WJF Artists Address Social Justice (from Downbeat Magazine)

For all its eminence on the New York scene—the first jazz festival of the year, with over 150 acts across a dozen venues in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village and Lower East Side—until this year Winter Jazzfest hadn’t put its considerable cache behind a specific cause. But for its 13th edition (on Jan. 5–10), WJF embraced an expansive one: social justice.

The 2010s have been a tumultuous era, witnessing the rise of movements focusing on income equality, gay rights and racial injustice—and the ferocious backlash that culminated in the election last year of Donald Trump. For a festival that prides itself on celebrating the vanguard of an American art form, it was all too much to ignore.

“There was a groundswell of proposals from artists that were specifically responding to these issues of social justice,” Brice Rosenbloom, the festival’s co-founder, explained during a panel WJF-sponsored session. “It was our responsibility to open up our stages to those issues … . I’ve been extremely emboldened, especially after the election, [by the idea] that we all need to step in and do whatever we can, right now.”

Indeed, these issues became a through-line during Winter Jazzfest’s two-night (Jan. 6–7) centerpiece, which programs several hours of back-to-back 50-minute sets at each of its venues. Some of the artists wore their concerns on their sleeve: Drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, for example, debuted a band called Social Science at the Village club SOB’s on Jan. 7—a trio that also employed vocalists and spoken-word artists addressing social justice issues.

At Subculture on the Lower East Side, Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society excerpted their multimedia project Real Enemies, which examines, in part, the power and politics of American paranoia.

Other artists wove their commentary more organically. Trumpeter Dave Douglas performed at Le Poisson Rouge Jan. 6 with his “electro-jazz” quartet High Risk—bassist Jonathan Maron, drummer Mark Guiliana and electronics maestro Zachary “Shigeto” Saginaw. Much like the band’s eponymous 2015 album, their live set was dominated by heavy funk, electronic sound effects and distortion, as well as Douglas’s always-virtuosic trumpet stylings.

In the introduction to Douglas’ tune “Cardinals,” the leader said, “This is a piece I wrote in response to what happened in Ferguson, Missouri,” referring to the police shooting of Michael Brown and the unrest that followed. “And now it’s dedicated to the Black Lives Matter movement.”

Performing that same night at the Lower East Side’s Nublu, drummer Kendrick Scott and his band Oracle offered a lively set, the bulk of which came from their 2015 Blue Note album We Are The Drum. A haunting moment occurred when he, pianist Taylor Eigsti and guitarist Mike Moreno accompanied a spoken-word recording. It combined the voice of Diamond Reynolds—the woman who live-streamed the police killing of her boyfriend, Philando Castile, last summer—and that of President Obama, reciting the grim statistics that go along with confrontations between African American citizens and police officers. The accompaniment had the feeling of improvisation, dominated by Scott’s drumming: pounding, as both a gun and a terrified heartbeat.

But none of these—and likely no other musical reflection on social justice—compared with the stark power of Chicago pianist Amina Claudine Myers, who performed a solo set at The New School’s 12th Street Auditorium. Myers, a longtime member of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), played not the experimental music that that organization is famous for, but piano-and-vocal renditions of traditional Negro spirituals.

She began a cappella, with a riveting take on “Down On Me,” alone and unaccompanied in a long black gown, moaning, “Seems like everybody in this whole round world is/ Down on me.” When she began playing piano, she stuck to the conventions of gospel and soul (albeit with stabs and even occasional fantasias of avant-garde note clusters). Here she sang a dark “My Soul’s Been Angered in the Lord”; there, a version of “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child” that was astonishing in its intimacy and dignity.

Winter Jazzfest is often an important showcase for emerging artists and new projects by the more established ones. But social justice is a traditional message; in booking an artist like Myers, WJF demonstrated that traditional songs, played in traditional style, can be jazz’s strongest messenger.

By Michael J. West   I  Jan 11, 2017   4:09 PM

Is There Jazz Without The Blues


                                     Amina Claudine Myers

Is there jazz without the blues? The answer is no! Jazz has been defined as a fusion of ragtime (composed music and syncopated), blues with brass band music and syncopated dance music. The rhythms came from Africa, harmonic structure from European classical music, melodic and harmonic qualities from nineteenth century American folk music, religious music, work songs and minstrel shows.

Jazz stresses the individualism of the performer and is a vocally oriented music with instruments replacing the voice. The performer uses an original melody within the harmonic structure of the song for improvisation.  In this way the personality of the performer comes through.  No one has been able to say when the blues began; some say “it’s always been here”. Some musicians heard it back in the eighteen hundreds.

Jazz came from the blues which came from the second generation of slaves, Black work songs, shouts and field hollers, which originated from Africa’s call and response singing. The blues developed from social conditions and feelings that the church did not touch upon. Singers in rural areas started accompanying themselves with string instruments developing sad, slow songs which at first were called “sorrow songs” (like the spirituals were first called) and later called the blues.

Although William Christopher Handy, born in 1873 and known as “Father of the Blues” was the first to popularize the blues with publishing “The Memphis Blues” in 1912 and later “The St. Louis Blues”. Blues singers known as wanderers have been traveling from one black community to another singing in railroad stations, on street corners,  in night spots, eating places, dance social affairs and even picnics before Handy’s music was published.  This music was rejected by the so-called respectable people.

Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, the earliest professional artist from Columbus, Ga. and the fantastic blues singer heard a woman at a railroad station singing the blues about a man deserting her and liked the song so much that she started using it in her own travertine tent shows.  Jelly Roll Morton, pianist/composer from New Orleans heard a lady with two fingers missing named Mamie Desdoumes singing the blues.

Blues had certain traits that were carried over into jazz such as slurred notes, known as bluenotes, swoops and scoops, moaning moaning, groaning, whining, shouting and falsetto, a specific vocal range. There were two types of blues, the country blues which was rural featuring male singers with guitars and later string bands and other instruments. (I noticed there were quite a few blind singers/musicians during that time.) Country blues included the Mississippi Delta blues, Lead Belly, Charlie Patton and Blind Lemon Jefferson.

Between 1916-19, blacks moved north for better jobs and around 1920 record companies were started.  Blues became more formal.  Women singers from tent and vaudeville traditions and jazz bands came into the limelight.  Blues became more formal, thus the term“Classic Blues” was applied.

I will now discuss two of the most influential artists in the development of jazz from the blues; Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong.  Bessie Smith born around 1898 grew up singing in a church choir, acted in plays and danced.  Ma Rainey heard Bessie and was so impressed that she hired Bessie for her traveling tent show called “The Rabbit Foot Minstrels”.  Bessie sang anonymous blues melodies which were in public domain and created melodies herself.  Later she went out on her own.  She had a way of communicating with you personally.  She would reshape the melody, harmonic and rhythmic structure of a song to fit her style.  Bessie always did things her own way and that influenced many jazz players.  This is how the instrumentalists brought individualism to their horns and strings.  They heard the blend of precomposed song structures and the southern blues feeling from Bessie.

Louis Armstrong, a natural trumpet player was born in New Orleans.  At a very young age he played in river boat orchestras, marching bands and funerals.  He may have heard and felt the blues from the ragtime and brass bands which played traditional themes.  Storyville, a section of New Orleans has been credited as the beginning of jazz around the turn of the century.  Buddy Bolden played in the ragtime/brass bands and he also played the blues so I believe the blues sounds were within the structures and Armstrong may have heard this sound.  Louis was deep into the blues.  Actually jazz was being played all over the south and other parts of America. 

Armstrong joined Joe Oliver’s band at the age of fourteen.  Later he joined Fletcher Henderson’s dance band and Fletcher featured Louis as a soloist and vocalist performing popular music of the day.  Louis’ singing and playing reflected the blues.  He was also a blues accompanist for many blues singers.  He loved to sing and sometimes he would flub the lyrics of a song but the public loved his voice and the way he performed.   I think he may have forgotten the lyrics at times and would make some garbled sounds and this became known as scat singing (nonsense syllables). His singing influenced many artists such as Billie Holliday in the way she phrased her songs.

Louis’ technique developed to the point whereas he started improvising more creatively.  He also brought new ideas in syncopation and rhythm.  Armstrong’s playing is still influencing musicians today.

In the present time, the twelve bar blues form (ex. The Saint Louis Blues) is still going strong and is one of the mainstays of jazz.  It was during my freshman year in college playing with the dance band for a high school prom that I learned to play the blues.  If you could play the blues, you were definitely considered a jazz musician.  Nowadays on occasions, I may play a standard song such as “Willow Weep For Me” and play it in a very very bluesy way.  It’s effective!

With the examples set forth in this paper, I have tried to give you an overview showing that there is no jazz without the blues.



Written for a lecture series (music department) at the University Mass.  Commissioned by Dr. Boykins, Head of the Music Department; circa 1981



"The Music Of Black Americans" ( A History) by  Eileen Southern;   W.W. Norton & Co.  Pub. 1971

"The Book Of Jazz" by Leonard Feather"; Dell Pub. Co. 1976  

"Jazz Masters Of The Twenties" by  Richard Hadlock; Collier MacMillian, Pub. Co. 1965

"Blues People" by Leroi Jones (Amiri Baraka)   William Morris 1963