Rhapsody on appreciation from Liberal Street Fighter

Have you ever reflected on the fact that so much that is uniquely American is born from the creativity of those most mistreated in this country?

America’s new jazz museum! (No poor black people allowed)

Much as we Americans like to pay lip service to jazz as “our national music,” with the Crescent City its seminal home, we tend to favor jazz’s quality as aural decoration over its contents as oral history; we stock up on classic reissues of past masters but rarely consider the music’s meaning in our current lives.

We owe so much to the descendents of slaves and the African diaspora. Jazz, spirituals, gospel, blues, soul, rock-and-roll … even modern country music is the fusion of gospel, the folk music of poor exiles from the British Isles and blues … so much of what is modern music was born from the hopes, dreams and despair of Americans who’ve NEVER been fully welcome here as equal citizens. Yet still, they have brought us these wonderful gifts. Our truest history is recorded in song.

Jazz and its cousins are the very distillation of life. Often, it’s also been the soundtrack of protest and outrage:

Jazz has always had a complex role in our national image: Louis Armstrong caused a stir in 1957 when he rebuffed President Eisenhower and canceled a U.S. State Department tour to the Soviet Union because of riots in Little Rock, Ark., over school integration. “The way they are treating my people in the South,” Armstrong told newspaper reporters, “the government can go to hell.” Armstrong’s very words were on the lips of quite a few Americans (and not just Kanye West), especially African-Americans in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward — not too far from Armstrong’s birthplace — where the worst of the devastation occurred when the Industrial Canal levee was breached.

The jazz community has now been freshly sparked into practical activity, raising money and manpower, but also into deeper consciousness-raising regarding the truths dredged up in Katrina’s wake and the potential for irretrievable cultural loss. Political activism among jazz’s ranks — think Charles Mingus’ 1959 “Fables of Faubus” (denouncing racist Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus), or Max Roach’s 1960 “Freedom Now! Suite” — has been largely in response to racial injustice, but it also has concerned the tough moral and metaphorical questions about American identity — and it is more acutely focused than in decades.

Through both his trumpet and his role as artistic director of jazz at Lincoln Center, Marsalis, our most recognizable living jazz musician, has spoken loudly and repeatedly about New Orleans’ (his hometown) role in establishing (and fixing) the American identity. These statements have often been taken as mere bromides: Jazz as a civics lesson about democracy in action; the blues as source material for all things American. But Marsalis’ themes took on newfound resonance in his nuanced essay for Time magazine.

As Marsalis put it in his Time essay:

This tragedy, however, should make us take an account of ourselves. We should not allow the mythic significance of this moment to pass without proper consideration. Let us assess the size of this cataclysm in cultural terms, not in dollars and cents or politics. Americans are far less successful at doing that because we have never understood how our core beliefs are manifest in culture–and how culture should guide political and economic realities. That’s what the city of New Orleans can now teach the nation again as we are all forced by circumstance to literally come closer to one another. I say teach us again, because New Orleans is a true American melting pot: the soul of America. A place freer than the rest of the country, where elegance met an indefinable wildness to encourage the flowering of creative intelligence. Whites, Creoles and Negroes were strained, steamed and stewed in a thick, sticky, below-sea-level bowl of musky gumbo. These people produced an original cuisine, an original architecture, vibrant communal ceremonies and an original art form: jazz.

Racism and slavery are still haunting us. Isn’t it past time we made amends to this community that has made America what it is? Isn’t it time that we stopped repeating the mistakes of the past and make our country whole? The wonderful thing about jazz is the way it takes something simple and builds something glorious on the “conversation” between the musicians in the band. Life is enhanced when we realize the way our shared experiences become something more when a creative musician, or artist, or chef or architect or just a guy talking on the sidewalk distill them through life’s experiences and the happenstances of unlike influences to come together in the heat of life and pain and creative ferment. This is the true gift America brings to the world, that we CAN, in cities like New Orleans, create beauty out of difference and adversity.

The Salon piece goes on to highlight some of the more powerful presentations of the recent fundraising concert at Jazz at Lincoln Center:

And at Marsalis’ “Higher Ground” benefit, the tone was more pointedly political than is customary at Lincoln Center. “When the hurricane struck, it did not turn the region into a third-world country,” actor Danny Glover said from the stage. “It revealed one.” Singer Harry Belafonte, at his side, declared, “Katrina was not unforeseeable. It was the result of a political structure that subcontracts its responsibility to private contractors and abdicates its responsibility altogether.”

“This is how I feel about my country,” Jon Hendricks announced before singing a bossa nova with the refrain “Somebody tell me the truth.”

New Orleans trumpeter Irvin Mayfield played the hymn “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” at that benefit in dedication to his father, who, he said, “is still missing down there.” Mayfield has yet to locate his father. At home, he leads several bands, including the nonprofit New Orleans Jazz Orchestra. Two years ago he was appointed cultural ambassador for the city, a position that involves working closely with Mayor Ray Nagin and Gov. Kathleen Blanco.

“I’ll tell you, in terms of the response to this hurricane, the local government gets a big F,” he said. “The federal government gets an F. The country gets a big fat F. When the levee was breached the culture was breached, and not that many people seemed to care.”

I’d add that the American people get an F. We need to finally face this, repay the debt, earn the beauty and joy and wonder that black Americans have brought to us, and to the world. Lets start by doing right by New Orleans.

photo from Southern Music dot net (where you can also find info about the whereabouts of New Orleans musicians and links to Habitat for Humanity and the history of New Orleans jazz).

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