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Patriotism And Protest: Jazz For July 4

By Patrick Jarenwattananon | NPR
Thursday, July 4, 2013

Jazz music has become a point of pride for the United States of America: a homegrown art form forged from folk traditions. But jazz recordings of American patriotic songs aren't abundant. Perhaps because many of jazz's foremost creators were black Americans who lived in a society which actively discriminated against them, many didn't think to tackle that material.

There are, of course, exceptions, as well as some exceptions that prove the rule. For July 4, here are a few jazz takes on the songs you'll hear today.

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Jimmy Smith


It seemed like jazz organ pioneer Jimmy Smith could deliver on any kind of song: a slow standard, a rowdy funk number, a deep-in-the-pocket blues. The Civil War-era ditty "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" sets up right in Smith's wheelhouse: a moody minor march that translates well to a walking bass and a skittering ride cymbal. His take leads off a 1960 album which finds him with guitarist Quentin Warren and drummer Donald Bailey, who lay out the red carpet for Smith to skip and stomp over.

Charlie Haden Liberation Music Orchestra


Bassist and composer Charlie Haden has never hidden his political beliefs, and the big band he's called together from time to time reflects his inclinations. The first Liberation Music Orchestra album ended with "We Shall Overcome" as an anti-Vietnam War statement, while the latest LMO record, Not in Our Name, protested the war in Iraq. Appropriately, his medley of "America the Beautiful" blends in composer Gary McFarland's sardonic work of the same name, the "black national anthem" ("Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing") and Ornette Coleman's "Skies of America." Credit also belongs to Carla Bley, whose arrangements have always made the Liberation Music Orchestra sing out.

Oscar Peterson Trio with Milt Jackson


Perhaps you know this melody as the "Battle Hymn of the Republic," which expresses faith that the divine was on the Union's side in the Civil War. But the Oscar Peterson trio and Milt Jackson knew it as "John Brown's Body," which celebrates the radical abolitionist John Brown, who advocated armed insurrection — certainly a strong statement concerning the racial politics of the era. Either way, it lends itself nicely to a mid-tempo swinger, with Jackson's resonant mallets and Peterson's effortlessly rich right hand singing, "Glory, glory hallelujah."

Billie Holiday


Billie Holiday didn't write this novelty, which lampoons the "phony" title character of a popular patriotic ditty. (Curiously enough, "Yankee Doodle" itself was first sung by the British to make fun of disheveled colonials prior to the American Revolution.) But in 1935, she had a big hand in popularizing it, aided by pianist Teddy Wilson and a great horn section: Roy Eldridge (trumpet), Benny Morton (trombone) and Chu Berry (sax). It's a castoff number, but with one mid-song read-through, she elevates it to something higher — with the good-natured and possibly tragicomic clowning you might expect from jazz musicians.

Louis Armstrong

Louis Armstrong honestly believed he was born on July 4, 1900, which would have been fitting for one of jazz's chief architects. He wasn't, unfortunately, but that didn't stop him from celebrating at the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival, held in early July. He ended his set with a straightforward and shimmering take on the National Anthem, and then the crowd wished him a happy birthday. Armstrong spoke against the U.S. government regarding racial issues, but the take here is reverent — and, as ever, his trumpet tone is brilliant.

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