Jazz Speaks for Life

Martin Luther King and Jazz
By Arthur Shaw, Jan 21, 2008

In an opening speech at the 1964 Berlin Jazz Festival, Martin Luther King read a brief historic paper titled “Humanity and the Importance of Jazz.”

Here, in full, are his comments:

“God has brought many things out of oppression. He has endowed his creatures with the capacity to create – and from this capacity has flowed the sweet songs of sorrow and joy that have allowed man to cope with his environment and many different situations.

“Jazz speaks for life. The Blues tell the story of life’s difficulties, and if you think for a moment, you will realize that they take the hardest realities of life and put them into music, only to come out with some new hope or sense of triumph. This is triumphant music.

“Modern Jazz has continued in this tradition, singing the songs of a more complicated urban existence. When life itself offers no order and meaning, the musician creates an order and meaning from the sounds of the earth which flow through his instrument.

“It is no wonder that so much of the search for identity among American Negroes was championed by Jazz musicians. Long before the modern essayists and scholars wrote of “racial identity” as a problem for a multi-racial world, musicians were returning to their roots to affirm that which was stirring within their souls.

“Much of the power of our Freedom Movement in the United States has come from this music. It has strengthened us with its sweet rhythms when courage began to fail. It has calmed us with its rich harmonies when spirits were down. And now, Jazz is exported to the world. For in the particular struggle of the Negro in America there is something akin to the universal struggle of modern man. Everybody has the Blues. Everybody longs for meaning. Everybody needs to love and be loved. Everybody needs to clap hands and be happy. Everybody longs for faith. In music, especially this broad category called Jazz, there is a stepping stone towards all of these.”

Now, let’s take a closer look at what MLK had to say about jazz … point by point.

“God has brought many things out of oppression,” MLK wrote.

Yeah, racist discrimination and segregation excluded almost all African Americans from the practice of most arts and sciences before the partial triumph of the US civil rights movement in the mid 1960s. So, African Americans created their own art … jazz.

“He has endowed his creatures with the capacity to create – and from this capacity has flowed the sweet songs of sorrow and joy that have allowed man to cope with his environment and many different situations,” MLK wrote.

Jazz allows … and helps … its fans and artists to cope their environment and many different situations. After all, if these oppressed musicians … especially the greatest originators of jazz … can reach the highest level of human creativity or a level that matches the highest level anywhere and at anytime, then how can the rest of us snivel over the petty obstacles that our environment and different situations pose before us.

“Jazz speaks for life,” MLK wrote.

Well, life is a highly differentiated thing. Perhaps MLK means it speaks for all of these things that life embraces. In any case, jazz speaks “for,” not against life, whatever life is.

“The Blues tell the story of life’s difficulties, and if you think for a moment, you will realize that they take the hardest realities of life and put them into music, only to come out with some new hope or sense of triumph. This is triumphant music,” MLK wrote.

MLK jumps from jazz to blues, which jazz presupposes. Perhaps, MLK means, here, that through the blues we face or fail to face life’s difficulties and, if we’re lucky, emerged with moral courage, the essence of triumph. His point seems to be the truthfulness and the unconquerable character of jazz.

“Modern Jazz has continued in this tradition, singing the songs of a more complicated urban existence,” MLK wrote.

From blues, MLK moves on to modern jazz which, he implies, takes on more than just the “hardest realities of life.” Modern jazz through song, he says, also explores complicated urban existence, suggesting that at least some of modern jazz takes on the political and ideological rules and concepts as well as the “tradition” of moral principles so prominent in the blues. At the time of MLK’s 1964 comments on jazz, the highly political and ideological John Coltrane was the supreme “modern” jazz artist.

“When life itself offers no order and meaning, the musician creates an order and meaning from the sounds of the earth which flow through his instrument,” MLK wrote.

This is an extraordinary comment that takes MLK from his earlier divinity and social psychology of jazz into the aesthetics of jazz. I. Kant, the old German philosopher, says that genius is an “innate mental disposition through which nature gives a new rule to art.” MLK, here, says the say thing with less philosophical baggage. MLK’s synonym for Kant’s “nature” is earth and for Kant’s “new rule” is order and meaning that musicians create. So, according to MLK, jazz is a kind of medium through which a new or newly created order and meaning reaches us. This is not only extraordinary, it’s bold.

“It is no wonder that so much of the search for identity among American Negroes was championed by Jazz musicians,” MLK wrote.

For the most part, jazz has not gotten its just credit for this historic championship, because some musicians adamantly opposed the championship. Since jazz has an overwhelmingly African American origin it came more highly recommended as a basis for the “identity among American Negroes” than other things that were of overwhelmingly Caucasoid origin … such as the caucasianation of characteristic African hair, noses, lips and other bodily features which are still fashionable as a basis of African American identity. For decades at least from the 1920s to the present, thousands of African American musicians agitated and propagandized for jazz as an identity basis to often indifferent fans. Charlies Mingus, Max Roach, John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Sun Ra, Billie Holiday, Oscar Brown, Jr., Art Blakely, among countless others, were outstanding in this regard.

[Today, the much of the mainstream of rap and of hip hop is something of a counter-movement in art against the noble end at which jazz aims. Many degenerate and deranged African American rap and hip hop artists … many are millionaires affiliated with the reactionary and rotten GOP … routinely denounce African Americans with the the N-word and Ho-word. ]

“Long before the modern essayists and scholars wrote of “racial identity” as a problem for a multi-racial world, musicians were returning to their roots to affirm that which was stirring within their souls,” MLK wrote.

This reiterates the preceding point. But we may add that by “racial identity” some people mean what social class — bourgeoisie, middle class, proletariat, or lumpen — do you belong to and what ideology — bourgeois or proletariat — do you believe in. This nebulous idea of “racial identity” also meant to some people whether African Americans are entitled to entertained similar sentiments toward the people of Africa as Anglos feel for the UK, Greeks for Greece, Jews for Israel, Chinese for China, etc.

“Much of the power of our Freedom Movement in the United States has come from this music. It has strengthened us with its sweet rhythms when courage began to fail. It has calmed us with its rich harmonies when spirits were down. And now, Jazz is exported to the world. For in the particular struggle of the Negro in America there is something akin to the universal struggle of modern man. Everybody has the Blues. Everybody longs for meaning. Everybody needs to love and be loved. Everybody needs to clap hands and be happy. Everybody longs for faith. In music, especially this broad category called Jazz, there is a stepping stone towards all of these, ” MLK wrote.

Here, MLK says again what he has already said or implied. He revisits his point about the moral courage that jazz instills, especially in its audience. He is mainly concern with the universality of the aesthetical relevance and appeal of jazz … e.g., “Everybody has the Blues” and “Everybody longs for meaning.”

The essence of jazz lies in the swing rhythm. The other key characteristics of jazz are largely shared with other genres of music.

MLK does not find universality in the essence of jazz. Rather he finds its universality in the universal moral and intellectual make-up of humanity — “”Everybody has the Blues” and “Everybody longs for meaning.”

© Copyright 2008 by AxisofLogic.com

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