You sit down at the restaurant table. The setting is lovely, the menu looks tantalizing, there is a pleasant buzz in the room and you’re hungry and ready for a memorable meal. Then the music comes on, that droning disco beat you dread. End of the evening’s pleasure. Extraordinary how many eating establishments have terrible musical taste—or want to attract people with terrible musical tastes.
But last night, went across the street to a beautiful outdoor terrace, full moon shining on the Mediterranean waters below, the couple at the table next to us in culinary ecstasy and recommending some dishes, the quiet murmur of pleasant table talk—and then the music came on.
And miracle of miracles! It was Billie Holiday singing Blue Moon. Then Ella singing Mack the Knife, Natalie Cole Unforgettable, Sarah Vaughan Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. And on it went, the playlist from heaven. Instead of interrupting the ambience, it completed it. Of course, I would have been fine with Italian accordion music or opera, but if American cultural imperialism had to come to Sicily, I can think of no finer choice. (Incidentally, haven’t seen a single Starbucks or McDonalds here. Hooray!).
Words cannot convey how perfectly these women singers framed a meal on a summer’s night on an island by the sea. 45 minutes of great song after great song while the moon shone down on the waters—All of Me, Over the Rainbow, April in Paris and Autumn in New York sung in July in Siracusa. Then it morphed into some doo-wop music from the 50’s and ramped up with some Chuck Berry and Fats Domino and the Temptations and beyond. Still a treat.
I couldn’t help but think, as I do so often, of what a gift these musicians have given to the world. How many first kisses or slow dances at the junior prom or road trips across the U.S. are accompanied by this soundtrack of American music, how deeply these songs and artists have steeped in the depths of our unique American identity, forming an essential part of who we are and both accompanying and releasing the deep emotions in our lives. How many foreign-born have heard something they wanted and needed so that the entire set of party music played by the German-Austrian student-teacher band at the Orff Institut in Salzburg came from the good ole U.S.A.
And yet none of us can be proud of that without paying our dues. Please note that every single artist who serenaded me at the dinner table was black and all the styles of music played last night and earlier at the Institut were originated by black folks in the United States. Indeed, I’d venture to say that 90% of the music that people in the U.S. listen to was either created and performed directly by black artists—from Louis Armstrong to Michael Jackson, from Duke Ellington to James Brown, from Bessie Smith to Kanye West—or by those white imitators who owed their lives and livelihoods to the black innovators—Elvis, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Eminem, Madonna, Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift, etc. etc. and yet again etc.
Perhaps there are some who listen exclusively to the European symphonic tradition, but even here there is Golliwog’s Cakewalk and The New World Symphony and Steve Reich’s West-African inspired work. Country music? They’re playing the drum set invented by New Orleans jazz musicians and don’t forget Charlie Pride. Old-time Appalachian music? There’s Doc Watson singing the blues. And shall we mention spirituals, gospel, blues in all its many incarnations, New Orleans jazz, swing jazz, bebop, cool, Latin jazz, bossa nova, jazz rock and beyond? Rhythm ‘n’ blues, rock ‘n roll, Motown, funk, pop, rap, hip-hop and beyond? Or perhaps you like salsa, samba, rhumba, cumbia, reggae? All children of the African diaspora.
What dues shall we pay for these pleasures? It’s quite simple. If Black Music Matters, then Black Lives Matter also and stop all the semantic quibbling. Every single one of these musicians—and I mean every single one of these musicians, without exception–suffered from the constant assault of a culture steeped in racism. Miles Davis beat up by police for talking to a white woman outside the club where he was playing, Billie Holiday arrested on her deathbed, Thelonious Monk denied his cabaret card (and years of his livelihood) by the police, Nat King Cole beat up on stage in Birmingham in the middle of a concert for a white audience, the countless denied a meal or a room at the hotel in the South where they performed. Every one—and again, every one— of these musicians has not one story, but hundreds to tell. And we white folks get to sit back and snap our fingers or feel our hearts melt with the beauty of the music performed and created by the people we as a culture have treated—and continue to treat—so badly. How can this be?
What will change things around? Here’s a suggestion: all black music banned and accessible only if the listener has proved in some way that they care and are actively working for the social justice we all deserve. That’s the price of the ticket. Until then, we go into a drought of remarkable music to bring home the point. Shall we?