Let Freedom Ring

// A meditation on the trickiness of Black History Month

By Gerald Veasley //

When my youngest daughter was in middle school, I discovered that Black History Month was a tricky proposition. Her sixth-grade teacher’s announcement of the February events was met by a chorus of mostly-white classmates who collectively groaned, “Do we have to talk about slavery again?” 

My daughter was confused more than dismayed. She didn’t ask for Black History Month and she certainly didn’t request an examination of chattel slavery in America. What do you say to a Black child, your child—any child—in that moment? You might say what I said, “Black History is not all about slavery.” You might explain that it is a season to take note of people who fought through difficult circumstances to accomplish their dreams. In that sense, anyone can learn from Black History Month.

This is a time to celebrate Black Americans for what they’ve accomplished with the measure of freedom they have had. By that barometer, jazz musicians deserve to be celebrated for the enormous contribution we’ve made with our freedom: The creators of jazz invented an entirely new art form.

These Black Americans introduced a new way to think about music, liberating the European brass instruments of the time, the cornet and trombone, from their martial role as accompaniment to battle cries. They married them with decidedly African instruments, the drum — the banjo, finding a sliver of space in this country to express themselves with sounds, rhythms, and melodies never heard before. 

The history of jazz is storied and fascinating, and Philadelphia can lay claim to being an important part of it. At Jazz Philadelphia, we continue to lift up this history in the development of our new website, which will be launched in April. The resource-rich site will include a Philadelphia jazz history timeline to tell the stories of music makers who put our city on the map. 

Dizzy at the Downbeat 

One of the first stories we’ll share on the jazz history timeline is one told by Suzanne Cloud, an account of the iconic trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. It’s a story of how Dizzy, while on a return visit from New York to Philly, honed his craft at the long-gone Downbeat Club. It’s a spot where he was able to grow into the co-architect of the seminal style of jazz known as bebop. It’s important to note that while Dizzy breaking new ground as a musician by playing at the Downbeat, he was also breaking ground by performing in the city’s first integrated nightclub. 

We’ve brought together a group of jazz historians, journalists, and musicians to start assembling  information on the key players, styles, and places that have made Philadelphia a center for creating, teaching, and enjoying jazz. Following the launch of the website, we will collect stories and suggestions from the community.

Celebrating our talent, amplifying your voice

The website will also celebrate our current music makers, including those we call Hometown Heroes. These artists deserve recognition for their contribution to our vibrant music scene, and we thank WRTI for this rich partnership. 

At Jazz Philadelphia, we seek to amplify the voices of our community to foster conversation as we do at the Summit, where we hold space for conversations about race as well as sessions on the art and economics of jazz. We think of artists as whole people who not only have a passion for their work but who are also often concerned about issues of social justice and community wellness. They are thought leaders and they are advocates, and whether explicitly or implicitly, they have concerns—and fresh ideas—about the work and world in which they live.

Jazz is called “America’s original art form” because it was created here. But importantly, it’s also because it was born out of America’s unique struggle to live up to its promise. 

I think of the well-known inscription on the plaque that lies at the base of the Statue of Liberty. The line from Emma Lazarus’ poem The New Colossus is lofty and inclusive: “Give me your tired, your poor / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Breathe. Free.

Jazz artists have taken America at its word and have seized the opportunity to breathe free through a revolutionary art form. In this way, they breathe freedom into America. They lead with new sounds, marching toward the future that was promised.

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