‘How Does It Feel To Be Free?’

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Multi-instrumentalist Jon Batiste is facilitating a series of music-forward protests through his WE ARE organization.

(Photo: Bram VanderMark)

Wrapped in brick and converted from its previous life as an industrial space, the Constellation venue’s two separate listening rooms are outfitted with rows of repurposed, vintage theater seating.

Its gleaming wood bar comes from a now-shuttered lounge. The Chicago concert space—situated along Western Avenue, the city’s longest street—is, in some ways, a study in creative reuse, down to its name, which hearkens back to a now-defunct Black-owned record label from the ’60s.

There’s a spirit of revival and resilience here, one that courses through the history of jazz. It’s a music that has served as a clarion call for freedom, equality and basic human rights. And during the summer of 2020, as Confederate statues come down, the disparities in not just social justice across the United States, but systemic imbalances of power within the music industry, are being questioned.

If grit and fortitude have defined the music’s past, those words also can apply to drummer Mike Reed, Constellation’s owner.

When he spoke to DownBeat in early July, Reed was preoccupied with installing Plexiglas panels at the bar and “getting my social distancing signage up.”

“We have exactly 50 seats possible,” he said, given attendance restrictions at the time in Chicago amid the coronavirus pandemic. “Among the craziness of the last four months, it’s something positive to work towards [that] hopefully brings some people back together.”

Constellation—and the Hungry Brain, another concert space Reed owns in town—is a venue very intentionally rooted in the legacy of iconic Black-owned, artist-run Chicago clubs, like Fred Anderson’s Velvet Lounge and Von Freeman’s Apartment Lounge. Before their closures, both served as training grounds for generations of artists, dispensing something much more than transcriptions and charts.

While Reed discussed programming music and running venues, he remembered a panel that he participated in years ago with multi-instrumentalist Henry Threadgill, who, like the drummer, is a member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians.

An audience member started to ask the elder composer a question, Reed recalled: “So, when you teach your students ... [Threadgill interjected], ‘Oh no, no, no, I don’t teach. Some of us need to be out here in the street.’

“That’s the way I feel about it,” Reed continued while discussing the role that venues—and specifically Black-owned spaces—have served in the development of jazz for more than 100 years. “Especially at Constellation and Hungry Brain, this is where you really learn the community part of it. And that comes from what Fred was doing at the Velvet Lounge and what Von was doing at the Apartment. That sort of tradition—this isn’t what you learn in school. This is the school. And autodidactic learning, that’s so important to Black American culture.”

From any vantage point, pandemic-era cancellations of tours and venue closures are going to have a massive and long-lasting impact on jazz—from the corporate level down to neighborhood bars, some of which are Black-owned, independent businesses. That’s likely to affect how the music is transmitted, taught and learned, how skills and connections are made.

FOR GENERATIONS, JAZZ HAS EXPOUNDED IDEAS of freedom and power, explicitly and implicitly. From We Insist!—Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite (1960) to Jackie McLean’s Right Now! (1966), the music often has mirrored overarching political movements taking place across the States and internationally. Even dating back to works like Duke Ellington’s Black, Brown And Beige—which the composer performed in 1943 during his first Carnegie Hall appearance—musicians have used the medium to make the case for parity.

“Creating and releasing liberation music has been an important foundation of the label’s history,” Don Was, president of Blue Note Records, recently said about the imprint’s curatorial mission, which continues today with releases like trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire’s On The Tender Spot Of Every Calloused Moment.

Blue Note—co-founded by Alfred Lion, who recruited another German-Jewish refugee, Francis Wolff, to help him run it—“closely identified with the struggles of Black Americans,” Was said.

Since its 1939 founding, the label has released a trove of essential jazz albums, some aligning with the tenets of liberation ideologies espoused by artists like Art Blakey, Andrew Hill and the recently departed Eddie Gale. Despite the imprint’s storied history, major composers and recording artists who have worked with Blue Note—and other noted jazz labels—have needed to seek donations late in life to raise funds to cover medical expenses. This spring, SFJAZZ launched a campaign to raise funds for Wayne Shorter, a DownBeat Hall of Fame inductee widely regarded as being among the greatest living jazz composers. And drummer Jimmy Cobb, who played on landmarks like Miles Davis’ 1959 album Kind Of Blue, turned to a GoFundMe campaign this spring for help, before passing away on May 24.

“If you look at [standard contracts] across the entire music business from 60 years ago, the deals were abominable,” Was said, discussing pro forma industry deals. “They’ve come a long way in the ensuing decades. [In the 1980s], my predecessor, Bruce Lundvall, went back and upgraded our legacy artists to modern deals. He didn’t have to do that and I feel that, relative to the rest of the music business, Blue Note’s been ahead of the curve in the contracts we offer ... and we’re working hard to do more.”

Was currently is serving on the Universal Music Group Task Force for Meaningful Change, a group of 40 recording industry executives aiming to make a significant social impact. So far, it’s contributed financial support to nonprofit groups like the Colin Kaepernick Foundation and the National Association of Black Journalists.

The May 25 police slaying of George Floyd unquestionably has awakened a broad coalition of people—both in America and abroad—who are unwilling to passively watch further denigration of communities of color. Even as the world struggles to extract something positive from another horrific moment in American history, it still can’t undo the past.

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