Monday, May 16, 2016

No Jim Crow in Music

“Jazz from the very beginning was fusion music, a bouillabaisse of sound from every culture washed up on these shores. West African rhythms, German and Italian marching bands, Protestant hymns, European classical music, opera, English, Scottish and Irish folk songs and their Appalachian and Ozark Mountain derivatives, minstrel show tunes, French country dance music, Spanish and Latin melodies and rhythms, and a profusion of black folk music—rural and urban, sacred and secular—including slave chants, railroad gang songs, field hollers, sanctified church music and the blues.”
                                             -Grover Sales: Jazz: America’s Classical Music (p. 49)
This weekend I’m giving a house concert/ lecture on the history of jazz piano and it struck me (yet again) how there are no border guards in music. No visa offices, no immigration requirements, no Jim Crow laws demanding that the blues Bb must live in a “separate but equal” neighborhood from Mozart’s Bb. No need for federal troops to usher a swingin’ dance tune into the hallways of a Bach chorale, no Haydn trumpets lined up hurling epithets at Satchmo trumpets, no black notes separated from the white ones (“This piece of music must only use black notes, that piece only white notes”). No piano ever complained when the player went from Haydn to Herbie Hancock, no bass ever insisted “bow me or you can’t know me,” no guitar was ever sold with the stipulation “Flamenco only. Just Peter, Paul and Mary style. Built for Pat Metheny music exclusively.”
Music is freedom and music is free to soar and land where it wants and fly up again with new sounds, no customs agents to deal with. And if you have ever been enriched by listening to or playing music, you have inherited the gift of this freedom. From Mozart’s Rondo a la Turk to Dave Brubeck’s Blue Rondo a la Turk, from Scott Joplin, Art Tatum and Chucho Valdez playing pianos born and raised in Europe and corporate executives in drum circles playing djembes, from Paul Simon playing with South Africans and Hugh Masekela playing with Americans, just about all music is fusion music born from the free exchange between distinct cultures and peoples. Even remote tribal music preserved over centuries has probably been influenced by contact with the village on the other side of the river.
The gifts of free and welcome exchange in music is so clear. Why are we so behind in the actual world still trying to separate and divide and lord over and keep under particular groups of people? Why can’t we see how rich it is to get to know the “other,” how it enlarges us and uplifts us and sends us further into the territory that unites us? How poor my life would be if I only got to know people like me. How poor our vast musical inheritance would have been if Mozart was prohibited from being influenced by his trip to Italy or Steve Reich barred from Ghana or Yo-Yo Ma arrested for starting his Silk Road Ensemble.
And yet the madness continues. This summer, some 35 music teachers will convene in Ghana for an Orff-Afrique I’m helping to organize. Talk about fusion! This will include the musical pedagogy of a German composer with the rich legacy of Ewe music combined with Lobi xylophone music combined with African-American roots music, jazz and Latin styles. And this year assistance from two experts in Venezuelan music and Indian music! All the Americans have to apply for a Visa and the process is as simple as turn in the required paperwork (minimal), pay the fee and “Welcome to Ghana!” But not so in the other direction.
The two main teachers are Kofi Gbolonyo and his brother Prosper. Kofi came to the U.S., got his Masters and then his Doctorate and also studied the three Levels of Orff Schulwerk with us in our Orff Certification Program. Prosper, who has never been out of Ghana, is interested in exploring the Orff connection and we have invited him to attend our course. Last year, we sent the letter of invitation with other paperwork so he would get the necessary Visa. He went to the American consulate and they asked him his name, marital status (he’s married) and profession (teacher) and then said, “Denied.” They did not give a reason why or even look at the letter of invitation and all the other papers he brought.
We thought it was just a case of getting the wrong person at the wrong time, so this year, we prepared all the papers again, this time with a note from a U.S. Congressperson. I shouldn’t have been shocked, but the exact same thing happened! I believe there is a word that covers this kind of inexcusable behavior, this outrageous refusal to even have the courtesy to look at the documents. Let’s see, what’s that called? Oh, yeah. Racism.
So yes, there is no Jim Crow in music and that is to be wholly celebrated and worthy of a model for all of life. But in the world beyond music, Mr. Crow is alive and well in 2016, doing everything he can to keep people apart, even when their goal is to connect, to learn how to teach children better, to bring beauty and understanding into the world. Perhaps if Prosper had been an arms dealer, he would have been welcomed more courteously.
Any Congress-people out there reading this? We could use your help.

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