Jazz has always been political in some form. Right from its earliest beginnings, this African American music was taken over by the dominant American middle class ‘white’ culture with no credit going to the black originators. That’s political—since politics is about power differentials. Most of the money was made by white people taking over the music in the early years.
Who was called the “King of Jazz? Paul Whiteman! And when an all white band made the first jazz recording (they called it ‘jass’), the leader, James Larocca. claimed to have ‘invented’ jazz. In this program I play that recording.
Ironically and unintentionally, I play mostly white artists in this episode. Except for the great Wadada Leo Smith and his tribute to Martin Luther King. And saxophonist Bobby Watson and his tribute to the black cyclist, Major Taylor who defied the odds and the effects of racial prejudice to win an international bicycling competition in Montreal in 1899.
But rather than reinforcing the racial stereotypes and the white upper and middle class ‘establishment’, these white artists are doing their bit to try balance the unequal power distribution. Joni Mitchell writes lyrics to the Charles Mingus composition, Goodbye Pork Pie Hat, celebrating how black tenor sax master Lester Young successfully avoided playing clubs that refused to admit black customers. Brandi Disterheft plays her tribute to Nelson Mandela. Toronto pianist and singer, Elizabeth Shepherd protests politicians who used prejudice against veiled Muslim women to reinforce their own political power. Alex Samaras and The Queer Songbook Orchestra sing a Bronski Beat song about the struggles of growing up gay in a world hostile to gays. And Kurt Elling sings Bob Dylan’s A Hard Rain’s a Gonna Fall.