I’m currently reading An Indigenous People’s History of the US by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, and one of the main takeaways is that settler-colonialism is an ongoing process in the US, not a relic from our past. The conflict over the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), which infringes on the sovereignty of Indians in the Standing Rock reservation and threatens their water supply, demonstrates that fact dramatically. And as families all over the country sat down to commemorate a holiday celebrating a fantasy of Pilgrim-Indian collaboration, the world was stunned by the spectacle of non-violent protesters being brutally repressed with tear gas, rubber bullets, dogs, concussion grenades, batons, and water cannons in subzero temperatures. The ideology of Manifest Destiny has to go. The problem is – what to do we do about all of the groundbreaking, masterful works of art that served to justify, celebrate or shape this genocidal ideology?
I’ve loved Appalachian Spring, Aaron Copland’s landmark Pulitzer-Prize winning ballet, for years. It’s an extremely influential and popular piece, and its impact can be felt in popular film scores, classic and modern, from Elmer Bernstein’s To Kill a Mockingbird to Thomas Newman’s Little Women, and especially John Williams’ Lincoln. I was studying and analyzing Appalachian Spring this month when my growing awareness of the #NoDAPL Movement prompted me to think about the piece in a completely different way.
It has been a troubling and depressing week for many of us in the US as we reckon with the results of last Tuesday’s election. It’s made it hard for me to focus on music. And when I do think about music, I find myself taking a step back and contemplating: what exactly is music for? What does it mean to people who are engaged in a struggle simply for existence, dignity, material comfort and self-determination? I think one of the reasons jazz is so powerful because it is an art form that is by definition an act of resistance. It was created by largely self-taught descendants of enslaved Africans on Western instruments (that originated in European classical and marching band ensembles), and these people poured into their foreign tools their entire souls and intellects, often at great personal risk. They forged a unique aesthetic that was at once fiercely modern and virtuosic and thus demanded respect, but also often witty, tragic, sophomoric, romantic, angry, sensual, and vulnerable – in other words fully human. In a society that constantly denies one’s humanity, that in itself is a miraculous and heroic act of anti-colonial liberation through sound. And I think one of the reasons that we as Americans of all races treasure jazz so much is because that the music, at its core, is really a vital source of healing for an embattled and oppressed community. It’s deeply spiritual kind of medicine, created by and for one group of people (with lots of crucial contributions by people of other races) – but its healing spirit is accessible for everyone.
As Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) said, “Negro music is essentially the expression of an attitude, or a collection of attitudes, about the world, and only secondarily an attitude about the way music is made…This music cannot be completely understood (in critical terms) without some attention to the attitudes that produced it.” In that spirit, and given that the attitudes that produced jazz are more relevant than ever right now, I have compiled 5 classic jazz songs of protest and resistance, and a list of many more below that for further listening (though the list is by no means comprehensive.)
One of my favorite things about film scoring is getting to compose in so many different styles of music. I love discovering artists or genres, delving deeply into them and trying to find my voice in a new musical language. One example of this was a cue from a short film I did a few years ago, in which I did my best imitation of a classic 19th-century Italian opera aria. I asked an Italian composer friend (Vincenzo Marranca) to write the lyrics, and had the privilege of recording the excellent soprano Allie Tyler for the vocals. While I think I’ve become much better since then at sequencing realistic orchestral textures, I’m still pretty proud of this little tune. Check it out: