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While Americans celebrated 'Independence Day,' Black musicians fled the U.S.—to find freedom abroad

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04.07.2021

Every July 4 here in the United States, the nation celebrates America’s independence from the British. However, there were over 3 million enslaved Africans on these shores in 1852, when Frederick Douglass cried out in his pivotal speech, What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?: “I do not hesitate to declare with all my soul that the character and conduct of this nation never looked blacker to me than on this Fourth of July!”

Conditions for Black people after emancipation continued to be dire, and as decades passed with multiple massacres and omnipresent Jim Crow oppression, some of our finest Black musicians, writers, and artists decamped to try to find freedom and appreciation for their artistry elsewhere. This is not to say that they thought they could escape racism; rather, these Black creatives hoped they could perhaps breathe in an atmosphere that was less stifling. And so, they journeyed to Paris, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, and other foreign capitals, creating a fellowship of Black expats. Some would stay, while others would eventually come home again.

Today’s #BlackMusicSunday is my Fourth of July celebration of them all.

One of the most well-known jazz expats was tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon, who also garnered attention as a screen actor. Samuel G. Freedman wrote a review for The New York Times of the 1986 film, ‘Round Midnight, starring Gordon. The film brought Gordon an Oscar nomination for Best Actor, and won a Grammy for the soundtrack.

In telling the story of the fictional Dale Turner (Mr. Gordon) - a gifted and self-destructive musician admired in France as he never was in the United States - '' 'Round Midnight'' summons up one of the sad paradoxes in jazz history. For almost as long as this American music has existed, many of its foremost figures have chosen to live in exile, from Sidney Bechet in the 1920s to Johnny Griffin in the 1980s, and, for a 14-year period ending in 1976, Dexter Gordon.

The jazz expatriates acted out of a sense of imperative, of necessity - the necessity to work, the necessity to be accepted as an artist, the necessity to be treated as a human being. Leaving one's own country is never a simple decision, and for a jazz musician it meant losing contact with not only friends and family but the social, racial and musicological wellsprings of the sound. '''Round Midnight'' sets forth that conflict in its opening scene. Dale Turner tells a dying musician named Herschel (clearly based on Herschel Evans, the influential tenor saxophonist in the Count Basie band) that he is moving to France. ''You won't play no different in Paris,'' Herschel says. Dale replies, ''No cold eyes in Paris.''

For the real jazz expatriates, life in Europe proved rather less idyllic than '''Round Midnight'' suggests. Some, like Don Byas, died abroad, embittered and obscure. Others, such as Mr. Gordon and the members of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, eventually returned to the United States. Many musicians had discovered that for all that recommended Europe, life on the Continent came at the price of dislocation; some also learned that racism existed east as well as west of the Atlantic. It fell largely to Mr. Gordon, who had never acted before '''Round Midnight,'' to personify all this history.

If you have never seen the movie, I strongly suggest you watch it. This performance of “Body and Soul” is from the film.

Jose Bernardez, who posted the clip to YouTube in 2018, writes:

Gordon's sound........

© Daily Kos


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