Keep Music’s Listeners Tuned in to its Roots

In 1975, I was the bassist with the renowned African-American pianist, arranger and composer, Mary Lou Williams. We were performing at The Cookery, a popular Greenwich Village jazz club in New York City. On a break between sets, Williams and I were sitting at a comer table when she turned to me and quietly stated, “My people are losing their heritage. They know nothing about black music. They know who Diana Ross is, but they’ve never heard of Billy Holiday or Bessie Smith.” Her words hung in the air and I have remembered them often.

It is my firm belief that all students deserve a well-rounded, honest approach to the study of American music, if they are to understand their own cultural identity.

The story of American music is being told through the boom boxes that blast rap, rock, jazz, blues, soul, reggae and gospel. Though students are bombarded by music at every turn, few have any knowledge of how these musical styles originated and evolved. It is indisputable that black music represents a dominant voice in American culture; it is time to listen and understand.

Black music should not be perceived as minority music, or the art of a special branch created by a few prominent individuals. Music appreciation teachers do students a great injustice by stating at the end of their course, ‘By the way, there was of course, all that jazz.” This music deserves major emphasis in our curriculums, and should be seen as the big picture, not just a footnote.

I am a white jazz musician who has been extremely fortunate to work with many important black musicians. While I do not pretend to have a black perspective, I do believe integrating black music with African-American culture has numerous benefits which add to the-student’s overall perspective and comprehension of America and its musical heritage.

There is a strong lineage from the African griot-musician, storyteller, singer and rapper-of hundreds of years past to the rapper in South Harlem.

Today’s rap singer continues the griot’s message by bringing social commentary, political opinion, and a call for change to the streets of American cities. The rap singer, who is often perceived as a threat, finds himself in a similar situation to the jazz musician of 1920s. When music is new, it tends to be threatening to the status quo, and black music has generally elicited such a response.

When the first slave ships arrived, they brought a new cultural stimulus. It is difficult to conceive just how the African-American survived-slavery’s barbaric times. With so little incentive to live, blacks might have been eradicated completely were it not for their music and cultural heritage. The origins of American music come more from the ships, fields, plantations. and roadhouses than they do from the concert hall. African customs of dance, song, hand clapping, drumming and celebration provided African-Americans with their sole opportunity to rejoice in a master’s world. We must study these roots which lead virtually everywhere in American music.

As the traditions of the ring shout, a counter-clockwise dance and music ceremony, were practiced on southern plantations well into the 20th century. European harmonic and melodic influences waited to merge and synthesize. American folk music carried Scottish, Irish, and English characteristics which would affect the African-American song. Spirituals resulted in a dramatic statement of intense feeling and depth previously unknown. The original American musical voice was emerging and its impact would be worldwide.

The spirituals also provided a musical code for the underground railroad as blacks fled north to freedom. This profound artistic depth began to be heard and felt in many corners of the world, providing a foundation for the birth of the blues in the early 1900s.

The connection of past and present enables students with diverse backgrounds to realize that ethnic collaboration has led to a cultural originality that is uniquely American.

There cannot be a rock singer alive who has not felt the influence of early American blues. The blues represents a national treasure. On a tour of England in 1981, I noticed some framed photographs on a jazz club wall. After a moment, I recognized these teenage boys as the famed rock musicians, Mick Jagger, Robert Plant, and Jimmy Page. The club owner explained that in their youth they would come to the club to hear the American blues greats Muddy Water, Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King and John Lee Hooker. Inspired by what they heard, bands were formed, and rock and Roll was up and running.

Both black and white musicians of the 1950s exchanged ideas despite the restrictions and pressures of society. Rock innovators Little Richard, Fats Domino and Chuck Berry used the influences of blues and jazz to create a sound that was heard on primarily black radio stations. As enterprising disc jockeys like Alan Freed began to play these records for the white market, the groundwork was laid for Elvis Presley and his fusion black rhythm and blues, white pop and the rockabilly-country sound.

African-American music and culture has become a large part of America today. For that alone, it deserves our study and understanding. Yet sadly, from kindergarten through college, our educational system provides little direction towards these goals. As music programs are eliminated by financial constraints, our loss of heritage is perpetuated. If our schools do not reflect past and present American culture, society will surely pay for it.

How can we allay fear and prejudice when we simply know so little about one another? America and its schools cannot afford this bias: we need to change. The training of music educators in African-American music must be mandatory and focus on both the performance and historical perspective. together with the study of the culture that produced this music.

Though it is often perceived as a threat, rap can be an effective educator. Projects that mix research on a major American music figure, (such as Duke Ellington) with rap Iyrics create a stimulating mixture of music and culture. Past and present are linked, and the student learns the value of heritage. Blues and jazz mix naturally with rap enabling students to experience those connections through performance.

Handel once said. “I should be sorry if I only entertained them, m’lord……. I wished to make them better.” As educators, we may very well do both by relating to the students, taking them by the hand and then showing them the wisdom of their elders.

In 1976, I performed with Mary Lou Williams at a black church in Boston. As Father Peter O’Brien delivered his sermon, Miss Williams closed her eyes and began playing the most beautiful, haunting chords that I have ever heard. The music was so powerful, a chill swept over the room as Father O ‘Brien stopped his sermon and turned to listen.

The air filled up, and one could hear the creaking of the slave ships, the fire of the ring shout, the pounding of the drums, voices in the choir. Perhaps Mary Lou had found the American voice, its spirit past and present. That plaintive cry that echoes and calls out to the few who listen, saying: This is our music. This is our voice. This is America.

as published in Connecticut Comment