In a New Yorker article about Duke Ellington and race in America, I learned about a gathering of leading black jazz musicians at Yale University in 1972. There were three days of concerts, jam sessions, and workshops. Duke Ellington was there, as were Eubie Blake, Noble Sissle, Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, Mary Lou Williams, Willie (the Lion) Smith, and Charles Mingus.
Even in enlightened New Haven, not everyone was glad about this gathering of black musicians. One night, Dizzy Gillespie was directing the performance of a sextet that included Charles Mingus, when word came of a bomb threat. The police tried to clear the theater, but Mingus refused to leave. He was determined, despite the danger, to remain onstage with his bass. He said to the police captain: “Racism planted that bomb, but racism ain’t strong enough to kill this music. If I’m going to die, I’m ready but I’m going out playing ‘Sophisticated Lady.’”
Once outside, Gillespie and the other musicians could hear, coming from the inside, “the sound of Mingus intently playing Ellington’s dreamy thirties hit, which, that day, became a protest song, as the performance just kept going on and on and getting hotter.” It was just two years before Ellington would die. That night he “stood with the waiting crowd, just beyond the theater’s open doors, smiling“
No doubt, there are sounds of discord and trouble everywhere in our world and often in our own hearts; but they aren’t strong enough to kill the music. Long after the voices of anger, accusation, and violence have spent themselves, our songs linger and dance in the air. Even with the brokenness we see around us and feel within us, Louis Armstrong was right: “It’s a Wonderful World.” “Amazing Grace” lifts and heartens us when we are down and discouraged. “O God our Help in Ages Past, our Hope for Years to Come” is mightier than any present pain or problem.
Many years ago, I was in a jazz joint in the French Quarter of New Orleans where a so-so singer fronted a not-so-great band. Mostly I ignored the music, until, most improbably, God spoke to me through a song which I would not have expected God to use (I need to be reminded, over and over again that God is vaster and more creative and more determined to speak to us than we ever know). The so-so singer sang: "It's all right to have a good time, baby, it’s all right.” And God whispered in my ears: “Hey, Guy, it really is all right to enjoy the life I gave you. Remember what you tell everybody else: ‘My glory is a human being fully alive.’”
It might be “Sophisticated Lady” in New Haven or “It’s All Right” in New Orleans or “Amazing Grace” in any place we find ourselves; songs can become a faithful protest against all that is wrong and an affirmation of trust all shall be well.
[The story about Mingus and the quotations above come from Claudia Ruth Pierpoint, “Black, Brown and Beige: Duke Ellington’s Music and Race in America.” The New Yorker, May 17, 2010, pp. 96-103).