The Sun Ra Arkestra at the Detroit Jazz Center on December 31, 1979 in Detroit, Michigan. | Leni Sinclair/Getty Images

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From Bandstand to Social Justice: How Jazz Remains 'America's Classical Music'

In 2001, twenty-time Grammy Award-winning artist Pat Metheny delivered the keynote address at the International Association for Jazz Education. At one point the jazz guitarist stated his vision of the music: “Jazz is — and I hope will always be — a form of folk music, but a very, very serious and sophisticated folk music. Musicians using every aspect, all the materials, all the sounds and moves and vibes and spirits of their time in a musical way.” As pianist Cecil Taylor put it: “Living becomes a musical process. It becomes a search to absorb everything that happens to you and incorporate it into music.”

Arising from African American communities around the country, jazz is rightfully considered “America’s classical music” (a phrase coined by pianist Billy Taylor). Many of its latter-day visionaries, like Taylor, Ornette Coleman, Anthony Braxton and Henry Threadgill, deem it “Black classical music.” Others bristle at the confines of the word “jazz” and offer their own spin on it: reedman Yusef Lateef opted for “audio-physio-psychic music,” while Gary Bartz just called it “music.” Perhaps it’s that seriousness, that sophistication, that openness, which can make jazz seem so daunting to newcomers and seasoned music fans alike. In 2015, it was reported that the genre was “tied with classical music as the least-consumed music in the U.S., after children’s music.”

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But that same year, Los Angeles-based saxophonist/bandleader Kamasi Washington released a profound statement along with his album “The Epic.” He was also an integral part of the year’s most acclaimed record, Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly” (it’s also been noted that rapper Lamar “thinks like a jazz musician”). Taken together, it laid bare an elemental truth: jazz still courses through the veins of American pop vernacular. Hip-hop, electronic, R&B, even classic rock, they all draw from some aspect of the jazz tradition, from its sense of musical exploration to its spiritual quest for unity. Beneath it all, jazz remains a vital form of expression.

For the better part of the century, jazz was American popular music. The firmament could contain the likes of Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Thelonious Monk, Stan Getz and Sarah Vaughn. Big bands enjoyed great success and roved the country during the 1930s and through World War II. Then with the bebop revolution of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, jazz pushed into challenging new terrain while remaining a vital part of the African American community. But during the 1960s, along with the rise of iconoclasts like Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, John Coltrane and Albert Ayler, jazz’s relationship with its audience was challenged by the rise of soul, pop, R&B and rock ’n’ roll. 

Portrait of Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Brown, Milt (Milton) Jackson, and Timmie Rosenkrantz, Downbeat, New York, N.Y., ca. Sept. 1947. | Flickr/Library of Congress/Creative Commons/Public Domain
Portrait of Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Brown, Milt (Milton) Jackson, and Timmie Rosenkrantz, Downbeat, New York, N.Y., ca. Sept. 1947. | Flickr/Library of Congress/Creative Commons/Public Domain

Jazz may have lost its place on the charts, but that era brought about a profound expansion of the form. Sun Ra, Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock were at the fore of bringing electronics to bear on the tradition, utilizing synthesizers and electronic effects to heighten their sound. Elsewhere, the music pushed beyond the confines of the tradition, ranging for sounds beyond the blues and the Great American Songbook. With the music of John Coltrane as an example, others began to realize that jazz could draw not only on its decades as a wholly American music, but the centuries’ worth of music to be found in Africa, India and Asia. Seekers like Yusef Lateef, Pharoah Sanders, Don Cherry, Alice Coltrane, Paul Horn, Ornette Coleman, Pat Martino, Tony Scott and more looked beyond the borders for inspiration. Their vision of what jazz could be expanded and drew in the entire world: Eastern scales, the Quran, yoga meditation, Indian classical, Moroccan trance, African tribal music and more. It’s what Metheny recognized as jazz’s ability to reflect “the vibes and spirits of their time.”

But beyond vibes and spirits, jazz was also becoming the sound of protest. As a byproduct of the African American community, it embodied the push for civil rights and equality, espousing Black pride and Black brilliance with every note sounded. Jazz artists sought justice in their own country while also embedding acute sensations of anger, sadness, anguish and frustration right into their compositions.

Reflecting the news reports that the Governor of Arkansas, Orval Faubus, refused to integrate the schools in his state, composer Charles Mingus issued his own retort in the form of “Fables of Faubus.” Never one to mince words, Mingus called the sitting governor and other politicians of his ilk Nazis and fascists.

When legendary tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins released his landmark 1958 album, “Freedom Suite,” his liner notes put it forthright: “How ironic that the Negro, who more than any other people can claim America's culture as his own, is being persecuted and repressed; that the Negro, who has exemplified the humanities in his very existence, is being rewarded with inhumanity.” His drummer for that session, Max Roach, soon issued his own declarative album, “We Insist!” With its cover of the student lunch counter sit-ins that had started only the year before, this 1961 suite drew upon the brutalities of American slavery and South African apartheid. Roach’s wife, the singer Abbey Lincoln, would make her own provocative statement with “Straight Ahead.”

Few artists could straddle the divide between the struggle for civil rights and spiritual seeking like John Coltrane. The tenor saxophonist made a name for himself as sideman for Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk during the late ‘50s but in the early ‘60s, Coltrane went from jazz star to supernova. Across a gush of divinely inspired music recorded for the Impulse! label in a seven-year span, Coltrane could touch on the divine and the earthly. His most famous work, “A Love Supreme,” contains within its four movements a sublime quest for enlightenment. 

John Coltrane's "Giant Steps" album. | JFHayeur/Creative Commons/Public Domain
John Coltrane's "Giant Steps" album. | Flickr/JFHayeur/Creative Commons/Public Domain

But his most famous song is “Alabama,” recorded in the wake of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, a horrific example of white supremacist terrorism that claimed the lives of four young girls and shocked the nation (serving as one of the catalysts for the Civil Rights Act). Coltrane took this vicious event and transmogrified it with music. In a succinct five minutes, Coltrane meditates on the young girls’ memories, the music sorrowful, anguished, resilient and luminous. Cancer would claim Coltrane at the age of 40 in 1967, but he continues to be a beacon for all the jazz players who have followed in his wake. “I want to be a force for real good,” he told one interviewer shortly before his death. “I know that there are bad forces. I know that there are forces out here that bring suffering to others and misery to the world, but I want to be the opposite force. I want to be the force which is truly for good.”

Beyond the bandstand and the recording studio, some artists began to realize that jazz could be a transformative force for good in their own communities. It was an idealistic but also necessary transformation to make as the 1960s grew more violent and deadly. In response to a series of nightclub closings — and to stave off a broader economic downturn in their cities’ Black communities — numerous jazz musicians reimagined the role their music could play. In his 1995 essay collection, “The All-American Skin Game,” cultural critic Stanley Crouch compared jazz to a democracy “in which improvisation declares an aesthetic rejection of the preconceptions that stifle individual and collective invention.” In that way, it could communicate on a broader scale, not just being the voice of its musicians, but also the voice of its audience.

Listen to a few selections of jazz's many forms in this curated playlist below:

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In urban centers across the nation, new collectives emerged. Sun Ra kept a large band throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s, which he deemed the Arkestra. Whether he was located in Chicago, then New York, and then ultimately Philadelphia, everywhere Sun Ra set up base, a small ecosystem nurturing the community around them grew. In Chicago, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians was founded in an apartment on the South Side and it remains a force to this day for three generations of players, not only putting on concerts but offering tutorials and workshops for younger students and other members of the community. Kehlan Phil Cohran (whose apartment the AACM was started in) became a force himself, establishing the Affro-Arts Theater and putting on concerts at the 63rd St. Beach. A onetime member of Sun Ra’s Arkestra, Cohran’s influence stretched from Earth, Wind & Fire and poet Gwendolyn Brooks to Hypnotic Brass Ensemble.

The Sun Ra Arkestra at the Detroit Jazz Center on December 31, 1979 in Detroit, Michigan. | Leni Sinclair/Getty Images
The Sun Ra Arkestra at the Detroit Jazz Center on December 31, 1979 in Detroit, Michigan. Back row from left: Eric Walker (a.k.a. Samurai), Jaribu Shahid, Tani Tabbal, Bright Moments, Michael Ray. Middle row: Sun Ra, Vincent Chancey, Al Evans, Tyrone Hill. Front row: one of The Bell Brothers, Marshall Allen, Noel Scott, John Gilmore, Danny Thompson.  | Leni Sinclair/Getty Images

The early ‘70s also saw the Black Artists Group in St. Louis and Tribe in Detroit take root. As vital, visionary and ambitious as these endeavors were, they soon succumbed to societal and municipal pressures. Out in Los Angeles, Horace Tapscott founded the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra and Union of God's Musicians and Artists Ascension (UGMAA) in 1961. Just like and unlike Sun Ra’s Arkestra, Tapscott’s Ark embodied multitudes, uplifted a community rather than illuminated individuals, providing a vision of a possible future. 

But that’s where the paths diverge. Rather than marvel at the otherworldliness of Ra’s magnificent, Afro-Futuristic vision, Tapscott’s Ark was terrestrial. Long after sustaining big bands was economically feasible, Tapscott and his vision somehow made it into a vital presence. While jazz in New York City could be cutthroat (they weren’t called “cutting sessions” for nothing), Tapscott’s vision for West Coast jazz was more embracive. “Our music is contributive, not competitive,” Tapscott said in the liner notes to his very first recording, 1969’s “The Giant is Awakened.” And that outlook helped foster the scene around the band. Earthbound and profound, their Sunday services in South Central held something for everybody, becoming a beacon for their communities.

Members of the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra on stage | Samantha Lee "The New West Coast Sound: An L.A. Jazz Legacy"ab s11 preview image
Members of the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra on stage | Samantha Lee

That these weekly performances could function as Sunday service speaks to jazz’s singular power. It can spontaneously combust and be as composed as any classical work. Sometimes it’s cool and sophisticated, other times volcanic and primordial. Jazz is spiritually mindful and a raised fist in protest. Absorbing everything that happens around it, jazz urges its practitioners to push beyond their own limitations and inspires its audience to imagine a brighter tomorrow. Jazz speaks for the local scene and global community. Jazz is reverent of its tradition and forward-looking into the unknown. It’s as messy as a democracy and ideal as utopia. Jazz uses all of these attributes — contradictory as they might sound —to push us to an unimaginable new horizon.

Top Image: The Sun Ra Arkestra at the Detroit Jazz Center on December 31, 1979 in Detroit, Michigan. Back row from left: Eric Walker (a.k.a. Samurai), Jaribu Shahid, Tani Tabbal, Bright Moments, Michael Ray. Middle row: Sun Ra, Vincent Chancey, Al Evans, Tyrone Hill. Front row: one of The Bell Brothers, Marshall Allen, Noel Scott, John Gilmore, Danny Thompson.  | Leni Sinclair/Getty Images

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