Music (and musicians) as a force for change

Special to The Times

With both the country and the world fracturing in all directions over the confrontation with Iraq, the jazz world has displayed few visible reactions. The sudden surfacing of Musicians United to Win Without War in their recent full-page ad in several major newspapers was less surprising than the fact that not a single jazz artist was represented in the signatures. Can it really have been that difficult to line up a jazz artist for inclusion?

The answer has less to do with any concern about the current situation than it does with a reconfirmation of the fact that jazz musicians have rarely involved themselves in activist efforts. Rarely, that is, but not never. The difference is that jazz activism, like the music, has almost always tended to be an individual expression, and -- perhaps most significantly -- it has been focused on social rather than political issues.

Examples abound. Billie Holiday sang “Strange Fruit” -- surely one of the most powerful indictments of racial violence ever written -- at Cafe Society in 1939. Duke Ellington chose to make Southern tours with his orchestra in the ‘40s and ‘50s in private railroad cars rather than have the musicians stay in segregated lodgings.

In the late ‘50s, Louis Armstrong, responding to the actions of Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus, who called out the National Guard to prevent nine African American students from attending high school, refused to participate in a State Department trip to Russia. And Charles Mingus, reacting directly to the Little Rock situation in 1959, composed “Fables of Faubus,” a marvelous use of jazz as a weapon for social change.


But it was the ‘60s that saw the most widespread growth of jazz activism. As with pop music, it undoubtedly was energized by the events of the decade, from the assassinations of the two Kennedy brothers, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X to the expanding Vietnam War. The sense of protest coursed through the music of artists as diverse as John Coltrane, Archie Shepp, Cecil Taylor, Max Roach and Sonny Rollins. And Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s Jazz and People’s Movement -- in an unusual example of outright jazz group activism -- disrupted the television shows of Dick Cavett and Johnny Carson.

How effective have these actions been? From some perspectives, they have been extremely effective. Author, activist and teacher Angela Davis has argued, for example, that “Strange Fruit” rejuvenated “the tradition of protest and resistance in African American and American traditions of popular music and culture.”

One could say the same thing about the impact of Bob Dylan’s songs in the ‘60s. But instrumental music, which is predominant in jazz, comes from a more abstract place than songs with lyrics. And although its influence is far less direct, it can -- as the music of Ornette Coleman, Coltrane and others did in the ‘60s -- serve as the nonverbal but emotionally powerful soundtrack for a particular era and a particular cultural change.

War in Iraq would not seem to be a likely flash point for jazz activism of whatever sort. But if, as many are predicting, the Bush administration is taking the nation into a transformative era of global empire, the changes will soon become manifest in the music. And it would not be surprising if, as in the ‘60s, there is a polarity between the music of longing and the music of violence. One thing’s for sure: Jazz, like the rest of American culture, will soon be moving into uncharted territory.


Other voices of activism

The heterogeneous mixture of sounds and rhythms that can generically be described as the music of Africa has played a considerably different role in the progress of that continent’s many nations. The recent documentary “Amandla” revealed the vital importance of music to the fight against apartheid. And “Music Is the Weapon of the Future: Fifty Years of African Popular Music” (Lawrence Hill Books) by Frank Tenaille offers an impressively detailed survey of the principal artists and issues in virtually every country’s post-colonial era.

Thirty important musicians -- from Miriam Makeba and Fela Kuti to Alpha Blondy and Youssou N’Dour -- are profiled. The diversity of their music, which rings with elements of jazz, reggae, Afro-Cuban and traditional sounds, does not mask the fact that in many cases it has specific political and social goals. Tenaille’s cogent descriptions explore the courageous qualities of performers who have risked beatings, incarceration and even death for the expression of their views through their music.



The emergence of Krall’s ‘lost tape’

It’s probably a fair bet that most highly successful artists are not always delighted to be reminded of performances from their earliest years -- especially when they’re memorialized on tape or video. “Vince Benedetti Meets Diana Krall” (on the Montreux Jazz label) is a case in point. It’s being described by the CD’s distributors as “the lost tape,” and Krall may well have hoped that it would remain lost.

Who, you may ask, is Vince Benedetti, and how did he get together with the jazz world’s top-selling vocalist? Rewind back to 1988, when Krall met Benedetti, an American trombonist and keyboardist, while she was working at a hotel bar in Switzerland. Still an unknown at 24, she joined Benedetti’s band for a brief European tour and went into the studio to record a set of his songs in early 1990.


The results are fascinating as a display of a diamond-in-the-rough voice that gradually would be polished over the next decade into a brilliantly expressive instrument, with many of the distinguishing Krall characteristics present in embryonic form. But it’s hard to avoid the feeling of exploitation in the album’s issuance at this late date.

Krall played in a lot of different settings in her early years, and it’s highly likely that other, similar tapes from that period are floating around. Let’s hope they remain personal collector’s items.


This club is like home, only better


The speakeasies of the ‘20s required an inside knowledge of their location and a password to gain entry. Now the Southland has its own 21st century jazz version -- the Vic. It’s hidden in Santa Monica’s Victorian Collection on Main Street, accessible only via a back door (don’t expect to get past the guard without the password), and it offers appealing programs of first-rate jazz.

Up the stairs is a lovely, Victorian-style dining room, with a stage area positioned in front of a beautiful cherry and oak wall piece. With the soft lighting and intimate ambience, it’s an engaging setting in which to hear jazz.

But there’s the rub. The Vic is a kind of private jazz club, only open on Thursday nights. Access is gained through networking, with owner Ray Slayton emphasizing that he wants the room to have the atmosphere of a gathering of friends. How to become part of that gathering? Log on to Next on the Vic’s schedule: pianist Mike Melvoin’s trio, Thursday, with sets at 8 and 10 p.m.