Education Initiatives Thrive at International Jazz Day
Posted 6/23/2014

Before more than 35 jazz musicians from around the world gathered in Osaka Castle Park in Osaka, Japan, for a two-hour concert on the third annual International Jazz Day on April 30, the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz and UNESCO hosted a series of free jazz education programs at the Osaka School of Music. For six hours, musicians, journalists, educators and philanthropists discussed the sociopolitical impact jazz makes around the globe.

The attendance was an indication of jazz’s enormous popularity in Japan. The Monk Institute reports that nearly 1,000 students, local musicians and jazz fans showed up.

The panels kicked off with an inspired conversation, “Artists for Peace and Cultural Diplomacy,” with pianist Herbie Hancock, UNESCO’s goodwill ambassador; bassist and UNESCO Artist for Peace Marcus Miller; and Mika Shino of the Monk Institute.

Hancock explained how he transformed himself into a human-rights activist. “I was in a moment of inspiration—uncovering that at the core of me, I’m a human being,” he said. “I’m only a musician when I’m playing music or talking about music, but I don’t do that 24 hours a day. I’m also a husband, a father, a son and a neighbor. The one thing that connects everything is the fact that I’m a human being. From that realization, I began to concentrate on building my life from this newer perspective of myself.”

As the discussion unfolded, Hancock shared his hopes for the evolution of International Jazz Day: “I’m hoping that International Jazz Day will be a gateway, opening up a path that goes beyond jazz and unites cultures and ideas—so that various people from all corners of the world can dialogue and discuss misinformation that they have about other countries or of other people or of other religions, which are the sources of a lot of the conflicts among nations.”

As a spokesperson for UNESCO’s Slave Route project, Miller discussed the importance of educating people about the history of slavery, and how African slaves brought to the United States, in particular, showed how people can overcome travesty and turn “poison into medicine.” Miller stressed the importance of learning about this “tragic chapter in American’s history.” He also pointed out that it was the descendants of former African slaves who created jazz, which helped to define America’s own cultural identity.

“With each generation, people know less and less about the history of slavery,” Miller said. “That’s a dangerous thing. When people forget, history starts repeating itself. Even at this moment, there is slavery happening in this world.”

Jazz journalist Charlie Gans and vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater engaged in a conversation billed “Jazz and Human Rights.” The two talked about the sociopolitical impact of three jazz pioneers—Billie Holiday, Nina Simone and Abbey Lincoln—with regard to race and gender politics.

Bridgewater recounted the emotional toil of singing “Strange Fruit” during her portrayal of Holiday in Stephen Stahl’s play Lady Day: “It’s difficult for me to sing that song because it conjures up images that I saw while growing up, of lynchings of black men and of black boys. It conjures up a lot of the racial hardship I experienced in the 1950s and ’60s. It makes me remember the hardships of my parents and grandparents.”

Particularly insightful were Bridgewater’s recollections of her experiences with the Black Panthers while she attended Michigan State University. She told the audience how the American mainstream press smeared the Black Panthers’ reputation by portraying them as a violent organization.

“The Black Panthers were totally stereotyped by the press,” she argued. “Their whole goal was totally manipulated by the press to being this gun-toting horrible group when in fact they were doing wonderful things in the black community. They had a breakfast program, which I served on in East Lansing, Michigan. They would do clothes drives; they would do educational centers. They put out leaflets about knowing all of our legal rights.”

Wayne Shorter’s “Philosophy of Life through Jazz” discussion was equally invigorating. Shino’s questions inspired the saxophonist to unravel philosophical expositions, loaded with quizzical asides and enlightening flashes. Sometimes he peppered his explanations with references to Miles Davis and Art Blakey, two of Shorter’s mentors in the 1960s.

While elaborating on his artistic intent, Shorter linked a lesson learned from Davis about attempting to “create music that doesn’t sound like music.” “How do you rehearse the unexpected, the unknown?” Shorter pondered as he reflected on Davis’ quest for uncharted waters. Shorter explained his own artistic goals, saying, “I write music that tries to speak to what faith is. Faith is to fear nothing. Faith is easy to talk about but hard to do. I like to stay on the ‘hard to do trail.’”

Other educational highlights in Osaka included discussions on Japan’s rich jazz history and women in jazz, as well as film screenings and music and dance workshops.

“We wanted to design a program that offered attendees linkages with broader social contexts,” explained Will Ramsey, strategic programs manager for the Monk Institute. “Everyone has their own understanding of jazz and its associated traditions. [We] aimed to leverage that by demonstrating that, in all its forms, jazz inherently promotes basic goods: peaceful interaction and collaboration between cultures, freedom and equality. These are qualities that people from any nation and cultural background can understand.”

John Murph

Writer Charlie Gans (left) and singer Dee Dee Bridgewater discuss human-rights issues on April 30 in Osaka. (Photo: Courtesy of Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz.)


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