America has only made one unique cultural contribution to the world, that’s jazz. Jazz is to America what democracy is to Greece.
If you talk to jazz musicians or jazz historians there’s a consensus on one thing, Louis Armstrong is the most important musician in American history, and by extension one of the most important musicians in the world.
Nobody invents an artistic genre, but all art has a point of origin, if you say jazz was born from our American experience, then Louis Armstrong was the midwife.
To understand why, we have to go back to the 1920s. In Chicago from 1925-28, Armstrong formed a band solely to record, Louis Armstrong Hot Five, and made recordings that revolutionized jazz and would become the foundation of and provide the architecture for the music that’s played today.
Armstrong solidified the concept of the solo as an integral part of jazz. Arguably the creator, and definitely master of the extended jazz solo, he played in higher registers, longer and faster, while improvising with more all-around virtuosity than anyone had done before.
So if you’re serious about being a jazz musician or just want to be an informed listener, it’s essential that you know and understand who Louis Armstrong is and what he’s doing in Chicago in the 1920s.
Just as Armstrong is essential to understanding jazz. You can’t know and understand the purpose of Black History Month without knowing and understanding who Carter G. Woodson is. He is to Black History what Armstrong is to jazz, the place you start.
An activist and scholar, Woodson was no ordinary brother, a contemporary and intellectual peer of W.E.B. Du Bois, he was the second Black American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard, DuBois being the first.
In 1915 he founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, which included would become the Association for the Study of African American Life and History.
What motivated Woodson was his belief that he (and others) had no future in the white-dominated historical profession, and to work as a Black historian would require creating an institutional structure that would make it possible for Black scholars to study history.
In addition, his interest went beyond the geographical confines of the United States and extended to all of the African Diaspora.
Also, like Armstrong, he produced a historical norm defining work. For Armstrong it was his Hot Five recordings that produced the shape of what jazz was to become, For Woodson it was his 1933 seminal work,The Mis-Education of the Negro.
His thesis was Black Americans of his day were being culturally indoctrinated, rather than educated. This indoctrination was the reason that causes Black people continue to be dependent and to seek out inferior places in the greater society.
Or, as he put it, “No systemic effort toward change has been possible. For taught the same economics, history, philosophy and literature which have established the present code of morals, the Negro’s mind has been brought under the control of his oppressor.”
While a severe critic of the existing education provided Black America, he had an aspirational vision for what an education designed to meet the needs of Black people could accomplish,
“Real education means to inspire people to live more abundantly, to learn to begin with life as they find it and make it better,” and “Those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history.”
What should not pass without notice is that Woodson and Armstrong, along with a sizable collection artists, intellectuals and writers who would come to be known as the Harlem Renaissance, were all part of that first generation of Black Americans born after Emancipation, who came of age at the beginning of the 20th century and had the freedom, in spite of the racial terrorism of that era, to create and define a Black identity and ascetic that’s the foundation of our collective understanding of who we are today.
To understand how we’ve gotten so far from the vision Woodson had for Negro History Week, we need to understand the difference between a tradition and a habit.
A tradition is the transmission of customs or beliefs from generation to generation. A habit on the other hand, is a routine of behavior that is repeated regularly and tends to occur subconsciously. We have permitted the tradition founded by Woodson to become just a habit of contemporary Black American life.
We treat Black History Month like Jeopardy, we’ll spend 28 days posing random questions and giving factoid answers, where neither the question nor the answer has any contextual reference or relevance, kinda like Black Heroes for $200.
For Woodson, and by extension us, Black history was the effort to answer the existential questions posed by 19th century Danish philosopher and theologian Soren Kierkegaard (someone I’m sure he had read), “Where am I? Who am I? How did I come to be here? ...”
What every February does is challenge us to continue the tradition started by Carter G. Woodson, to ask and struggle to answer these existential questions.