Saturday, September 3, 2016

The Jazz of Justice

Amos 5:14-15, 21-24
25th Jazz Communion
William G. Carter

Seek good and not evil, that you may live; and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you, just as you have said. Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate; it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.

I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Four years ago, some of our Presbybop musicians were with me in Little Rock, Arkansas. The Methodists had invited us down for worship, a concert, and a seminar. When our chores were concluded, we put the drummer and the bass player on a plane, and Al and I had a little time to kill before we caught a later flight.  

So I suppose that’s how we came to drive by Central High School. The school is still there, as it was in 1957. That was the year that Governor Orval Faubus stood up against the Supreme Court of the United States, and the centerpiece of his rebellion was Central High School. The Supreme Court declared it was unconstitutional to separate black from white into different public high schools.

Faubus said, “I don’t care what they think. I’m the governor of Arkansas. I’m not going to let nine African American teenagers into Central High School.” So he ordered the state’s National Guard to prevent it. News got back to Washington, and President Eisenhower was slow to react. The law was that people of different skin colors could study together, but Faubus said, “Not in my state.”

Looking at some of the news footage of the day, it got pretty ugly. People said terrible things about those who looked different from themselves.  They were saying that for years before, just as they have whispered it ever since, but they were pretty blunt about it then. It took the president twenty days to get around to sending in troops to defend the law. Maybe he was hoping Governor Faubus would be reasonable.

But most racists have no interest in being reasonable, especially if their so-called “way of life” is being challenged, called out, or disturbed. Faubus resisted, just as Florida resisted, Mississippi resisted, and George Wallace’s Alabama refused. Racism has been the “original wound” of the United States. This is a country that mostly began as a nation of European immigrants and outcasts, some of whom got the bright idea that they could capture, sell, and enslave Africans as a cheap labor source. Even after slavery was declared illegal in 1865, many African Americans were still largely treated as if they were less than human.

The weight of all of this fell on my conscience as I looked upon Central High School in Little Rock. 

If we are going to play jazz, we have to have a talk about race, about justice and race. Jazz music begins as a musical conversation between the races. Some say it originates in New Orleans, in the gumbo of French, Spanish, Creole, Black, and White. Others hear the creativity emerging from New York or Chicago. It’s hard to say specifically, because the music’s origins are such a mixed stew.

There are certain things we know. If people are oppressed, they learn to sing the blues. If all they have is a two string guitar, they can learn to bend the notes to witness to their broken hearts. If the burdens of life become heavy, there is the human (and perhaps divine) inspiration to stand up and say, “I count for something,” and that might break out in an unexpected songs of exuberance. If those in power that life must lived by a certain script, there is the holy possibility that some might interpret that script, dance with it, even improvise upon it. And so, jazz arises. Jazz bubbles up in America about the same time that the Holy Spirit bubbles up in the Pentecostal revivals of the early 1900’s. It was seen as illegitimate by those in power, but it has never gone away.

So it is no wonder that jazz musicians have often spoken or acted prophetically when people were mistreated for the color of their skin. I offer three brief vignettes:

Billie Holiday, an African American singer, found a song written by a Jewish teacher who called Lewis Allan. Allan wrote that song, “Strange Fruit,” after seeing some ghastly photographs of African Americans being lynched in the South. There was “strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.” It became Billie Holiday’s signature song, her way of speaking up and speaking out. Columbia Records, her recording company, didn’t want her to record it, fearing that sales would drop, especially in the South. She recorded it for another label and it sold one million copies. In 1999, Time Magazine named it the best song of the century. The song told the truth – and it stood up to evil.

Dave Brubeck put together a jazz quartet that gained international acclaim. They were big. Columbia Records didn’t want to release one of their records, fearing it was too “far out.” That album, the Time Out album featuring “Take Five” became the all-time best selling jazz record. The quartet was so big that the US State Department sent them around the world on a peacemaking mission.

But when they came home, some American concert promoters blanched when they discovered Brubeck had an African American bass player. In one venue in South Carolina, the promoter demanded that Eugene Wright, the bass player, play behind a curtain so the white audience wouldn’t see him. Do you know what Brubeck did? He cancelled the concert at the last minute, and twenty-two more like it, because if “all of us aren’t going to play on stage together, none of us are going to play at all.” Imagine the shock of those concert promoters if they read the fine print and discovered the prepaid concert fee was nonrefundable.

And then, Charles Mingus, son of an African American soldier and a white-skinned woman of Chinese, English, and Swedish descent, among others. “My father was always ashamed of his skin color,” Mingus once said. Charles himself was light skinned, but growing up in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, he knew what it was like to be disrespected and disregarded because of how he looked. He dealt with racism every day of his life.

So when he heard about Governor Faubus of Arkansas rejecting the law of the land, refusing to let African American teenagers into a segregated school, he put together a song to make fun of him. That’s the song, “Fables of Faubus.” The melody sashays and simpers to ridicule the governor for his bigotry. Behind it is a lyric that Columbia Records (once again) refused to let him put on the recording. They knew it would be terrible for sales. But the year was 1959, the issue was civil rights, and within a year, Mingus would record the song on another record label with these words:

Oh, Lord, don't let 'em shoot us!  Oh, Lord, don't let 'em stab us!
Oh, Lord, don't let 'em tar and feather us!  Oh, Lord, no more swastikas!
Oh, Lord, no more Ku Klux Klan!
Name me someone who's ridiculous, Governor Faubus!
Why is he so sick and ridiculous?  He won't permit integrated schools.
Then he's a fool . . .  [lyrics (c) Charles Mingus]

As a way of standing up to racism, Mingus made fun of it.

So what does this have to do with the scripture lessons we heard today? Plenty! Psalm 2 says that God looks at the powers, the principalities, and the politicians of this world, and God laughs. It’s the only time in the entire Bible where it says God laughs. And the reason God looks upon them to laugh is because these people think they are so high and mighty, and they are missing the boat in a hundred different ways. God is “amused at their presumption” (The Message), but then God comes to set things right.

That’s the definition of justice: it is the judgment of heaven to establish fairness among all of God’s people. Justice is not voting for the person who will appoint the judge you happen to like to the Supreme Court. No, justice is the establishment and maintenance of shalom, of God’s rule of peace. Justice is the regarding of one another as neighbor, for that person who is different from you is still created in the image of God.

So along comes the prophet Amos, about eight hundred years before Jesus. It was a time when the few people who were very, very rich were getting infinitely richer, and it came at the expense of those who had no access to the basic gifts of life. Does that sound familiar? Sure it does. Amos is in our Bible to address the way that human beings keep mistreating other human beings, all to fill their pockets, feather their beds, and keep clawing onto their own sense of power.

Amos gives it to us straight: people are forgetting about God, people are forgetting about one another. They go to worship to sing their happy songs, then stomp over their neighbors on the way out. So Amos declares, “Don’t give me your happy songs.” Some go to worship God and make sizable, significant contributions, ignoring that they have made their money by refusing to pay a living wage to the very people who make them rich. “Don’t give God that dirty money,” Amos said.

And then with the voice like a trumpet, Amos says the line that everybody from Martin Luther King Jr. to Bernie Sanders has repeated, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” That’s more than poetry. That’s an invitation for how to live. “Do good and live,” says the prophet. “Hate evil, love good, establish justice” . . . for that kind of living is the way that the grace of God becomes real.

So there we stood, in front of Central High School in Little Rock. It was a quiet fall day. The bell rang, and we watched black and white students stepped out into the sunshine. I am sure it’s not a perfect situation for all of them, but because of those who have been courageous enough to speak up, for those who will step across the invisible lines that still divide us, there is still the possibility of receiving the grace of God which is truly a gift intended for everybody. And maybe we don’t have perpetuate the damage and the divisions. Justice, as someone said, "is a cleansing, surging stream."

Charles Mingus was an imperfect prophet. He was a complicated soul, he could be difficult, he didn’t make a lot of friends. Years ago, Tony Marino and I played a couple of concerts here in town with Jimmy Knepper, the great trombonist who was part of Mingus’ band for a while. He told how Mingus flew off the handle one day, punched him in the mouth, and knocked out a couple of his teeth. That’s how he treated one of his friends. He was not an easy man.

But there was this other side of him that was determined to tell the truth. He often revealed this in his song titles, titles like, “Lord, Don’t Let Them Drop That Atom Bomb on Me.” “Remember Rockefeller at Attica.” Or my favorite title, “All The Things You Could Be By Now If Sigmund Freud’s Wife Was Your Mother.” Even “Fables of Faubus” – he retitled it later to call it “Fables of Nixon.” He was yearning for something greater than the same old nonsense that people do to one another, just as we come to the communion table yearning for something holy and true. We are hungry for the bread of God’s justice.

So here’s one more story. Charles Mingus was diagnosed with ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease. The disease devastated him quickly. One day, he called his son Dorian into his sick room, looked into his face, and said, “You are no color.”

Dorian thought, “What? I have a white mother and a black father. Well, he’s not really all black himself…Irish, English, Welsh, Greek, Swedish, Chinese, Black and German.”

Charles said, “You are no color. That’s the trouble with the world, that everybody gets caught up in what they are, and where they’ve come from, and that’s not the point.”

So what is the point? That all of us are the children of God, and all of us have to work a lot harder at getting along, helping one another out, and overcoming evil with good. That’s what God’s justice is all about. Let that justice roll down on us like waters. Let's get drenched.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

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