Doreen Ketchens’ Astonishing Rendition of “The House of the Rising Sun”: A World-Class Clarinetist Busks on the Streets of New Orleans

Dirtiness has no description. It is a  feeling. — music transcriber George Collier

You may be able to read music and play the clarinet, but it’s extremely unlikely you — or anyone — will be able to play along with Doreen Ketchens‘ “dirty” solo on “The House of the Rising Sun,” above, despite an assist from Tom Pickles‘ scrolling transcription.

Download the transcription for free and keep trying.

It’s what Ketchens, a world renowned clarinetist and music educator, who has played for four US presidents and busks regularly in the French Quarter, would advise.

“You have to practice and be ready to perform at the drop of a hat” she told The Clarinet‘s Ben Redwine, when he asked if she had any advice for young musicians hoping to make it professionally.


She’s also a strong advocate of listening robustly, not throwing in the towel when someone else gets the job instead of you, and letting your personality come through in your playing:

You don’t want to sound like you’re playing an etude book. This is for all types of music – even classical. You want to move the audience, you want to touch them.

Trained as a classical clarinetist, Ketchens cozied up to jazz shortly after she cozied up to the tuba player who would become her husband. “All of the sudden, jazz wasn’t so bad,” she says:

I started to listen to jazz so I could learn the tunes and fit in with his band. I started listening to Louis Armstrong. He is my biggest influence. Some people call me Mrs. Satchmo, I guess because that concept is in my head. I’ll hear something he plays, which I’ve heard thousands of times, and I’ll think, “What? How did he do that?” Then, I listened to the clarinetists who played with him: Edmund HallBuster BaileyBarney Bigard. Those cats were awesome too! Edmund Hall had this thing he could do, where it sounds like he was playing two tones at the same time. People today might hum while they play to achieve something similar, but I don’t think that was what he was doing. Buster Bailey had a similar background to me, starting out with classical music, then learning jazz. Early on, I emulated Jerry Fuller, clarinetist with the Dukes of Dixieland. I would steal so many of his solos just so I could keep up with my husband’s band. Eventually, I realized what he was doing, and it translated into me being able to improvise. I’d start out transcribing solos, then playing by ear, copying what those clarinetists were doing. I don’t remember those solos now, but I’m sure that I still play snippets of them that creep into my improvisations.

However she got there, she possesses a singular ability to make her instrument growl and her command of 32nd notes makes us feel a little lightheaded.

Clarinetists abound in New Orleans, and they probably all cover “The House of the Rising Sun,” but you’ll be hard pressed to find a more exciting rendition than Ketchens’ on the corner of St. Peter and Royal, with husband Lawrence on tuba and daughter Dorian on drums.  Here’s the full versions, sans transcription.

You want an encore? Of course you do.

How about Ketchens’ magnificent solo on “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” for the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra?

Find more astonishing, transcribed solos and a heaping helping of Jacob Collier on George Collier’s (no relation) YouTube Channel.

His transcriptions, and those of collaborator Tom Pickles, are available for free download here, unless the artist sells their own transcription, in which case he encourages you to support the artist with your purchase.

If you’re a music nerd who would like to discuss transcriptions, give feedback on others’ attempts, and upload your own, join his community on Discord.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, theatermaker, and the Chief Primaologist of the East Village Inky zine. Her latest book, Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto, will be published in early 2022.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Jazz Virtuoso Oscar Peterson Gives Dick Cavett a Dazzling Piano Lesson (1979)

Duke Ellington once called Oscar Peterson the “Maharaja of the Keyboard” for his virtuosity and ability to play any style with seeming ease, a skill he first began to learn as a classically trained child prodigy. Peterson was introduced to Bach and Beethoven by his musician father and older sister Daisy, then drilled in rigorous finger exercises and given six hours a day of practice by his teacher, Hungarian pianist Paul de Marky. “I only first really heard jazz somewhere between the ages of seven and 10,” said the Canadian jazz great. “My older brother Fred, who was actually a better pianist than I was, started playing various new tunes — well they were new for me, anyway…. Duke Ellington and Art Tatum, who frightened me to death with his technique.”

Despite his own prodigious talent, Peterson found Tatum “intimidating,” he told Count Basie in a 1980 interview. He responded to the fear by learning how to play like Tatum, and like everyone else he admired, while adding his own melodic twists to standards and originals. At 14, he won a national Canadian music competition and left school to become a professional musician.


He recorded his first album in 1945 at age 20. “Since his ‘discovery’ in 1947 by Norman Granz,” wrote International Musician in 2002, five years before the pianist’s death, “Peterson has amassed an incredible legacy of recorded work with Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Fred Astaire, Dizzy Gillespie, Coleman Hawkins, and Charlie Parker, among countless other greats.”

In the video at the top of the post from the Dick Cavett Show in 1979, Peterson shows off his elegant technique and demonstrates the “stylistic trademarks” of the greats he admired, and that others have heard expressed in his own style. He begins with his albatross, Tatum’s “stride piano,” a style that requires a good deal of left hand articulation and which, done right, can “put the rhythm section out of business,” Cavett jokes. Peterson then shows off the “the two-fingered percussiveness of Nat Cole,” the “lyric octave work of Erroll Garner,” and double octave melody lines, a very difficult two-hand maneuver.

It’s a dazzling lesson that shows, in just a few short minutes, why Peterson became known for his “stunning virtuosity as a soloist,” as one biography notes. In the video above, producer and YouTube personality Rick Beato explains why he thinks Peterson played the “Greatest Solo of All Time” in the 1974 rendition of “Boogie Blues Study” further up. As David Funk, who posted the Cavett video clip to YouTube, puts it, “What more can you say?” To understand why Louis Armstrong called Peterson “the man with four hands,” we simply need to watch him play.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Watch Jaco Pastorius: The Lost Tapes Documentary, the Fan-Made Film on the Most Innovative Bass Player of All Time

People do not understand how hard a jazz musician works for a living. I’m not putting nobody down, but I’m telling you nobody understands how hard jazz musicians work. Jazz is not big in the US, because the States are too worried about Pac-Man and The Police. — Jaco

When Jaco Pastorius uttered the quote above in a typically entertaining and insightful interview with Guitar World from 1983, he meant no disrespect to the members of The Police. It’s safe to say, in fact, that Pastorius significantly influenced crossover subgenres in punk, New Wave, and No Wave, through compositions like “Punk Jazz” — “a real jazz players stab at a brave new music,” writes Guitar World‘s Peter Mengaziol. In general, Pastorius’ music was “a fusion with energy but without overkill.” He absorbed influences from everywhere, and nothing seemed out of bounds in his playing. “I am not an original musician,” he says in the same interview:

I am a thief…. You see, I rip off everything. I have no originals. Only animals and children can understand my music; I love women, children, music, I love everything that’s going in the right direction, everything that flows… I just love music. I don’t know what I’m doing! 

It’s not that Pastorius necessarily thought of jazz as a more elevated form than rock or funk or soul or pop — hardly. He regarded Hendrix with the same worshipful awe as he did Motown bassist Jerry Jemmott, and both equally informed his playing and showmanship. Yet he seemed to feel under-appreciated in his time, and that is probably because he was, even though he was acclaimed as one of the world’s greatest bass players during his brief 35 years, and he radically altered the sound of popular music on albums by Joni Mitchell and other non-jazz-world stars.


But Pastorius knew that few understood what he was trying to do with jazz-rock groups like Weather Report and Blood, Sweat & Tears and in his solo work. He knew he could sell records and sell out performances, but he didn’t care about commerce. (He spent the last few years of his life sleeping on park benches.)

Warner Bros. refused to release his third solo album, Holiday for Pans — a selection of original compositions and tunes by the Beatles, Coltrane, and Alan Hovhaness, centered around the steel drum playing of Othello Molineaux — on the basis that it was “extremely esoteric.” Described by The Penguin Guide to Jazz as “by far the most imaginative project Pastorius ever undertook,” Holiday for Pans received a release in Japan in 1993, but remains unreleased in the US, perhaps validating the bassist’s opinion of his country’s cultural limitations.

The fan-made documentary at the top, Jaco Pastorius — The Lost Tapes Documentary, first appeared “on a somewhat obscure French channel called ‘Realcut’,” notes the site Jazz in Europe. The title refers the interview footage with choice subjects like Marcus Miller, Joe Zawinul, Peter Erskine, Dave Carpenter, and Paco Seri, all shot while the musicians “were on tour in France back in the mid noughties.” In 2008, “the images were definitively lost,” the filmmakers write in their description, only to surface again on a hard drive in a dusty attic last year.

Tying these interviews together with archival Internet footage of Pastorius, the makers of The Lost Tapes Documentary have done an excellent job of introducing the man and his work to a broad audience through the words of those who knew and played with him, and they’ve done so with “no budget, no financial aid or no image purchase…. The people who worked on this project did it voluntarily, out of passion and love of music, and the film will in no way be monetized on the platforms.” Pastorius would have approved. “I don’t want to sell shit,” he told Guitar World back in 1983. “I want to do what has to be done.” For him, that meant constant innovation and change. “I’m not a magician, I’m not a politician, I’m a musician,” he said. “I have no goal. You don’t get better, you grow. I am a musician, and I finally realized it!”

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Jazz Typefaces Capture the Essence of 100 Iconic Jazz Musicians

In the 1950s and 60s, one record label stood “like a beacon,” writes Robin Kinross at Eye, among a host of Civil Rights era independents that helped jazz “escape the racial-commercial constraints applied by White Americans, and find its own place, unpatronised and relatively free of exploitation.” That label, Blue Note, ushered in the birth of the cool—both cool jazz and its many hip signifiers—as much through graphic design as through its meticulous approach to recording.

Blue Note album covers may seem principally distinguished by the photography of Francis Wolff, whose instincts behind the camera produced visual icon after icon. But the label’s style depended on the layout, graphic design, and lettering of Reid Miles, who drew on minimalist Swiss trends in “over 500 album covers for Blue Note Records,” designer Reagan Ray writes. “He pioneered the use of creatively-arranged type over monochromatic photography, which is a style that is still widely used in graphic design today.”

As we noted in a recent post on Blue Note’s legendary design team, Reid’s lettering sometimes edged the photography to the margins, or off the cover altogether. Jazz greats were given the freedom to create the music they wanted, but it was the designers who had to sell their creativity to the public in a visual language.


They had done so with distinctive typefaces before Reid, of course. But the art of lettering became far more interesting through his influence, both more playful and more refined at the same time.

Since typeface has always played a significant role in the music’s commercial success, Ray decided to compile several hundred samplings of album lettering of jazz musician’s names, “for easy browsing and analysis” of typeface as an essential element all on its own. The gallery may attempt “to cover most of the genre’s significant musicians,” but there are, Ray admits, many inevitable omissions.

Nonetheless, it’s a formidable visual record of the various looks of jazz in lettering, and the visual identities of its biggest artists over the course of several decades. Ray does not name any of the designers, which is frustrating, but those in the know will recognize the work of Reid and others like album cover pioneer Alex Steinweiss. You may well spot lettering by Milton Glaser, whom Ray previously covered in a huge curated gallery of the famous designer’s album art.

The names behind the big names matter, but it’s the musicians themselves these individualized typefaces are meant to immediately evoke. Consider just how well most all of these examples do just that—representing each artist’s music, period, and image with the perfect font and graphic arrangement, each one a unique logo. Somewhat like the music it represents, Ray’s gallery is, itself, a collective tour-de-force performance of visual jazz.

Visit Ray’s gallery here.

via Kottke

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

How Ornette Coleman Freed Jazz with His Theory of Harmolodics

The term free jazz may have existed before Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come arrived in 1959. Yet, however innovative the modal experiments of Coltrane or Davis, jazz still adhered to its most fundamental formulas before Coleman. “Conventional jazz harmony is religiously chord-based,” writes Josephine Livingstone at New Republic, “with soloists improvising within each key like balls pinging through a pinball machine. Coleman, in contrast, imagined harmony, melody, and rhythm as equal constituents.”

This philosophy, jazz critic Martin Williams wrote upon hearing Coleman’s debut, was necessary to free jazz from its formal constraints. “Someone had to break through the walls that those harmonies have built and restore melody.” Melody was everything to Coleman—even drummers can play like melodic instrumentalists. In a 1987 interview, he described how Ed Blackwell “plays the drums as if he’s playing a wind instrument. Actually, he sounds more like a talking drum. He’s speaking a certain language that I find is very valid in rhythm instruments.”


Coleman connected his musical theory back to the origins of rhythmic music: “the drums, in the beginning, used to be like the telephone—to carry the message.” Interviewer Michael Jarrett ventures that Coleman’s ensemble recordings are more like a “party line,” to which the saxophonist agrees. Music, he believed, was a radically democratic—“beyond democratic”—form of communication. “If you decided to go out today and get you an instrument,” he says, “and do whatever it is that you do, no one can tell you how you’re going to do it but when you do it.”

This approach seemed irresponsible to many of Coleman’s peers. Alto saxophonist Jackie McLean described the general reaction as “spend[ing] your whole life making a three-piece suit that’s incredible, and this guy comes along with a jumpsuit, and people find that it’s easier to step into a jumpsuit than to put on three pieces.” Collective improvisation, however, cannot in any way be described as “easy,” and Coleman was a brilliant player who could do it all.

“I could play and sound like Charlie Parker note-for-note,” he has said, “but I was only playing it from method. So I tried to figure out where to go from there,” Loosening the constrictions did not mean that Coleman lacked “requisite virtuosity,” as Maria Golia writes in a new Coleman biography. Instead, he “proposed an alternative means for its expression.” (In Thomas Pynchon’s V, a character says of a Coleman-like saxophonist, “he plays all the notes Bird missed.”) This emerged in experimental improvisations like 1961’s landmark Free Jazz, an album that “practically defies superlatives in its historical importance,” Steve Huey writes at Allmusic.

The album features players like Blackwell, Don Cherry, and Eric Dolphy in a “double-quartet format,” with two rhythm sections playing simultaneously, one on the right stereo channel, one on the left. Composed on the spot, “there was no road map for this kind of recording.” But there was a theory that held it all together. Coleman eventually called the theory “Harmolodics,” a word that sums up his ideas about the equality of rhythm, harmony, and melody—a compositional method that freed jazz from its dependence on European forms and returned it, in a way, to its roots in a call-and-response tradition.

Coleman described his long-simmering ideas in a 1983 manifesto titled “Prime Time for Harmolodics.” The title references the band, Prime Time, he formed in 1975 that featured two bassists, two guitarists, and—like his ensemble on Free Jazz, or like the Grateful Dead—two drummers. Jerry Garcia joined the band for its 1988 album Virgin Beauty, expanding Coleman’s fanbase—already significant in various rock circles—to Deadheads. (See Prime Time in Germany in 1981 below.) Harmolodic playing could be dissonant, atonal, and cacophonous, and it could be sublime, often in the same moment.

Simultaneity, radical democracy, intimate communication—these were the principles of “unison” that Coleman found essential to his improvisations.

Question: “Where can/will I find a player who can read (or not read) who can play their instrument to their own satisfaction and accept the challenge of the music environment?” For Harmolodic Democracy – the player would need the freedom to express what Harmolodic information they found to work in composed music. There is always a rhythm – melody – harmony concept. All ideas have lead resolutions. Each player can choose any of the connections from the composers work for their personal expression, etc. Prime Time is not a jazz, classical, rock or blues ensemble. It is pure Harmolodic where all forms that can, or could exist yesterday, today, or tomorrow can exist in the now or moment without a second.

In harmolodic improvisation musicians contribute equally on their own terms, Coleman believed. “From Ornette’s point of view,” writes Robert Palmer in liner notes to the Complete Atlantic Recordings, “each contribution is equally essential to the whole. One tends to hear the horn player as a soloist, backed by a rhythm section, but this is not Coleman’s perspective. ‘In the music we play,’ he said of the performances collected in this box, ‘no one player has the lead. Anyone can come out with it at any time.'” Jerry Garcia remembers feeling confused when first recording with the saxophonist. “Finally,” says Garcia, “he said, ‘Oh, just go ahead and play, man.’ And I thought, ‘Oh, I get it now.’”

But of course, Garcia was the kind of musician who could “just go ahead and play.” This was the essential element, and it was here, perhaps, that Coleman differed least from his fellow jazz artists—in his sense of having just the right ensemble. “You really have to have players with you who will allow your instincts to flourish in such a way that they will make the same order as if you had sat down and written a piece of music,” he writes. “To me, that is the most glorified goal of the improvising quality of playing – to be able to do that.”

In “harmolodic democracy” no one ever takes the lead, or not for long, and there are no “sidemen.” Rather than following a chord chart or bandleader, the musicians must all listen closely to each other. Conventional riffs and progressions pop up, only to veer wildly in unexpected directions. “Its clear that [harmolodics] is based on taking motifs,” says avant-garde guitarist Marc Ribot, “and freeing it up to become polytonal, melodically and rhythmically.” Rather than abandoning form, Coleman invented new ways to compose and new ways, he wrote, to play.

I was out at Margaret Mead’s school and was teaching some kids how to play instantly. I asked the question, ‘How many kids would like to play music and have fun?’ And all the little kids raised up their hands. And I asked,’Well, how do you do that?’ And one little girl said, ‘You just apply your feelings to sound.’ She was right – if you apply your feelings to sound, regardless of what instrument you have, you’ll probably make good music.

Coleman formed a label called Harmolodic in 1995 with his son and drummer Denardo. In 2005, he recorded the live album Sound Grammar in Germany, which would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize two years later. The record became the first release on his new label, also called Sound Grammar, and represented a refinement of the harmolodic theory, now called “sound grammar,” in which Coleman re-emphasizes the importance of music as the ur-form of human communication. “Music,” he says, “is a language of sounds that transforms all human languages.”

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

How Cannonball Adderley Shared the Joy of Jazz

Jazz has always had big personalities. In the mid-20th century, an explosion of major players became as well known for their personal quirks as for their revolutionary techniques and compositions. Monk’s endearing oddness, Miles Davis’ brooding bad temper, Charles Mingus’ exuberant shouts and rages, Ornette Coleman’s cryptic philosophizing, Coltrane’s gentle mysticism…. These were not only the jazz world’s greatest players; they were also some of the century’s most interesting people.

The same can be said for Julian Edwin “Cannonball” Adderley, saxophonist and bandleader who was heralded as a new Charlie Parker on arrival in the New York scene from Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, where he had worked as a popular high school band director and local musician before deciding to pursue graduate studies. Music had other plans for him. Instead of going back to school when he arrived in Manhattan in 1955, he fell in with the right crowd and became an instant critical sensation.


Adderley ended up playing onstage and recording with greats like Davis, Coltrane, Art Blakey, Bill Evans, and his brother, Nat Adderley, who joined him to play in his Quintet, completed the Cannonball Adderley Sextet in the sixties with Yusef Lateef, and helped him make some of the best music of his career. Adderley joined Miles Davis’s band when Coltrane left and played on Kind of Blue and Milestones, leaving “a deep impression on Davis and his sextet,” notes one biography.

Unlike some of his famous peers, Adderley had none of the traits of the difficult or enigmatic artiste. Where most jazz musicians remained silent and mysterious onstage, Adderley engaged boisterously with his audience, in monologues one can imagine him shouting gregariously over a band room full of students warming up. With his irrepressible charm, he established an “amusing and educational rapport with his audience, often-times explaining what he and his musicians were about to play” (hear him do so before launching into his popular 1966 soul jazz single “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” below.)

Adderley’s personality helped put jazz newcomers at ease, but he didn’t teach from the textbook, experimenting broadly with several genres and incorporating electronic elements and African polyrhythms in the 60s and 70s, when he also became “a jazz spokesman. Whether it was television, residencies at several colleges, or film appearances.” Adderley helped pioneer soul jazz, post-bop, and other experimental subgenres, many of which crossed over into the pop charts. “Two words best encapsulate the music of alto saxophonist Julian “Cannonball” Adderley,” writes Nick Morrison at NPR: “’joy’ and ‘soul.’”

The Polyphonic video at the top focuses on the role of joy in Adderley’s music, making the case that he “exemplifies joy more than anyone else in jazz.” His voracious appetite for life—reflected in his high school nickname “Cannibal,” which morphed into “Cannonball”—propelled him into the “center of the jazz universe.” It also led him to devour influences other jazz musicians avoided. He had no pretensions to jazz as high art, though he was himself a high artist, and he joyfully embraced pop music at a time when it was scorned by the jazz elite.

“Adderley’s great ambition was to share the joy of jazz with the world, and he knew that no matter how technically impressive a piece of music was, people wouldn’t listen to it if it wasn’t fun, so Cannonball made his music fun and accessible.” Records like The Cannonball Adderley Sextet in New York sound like “a party,” writes CJ Hurtt at Vinyl Me, Please: “a party with some far-out nearly free jazz post-bop elements to it” but no shortage of straight-ahead grooves. The album kicks off with Cannonball “telling the audience that they are actually hip and not merely pretending to be.” It’s tongue-in-cheek, of course; Adderley never pretended to be anyone but his own outgoing self. But his unrelenting cheerfulness, even when he played the blues, also made him one of the hippest cats around.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him at @jdmagness

In 1968, a Teenager Convinced Thelonious Monk to Play a Gig at His High School to Promote Racial Unity; Now the Concert Recording Is Getting Released

In 1964, Thelonious Monk appeared on the cover of TIME. He had been chosen for an extensive profile, his biographer Robin D.G. Kelley tells Terry Gross, because the magazine thought Miles Davis or Ray Charles might be “too controversial.” Monk, it was thought “had no complaints… he wasn’t so political.” This is not exactly so, Kelley writes in Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original. The eccentric genius played benefit concerts throughout the 60s. But he was also beginning to suffer from mental health issues that remained undiagnosed to the end of his life. Still, he followed Civil Rights struggles closely. “Thelonious was moved by these events” and wondered what more he could do.

That year Monk had an opportunity to make a direct contribution by playing the mostly white Palo Alto High School after the most “racially tense” summer of the decade, a moment in history eerily like the current time. The show was organized by enterprising 16-year-old junior Danny Scher, who would go on to become a major concert promoter.


Through his local connections, Scher contacted Monk’s manager and arranged the booking. In order to fill the auditorium, he promoted the show in his wealthy Palo Alto enclave, in the local newspapers, and in largely segregated East Palo Alto. (“Against the urging of the police department,” notes Jazziz.) Scher’s hard work turned the event into a rousing success, Kelley writes:

Neither Thelonious nor sixteen-year-old Danny Scher fully grasped what this concert meant for race relations in the area. For one beautiful afternoon, blacks and whites, P.A. and East P.A., buried the hatchet and gathered together to hear “Blue Monk,” “Well, You Needn’t,” and “Don’t Blame Me.”

Monk played for over an hour to the integrated audience, then played an encore after “thunderous applause.” The story of how the concert came about is full of plot twists, including the fact that Monk never actually saw the contract and only found out about the gig when Scher called him a few days before. But he “dug the kid’s chutzpah and agreed to do it.” While Scher may have had the presence of mind to follow up before the gig, he didn’t think to document the moment. That fell to a Black custodian at the high school (whose name has been unfortunately lost) who approached Scher, Nate Chinen tells NPR, and offered to tune the piano if he could record the gig.

The custodian gave the tapes to Scher and the promoter held on to them for over 50 years. Now they’re finally being released as Palo Alto by Impulse! Records on July 31st. You can preview the new release with “Epistrophy,” at the top. This record is no minor rarity, according to Monk’s son, T.S. Monk, who calls it “one of the best live recordings I’ve ever heard by Thelonious.” Maybe he was energized by the urgency of the moment, maybe it was the energy of the audience that drove his performance. Whatever inspired him that day, Monk showed, as many jazz musicians did at the time, how art can succeed where politics fail, and can—at least temporarily—unite communities who might have come to believe they have nothing left in common.

via NPR

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Thelonious Monk’s 25 Tips for Musicians (1960)

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

How Jazz Helped Fuel the 1960s Civil Rights Movement

Oh, Lord, don’t let ‘em shoot us!
Oh, Lord, don’t let ‘em stab us!
Oh, Lord, don’t let ‘em tar and feather us!
Oh, Lord, no more swastikas!
Oh, Lord, no more Ku Klux Klan!

—Charles Mingus, “Fables of Faubus”

In 1957, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus decided that integration—mandated three years earlier by Brown v. Board of Ed.—constituted such a state of emergency that he mobilized the National Guard to prevent nine black students from going to school. An outraged Charles Mingus responded with the lyrics to “Fables of Faubus,” a composition that first appeared on his celebrated Mingus Ah Um in 1959.

Those who know the album may be puzzled—there are no lyrics on that recording. Columbia Records, notes Michael Verity, found them “so incendiary that they refused to allow them to be recorded.” Mingus re-recorded the song the following year for Candid Records, “lyrics and all, on Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus.” The irascible bassist and bandleader’s words “offer some of the most blatant and harshest critiques of Jim Crow attitudes in all of jazz activism.”

Mingus’ experience with Columbia shows the line most jazz artists had to walk in the early years of the Civil Rights movement. Several of Mingus’ elders, like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, refrained from making public statements about racial injustice, for which they were later harshly criticized.


But between Mingus’ two versions of “Fables of Faubus,” jazz radically broke with older traditions that catered to and depended on white audiences. “’If you don’t like it, don’t listen,’ was the attitude,” as Amiri Baraka wrote in 1962.

Musicians turned inward: they played for each other and for their communities, invented new languages to confound jazz appropriators and carry the music forward on its own terms. Candid Records owner Nat Hentoff, longtime Village Voice jazz critic and columnist, not only issued Mingus’ vocal Faubus protest, but also that same year Max Roach’s We Insist! Freedom Now Suite, which featured a cover photo of a lunch counter protest and performances from his then-wife, singer and activist Abbey Lincoln.

Roach recorded two other albums with prominent Civil Rights themes, Speak Brother Speak in 1962 and Lift Every Voice and Sing in 1971. Jazz’s turn toward the movement was in full swing as the 60s dawned. “Nina Simone sang the incendiary ‘Mississippi Goddam,’” writes KCRW’s Tom Schnabel, “Coltrane performed a sad dirge, ‘Alabama’ to mourn the Birmingham, Alabama church bombing in 1963. Sonny Rollins recorded The Freedom Suite for Riverside Records as a declaration of musical and racial freedom.”

Every Civil Rights generation up to the present has had its songs of sorrow, anger, and celebration. Where gospel guided the early marchers, jazz musicians of the 1960s took it upon themselves to score the movement. Though he didn’t much like to talk about it in interviews, “Coltrane was deeply involved in the civil rights movement,” writes Blank on Blank, “and shared many of Malcolm X’s views on black consciousness and Pan-Africanism, which he incorporated into his music.”

Jazz clubs even became spaces for organizing:

In 1963, CORE—Congress of Racial Equality—organized two benefit shows at the Five Spot Café, [featuring] a host of prominent musicians and music journalists.

In the wake of Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech at the March on Washington and with the church bombing in Birmingham that killed 4 little girls only the month before, the benefit attracted a host of musicians like Ben Webster, Al Cohn, and Zoot Sims in support of the organization, which, along with the NAACP and SNCC, was one of the leading civil rights groups at the time.

The new jazz, hot or cool, became more deeply expressive of musicians’ individual personalities, and thus of their whole political, social, and spiritual selves. This was no small thing; jazz may have been an American invention, but it was an international phenomenon. Artists in the 60s carried the struggle abroad with music and activism. After a wave of brutal bombings, murders, and beatings, “there were no more sidelines,” writes Ashawnta Jackson at JSTOR Daily. “Jazz musicians, like any other American, had the duty to speak to the world around them.” And the world listened.

The first Berlin Jazz Festival, held in 1964, was introduced with an address by Martin Luther King, Jr. (who did not attend in person). “Jazz is exported to the world,” King wrote, and “much of the power of our Freedom Movement in the United States has come from this music. It has strengthened us with its sweet rhythms when courage began to fail. It has calmed us with its rich harmonies when spirits were down.” Music still plays the same role in today’s struggles. It’s a different sound now, but you’ll still hear Mingus’ verses in the streets, against more waves of hatred and brute force:

Boo! Nazi Fascist supremacists
Boo! Ku Klux Klan (with your Jim Crow plan)

Related Content:

John Coltrane Talks About the Sacred Meaning of Music in the Human Experience: Listen to One of His Final Interviews (1966)

Martin Luther King Jr. Explains the Importance of Jazz: Hear the Speech He Gave at the First Berlin Jazz Festival (1964)

Nina Simone’s Live Performances of Her Poignant Civil Rights Protest Songs

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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