Pete's Blog

The Civil Rights Act

Our government has designated February as Black History Month and, leaving aside the question of how many histories there ought to be, I thought I'd reflect on the contributions of African-American artists to my life and pretty much everyone's. If you ask what those contributions were just about anyone will say without hesitation: music. This is a rare example of an answer being wholly correct. African-American music was the cultural story of the 20th Century. It returned improvisation to its rightful place. It taught the world a new language of personal expressiveness. Most interesting of all - to me, anyway - is the fact that this was a communal art. You can't honor one titanic figure (like Shakespeare) and ignore the rest. Sure, Louis Armstrong started something, but it came out of Joe Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton, was refined by Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday, then taken in startling new directions by Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, John Coltrane, and others. Looking back from the end of the century this was plainly the work of an entire community, not one or two towering figures. And the social/cultural/political story that went along with it was, it says here, the most profound and moving in human history. That's because music was the tool whereby this outcast community was able to legitimize itself in the eyes of rest of society. They showed a hostile world that black people were capable of creating works of genius. And in doing so they kicked the conceptual props out from under 400 years of disenfranchisement. So what happened? Why is black music the vacuum that it is today? These things go in cycles, and there can be no definite answers, but one question is worth posing. Could it be possible, on some unconscious level, that after their civil rights were won black musicians turned their attention away from the larger world? After genius was no longer required was it abandoned as a relic of accomodation? In fact, among the list of the 20th Century's African-American musical geniuses, did any of them get their start in show business before the Voting Rights Act of 1965? The only African-American musician of the past 20 years who is routinely called a genius is Prince, and I don't think he belongs on a list with Armstrong, Ellington, Franklin, Coltrane, etc. He's a master craftsman, a superb artist. But is he a genius? Does his work make that larger statement that Armstrong's did, that Coltrane's did? I don't think so.

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