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16 May

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Hot Jazz and Cold War

2 May

In his opening remarks at the International Jazz Day global concert at the White House, President Barack Obama said:

Jazz is perhaps the most honest reflection of who we are as a nation. Because after all, has there ever been any greater improvisation than America itself? We do it in our own way. We move forward even when the road ahead is uncertain, stubbornly insistent that we’ll get to somewhere better, and confident that we’ve got all the right notes up our sleeve.

That “honest reflection of who we are as a nation” became an instrument of cultural diplomacy during the Cold War. Jazz musicians-turned-cultural ambassadors toured in more than 35 countries in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, Latin America and the Middle East. Jazz diplomacy was intended to win hearts and minds and promote a positive view of America as the land of freedom.

The irony of being ambassadors of freedom was not lost on jazz musicians who were treated as second-class citizens at home and subject to Jim Crow segregation.

As part of Jazz Appreciation Month, the USC Center on Public Diplomacy, the Public Diplomacy Council and the DC Jazz Festival presented a program on jazz and public diplomacy.

Dizzy Gillespie was the first Jazz Ambassador. The legendary Adam Clayton Powell Jr.  was the catalyst behind the tour. His son, Adam Clayton Powell III, President of the Public Diplomacy Council, recently wrote:

Americans underestimate the impact of jazz on audiences around the world. And in a way that contributes to the power of international tours by U.S. jazz musicians, including and especially tours sponsored by the U.S. State Department.

[…]

During the Cold War, America’s most prominent “jazz ambassadors” included Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong – at a time when segregation was the law of the land in much of the U.S. and the civil rights movement was at its peak. And that created a conflict for many of musicians.

“You had people being hosed down with fire hoses and dogs sicced on them, and you had these reports going out across the world,” said [Willard] Jenkins. “So it did create a real issue for many of the African American musicians who were selected to make those tours.”

Then Jenkins read from instructions given to musicians by the State Department: “‘Remember who you are and what you represent. Always be a credit to your government.’”

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International Jazz Day 2016

25 Apr

All good things must come to an end. Jazz Appreciation Month is going out on a high note. On Saturday, April 30, America’s classical music will be celebrated across the globe, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe.

International Jazz Day 2016

UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova said in a statement:

Jazz was born in the U.S. and traveled the world as a music of tolerance, freedom and human dignity. This is why UNESCO created International Jazz Day and we are extremely pleased that in 2016 Washington, DC has been designated the host city for this global celebration, with a unique All Star Concert at the White House, hosted by the President of the United States Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. This event reminds us Jazz is more than music – it is a universal message of peace with rhythm and meaning.

Jazz at the White House - 4.25.16

UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador Herbie Hancock added:

We are thrilled that President Obama and Michelle Obama are hosting the International Jazz Day All-Star Global Concert at the White House, and are truly grateful for their commitment to jazz and its role in building bridges and uniting people around the world. Over the past five years, the innovation and creativity of Jazz Day has been a beacon of light to millions of people who find common ground and communicate through the values inherent in jazz. On April 30th, people of all ages in all corners of the globe will participate in International Jazz Day. A wide range of momentous events will take place in thousands of neighborhoods – and the streets will be alive with the sounds of peace and freedom.

The lineup is a real-life fantasy jam session.

The all-star global concert will air on ABC-TV at 8pm ET.

Did You See ‘Jackie Robinson’ on PBS?

18 Apr

On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson became the first African American to play major league baseball.

Last week, PBS aired a two-part documentary, “Jackie Robinson.”

Like all African Americans, I admire Robinson’s achievements, and dignity and grace in the face of unrelenting racial taunts and threats. I was delighted when I stumbled upon the plaque in Brooklyn Heights noting the place where Brooklyn Dodgers President and General Manager Branch Rickey signed Robinson in 1945.

Jackie Robinson Plaque - Brooklyn Heights

But somewhere along the way, I developed an inchoate impression the baseball icon had become an “Uncle Tom” after his playing days ended. Ken Burns’ film disabused me of that foolish notion. Robinson was a race-man who advocated for political empowerment:

I’m a black man first, an American second, and then I will support a political party—third.

Robinson was in the tradition of “Radical Republicans.” He understood that playing one-party politics in a two-party system would ensure black folks would not get a fair return on the investment of their political capital.

Robinson also pushed for economic empowerment. In 1964, he co-founded Freedom National Bank in Harlem. The bank later opened a branch in Bedford-Stuyvesant. I grew up in Bed-Stuy. As an emerging race-woman, I opened my first savings account at that branch. Frankly, I don’t remember whether I knew Robinson was associated with Freedom National Bank.

If you missed “Jackie Robinson,” you can watch full episodes online at PBS videos on demand.

April is National Poetry Month

11 Apr

April is Jazz Appreciation Month. It’s also National Poetry Month.

National Poetry Month 2016

It’s probably no coincidence the two art forms are celebrated during the same month. After all, the Harlem Renaissance gave birth to jazz poetry. The most celebrated jazz poet is Langston Hughes who collaborated with jazz musicians, including Charles Mingus and Thelonious Monk.

In his 1926 essay, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” Hughes wrote:

But jazz to me is one of the inherent expressions of Negro life in America; the eternal tom-tom beating in the Negro soul—the tom-tom of revolt against weariness in a white world, a world of subway trains, and work, work, work; the tom-tom of joy and laughter, and pain swallowed in a smile.

In 1958, Hughes recorded his poem, “The Weary Blues,” over jazz composed by Mingus and Leonard Feather.

Also, check out a reading of “The Weary Blues” by Rev. Dr. Allen Dwight Callahan, a Philly native and former professor at Harvard Divinity School.

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