Everybody Has the Blues: MLK On Jazz

By | January 19, 2015


Martin Luther King, Jr.

MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.

If you’re curious about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s thoughts on jazz, you’re not alone. For decades, people have speculated as to his affections for the music, especially given that during the mid-1960s, jazz was becoming increasingly aligned with the Civil Rights Movement in the hands of artists like Nina Simone and drummer Max Roach. But as for King’s own thoughts on jazz? Well, you’ll find just a few short, but potent, paragraphs. The text below, which appeared in the program to the 1964 Berlin Jazz Festival, offers up King’s only public commentary on the value of the music:

“God has wrought many things out of oppression. He has endowed his creatures with the capacity to create—and from this capacity has flowed the sweet songs of sorrow and joy that have allowed man to cope with his environment and many different situations.

Jazz speaks for life. The Blues tell the story of life’s difficulties, and if you think for a moment, you will realize that they take the hardest realities of life and put them into music, only to come out with some new hope or sense of triumph.

This is triumphant music.

Modern jazz has continued in this tradition, singing the songs of a more complicated urban existence. When life itself offers no order and meaning, the musician creates an order and meaning from the sounds of the earth which flow through his instrument.

It is no wonder that so much of the search for identity among American Negroes was championed by Jazz musicians. Long before the modern essayists and scholars wrote of racial identity as a problem for a multiracial world, musicians were returning to their roots to affirm that which was stirring within their souls.

Much of the power of our Freedom Movement in the United States has come from this music. It has strengthened us with its sweet rhythms when courage began to fail. It has calmed us with its rich harmonies when spirits were down.

And now, Jazz is exported to the world. For in the 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 love and be loved. 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 of these.”

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Martin Luther King, Jr.’s above remarks on jazz have often been misidentified as being from a speech King supposedly gave at the 1964 Berlin Jazz Festival. However, in 2011, Professor David Demsey and alumnus Bruce Jackson of William Patterson University discovered that King was never at the festival; these remarks appeared in the foreword to the festival’s program.

 

 

robert-johnson-615px

Robert Johnson, Still Dogged By the Devil

By | October 30, 2014


Mississippi bluesman Robert Johnson

DELTA BLUES LEGEND ROBERT JOHNSON

It has to rank up there as one of the music’s spookiest legends.

Aspiring Mississippi bluesman Robert Johnson, hellbent on guitar immortality, meets the Devil at a rural Mississippi crossroads at midnight. He’s there to bargain for a classic Faustian trade: complete mastery of his instrument in exchange for his immortal soul. The Devil accepts, and Johnson hands over his guitar to Lucifer, who tunes it, plays a few songs, and then returns it to Johnson along with the promised talent. Soon after, Robert wows audiences and beats out rivals with a virtuosic new blues style. But the fame is short-lived. The Devil comes to collect in August 1938, and Johnson dies mysteriously on the eve of a Carnegie Hall performance that would have made him a legend—apart from any spooky stories.

So goes the most repeated version of the so-called Crossroads legend. But how did the iconic bluesman’s name get attached to such a dark story in the first place? Like much about Johnson’s life, the origins of the Crossroads legend are murky, and at best, the story appears to be loosely woven from the few known facts about Johnson’s life.

What we do know about Johnson is this: He was born in 1911 in rural Mississippi, where he and his family worked on a plantation. It was clear that the young Robert had a thirst for music right from the start, and he would often nag the older Delta blues musicians for a chance to play. At that time, however, Johnson was remembered more for how terrible his guitar playing was than for the revolutionary blues style that would inspire rock legends like Eric Clapton and countless others.

Robert Johnson’s talent could easily have been lost to history. In fact, when his original recordings were reissued by Columbia Records in 1961, he was so obscure the record company didn’t even have a photo of him for the album cover.

So, Johnson retreated to the “woodshed,” a time-honored practice that has served many an embarrassed musician over the years. Like Charlie Parker, who famously practiced night and day after being chased from the bandstand by a flying cymbal flung by drummer Jo Jones, Johnson flung himself into his craft, emerging some time later with a mastery of the guitar. How long Jonhson spent in the ‘shed is not known; estimates range from a couple of months to a couple of years. Adding to the mystique is the fact that his intense study took place during a period in which Robert had moved out of the Delta. In fact, historians believe that the Crossroads legend could have originated upon his return to Mississippi, where the old timers, who Robert could now play circles around, may have come up with the Faustian tale in order to discredit the young upstart.

Several other details about Johnson’s life also have fed the legend over time. He did, in fact, love singing about the Devil. “Hellhound On My Trail,” “Me and the Devil Blues” and “Up Jumped the Devil” are all Johnson classics. As is his “Crossroads Blues,” which seems to provide the setting for the legend (though it doesn’t even mention the Devil and, if you listen to the lyrics, is clearly a song about hitchhiking).

In addition, his untimely death at the age of 27 adds another layer of mystique to an already mysterious biography. Back in 1938, the legendary talent scout John Hammond wanted to book Johnson for a performance at Carnegie Hall—the now-famous “From Spirituals to Swing” concert, which featured Count Basie and Big Joe Turner and would have likely made Johnson a star overnight. But Johnson died of mysterious causes before word from Hammond ever reached him. Explanations for Johnson’s death range from poisoning to bad moonshine, though the official cause listed on the back of his death certificate is syphilis.

One of the more streamlined explanations for the Crossroads legend is that it’s a simple case of mistaken identity. An earlier Delta bluesman by the name of Johnson—this one Tommy Johnson—apparently told a near-identical story of his devilish talents as a way of cultivating a more mysterious persona, and it’s possible the story later got attached to Robert Johnson by mistake. Whatever story you choose to believe, though, Robert Johnson’s name and the Crossroads legend now seem permanently linked. And no doubt many people will have a hard time giving it up, especially this time of year.

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Check out Johnson’s 1937 recording of “Hellhound On My Trail” for a little of the iconic bluesman’s devilish side.

<a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3UVgH9JqSnQ?hl=en"><img src="http://thenewjazzarchive.com/wp/wp-content/plugins/images/play-tub.png" alt="Play" style="border:0px;" /></a>

 

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By | April 13, 2014


Guitarist Bill Frisell
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Photo: Jazz guitarist Bill Frisell

 

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Les Paul

By | April 4, 2014

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Jazz icon Dave Brubeck

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Satchmo gettin' spooked in the 1936 film "Pennies From Heaven."

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