Saying Yes to Our Power

With the triumph of yesterday global protests, I’m reminded of other powers in the world beyond the political: the power of commitment, the power of love and friendship, and the power of art, especially music.

You might think music an odd topic for the day after a momentous protest. Let me explain my thinking. The Trump coronation was lacking in so many ways, but especially in two critical components, Poetry (apparently, no poet would participate) and the usual array of Music that attends a national celebration. I think there are good reasons for that. Poetry and Music have incalculable power. Wise people withheld their artistic contributions. The next day, on the streets of the world, people said no to Trump’s authoritarian world-view. It was a compelling moment of solidarity that begs the question, “where do we go from here.” Momentum is difficult to maintain amid day-to-day reality. That said, I’m confident that the networks, connections, and energizing experiences will sustain us. In hopes of encouraging a longer view, I’d like to share one of my favorite musical moments as an analogy.

Paul Gonsalves (left) and Duke Ellington

By the time 1956 rolled around, Duke Ellington, who had one of the premier orchestras through the late 20’s and 30’s, collaborated with Billy Strayhorn (some say they were lovers) in the 40’s. After the war, Ellington soldiered on, taking any gigs he could, but it seemed his glory days were over for good. It’s said the orchestra was on its last legs when they played the Newport Jazz Festival on July 7, 1956. The early set didn’t go well. Some musicians showed up late. They waited around for hours to play the second set, and it was near midnight before they got the chance. After the first few numbers, people started to leave. Then the Duke announced “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue.” The saxophone soloist, Paul Gonsalves, wasn’t all that familiar with the 1937 chart. He wasn’t one of the best-known players in the group, and he was to be featured in an interlude between the two pieces.

Elaine Anderson shakes a leg

When Gonsalves started to play, at first there was nothing special, but then—and this is a legendary moment in the history of Jazz—Elaine Anderson, an elegant blonde in a black dress got up and danced. In moments, people were jitterbugging. The crowd began to roar. Folks who had left their seats came running back. Gonsalves did 27 choruses as organizers, fearing a riot, tried to get Ellington to stop the performance. No one had ever seen the predominantly white, middle-class crowd (with a scattering of wealthy Jazz aficionados) behave in such a fashion. If you listen to the link at the bottom of the page, you can feel the energy building as something magical happens.

I think the description is best done by those who were there, with thanks to The Guardian. “The record producer George Avakian said of the Newport crowd: ‘Halfway through Paul’s solo, it had become an enormous, single, living organism.’ The critic Leonard Feather, reviewing the show for Down Beat magazine, wrote: ‘Here and there in the reduced, but still multitudinous crowd, a couple got up and started jitterbugging. Within minutes, the whole of Freedom Park was transformed as if struck by a thunderbolt … hundreds of spectators climbed up on their chairs to see the action; the band built the magnificent arrangement to its perennial peak and the crowd, spent, sat limply wondering what could follow this.'”

What, you may ask, is the point of talking about something that happened over 50 years ago? Here’s how I see it. In a single instant, people connected in a way they had not before. Their energies merged and the moment became transcendent. The music is superb, there’s no question of that, but it was the crowd that made the real magic happen. Their response egged the musicians on to greater and greater virtuosity. The combined energy, the “enormous, single, living organism” that came to life that night defined a whole new era. Within the week, Ellington was on the cover of Time Magazine. The recording of the performance broke sales records, and Jazz was solidly established as a viable art form.

Aren’t we at that kind of moment right now?

Feel good. Feel proud. Feel your Power. Celebrate with some great music and get up and dance if you want.

(Paul Gonsalves solo starts around 3:47 and runs through 10:12, but listen to the whole recording. It’s a revelation.

A. C. Burch
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