Imagine American arts and culture without Black music

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By Vernon A. Williams, Gary Crusader

Can you imagine what music in the United States and around the world would sound like without ragtime, jazz, blues, gospel, rock and roll, rhythm and blues, hip-hop, house, funk and rap? Yeah, folks would mostly listen to talk radio and when it comes to busting a move, there would only be square dancing, ballet and the minuet. Boring.

As horrendous as the atrocity of the Middle Passage and the national disgrace that ensued for over 400 years, Black Americans rose above the inhumanity with strength, resilience, resourcefulness, perseverance and an indomitable spirit – manifested in unparalleled genius in the performing arts, especially music.

Black Americans played European music in military bands after the Civil War. Then they developed a new style of music called ragtime, which evolved into jazz, a style of music that incorporated sophisticated polyrhythmic structure of the dance and folk music of peoples across western and sub-Saharan Africa. The innovation influenced music throughout the 20th Century.

In the new millennium, the immense creativity of young Black songwriters, producers, musicians and performers only reinforces the legacy. Just as jazz, blues, spiritual and soul music was the dominant sound of Western civilization in the past – rap and hip-hop wield transformative influence on global culture today.

Though most Americans have no idea, for nearly the past four decades, the United States has set aside the month of June for appreciation and celebration of the musical contributions of African-American musicians, composers, singers and songwriters.

Inspired to celebrate an enduring art form, Hall of Fame song-writer/producer Kenny Gamble – co-creator of “The Sound of Philadelphia” – led the charge to create Black Music Month. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter decreed June “Black Music Month.” It became official during the 1999-2000 Congress, which passed House Resolution 509 – the African American Music Bill.

Nine years later, President Barack Obama issued a proclamation to reiterate at the highest level the fact that June remains African American Music Appreciation Month.

Actual observations are few, even in places where Black music thrives. There will be even cynics who challenge the need to single out BLACK contributions. Beyond the fact that it is the genesis of virtually all other American music forms, Gamble points out: “It’s more important today than ever before; a reminder of what a great art form Black music is. Our legacy and present contributions still encourage those of future generations. It is a cultural expression of multiple American genres; the basis for most forms of music. We need to keep it going. As a community, we need to support Black music, by teaching its roots in schools and every place Blacks frequent.”

What a shame for children of the 21st Century never to learn that their bloodline is infused with the gospel artistry of Mahalia Jackson, James Cleveland, Shirley Caesar, Andre Crouch, Walter Hawkins, Hezekiah Walker, Kirk Franklin, Yolanda Adams, Donnie Hathaway and Richard Smallwood.

Aspiring young jazz musicians today should first know Charlie Parker, Wynton Marsalis, Ella Fitzgerald, Wes Montgomery, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Ramsey Lewis, Duke Ellington, and Louis Armstrong. For fledgling blues artists, Buddy Guy, Billie Holliday, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Howling Wolf, Bessie Smith, and Bobby Bland are prerequisite.

Then Berry Gordy Jr., with all of his imperfections, wrote nonetheless the most incredible chapter of Black music entrepreneurship in history and the stable of Motown artists remains unrivaled for any record label ever created. A close second is Gary’s own Vivian Carter (VeeJay Records), which at one point owned the recording contracts of the Beatles, Little Richard, Gladys Knight, Jimi Hendrix and Billy Preston.

Black Music Month is an important reminder that the music has never existed without the messages. From the coded spiritual “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” among slaves planning escape to the raw honesty of oppression and despair captured in blues lyrics.

From the despair and occasional futility of Black life in jazz to the solidifying anthems of the civil rights era – music has always bonded African Americans and articulated just causes. It has been the source of venting anger, making prideful declarations, challenging the system and putting dreams into melody.

If America dares to obscure or ignore the vitality, relevance, inspiration and reverence of Black music, to uproot that profound power; if that unending nurturing of the soul of modern civilization is diminished or obscured, then we risk extinguishing the fire that illuminates our rich legacy – that ignites our boundless possibilities.

“Baby-boomers,” set aside a few moments in June to spend with millennials for conversations designed to bequeath them a wealth of knowledge, pride and perspective enveloped in the warm embrace of their musical heritage. They will be better for it.

CIRCLE CITY CONNECTION by Vernon A. Williams is a series of essays on myriad topics that include social issues, human interest, entertainment and profiles of difference-makers who are forging change in a constantly evolving society. Williams is a 40-year veteran journalist based in Indianapolis, IN – commonly referred to as The Circle City. Send comments or questions to: vernonawilliams@yahoo.com.

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