In 1976, President Gerald Ford called upon the nation to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history,” thus establishing Black History Month. Jazz music is among the greatest expressions of the Black American experience and is integral to any discussion and commemoration of Black history. Built on the efforts of generations who preserved and modulated Black culture and traditions, from its inception jazz has been a focal point of creativity and cultural expression for Black Americans.
Perhaps more than any other form or pursuit, throughout its history jazz has fostered and promoted Black ideas, creativity, and genius. This is evident in the sheer number of jazz artists that are remembered and revered not only in jazz circles, but in the broader cultural zeitgeist. Esteemed trumpet virtuoso Louis Armstrong was not only a transformative figure in jazz music, but one of the first Black artists (of any ilk) to gain a broad national and international following, even becoming a literal ambassador for the United States through the U.S. State Department’s Jazz Ambassadors program. Bandleader Duke Ellington is widely recognized not only as a great composer of jazz music, but as one of the greatest composers of American music, ranking with the likes of Aaron Copland (who was, in fact, an admirer of Ellington’s work). Following legendary – and commercially successful – blues singers like Gertrude “Ma” Rainey and Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday completely transformed the art and craft of song interpretation, and her influence continues to be felt in the work not only of today’s master jazz crooners like Cécile McLorin Salvant and José James, but also in the music of every pop act on the market. A maverick artist like Miles Davis continually reinvented himself and his music, and always being on the cutting edge, defined “cool” in the minds of millions of Americans.
As we understand more about jazz and the pantheon of gifted artists that crafted the music and its ethos, we understand more deeply the trials and triumphs of Black Americans. Tune in and join Jazz 93.5 in honoring Black history throughout the month of February and throughout the year with a joyous celebration of that beloved art form called “jazz.”