In honor of many of the recent protests and Black Lives Matter movements taking hold around the globe, and simply because it is a great topic for a brief blog post, I want to take a moment to pay homage to some of the greats of our time and long before it in the musical world. I’m talking about the Black artists, musicians, and producers who helped shape our culture and society, and our world with their powerful words and playing, and their work behind the stage in organizing the music for all to hear.
It would be beyond impossible to list out every contribution the Black community has made to the worlds of music, starting with the birth of blues and influential positions in creating and organizing jazz music, to soul and funk, rhythm and blues, hip-hop and rap, even rock & roll – every major musical category has been touched, molded, inspired (and in many cases, created) by Black musicians, male and female.
When I think of the word influential as it relates to music in the past century, I am drawn immediately to the likes of powerful Black figures like Chuck Berry – the “godfather” of rock and roll, Ray Charles – who created his own brand of gospel infused R&B, Jimi Hendrix – who changed the way modern musicians approach the guitar, Michael Jackson – the king of Pop music, Marvin Gaye, Billie Holiday, Whitney Huston, Aretha Fraklin, Beyonce, Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar, to name even a small few.
These contributions come not only in the recording studio, but outside in the production room as well. I’m thinking of the likes of Pharell Williams, Sean Coombs, Dr. Dre, QUINCY JONES, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, Norman Whitfield – the men and women behind the stage who seek talent and bring it to the stage for all to see. In every regard, our musical knowledge and the foundation of our music industry would be far from where it is today without Black influence.
I could write an entire paragraph on Louis Armstrong, one of the most influential figures in ALL of music history. His unique trumpet playing alone was an influence on every jazz musician who followed him. But also, his contributions to not only jazz, bringing a New Orleans Swing sound to the mainstream, but also his powerful vocals, stage presence, and influence in bringing black music to the forefront of American culture.
In Jazz specifically, Black culture took a strong foothold from it’s earliest days being performed for live audiences in America. Jazz is, by definition, an African-American art form, molded by Black musicians and inspired by European and African sounds and cultures. What started as the Ragtime music of Scott Joplin and the likes of the Dixieland Jazz Band, turned slowly and then sharply into the mainstream with Louis Armstrong, then into Swing with the likes of Art Tatum, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, and most notably – Duke Ellington. Their successors transitioned the world into Bebop and Hard Bop with the likes of Thelonius Monk, Dizzie Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Cannonball Adderley, Lester Young and Miles Davis. The heart and soul of jazz music is so deeply and eternally a part of Black culture in the United States and beyond, because both were shaped by one another. It is by looking back at these greats, and looking to the future of jazz music that we can see this influence being felt and molded even today in new and beautiful ways.
When I think about major Black contributions to music, I think of the birth of Rhythm and Blues in the 1940s. Then Soul and Funk in the 1960s, which carried into jazz-rock fusion by the 1970s and beyond. Each major milestone in these genres and genres associated with them was influenced by one or more Black musicians. I am no historian, nor am I an expert on music history, but it doesn’t take more than a little digging to discover the importance that Black artists have had on the history of music in America, the UK and beyond, particularly from the 1940s-2020s. Every major musical artists from the 1960s until today has been influenced at least in some small way by some Black musician who came before them.
This isn’t a platform I want to use to sow unrest, and I would hate to be associated with political commentary – unless it was in the context of a film or song. But I do want to acknowledge that we would be so far from where we are today in the world of music without these foundational and purely essential Black members of our society. Individuals who helped define our cultural appreciation for music, our love for the music “scene”, our love for everything from deeply bluesy, mellow piano music to get-up-offa-your-feet funk, and everything in between.
They are as much a part of society, if not more so, than I am. And they deserve the same kind of respect and admiration from everyone and every institution with whom they interact with – particularly given the oppression in which they faced for hundreds of years. Our society has marginalized black citizens as a result of racism and segregation for decades, and it is deeply troubling. But now, as we usher in a new age, a new generation of America and the world, it is essential to look to the major influences Black individuals have had on global society as a whole, and the genuine need to remove these archaic prejudices that still infect some of us today so we can move forward as one, united people.
Take some time today to appreciate some of the musicians I have mentioned here, or do some of your own research on the history of Black music and the influence it has had on our global culture.