As part of the Culture for All series, supported by the Communication Workers Union, we're proud to present a short film about jazz written by Chris Searle, with voiceover provided by Mike Quille.
Why Jazz Matters
by Chris Searle
I grew up in the skiffle and trad era of the 1950s, when the songs and sounds of Southern black Americans and white radicals like Woody Guthrie became almost mainstream. One of my favourites was the Ken Colyer band. Colyer was a merchant seaman who had jumped ship in New Orleans and played his trumpet there, with its finest musicians. His experiences of virtual apartheid in the city and the racist barriers facing his beloved musicians increased his radicalism, and he and his band marched to Aldermaston on giant demonstrations, protesting against nuclear weapons.
Such experiences taught me that jazz and the blues was the music of black working people, and there was no separation between music and ordinary working life. Songs like King Oliver's 'Working Man's Blues', Freddie Keppard's 'Stockyards Strut', Louis Armstrong's 'Coal Cart Blues', Duke Ellington's 'Stevedore Stomp', Bessie Smith's 'Washwoman's Blues' and Clara Smith's 'Strugglin' Woman's Blues' encompassed a world of work, hardship and struggle. The depth of their poetry of sound and word made me realise that this music was about the real world, and the musicians' powerful quest to humanise and improve it.
I listened to the early records of Ellington, and his radicalism and condemnation of Jim Crow racism in works like 'Jump for Joy' or 'Across the Track Blues'. There were also performances like his trumpeter Rex Stewart playing his tune 'Menelik', a compelling protest against the invasion of Ethiopia by Mussolini's Italian fascists.
I also followed the big band genius Count Basie and heard his expose of Southern racism in his 'It's the Same Old South', or his union with Paul Robeson singing 'King Joe', a 1941 praisesong to another great black boxer, Joe Louis. A parallel consciousness was revealed in the performance of Billie Holiday, who had sung with the Basie Orchestra. When I heard her singing the seethingly angry anti-lynching protest song 'Strange Fruit', accompanied by the trumpeter and Marxist Frankie Newton, it became even clearer that jazz was at the very centre of black people’s political protests.
This continued with musicians like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk and the great drummer Max Roach, whose records embraced Civil Rights protest and the cry for racial justice. His 1960 album 'We Insist! The Freedom Now Suite', with the sleeve photograph of a group of black activists desegregating a Southern diner, was emblematic of Roach's proud music.
During the 1960s and 1970s the Civil Rights Movement cut a path right through jazz, as dozens of tunes and albums supported and evoked the relentless campaigning. They included
- Dolphy's excruciating solo on Kurt Weill's 'Alabama Song' on the 1964 Sextet of Orchestra U.S.A. album;
- trumpeter Blue Mitchell's 'March on Selma' on his 'Down With It!' album of 1965;
- bassist Charles Mingus’ burlesque 'Fables of Faubus', which lampooned Governor Orval Faubus of Arkansas, who, with members of the National Guard had blocked the entry of nine black children to Central High School, Little Rock;
- John Coltrane's 'Alabama', from his quartet album 'Live at Birdland', mourned the racist murder of four schoolgirls, blown up in their Birmingham church as they prepared for Sunday School.
Mingus' contemporary, saxophonist Archie Shepp, is another dedicated musical revolutionary. Albums like 'Fire Music', 'On this Night' and 'Attica Blues' of 1972 which included his epochal 'Blues for Brother George Jackson' fused insurgent jazz aspirations and political struggle, often with incendiary vocals:
Rise up you starved and toiling masses
My brothers, sisters all.
We cannot fail, justice is our avenging angel,
All hail the bird of truth.
Come soon that day
When slaves break their chains,
And the worker's voice resounds.
Give back the valleys, steppes and plains,
They are mine! They are mine!
Shepp's internationalism was echoed in the music of Carla Bley and bassist Charlie Haden, who jointly formed the Liberation Music Orchestra in 1969. They fused Civil Rights anthems with songs from the Spanish Civil War, a praise-tune to Che Guevara, and Ornette Coleman's lament for the children of Vietnam, 'War Orphans'.
Their track 'Circus '68 '69' satirised the Democratic Party congress of 1968, and its support for the war in Vietnam. Successive L.M.O. albums spread out to support for the Sandinistas in Nicaragua with Haden's tune 'Sandino', their championing of South Africa's liberation from apartheid with their version of 'Nkosi Sikelel'i Afrika', their solidarity with the Portuguese Revolution in 1974 with 'Grandola Vila Morena' and the people of El Salvador in 'The Ballad of the Fallen'.
In the sixties many tunes of protest against the war were recorded by jazz musicians. The great trumpeter Freddie Hubbard recorded an entire album memorialising the fallen of the massacred Vietnamese village of My Lai in the astonishing sounds of his suite 'Sing Me a Song Of Songmy'.
While this musical militancy was at the centre of U.S. jazz, in South Africa the music had taken root with new forms and folk genres in the townships. Outstanding musicians like altoist Kippie Moeketsi, trumpeter Hugh Masekela and pianist Abdullah Ibrahim developed a powerfully African version of the music, while apartheid forced many conscious and brilliant artistes to become musical refugees.
Now, as I listen to the new generations of jazz musicians, transformed by the ever-growing participation of superb women virtuosi, I hear new human power, democratic intent and revolutionary configurations of sound. In their performances they embrace the issues and struggles of all of us living in the real world, and their music seeks to find creative, radical and humane answers.
I leave it to the words of great music-maker Charlie Haden, writing in the sleeve notes of the first Liberation Music Orchestra album of 1969:
This music is dedicated to creating a better world; a world without war and killing; without poverty and exploitation. We hope to see a new society of enlightenment and wisdom where creative thought becomes the most dominant force in all people's lives.
Jazz is real music about real life: that’s why jazz matters.