NEA Arts Magazine

The Pulse of Jazz in American History and Culture

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NEA Jazz Master Nat Hentoff. Photo by Tom Pich

NEA Jazz Master Nat Hentoff. Photo by Tom Pich

ON JANUARY 19, 2009, Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday, Jazz at Lincoln Center and the Rockefeller Foundation presented a concert, Let Freedom Swing: A Celebration of America, at the Kennedy Center in the nation’s capital. Heralding the event, the sponsors declared it "would illustrate that American democracy and America's music share the same tenets and embody the same potential for change, hope, and renewal." Most striking, however, was a quote from Martin Luther King at a 1964 jazz festival in Berlin: Jazz, he said, is America's "triumphant music."

And that reminded me of one of the legal architects of the Supreme Court’s triumph over public school segregation in Brown v. Board of Education. On the staff of Thurgood Marshall, who argued that and previous cases, was Charles Black.

Later, in the Yale Law Journal, the then constitutional law professor, Charles Black, told of growing up in deeply segregated Texas when, in 1931 at 16, he heard Louis Armstrong at a hotel in Houston: "He was the first genius I had ever seen. It is impossible to overstate the significance of a 16-year-old Southern boy's seeing genius for the first time in a black. We literally never saw a black man then in any but a servant's capacity."

"It was just then," Black continued, "that I started working toward the Brown case where I belonged"—with the result that the freedom-resounding trumpet of Louis Armstrong became part of American constitutional history.

IT TOOK YEARS before this music—rooted in field hollers (by which slaves communicated across plantations), the gospel music in Holiness Churches, and the blues—broke out of its own segregation: prohibiting public interracial performances by jazz improvisers. But as the music's sounds of surprise and the life force of its rhythms energized the spirits of more and more Americans, Louis Armstrong, in a 1941 letter to jazz critic and historian Leonard Feather, wrote:

"I'd like to recall one of my most inspiring moments. I was playing a concert date in a Miami auditorium; I walked on stage and there I saw something I'd never seen. I saw thousands of people, colored and white, on the main floor. Not segregated in one row of whites and another row of Negroes. Just all together— naturally. I thought I was in the wrong state. When you see things like that, you know you're going forward."

By 2003, Louis was gone but his music, and that of the ever-growing list of jazz masters, had become an international language—evidence of which I saw in October of that year when I was standing in front of Louis' home in Corona, Queens (a borough of New York City). His home had officially become a National Historic Landmark and a New York City Landmark.

As I reported at the time, that block—Louis Armstrong Place—"was jammed with Louis Armstrong's neighbors and school kids, musicians, and people of all colors, ages, and classes from this country, Germany, Poland, and other lands" reached by Louis and such members of the jazz pantheon as Duke Ellington, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, and many others embodying the essence of the American spirit.

Master drummer Max Roach once added to my understanding of the continuing thrust of our Constitution. We were talking about what I call the rhythm section of our liberties, the Bill of Rights, and Max said: "Do you realize that what we do is what the Constitution is all about? In jazz, each of us has individual voices, but we must listen attentively to one another as we play—and out of this whole, comes what we call jazz."

And in another jazz-and-Constitution interchange, Wynton Marsalis of Jazz at Lincoln Center was talking with former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. The latter revealed she’s a longtime jazz admirer, going back to when, in college, she heard New Orleans tailgate trombonist Kid Ory.

"One of the beautiful things about jazz improvisation," Wynton told her, "is that you can take something that we all know, and you can make it into another piece—but it still keeps its identity. It's how the Constitution can be amended, and it’s still the Constitution, but here’s our take on it. That means it's always new—because the ideas [in its foundation] are valid, they're timeless."

Responded Justice O’Connor: "Well now, if we can just get members of legislative branches to pay a little more attention to the theory of jazz, we’d all be better off, don't you think?"

Wynton Marsalis and former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor at Let Freedom Swing: A Celebration of America at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. Photo by Theo Wargo, courtesy of Jazz at Lincoln Center

IT WOULD ALSO BE ENLIGHTENING and invigorating if our schools were to integrate the culture of jazz into the teaching of American history. There's more that can be done in our schools to generate lifelong understanding of the arts, and also create more artists. And that's why Quincy Jones is organizing a campaign to bring more music back into the schools, including jazz.

As for more music in the schools, the students are ready. When I brought recordings of classic New Orleans jazz—bands led by clarinetist George Lewis—to a fourth-grade class, the kids starting dancing, and so did this teacher. And historian Peter Gerler, who is very knowledgeable about King Oliver and other New Orleans jazz icons, tells of recently playing with a Dixieland band at a senior center in Boston.

"A group of 25 school kids came for a field trip to visit with the seniors. All I needed was to look at these kids to know they likely had never heard traditional jazz. I had no idea how we might be received. But as soon as we started playing, the kids were up! We were swinging, and the kids rode the crest of that wave—laughing, dancing, making fun. I think that if Q [Quincy Jones] can get the game rolling, he'll find the dice loaded in his favor."

JAZZ ALSO CREATES this feeling across all kinds of national and other boundary lines. Worldclass jazz guitarist Jim Hall, a neighbor of mine in New York’s Greenwich Village, says of his performance in countries around the world: "I can't talk to most of these musicians in their language, but once we start playing, we have a full common language."

Even during the harshly repressive years in Stalin's Russia, where jazz was banned, sessions continued. And I once received a note—smuggled out of the Soviet Union—from a tenor saxophonist in Moscow. He had found and read a liner note I'd written for a John Coltrane album, and had been impelled to make copies and send them to fellow jazz players in the Soviet Union in a secret samizdat.

For years, American jazz musicians served as State Department ambassadors to many nations; and since 2005—in collaboration between the State Department and Jazz at Lincoln Center—they've been swinging past national and cultural barriers again.

"One band," reported The Economist (April 16, 2009), "went to Mauritania after last year's coup; many depart for countries that have strained relations with America; the musicians travel to places where some have never seen an American."

Then there is testimony from jazz trumpeter and educator Jon Faddis. He told me this story about the liberating impact of this born-in-America music not only here but everywhere.

In 1953, Louis Armstrong was scheduled to appear in the Belgian Congo, where a ruthless civil war was underway. When news came of his imminent presence, Jon said, "The factions stopped the war to listen to Louis's music."

He added: "We could definitely use Louis Armstrong now." Louis’s longtime friend and engineer of the Louis Armstrong Educational Fund, Phoebe Jacobs, often says:

"Don't let anyone tell you Louis is dead! He’s not!"

And neither will this music die that Martin Luther King celebrated as "triumphant."

Nat Hentoff was the first recipient of the A.B. Spellman NEA Jazz Masters Award for Jazz Advocacy in 2004. He is a noted critic, journalist, and producer, and writes about music for the Wall Street Journal.