Beneath the Underdog - A paradox of Jazz and Racism
An article by Robert Wyatt:
“Oliver Nelson ,the formidable African-American musician , once wittily remarked something like to ‘say what you like about slavery , but at least it got us to America .’!
If American popular culture flooded the world with the most popular music in the 20th century, we all got a lot to be thankful for .
What a paradox , a?
Jazz emerged as a creole music : francophone New Orleans brought unique cultures together : African, French, Spanish – and of course, the English language. As it developed through the early 20th century another people took this music to universal appreciation: Jews.
Looking back, jazz and related music acquired astonishingly inspiring melodic and harmonic ideas, from Irving Berlin to the Gershwin brothers and a host of wonderful tunesmiths whose recent ancestors were central and eastern European Jews escaping the pervasive anti-Jewish pogroms of imperial Russia, joined by other Yiddish-speaking people mostly from the Austro-Hungarian empire.
AS a musician, i cannot imagine my life’s work without this freshly fertilised combination setting the pace . Say what you like about the oppressive arrogance of the United States, we got a lot to be thankful for .
Given the nature of this music, racialism dissolves into absurdity- in jazz, anyway. Indeed, so many great musicians were blind ( music being one of the few working environments available to them) so colour prejudice would have been difficult to sustain. One of our English musicians who became very successful in the US and beyond , blind pianist George Shearing, joked about it: apparently, when it was pointed out to him that his quintet sometimes containing a woman ( Margie Hyams , vibraphone ) and a couple of black musicians ( John Levy on double-bass , Denzil Best on drums) and Chuck Wayne on guitar, was unusually diverse, he cried “What ? Nobody told me that!”
Funny man .
The cross fertilisation in music preceded and anticipated legal freedoms acquired decades later.
(Still being righteously fought for,of course )
I cannot imagine the music i loved as a boy without Miles Davis playing music from Gershwin’s ‘Porgy and Bess’ .
This now standard repertoire of songs brought jazz to its creative peak on the middle of the last century, and beyond right through
to the early sixties by which time the public’s attention had been drawn towards a popular music sharing twin ancestry with white ‘country’ music, and black ‘Rhythm and Blues : Rock ‘n Roll.
Even then, much of the new ‘pop’ music’s repertoire came from Jews: Leiber & Stoller, Neil Sedaka, so many more ..[ and i just realised, the very first film with sound was ‘ the Jazz Singer ‘ about a Jew trying to pass as Black.
Imagine the shock that story-line would create now !]
I am not surrounded by reference books as i write. I’m writing from patchy memory about the music that’s given me something to live for . Why ? because I am one of the people now described contemptuously as anti-Semitic . I’d have to laugh. Just to stop me from crying.
How has this madness come about? Because brought up politically as anti-fascist (I was born on more or less the day the Russian Communist army liberated Auschwitz ) i have been educated to defend and support the underdog, regardless of cultural identity .
So naturally i feel empathy with Palestinians who have been tragically shoved aside as expendable, and trashed for seventy years –
most of my life .
The autobiography of Charles Mingus, the truly great jazz musician with a typically complex racial identity, is titled ‘ Beneath the Underdog ‘.
Could have been the title of a book about Palestinians, don’t you think ?
Jazz (and probably my vestigial christian heritage) taught me to see us all as equally precious – way beyond the entertainment industry and out into the whole world”.
Grant Green – It Ain’t Necessarily So (1962)
Album: The Complete Quartets with Sonny Clark Musicians