From its birth, jazz has been at the intersection of race and social change. Nina Simone, the “High Priestess of Soul,” left a musical legacy that speaks to the current times. Indeed, the debate over segregationists, school busing and states’ rights harkens back to the days of “Old Jim Crow.”
The National Trust for Historic Preservation recently launched a crowdfunding campaign to restore Nina Simone’s childhood home in Tryon, North Carolina.
Your donation in any amount will help preserve Nina Simone’s story in public memory. For more information, please go here.
On July 5, 1852, before the Ladies Anti-Slavery Society in Rochester, New York, Frederick Douglass asked, “What to the slave is the Fourth of July?”
Today we often communicate via memes, but the message is the same.
In 1994, National Public Radio, in partnership with the Smithsonian Institution, produced a 26-part series, Wade in the Water. As Black Music Month winds down, the radio documentary is a refresher course on the history of gospel music and its impact on soul, jazz, and R&B.
From the NPR Music blog:
In 1994, when Wade in the Water first aired on NPR member stations, the world was different. Many of the voices featured in the series were alive, and were generous with their support. Today, some of those voices have been stilled. But this series, documenting African American sacred music traditions spanning more than 200 years, remains vital because of them.
Wade was an experiment in recording music and musical events, amassing scholarship and conducting interviews in order to make all of those elements accessible to a wider audience. As a first-time partnership between NPR and the Smithsonian Institution, it featured a wide range of styles and subcultures and documented the cultural impact of music on real lives and diverse communities.
Over a five-year production period, Wadewas guided by the steady hand, artistic integrity and groundbreaking scholarship of Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon — historian, musician, MacArthur “genius” and the series’ creator and narrator. And Wade’s production team members brought our personal and professional best to the series, trekking throughout the country to gather relevant material.
Legendary composer, bandleader and pianist Duke Ellington was not an outspoken activist. His activism was expressed in benefit concerts, non-segregation clause in his contract and his music. In the 1960s, Ellington was asked when he was going to compose a civil rights piece. His reply, “I did my piece more than 20 years ago when I wrote Jump for Joy.”
Debuted on July 10, 1941, at the Mayan Theater in Los Angeles, the musical addressed African American identity and representation. For Ellington, showcasing black excellence was an act of resistance to racial caricatures. Although Jump for Joy received rave reviews, it ran for only 122 performances. The musical never made it to Broadway. The “Great White Way” was not ready for Ellington’s unapologetic blackness.
Nearly 80 years later, audiences still jump for joy when they hear songs from the musical, including “I’ve Got It Bad (and That Ain’t Good) and “Rocks in My Bed.”
This year marks the 40th anniversary of Black Music Month, the brainchild of music mogul and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Kenny Gamble and broadcast executive Ed Wright. Radio personality Dyana Williams, the “Mother of Black Music Month,” breaks down the origin of the celebration.
2019 also marks the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in British North America. Music helped the ancestors survive the dehumanization and barbarity of slavery. This mandolin was crafted by a slave circa 1800s. It is on display at the National Constitution Center.
The ancestors used music to express their grief and sorrow. In 25 Black Gospel Songs that Have their Roots in Slavery, BlackExcellence.com wrote:
This traditional Negro spiritual dates back to the slavery era. Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child expresses despair and pain. Furthermore, it conveys the lack of hope of a child who’s been torn from the parents. The word sometimes is repeated several times, which can be interpreted as a measure of hope, as it suggests that occasionally this child doesn’t feel motherless. This child can represent a slave who, in the trafficking process, has been separated from something dear to his or her heart (such as a spouse, home country, parents, children, siblings, and so on) and is yearning for it.
Music was a form of resistance. Again, from BlackExcellence.com:
Wade in the Water is a Negro spiritual song that teaches slaves to hide and make it through by getting into the water. It’s a perfect map song example with lyrics that offer precious coded directions.