The Meek Inherit the Earth

Sure, they look far more fierce than meek, but read on to find out how they got there.

The occasion for this post: I'm in San Francisco re-taking Doug Goodkin's "Jazz Course," a week-long workshop on how to teach jazz to young children. Doug is a master teacher of the Orff Schulwerk approach to music education. Studying with him has shaped me as an educator, a musician, and a spiritual human being, and this course is a huge part of that.

Most programs for jazz education are aimed at secondary and collegiate instruction. The Jazz Course is unique in its focus on children between the ages of 3 and 13. I took the course in 2008, and was inspired to build an entire year's curriculum around jazz. I'm back now, seven years later, with my full Orff certification, dozens of workshops, last week's trip to Ghana, and several more years' experience under my belt. Most importantly, I've got a far greater jazz vocabulary: as much as I knew about jazz (and I've been playing it since 1976) coming into the course the first time, it wasn't in my blood. Since 2008, it's become a part of who I am.

At the heart of Doug's approach is America's original sin: slavery. For four hundred years, European colonists extracted forced labor from persons of color; and unlike any other known slavery in the history of the Western world, these slaves were never given any hope of freedom for themselves, their children, or even their distant descendants. One could not earn one's way out, or expect that one's children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren would be born free. Slavery was forever for anyone with even the tiniest hint of African blood.

It wasn't enough for masters to own the labor of slaves. They also owned their identities, prohibiting them from drumming, a practice that was not just cultural, but spiritual; changing their names; forcing them to convert to Christianity; doing everything they could to erase every hint of their African origins.

And this is where Doug's story of the origins of jazz made a complete convert of me.

Robbed of their drums, slaves began playing rhythms on their bodies, creating percussive patterns like the hambone and juba. The songs these patterns accompanied were brilliantly subversive, masking ridicule of the master with clever imagery.

Take juba, a word that, though its origins are obscure, probably refers to offal, the portions of an animal that were deemed unacceptable for consumption in the master's big house, but perfectly fine to feed to the slaves, who took these leftover scraps, along with the greens cut from radishes and turnips, the crusts cut from bread, the husks of milled grain, and whatever else was thrown out by the master and transformed it into soul food: chitlins, collard greens, johnny cakes. The words of the juba song--"Juba dis and juba dat and juba killed a yeller cat and get over double trouble, juba"--refer to the belief of the white masters (the "yeller cat") that, if they were to eat these scraps, it might kill them. The song goes on to simultaneously complain about having to eat garbage and transcending the plight of the slave's situation, getting over "double trouble."

And now comes the twist: songs like "Juba," along with the games that accompanied them, were so catchy, filled as they were with syncopation, amusing lyrics, and intriguing dissonance, that they soon became part of white musical vocabulary, being fully incorporated into the minstrel shows that lampooned slave life, with white performers in black face singing the songs they'd learned from their slaves, never realizing that the words they were singing were, in fact, making fun of white attitudes.

It gets better: the music of the minstrel shows, along with the spirituals and gospel music being song in the churches slaves and been forced into, had, by the end of the nineteenth century, worked their way into American popular music. By the end of World War One, jazz, the hybrid child of African, Cuban, and European traditions, was the music American youth listened to, danced to, learned to play and sing.

It continues to get better: jazz and its cousin, the blues, continued to evolve through World War Two. In the years after that war, it gave birth to rhythm and blues, doo-wop, and rock and roll, which conquered the world. And this is how the music of the slaves mastered the masters.

Which brings me to Jay Z and Beyonce, the most powerful couple pop music has ever known. No, there's nothing meek about their music. Jay Z's work is solidly within the tradition of gansta rap, laced with references to crime, drugs, and violence. Beyonce's music, on the other hand, merges blatant sexuality with strident feminism.

To acknowledge that African-American music has conquered the world is not to say that racism has been defeated. This nation has a long way to go in healing itself from the traumas of its past. It is, however, to note the delicious irony of the forbidden spirit of Africa emerging triumphant.

This came to me seven years ago, sitting on the floor of the music room at the San Francisco School, a floor I am happy to occupy again this week. The songs and games I learned here have worked wonders in my classroom, but the most important thing I took away from that first week here was what I've written here. It's informed everything I've done at the low-income school where I teach. When I return there in September, it will be with a renewed dedication to sharing this transformative music, as well as the story of its birth, with children who desperately need to know that even the most oppressed of people can conquer the world with their music.

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