A presidential playlist celebrating Black History Month
President Michael V. Drake curated some of his favorite jazz songs on a Spotify playlist
As we celebrate Black History Month at The Ohio State University, I want to highlight some of my favorite jazz songs and explain why they mean so much to me. Please enjoy.
Charlie Parker was a leader of the bebop jazz movement of the 1940s, when the music moved from big band-dominated dance music to more musician-focused songs that demanded virtuosity of the soloists. It was meant more to be listened to than danced to. The song “Blue Bird” by Parker was an early example of this new direction. The song features a very young Miles Davis, who showed himself from the very beginning to be a star.
On the record “Birth of the Cool,” Davis began to take music that he had learned as a teenager and put his own signature on it. He thought a lot about phrasing and actively used silence. “Boplicity” is a bit of a bridge between these two eras of jazz – big band and bebop. It’s still a little bit “bandy,” with all of the musicians playing the melody together as the song begins, but it also has passages that signal where the music would be headed in the future.
“Kind of Blue” is considered one of the greatest jazz albums of all time. This is Miles Davis playing more thoughtful and evocative music. It’s also an all-star group of musicians who played together for only a short period of time. “All Blues” is one of the key songs from this incredible sextet, which featured legendary musicians Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Bill Evans, Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb.
John Coltrane was a great leader in both the interpretation of music and the different ways of looking at music. Coltrane began using show tunes as a framework, improvising in a multitude of directions. “My Favorite Things” is from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “The Sound of Music,” but Coltrane gives it a new life. He shows all of the things you can do with a horn to make it almost a spiritual melody. It’s a great song with such great virtuosity exhibited.
“Alabama” was a song Coltrane wrote just a few weeks after the murder of four young girls by a terrorist bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963. The piece captures the depth of despair and horror that the community and country felt in the wake of this event.
Thus far, we have featured instrumental music, with the instruments giving voice to the feelings and emotions of the musicians. On “Lush Life,” Johnny Hartman adds his voice and lyrics to create a mood. The merger of his voice and John Coltrane’s saxophone creates this great song.
Jazz singer-songwriter, pianist and civil rights activist Nina Simone also interpreted show tunes as she did when she recorded George and Ira Gershwin’s “I Loves You Porgy” in 1958. This is a wonderful weaving together of voice and instrument to great impact.
During the 1960s, many types of musical styles were overlapping. There was a revolution in electronic music with electric bass, electric pianos and synthesizers becoming popular in jazz. Miles Davis was always interested in being on the cutting edge of musical directions. “In a Silent Way” represented that next step into electric music by Miles Davis at the end of the ’60s.
The song “In a Silent Way” was featured on Davis’ album of the same name, written by keyboard player Joe Zawinul, who ultimately played as a member of the Cannonball Adderley Quintet (and ultimately was a founder and leader of the jazz fusion band Weather Report). The quintet was playing as part of a community celebration in 1969. Zawinul wrote this song to honor a young Jessie Jackson.