When I realized that Glenn Miller had little interest in music as an expressive act, I lost my interest. To be sure, I find his music fairly boring anyway, but the socio-political apathy I understood to be part of his message really turned me off for good. When I hear jazz, I hear a music that’s about socio-political issues.

Written By

Ratzo B Harris

First off, my apologies for the title of this week’s post are offered in all due respect to the great saxophonist-educator-composer Mel Martin, who led a band of that name in the Bay Area during the 1970s.

Last week, I attempted to open a line of discussion about how we filter what we hear according to the music we create (I’m assuming, correctly or not, that everyone reading this creates, or has created, music as a part of their daily activities). The question was inspired by a rather lengthy argument I was having with one of my Facebook “friends” (and I hope we still are) about the socio-political messaging of rap music. After more than thirty years, the music still finds detractors who look at it as devoid of significance and/or, believe it or not, social commentary. The post received no comments, but I did get a lot of emails sent to me privately. The most scathing of them stated that “hip hop fits into American music roughly where MacDonald’s fits into American cuisine,” comparing it favorably to “only elevator music and Muzak Xmas carols.” While I think that elevator music (at least the stuff that’s piped into elevators, not the actual sounds that elevators themselves make) is Muzak, I was heartened to read that the person found General George Owen Squire’s invention less palatable than the street beat from the Bronx (actually the most scathing emailer called me all sorts of things, but I’m not goin’ there!).

The only comment (again, privately transmitted) that addressed the “listening with a personal filter” issue was from a singer who mentioned that the way she listened to music changed after she decided to make a go of singing in public. She found that her experience performing to an audience made her start to listen to individual instruments and their synergistic relationships to each other. This is probably the same for all of us who read; I know it was for me when I began working on performing seriously. But two articles from this week investigated aspects of the subject. While I’m not sure if I agree that an ability to reproduce what someone else plays directly relates to how one filters what is heard (though I do agree wholeheartedly that originality stems from an inability to be satisfied with recreating what others have already done), the concept of aesthetic neutrality alerted me to an important facet of my listening that bears directly on rap music.

I have yet to master listening through an aesthetically neutral filter. I still get pretty bored when listening to certain artists (mostly pop artists from the past, such as Paul Whiteman, Annunzio Mantovani, and Lawrence Welk) and Muzak rarely interests me, although I do listen to it when confronted with it. I can remember walking home from work with my bass in one arm and amplifier in the other, hurrying because I had a melodic fragment in my head that I wanted to write down as soon as I got into my apartment on the 14th floor. When I got into the building’s Muzak-equipped elevator, there was a lush string arrangement of Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight” being piped in that, by the time I reached the 14th floor, had wiped the melody I was hoping to compose right out of the picture! (I pieced it back together a few years later and had the honor of recording it when I was on tour in Italy in 2004.) But I find that, for the most part, there is not much music I “don’t like.” There might be some (actually, a lot, and mostly my own) that doesn’t make me want to listen to it again and again, but very little that I reject aesthetically.

What I do find, though, is that there is quite a bit of ideological filtering that goes on in my listening now. When I realized that Glenn Miller had little interest in music as an expressive act, I lost my interest. To be sure, I find his music fairly boring anyway, but the socio-political apathy I understood to be part of his message really turned me off for good. So, when I hear jazz, I hear a music that’s about socio-political issues; e.g. Billie Holiday singing about lynched bodies in “Strange Fruit” or about drug addiction in “Goodmorning Heartache.”
I also admire the messaging of Sly Stone’s “Running Away” or “Family Affair,” although they’re not strictly jazz. These songs discuss aspects of our culture that the American Culture Machine would rather we not pay too much attention to, much like they’d rather we don’t understand just who Machiavelli was writing about in The Prince.

While I was reading through the articles from last week, I stumbled upon a link in the “You might also enjoy…” portion of one of them that took me to an article I resonate with on two specific levels. One is ideological—that is, it discussed the kind of political messaging in music performance/composition that informs my aesthetic filtering. The author, Laura Kaminsky, wrote about performing the first live music concert in Croatia after the cessation of hostilities in 1997 as “an offering of hope.” She invoked the names of Olivier Messiaen (Quartet for the End of Time), Luciano Berio (O King), Igor Stravinsky (Elegy for JFK), George Crumb (Black Angels), and John Corigliano (Symphony No. 1), as well as many others, as examples of composers who include socio-political messaging in their music. The other level of resonance is personal—in 1998, I had the experience of being in what might have been the first jazz group to tour in Bosnia and Croatia after the fighting had stopped. We drove through towns that included the same sights described by Kaminsky. I can still see “the worn faces of the people … the huge craters and pockmarks from bombs and bullets scarring the walls … the homes without rooftops” as if it were yesterday. I also remember the bombed-out bridge that forced us to take a wooden raft as a ferry across a river, and then having to purchase “travel insurance” from a man with a machine gun at the largest open-air black market I’ll probably ever see in my life.

When I read that Kaminsky had dedicated the score of her piano trio “to the victims of ethnic cleansing,” I began to see, in my mind’s eyes, the bodies of African Americans from “Strange Fruit,” hanging from trees by their necks while large groups of white Southerners posed for photographers who would produce postcards of the carnage’s aftermath. I also saw Asian Americans being interred in concentration camps in the Western states. I imagined the Trail of Tears. And then I heard “When Thugs Cry,” by Tupac Shakur, and “[email protected] Da Police,” by N.W.A, and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Also “Fables of Faubus” (Charles Mingus), “Song for Che” (Charlie Haden), “Free New Afrika! Boogaloo” (Fred Ho), and even “Witchi Tai To” (Jim Pepper).* These are all examples of American music that address the theme of Kaminsky’s dedication. The musical elements of these examples have a drive and intensity that I find lacking in Miller, Mantovani, Whiteman, and Welk. It’s music that is meant to open one’s eyes to what is going on every day in America, not to lull one to sleep!

I’ve said before that jazz is America’s music. It’s the case whether anyone likes it or not because in 1998 it was legislated by an act of Congress! I’ve also said that in a little less than five years jazz will be officially a century old. What jazz—musicologically, sociologically, aesthetically, or commercially—is, and always has been, up for grabs. Certainly there is a core music that is “undeniably jazz,” like most of the works of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, or John Coltrane (all of whom recorded politically themed music), but quite a bit of the music that modern jazz players consider essential to learning the music is ignored in the “real world.” Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, Sun Ra, Lennie Tristano, and Bob Brookmeyer are all important to this music and all had distinct socio-political messaging attached to what they played (or play, in the case of Coleman). There are established artists who are successful, but relatively unknown: Joanne Brackeen, Mulgrew Miller, Kenny Werner, Tim Berne, Steve Coleman, Carla Bley, Arturo O’Farrill, Roseanna Vitro, and so many more. They point to directions in their music that aren’t well understood or explored, but are “undeniable” and include philosophical and socio-political messaging that is subtle, but clear. The new breed(s) include many artists who have been working at their craft for years but are still just getting off the ground. Fay Victor, Judy Silvano, Bruce Arnold, Melissa Hamilton, Hilly Greene, Andrea Wolper, Jamie Affoumado, Eric Lewis, Tom Rainey, and Victor Jones, as well as real new faces like Stacy Dillard, Spencer Murphy, Carlos Abadie, Kris Davis, Mary Halvorson, and Josh Evans (again, that’s just a very, very few).

Some of these artists may not even be considered jazz musicians, now or in the future, by the American Culture Machine—but that’s what they’re playing. The controversy seems to center around how much their music is diluted by non-jazz influences, such as classical (Vijay Iyer, Fred Hersch, Mark Dresser), non-European (Iyer, Hafez Modirzadeh, Toshiko Akiyoshi), Latin American (Jay Rodriguez, Chucho Valdez, Claudio Roditi), or even country music (Mark Feldman, Charlie Haden, Les Paul).** But the non-jazz influence is just that, an influence, not a separate style. Many new and established jazz performers, especially African American performers, have grown up with hip hop and rap, an influence that informs their music making. It also informs musicians who work and listen to them as well as audiences who attend their performances, but who were not raised listening to hip hop or rap. The messaging of rap is not lost on any of them and, in my not-so-humble opinion, should be listened to by all of us—closely and thoughtfully.


* All of these titles can be heard on YouTube.

** I know some of these names belong to very established musicians and at least one non-living one (Les Paul at the time of this writing), but all of them have been labeled as both authentic and not authentic jazz musicians at some point in their careers, even though they consider themselves to be jazz players.