Bebop, Islam and the Promise of a Dignified Existence in Jim Crow America

The following is a short paper that I wrote on the relation between Islam and Blackness and the draw between the two back in the early part of the 20th Century. I hope to have the time to post a few more ruminations, but at the moment, enjoy this small piece.

Much like the 1940’s, modern day America is taking a closer look at the religion of Islam, how America relates to it, and how Islam fits into the tapestry of the dominant culture. As it is today, so was it some seventy years ago that Islam was seen as a foreign and possibly even hostile entity. And yet, for Blackamericans, Islam not only held a mystique that called to them but also eventually offered an alternative modality of being both black and American. For many, this switch of religious identity was cemented in the social issues of the day, namely the racism that was prevalent in American society at the time towards Blackamericans. As we shall see, jazz, and more specifically, bebop, would play a major role in tying together disparate narratives into a holy protest against white supremacy.

The article I have chosen to discuss is a passage from Dizzy Gillespie’s memoir, To Be or Not to Bop. From the selected passed, Gillespie, as one of bebop’s founding fathers, illustrates a unique crossroads of black consciousness: religion, music and social justice that for many Blackamerican jazz musicians came in the form of Islam, bebop and intellectual/anti-establishment mindset that saw to either confront or subvert the laws and practices of a Jim Crow legacy.

In recent years there has been a tremendous amount of research conducted on Islam, including the phenomenon of Islam amongst Blackamericans. And while there has been enlightening findings that have shed more light on the nature of Africans and their decedents in antebellum American, it still stands that the chain that linked modern Blacks and those of their African ancestors that were Muslim, is a broken one. Instead, as Gillespie relates for us, the rise of Islam in the interest and imagination amongst many Blackamerican jazz musicians had primarily to do with the social/racial climate that these musicians found themselves in. As “colored” or “Negro”, such musicians were barred from playing and performing in jazz clubs, which were white-owned. Even the task of acquiring lodging for these traveling musicians was made near to impossible due to the color of their skin. But in what would be a puzzling discovery, Blackamerican musicians that changed their public identity to Muslim, would find they could pass under the radar of Jim Crow.

The turn of the 20th Century saw few improvements for Blackamericans. Indeed, one could say that things were worsening, with the state-condoned violence that was unleashed on many Blacks in America. And by the mid- and especially late-Forties, when Black service men were returning to America after having served in a war that was supposed to be about racism, they saw their social context in complete opposition to the values supposedly expressed by the dominant culture. It is here the seeds of discord would be sown and out of this collective discontent would rise a new sense of intellectual ownership over themselves, as yet unseen before in the history of the United States. For many Blackamericans who chose to adopt Islam as their faith, Islam represented something completely outside the jurisdiction of white authority. This sentiment would be proved even by the racist elements of white-American society that would permit access to services to Blackamerican Muslim converts, who were presumed to be of a non-American black origin. Gillespie relates one such occasion:

“He [Oliver Mesheux] went into this restaurant, and they said they didn’t serve colored in there. So he said, ‘I don’t blame you. But I don’t have to go under the rules of colored because my name is Mustafa Dalil.’”

This process, something as simple as changing one’s name to something that sounded Middle-Eastern, offered some Blackamerican musicians a expeditious means of overcoming Jim Crow racism. Though beyond the scope of this article, it would be this sentiment that would inform many other Blackamericans and their choice to embrace Islam.

To gain a more encompassing perspective of this phenomenon, we must also analyze the broader social context into which it came into, namely the liberalization of the American society. One must remember that though Blackamericans were indeed suffering at the hands of their white counterparts, they still saw themselves as American in one sense or another. And along with that traditional sense of American was a strong attachment of Blackamericans to Christianity. As we will see in the Civil Rights Movement, Black Christianity would play a key role in organizing and shaming the dominant culture in American into submission. To be certain, there were some amongst the black intelligentsia that were aware of the legacy of non-Christian religious traditions in their heritage, but by and large, Christianity remained the predominant if not exclusive religion of Blackamericans pre-1900’s. This would all change with the coming of alternative black intellectual endeavors (such figures as Garvey and DuBois were sympathetic to Islam, though certainly not practitioners of it) that saw to root themselves outside of the white-dominated constituency of American society.

With the relaxing of society’s grip on religious intolerance, an increasing (though still a minority to be sure) number of Blackamericans sought solace in the haven that Islam promised. Less rooted in religious or philosophical reasons than purely existential ones, Islam opened up to Blackamericans, of which the ripples of this are still seen to this very day. In short, a black man, for example, in the 1940’s could convert to Islam in what would amount a sort of racial swapping, if not apostasy. And like modern times, this did not escape the attention of the dominant culture, who were curious or even concerned that Islam amongst Blackamericans might be some sort of “anti-Christianity” movement. Gillespie himself, though not a Muslim, was at one point put to the question if he “planned to quit and forsake Christianity”. In a sense, what is being articulated here, is an invisible link that binds “blackness” and “Christianity”. Islam was a foreign enterprise and for many, represented a hostile (though not in the same meaning as hostile would mean today) threat, for this conversion was seen as linked to movements and ideologies that sought to circumvent the status quo of Jim Crow law and sentiment.

I believe that the movement and attraction of Islam within this minority of Blackamerican musicians is both intriguing and erudite to some of the similar issues we’re looking at today. It also sheds light on why Islam would be appealing to a minority group that simply looking for a method of living out a dignified existence in a social landscape that offered few choices and little room for improvement. Throughout its history and even up until today, Islam amongst Blackamericans cannot be separated from its history as a social commentary and vehicle of upliftment and expiation for Blackamericans. Indeed, as we would soon see from the likes of Malcolm X, Islam was a vehicle to combat the hostilities from their environment in a manner and method that differed quite distinctly from black Christians. It also allowed Blackamericans to re-created themselves with a new sense of autonomy not formerly allowed to them in the stifling social climate that they lived in. And yet, unlike Malcolm X, the black bebop jazz musicians that would embrace Islam sought to do so in a non-violent fashion. Contented to be social commentators and critics through their music, most simply just wanted to be able to play their music to a broader audience without discrimination. I find this again, strikingly similar to the times we live in today, where there is a very small number of Muslims who advocate violent resistance to perceived oppressions (valid or otherwise is besides the point here), and yet the vast majority of Muslims simply wish for the right to live with dignity and practice their religion with their humanity intact, and not called into question, as was the case for black folks living at the beginning of the 20th Century America. Perhaps here in history there’s a lesson for us all to learn (again).

The Philosophy of Ahmed Abdul-Malik

The following is an article about the Sudanese bassist and composer, Ahmed Abdul-Malik, that was originally published in Down Beat Magazine, July 4th, 1963. The article was written by Bill Coss. Beyond an excellent insight into the workings of a master musician, Abdul-Malik ties the thread between knowing the Creator and knowing one’s world. Given Modernity’s fractured vision on the relation of things, Abdul-Malik’s words are erudite and moving. He was also a stellar musician of world-class calibre. Hat tip to Doug Benson for the resource. May Allah have mercy on his soul.

In some degree, all music is about something. But what it is about, its contents, differs widely and generally determines its essential worth.

For composer Ahmed Abdul-Malik the content encompasses all the sciences. particularly the sociological, ethnic, and theological. The easiest thing to say would be that Abdul-Malik is different from most jazz musicians, and both his brief biography and the development of his thought immediately show that difference, while at the same time serving as a primer for youngsters who might aspire to be what Abdul-Malik considers the complete musician.

All his conscious development has come from religious convictions. “People think I am too far out with religion,” he said. “But it is so necessary to know the Creator, to know the rules of being – what it means – to know the commandments, to know you are commanded to use your intellect and will. That allows you to advance in all subjects. How else can you know about life? And music is life.

“You must do subsidiary study. All music has its own history, of course, and you need to know that, but it is also important to know the non-musical side of a people. That way you learn more about their music. By studying a people’s habits, you find their musical expressions.

“That you are commanded to do. The whole health of the world is based on each contributing to one another: doctors, bakers, musicians. If musicians want to co-operate, they must be masters of all scales which will broadcast to the receiver of the mind.”

“Really, a musician should be in excellent condition, physically, mentally, professionally, and scientifically,” Abdul-Malik continued. “I have studied all the elements: animals, insects, plants, space – the universe – old and new jazz but most importantly the Creator.

“How can you play beauty without knowing what beauty is, what it really is? Understanding the Creator leads to understanding the creations, and better understanding of what you play comes from this. How can you understand fully without knowing the start, the continuation, and the ending?

“So much of jazz has become surface music because it hasn’t searched for ultimate truth. Jazz is part of the world today. The artificial living of today – the slightness of understanding, the easy patterning – all of that ends up in sterility. But we, as a higher species, should be able to see, hear, and understand everything.”

The beginning of a wide vision was perhaps almost forced on him by his early environment. Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Jan. 30, 1927, he grew up on Atlantic Ave., where “there were 10 different nationalities just in the neighborhood. Your ears just had to open up.”

His earliest recollection of music is of his Sudanese father singing and playing Eastern music. The youngster began studying violin early in life.

“My first teacher,” he said, “was a Russian. He insisted that a musician had to know how all people felt before he could call himself a musician.”

In junior high school, he joined a group that played at Greek, Syrian, and gypsy weddings. By the time he had been graduated from New York’s High School of Performing Arts, he had command of several instruments. But it is as a bassist that he has worked since 1954 with such widely diverse leaders as Art Blakey, Don Byas, Sam (The Man) Taylor, Randy Weston, and Thelonious Monk. Nowadays he concentrates mostly on bass and oud (a double-strung, mandolin-like Near Eastern instrument), but his thoughts range into every area. Not the least of these is the economic, although he is inclined 10 minimize it in terms of more important considerations. But characteristically he discusses economic problems as a totality, not simply as a weekly wage.

“If you could get out of economic problems,” he said, “you could find the time, the energy to create. You have to have some peace of mind to create. The lack of this has brought about a serious problem. As the environment has changed a great deal in the last 10 years, many musicians have begun to believe that they will not be accepted if they venture. They are wrong to let that stop them, but I can understand that because there really is no place for them to show development.

“Very few record companies will allow you the opportunity, and no clubs are available where you can work and develop. Clubs used to allow you that-and time to build an audience. How can they expect jazz to develop if they only book established groups, or only give experimenting musicians an occasional two-week booking? There aren’t even sessions any more. I think that the minimum-wage scale has brought down the whole scale of endeavor.”

There are some things, however, that help, he said. The Modern Jazz Quartet’s presentation of its music, for instance, has done much for jazz and musicians, he said, and this is good because jazz needs to gain more respect – people should naturally look up to musicians,

“That would lead to the government giving respect to the artists,” Abdul-Malik continued. “That is co-operation with the Creator, who has given special talents to each. Honorary degrees should be given to people in the arts who have done practical versions of academic work, or ways should be worked out to allow the artist to go to school. Still, I believe that the answer is not in scholarships to a conservatory but in one-year grants to travel in some other country, because artists should travel and study outside of their own country and their own art forms:’

Abdul-Malik said he believes “a musician must teach others if he is to retain what he knows. This is in addition to performing. And by teaching, he maintains a connection with young people. Besides, he does good by passing his knowledge on.”

Understandably, he is concerned that the teaching exist on the broadest possible level because “it is hard to find musicians who have open minds, not only to hear but to play. So many drummers and horn men are more prejudiced and more in a rut than are bassists. But all musicians have to learn that you can work with all music:’

He says he is amazed at how little he knows now that he has learned how much Eastern musicians know of conception, theory, and science. And he is concerned with that very lack among jazzmen.

“Jazz,” he said, “has contributed very little musically. Individual expressions have been extensive and exceptional though. It’s important to remember that from all parts of the world each man is expressing himself. But here so many cut themselves off from development by sticking to only chords or simple scales.”

In any prolonged conversation with Abdul-Malik, one begins to understand that he is no mere theoretician. He is the most practical of men. Realizing that the tempered scale is the basis of Western music, he began an extensive study of the mathematics on which it is based. As he grew more fascinated with scales. he became a piano tuner in an attempt to familiarize himself with the mechanics of piano scales. This and his studies have made him somewhat unhappy about the piano’s relative rigidity.

“There is,” he said as an example, “a difference between B flat and an A sharp – but not on a piano. The piano limits you. There are no one-eighth or one-quartertones available. People like Monk should have them.”

And this is nearly criminal in Abdul-Malik’s estimation, because part of his whole concept is to get between notes and to concentrate more on scales than on chords. His primary studies have been of music from India and the Mediterranean countries and a general study of African music.

The music of Somaliland and Sudan,” he explained, has Japanese-like effects and something like the blues. Arabian music – and that includes part of the Sudan – is a music all by itself. It specializes in strings and voice. They can hit one-quarter tones on the head.

‘”The Greeks measure tones in different ways, paying no attention to standard piano tones. A jazz musician can hear this if he wants to, but he can’t play it because of the nature of his instrument or his past training. The Greek instruments can break in eighths from Western notes. They change in midflight and get an infinite amount of scales. They consider the greatest musician to be the one who can go from one scale to another without it being easily heard. You see, they have much more freedom than the jazz musician has.”

The other important element of his practicality is represented in a pragmatic curiosity, whether in study (he’s working now with a Japanese musician) or in travel. He’s been on two overseas tours during the last year. both sponsored by the Stale Department.

He was largely disappointed by the one to Nigeria because “it was too much a government social event. The people who wanted to see us couldn’t. Some of them didn’t even know we were there. And because of the way it was run, very little real jazz was heard, and there was very little mixing between us and them, unfortunately”.

But he was pleased, he said, with what he did see and hear.

“People from all over came and performed,” he said. “There were fantastic acrobats, and the music was interesting. Much of it is what is called high-life. It is very common to west Africa, and it has a real relationship to calypso, especially in the dance. There were some musicians there from the eastern part of Nigeria, and their music is quite different. more related to the Arabian.”

In South America, Abdul-Malik. also found a lack of government understanding of jazz’ importance.

”The people,” he said, “were so hungry for jazz. I saw lines of people everywhere, all kinds of people, asking for records, asking for all sons of groups, wondering why the embassy promoted classical music and movie stars. They [embassy personnel] are completely out of touch with the native people:’

He was not out of touch. however. An inveterate walker wherever he visits, he met dozens of musicians.

“This has always been me,” he said, “since the first time I knew myself. I always wander, talk to people, and eat in the people’s restaurants. You know, I always ask for a kosher restaurant. If I can’t find one, I usually eat fish, either baked or broiled. It’s the safest. And , don’t eat vegetables or fruit.”

The tour stayed almost a week in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and his knowledge of Arabic was useful when he found large Oriental section in that city. He played with groups there and in other parts of the city. particularly with “a modern samba group. They were amazed at my feeling for their music, but 1 think most Latin music has a strong calypso feeling. The people were very friendly, and they gave me music, records, and instruments.

“In Argentina I had a similar experience. I went to Lebanese and Syrian places, and I heard music you would never hear in New York. In Argentina they play tangos and boleros, as well as sambas, the way they should be played. It was exciting to hear all this and to hear so many good musicians. I want to return there and to all parts of Africa to learn more and to record with the musicians.”

These wants hardly dent the scope of Abdul-Malik’s ambitions. He’d like to extend that African recording trip through the Near East. Now studying Indian music, he wants to devote a record to it. He plans on a soundtrack for an African film. He wants to start his own flexible group again. But he also wants to play with every other kind of group.

“The widest experience,” he said, “is most important, especially playing music you don’t want to play.”

Then, sometime this fall, he said he plans on a concert at the Brooklyn Museum in company with Japanese musicians. Through it all, he said he intends to keep on teaching – “it is as important as learning yourself. One retains your memory, the other advances you.”

All of that, much as it may be. is not a complete portrait of the man but only an outline. hopefully to be filled in when the scope of his learning and abilities reach fruition in more acceptance. For now. even the outline casts a huge shadow, in his playing-wherever or with whomever – and in his teaching but most particularly in his belief in total musicianship, in the dependence that musicianship has on faith and diversified knowledge, and the change that those things can bring about in life as well as music. As he put it. The tribes have always contributed to each other for common expression and growth.”

Thus, exact and total expression is the goal of mankind and the duty of the artist. Abdul-Malik is reaching for that goal.