I recently had lunch with a man I consider to be my second dad. He’s been a great mentor to me on all things jazz, blues, and life in general. The depth of his jazz knowledge is incredible. It’s great for several reasons, but the most important one is that he was there in the pivotal period of the late 50s and all throughout the 60s. He experienced it. He saw it happening, so there are no revisionist stories.
I first met Musa Osgood about 11 years ago. He saw me at the now defunct Tower Records in Village browsing through the jazz CD section. I used to workout at Dolphin’s Gym on 14th Street, and so did he. We struck up a friendship over jazz. He told me he was taken aback when he saw me shopping for jazz CDs, because he rarely saw young black people in the jazz section. He said it was something he was happy to see.
I connected with Musa on three levels. First, he was passionate about jazz and the blues. This was not really the music favored by my then 19 year old friends. I was a member of the old Blue Note forum message board, and it was a forum full of people more concerned about how much an original vinyl pressing was worth, than they were about the actual music. There weren’t a lot of avenues to discuss the music in-depth. There was no twitter or Facebook, so I was glad to meet a like-minded individual.
Second, he was an audiophile and record aficionado, and I was just getting into the hobby. He helped me tremendously in this respect, and I owe him a depth of gratitude. Many of my rare original jazz pressings were acquired through him. He taught me how to identify original Blue Note vinyl pressings, what reissues to get, and what reissues to avoid. This was a decade before Fred Cohen’s guidebook, so this wasn’t information you could get easily.
Last, but certainly not least, he was black. That may seem trivial, but it wasn’t to me. Seeing a black person who had these hobbies (audiophilia, collecting original and Japanese imports of jazz & blues records) was quite rare. It still is today. I was able to have conversations about jazz beyond face value. We were able to talk about the circumstances, and atmosphere that created this music in the first place. This is a conversation that simply does not happen today, even among people who consider themselves jazz fans. In general, there are cultural nuances, and subtleties that many non-blacks just don’t fully understand. A perfect example would be the album, The Freedom Rider by Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers. Most listeners would listen to it, and consider it a fine hard bop album. It’s great music for sure, but that is where it ends for most. For someone like Musa, he understands that it goes far deeper than that. It was the music of defiance and revolt. It was an ode to the courageous Freedom Riders.
The mugshot of Stokely Carmicheal – One of the many brave riders that risked their lives for the rights that I now enjoy. I wouldn’t be who I am today without their sacrifices.
When stories about jazz greats are told, the narrative tends to focus on just the music itself, and not the environment and atmosphere that created the music. To tell an accurate story, you can’t separate them. Even worse, when these stories are told about jazz greats, it is often a cautionary tale about many of them succumbing to excess (drugs, alcohol, women etc). Meanwhile, their political inclinations, support for social justice, and global awareness is seldom mentioned, despite the fact that it played a big role in shaping the music. Back in 1954, Sonny Rollins penned Airegin. Airegin is Nigeria spelled backwards. The song is now a jazz standard, but unfortunately, many people to this day don’t know the meaning of the song. This is why context and narratives matter. That song, like many others has lost its meaning to the listener. The Fables of Faubus by Charles Mingus is another example.
Charles Mingus wrote the Fables of Faubus in protest of Orval E. Faubus, the Governor of Arkansas. Faubus sent in the National Guard to stop the integration of Little Rock Central High School by nine black teens. Most people know the version without the lyrics from the Mingus Ah Um album. The lyrics of Mingus, and Dannie Richmond, coupled with the imagery in the video below drive the point home.
To hear Musa talk is incredible. He is now 71 years old, and has retired to his wife’s home country of Ghana. He was in NYC for a week, so I met up with him for lunch. What transpired out of just a lunch outing, was a 3 hour conversation about the racial dynamics of jazz, record collecting, and politics. It got so good, I decided to take out my laptop, and jot down what he was saying. I’ll spare you the details about record collecting and politics for the meat of the matter; jazz and race, the big elephant in the room. To give Musa justice, I’ll just quote him. I will dedicate the rest of this post to just his words.
The following below are some of the statements he made.
“The problem with jazz is that the big elephant in the room is race. However, this elephant has been forced into the closet. Every once in a while, the elephant lets out a stinky fart to let us know that it’s still there.”
“I was an insurance salesman in the 60s. I lived in New Jersey at the time, and part of my job was driving to Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, New York, and various townships in New Jersey. These were the stomping grounds of all the great jazz players on the East Coast. At any given moment, someone major was playing somewhere. I looked at it as a blessing from God. It was the most fertile time period for jazz in my opinion. Socially, there was a sense of urgency. We were fighting for civil rights. That angst transferred itself into the music. It’s not a coincidence. Look at the titles of many of the records from that time period. That tells the story. It was urgent. I think Right Now! by Jackie McLean is the perfect description of the mood of black people then. They were difficult and trying times.”
“You know, many of the jazz greats rarely played in the south. They refused to. Not because there was a lack of an audience, it just was not safe. A car full of black men driving in the deep south late at night was extremely dangerous. Every black mother warned their sons about driving, because it could be a matter of life and death. You didn’t just have to worry about attacks from the local hicks, you also had to worry about the police especially. Most guys back then drove to their gigs, and even in the north they would get harassed by the police. You can imagine the deep south. They also did not want to pump money into any state’s economy that discriminated against people like them. These were places where many white southerners were rioting in the streets because black people wanted their children to go to school. It was a very hostile environment.”
“The problem with many young black people today is that they view the civil rights movement as ancient history. In a sense, I suppose the people of my generation failed the youth, because we didn’t let them know that this wasn’t that long ago. The movement didn’t just shape ideology, it shaped the arts. Every contemporary black art, from music, poetry, to literature, and everything else was a springboard and voice for civil rights. Before James Brown was singing about being black and proud, jazz musicians were playing songs of liberation. This won them no accolades or favors from the industry. In fact, it hurt them commercially. Max Roach and Charles Mingus can attest to that. I just hope young people realize that it isn’t ancient history. If you were born in the early 80s, you’re just a decade and a half removed from it. Many of the opponents of civil rights for blacks are still alive today, and so are all their children. Their mindset didn’t change because LBJ signed a bill. The tea party today is largely made up of the children of those same people. I’ve been around long enough to notice the same vitriol, even though the language is now coded, and they aren’t as overt as their predecessors. All the strongholds of their organization are in the same places. It has nothing to do with liberty and freedom. If it did, they would have taken to the streets when George W. Bush was wiping his backside with the constitution for 8 years, but they didn’t. Instead, they are opposing health care reform, even calling it unconstitutional. What kind of person opposes health care reform? Not a logical one. That is just lip service. Most of them are probably on, or know someone on Medicare or Medicaid.”
“As we move further away from that period, we lose the significance of the voices of the artists, and what it was many of them were truly saying. This is the greatest loss for jazz in my opinion. Their voices can only be maintained if there is open dialogue about what it was these musicians were saying. The problem is that they open wounds that America refuses to heal. The biggest disservice to me is saying you like jazz, then refusing to address these issues. They go hand in hand. Anyone who thinks otherwise just doesn’t know, or doesn’t want to acknowledge the history of this music. The same thing happened to the blues. Everyone wants to play it, and listen to it, but no one wants to address the social conditions that created ‘the blues’. Now Eric Clapton became a bigger draw than Muddy Waters ever was. Imagine that. If you really like the blues, dig deep, do some soul searching, try to be honest with your thoughts, and then ask yourself why that is.”
“What’s going on in the jazz world these days? I’m an old man, I have no idea. The last album I bought was a Charles Tolliver CD when I was in France last year. It’s a beautiful album. It’s from the Strata-East label. We talked about them a few years ago. It was a very different label. Tolliver was a cofounder I believe. I guess you can say it(Strata-East) was sort of afrocentric, and that’s probably why they aren’t a household name in America, but are so well regarded in Europe. The last thing mainstream America wants is afrocentric anything, certainly not in jazz. Anything in that regard is quickly purged out.”
“Going to clubs was always an experience. On the surface, these clubs looked like a utopia for racial harmony, but they weren’t. At the end of the day, those white people who came to see black guys blow their horn, went back home to their neighborhoods, far away from black people. They could afford to enjoy the show for a few hours, then go back to a world where blacks didn’t exist outside of servitude. The performers had to find their own way. Miles Davis was beaten up by a cop for having the audacity to stand outside, and take a break in front of his own gig. That assault would never happen to even a lowly white janitor, but it happened to Miles Davis, the biggest jazz musician in the world. He got his head bashed in by a power tripping, racist policeman. This wasn’t the deep south. This was New York City.”
“Jazz and politics are intricately linked. As far as I’m concerned, you can’t be neutral politically when it comes to this kind of music. Historically, people on the right have tried to shut down this music. They still feel the same way, and they have had victories along the way. There is no respect for it. Funding for the arts, after school programs, and music are always the first things on the chopping block. Always in inner-city schools. That is no coincidence. Look at the beginnings of most jazz musicians of the past, they usually came from humble backgrounds. Today, that is different. Jazz is now something reserved for those wealthy enough to partake. It has become strictly an academic endeavor for people who can afford a great education. Kids in the inner-city are left out. In my time growing up, every kid learned how to play an instrument in school, or through an after school program. That is completely gone now. Today, inner-city kids don’t even get the opportunity because these programs have been cut. In that sense, the music that was once for the poor has become an indicator of class. You can’t discuss class without discussing race. If you look at the people who are proposing the cutting, it is always someone from the right. Conservatives are no friends of the art world, so you can imagine how they feel about black arts.”
“Without support from Europe and Japan, many jazz musicians would have been destitute. Many were fed up, and just left America in the 60s. That is a tough pill to swallow. People the world over recognized the greatness of these musicians. The same thing for the blues. It really is sad that white America finally recognized the blues when it was sang by young Europeans. Those same songs had been here in America for decades, but because the face of it was black, it was rejected. It’s bittersweet to see all the jazz and blues greats get awards after they are dead, but why didn’t they get them when they were alive? No one asks these questions, because the answer will expose the ugly truth.”
“I think music can be a great unifier. People all over the world enjoy jazz, but to truly enjoy it, you have to understand where it came from. Would you eat mystery meat simply because it tasted good? You would want to know what kind of meat it was at the very least. That’s my viewpoint with jazz. You’d be missing the point if you overlooked the history of it. You have to know how the road was paved, but I understand in this day and age, people just want to drive on the highway. They care little for the laborer who poured the tar. The struggle continues.”