Art is a conversation. Between the artist, creation, participants and observers, communication is abundant in all directions.
It’s a component we take for granted. Yet how much of the artist’s work is shaped by the time and place and, in kind, how much are the times and its denizens shaped by the artists?
A specific version of those questions and our regional culture will be on the table Thursday, Jan. 11, at 6 p.m. in the Larkins Auditorium of the Mobile Museum of Art (4850 Museum Drive) for a panel discussion, “Jazz and African-American Consciousness.” The event is co-sponsored by the Mystic Order of the Jazz Obsessed (MOJO).
The catalyst for the event is “Posing Beauty in African-American Culture,” a photo exhibit on display at MMoA through March 4. The exhibit’s swath of Americans and their interplay with identity includes such jazz luminaries as Billie Holiday and Billy Eckstine in a candid, interpersonal moment.
While this columnist will moderate the discussion, the panel will comprise Mary Angela Coleman, Ph.D., associate vice president of institutional effectiveness at the University of South Alabama; Kern Jackson, Ph.D., director of African-American studies at USA, and Hosea London, leader of The Excelsior Band and the E.B. Coleman Big Band and longtime music instructor. Live music will be performed by Theodore Arthur Jr. before and after the program.
Jazz began thanks to the mélange of cultures along the French-settled central Gulf Coast. Specific elements in New Orleans — Creoles of color, European folk and formal music, blues from the Mississippi Delta, African-American gospel — were thrown together in the wake of Reconstruction, and what emerged was an art form indigenous to these shores only.
Just like any artist, the musicians who birthed it brought their own experiences to inform its emotional weight. Their joys, their pains provided the heft to the notes.
So as they experienced the daily indignities of life as an African-American — especially in the Jim Crow South — they channeled their feelings through their art. They could decry, they could protest, they could comfort and console in public ways otherwise unavailable.
In a society where mass media perpetuated images of black Americans as subordinate “mammies” and Stepin Fetchits, jazz musicians defied it. On stage, “lesser than” proved “better than” doubtlessly. It was a channel for community and independence alike.
After jazz chugged upriver from New Orleans and lent its name to an age, it was more likely for white Americans to envision black brethren in ways previously unseen. When Texas-native Charles Black encountered Louis Armstrong’s music at Austin’s Hotel Driskill in 1931, its hypnotic reverie changed the youngster.
“He was the first genius I had ever seen,” Black later wrote. “The moment of first being, and knowing oneself to be in, the presence of genius is a solemn moment. … It is impossible to overstate the significance of a 16-year-old Southern boy’s seeing genius, for the first time in a black. You don’t get over that.”
Thomas “Fats” Waller’s 1929 hit song “Black and Blue” wove together a poignant lyric laced with the woe of social strata based on degrees of skin tone, even among African-Americans alone. “I’m so forlorn, Life’s just a thorn, My heart is torn, Why was I born? What did I do, To be so black and blue?”
Billie Holiday’s 1939 anti-lynching ballad “Strange Fruit” was so controversial it stirred riots and caused her hasty flight from some towns. But it was what she felt needed to be heard.
World War II brought change. Black Americans who served overseas returned to second-class status at home and were reviled.
Likewise, bebop musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie, Dexter Gordon and others boldly strode with the conviction of their demanding art’s intellectual merits. They didn’t beg for acceptance but confidently presented their revolutionary value.
Miles Davis became jazz’s biggest iconoclast, absolutely welded to his path, his rules, his image. His refined tastes in cars, in clothes, women and lifestyle scintillated with an epitome of undeniable cool. He neither bowed nor scraped for anyone.
By the height of the civil rights era, jazz was firmly aloft in the cultural firmament as its stars made their own statements. Charles Mingus openly called segregationist Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus “a fool” in verse. Max Roach’s “Freedom Now Suite” wailed against the bonds it protested. John Coltrane’s saxophone eulogized four Birmingham school girls.
The layers of this complex, spellbinding and quintessentially American tale go far deeper on Jan. 11, followed by a question and answer period. Entrance is free but donations are requested. Beer and wine are available by donation. For info, call 251-208-5200.
The artful dialogue awaits. Just heed its call.
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