Black Music, Jazz Covers Politics, ‘Blue Monday’

Ron Scott | 6/20/2013, 2:38 p.m. | Updated on 6/25/2013, 2:38 p.m.
Blue Monday

If you want to know what was going on in America at a certain point, just check the music. The O’Jays summed it up best in their album and title track “Message in the Music” (Philadelphia International Records). The album cover features a tribe of African drummers.

“Jazz. Covers. Politics: Album Art in an Age of Activism” wasn’t planned for Black Music Month, but the Nathan Cummings Foundation is currently running this significant, potent exhibition now through Aug. 23 at its offices, located at 475 10th Ave. (36th and 37th streets), 14th floor, in Midtown Manhattan.

“The covers of jazz make the politics visible. Consider Max Roach’s landmark album [with] the Freedom Now Suite, ‘We Insist!,’ where Black men sitting at a white lunch counter turn to look at the camera and, with a challenge to join their movement for freedom, at us,” wrote curator Robert O’Meally in the exhibit’s brochure.

In today’s technological society, where MP3s, iPhones, iPads and downloading dominate, the total artistic concept of album cover artwork is completely lost.

“Album covers and their art are the visual devices that trigger our memory and remind us of the beauty of our music and the richness of our culture,” stated C. Daniel Dawson, a curator of the exhibit. “In addition, they contained cultural and political inspiration and direction, as well as historical records of the radical and racial consciousness of our community.”

Such noted Black artists as Romare Bearden, Roy DeCarava and Jacob Lawrence have all done works for album covers. The album exhibition is divided into various categories such as “Celebrating Blackness,” which includes albums like Miles Davis’ “A Tribute to Jack Johnson” and Horace Silver’s “Song for My Father,” and “We Wear the Masks,” which explores the concept of donning masks that was prevalent from the days of blackface to Stepin Fetchit (aka comedian Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry).

The exhibit quotes Ralph Ellison: “We wear the masks for purposes of aggression as well as for defense.”

Duke Ellington noted, “We can say things on the trumpet or the piano which we could not say in spoken language.”

“Amen Corner” recognizes the importance of music in the Black church, as well as blues songs, reggae protest songs and some hip–hop with a political edge. “Black to the Future” highlights Ellington’s “Black, Brown and Beige” and “Liberian Suite” and Davis’ “Bitches Brew.” There are album covers from Marvin Gaye, James Brown and Sly and the Family Stone.

The exhibition “Jazz. Covers. Politics: Album Art in an Age of Activism” celebrates the family of Black music. The bright, colorful album covers make this exhibit a perfect learning experience for young people. The exhibition was organized by the Romare Bearden Foundation and curated by Diedra Harris-Kelley, C. Daniel Dawson and Robert G. O’Meally. The exhibit can be viewed by appointment only Monday through Friday. Please email exhibits@nathancummings.org.

The On Site Opera and Harlem Opera Theater’s production of the jazz opera “Blue Monday” at the Cotton Club (626 W. 125th St.) has been extended until June 20. Doors open at 7 p.m. For more information, please call 347-394-3050.

For me, it’s all Black music, whether its called Black Music Month or African-American Music Awareness Month. But to be sure, Black music has that revolutionary ring. What matters most is that the history is told correctly and shared. Enjoy the music and listen to its story.