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Jazz Tells US Civil Rights Story

Think of the musical 'soundtrack' of the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and '60s, and there's a good chance protest songs or old spirituals come to mind. But a respected jazz duo says jazz also has something to say about this turbulent period of American history and about civil rights today, as well. They demonstrated that point recently for students in Providence, Rhode Island.

Over the past 50 years, the Mitchell-Ruff Duo has played a lot of schools, and pianist Dwike Mitchell says he's suffered through a lot of insulting instruments. But before a performance at the Moses Brown School, he sat off stage and shook his head sadly at the tinny electronic keyboard he'd been given for the show. Minutes later, though, Mr. Mitchell and his partner, bassist and French-horn player Willie Ruff, took the makeshift stage with the same poise they'd display at a Greenwich Village club or a Parisian concert hall.

"The piece you just heard was the newest blues you ever heard, because we just made it up a moment ago," announced Mr. Ruff. "And we call it the Providence Independent Schools Stomp, Breakdown Roll-over and Boogie." In addition to being a touring jazz musician, Willie Ruff is a lecturer and music instructor at Yale University. He started his talk for the high school students with a history lesson, about a violent slave rebellion in South Carolina in 1739.

"And this entire insurrection had been organized without recourse to speech. It had been organized by the 'talking drum.' The drum that speaks. Language-carryin' device," he explained. " And law was made against the 'talking drum.' It was prohibited. Africans, African slaves could no longer play drums that spoke."

Willie Ruff and Dwike Mitchell started their musical dialogue together in a segregated Air Force band in 1947. After leaving the military, they both went off to study classical music before hooking up again in the Lionel Hampton Orchestra. A few years later, they struck out on their own, as a duo. Pianist Dwike Mitchell says the music they made reflected the political struggles engulfing black America in the 1950s and '60s.

"As far as struggling is concerned, as far as the jazz struggle, it had the same emotional impact on us as Go Down Moses. ... I really don't think we cared whether we were being received," Mr. Mitchell said. "We just believed in ourselves and believed in the music we were playing, and that was so strong within us, I think if no one had listened, I think I still would have played the same thing that I played."

The duo has played with many of the 20th century's jazz legends, and for one of its civil rights legends. When he was an up-and-coming young minister, Martin Luther King Junior sometimes visited the small New York piano bar where the Mitchell-Ruff duo used to perform. But at the high school gym, the jazzmen didn't want to tell war stories. They wanted to make their point with music. And one of their favorite ways to do that is to invite someone from the audience up to the stage to play a melody.

"Like this one by Mozart, performed by a shy girl named Katherine Meckel, who was all but shoved toward the stage by her friends. And then, the musicians sat down and showed the audience how to improvise a tune," he said.

Afterwards, even though there hadn't been all that much talk of history, students and teachers alike made the connections. Senior Marcus Ricci was another young musician who volunteered to play on the stage.

"These guys have been playing since, what the '50s? And I think it's great to see how far they've come and how much they've accomplished," he said. "They were talking about having talking drums taken away, and having to express themselves through different forms, and I think a lot of it's about expression, about getting your message across. They're expressing themselves through music. I really liked how they would get into it and yell and grunt and I thought it was great and I think that's their way of getting their message across and getting heard."

Teachers and administrators had hoped the connection between creative expression and civil rights would come through, and they weren't disappointed.

"I really wanted them to get a sense of both the intellect and the emotion involved in this very important part of American music," said Joan Countryman, headmistress of the Lincoln School for Girls, one of the four private schools that attended the show. A 1960s civil rights leader herself, Ms. Countryman organized the Mitchell-Ruff Duo performance.

"What Willie and Dwike do with the music is explain how it fits into context of American history. Part of the story of jazz is related to slavery, emancipation, the whole history of African-Americans in this country," she said. "And what a wonderful thing for kids to hear music in connection with that and start to make sense of that."

Dwike Mitchell and Willie Ruff never said it, but everyone there seemed to get it. The soundtrack of liberation can be what we think of as struggle or protest music, but it doesn't have to be. It can also be the music of pure joy the music of two partners evangelizing what they love - plucking, growling, shouting…and rocking a flimsy fake piano.

Part of VOA's Black History Month series