Conversations with A White Parent

James Baldwin: Novelist, Essayist, Poet, Activist, Witness

 Reflections on Bridging the Racial Divide in America

 “I don’t like people who like me because I’m a Negro; neither do I like people who find in the same accident grounds for contempt. I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually. I think all theories are suspect, that the finest principles may have to be modified, or may even be pulverized by the demands of life, and that one must find, therefore, one’s own moral center and move through the world hoping that this center will guide one aright. I consider that I have many responsibilities, but none greater than this: to last, as Hemingway says, and get my work done. I want to be an honest man and a good writer.  –from “Autobiographical Notes” (1952)

My response to this statement, written by the great 20th century Afro-American novelist and essayist James Baldwin, nearly 70 years ago, sparked a lively exchange between a friend, and a friend of a friend, on Facebook.  I described Baldwin’s statement thusly:

A tortured attempt to carve an individual identity while consigned to membership in an oppressed group who are defined by their race in the eyes of the white majority during an age of legal caste discrimination based on an unapologetic commitment to preserving white supremacy. It is a sign of his confusion as a black man to choose a racist macho bully like Ernest Hemingway as his role model. Baldwin’s thinking became a lot clearer during the black movement of the 1960’s, when he took a clear and courageous stand on racial oppression in America.”

To wit my thoughtful and progressive friend John Koroly, who posted the Baldwin quote with the caption “Very well put,“ replied:  “I took that as Baldwin saying that EVEN in a bigoted bully like Hemingway, some fugitive wisdom can be found.” To wit I replied:

“That’s a charitable explanation. For there were much better role models,  especially for a black writer in the middle of the last century. I knew Baldwin well, and read much of his work, especially his essays. We appointed him to a Professorship in the DuBois Department of Black Studies at U-Mass, the first such department in the world, which I co-founded. I had many conversations with the great writer who regularly enriched the English language with his complex elegant prose. I use to quote him often during speeches about the importance of accurately teaching the history of the Afro-American experience in US civilization.”

My favorite Baldwin quote was selected from a lecture on race relations titled, “A Talk With Teachers,” it was given to public school teachers in New York, over a decade after the quote posted above was written.  Baldwin said in part: “Once you lie about anybody’s history you must lie about it all. Which means if I am not what I have been told I am, you are not what you have been told you are either!” A fact all the hysterical whites promoting the anti-Critical Race Theory hokum understand too well. That’s what all the fuss is REALLY about. That’s why they are trying to make it illegal to teach the actual history of race relations in America! People who want to get an in-depth look into what James Baldwin was all about should see the documentary “I’m Not your Negro,” a film produced by the brilliant and fearless Roul Peck.

My assertions provoked a rapid response from a concerned white parent – who shall henceforth be known as “The Outraged White Parent” – passionately recounting the negative effects that teaching the unvarnished truth about the history of race relations in the US has on her teenage daughter’s self-esteem and growing hostility toward school.

It is a painful story, in which the mother mistakenly attributes these problems to the teaching of “Critical Race Theory.”  However, CRT is a sophisticated analytical method developed at Harvard and taught to advanced law school students.  Hence her child has about as much chance of ending up in a class discussing CRT as she has of getting struck by lightning, while lying in bed, twice! Ms. Outraged White Parent writes:

“Playthell George Benjamin going to guess you don’t have a child in k12 school and have no idea what is actually happening in these classrooms. It isn’t only white parents who oppose CRT and what’s going on. I see many of the parents don’t articulate well.  This allows the mockery which you demonstrate. It’s not about “the history of race relations” being taught. That’s an easy cop out way to shrug them off. 

When you start seeing your child, a kind loving giving child, who loves and cares for people and already has developed a very strong sense of the importance of social justice (didn’t hurt having an activist parent) who for years loved being at school, who is in vulnerable development years of their life, suddenly experiencing agonizing self-hatred and guilt over things that they themselves had NOTHING to do with, as if it is their obligation to carry all of the shame and guilt of long dead people- because what is being taught is being taught in such a way that it demoralizes and fucks them up in the head- and you see it’s not just ‘a’ class, but that every single teacher, whether it’s math, science, English or whatever- is suddenly in a short time basing their curriculum on this effort to establish what they call ‘equity’- the children themselves are being harmed. If you love your child and care about their mental health you’d be pissed off too.

My child went from loving school enthusiastically to being miserable and hating it in one year based on what is happening. I couldn’t blame her one bit. She was being systematically emotionally and mentally abused daily in near every class. “Why do I have to hate myself because I’m white mom?” This should tell you that they are failing at what they’re doing, that is UNLESS the goal is for white CHILDREN to hate themselves and to hate school. That summed up what she was learning. You’d be ok with that?  Since when did fucking with children’s minds become normalized and acceptable? Because that is exactly what is resulting.

They might have good intentions but what is happening is shit. Parents seeing the emotional and mental harm it’s causing is why they’re pissed.  It’s not that they are simply teaching history. It comes with a lot of baggage. Teachers even projecting the guilt they themselves feel upon their child students. Pathology. What and how it’s taught is the problem and it varies from teacher to teacher, many of them fail miserably. What I witnessed myself regarding my own child was akin to constant struggle sessions, where the only right answer was for my child to attack herself over her color. As a 14 year old how was she supposed to process it?! Never mind we are native Americans. But the color of our skin alone is all that matters. Sure looks like racism to me. If equity requires damaging and breaking one group in order to support another- that is not equity that is….shit.”

While I certainly feel for Ms. Outraged White Parent, and her innocent daughter, alas I hear a good dose of naivete in her protest, buttressed by the agony of losing white privilege. Her claim of beine “Native American,” probably falls in the same category as Senator Elizabeth Warren’s.  When I was fourteen years old the entire world was horrified by the savage crucifixion of Emmitt Till, a black teenager from Chicago, who was visiting his family in Mississippi over the summer vacation. Til and I were the same age and same weight, and I was living in racist apartheid Florida, a state with the same racial etiquette as Mississippi! Imagine the terror and stress that I, and EVERY 14-year-old black male in the South, had to endure.

Hence, the insistence by an increasing number of hysterical white parents that the real pain black Americans suffered, resulting from 250 years of chattel slavery – at which time black children were snatched from  their parents and sold at auction like live-stock by white Americans with government approval – followed by a century of legal caste discrimination based on race, backed by the full force of the US government’s police powers, should be covered up because it causes some white children emotional stress, is unreasonable, unjust, and unacceptable.

Real life is not a fairy tale where righteousness always triumphs over evil, the heroes defeat the villains, and everybody lives happily ever after. And children cannot be sheltered from life’s realities. That is the problem in this country now, too many maladjusted emotionally fragile white Americans, people who cannot accept the truth of their history because they have been fed myths and lies since childhood. And when they are forced to confront the truth, they become ashamed of their ancestors, whose greatness they never cease to celebrate. It is a schizoid mindset that requires persistent lies to perpetuate.

Yet it remains true that unarmed innocent black men and boys are routinely murdered by racist white police as I write. This is the burden that black parents must bear. While many white parents think the historical record of these crimes against humanity should be ignored because it might cause their children some discomfort. Yet the racist thinking that has produced a society in which far too many whites, intoxicated by the myth of white supremacy and the privilege it confers, enthusiastically support policies undergirded by the firm belief that Black lives don’t matter.

That’s why we have a mass movement sweeping the globe insisting that Black lives do matter!   As a black American male who is seven months from my 80th birthday and grew up under the racist caste system designed to legally promote white supremacy, I know firsthand the injuries institutionalized white racism has wreaked on Afro-Americans, for it is clearly evident in the experience of me and my entire family.

Yet we have been more successful and contributed more to American society than many whites despite their racial privilege.  Including Don tha Con Trump, who along with his father and grandfather never served in the US military or have any visible record of performing any public service ever!   And despite growing up under the evil apartheid system in Florida, I have yet to meet the man who holds himself in higher regard than me.  I am inclined to believe that such a man is yet to be born…and his mother is dead!  This attitude has inspired admiration and provoked animosity in my white countrymen, depending upon their views on race.  The best and brightest whites I have met, in the US and abroad, who are knowledgeable about the system of institutionalized white supremacy in the US, think me something of a miracle.

The system of laws I grew up under in the American South served as the blueprint for the legal system of NAZI Germany. This is detailed in “Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the making of Nazi Race Law, by Professor James Q Whitman. For those who are not familiar with Academia, let me point out that Professor Whitman’s book is published by the Princeton University Press.  Hence this is a refereed peer reviewed text, meaning it was critically reviewed by leading scholars in the field before publication.  The central questions posed were: “Is this author telling us something new that expands our knowledge on the subject, and does the evidence presented by the author justify his conclusions.  Obviously, after rigorous review, the book met both tests.

This cannot be said of the history textbooks in virtually all of our public schools. For textbook publishing is a commercial enterprise and they are composed to garner the most sales in a multi-million-dollar textbook market, which is dominated by school boards that must cater to ignorant and racists white parents.  A constituency whose paramount interest is in promoting white supremist mythology, rather than historical scholarship.  And since the ethics of corporate America to often testifies to the veracity of Dr. Karl Marx’s observation that “a capitalist will sell the hangman the rope to hang him with if he thinks he can make a profit,” corporations should not be the arbiters of what public school history texts say.

At present the largest market in the US is Texas, a state that has banned hundreds of books – some by prominent authors – because of the way they discuss racial or gender issues. Hence most history and social studies texts are increasingly shaped by the demands of the Texas market, a state whose government has made teaching the murderous history of the racist Ku Klux Klan illegal in their public schools!  Hence, I cannot accept the view that white children are routinely subjected to an anti-white version of history designed to make them feel guilty. Although, I must confess that just telling the simple truth about race relations in America is a painful task for most whites.  For as Frederick Douglass, arguably the most brilliant public intellectual in 19th century, said in his famous 4th of July speech, it is a shameful tale that “would disgrace a nation of savages!”  Hence my reply to the Outraged White Parent was:

My, My, how victimized you people feel about the fact that your children are finally learning the truth about the history of race relations in America, which has nothing to do with CRITICAL RACE THEORY!   However, compared to the racist bullshit – see “On Bullshit” by Princeton philosopher Dr. Harry G. Franks – I and my children had to endure in America’s schools, what you are describing is a walk in the park. Black parents have had, and still have in most schools, to deal with their children being assaulted with white supremacist propaganda that amounts to PSYCHOLOGICAL WARFARE for generations! What, with schools teaching that our ancestors were docile sambos that never resisted slavery, loved their white masters and contributed NOTHING to the making of America, Black parents have had a far more difficult task dealing with these Goddammed LIES that ignore the ACTUAL historical record, which tells a radically different story.

Yet we found a way to deal with it and produced generations of outstanding citizens who excelled in every worthwhile endeavor, despite institutionalized white supremacy hobbling our life’s chances in America. But we were fighting against LIES! You must now confront the TRUTH! And it is an ugly shameful story by ANY measure.   White parents now must figure out how to raise their children to deal with this TRUTH! And it can be done, if you confront the facts with honesty and imagination. Tell them that they are NOT PERSONALLY RESPONSIBLE FOR WHAT THEIR ANCESTORS DID, BUT THE AMERICAN GOVERNMENT WAS COMPLICIT IN ALL OF THIS AND THEREFORE AMERICAN SOCIETY BEARS RESPONSIBILITY FOR IT. I know smart white parents who are handling this challenge just FINE!!!! But continuing the racist myths – white Supremacist prattle that teach our children that they are inferior to whites because they are black – masquerading as American history, is NOT THE ANSWER!!!!!!!

Furthermore, I know whereof I speak. When I was a professor in the DuBois Department, I taught MANY white students. In my introductory lecture I made it clear that “Nobody in this classroom is responsible for ANY of the historical incidents we will discuss in this course. For we can neither justifiably take blame nor credit for the deeds of our ancestors. The problem with the official version of American history is that whites want to praise the virtues of their ancestors and bury their myriad sins. However, EVERYBODY will be judged by their own actions henceforth.”

My lectures, and the scholarly readings the students studied, pulled no punches, examining the historical evidence with neither prejudice nor favor. We examined the history of African people from Ancient Egypt to the assault on Africa by Slave traders and European colonialist, and then surveyed the history of these African people transplanted in the Black Atlantic Diaspora – North America, the Caribbean isles, and South America – under the Spanish, Portuguese, French and English Settler Colonists in what became the US.

This also necessitated examining the experience of the “FIRST NATIONS” – Native American “Indians” – who were the victims of genocide, slavery, and the theft of their lands and resources!  Acts that were central to the birth of the United States.  Viewed from this perspective, African Slavery is not “America’s Original Sin”; nor the worst…as horrible as it was.

I taught a few thousand white students this story, and many said in my “Student Evaluations” that it was one of the most beneficial courses they had taken! So, it can be done in such a manner that white students BENEFIT from this knowledge. By liberating them from the pathology of white supremacy, a mental malady that deforms their psychological development.  Understanding the true racial history of this country, praising heroes and unmasking charlatans. empowers them to reject this tradition of racism that has inspired so many crimes against humanity and enables them to seek a better way of relating to people of color on the basis of real, rather than rhetorical, equality. Where the teachers come up short, alas it is the parent’s duty to set the matter straight with their children, utilizing the approach I have outlined here.

My parents and millions of other black parents fought institutionalized racism that brazenly promoted a system of white supremacy that were codified in the laws of the land…hence they faced much greater odds.  For we were not only taught that we were inferior to whites, but we were also TREATED as such in law and social custom! Hence to me, you are like the woman crying out in hunger with a Virginia ham under both arms. Compared to what black parents have to deal with at this very moment in America…your task is EASY WORK!!!

White parents need to stop whining and lying to their kids, while trying to cast them as victims. Just step up, put on your grown folks’ drawers, and deal with the problems caused by America’s racist legacy, as generations of black parents have done so heroically! Talk to your children frankly about the horrible history of white supremacy in our country, but also tell them, as the Reverend Al Sharpton has recently pointed out, “there were also white freedom fighters!”

Teach them that if it were not for a brave minority of righteous white allies, neither the abolition of slavery in the 19th century, nor the eradication of “segregation” – a legal racial caste system enforced by legal and extra-legal violence that confined black Americans to second class citizenship – would have been possible! Alas, one thing is certain, continuing to lie about our nation’s racist history will not promote “domestic tranquility,” a goal clearly stated in the Preamble of the US Constitution. That’s my take on the matter of teaching the real story of racial oppression in “the land of the free.”


SOUTHLAKE TEXAS: Witnessing the Hysteria of White Parents Who Oppose Teaching the Truth About Race in USA

By: Playthell G. Benjamin

Harlem, New York

November 20, 2021


Good Night Sweet Prince

A Remembrance Of Teddy Pendergast

The Sweetest Soul Singer Ever!

There is no telling how many people walking the earth today owe their existence to Teddy Pendergast, including my own twins Makeda and Samori. Annette John-Hall, a black female columnist with the Philadelphia Inquirer, reveals in a January 24 column “Plenty of women will tell you their children were conceived to Teddy’s boudoir ballads – ‘Close The Door…Love TKO.’” Then Miss John-Hall goes on to tell give us a glimpse of the effect Teddy’s singing had on the ladies who enthusiastically listened to him: “But truthfully, Teddy could have sung the phone book and sold millions of records, that’s the kind raw, full-throttle sex appeal he had…such was the intimate power of his music.”  t

This does much to explain the magic moments I enjoyed with the ladies listening to Teddy’s records.  For my money Teddy was the greatest singer of love songs that the gods ever blew the breath of life in.  Just as Zora Neale Hurston, that great student and interpreter of Afro-American culture, once observed that a black preacher “must be a poet in order to survive in a Negro pulpit;” a black singer of love songs must sound like a poet who’s really in love to woo and win a black audience.  And Black women of a certain vintage, wise dusky earth mothers that they are, have very demanding standards; a dude’s got to know how to beg with style alas.  Although great black singers of love songs are legion, nobody ever did it better than Teddy.

As a fellow Philadelphia I had many opportunities to view Teddy from his earliest performances; long before he captured the attention of the world with his thrilling baritone voice – an extension of the style introduced by the lead singer of the Dells, in the same way that Michael Jordon was an extension of the art of Julius “Dr. J” Irving on the b-ball court.  From jump street Teddy’s raspy rough edge sound radiated a sensuality that was more than mere animal desire. Although the chemical reactions and electric sparks that his crooning ignites between males and females often fills the listener full of fluid and make them wanna do it, creating an urge to merge not unlike the heat sizzling between the beast in the fields – Teddy’s sound is the epitome of true romance.  It is grown folks music; reaching deep down to a level of emotional gratification that can be only achieved in true romance between mature adults….or an intense religious experience.

I can still remember the day I took a lady of mine to see Teddy at the world famous Apollo theater when he was the lead singer with Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes.  It was right after they had a big hit, and the theater was packed.  This was during that halcyon age in Afro-American culture before the removal of music programs that provided the opportunity for black youths to participate in the joyous art of choral singing, back before the hard edge truth telling of hip hop replaced the transcendent sermons of the church for increasing numbers of alienated youths, who had lost both faith and hope in the nihilistic milieu of the post industrial city, alienating them from the source of all great African America music: the black church.  But Teddy was very much a child of the church, and it’s deep spiritual power informed  the way Teddy sang his  songs.

The memories that stands out most  from that Apollo concert was first of all the magical effect his performance had on the women in the audience.  My date was a very reserved you southern lady who had impeccable manners and  two Doctorate degrees.  But as Teddy began to croon his tune in that special way in which he seemed to be singing to every woman in the room personally, Doctor Doctor completely lost her cool right along with her unlettered sistas from round the way!

I was astonished at Teddy’s gift for achieving a sense of intimacy in a crowded room, it was the closest thing to real magic I have ever seen in a performance – and I have been around the world and spoke to everybody twice, spending a thousand and one nights in the theaters and music halls.   I knew two things at that moment: Teddy was to big to remain merely the featured singer with Harold Melvin And The Blue Notes for long.


See Teddy Live!


Playthell G. Benjamin

Harlem, New York

February 4, 2010

The Amazing Carlos del Pino Plays Paganini

The Maestro Contemplates the Score

 A Classically Cuban Concert for the Ages

It is no exaggeration to say that every time the virtuoso Bassist Carlos del Pino and his quartet performs in concert it is a history making event, as was the recent concert held at the elegant Christ and St. Stephens Church on the Upper West side, sponsored by the Cuban Cultural Center of New York, in collaboration with the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs and the New York State Council of the Arts.

The eclectic programs performed by the quartet are made possible by the extraordinary musicians in the band, whose virtuosity span three major musical genres encompassing the most complex in the western tradition – European Classical, Classic Jazz and the Afro-Cuban Son Montuno.  On this occasion the quartet played a program of mostly Cuban composers, hence the title “Classically Cuban.”

However, the unequalled performance by Carlos del Pino of Niccolo Paganini’s compositions stole the show. Carlos provides us a glimpse of the twin ambitions that fuel his artistry. First, like all greats in any field, he is constantly trying to get better.  “Through time,” says Carlos, “man has always taken on goals and challenges to improve himself.  Music has been no exception.” And secondly, he seeks to expand the range of the double bass violin.  He tells us: “Due to its large size, the doubled bass has posed a challenge for musicians who wish to interpret works composed for other instruments.”

Since he is on a mission to prove the contra-bass is capable of performing compositions conceived for the lead violin, Carlos chooses some of the most difficult literature to perform. For instance, the 24th Caprice is considered by violinists to be one of the most difficult pieces to perform ever written for solo violin. The performer must successfully negotiate such obstacles as Parallel octaves and rapid shifting covering several intervals. Plus, extremely fast scales and arpeggios including minor scales in thirds and tenths, left hand Pizzicato, high positions, and quick string crossings.  These compositions, written and performed by Paganini, are so difficult that his contemporaries believed his mother – like Dr. Faust – made a deal with the devil bartering her son’s soul in exchange for Paganini’s musical gifts.  Yet, Carlos never missed a note!

As if he intends to really stick it to the naysayers, Carlos performs these compositions pizzicato rather than bowing.  He explained the challenge he has undertaken in the present concert as “the interpretation of three Caprices by Paganini written specifically for the violin, played in pizzicato something never before accomplished with the double bass, which entails a double challenge – the technical and the musical…My interpretation will remain for future generations.”

For the musically tutored observer it was breathtaking to watch, the performance was flawless, Carlos performed this historic feat with the apparent effortlessness of the true virtuoso that can make the exceedingly difficult look easy. To observe how difficult this work is to play for a violinist with a bow, see the video at the end of this essay.  It will give the reader some idea of the magnitude of Carlos’ extraordinary achievement.

The marvelous versatility of his quartet enables Carlos to explore his ideas with a multi-lingual musical approach. Whereas the great majority of musicians spend a lifetime trying to master one musical idiom, Carlos and his collaborators roam across genres at will, smashing musical barriers and ignoring the conventional wisdom regarding the limits musical performance.

This is no picayune feat because the demands that Classical European music and classical Jazz makes upon the instrumentalists are very different due to the philosophy, organization and performance technique required by the two musical idioms.  For instance, European Classical music evolved in a rigidly hierarchical society where the written text reigns supreme. Hence every note is dictated by the composer’s score, and if they are members of an orchestra the instrumentalist is also subjected to the tyranny of the Conductor, who interprets the score with his baton.

Classical Jazz is a creation of Afro-Americans in the 20th century; it is the product of what Professor Bernard Bell calls “a residually oral culture where written text competes with the spoken word,” in his seminal study “The Afro-American Novel and its Tradition.” Jazz also embodies the continuous Afro-American quest for freedom, and as the quintessentially American Art Jazz is democratic, values individually liberty and promotes innovation.  It also swings to the poly-rhythms of a machine age society.

Hence, in Jazz the written score serves to set the theme and parameters of the musical conversation not dictate what the instrumentalist plays. And whereas performance styles in European music is dictated by rigid convention, the Jazz musician has been free to create new instrumental techniques to better express their musical innovations.  This is apparent in the way the double bass is played in the two idioms.

In European music it is the bottom voice of the violin section and played with a bow, in Jazz it becomes a member of the rhythm section and is played pizzicato – a technique which Afro-American musicians raised to a high art. In Jazz bowing is ornamental, and in European concert music the pizzicato is an ornament.  Hence in European Music virtuosity on the bass is achieved by bowing; the great innovation of Carlos del Pino is his performance of European masterworks pizzicato.

Chimi Nakai: Vituoso Pianist

The musicianship of the quartet, like the music they make, is beyond Category.  Pianist Chimi Nakai plays with the same technical brilliance and emotional power regardless of the idiom. And she is equally superb as soloist or accompanist to Carlos. Although a native of Osaka Japan Chemi holds a Masters Degree in Jazz performance from The Aaron Copeland School of Music at Queen’s College in New York, and has won distinction as a recording artist with her own band.

David Eure teaches Jazz violin at the New England Conservatory of Music, and is a master of the instrument whose passionate and innovative playing appears to push it to the limits of its capability.  Renowned for its voice like qualities, the violin is capable of expressing a wide rage of emotions through its tonal colors and lyrical phrasings.  David makes the most of them as his violin sings, cries and soars over the rhythm section.  He is an artist of rare gifts a virtuoso of the highest rank, as you can witness in the videos below.

David Eure: Violin Virtuosso

Percussionist Thomas Estrada, a native of Santiago de Cuba, who like Carlos was trained at the distinguished Instituto Superior de Arte is a marvel who routinely does things with traditional Cuban percussion instruments that I would not have believed possible if I had not witnessed it.  I have been playing these instruments for 50 years, saw all the greats – Francisco “Mongo” Santamaria, Carlos “Potato” Valdez, Armando Paraza, Ta Ta  Guiness, Francisco Aquabella, et al – but Estrada remains unique.  When I closed my eyes, it sounded like three people playing.

Thomas Estrda: Master Percussionist

Edgar Sanfeliz Botta was the featured vocalist with the fabulous four.  He is the kind of electrifying singer on whom Latin musicians confer the honorific “El Gran Sonoro,” and like the rest of the band it was clear that he can sing in a variety of styles.  He has performed with a number of groups in Cuba, and holds an honors degree in vocal performance from Florida International University.  In January 2012 he had the honor of singing for Pope Benedict XVI.

By any measure this was an all-star cast, fully up to the challenge of pathbreaking performance.  They belong to that rare class of gifted versatile musicians such as Wynton Marsalis, Herbie Hancock, Hubert Laws, and Carlos’ Afro-Cuban countrymen Chucho Valdez, Arturo Sandoval and Piquito d’Rivera who speak various musical languages without accent.   It was an affair to remember.


Text and Photographs by:

Playthell G, Benjamin

Harlem, New York


Jazz Around The World!

The First Family of Jazz: Ellis Marsalis and his Boys

A Classic Afro-American Art Wins Hearts Everywhere!

As the learned and insightful music critic Henry Pleasants tells us in his seminal book on modern music “Serious Music and All That Jazz,” the Afro-American musicians who created jazz were the only musicians to introduce a new musical terminology since the Italians did it back during the Renaissance.  The point Mr. Pleasants was making is that Jazzmen created an art music using instruments of European origin, as well as their system of melody and harmony, yet invented something really different from anything Europeans had ever heard…or imagined.

Pleasants was uniquely positioned to see this because of his extensive training in the classical music of Europe, and he was writing about the modern music scene in Europe for the New York Times.  And he has much to say about the way Jazz influenced modern European composers.  However, apart from whatever influence Jazz may have had on European composers, the way in which jazz captured the imagination of musicians and won the allegiance of music lovers around the world, is the real story.

Whether we are talking about writers, businessmen, diplomats, Presidents, artists or kings, Jazz has found passionate fans. It is safe to say Jazz musicians do wondrous things that fascinate both fools and kings. The British critic Stanley Dance devoted his career to writing about Jazz. Ahmet Ertegun – who founded Atlantic Records and first recorded Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin – was the son of a Turkish Ambassador to the US, who was such an avid Jazz fan he once expelled a white Southern US Senator from his diplomatic residence because he insulted a black jazz musician who was his guest!

Ahmet expressed his life long love affair with this music by contributing the “Hall Of Fame Room,” a multi-million interactive display of the great virtuosos of the tradition.  It is located in Jazz at Lincoln Center at 60th and Broadway, in the heart of Manhattan, and the viewer can just push the panel with portraits of their favorite artist and a video of them in performance will appear, accompanied by a biographical essay.

I interviewed Ahmet at the grand opening of the 150 million dollar edifice to Jazz, and it can be read in a forth coming book “Jazz At Lincoln Center: Magic moments In The House Of Swing,” with photographs by Frank Stewart and text by this writer.  In a nutshell he said: “Jazz is the greatest music in the world.  It is America’s contribution to the great artistic heritage of mankind.  And it has influence more musicians than any other music.”

Then there is the legendary jazz crazy king of Thailand, Bhumibol Adulyadej – “”Strength of the Land, Incomparable Power” – and his Queen Sirikit.  At a time when Jazz virtuosos were ignored by the princes and powers who fashion cultural policy in the US, and the thought of playing in the White house was unimaginable, Jazz musicians were hanging out in the Palace jamming with King Bhumibol, who was a devoted  jazz clarinetist.

The King is very proud of the fact that he played with clarinetist Benny Goodman and Saxophone master Wayne Shorter. Although the King is believed to have descended from the gods, he is democratic in political style and philosophy. Some observers attribute these democratic instincts to his deep involvement with the art of Jazz.

In Eastern Europe Jazz music became a metaphor for freedom and democracy, especially in Czechoslovakia where a whole school of philosophy based on the democratic principle of jazz developed as a counter-statement to communist totalitarian rule.  They were known as “The Velvet Philosophers,” and they were part of an organization know as “The Jazz Section.

In 1995, I participated in a seminar with one of those philosophers at a conference sponsored by the European Association of American Studies, chaired by Dr. Justine Talley, and heard him tell how they used the values and ethics of jazz to teach lessons about the advantages of democracy and the virtues of individual liberty. The authorities felt so threatened by it they arrested and imprisoned the philosophers in the Jazz Section.

It is not surprising that people who crave freedom and democracy would be attracted to Jazz. After all, as the quintessential American art, Jazz embodies the most cherished ideals of American civilization. Jazz is democratic, values individual freedom, promotes invention, and grooves to the complex rhythms of a modern urban society. As a genre of western art music Jazz distinguishes itself by overthrowing the tyranny of the composer and the iron discipline of the conductor’s baton.

The emphasis on freedom and democracy in Jazz is both a reflection of the American creed, and the persistent struggle for freedom waged by African Americans against white oppression.  This struggle is the major theme of African American history.  And since, as the Afro-American cultural theorist and brilliant Jazz Critic Albert Murray notes: An Art style is the refinement and elaboration of a lifestyle; it is in the nature of things that the highest creative achievement of Afro-American culture is an art that celebrates freedom and practices democracy.

Thus the jazz man is always looking to free himself from the restraints of convention and explore new territories. But, as it turns out, this search for freedom is a universal value; which is why Jazz appeals to serious musicians and music lovers across class, color, nationality and geography. Along with freedom and improvisation jazz also conveys a unique blues sensibility that speaks to something so profoundly human that it touches the hearts of people everywhere.

This explains the appeal of Jazz to South African musicians under apartheid as well as French musicians in the aftermath of World War I, a period when one write recalls that had they been left to listen to European Classical music they would all have committed suicide.  It was the heroic optimism in the spirit of Jazz that spoke to disillusioned European intellectuals and artists, who were deeply depressed after witnessing their civilization degenerate into barbarism and mass murder.

Another reason for the universal appeal of Jazz early on in the twentieth century is that it is a synthesis of several musical idioms and offers the opportunity for musicians to add their flavor to the performance of the music.  Hence if you listen to Jazz harpist Edmar Casteneda on the album “Cuarto de Colores” you will hear a Columbian approach to Jazz composition and performance.

The harp he plays is of Columbian origin and is very different from the European harp that one hears in symphony orchestras. When I first head him perform at Dizzy’s, a beautiful night club in Jazz at Lincoln Center especially engineered for the acoustic requirements of Jazz, I kept looking for the bass player.

Eventually I discovered that he was playing the bass with his left hand, along with chords and on solos.  The sound was amplified so that it sounded like an acoustic bass fiddle, and the complexity of the rhythms he was playing sounded as if he were playing the bass line with both hands.  The rhythms ran the gamut from swing to Samba, and his wife sang in voices that came deep from her Afro-Indio culture.  They were no doubt playing Jazz, but it had a decidedly Columbian flavor.

Japanese Virtuoso Chimi Nakai

The nation that is producing the most impressive crop of young Jazz virtuosi outside of the United States is Japan.  It seems that every time I look up I see another gifted young Japanese jazz artist.  And they are distinguished by the fact that so many of these virtuoso instrumentalists are women, especially key board players.  One of the most impressive of these is Chimi Nakai, a consummate master of the acoustic piano.   Ms. Nakai is one of the new jazz virtuosi who are multi-lingual in musical terms.  She is equally at home in Jazz, European classical and Afro-Cuban music.

Cuban Virtuoso Carlos Del Pino

I have seen her perform on several occasions with the great Afro-Cuban conta-bassist Carlos Del Pino.  Carlos is a top shelf jazz bassist – Afro-American virtuosos Ray Brown and Paul Chambers were his inspiration and tutors via recordings – but he is equally brilliant playing the classical European repertoire for the double bass violin, and he is master of his native Afro-Cuban Son Montuno and other forms.

Wynton Marsalis: Trumpet Virtuoso

Artistic Director Of The World Famous JALC Orchestra

However the model for the multi-lingual virtuoso instrumentalist Jazz star is Wynton Marsalis, arguably the greatest trumpet player in the world.  That is certainly the impression I’ve gotten from interviewing other great trumpet trumpet players, classical and jazz artists – professors who teach advanced courses on the instrument, and vintage Jazz masters on all instruments.

Because Wynton has won nine Grammys – four for European classical music and five for Jazz – plus a much coveted Pulitzer Prize for composition, musicians and music lovers all over the world are interested in his work. Hence great performances by Wynton are all over internet on You Tube, where musicians and fans can see him perform on video at will!

As a result of this vast exposure, sharp intellect, knowledge of Jazz tradition – he was born and raised in New Orleans, the birthplace of Jazz – easy eloquence, and genuine warmth and southern charm, he is the most effective ambassador Jazz has ever known.  And the Marsalis family is the First Family of Jazz.  Their contribution to keeping the Jazz tradition alive is so important that on January 11, 2011 the National Endowment for the Arts bestowed the prestigious “Jazz Masters Award on the entire family.

Aside from his four sons, Ellis Marsalis, the patriach of the clan, has trained other world famous Jazz musicians like the pianist / singer Harry Connick Jr. and the great trumpeter and prolific composer of movie scores, Terrance Blanchard.   These New Orleans bred Jazz musicians are constantly travelling the world and exposing audiences to the classical tradition of American Jazz, the gift of African Americans to world culture. And as the representative anecdote for American civilization, “America as she is swung” in the words of Albert Murray, Jazz is also the great American contribution to the classic arts.


 By: Playthell Benjamin

Harlem, New York


Photos of: Ellis and his boys, and portraiat of Wynton, by Frank Stewart.

Photos of Chemi and Carlos by: Playthell G. Benjamin.



The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra Swings Berkeley

Maestro Marsalis conducts the Boys in the Band

 An Evening of Gilded Memories and Divine Music

Standing in front of Zellerbach Hall waiting for the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra to hit, my mind was filled with random thoughts; all provoked by my being in that particular place on that particular occasion.  The University of California at Berkley has a unique niche in my memory bank.  I first became aware of this campus in the 1960’s when it had a dual identity both as a center for radical ideas and activism, and the University with the most Nobel Laurates on its faculty. Plus it was located in a part of America that looked as if it had emerged from a fairy tale to my East Coast eyes.  The aura of “radical chic” was enhanced by the fact that Berkeley was located just across the Bay from San Francisco, then the home of the Hippy Counter-Culture which I had observed first hand upon my maiden voyage to the City, where I found myself living at the intersection of Haight and Ashbury.

I had been raised in the racially segregated black community in St. Augustine Florida, where I was socialized on the values of the “Talented Tenth;” the enlightened striving class who set high standards for the Afro-American community and guided us away from “the worst in our own and other races” as Dr. DuBois had called upon them to do in 1903.   And I made my maiden voyage to San Francisco directly from the comparatively staid and culturally conservative environment of Philadelphia; hence I was fairly shocked at the way white folks were carrying on in “the Haight.”  The few black folks I encountered were Jimi Hendrix acolytes, and at that time I thought Hendrix had lost his cotton pickin mind.

I was a disciplined member of the leadership of the Revolutionary Action Movement – which gave birth to the Black Panther Party of Oakland, a matter I have written about extensively elsewhere – and as a doctrinaire Maoist I viewed the entire counter-cultural movement as a mass exercise in bourgeois self-indulgence that only well off white folks could afford to fool with.  I was a soldier in the black struggle, a committed warrior intellectual who had been trained in the use of arms by the US military.

My first visit to the University of California Berkley was occasioned by an invitation to present a speech on the importance of Black Studies in the struggle to eradicate white racist ideology and behavior from American life.  Given the nature of the times – with massive urban riots in which it seemed that the torching of American cities had become common fare and the country was on the verge of race war – this subject matter was considered an urgent matter and Universities were trying to define a useful role they could play in resolving the racial crisis. Normally presenting this argument was easy work; I had already presented it with great success at universities and school boards across the country, including the Claremont Colleges and four of the campuses of the University of California.

But to my mind Berkeley was different.  I was all too aware that this was the incubator of the “Free Speech Movement,” an Ivory tower where great minds communed about perplexing problems in the social and physical world.  When I walked through the imposing gates on Telegraph Ave and set foot on the campus I felt an intimidation that I had never felt before.  Nobody really knew me there but I got a big audience because I was on the program with Afro-American writer Alex Haley, whose collaboration on “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” had made him the most famous author in America, and read around the world.

At the time Haley was a Writer-in-Residence at the university and was working on a new book that he called “Before the Anger,” but was later published as “Roots,” an epic saga about African slavery in America that became one of the bestselling books in the history of publishing and was made into a riveting blockbuster television saga that made ratings history.As a devotee of Brother Malcolm, whom I knew well, and a big fan of the book, I was delighted to meet Mr. Haley, whom I thought had done America a spiritual benefaction by writing the “Autobiography.”

He was a warm and unpretentious southern brother that reminded me of church deacons that I had known in Florida.  I expressed my gratitude for his labors which he accepted with grace. As I waited to go on after his remarks, I pondered how to approach this audience, who routinely heard great minds hold forth in this space.  It was as if I suddenly had a revelation; I heard an inner voice say “What would John the Prophet Do?”

It was not the biblical prophet that I had in mind but the modern day sound sorcerer John Coltrane, whose music we revolutionaries were convinced was the sound track of the black Revolution.  And when he showed up at a speech of mine in North Philly at a rally organized by radical activist/Jazz Pianist John Churchville, a leader in the Northern Student Movement and we spent the rest of the evening rapping, I was convinced that we were right….Trane told me so.  “I say it all with my horn young brother,” he replied when I invited him to speak to a Black history class I was teaching in the basement of Mt. Zion Church, pastored by the Reverend Doctor Leon Sullivan, “The Lion of Zion!”

After pondering the question for a moment, I decided that if Trane was in my place he would come out and wail, knowing there was no profounder musical truth than that which he was preaching….so that’s what I did.   The audience bought what I was selling – being a skilled orator trained by my aunt Rosa, an exacting tutor, made the task a lot lighter – and they rewarded me with a standing ovation! All of these memories swirled around in my head as I waited for the concert to start in Zellerbach Hall.

Although I am a former history professor who left the profession for other endeavors, I have never lost my love for the study of history and how it can illuminate our understanding of present realities.  It is especially gratifying when you can reflect on events that you participated in that have now become important historical milestones and the people now famous whom you knew back when.

I found special satisfaction in how Black Studies have become a standard part of university curriculums across this nation. This was not always true; I know because I was a co-founder of the first free standing, degree granting, Black Studies Department in the world at UMass Amherst in 1969, just a couple of years after I spoke on this campus, and we were the first to incorporate Jazz Studies taught by seminal artists into the curriculum when we awarded full professorships to instrumentalists/Composers/bandleaders Max Roach and Archie Shepp.

I also have a deep pride in what the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra has made of itself since I was present at its inception and produced the most extensive media report on the opening of Jazz at Lincoln Center, presented on WBAI FM in New York. I have also worked on a book project with the world famous photographer Frank Stewart, who is the official photographer for the JALC Orchestra.  Titled “Magic Moments in the House of Swing,” it documents some of the great performances in this Mecca of Jazz in words and pictures.  Some of my essays were written as program notes for important concerts at Rose Hall, and they were illustrated with Frank’s photos.  As I write the manuscript is finished but unpublished.

The slice of history that I was most conscious of that evening was the claims that had been made by Dr. Ortiz Walton – bassist extraordinaire, insightful music critic and Ph.D. in sociology – who had been a doctoral student when Duke Ellington and his Orchestra performed on campus.   At the concert Walton – who would later write the great book “Music: Black, White and Blue” – was appalled by the absence of black students. In order to provide an explanation for what was obvious evidence of a cultural disconnect Walton designed a questionnaire and administered it to the Black students at Berkeley, and what at first looked like a cultural disconnect proved to be a cultural disaster!

The dominant answer of the black students was that they played past the concert because Duke Ellington’s band “didn’t play Black Music.”  Walton was astonished!  Duke Ellington, the greatest composer in the Afro-American musical tradition, had become a stranger to his progeny; a prophet without honor in his own land.  This experience led Walton to write two important books about music and the Afro-American tradition.  A musically ambidextrous virtuoso on the double bass violin, Walton was a principal bassist with the Cairo Symphony and also played with John Coltrane.  Like Wynton, he is a master of both musical Idioms.

Hence one of the things I paid close attention to was the number of black students, or young black people from whatever walk of life, who attended the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra concert.  Although half a century has passed since Duke’s band was here, and the world has turned upside down, black student disinterest in serious Afro-American art music has evidently remained pretty much the same. Here the old adage “the more things change the more they stay the same” applies.  The scant black presence dribbles off to near nothing when it comes to young people, who were outnumbered by their elders despite, and among those that I talked to only one young couple were not musicians; the rest were all aspiring musicians.

However the diversity of the crowd and the young musicians who sought Wynton’s advice is eloquent testimony to the widespread influence of the Afro-American art of Jazz; which in its love of personal freedom and promotion of invention makes it the quintessentially American art.   And that art has never been on finer display than it was at Zellenbach auditorium on that enchanted evening.  The band, an aggregation of virtuosi on all instruments, was in fine form.  The ensemble play was perfectly balanced, with each musician contributing his unique voice to a musical tapestry composed of many intriguing colors.  The program moved effortlessly as the music went from the classic big band repertoire to the most modern Jazz styles; the entire tradition of complex Afro-American art music was traversed and each was true to the performance style of the period.

The Deeper Lessons of the 9/11 Jihadist Attack

The World Trade Towers on 9/11

Adding the Dimension of Historical Perspective

A national remembrance ceremony, a period of collective mourning, has become common fare on 9/11, as Americans honor the fallen, who were victims of the terror attack on the US by Islamic Jihadist.  However, this remembrance ceremony is intensified by the fact that it marks 20 years since the attack, and there has been much discussion in the media of the causes of the attack.  These conversations are wide ranging but just now, as in the moments after the attack two decades ago, too much of the discussion consists of playing the innocent victim.  In this twisted telling, the US was suddenly attacked by Islamic terrorists simply because they were evil and hated Americans because of our just and democratic society.

Alas, this simple-minded self-serving explanation has been advanced by some of the nation’s most thoughtful preachers, powerful politicians, and prestigious pundits.  And millions of Americans believed it, convinced that it was the whole story.  If ever there was a time and circumstance where the admonition of Harvard philosopher George Santayana was needed it is here and now: ”Those who refuse to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat it’s mistakes.”  Here a note of clarification is called for.  I do not mean to suggest that history repeats itself, nor do I believe this is the essence of Prof. Santayana’s axiom.  It is more like Mark Twain’s observation that history may not repeat “but it rhymes.”

In other words, there are classes of events that repeat themselves such as international wars, national liberation movements, socialism, fascism, racism, genocide, etc. And studying these phenomena as a class will help us understand their origins, history, and function.  Hence when we see these patterns  arise, we will be better equipped to recognize the pitfalls and avoid them.  It does not mean that these events will recur in the exact form as before, but they will share enough basic characteristics as to fall into the same general category.  Hence, we can use the past events as a guide for dealing with the present.  I believe this is the most productive use to which the study of history can be employed.

In all societies it is the ideology of the ruling classes – what they think is valuable, important, even sacred –  that shall determine how the society is organized and what its priorities are.  In advanced societies these values are refined into policies, foreign and domestic.  And to understand the ideology of the US ruling class, and how it is reflected in the policies of our government, requires the added dimension of unsentimental historical analysis. When viewed from this perspective, and told with unvarnished candor,  the story of how and why 9/11 happened, and the 20-year war in Iraq and Afghanistan sounds very different from the popular narrative spun by the official myth-makers and their self-appointed boosters.

The true origins of the tragedy of September 9, 2001,  and the two decades that just ended with a humiliating defeat in Afghanistan, that long fabled “Graveyard of Empires,”  has deep roots in US history.  The ideas that led to this catastrophe can be found in the 19th  century belief in “Manifest Destiny,” and the Monroe Doctrine.  Both of which is reflected in the 20th century belief in American Exceptionalism.

The “Containment Theory” authored by the brilliant Foreign Policy wonk George Kennan in 1947, which became the basis of the “Truman Doctrine” in the aftermath of  World War II, ushering in the “Cold War” with the Soviet Union and other nations governed by Communist Parties – which the US government erroneously insisted were nothing more than “Soviet Satellite’s” – lies at the root of the continuous wars, internal subversions, and covert actions carried out by the CIA against leaders the US did not like.

From the liberal progressive democratically elected leader of Iran Muhmmad Mossadegh; to the Salvador Allende in Chile, to Patrice Lumumba,  Kwame Nkrumah, and Nelson Mandela in Africa, to Ho Chi Mihn and Mao Tse Tung in Asia, to the Cuban Revolutionary leader Fidel Castro in the Caribbean.  And after the fall of the Soviet Union, which created a unipolar world with only one super-power, the US developed a policy of Pax-Americana, roughly based on the old Pax-Romana or “Roman Peace,” by which Rome ruled the world by imposing order through the positioning of powerful Roman Legions in far off lands on territory ceded to Rome in perpetual treaties.  Like the US military base in Guantanamo Cuba.

The idea of Pax-Americana became the basis of American foreign policy during the Bush Administration, due to the ascension of the cabal of hawkish  vulgar imperialist policy wonks from the “Project for a New American Century,” in the panic that consumed the Bush Administration in the Aftermath of 9/11.  This Cabal of right-wing Neo-con policy wonks led the US into the ill-fated invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein,  an offshoot of the “mission creep” in Afghanistan, whose raison d’etre was the destruction of Al Qaeda in retaliation for the 9/11 attack.

But, alas, under the direction of the PNAC cabal it became a mission to reshape the geo-politics of the mid-East region based upon a blueprint crafted in Washington and Tel Aviv.  Alas, this ill-conceived strategy backfired.  It resulted in the rapid spread of radical  Islam and a dramatic growth in the ranks of armed Jihadists, that expanded a conflict which was initially viewed by its promoters as a swift little war that would eradicate Militant Muslim fundamentalist – the same people that the US government encouraged, and the CIA trained, including Osama bin Laden, during the recent Cold War with Russia when it was still the Soviet Union.

This reckless exercise in hubris and folly, resulted in the 20 year war that we are just retreating from in defeat, after squandering trillions in US treasure and spilling buckets of American blood.  The toll in life, limb and property among the Iraqis and Afghans is too ghastly to contemplate.  This is the real story that should be told in the grand gluttonous rhetoric of pious pontificators in every nook and cranny of the land today.

Alas, sadly this kind of straight talk will be as rare as flying elephants, instead the people will be fed the same old lies and deceptions whose objective will be obfuscation not education, useless disinformation, puerile propaganda unworthy of the citizens of the world’s most powerful country. For while lies my give us a temporary high, making us feel good, it cannot help us understand our past, navigate the present, nor fathom the future.

Hence this feel-good narrative will not help us navigate the thorny terrain of international relations in a multi-polar world, and thus it cannot keep us from drifting into future wars.  To accomplish this, we first must accept the fact that American Exceptionalism is a dangerous myth, and that we cannot make foreign nations over in our image with guns and bombs. Then we can perhaps learn the valuable lessons that our history has to teach….and be born again.


Playthell G. Benjamin

Harlem, New York

Fall 2021