A Cultural Literacy That Counts
It’s time for the new list of things that “every American needs to know.” The Jazz program I teach at my school and the Jazz Course for teachers that I’ve taught for over 30 years is based on two premises:
• Jazz is accessible for everyone to play if you understand how to present it. (These ideas summarized in my book Now’s the Time: Teaching Jazz to All Ages.)
• The history of jazz is a revealing look at the best and worst of our American history. By understanding what is broken by any standards of human decency by learning the stories within, around and behind the music, we can finally move towards a more just, inclusive and beautiful culture.
I begin the jazz history by starting at the middle, not with jazz but with the upsurge of Rhythm ‘n’ Blues in the 1950’s and 60’s style that grew from early blues and jazz and went on to spawn 90% of the music kids (and adults) listen to today. From Buddy Holly to the Chuck Berry to the Beach Boys to the Beatles to James Brown to Bob Dylan, from the Comets to the Coasters to the Cream, from Elvis to Mick to Jimi, the 12-bar blues was a driving force in the soundtrack of those explosive years. How could Hirsch have overlooked this? How could no one notice that he did?
In the wake of George Floyd, perhaps we’re finally ready to look at those forces of purposeful ignorance at work, in the news, in the schools, in the culture at large. Black Lives Matter, the growing movement that has so many folks from all walks of life today out on the streets, is about stopping the violence to black bodies that has been going on for centuries in this country. Violence that occurred habitually without accountability, with government approval and sanctioned by the silence of otherwise good-hearted white folks. What happened recently to George Floyd, Ahmaud Arberry, Breonna Taylor and others were not isolated incidents, but a logical continuation of the heartless murders by American officials that have been happening for a long time. It’s a systematic issue, not a personality issue, and it’s the system that we finally seem ready to look at and change. And that necessitates understanding not only the extremes of white supremacy, but the subtleties of white privilege, the things that inform E.D. Hirsch’s work.
Black lives matter in another way—without the contributions of black folks, who would we be as a nation? The economic power we take pride in was built from a few centuries of free labor and still continues to go on in the new Jim Crow, as unjustly or overly-harshly imprisoned black folks are working for pennies in the prison system to make the next Victoria’s Secret undergarments. The moral power of America? I believe we would hold up Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, James Baldwin, Martin Luther King over Andrew Jackson, Nathan Bedford Forrest, George Wallace or Donald Trump. Sports? Are American sports imaginable without black athletes? From Jesse Owens to Jackie Robinson to Wilma Rudolph to …well, how much time do you have? Imagine the Golden State Warriors championship games without Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, imagine basketball without Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabar, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Lebron James and…again, how much time do you have? The white folks were trying so hard to hold on to tennis and golf and boom! here comes Arthur Ashe and Tiger Woods. Well, at least the whites have the art world to themselves and—oops! the quiltmakers of Gee’s Bend, Thornton Dial, Jean Michel Basquiat, earlier Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence. And on it goes with literature, theater, film, dance, dance and again, dance, science, politics (best President ever! Barack Obama!!!) and on and on and on.
But when it comes to music—well, you better have a lot of time on your hands. Sit down and without looking up a single thing or talking to Siri, make a list of music you have listened to that is so much a part of your personal autobiography, your cultural identity, your memory bank, your capacity to feel joy and sorrow and love, that came from African-American musicians. In my lifetime of popular music, imagine if the radio stations had never played a single note of music by Fats Domino, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, the Coasters, Sam Cooke, Chubby Checker, Bo Diddley, Ray Charles, James Brown, Smokey Robinson, the Four Tops, the Temptations, the Supremes, Martha and the Vandellas, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding, Jimi Hendrix, Richie Havens, Taj Mahal, Sly and the Family Stone, the Isley Brothers, Curtis Mayfield, Isaac Hayes, Dionne Warwick, Tina Turner, Nina Simone, Earth-Wind-and Fire, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Beyonce—and on it goes into the world of Rap and Hip-hop. Not to mention Leadbelly, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, Lightning Hopkins, John Lee Hooker, Mississippi John Hurt, B.B. King, Big Mama Thornton, Etta James and dozens more blues artists.
The jazz list (for me) is yet longer and it’s simply unimaginable that America could have existed without Scott Joplin, Jelly Roll Morton, Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Chick Webb, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Lionel Hampton, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Jo Jones, Teddy Wilson, Mary Lou Williams, Fats Waller, Art Tatum, Hazel Scott, Sarah Vaughan, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Clifford Brown, Horace Silver, Art Blakey, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Carmen Macrae,—still awake? And I’m only to the 1960’s.
Now if, for whatever reason, you think you’d be fine had all those mentioned had never played their music because you prefer white bands, of course, not a single one would have existed. Not Elvis, not the Beach Boys, not the 4 Seasons. Not the Beatles, the Rolling Stones or the Dave Clark Five. Not Led Zeppelin, Iron Butterfly or the Cream. Without the blues, there would have been neither Rhythm nor the Blues in R &B.
Essentially, the entire lexicon of American popular music simply wouldn’t have existed. Country music would have been quite different without the drum set and the influence of black music. Bluegrass would have been without a banjo, an African-American invented instrument. And jazz? No Benny Goodman, no Judy Garland, no Frank Sinatra, no Bing Crosby, no Dave Brubeck, no Bill Evans and so on and so on. You never would have heard of Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly and what would American movies have been without tap dancing, without the soundtrack of black-created music wedded with Jewish songwriters? And there’s more. Spirituals. Gospel. Clapping games. Unimaginable!
So the next time you find yourself dancing with abandon to —well, take your pick—or smiling with joy at the happiness of a jazz band swingin’ like there’s no tomorrow or digging down deep into your soul singing in a Gospel church, take a moment to think about who to thank and how you’re going to thank them. And may I recommend starting with hearing their story? Taking the time to know their story? The triumph and the brutalities. And then pass it on. To your neighbors, to the kids, to the people at your workplace. Next time the conversation in the teacher’s room lowers itself down to people taking about the latest aps on their phone or showing Instagram photos of their meal last night, jump up on the table and say, “Hey! Has anyone ever seen the Nicholas Brothers in Stormy Weather? Heard Big Mama Thornton sing Hound Dog? Check this out!” And then tell them to pass it on. Most importantly, teach it to the children.
On behalf of all the white folks I know (including myself) who have failed to properly acknowledge and thank these extraordinary people who suffered to bring us such joy, such inspiration, such revelation at what human beings can accomplish with a pair of tap shoes, two drumsticks, ten fingers, a basketball, an articulate tongue and piercing intellect and moral courage beyond our imagined capacity, I say “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.” And again, thank you.
And Mr. Hirsch, I understand you are 92 years old now, but it’s not too late for you to take my jazz course.