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Happy Fourth: Who are we?

David Berger

As the blues says, “I woke up this mornin’ with an awful achin’ head.”  Actually, it’s 2017, and I woke up this holiday weekend morning and checked my emails and Facebook messages.  On my feed was a video of Mike Abene talking about how, if you are a jazz musician, you need to know your musical roots.  He went on to say that you don’t need to write music like Basie, Ellington or Lunceford, but your music should reflect that legacy.  Mike’s playing and writing never sounded like any of those three bands that he cited, but it was always clear that he had absorbed their aesthetic along with that of the beboppers and hard boppers.  He grew up on all that music, but even his earliest work shows that he had his own voice.  He absorbed all the sounds around him and then wasn’t afraid to be himself.


As I celebrate our nation’s 241st anniversary of our independence from England, it struck me that the strength of our country has been our ability to absorb new immigrants, nurture their talents and forge a new identity that reflects the best of all our citizens past and present.


In chemistry we have elements, mixtures and compounds.  Elements are the basic ingredients we inherit from nature.  We can mix them together with other elements, like when I put different foods in my blender and make my smoothie for breakfast.  But compounds are when we put two or more elements together and transform them on such a deep level that they no longer retain the properties of the original elements, but become something new and different.  This is the great American experiment.  We are the melting pot of the world, or so I was taught.


This past week I read a very disturbing article written by a man who grew up in Evangelical rural America and went on to college, and through his education and experience changed his views and transformed himself into a liberal.  His message to liberals is to forget trying to convince rural America that they are voting against their own interests.  He said that their religion teaches them white supremacy and that their beliefs in their interpretation of God trumps any logic.  Pardon my pun.  He went on to say that this large segment of our population is overwhelmingly racist, anti-Semitic and xenophobic.  Remember Michael Moore’s suggestion that their love for guns comes from their conviction that Black men are going to seek revenge for centuries of slavery and discrimination? 


I think it may be deeper than that.  Maybe they fear that Jews are going to outsmart them out of their money and Black men are going to take their women.  Sounds ridiculous?  Maybe, but what I suspect is that we are dealing with deep-seated insecurity.  If Jews are smarter and Black men are more virile, they could be right—assuming that Jews are really interested in stealing their money and Black men are interested in stealing their women.  More likely, their fear is that they are so simple that they can easily be outsmarted, and that their women would prefer cool black men—hence the Jim Crow laws specifically outlawing miscegenation. 


This holiday, I’ve been thinking about how this all started.  In 1776 there were about 2.5 million Americans.  This included some 500,000 slaves (give or take), 50,000 or so free Blacks, and 3,000 Jews.  Native Americans were excluded as a separate nation.  Although these three groups were hardly treated as equals, they fought for our independence with great valor.  We still remember the heroic deeds of Black and Native Americans like Barzillai Lew and the Oneida Tribe, but I’ve never heard of any Jewish soldiers performing any feats on the battlefield. 


It turns out that Jews enlisted in the Continental Army in numbers proportionately greater than the rest of the American population.  What I did know was that the two men who contributed and raised by far the most money to finance the war were Robert Morris and Haym Solomon.  As you might have guessed from his name, Solomon was a Jew.  He left Poland in 1770 at the age of 30, and came to New York City in 1775.  Unlike Morris who profited from the war, Solomon did not take a profit.  Nevertheless, both men died penniless.  Solomon died in prison of tuberculosis at the age of 44 at which point our government owed him the equivalent of 8 million dollars in today’s money.  He was a great man, who not only helped finance our independence but also created hospitals and other philanthropies.  He faced severe anti-Semitism, which prompted both Morris and George Washington to speak out about it and pass legislation guaranteeing rights for all religions. 


 Laws are one thing, but how people feel is another.  Lincoln freed the slaves in 1863, but it took 100 years to guarantee their descendants the right to vote, go to public schools, sit in the front of the bus and drink from water fountains.  Those rights were won not by convincing racists that their attitudes and beliefs were wrong, but by the might of the Federal government reacting to the pressure being put on it by courageous Blacks aided by mostly Northern white activists and a Southern president. 


A few years ago, I read a frightening poll that said that about half of Americans would be in favor of reinstating slavery.  The article I cited above stated that rural whites believe that Black people are inferior to whites.  I’d like to see who they would put on the bandstand to do battle with Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker and Duke Ellington. 


Have you ever thought about why Jews and Blacks dominate certain professions?  Are we necessarily more talented there, or is it that we were excluded for centuries from most professions and succeeded in the ones open to us.  Show business is a perfect example. 


America had no great artists until 70 years after the Revolution.  We had no artistic culture of our own.  Actors performed Shakespeare.  Minstrel shows and Mark Twain appeared in the middle of the 19th century and established a new and totally American aesthetic.  It takes time for a culture to develop out of its disparate seeds.  Isn’t it interesting that both Twain and minstrelsy dealt with our racial identity which is the single greatest challenge to our nation—even today.  Just look at the millions of Trump supporters who want to get rid of Obamacare, but don’t want to lose their health insurance.  This backlash to 8 years of a super-intelligent Black man occupying the White House with dignity was just too much for them to bear.  They prefer one of their own.  With the help of the Russians, they got a white trust fund baby pretending to be one of them.  God help us all. 


So, for rural America, little has changed since the Revolution.  For the most part, we sophisticated urbanites live in the here and now of science and the arts.  The two Americas even have different music that we listen to.  In New York City, where I live, there’s not much Christian rock and Country music—genres that do their best to exclude the Black (and Jewish) experience. 


On the contrary, in the early 1990s I was invited to a jazz festival at the White House and met President Clinton, where he sat in on tenor sax.  Did you ever wonder what music our current President listens to?  With all his billions, I would guess that he doesn’t even own one record of any kind of music.  What does it say about a man that he doesn’t listen to music?  Music isn’t about winning and losing.  In its subtle way, it teaches us love.


And now I’m going to get on with my day and think about our glorious Independence, whose cause and ideals I identify with in my heart and soul.  But, I’m so saddened that I live in a deeply divided country—those that embrace love and those that live in fear—dreaming that the Confederacy had prevailed 150 years ago, so that slavery could continue their delusion of white supremacy. 


I know this is very dark, but if you are Black, you have been living this all your life.  And if you are white, you need to look at it and do something to change it.  As the self-proclaimed country boy, Dr. Phil says, “You can’t fix anything that you don’t acknowledge.” For me, I’m going to keep talking, but even better, I’m going to spread the message of love through my music.  Music is the natural transformer.  When it is great, you can’t resist it. 


As for right now, I’m gonna go worship at the altar of that great American patriot, Louis Armstrong.  “Jubilee, come and join the jubilee…” 


Happy Fourth, brothers and sisters. 

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  • Chris Wiley on

    And of course the technology of print, let’s not forget that . . .

  • Chris Wiley on

    There are racists in The City and racists way outside it. They all learned it somehow. I have a theory that the strongest part of human nature is to pay the closest attention to your immediate surroundings and experience. The technology we’ve created facilitates more information than what’s immediately available to us, though. But technology, everything from the Radio forward, can be used for good or evil, for the truth or propaganda. To distribute insidious ideas that were apparently discredited a long time ago . . . Well, somebody’s still got the seeds and a great way to sprinkle them. We’re going to have to get a handle on that. Good luck to all. Happy 4th.

  • Ron Sunshine on

    The darkness of this post is perfectly appropriate. I read it twice, and I’m going to read it again. You are right on. And I read that same disturbing article. Yikes.

  • Ron Sunshine on

    Surprise, surprise:

  • Bill Kirchner on

    Great point about Mike Abene—one of my heroes as well as yours. Mike joined Maynard Ferguson’s band in 1961 at age 19 and in the next few years wrote some of Maynard’s best-ever music.

    Here’s a sample:
    “On Green Dolphin Street”:
    (Feat. Frank Vicari, Maynard, Kenny Rupp—1964)

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