Jazz and Internationalism

Alexander Lynn

Because of revolutionaries like John Coltrane, Sun Ra, Max Roach, Nina Simone, Abdullah Ibriham, Eric Dolphy, Melba Liston, Archie Shepp, Pharoah Sanders, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Wayne Shorter, Mary Lou Williams, Yusef Latif, Babatundi Olatunji, Alice Coltrane, Albert Ayler, Sonny Rollins, Elvin Jones, Randy Weston, and many others, Jazz, at once an African American art form, is at the same time the most internationalist music in the history of humanity.

In general, the music of one nationality from the United States, African America, is the most popular music in the world. And, while it is true that the individual forms, from Blues to Hip-Hop, are adapted in foreign countries, and by peoples all over the world, to the particularities of their own cultural ears, nevertheless this form of internationalism is different, if not in quantity, at least in quality, from the instance of Jazz as a world phenomenon.

In each of these other occurrences — gospel, rock ‘n roll, et al — the internationalism has to do with the adoption of loved African American art forms by other peoples. This has happened with Jazz world-wide. But Jazz is the only musical expression in which the foremost executors of the art form led a movement to travel to other countries, to study indigenous sounds world-wide, to discover and uncover harmonics that moved these varied native populations, and then brought these sounds back to incorporate them into this discipline in the United States. It is in this aspect that Jazz eclipses all other African American music forms — these already the most internationally popular sounds of any people in the world.

John Coltrane on purpose

Once you become aware of this force for unity in life, you can’t ever forget it. It becomes part of everything you do. In that respect, Meditations is an extension of A Love Supreme, since my conception of that force keeps changing shape. My goal of meditating on this through music, however, remains the same — and that is: To uplift people, as much as I can; to inspire them to realize more and more of their capacities for living meaningful lives.

Frank Lowe on the revolution in Jazz

It was a documentary on this cat named Fred Hampton, who was a big leader of the Chicago Black Panthers, who organized breakfast for the kids [The Murder of Fred Hampton, 1969]. He was ambushed one night in his bed — the police shot through the walls, assassinated him right through the walls. As the camera was panning the room that was shot up, under the bed there were some records. Right on top, man, covered with blood, was Dolphy’s Out to Lunch! That showed me right then that what these cats were saying and what we were listening to were all of the same mind — it was in the body, in the walk, in the air.

Internationalism is the spiritual point of departure of the working class movement worldwide. Different from “multiculturalism” and “diversity,” internationalism is premised on fighting for the liberation of the oppressed. For example, forty years ago, as the revolution in Jazz was at its apex, much of the ant-Vietnam War activity in the United States was premised on internationalist sentiment. Huey Newton of the Black Panther Party traveled to North Vietnam and offered to send Panther troops to fight alongside the Viet Cong against the invading U.S. troops to fulfill the military aspect of our internationalist duty.

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“After Woodstock [1969] all [Jimi] Hendrix concerts were in effect, that is, they were tantamount to, anti-war rallies.” Matthew Hill, June 21, 2010

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Internationalism does not mean merely that we like other people’s music, or that we “tolerate” the different languages of other peoples. In observation of what Michael Jackson said and did in his world travel, it is evident that he loved all people. He was a lover of humans. But this is not internationalism, because he did not fight for the liberation of oppressed peoples, that is, the vast majority; he did not fight for equality for all nations, he did not fight for the abolition of classes.

“I think music is an instrument. It can create the initial thought patterns that can change the thinking of people. Jazz is an expression of music; and this music is an expression of higher ideals, to me. So therefore, brotherhood is there; and I believe with brotherhood, there would be no poverty. And also, with brotherhood, there would be no war.” John Coltrane, 1966

Internationalist sentiment was put into practice by the leaders of the Jazz revolution by their consciously advocating for the liberation of humankind. A translation of John Dunn’s celebrated poem, For Whom the Bell Tolls, updated for today, makes this same point:

No human is an island,

Entire of itself;

Every human is a piece of the continent,

A part of the maine.

Any human’s death diminishes me,

Because I am involved in humankind.

Any Afghani child’s death diminishes me,

The death of any Iraqi child,

murdered by General Electric’s weapons of mass destruction,

diminishes me,

Any U.S. soldier’s death,

at the hands of the Taliban –

using armaments sold to them by IBM -

diminishes me,

Because I am involved in humankind.

And therefore, never send to know

for whom the bell tolls,

It tolls for thee.

The mission expressed by John Coltrane above is a reflection of this internationalist spirit, well exemplified in the anthem of the working class, The Internationale:

Arise ye prisoners of starvation,

Arise ye wretched of the Earth

For Justice thunders condemnation

A new world’s in birth.

No more traditions chains shall bind us,

Arise ye slaves no more in thrall.

The earth shall rise on new foundations.

We have been naught, we shall be all.

’Tis the final conflict,

Let each stand in her place

The international working class

Shall be the human race.

When these leaders of the revolution in Jazz went all around the world to study the peoples, they did so in order to be genuine representatives of African America, of human sound.

Frank Lowe:

Sure it was Black music, but it was almost beyond that. It took on a universality that could embrace these other things and still keep its Blackness. In other words, it’s not like us [in the Black Liberation Movement] against the world. It’s like all these things are included and we all are the world.

In order to be true to themselves, in order to be true to the mission of African American people, these revolutionaries had to fulfill their internationalist duty as well. Randy Weston: “It is one thing to be able to play your instrument. It is another to be able to tell the story of your community.” Weston felt that the only way he could learn this story of his community was by traveling up and down the continent of Africa and listening to the peoples.

The leaders of Jazz, representing the uprising of the African American working class in the 1960’s, put into practice their internationalist proposition.

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