The 8th grade just shared their reports about Jazz and Social Justice. One theme that came up was the reluctance of early jazz musicians like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole and others to engage directly in the fight for Civil Rights. They kept focused on their music and their life of uplifting audiences through performance.
And yet in a climate where de-humanization was central to racism and oppression, their efforts to claim the humanity of black folks through music, indeed, to show the genius and stamina and dignity and triumph of a people trumpeted out in notes and words, was an extraordinary contribution to help turn around the mechanism of institutional oppression. And like all of us, they were just struggling to survive and keep their opportunities open to continue careers that got the music to the people. And it is worth noting that each of the above eventually had at least one moment when they used their status to speak out and be heard about social justice issues.
After the 8th grade class, I walked through the 7th grade class where they were rehearsing a version of the Barcarolle from The Tales of Hoffman. No social justice theme here, but the power of music to heal and uplift humanity in big and small ways is the reason Armstrong, Ellington, Nat Cole and Offenbach dedicated themselves to their craft. As a music teacher and musician, I’m always looking for yet more affirmation of music’s grand contribution and I remembered a poem I wrote about this very subject back in 2008 when my father began a long six-month march to the exit door.
Here it is:
LISTENING TO THE BARCAROLLE FROM THE TALES OF HOFFMAN
Driving home from the Marin hospital.
Another day of coaxing my father back to life after heart surgery,
worrying about my too-young friend edging closer to her death.
My back in pain and a three-week sickness that won’t let go.
My mind is fixed on the great matters of birth and death when the city
comes into view, shining in full resplendence in the light of dusk.
On the car speakers, two repeated notes tentatively announce the beginning
of something worth attending to,
answered by the strings, who charge that little bird song with confidence.
Flutes and oboes and more strings join the chorus, swelling
and then settling for just a breath,
when the first voice enters,
rising over it all with the majesty of a lone eagle over a twilight sea.
My spine begins to tingle.
When the second voice joins,
I am lifted out of my mortal body, released from all the persistent pain, the gravity of
grief and the soul’s sorrow.
I am soaring over the Golden Gate Bridge,
It lasts for four minutes and one second.
And I think—
This is all the immortality we will ever get.
And all we will ever need.