Music is never just some notes of a melody — it’s always something more, says legendary New Orleans jazz saxophonist Charles Neville.
Neville, who grew up in New Orleans during the Jim Crow era, but now resides in Huntington with his wife and children, has seen music change America.
“I remember when the first black cops were allowed on the police force and one of the things we all as young teenagers laughed at was the fact that they couldn’t arrest a white person,” says Neville, 78, sitting in his living room. “Growing up everything was segregated. It was against the law for black and white musicians to play together.”
Neville, of the Grammy-winning Neville Brothers, along with a host of jazz musicians will be performing at the Springfield Jazz & Roots Festival at Court Square on Saturday, Aug. 12. In its fourth year, the festival is focusing on “jazz and justice,” how music can change the world. Ahead of the all-day, free, outdoor music fest on the 12th, on Aug. 11 Neville, along with musicians Christian Scott and Sarah Elizabeth Charles, will take part in a multi-generational talk about jazz and justice before getting down to some funky, blusey music. The event is called, simply “Jazz and Justice.”
Neville, who will be talking about his personal experiences at the forum (so it’s worth going just for that), remembers what it was like watching segregation crumble under music.
He recalls being a young musician playing in jazz clubs when white kids started to come to these “kind of dodgy” neighborhoods to listen to music and dance at the black cafes.
“The white kids would come to the black clubs, but the black kids wouldn’t go to the white clubs,” he says with a laugh.
“One of the main black clubs we played at where the white kids came, the police would come and arrest them, the white kids. They’d charge the kids with narcotics, the boys, and for the girls it was soliciting prostitution so families would be embarrassed and wouldn’t bring them there anymore.”
But white people kept coming to the shows, he says. The unity a shared love for music was creating couldn’t be broken.
“We kept coming together,” Neville says.
We’re hanging out in Neville’s home — Neville, his wife Kristin Neville, and me — with music all around us. An orange drum kit takes center stage in the first floor’s wide open living-dining-kitchen-room, and sits next to a piano covered in sheet music and a couple of awards: the NAACP Image Award, a Grammy, a Big Easy Entertainment award, and a transparent, plastic sax awarded to him by a friend. “To the best Horn Man ever with a lot of love always — Ruthie,” the plaque reads. A red, feathered New Orleans parade mask the size of a boogey board sits in one corner while Kristin’s loom occupies another. Much of the furniture appears to be made out of bamboo. A gold record hangs on the wall.
Kristin and her nonprofit Blues to Green started the Jazz & Roots Festival four years ago with the idea that Springfield’s important black history needs to be celebrated — and what better way than through music?
“I wanted to use music as a vehicle to bring people together and to raise awareness about social and environmental issues, to be a catalyst for positive change,” she says.
Along that line, Kristin says she hopes that the festival draws people from the northern part of the Pioneer Valley to Springfield.
“People seem nervous about going to the city … it seemed like we could benefit by knowing each other a little more and interacting a little more,” she says.
This year’s Jazz & Roots line up will feature jazz vocalist with a voice as big as the moon Lizz Wright; Miles Mosley, aka the Jimi Hendrix of the upright bass, and the West Coast Get Down. Stretch jazz trumpeter and composer Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah and Sarah Elizabeth Charles, a rising vocalist and Springfield-native, will play the concert and participate in the Jazz and Justice forum/concert benefit. Don’t miss Rebirth Brass Band, pianist Zaccai Curtis & Insight, or the Western Mass-based Jeremy Turgeon Quintet.
Playing the Jazz & Roots festival in her hometown is a dream come true, Elizabeth Charles says, though it makes the international-touring musician nervous.
“It’s the Springfield fest,” she says. “It’s always full of heavy weights.”
In addition to the music, there will be other kinds of performances. María Luisa Arroyo, the very first Poet Laureate of Springfield (2014-2016) and 2016 NEPR Arts & Humanities Award recipient, will be reading jazz poems on stage by poets Langston Hughes, Walter Dean Myers, and Carol Boston Weatherford, among others.
Nonprofits and community organizations that will be represented include the Springfield Community Music School, the Urban Roots Initiative, and the Trinity/Mercy Medical Center’s sock drive for the homeless.
And the First Generation Ensemble, a Springfield youth arts group, will perform Tenderness, which looks at issues of racial profiling, mass incarceration, and the school to prison pipeline and the acts of tenderness that take place in the midst of hardship.
The Jazz & Roots festival is trying a few new things this year as well. For example, there will be a bicycle valet for safe bike parking and a second line parade (a New Orleans tradition, in which people dance in the street behind a swinging band). A second stage for music has been added and the Jazz and Justice festival-benefit at CityStage in Springfield expands the fest to two days instead of one. While the day-long concert is free, tickets to the Jazz and Justice Blues to Green benefit are $25-$35, and $75 for VIP and a chance to meet the artists.
At Jazz and Justice performers Christian Scott, Sarah Elizabeth Charles, and Charles Neville will talk about their personal experiences with justice and music. Specifically, they’re going to get into community movements, the artists’ activist awakenings, what their music is trying to say, the inspiration behind their music, and the role of music and art in building community, Kristin says.
Elizabeth Charles says she is excited to be part of the Friday night conversation and that she is particularly looking forward to discussing the U.S.’s mass incarceration problem. In the U.S. there are 2.2 million people in prisons and jails right now, according to the Sentencing Project, a national nonprofit. The U.S. imprisons 670 people for every 100,000 people living in the nation — the highest incarceration rate of any developed nation, the project reports. Russia, for example, incarcerates 439 people per 100,000 in the population. China is 118 per 100,000 people. The number of inmates in the U.S. has been growing by leaps and bounds since the 1980s when President Reagan had the jail-packing idea to start a take-all-prisoners approach to his War on Drugs. The reality is the war wound up being waged against people who don’t have the money and affluence to get out of trouble with the law instead of stemming the tide of drugs into the country. And it’s disproportionately impacting people of color. Black men, for example, are six times more likely to be arrested in the U.S. than white men, according to the Sentencing Project.
Through music, Elizabeth Charles can reach more people than her words alone ever could.
“Once I started writing music at 14, I quickly learned this isn’t something to do lightly, what I have to say is important,” she says. “A performance is powerful and it’s a privilege when you get up on stage.”
Jazz is the perfect genre to bring people from all walks of life together, say Kristin and Charles Neville. It’s what the music was founded on, says Charles.
In the living room Kristin is reading, out loud, a Christian Scott quote from a February New York Times article marking the release of Scott’s album, Ruler Rebel, part of his centennial trilogy designed to take stock of how far jazz has come in the past 100 years since the first commercial jazz recording in 1917.
Charles Neville scrunches up his nose. “What is that? How do they decide that?”
Kristin looks up from her laptop.
“When do they say jazz was born?”
She digs a little further into the article and says that Scott places the birth of jazz at the first recording by the Original Dixieland Jass Band in 1907.
Charles is incredulous: “That was some white cats from Chicago — they didn’t know shit.”
He leans forward in his chair, and a long, silver chain with a yin-yang pendant swings from his neck. “And in there,” he says, “there were some guys that denied that [their music] had anything from [black] culture, that they didn’t get it from their stuff.”
Not recognizing where music comes from and not giving credit to the people who play it erodes the art form’s ability to teach and inspire. Charles knows what he’s talking about. The Neville family — with brothers Art, Aaron, and Cyril — are often called the “first family of New Orleans music” for founding The Meters, a seminal funk band.
And now it’s time for a jazz lesson.
When the music that would be jazz started out it was called race music, Charles says, and it was played by black people who picked up the military band instruments in the South left behind by the Confederacy after the Civil War. Though, prior to this, he notes, people like Mamie Smith, W.C. Handy, and Jelly Roll Morton were already playing the blues.
“The army bands left those things and there were these players, the Funky Knuckle Players, the ex-slaves who didn’t have any musical education, and didn’t know there were restrictions on these instruments, what you couldn’t do, so they did it,” Charles says with a smile.
Some black people did have musical education, though, Charles says.
“The plantation owners, they made kids with the slave women. To the majority of owners the kid was just another slave, a light-skin slave. But the French accepted their kids and some got to attend music schools in Europe.”
When the sons came back as trained musicians they played white events like cotillions and straight-laced affairs that other black musicians were not allowed to play.
“When [the trained musicians] heard the stuff the Funky Knuckles were doing, they were like, ‘What in the world was that?’ And for a while they were separate,” Charles says, “but then they got together and were able to learn things from each other and that was the beginning of jazz.”
From there the music style grew under the influence of all kinds of musical styles that weren’t considered “white:” traditional Jewish, Italian, and Irish people. Jazz took tips from Spanish, Cuban, and Native American music, too.
“It’s a connection through the generations as the music has evolved, each generation adds something, then the next,” says Kristin bringing the conversation full circle back to the Springfield Jazz & Roots Festival.
“It’s just the gist of the festival,” she says, “the genre stretching and boundary stretching and the movement behind the labels we put on music and people.”
Springfield Jazz & Roots Festival: Saturday, Aug. 12, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Free. Court Square, downtown Springfield. Friday, Aug. 11, 7 p.m., Jazz and Justice conversation and concert. $25-$35. CityStage, 1 East Columbus Ave., Springfield. springfieldjazzfest.com.
Contact Kristin Palpini at email@example.com.