Jazz and Freedom

August 8th, 2012 by robin

Frankie Manning was a treasure in so many ways!  Chief among them, he taught the Swing Dance World that Swing dancing, taken to a higher level beyond fundamentals, is a spontaneously improvised interplay with the musicians – inspired, touched with a spark of the divine.  This is when dancers get free, and it’s a life-changing experience.  This is Jazz.

Oh those Nazis – they compiled manuals for their guards, outlining how best to control POWs from the various Allied nations.  An interesting instruction about the care of Americans:  Guards were to go into our barracks every morning and make us brush our teeth!  Apparently, the loss of Freedom was harder on our boys than on others, who were already used to functioning in societies without our freedoms.  We, though,  collapsed and became listless; we had to be forced even to maintain our own hygiene.  Taking Freedom away from young men who have been free (thanks to the faith, courage, and sacrifice of their fathers) seems to just about kill them.

A paradox about Freedom in the days of Jim Crow:  Black people, whose physical freedom was limited by law, became the primary vessels for unveiling the new art form whose essence was Freedom.  This art form has been described as the most astounding musical event since the Renaissance, and as America’s contribution to World culture – Jazz.

The arrival of music which filled the breast of Man with a great passion for Freedom coincided with a catastrophic loss of Freedom.  Two World Wars and the spread of totalitarianism left Freedom barely clinging to existence, but still strongest here in the USA, where it’s been under heavy assault for decades.  As you can imagine, an art form that fills breasts with a passion for Freedom is bound to be a prime target of such assaults.  Everyone with eyes can see the suppression and hear the mislabeling of our beautiful music. Here are some other points shedding a little light on how this assault on Jazz has been carried out.

  • Let’s start with everybody’s favorite villain, Corporate America.  The voracious appetite of our consumer economy needs for you to regularly toss out yesterday’s stuff and replace it with “new and improved” stuff.  Back when I still read Down Beat, they tried to tell me, with so many words, that there was a continuing line of top trumpeters, from Louis Armstrong to Roy Eldridge to Dizzy Gillespie to Miles Davis to Clifford Brown, to Freddie Hubbard (this was the ‘70s).  I don’t doubt that the Hubbard Hype helped Atlantic Records to move his albums, but it also helped to warp my fragile little mind.  I was baited-and-switched away from the truly great.
  • This flawed model of Jazz History carries a lot of weight, though, because we live in The Age of Science, where everybody knows beyond a doubt that newer is better.  Why wouldn’t Freddie Hubbard surpass his predecessors?  After all, he had the advantage of being able to absorb all that came before him, then add his own two cents worth.  This point of view also breeds ideas like “Louis Armstrong is corny.”    Art just doesn’t fit into a Scientific mold.  Does anyone believe that Pops will be as soon forgotten as Freddie Hubbard or Wynton Marsalis?  I sure don’t.
  • Jazz Education promotes erroneous concepts too.  Having no idea about art or about how to help gifted young musicians, Academia has nevertheless appointed itself The Repository Of Jazz Knowledge.  Let me ask you this:  All things considered, which do you feel educators would be more likely to go for – the idea that there have been certain special people anointed to bring new music into the world, maybe even by indefinable processes… or the view that Jazz is a skill that multitudes can master through systematic study and hard work?  It’s no surprise that the prize-winning product of Jazz Education’s approach is a legion of schooled technicians, who can’t tell the difference between art and what they’re playing.
  • A fourth culprit in the perpetuation of bad History is the main body of Jazz musicians themselves.  The unmatched virtuosity of the 1940s be-boppers has had an unplanned but profound effect:  Even though Jazz was founded on an enlightened worldview that prizes each artist for his own unique and priceless individual voice, Bebop’s daunting performance standards have pushed Jazz into an older pagan philosophy known as Platonic Idealism, in which whoever most closely approaches an unattainable ideal is considered the best.  Such a drastic change at its very foundation has effectively destroyed the Freedom that once was the heart of Jazz.  No longer free to be just who they are, musicians are now bound to endlessly pursue an unattainable performance standard.

So Corporate America, The Spirit of our Age, Jazz Education, and Jazz musicians all agree.  Their consensus revises Jazz History, gutting it of its greatness and removing Jazz’s very heart – its original, liberating expression of Freedom.  We’ve all paid a heavy price for this wrong thinking, because Jazz, when unleashed, is a potent art, and historically, changes in the arts have presaged drastic societal changes.  Were we Americans properly aware of it, Jazz…

  1. Would have crushed racism.  How could racial prejudice stand in the face of the knowledge that the so-called “inferior” race has surpassed the “superior” race in the area of one of Man’s highest sensibilities – the arts?
  2. Would have helped us to learn, and take pride in, who we are as Americans.  Jazz is our cultural legacy, the highest expression of our national soul.  This shared artistic heritage should have been the much-needed glue that bound our diverse culture into one people.
  3. Would have fueled Freedom’s causes everywhere.  It was precisely the taste of Freedom that endeared Jazz to Freedom-hungry people all over the world.  Once that part of Jazz was removed, so was Jazz’s following  – and its influence.
  4. Would have set the Jazz musicians free.  To acknowledge that Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Charlie Parker together possessed more musical genius than is seen in most centuries is to get free from their long shadow;  they ushered in the most astounding musical event ever heard.  They can’t be superseded.

Jazz, our native art form, has been suppressed, misdirected, corrupted, mislabeled – bottled up for over a half-century for fear of what changes it might bring.  The TCO’s job, with God’s assistance, is to help uncork that bottle.

-Tom Cunningham




Posted in Tom Cunningham News

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