Monday 30 March 2009

1959, Civil Rights And All That Jazz

Following the tradition of the esteemed Sunder Katwala with his Clough blog, I’m going to write about one of my biggest interests, jazz, and create a link to politics. Please tell me if I succeed. Unfortunately, I don’t know of a leading Fabian who was (or is) a saxophonist or a crooner, but I’m sure we can dig one out among all the Executive members over the years. I certainly know of a former Fabian intern who fits the bill, so that should count.

BBC 4 broadcast an excellent documentary to mark fifty years since 1959 and concentrated on four records that changed the course of jazz (well, three in my opinion). The link to politics is that all these records to larger or lesser extents came out of the social events of the time. The documentary had a few fascinating clips of life in America focussing on the Civil Rights movement, and also the social paranoia over a looming nuclear threat.

Much of jazz music in 1959 conveyed a seething anger and musicians like Davies and Mingus would openly show contempt for their audience by scowling or walking out of performances. Jazz was partly about playing fast and challenging music that the ordinary player or listener could not keep up with, demonstrated by Coleman in particular. This, I would argue, stems from the social reality of the time.

Charles Mingus was an extraordinary but often violent individual who took up the bass rather than the cello because it was a black instrument. Black rights was at the heart of the thinking behind his music and he gave songs titles such as Modal for Integration and Fables of Fabeus, The documentary footage showed counter Civil Rights demonstrations outside the Texas school governed by Senator Fabeus, which defied the Eisenhower government over black/white integration. There were chilling pictures of a white crowd cheerily singing ‘2, 4, 6, 8, We don’t want to integrate’ before cutting to footage of black people being set upon. The army had to intervene to restore law and order, and to escort the black pupils to school away from the baying mob. The Mingus tune has no words but its awkward and looping riff clearly mocks Fabeus, and would have sent out a very explicit contemporary message.

In contrast, Dave Brubeck is famous for a softer and more accessible side of jazz. He is white (is because he is still alive) and came under pressure to keep to an all white line-up. But, to his credit, for musical reasons he took on a black bassist even though it surely lost him marketing opportunities. Ironically, among the mainly black jazz world, there was a lot of envy against Brubeck despite the fact that he hired a black bassist, because he got the radio time and the front covers even though he was not the greatest innovator. Brubeck was chosen by the American government to tour to the edges of the Soviet Union in order to showcase the clean-cut wonders of the United States. He recalled how he was uncomfortable doing this knowing the reality of the situation back home, while he was putting on a show of harmony.

One of the contributors to the documentary said Obama would not be in his position today if it wasn’t for jazz. Perhaps that is over-stating the point, but I do think jazz had a contributory role in the civil rights movement. It revealed to sections of white America that African Americans could create a unique and highly skilled art-form out of the dust of their oppression.

P.S. If you want to see one of the other musicians featured in the documentary, Ornette Coleman, he is leading the Meltdown festival at the South Bank this summer, and will probably take along his friend and great admirer, Lou Reed. Be warned, if you are expecting easy back-ground music, Ornette Coleman is not the one for you.


Stuart White said...

Calix: I share your liking of jazz (well, jazz of a certain kind) and it definitely has a link to politics. Musicians like John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy were, I think, trying to find a musical form to express their aspirations to freedom and respect. In all of these cases, as with Miles Davies, they produced music which is so moving that it transcends their own predicament and voices something not merely political, but spiritual and universal. Pharoah Sanders and Alice Contrane are also sublime.

Calix said...

Yes, Stuart, it's that energy and urge to express that makes jazz at its best so vital.

I think nowadays jazz has lost some of that quality, but there's still some essential music around, striving at the boundaries.

If you ever have time in London do pop in to the Fabians and we can have a good discussion over a cup of coffee about politics and jazz!