“A Message In Our Music” Coming This February From Alternate Takes

Jazz (Black American Music) may not be the first genre to come to mind when dealing with the subject of music which is socially conscious, but it should.  While The Impressions, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, The O’Jays and Gil Scott-Heron gave voice successfully to the plight of Black America through song (and action), jazz musicians were making overt statements about race and culture many years before, and continued doing so alongside their peers across a range of musical classifications.

When we think about it, jazz music is essentially a personification of everything this country stands for in theory, but fails at in practice: freedom, democracy, liberty, and justice.  While some may condense the Black freedom struggle to the years that spanned the Civil Rights Movement, it’s not hard to understand why this is an incomplete and naive summation.  Within the last few years, Oscar Grant, Sean Bell, Timothy Stansbury Jr., and James Craig Anderson have become household names and global reminders that America continues to bounce the check of equality that Dr. King so eloquently spoke of in his “I Have a Dream” speech almost fifty years ago.  From the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, to the African Liberation Movement, jazz has been an important musical narrative of the journey of Blacks in America for decades.

A Message In Our Music is a three-part series from Alternate Takes, featuring candid and enlightening conversations with modern masters Christian McBride, Vijay Iyer and Jason Moran.  Each will discuss jazz from this under-examined angle, while reflecting on the albums that are most meaningful to them on the subject.  Don’t miss this very special series this Black History Month!

On This Day: Dr. Martin Luther King Memorial Dedication

Today history is made.

This morning, the first monument of an African American on the National Mall in Washington D.C. will be dedicated by, among many other distinguished figures, the first African American President of the United States.  With all of the turmoil and strife going on in our nation today, sadly including the continued practices of racial and class discrimination that Dr. King sacrificed his life to help end, this is indeed a proud day.

In honor of this day and Dr. King, I would like to share a speech that you may or may not be aware of.  It’s a speech Dr. King made from the 1964 Berlin Jazz Festival.

On the Importance of Jazz

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Opening Address to the 1964 Berlin Jazz Festival

God has wrought many things out of oppression. He has endowed his creatures with the capacity to create—and from this capacity has flowed the sweet songs of sorrow and joy that have allowed man to cope with his environment and many different situations.

Jazz speaks for life. The Blues tell the story of life’s difficulties, and if you think for a moment, you will realize that they take the hardest realities of life and put them into music, only to come out with some new hope or sense of triumph.

This is triumphant music.

Modern jazz has continued in this tradition, singing the songs of a more complicated urban existence. When life itself offers no order and meaning, the musician creates an order and meaning from the sounds of the earth which flow through his instrument.

It is no wonder that so much of the search for identity among American Negroes was championed by Jazz musicians. Long before the modern essayists and scholars wrote of racial identity as a problem for a multiracial world, musicians were returning to their roots to affirm that which was stirring within their souls.

Much of the power of our Freedom Movement in the United States has come from this music. It has strengthened us with its sweet rhythms when courage began to fail. It has calmed us with its rich harmonies when spirits were down.

And now, Jazz is exported to the world. For in the particular struggle of the Negro in America there is something akin to the universal struggle of modern man. Everybody has the Blues. Everybody longs for meaning. Everybody needs to love and be loved. Everybody needs to clap hands and be happy. Everybody longs for faith.

In music, especially this broad category called Jazz, there is a stepping stone towards all of these.