. The most celebrated jazz poet is Langston Hughes who collaborated with jazz musicians, including Charles Mingus and Thelonious Monk.
But jazz to me is one of the inherent expressions of Negro life in America; the eternal tom-tom beating in the Negro soul—the tom-tom of revolt against weariness in a white world, a world of subway trains, and work, work, work; the tom-tom of joy and laughter, and pain swallowed in a smile.
In 1958, Hughes recorded his poem, “The Weary Blues,” over jazz composed by Mingus and Leonard Feather.
Also, check out a reading of “The Weary Blues” by Rev. Dr. Allen Dwight Callahan, a Philly native and former professor at Harvard Divinity School.
April is Jazz Appreciation Month. The City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection got the party started early with the Philly Celebrates Jazz kickoff on March 28th.
Mayor Jim Kenney proclaimed April as Philadelphia Jazz Appreciation Month. He also honored Philly native and Grammy Award-winning bassist and composer Christian McBride who was given an inscribed Liberty Bell, the equivalent of the key to the city.
Christian McBride is an ambassador of Philadelphia to the world, not only through his music, but also through his work as an educator and advocate for music education. “Christian’s story and accomplishments demonstrates the power of arts education, in our schools and communities, and the impact it can have on a person’s life and how we can encourage and build the next generation of musicians, artists, and creative thinkers.
Philly Celebrates Jazz includes live performances, film screenings and art exhibitions. Now on view at City Hall are two photography exhibitions, Live Philly Jazz – Through the Photographic Lens and The Clef Club at 50, a retrospective curated by Don Gardner, Managing Director of the Philadelphia Clef Club, and Artistic Director Lovett Hines.