The Elimination of Racism through the Music of Jazz

Listen: Charlie “Bird” Parker – Yardbird Suite

The Jazz Scene that began in the early twentieth century of America provided a vibrant and clear vision of the pandemonium, resistance, and struggle to obtain an identity that the African Americans had to endure during this time period. Slavery ended years ago, but remnants of its hardships still filled the atmosphere, making it very problematic for African Americans to progress. However, with the power of jazz, they managed to overcome these challenges and even united the black and white communities together. According to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in “Songs of The Civil Rights Movement” (NPR, 2010):

“Jazz speaks for life. The blues tell the story of life’s difficulties — and, if you think for a moment, you realize that they take the hardest realities of life and put them into music, only to come out with some new hope or sense of triumph. This is triumphant music.”

This inspiring quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. truly captures the essence and purpose of jazz which was not just music meant to be heard, but enjoyed. It was also a branch of the civil rights movement and an improvisation of racial equality.

I specifically chose the song, “Yardbird Suite” by Charlie Parker as my cultural artifact because I feel like I connect to the song more than any other jazz songs out there. Charlie Parker certainly acquires the attention from the crowd by the way he improvises this song at the same time incorporating musical riffs and a protruding but graceful tone on the alto saxophone. There’s also moments in the song where you could hear the other instruments talk back and forth with one another which rebounds back towards me in a prominent way. The name of the song was actually derived from the nickname that he obtained throughout his lifetime, “Yard Bird”. One story was that while he was touring on the roads, his car struck a chicken and Parker had to stop the car just so that he could pick up the chicken. He then follows through with the chicken by having it for dinner in the evening. There is also another story lurking around of how he “lived free as a bird”. Charlie Parker faced a tremendous amount of twists and turns during his lifetime including the horrifying act of racism in the 19th century and the usage of drugs.

Charlie Bird Parker is one of the most well-known and inspirational alto-saxophonist in the scenery of jazz. Parker grew up in Kansas City where he played the baritone with the school’s band. He began showing interest into the alto saxophone when he was 15 and soon afterwards, he left school to pursue a career in music. Considering how Charlie Parker fell into the darkness of depression and the addiction of drugs, he was still well respected and is known for being the pioneer of bebop.

At the time the song “Yardbird Suite” was recoded which was in 1946, Parker faced a tremendous amount of repulsion especially because of his skin color. Jazz began as a type of music that black slaves would play for one another and it developed over time as a musical rebellion against the control of white men. In the 19th century, African American jazz musicians were only able to play for their locale audience, as in people of their color. It was only if they were hired by white band leaders that they could actually express their music towards the white audience. This specifically led to why white artists during the time could have easier access to high-end shows while black musicians were performing primarily to black audiences in the clubs and bars and thus not being able to promote their music towards the American mass and obtain a significant role as a musician.

This is one of the main reasons why the the song “Yard Bird Suite” became of great significance during this time period. It was because of this song that added to the renovation of the ideology that the African Americans had toward the belief of equality. African American jazz musicians genuinely gained an identity of their own through the works of music. Soon after technology became more accessible and cheaper, black jazz musicians were able to record their songs and spread it in a wider range of motion:

“The commodification of jazz meant that the public took a sudden and incredible interest in the music and the lifestyle, and publication of the inner workings and racial conflicts of the industry sold papers. Critics like John Hammond capitalized on the newfound interest of the American middle class in jazz, taking the stance of defending the black musicians and advocating for their rights and talent (Zoelzliz, 2010)”.

In other words, jazz, a form of music that was once used as a form of resistance against racial discrimination and a way for one to obtain an identity of their own, became the number one subject during the time. It was because of the audience’s investment into the popular widespread music that began to cause a change towards racial equality. If it had not been for jazz, racial discrimination would have continued on until this day while being left unnoticed.

Relating back to the topics and ideas that I learned from the course, jazz cannot be emphasized enough for the African Americans especially since it counteracts the cruelty that they have encountered and endured these past few centuries. During the time of slavery, they were forced to to live a life of which their existence was insignificant compared to the that of a white man. The backbreaking labor and the unusual punishment that was inflicted upon them until the time of emancipation where even then they still faced the same circumstances but with the false hopes that they were free was solved through the music of jazz. One prime example is the song “Yardbird Suite” where Charlie Parker defied the thought of black lives being insignificant and not only that, but by adding the belief that African Americans do have a right for freedom and a right to express their belief. Watching documentaries and through the help of Dr. Pittman, I was able to explore deeper into the depths of slavery and the movements that followed it. The song that I have chosen, I believe, played a contributing factor into the notion that everyone is equal whether they are white, black or of any skin color.

By: John Bui

Sources:

The History of Jazz. (n.d.). Retrieved November 20, 2015, from http://zzilz.blogspot.com/2010/11/racism-and-jazz.html

The History of Jazz. (n.d.). Retrieved November 20, 2015, from http://zzilz.blogspot.com/2010/11/racism-and-jazz.html

The Official Site of Charlie “Yardbird” Parker – Biography. (n.d.). Retrieved November 20, 2015, from http://www.cmgww.com/music/parker/about/biography.html

Tommasini, A. (2015, June 7). Review: ‘Charlie Parker’s Yardbird’ Uses Opera to Tell a Jazz Story. Retrieved November 20, 2015, from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/08/arts/music/review-charlie-parkers-yardbird-uses-opera-to-tell-a-jazz-story.html?_r=0

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