Saturday, July 26, 2014

The Sounds of Liberation: Modernists, Dissidents and the Music

I was very pleased when, several weeks ago, I was contacted by "The New York City Jazz Record" and asked to write a piece for the paper's Megaphone column. I had submitted several record reviews to the editor over the past couple of years but not a one ever ever saw publication; I assumed that my writings would not end up in this, the one music periodical I religiously read each month. However, when I got word that the proposed writer of the August column had fallen through and that the issue was soon to go to print, I was happy to comply. From the top I knew I had to submit the kind of piece I always wanted to write in such a paper: one which sought out the revolutionary heart in this music.

The death of Charlie Haden occurred shortly before my invite from "The Jazz Record". The news was heavy for many of us in this community, it seemed to hang in the air like a pall. As WKCR-FM played non-stop Haden in celebration of his life, there was a beleaguered sadness in the listeners. I was inspired to write and considered crafting an obit of this great musician and activist, but knew immediately that many others were already busy at this task. Still, the idea stayed with me and so when I got the call from the paper's editor to submit a piece, I knew that it had to speak of Charlie Haden, not simply as an individual, a "jazz great", but as a symbol of liberation in music. As music. Haden's legacy is around me each day, but one doesn't have to look far to recognize that he was in the tradition of many before him. Inherent in this music is the blood spilled in the Middle Passage and on the streets of Birmingham---and most recently in Staten Island at the hands of the NYPD. The music contains  the call of unity and pride and beauty. It holds the history of endless uprisings, swathed in the blues, free improvisation and through-composed music too. It is of the streets, the clubs, the road, the galleries, the concert halls and the universities. Since the 20th century--at least--the musician has been armed with musical-instrument-as-weapon, and at times a rolled fist as well...

The Sounds of Liberation: Modernists, Dissidents and the Music
By John Pietaro

The recent loss of Charlie Haden, a figure at once revolutionary as an artist and as a cultural worker, has rekindled fond recollections of the Liberation Music Orchestra. The LMO united radically progressive forces in music, celebrating revolutions past as it sought to inspire the populace toward profound change. Haden organized this ensemble as not only a vehicle of performance but a living example of community: its ranks were an array of peoples and its co-founder was Carla Bley; this in a time when people of color and women were daily fighting for social justice. The band’s repertoire included daring, improvisational arrangements of songs that held a visceral importance to earlier generations of revolutionaries. And while Spanish Civil War ballads and Hanns Eisler’s “Song of the United Front” acted as educational metaphors, other titles like his own “Song for Che” spoke of struggle more immediately in our midst. Charlie Haden viewed this music called jazz as “rebellion”. The LMO’s music was as radical as its politics.

Still, the causes go on and activist music remains a necessity. Art cannot help but be political--and art at its most fearless was always a Left-wing thing. The conscience of the revolutionary artist, the cultural worker, engages in actions within creativity. We see evidence of this in historic uprisings: the Industrial Workers of the World had songwriters, poets and painters as organizers and some, like Joe Hill, are renowned for their work and sacrifice. The Socialist Party counted such literary giants as Jack London and Carl Sandburg in its ranks. And the Communist Party maintained an amazing list of artists including Paul Robeson, Woody Guthrie, John Reed, Langston Hughes, Rose Pastor Stokes, Richard Wright, Isadora Duncan, Pete Seeger, Aaron Copland and countless others, many of whom became blacklisted for their convictions. And beyond this, when artists pushed back against the conservative reins of academia, when the need for an avant garde to fight the confines of structure and tonality and verse arose, the political Left nurtured it. Modernism was the voice of a new age---an age of daring, change, awareness. Revolution.

And so Charlie Haden’s sentiment that jazz is rebellion music: you might ask yourself how it could not be. Here’s an artform that was born of a people taken forcefully from their homeland, stripped of name and language, and sold into bondage. Families were separated, children and women victimized and men were forced into brutal submission or braved death. The white capitalist structure attempted to disappear the Africans’ sense of self and culture. And yet, early jazz, collective improvisation over marches and blues and shouts, rose from the ordeal and thrived. A testament of the strength of an oppressed nation. The music that developed in and around New Orleans was in itself fight-back in light of the atrocities that went on after Reconstruction. Especially in the Deep South.  

In the Modern age jazz grew from the visions of Louis Armstrong into the brilliance of Duke Ellington and it became a popular music and a wildly commercial industry. For some. As Paul Whiteman was unjustly crowned ‘King of Jazz’, radio broadcasted a sanitized vision of the blood and toil that begat the music. But the actual artform grew in spite of this racist aberration. And as it did, Billie Holiday sang “Strange Fruit”, a song composed by a sympathetic white communist, to a hushed crowd at CafĂ© Society. Ellington’s “Black, Brown and Beige” rocked concert halls. The Harlem Renaissance changed the world. Be-bop took it back.

The music soared on the wings of improvisation and advanced forms as the struggles against lynching and for Civil Rights morphed into Black Liberation: ‘Freedom Now Suite’, “Alabama”, “Fables of Faupus”, “Malcolm, Malcolm Semper Malcolm”, “Attica Blues”. Indeed, a Free Jazz. The movement required a music that reflected the intensity of the times.  A New Thing.  Liberation of sound and mind along with the People. The avant garde enraptured. Though the independence of the African American artist was central to this boldest of protest musics, it often included and celebrated all cultures—like the LMO.

This striving for a music of liberation in every sense of the word continues. This writer’s musical performances consistently feature socio-political content and there is an active circle here in NYC of like-minded others. Some of the most outspoken will gather on August 16 for the ninth annual Dissident Arts Festival. The revolution may not be televised but strains of it can be heard in the heat of this summer.

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