"JAZZ from the Belly of the BLUES" by D. Price


LIVE JAZZ IN THE FARMHOUSE  -   mystery in the closet

sax player facing right
To me, Jazz and the Blues are of the same cloth; some would say: two sides of the same coin, or: 

to keep from

sax player facing left

The collective hardships of centuries of enslavement of an easily recognizable people, followed by lingering Jim Crow practices demanded an escape valve for survival. Multitudes perished but the survivors found a way to let off steam through Jazz and The Blues.

The need was great! The response was great! Speak of life's trials . . .  then find moments of joy in spite of them. With a belly full of The Blues . . .  let there be jazzy moments of gaiety. Hence, why not write a book with the title of: JAZZ from the Belly of the BLUES!?

Of course, everybody has hardships of one kind or another. Even the most privileged.and pampered can imaginatively think that breaking through an egg shell is as challenging as breaking through a steel door. "Race" music became America's music.

From time to time, as a youngster, I tried to make a little music on our piano. My father wanted all of his children to play the piano. A piano could be the means to social acceptance, he said. He could not expound on the sociology of class-consciousness, but he knew a good pianist was always welcome. He was not a party kind of guy either, but his adamant idea was: If you play the piano, you can be the life of the party.

As a Campbell Soup factory worker, Dad eked out seven hundred dollars for a piano just before the Great Depression struck. Month after month he had to make small but very difficult payments. As if money were not enough of a concern, the fact that it was a player piano was problematic. Good music could be played by foot-pumping the music rolls and watching the keys dance magically. My older, teenage siblings were satisfied to use their feet, and never persevered to master the keyboard.

My mother, somewhere in her childhood, had learned to read music well enough to play a few stolid hymns. My father's eyes seemed to soften and his breathing became more relaxed on those rare occasions when she decided she could spend a little of her time at the piano. Presumably, my mother appreciated the power of music to soothe but she wasn't particularly anxious to expend her energies that way, considering there were always so many demands upon her. Anyway, each week she took fifty cents from her much needed egg money and sent my closest sibling and me, with twenty-five cents each, to take some piano lessons from a local schoolteacher.

We thought in terms of emulating the schoolteacher, "Aunt" Wynona Wright (married to my mother's cousin); the church pianist, Patience Harmon (Mother's cousin whom we called "Miss Payche") or maybe even the little we knew of jazz pianists, such as a family friend from Philadelphia, Arthur Ringgold (whom we excitedly called by his nickname, "Ding"). When Ding visited with us he would entertain us with what he called "stride" piano. We were fascinated and absolutely in awe with the music he made as his hands went strutting and striding up and down the keys.  

I learned to read notes and I learned that it takes more than merely reading notes to make real music. Dad became hardened by farming misfortunes and put aside his promotion of the piano. Reading comics and books, for me, was a more private escape than practicing the piano

My twin nephews at piano

The piano was left to serve as a pedestal for greeting cards, family photos and the exploratory tinkling and banging of curious children. Without encouragement and guidance, rare is the child who perseveres .

What a delight when children do find continuous enjoyment with the piano. Constant encouragement is usually required.  Now, of course,  I must share with you this recent and delightful photo (circulated via email) of President Obama's daughters getting that necessary parental encouragement.

Obamo daughters play the piano

How sad it is, as I have come to realize, that an extraordinarily huge price has been paid, through the centuries, so that we might "tickle the ivories". In the beginning of piano making, rare woods were used to cover the keys. Then it was discovered that ivory carved from elephant tusks offered a most desirable light-weight, durable, soft and cool touch.

None of my family, and I imagine exceedingly few Americans - maybe even comparatively few people anywhere in the world -  have realized or thought about the extent of destruction and devastation caused by the desire to play upon those "ivories".

Recently, WHYY, a Philadelphia television station,  presented a Tony Brown's Journal segment with Tony Brown interviewing Anne Farrow, one of the authors of "COMPLICITY - How the North Promoted, Prolonged, and Profited from Slavery", (C) 2005.

The well researched book indicates that ivory was carved into pool cues, jewelry, hair combs, knick knacks, decorative insets in wooden furniture, etc; but piano keys were the driving force of the ivory trade. "COMPLICITY's" Chapter 10, "Plunder for Pianos", tells a gruesome story about the  accumulation of ivory to create the inviting touch of those piano keys.

At that time, in that African area, it was said that elephants were as thick as flies.  Today, extinction of the African elephant is threatened.

giant elephant tusk

Then we must consider the human toll that was taken.
Here are just three sentences from COMPLICITY's Chapter Ten:  "Their villages in flames behind them, these captured people, shackled together and carrying the heavy tusks, walked as far as 1,000 miles to the coast. Many died en route; and the longer the  journey, the worse the casualties. . . . The feet and shoulders of ivory's black porters were a mass of open sores, made more painful by the swarms of flies that followed the march and lived on the flowing blood." Those who survived the trek to the ships bound for the "New World" were rewarded by being shipped, along with the tusks, for a lifetime of continued enslavement.

Supposedly, U.S.slavery was abolished as a result of the American Civil War. Yet, it has been determined that just from 1870 to 1900 at least five Africans died or were enslaved for every single elephant tusk carried from Africa's interior to her coastline, to be shipped to another land. - a period after the intended end of importing  people to be enslaved in North America.

The laws which were passed to stop the heinous importation of ivory and people were met with cunning tactics by the perpetrators and general indifference by the public. Gradually, the slaughter of elephants did diminish somewhat. At least plastics were developed that nicely replaced the ivory on piano keys. Yet the quest for ivory has never truly stopped.

 As late as 1989, deeming it necessary, an international ban on the sale of new ivory was imposed.

Not comparable, yet a shame, my father's piano met its demise under the very inadequate protection of our now defunct barn.

piano in barn

I removed some of the keys with their once-precious coating of ivory. Should I restore the ivory for earrings or such? Or should I frame them as a reminder of man's inhumanity to "man and beast"?

piano keys

For now, lets put aside the piano and get to that MYSTERY in this chapter!

The only other musical instrument in our house was a cornet. As a child, I loved to "discover" things in the attic and in closets. At the back of the closet in my parent's bedroom was a mysterious black case. It was the farthest item back and had all sorts of things in front of it.

Upon its discovery, the case was carefully opened to reveal a silver horn cushioned in velvet. What a "find"! I wanted to know all about it. Uh - uh! My parents competed to see who could more gruffly rebuff any questions regarding it. The most that they would say was "It's a cornet!"

Years went by with only an occasional checking at the back of the closet to see that the mysterious treasure of a cornet was still there. In his last years, my father resigned himself to having accomplished all that he could. He mellowed and remembered his youth. He sang old school songs. Only as he was reaching  the end of his road was he able to swallow the lump in his throat and talk to us about this beautiful, mysterious Jazz instrument.. . .called a "cornet!"  

Oil painting by D. Price

His story was that in his early teens, he and a friend, Mr. Edgar Morris (later married to another of Mother's cousins) had taken cornet lessons from Mr. Edgar's father. The father's sister had sent some sheet music from Philadelphia and young Mr. Edgar and Dad had tried to form a little band. The cornet in the back of the closet probably symbolized the most hopeful and carefree time of my father's life. Only at the end of his road was he able to swallow the lump in his throat and tell us about this beautiful, mysterious Jazz instrument.

Do you have a story  to tell about Jazz in your family/household? We would love to share your story. Please send your Jazz Story here.  Meanwhile, please join our email list here, to receive our general information of happenings.


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