Jazz, Bebop, and Cultural Resistance

America’s Troubled Past

Stereotypes regarding blacks and those of African heritage predate the arrival of African slaves to the North American continent. For centuries, descendants of the Diaspora labored both literally and figuratively under the perpetuated myth that blacks were inferior to whites.

A 1738 clipping from an advertisement featured in a Philadelphia newspaper, American Weekly Mercury, offering slaves for sale.

And while there were remarkable figures down this track of history that resisted and gave lie to the prejudices that whites held against blacks but it would not be until the dawn of the 20th century that America and her dominant culture would be shook up. From the dance floor, to the band stand and finally to the radio waves, a new artistic movement was giving rise to a cultural movement that would resist these stereotyping. But it was not to settle solely for resistance; it clamored for change. A decisive change that would see Blackamericans as equals in their own land and it was jazz that would provide that vehicle. This new religion of cultural resistance would come to be known as bebop. It would have many priests and priestesses, but without a doubt, its pope would be known as Charles “Yardbird” Parker”.

From the Dance Floor to the Band Stand

Much of Charlie Parker’s early life remains shrouded in hearsay and mystery but without a doubt, he is the high priest of the bebop movement, at least in terms of its sound. Parker is solely responsible for taking the jazz sounded that preceded him and altering its sound such that it became undanceable. Parker, and many black musicians of his era, felt that their musical endeavors were not being taken seriously – mere entertainment for whites to dance to. By spreading up the tempo, introducing complex harmonic and melodic tendencies and even reworking classic show tunes [much to the chagrin of the original authors!], Parker formulated a new musical expression that would become known as bebop.

Bebop, like other artistic movements, was not conceived in a vacuum. World War II played an important backdrop that informed the mood of many musicians that came up around this time. When America was pledging herself abroad to fight racism, many blacks felt that she was double dealing under the table in the way blacks were treated by both her citizens as well as the government.

Dizzy Gillespie – Preaching the Gospel of Parker

If Charlie Parker was the high priest of bebop then Dizzy Gillespie would one of the early disciples that would spread its gospel. A musical genius in his own right, Gillespie would come to be seen as the movements leader as Parker’s drug dependencies would hamper his latter career and indeed lead to his early demise. And like many other black jazz musicians, much of Gillespie’s music would have an Afro-centric flair to it. One of his most famous compositions, A Night In Tunisia:

Bebop would provide a framework from which Blackamerican jazz musician could recreate themselves, both imaginatively at first, and later, in the avant-garde movements, physically as well. Many black jazz musicians saw bebop as a mode of expressing blackness – a modality that the dominant political, social and cultural climate would not allow.

Resisting the Dominant Culture

Like all power artistic movements, it is only a matter of time until the dominant society will seek to legitimize [deeming it “cool”, attending jazz clubs, etc.] the art as well as the artists, leading to justification. With the gradual acceptance of jazz by the dominant culture, many black jazz musicians sought to keep pace with the wave legitimization, moving into new areas of musical and artistic expression.

Bebop and Intellectualism – The Rise of Afro-Centric Music

Bebop also provided its artists modes of expression that could blend eccentrism, intellectualism, black pride and host of other ideas that would challenge popular consensus of what constituted blackness. Upon seeing the gradual acceptance of bebop, the music would change pace again, moving off in new directions, with the avant-garde being one of its most cerebral expressions.

If one of bebop’s initial contentions was to move the attention from the dance floor to the band stand, avant-garde sought to move the music entirely out of preconceived notions of harmony and structure. Highly cerebral in nature, the avant-garde movement could be compared to other European artistic movements that refused to be canonized as seen here in this 1969 performance of the Miles Davis Quintet from their Bitches Brew album:

Preaching To the Masses

Many bebop musicians saw their music as more than simple rebellion. They also saw within it a healing force and an educational one, as we see in this interview with Archie Shepp:

John Coltrane – Bebop’s Gnostic Saint

Religion and more specifically, spirituality, played a significant role in the growth and development of both the genre and the musicians. Through the medium of bebop and the explorations of black intellectualism, black jazz musicians appropriated and took from multiple religious and spiritual traditions from Islam to Hinduism. John Coltrane, one of the iconic masters of bebop, his best selling album remains A Love Supreme, which is infused with spiritual-like chants and whose liner notes contained translations from the Qur’an.

Bebop indelibly left its mark on the artistic landscape of not only the United States, but the world. This phenomenon of black music would eventually grow and prosper far beyond the borders of America. Its reception in Europe was hailed as genius by many, while it took America many years to finally realize this. In fact, many Blackamerican jazz artists moved abroad for either a time [Dexter Gordon and Bud Powell to name two] or permanently like such luminaries as Johnny Griffin. While largely forgotten in modern times, bebop has left behind a legacy of musical genius infused with cultural rebellion as well as fostering a safe haven for black intellectualism to grow and prosper.

The Consequences of No Spiritual Growth

Taken by my father off I-94 near Jackson, Michigan at exit 147

As of late, I have heard a tremendous amount of talk about the State of Such-And-Such Islam; the State of Islam in America. The State of Blackamerican Islam and so forth. There has been majlis councils, shura councils, and every other kind of advisory board that one can shake a stick at. And yet, at the heart of many of these discussion that I have been privy to, none discuss matters of the heart. None discuss the lack of spiritual growth, that in my opinion, lies much closer to the root of the issues that are plaguing [if I may be so bold] and concerning Muslims all throughout America.

I have had a number of discussions lately with a few of my contemporaries, both Muslim and Christian, where we all displayed a general concern over the modern temperament of religious thought and dialog. In a recent conversation with another Blackamerican Muslim that I keep a correspondence with, he dismayed over how the Islam that he was handed has not played out to the Islam he was looking for. My accretion and addendum to his thought was that for many of us, and here I’m speaking as a middle 30’s Black male, we were in search of an identity and spirituality was not something that was on our radar. Consequently, the Islam that we were handed [or better yet, the Islam we handed ourselves] failed to have a prolonged shelf life. As we changed, it did not. In fact, change and mobility was never a part of the initial design concept, if you take my meaning. Instead of using Islam as a vehicle for moral and spiritual upliftment, instead it has been used as a means of justifying whatever idiosyncrasies we have; in our case [Blackamerican], it has been used to perpetuate a diseased mental state of no spiritual [and sometimes intellectual] growth. Get out of the ‘Hood? No! Instead, I will author a version of Islam that says I’m justified at being mad at Whitey and can stay stymied in poor economic, educational and health conditions. In other words, “It’s a Black Thang”.

But for me, the real loss here is not simply a lack of spirituality for the sake of itself but rather the shift of Islam [and for me, really, any religious tradition] from being God/Allah centered, to man centered. This may come as somewhat of a shock in that Islam prides itself as a religion where God is Central. All. One. And yet, so much of our quotidian religiosity is steeped in a man-centered ideology. I will try to illustrate some examples here. Make no mistake, I would not pretend to begrudge anyone coming from a Blackamerican background the resentment s/he may feel towards American society and how it has related or lack thereof, to Blacks. Institutionalized racism. Brutality. Unequal access to resources such as education, health care and wealth making opportunities. The list goes on. But by taking Islam and appropriating its religious and spiritual teachings solely to justify an existence that is based on the reaction to White fears, proclivities and injustices, woefully moves this mode of Islam from a God-centered religion to a man-centered. For who else should be alter our existence more for? Man? Or God? Allow me to tie this loop back in to my earlier statement. Continue reading “The Consequences of No Spiritual Growth”

Speaking At Rutgers

It was my pleasure to speak at Rutgers University today. I was invited to speak by the professor, Joanna, to her class on spiritual autobiography. The students had good questions. I fielded a variety of inqueries ranging from women’s positions and roles to my own personal experience delving into Islam. I hope that I was some what entertaining and not too long winded (!!). I enjoy this type of engagement because it allows for outreach and understanding between Muslim and non-Muslim parties. I hope to have the pleasure to speak at Rutgers again.