Our first concert on the Big Band Holiday tour was at the Marcus Center in Milwaukee Wisconsin. Milwaukee is Dan Nimmer’s hometown. His parents were in attendance and he showed off for them by tearing through ‘Santa Claus’ with Carlos and Ali. The first gig of a tour is always tricky because we’re trying to work out who is going to solo on what songs, how to order each song so the concert flows smoothly, how to balance talking with playing and generally seeing how the gig plays out. You don’t know if the show is effective until it is over. Sometimes gigs earlier in the week consist of one 90-minute set instead of two halves. Tonight was a 90. They are always more difficult to program because you have to conceive of the impact of different tunes across a longer time. Though I was apprehensive, the gig was well received and Cecile was an absolute star.
After the concert we saw some old friends that love to recount the times we’ve played here. They always have some remembrance that I struggle to recall (sometimes with more success than others). Some of the cats hung with the touring company of The Lion King choreographed by our close friend and genius, Garth Fagan while Dan hung with his parents and others of us attended a reception held by the Black Arts Think Tank of Milwaukee. There isn’t always so much activity after shows early in the week.
The Think Tank services The Ko-Thi Dance Company, African American Children’s Theatre and the Hansberry-Sands Theatre Company with board leadership and administrative support. They came together to cultivate more community wide support for their dedicated organizations and Afro-American art in general. During the reception I spoke about the need for a revolution in cultural consciousness in this country. Culture through the Arts is never on the agenda in times of reform. The change that we are seeking has to, in some way, come out of our own identity. We Americans tend to look at ourselves demographically and don’t even consider the cultural solutions to our polarity.
On Thursday in St. Louis, we opened the Harold and Dorothy Steward Center for Jazz. The Center houses a new Centene Jazz Education Center and a completely renovated and redesigned Ferring Jazz Bistro.
Though sheets of rain beat against the “in case of inclement conditions” gala tents, the business and arts communities showed up in full force to recognize the enormous civic contribution of the Steward family and Jazz St. Louis, the city’s top presenting organization. The Bistro itself was comfortable, classy and filled with the rushing excitement of an opening night deadline that is being met. Both concerts were streamed and a festive time was enjoyed by all.
The next morning, Todd Stoll and I were on the road at 7:30 to pay a surprise visit to Dr. Inda Schaenen’s 8th grade class at Normandy Middle School. Joining us was Dr. Schaenen’s mom, Susan Rudin. (Jack and Susan founded and endowed Essentially Ellington and she is a member of our stellar JALC Education Committee).
After recovering from the shock of seeing her mom with us, Inda got down to business. She brought us into the familiar cacophony of kids from challenging social and familial situations struggling to negotiate the one experience that could help them redirect a generational dysfunction that stretched back to auction blocks, stock markets, and plantations, and that defined the present as poverty, broken homes and prison. Still, the kids were brimming with talent, personality and possibility. Just the energy on this educational cutting edge of our society was itself invigorating. It is. Dr. Schaenen was strong and committed to the kids’ overall education and they responded with love and respect. Todd and I observed and were inspired by how she kept her kids moving forward, ever forward. When she invited us to introduce ourselves, Todd and I spoke our piece and the kids really could have cared less. But when Susan introduced herself their beloved teacher’s mother, they erupted in applause and recognition asking, “Is that your REAL mother? Your BLOOD mother?” When they realized that she was in fact Momma, they were deeply touched and on better behavior.
After the class, we left for Normandy High School. Vincent, Marcus and Chris had been there working with the school jazz band since 8:30. We joined at 10 by the entire JLCO. Band director Bernard Long Jr. had his band set up right beside us. We all participated in one of the best master classes we’ve ever conducted. Each chair of their ensemble had a chance to receive direct and personal attention from our musician occupying the same chair. It was all warm, informal and familial. Mr. Long Jr. was hired last April and has been transforming the program.
Ali Jackson was only 19 years old when he met Bernard’s father, Bernard Long Sr. According to Ali, “Mr. Long Sr. was dedicated to quality jazz education and to creating the best environment for educating. The right environment could be in his house over a meal or in a car ride to a venue. When I was in my early 20’s, Mr. Long Sr. invited me to do a workshop with his students. His son Bernard would often tag along. I would give him (a few years younger than me) pointers on the drums and on music. The instruction though informal, was personal, genuine and most potent. It was meaningful to see Mr. Long Sr.’s work carried on through his son.” Mr. Long’s father is deceased. He would have been quite proud and just as excited about the meal Mrs. Long Sr. prepared for our lunch. That cobbler!
During the question and answer portion that ended the class, an 11 year old boy stepped forward and asked, “Do you all ever get nervous?” As several of us basically said, “Sometimes, yes.” He said, “I guess so, because me, I was nervous even just coming up here to ask this question. I’m nervous now.” He was so direct and honest, some of us started to get full. It really hit us because he implied, “But I’m still up here asking though!”
This weekend I received a Legend Award from the National Black Arts Foundation in Atlanta. I was given the opportunity to choose musicians to play for the awards ceremony and requested Melissa Aldana & Crash Trio and the great Detroit trumpeter and educator, Marcus Belgrave.
Not only did they represent our music with great clarity and depth of purpose, they also showed the diversity of artistic excellence still present in Jazz today.
Backstage Marcus and I hung and swapped stories about Ray Charles, Dizzy, Pops and New York. His beautiful wife Joan, also a great singer, spoke about the importance of sound and how she was initially attracted to Marcus by the warmth and distinctiveness of his tone. Anyone who knows Marcus knows that his sheer presence is an act of soul. In addition to the nuggets that come from his horn, no one in the world can verbally cosign an improvised solo as well as he can. He’ll drop a “yeah” or a “blow your horn” on you at the perfect time.
I accompanied him on the dressing room piano as he taught me a tune he had written for Clifford Brown. It had a lot of complicated changes, but we kept at it until I had it all completely correct. We played it for a while and would laugh when I stumbled at the different harmonic twists and turns. I told him it reminded me of my dad and clarinetist Alvin Batiste. Marcus said Alvin played with him for a brief period in Ray Charles’ band, but drove cats crazy because he practiced all day and night regardless of circumstance. They didn’t know the half of it. Bat and my father would teach you long complicated tunes with not a piece of music in sight and would keep at it until you absolutely knew every note and chord change.
This method of learning also reminded me of a time I went to Ornette Coleman’s apartment to practice with him. In the 1950s Ornette lived in New Orleans with drummer Herlin Riley’s uncle, Melvin Lastie, a deeply soulful trumpet player. I remember getting to Ornette’s house at about 11:00pm and we played our horns until about 2 in the morning without saying a word. Ornette was something, with a rare kind of home-spun seriousness and pure insightfulness that immediately made you feel at home. He told me not to worry too much about criticism, because my playing was very nuanced. He said I had a subtle command of the emotion in my sound, in much the same way people communicate by raising an eyebrow or scrunching their face. I can’t lie; it felt good to hear him say something like that.
After we played, he told me that in the late 1950s my father and Alvin drove all the way from New Orleans to Los Angeles to visit him. They rolled up to his crib unannounced and, said “Hey man, we just came to see what you were dealing with.”
We laughed about all kinds of stuff and when I finally left his house at 3:30 in the morning he said, “Don’t compete with people, compete with yourself. Music is an idea not a race.”
Jazz is the one area of American social life that embraced freedom, equality and excellence through diversity and integration throughout the 20th century.
Thanks to the pioneering efforts of so many people (on the stage and in the audience or in the dance floor) culminating in the triumphs of Benny Goodman with the assistance of Teddy Wilson, Gene Krupa, and Lionel Hampton, the world of Jazz provided the first example of open social integration in our country. Goodman courageously defeated racist traditions by providing opportunities that led to acceptance and integration in American public life ELEVEN YEARS before baseball.
If my memory serves me, one of his tuxedos auctioned in 2005 for only $800 (give or take a few hundred) a few years ago. I was suprised by the lack of recognition of his importance to our culture.
That a simple observation on the unusually robust attendance of black people in a given audience could provoke so much controversy and diversity of passionate feelings lets me know that this issue and all of us are still very much alive. My father was always against all forms of segregation and hated any type of reducing people to a given tribe or physical characteristic. In no way did my comment imply any dissatisfaction with the audience we do have or attack black folks or anyone for not supporting this music. I am always grateful to play for WHOEVER WANTS TO LISTEN. We all are. Every night.
Since I began playing Jazz music publicly, I have been asked many of the same questions over and over by the boldest members of a given audience such as:
“Can you play something with a singer?”
“Can you play something we know, like on the radio?”
“Can you play something we can dance to like on the radio?”
“Can you play a really short fast one?”
“Can you play something really slow and soft?”
“Can you play something we can talk over?”
There has been a tendency, in our industry and culture, to view Jazz musicians as traveling circus performers who are required to have a new trick every time you see them. As high school students we were given to understand that you have to play something new like Charlie Parker to be any good. This all-consuming and incessant search for the exotic permeated every discussion on Jazz. It defined whether you were valued or dismissed. And many musicians fell prey to the pressure by trying to create or incorporate some new fad into their music every few years, while others sustained a dedication to steady development with a focus on quality and creativity.
I remember reading an interview Leonard Feather did with Monk that demonstrated this insatiable hunger for the next thing before the last thing had been tasted let alone digested. As the interview went on Mr. Feather arrived at and asked the inevitable question “What about something new?” And in classic Monk style he replied “Let somebody else create something new.”
All through the 1980s, I was hell-bent on trying to create new things and demonstrate them on recordings: a new modern collective horn improvisation with my brother Branford on “Hesitation”, new types of group interactions based on quick cues and open harmony on “Knozz Moe King”, contemporary ways to play traditional harmonies while playing in superimposed meters on “April in Paris”, playing all types of complex rhythms while keeping strict harmonic forms with Marcus Roberts and Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts on “Live at Blues Alley” and new ways of interpreting the sweep of the music from the New Orleans funeral to a 6/4 groove, with modulations before each solo, and a shifting improvised groove on each improvisation on “The Majesty of the Blues” with Herlin and Reginald Veal.
In the 1990s I focused on creating a new way of developing long-form composition for small group, utilizing short themes and a variety of emotions related to rhythmic setting on “Blue Interlude”, a whole new concept of form and motivic development across three long movements on “Citi-Movement”, a new concept of long-form related to the structure of a Mass with “In This House” and even a new way of interpreting the history, form and 10-piece orchestration on “Six Syncopated Movements”. In 1997, we performed “Blood on the Fields” and in 1999 put out 13 single CDs and a 7-CD box set of music of live music from the Village Vanguard. Into the 2000s we released “All Rise” that showcased new ways to bring a symphonic orchestra and jazz band together. We presented it to enthusiastic audiences all over the world and sold about 57 CDs to family and friends.
I won’t tell you about all the new music and arrangements that come out of the orchestra now from Ted and Victor’s recent commissions, to Sherman’s “Inferno” and Chris’ “God’s Trombones”, to everything Vincent Gardner touches, and on and on throughout the orchestra.
Over the years and through all that music, Still…..“Can you play something really, really loud and energetic, like with real electricity and a lot of anger?” “Can you play without all of those horns?”
“Can you play something new, I mean new, new, new?”
This past weekend the JLCO played a concert that showcased a small sampling of Ellington’s most avant garde compositions. Just before Saturday night’s concert, Chris Christian, a very intelligent and engaged 26-year old asked me, “What is the next new thing in Jazz?” Before answering, I reflected on the fact that very few people had ever heard any of this great Ellington music we were about to play, and that even though it was about 60 years old, it was still as fresh and modern as tomorrow. I replied, “The next new thing will be that people will listen to it.”
Whenever we played at UC Berkeley, California, we would always stay at the Claremont Hotel. It is a magnificent 300 room hotel and spa set up on a hill with landscaped gardens and tennis courts. We didn’t want to know about any tennis however; it was always the basketball courts at the University or somewhere in Oakland.
The Claremont is turn of the century elegant, so you always felt uncomfortable walking through the lobby all funky after playing ball for a few hours. But since it was Berkeley, you could just keep it moving and no one even looked your way.
One afternoon, it had to be in 1992, we were rushing through the lobby late for sound check after playing (and arguing over every foul for too long) and we ran right into some type of very well dressed and festive wedding party. Trying to unobtrusively snake through the crowd, I ended up in front of Dave Brubeck. With his signature smile he says, “It’s Iola and my 50th anniversary, come in and meet everyone.”
“Not looking like this.”
“You look like yourself. How is your father?” (Musicians who play the same instrument always ask about each other).
“I’ll tell him you asked.” (My father always enjoyed hearing from the great musicians he loved, especially pianists).
The party was glowing with a deep rich feeling, the hum of an important familial event, and all kinds of musicians were swinging. Dave took me around to different friends and family and introduced me with his style of natural gracefulness and warmth. 40 minutes later, much richer in experience and really late for sound check, I thought, 50 years! When I congratulated Dave and Iola on that milestone she just smiled, but he said, “Passed in the blink of an eye, man. The blink of an eye.”
On this tour, we have played 19 concerts of various sizes and shapes; 104 different compositions by over 33 different composers. Finally, we get to play the new SFJazz Center, five concerts (Ellington, Basie, Mingus, Monk, Traditional New Orleans Music and Recent Arrangements and Compositions by our members) in four days.
It is a rare and welcome treat to sit down for such a long time, and we thank Dan Pritzker for sponsoring this residency. SFJazz were welcoming and gracious hosts. Every night was sold out with a very attentive and appreciative Bay Area audience.
As Jason Olaine and I held our own programming meeting at the SFJazz Center, we couldn’t help but be proud of Randall and the entire organization for what they have achieved. From the omnipresent Artistic Producer Lilly Schwarz (who threw a great party for us on Saturday) to Marketing Director Patricia Gessner, Development Director Barrett Shaver, Stage Manager Tony Wilson and Sound Engineer Masa Tutu, from Production Manager Greg Kuhn and Director of Production Cecilia Engelhart, to the backstage crew of Joshua Badura and Christian Vela Porque, they took complete and absolute care of us. Carlos Henriquez stayed on us to make a Saturday afternoon JALC/SFJazz softball game happen, and Jeff Umetsu made it all possible from the SFJazz side. It provided much needed camaraderie and warm fellowship. Even the great Bobby Hutcherson came out.
Friday afternoon, composer Jeremy Walker, his wife Marsha, Lilly and I were eating in the SFJazz cafe to the swinging sounds of Bobby Hutcherson, Lee Morgan and Stan Getz. The food was great and the environment soaked in swing. Because we all had struggled to celebrate this music and live in its spirit, the experience was transcendent.
Sunday afternoon most of our orchestra showed up an hour and a half early to further clarify our Mingus roadmaps (Ali had been there studying the scores for much longer). We went from room to room verifying cues with each other, trying to figure out how to do better job of playing Mingus’ music. Sherman and I laughed when we saw how many of us were early and Carlos said, “Cats have pride.”
The quantity, diversity and quality of the compositions and arrangements we played the last 4 days speak for themselves. Here’s a listing:
Thursday Night: Ellington
1)The Mooche (1928)
2) Old Man Blues (1930)
3) Concerto for Cootie (1940)
4) Shout ‘em Aunt Tillie (1930)
5) Bragging in Brass (1938)
6) Mood Indigo (1930)
7) Echoes of Harlem (1936)
8) Happy Go Lucky Local (1946)
9) Jam a Ditty (1946)
10) Ahmad (1966)
11) Lady of the Lavender Mist (1947)
12) Island Virgin (1965)
13 Paris Stairs (1961)
14) Portrait of Wellman Braud (1970)
15) Self Portrait of the Bean (1963)
16) Chinoiserie (1970)
17) Isfahan (1966) —Billy Strayhorn comp.
Friday Night: New Orleans Traditional
18) Lawd Lawd Lawd (1895)— Buddy Bolden
19) Smokehouse Blues (1926)— Charles Luke comp., Jelly Roll Morton arr.
20) Dead Man Blues (1926) — Jelly Roll
21) Snake Rag (1923)— Joe “King” Oliver
22) Petite Fleur (1952)— Sidney Bechet
23) Muskrat Ramble (1926)— Louis Armstrong/ Kid Ory
Saturday Afternoon: JLCO
24) Wingspan (1987)— Mulgrew Miller comp., arr. Chris Crenshaw (2014)
25) Insatiable Hunger from “Inferno” (2012)— Sherman Irby
26) LBJ (The American Promise) from the Presidential Suite (2014)— Ted Nash
27) Peace (1959)— Horace Silver comp., arr. David Berger (2007)
28) Down by the Bayou from “Crescent City” (2014)— Victor Goines
29) Buddy Bolden (1890s)— Buddy Bolden
Saturday Night: Basie
30) I Left My Baby (1938)
—Andy Gibson, Count Basie and Jimmy Rushing,
31) Tickle Toe (1940)— Lester Young
32) Blue and Sentimental (1938)— Count Basie
33) Jumping at the Woodside (1938)— Eddie Durham
34) I Left My Heart in San Francisco (1963)— arr. Billy Byers for Count Basie
35) Sleepwalkers Serenade (1958)— Jimmy Mundy
36) It’s Awfully Nice to be With You (1958)— Neal Hefti
37) Blues in Hoss’ Flat (1959)— Frank Foster
38) Sixteen Men Swinging—(1954) Ernie Wilkins
39) Wiggle Walk (1960)— Benny Carter
40) Goin’ to Chicago (1939)— Count Basie and Jimmie Rushing
41) Moten Swing (1932)— Bennie and Buster Moten, arr. Ernie Wilkins (1959)
42) Texas Shuffle (1938)—Edgar Battle and Herschel Evans
43) The Blue Room (1932)—arr. Eddie Durham
44) Sent for You Yesterday (1938)— Eddie Durham/Jimmy Rushing
Sunday Afternoon: Mingus
45) Dizzy Moods
46) Isabel’s Table Dance
47) Tijuana Gift Shop
48) Los Mariachis (The Street Musicians)
All compositions Charles Mingus (1957), arr. Ron Westray (2002)
49) Self Portrait in Three Colors (1959)— Mingus
50) Meditations on Integration (1964)— Mingus comp, arr. Ron Westray (2002)
51) Goodbye Porkpie Hat (1959)— Mingus comp., arr. Marsalis (2006)
52) Moanin’ (1960)—Mingus comp., arr. Cy Johnson (1993)
53) Tom Cat Blues (1924)— Jelly Roll Morton
Sunday Night: Thelonious Monk
54) We See (1954)— arr. Sherman Irby (2008)
55) Ba-lue Bolivar Ba-lues Are (1957)— arr. Walter Blanding (2008)
56) Four in One (1951)— arr. Chuck Israels
57) Ugly Beauty (1968)—arr. Marsalis (2008)
58) Bye-ya (1953)—arr. Carlos Henriquez (2008)
59) Light Blue (1958)—arr. Vincent Gardner (2008)
60) Epistrophy (1942)—arr. Chris Crenshaw (2008)
61) Blue Monk (1954)
It is now 4:15 on Monday morning. We are well into our 30 something hour drive to Iowa. Having passed through mountains, deserts and casinos, we now go down into the heartland. Somewhere in Utah we stop to get gas. Damn! It’s 16 degrees and falling. California is a sweet memory.
For about one and a half hours after the gig in San Diego on Saturday night, I stood on the sidewalk outside the backstage area with about sixty high school age students, their band directors and chaperones, signing autographs, taking pictures and fielding questions about everything from, “Should I whip my younger brother’s behind for x, y and z?” to “How many hours did you practice when you were my age?”
As the group wound down and I got into the car to leave, there were three sixteen year-old kids (they looked about that age) that asked for a picture. There was one who was very deeply engaged and he asked, “What does it take to be a really good musician?” I thought for a little while before answering, giving him the impression that I would provide some unknown and highly valuable key and said “You have to WANT to be.”
He searched my eyes for a second as if to say, “Man, are you messing with me?” Sensing his skepticism I said “No, lil’ brother. If you really want to be that good, you will figure out whatever you have to, to be what you want to be.” In the moment I tried to think of some analogy or story to help make the point more simply, but I couldn’t find a good one.
Little did I know that the next day as we pulled into the hotel in Northridge we would be greeted in the lobby by DJ Riley.
DJ is an intellectual of the first order. He is a connoisseur of culture, has been a good friend of JALC from the very beginning and is a purveyor of deep-rooted soul. He suffers from Morquio Syndrome, and has been in a wheelchair with very little limb movement since childhood. You wouldn’t know it by how much smack he talks, but I know it was a challenge for DJ to be here today. He lives in LA, and it takes a lot of planning for him to get around.
He is a broad and long-term thinker, who gives unerring and aggressively positive advice. Any opportunity to hang with him is to be cherished. So far, he has outlived his life expectancy by about 25 years.
I start out by saying to him, “Man, I wish you would have told me you were coming.” And he asks “Why? So you could convince me not to come?”
We talk about everything from the hood to Putin to education reform. He is a true blues man: “Yes, stuff is messed up out here but: Everything gon’ be alright this mornin’. Everything gon’ be alright.”
I’m reminded of a dance the LCJO played in the late 90’s out here in California. It was well attended and well under way, but still the people were just standing around being too shy to get out on the floor. Suddenly, DJ breaks out there scooting around with his electric wheelchair, doing his thing. It was the damnedest sight. Truly poetic. He actually got people out on the floor from a wheelchair.
After the gig as we all laughed and teased him about his dancing style, we asked him, “Why did you do it?” He said, “Man, I came here to dance. That’s what I wanted to do and that’s what I did. Y’all was swingin’. Herlin man! He was playing those drums.”
Yeah, DJ and I laughed thinking back on it. And I remembered that teenager from the night before who was looking for more out of my answer. I should have told him about DJ.
It’s now 4:00 pm and time for DJ to leave and for us to go to sound check. He only speaks in a whisper, so he signals for me to get close enough to hear. “When y’all come around Los Angeles, just assume I’m coming.”
That’s what I should have told the youngster.
On Sunday, we travelled a few hours from Grass Valley to Santa Rosa. This was the 5th straight gig, not necessarily difficult on paper, but when connected to 4 or 5 hour drives that become 7 due to the unforeseen, and you drive through lunch, and your room is not ready until whenever someone says, and the soundcheck is at 5, and you have 5 tunes to review, and…whew! The execution can be much rougher than the dream.
Yes, we played the Wells Fargo Center for the Arts. It’s always great to play here because the audience is enthusiastic and informed. I remember us, maybe ten years ago, playing Chico O’Farrill’s Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite here to people dancing on the balcony. And the hospitality and the meal are always first class. Once again, this venue did not disappoint.
We have been on tour for 11 days. In that time, we have played 8 concerts, 71 different compositions by 30 different composers from Traditional to Buddy Bolden, to Jelly Roll and King Oliver, to Basie and Lester Young to Ellington and Mary Lou Williams, to Ernie Wilkins and Neal Hefti, to Mingus and Coltrane, to Horace Silver, Wayne Shorter, Freddie Redd and Woody Shaw, to Rodgers and Hammerstein and Gordon Jenkins to Joe Raposo and Mulgrew Miller to Ted Nash and Victor Goines.
So, what do we have the day after our 5th gig? All Day Rehearsal. If ever there was a day to not rehearse, this was it. Monday. But cats had a surprise for me this day. Everyone was on time, ready to rehearse and be done. We prepared Mingus’ “Dizzy Moods,” “Ysabel’s Table Dance,” “Tijuana Gift Shop,” “Los Mariachis,” “Moanin,” “Goodbye Porkpie Hat,” and a couple of his involved extended compositions, “Meditations on Integration,” and “Don’t Be Afraid of the Clown.” And if that wasn’t enough, we then prepared 3 of Thad Jones’ compositions including “Little Pixie,” Coltrane’s “Alabama” and Chris Crenshaw’s arrangement of Monk’s “Epistrophy.”
Everyone was serious and urgent. In rehearsal, the different sections are all working on the music all the time. Sometimes it seems like pandemonium, but when the sections come together and focus, it’s a thing of democratic beauty. All of that talent, intelligence and soul willfully lavished on the greatest jazz compositions with a singularity of purpose—-swinging.
Monday’s rehearsal reminded me of something that happened on the March 2010 tour featuring Ted Nash’s Portrait in Seven Shades. We were scheduled to play three consecutive nights in Dallas’ magnificent Meyerson Hall. Because we were playing Ted’s composition most nights, we had only rehearsed enough for two different nights of programming. Because soundcheck (where we go over music) preceded the first night’s concert and there was no need for further checks, we hadn’t prepared for that third concert. We had planned to just repeat the first night’s program, but, the day of that final concert, cats started calling me saying, “We can’t go out there like this. Let’s go over some music and play a different show.” THEY called the rehearsal.
We handled our business and were ready for the gig. I’ll never forget that as long as I live. They are for real and that’s what we are about. I am absolutely grateful for this glorious opportunity to play with them wherever and however we are in the world.
We are all trapped in the unresolved battles of our ancestors, limited by our inability to conceive beyond the boundaries of our culture and education. From primal,‘survival of the fittest’ instincts to the refined segregations developed by the most sophisticated amongst us, we have a deep tradition of degrading ‘other’ human beings in the frenzy to control resources, to amass wealth and to confer status through arbitrary social constructs.The repetition of these constructs across generations produces conventions and ‘isms’ that we confuse with reality. Of the many ‘isms’ that prevent us from realizing our true global identity, racism is one of the most irrational and deeply rooted.
The exploitation of serf, peon and slave labor has undergirded the economic success of civilizations since the beginning of commerce. In recent centuries, however, with Africans being exported throughout the New World as slaves, the historically unfair treatment of less fortunate people, regardless of color, gradually morphed into an international custom of social and cultural degradation of those with darker skin tones and more Negroid features.
In the Louisiana of my youth, this was a well-known refrain, “If you’re white, you’re alright. If you’re brown, stick around. If you’re black, get back.” I knew this schoolyard saying to be much more than street corner foolishness, because we all lived it. But, I misperceived it to be a local problem, endemic to the American South. On a high school band trip to Mexico, however, I noticed great social and economic disparity by color. Upon moving to New York, I soon learned that a similar equation, though much more elegantly calibrated, was in place. A few years later, as a young man traveling around the world, I observed the same inequalities in Brazil, France, and England to name a few countries. Even in Japan, a good friend felt no shame in telling me that darker skin and Negroid features were not considered desirable or beautiful.
Being ignorant of world affairs at the time, I felt it was poetic irony to discover that even in South Africa, home of the mighty Zulu Nation, many Africans themselves were subject to and accepted the same irrational hatred for Negro physiology and culture. Painfully, I understood that the childish rhyme of my youth was an unacknowledged credo for much of the globe.
Though most conflict in our world is over the ownership of natural and man-made assets, the most heated and heartfelt battles are about identity. For the vanquished there is seldom pity, but there is often the solace of slogans: “This is God’s Will,” or “It’s Nature’s way, don’t worry too much about it.” The misunderstood laws of natural selection are quoted, “The strongest survive,” and “The top of the food chain eats, but everything below is food.” All types of atrocities are excused as examples of human nature. Curious, because human beings are just as naturally given to insight, to compassion and even to sacrifice for the benefit of strangers. We are often capable of rising above bad education and ignorant traditions. As individuals, we do so every day. As members of some identifiable subset, we need the guiding hand of quality leadership.
From the front lines of a most violent struggle over the identity of his nation, Mr. Rolihlahla ‘Nelson’ Mandela emerged as a powerful, charismatic force for change. Incarcerated through the sweetest years of his life, he paid a deep deep price for his authority and position of command in this bitterly contested war. Mr. Mandela would wield the divine and pragmatic healing power of reason and of deep empathy to halt the grinding gears of murder, injustice and revenge that defined the physical and psychological borders of his country.
For himself, his family, his nation and for all of us, he tore away the chain-mail shroud of imposed and accepted misconceptions about race, class, religion and gender to reveal something deeper than our genetic disposition to conquer, deeper than the egoistic satisfaction of dominating ‘inferiors’, even deeper than the nationalization of our violent and tribal past that is often sanitized and mistaken for heritage.
Through his actions, he revealed a transcending vision that embraced the potential in every other person and viewed interactions with every other group of people as the opportunity to achieve harmony through integration. He renounced competition and conquest as the modes through which we should conduct our affairs, and instead, embodied those essentials that make us most human: compassion, generosity, cooperation and love. Because he reached, we reached. But he was not alone, as we also are not alone.
From William Wilberforce to Frederick Douglass to Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela was the latest in an international roll call of soul stirring torchbearers who successfully used humanist principles to undermine the enculturation of abject peonage on the basis of pigmentation. Along with thousands of Afro-Americans who insisted on exporting the victorious legal and economic tactics of the American Civil Rights movement, and with Americans of all hues, and with people from all walks of life from all over the world, Dr. Mandela and South African freedom fighters were supported by a swelling chorus of international voices raised in affirmation. The deafening crescendo of this choir helped overthrow apartheid and, with Madiba’s ascendance to his nation’s Presidency, signaled a stunning political victory for universal humanism.
As President, his vision of unity through sacrifice mobilized South Africans to reach for the boundless potential in their collective creativity. He spoke fundamental wisdom in the language of action, and his insights made healing a possibility for a land seemingly broken beyond repair. The success of Madiba’s journey provided an inspirational narrative for a world that seems too fragmented and complicated to ever come together.
Public voices that have the power to heal are often sacrificed too soon, while preachers of divisiveness and hatred live on. In the 1960’s, the assassinations of America’s most progressive young leadership left a void that has remained unfilled. These egregious acts left our nation with the nagging feeling that to be truthful in public, to powerfully attack positions endorsed by those in control of such things, is to welcome danger and destruction.
Perhaps we can find some measure of relief that this time, one of the world’s most impactful healers was not silenced by violence, but was increasingly celebrated into his10th decade.
Nelson Mandela has passed on. As is customary, we will grieve for a measure, and then go on as we have always gone on. Some of us will stand, and some will sit after a long time of standing. Some will run, or be crushed where we stand. But, many more of us will fall back in stony silence as present and coming leaders are slandered or bribed into the shadows, or imprisoned or outright slaughtered. That’s how it goes with public leaders.
However, for his family, his country and for all of us, Dr. Mandela staked his life on the transformative power of our indivisible human value. He traversed blood soaked minefields of inbred divisiveness, self-evident entitlement and righteous hate. On death ground, where even the greatest citizens are struck down, Madiba danced for 95 years. Let us salute his life by remembering his legacy, speaking his name at the appropriate times, and reflecting his example in our daily actions.