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Jan. 22, 2014

Rodney Whitaker and Kenneth Prouty: Jazz—diversity of a nation

Jan. 22, 2014

Rodney Whitaker is a University Distinguished Professor of jazz bass and director of jazz studies in the College of Music. Kenneth Prouty is an associate professor of musicology and jazz studies. 

In jazz, the possibilities for musical performance are nearly endless, as it represents both the particularities of the African American experience and the nation in all its diversity. The same is true for jazz’s ability to foster dialogue and to reach across communities.

With its roots in African American folk traditions, infused with elements of European and Latin American forms, jazz has long been a sonic metaphor for the diverse, dynamic and eclectic nature of America, and since its earliest days, it has pointed to the promise of reconciliation and shared experience.

The appearance of artists such as Louis Armstrong demonstrated to the nation and the world that African American entertainers need not be relegated to the stereotypes of the 19th century blackface minstrel show. As the music grew in popularity, so too did the willingness of audiences of all backgrounds to see and hear beyond race. The music itself served as a powerful integrating force, from the Chicago speakeasies to Harlem's Savoy ballroom and beyond.

Many of the great jazz artists let their music make the strongest case for full equality. Charlie Parker and Duke Ellington, neither of whom were particularly outspoken with respect to race relations and civil rights, were nonetheless crucial in establishing African Americans as serious artists. Other artists, however, used jazz to protest racial injustice more directly. Billie Holiday’s 1939 recording of Abel Meeropol's "Strange Fruit" remains one of the most pointed critiques of Jim Crow racism ever recorded, with its dark, metaphorical allusions to lynching. By the end of the 1950s, many other jazz artists were beginning to compose, perform and record songs that responded to the increasingly urgent calls for an end to segregation.

Still others found in jazz a possibility for all humanity; it is a fortunate historical coincidence in 1964, the same year that the struggle for legal equality came to a climax with the passage of the Civil Right Act, that John Coltrane would produce his seminal album “A Love Supreme,” which sought to transcend barriers of race, faith and class, in favor of a broadly spiritual perspective.

That same year, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote the following in a foreword to the program of the Berlin Jazz Festival: "And now, jazz is exported to the world. For in a 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 clap hands and be happy. Everybody longs for faith. In music, especially this broad category called jazz, there is a stepping stone towards all these."

Though it has been nearly a half-century since King wrote these words, they are no less resonant today.

Each year, the College of Music presents the “Jazz: Spirituals, Prayer and Protest” concert during Martin Luther King Jr. commemorative celebrations. This year’s concert, held on Jan. 19, featured the MSU Jazz Orchestra I, II, III and the MSU Children's Choir. The concert highlighted the music and life of pioneering African American women in jazz and gospel: Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughn, Mahalia Jackson, Dinah Washington, Ella Fitzgerald and Abbey Lincoln. Veteran jazz vocalists Ramona Collins, Mardra Thomas and Kimmie Horne performed along with several up-and-coming jazz vocalists, Jasmine Hamilton-Wray, Twyla Birdsong and Rockelle Fortin.