Is it hard to sustain four weeks of Jazz Appreciation Month? With the defeat of gun-control measures, bombings in Boston, ricin attacks on the President, fertilizer explosions in Texas — promotion of jazz as a positive cultural entity might have seemed less than relevant.
But when I addressed students at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, as a substitute for temporarily ailing vocalist Lisa Sokolov, the value of jazz to America (and the world) seemed as powerful as ever.
I’ve subbed for Lisa before, and enjoy introducing classic performances of jazz, blues, Americana and enduring, truly popular U.S.-born or adopted culture to college students eager to act, sing, dance — to enrich themselves and others by becoming entertaining, and yet to my astonishment (and Lisa’s) have seldom seen some of the iconic works from whose shadows they will emerge. I show my own NYU classes (in Blues, Jazz, World Music and the Roots of American Music) video clips from Youtube or dvds and videos of my collection, too. But the Tisch students are among the most responsive, even when I show relics like hammy, blackfaced Al Jolson singing “Mammy” at the end of The Jazz Singer, or Paul Robeson’s majesterial “Ol’ Man River “ from Showboat. Judy Garland ‘s heart-rending “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” the vision of hope from the Wizard of Oz, though, gets across directly.
By then, I’ve introduced one of the indelible film clips depicting delight in life — Louis Armstrong before a Danish audience in 1933, singing, muccing and playing “that good ol’ favorites, ‘Dinah.'”
Then, to demonstrate that yes, jazzer’s know life’s not all a bowl of musings about one’s happy partnerings but we can prevail even over mean mistreating, I bring on Billie Holiday with true all-stars, singing “Fine and Mellow” from the the CBS tv’s The Sound of Jazz.
And finally here’s the John Coltrane Quartet expressing some of the most profoundly sorrowful, enraged, serenely and committedely resistent of minor blues, “Alabama” —
To me, Coltrane’s music here with drummer Elvin Jones, bassist Jimmy Garrison and pianist McCoy Tyner stands as a timely reaction to the horrors of attacks on the innocent, sadness at the refusal of too many public figures to take serious, obvious steps to right age-old wrongs and regulate ever-dangerous circumstances. There is more upbeat jazz — Fats Waller, Lambert Hendricks and Ross, Bobby McFerrin top the list of videos to restate the joy Louis Armstrong brought to our undeniably beautiful, but also so terrible, world.
All these videos are evidence that jazz grasps the spirit people have within that sustains us. I can’t think of anything I’d have rather have done, or better have done, to celebrate Jazz Appreciation Month culminating in International Jazz Day — the two initiatives which the Jazz Journalists Association calls JazzApril, that to show emerging artists the standards they can look to, perhaps live up to.