What Bebop Taught Me About Change

By Nate Rabe

This article first appeared on Life After Aid

Truth is almost always more fascinating than fiction.  It is also more complex.

Take for example the story I’ve told in other places and times, of how a schismatic Muslim group from South Asia played a critical part in the transformation of American popular music.

The story is a fabulous one, full of colourful characters, political struggle and crazy subplots. And in order to give the rest of this article meaning I’ll provide a Reader’s Digest synopsis of the tale.

In the early 1940s jazz music was big money. From coast to coast, mini orchestras played a brand of silky, synchronised, swing music that got people dancing but not much else. Swing was the world’s pop music. And like all such things, when they go mainstream, they become homogenised, safe and sound-alike.

In New York, a small group of African American jazz musicians were hearing sounds in their head that they didn’t know how to play.  Melodies that moved fast and harmonic structures that clashed against each other. When they finally found a way to play what was going on in their imaginations they shocked and horrified the Swing world.

This tiny (at first) group led by Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker broke the Big Band model apart by playing in quartets and trios. They played loud and they played fast. They soloed like tormented demons. Audiences found it hard to hear the melodies that Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington featured so prominently. To the critics, this new music that people referred to as Be Bop, or just plain Bop, was shit. And dangerous.

“Bebop is the sort of bad taste and ill-advised fanaticism that has thrown innumerable impressionable young musicians out of stride”, is how the premier magazine of jazz, Downbeat, described Parker’s music in 1946.

It was not just the way the Be Boppers played jazz that was different.  Most of the growing tribe of new jazz musicians, it seemed, were Muslims.  Americans yes, but Muslims too.

Some, like Ahmad Jamal [Fritz Jones] identified with their faith openly. Others, like Charlie Parker, [Abdul Karim], preferred to keep Islam a private affair. But all in all over 100 prominent African American jazz men and women converted to Islam right around the time they were inventing this revolutionary jazz sound.

Islam in America at this time (just after WWII) enjoyed all the suspicion but none of the official recognition and popular acceptance it does today.  It was a foreign religion practiced by a tiny proportion of urban Americans. To be a Muslim was not a strategy for winning friends and influencing people in Eisenhower America.

All of the jazzers, and indeed, almost every Muslim in the United States, had come to Islam through the missionary work of the Ahmadis. Mirza Ghulam Ahmed, the leader of this sect from the Punjab, had been branded ‘infidel’ (kafir) by mainstream Islam for his claims to be God’s own prophet and the Mahdi (messiah).

Arriving in the early 20th century Ahmadi missionaries entertained a lofty ambition to convert America to Islam.  By the 1930s this was not happening as rapidly as they had hoped and indeed, by the 1940s the Lahore Ahmadi Movement conceded defeat.

Though Main Street America rejected the Ahmadi mission, the message did get a reception among the urban African American community. Despite migrating north from the cotton fields of Georgia and Mississippi, American blacks found that Jim Crow still ruled their lives.  And though the jazz community was relatively integrated, when they stepped out into the real world, jazz musicians were subject to the same humiliation and violence as their peers.

The notion offered by Islam, that all men are brothers, co-equal in the eyes and plans of the Almighty, was powerful medicine.  And it was lapped up by Beboppers.  So much so that it has been argued that Bebop was the sound of Black American Islam.

The story continues.

The Bebop spirit of radical reinterpretation of mainstream music, individual self-expression and political protest flowed through American popular music for several decades even as jazz itself struggled to survive.

From acid jazz to rap (in opposition to the sweet soul sound of Motown), and from Gil Scott-Heron to the hip hop artists of Los Angeles, New York and beyond, that ornery, uncontainable energy of Bebop sparked to life by the promise of Islam, keeps reinventing itself generation after generation.

Recently, I was asked to tell this story again, but from the angle of ‘change’.   What lessons, if any, could this sudden, complete and improbable overhaul of jazz offer about the nature and dynamics of social change?

For me there are 4 important lessons.

  1. Change is unpredictable. Like quicksilver on glass or a river in flood trying to contain and lead ‘change’ to a certain destination or outcome is impossible.  Unpredictability is the heart of change, it is by nature unstable and dynamic. If it followed predictable courses and always arrived at the place we wanted it to, it wouldn’t be change.

When the first Ahmadi missionaries came to America their ‘outcome’ was a Muslim United States.  When that didn’t happen, they had high hopes that their message would at least eliminate Jim Crow and liberate and convert Black Americans to Islam.

In this they were slightly but only slightly more successful.  Jim Crow eventually was killed off. No doubt Yusuf Lateef, McCoy Tyner, Art Blakey, Charlie Parker, Ahmad Jamal and Idris Mohammad contributed indirectly to his demise.  But Islam remains a minor religion within the African American community, perhaps no more than 8%. Of that number fewer than 10 thousand identify as Ahmaddiya.

So not only did the Ahmadi-led project of social change fail in its main goal, its greatest achievement–setting the conditions for the explosion of Bebop and the rebirth of jazz–was a difficult one to embrace.

Many Ahmadis share the anti-music notions of their Sunni peers, especially an aversion to instrumental music.  And yet their community is identified as being part of the mid-wife team that delivered some of the most outrageously energetic, complex and exciting instrumental music the world has ever heard.  Talk about unintended consequences!

  1. People will pick and choose from the change that is on offer. The musicians who converted to Islam did so for all sorts of reasons, and spiritual practice was not always the main one. For some, perhaps most, it was (at least initially) a statement of personal political protest. Becoming a Muslim was a way to give the finger to Jim Crow, and American apartheid while gaining a sense of human dignity.

Embracing Islam gave many musicians who had come out of the Christian church an opportunity to reject that religion which had been experienced as just another part of the enslavement of the Black mind.

For others, like Art Blakey and Ahmed Abdul Malik, Islam represented a link to a broken history.  Many of the Africans transported to America as slaves had been Muslim. Some jazz musicians saw conversion as nothing more than an act of cultural restoration.

Of course, many boppers and rappers did and do take spiritual solace from Islam. Many did and do practice their faith.  But taken as a whole it seems that converting to Islam meant and delivered different things to different musicians.  And there were no qualms about taking just some of what was on offer-–the notion of brotherhood and human dignity for example—and rejecting other parts that didn’t fit.

For practitioners of international or community development who are on a ceaseless search for ways to affect change, it is important to remember that change is more often a menu than a policy.

  1. Change itself is a creative force. The bebop movement was something new in jazz and society. It was created or facilitated into existence by a trio of conditions: the creatively moribund Swing monolith, the crushing violence of a Jim Crow society and the liberating message of Islam.

These three elements came together like electrons and neutrons in a particular place and time to produce an explosion of something altogether different: Muslim bebop.

Yet bebop itself went on to create and be the precondition for other changes in American society.

Taking the lead from brave musicians who converted to a foreign religion and played a difficult, unpopular (at first) strain of art music, whole swathes of society including rappers, hip-hoppers, community activists and even politicians and academics found the courage to step up, express themselves, speak out and dare to reinvent their art, their profession, their community, and nation.

Bebop, though now virtually dead, was in its heyday a powerful change agent itself.

The message for practitioners here is simple: Beware! Change can be explosive.

  1. Change is constant. There is no such thing as stasis. While its fun to view the changes in jazz in clinical isolation, the reality is that America, Islam and music were all experiencing change at the same time.

By the 1950s the church-led political civil rights movement was picking up steam. Its focus was not so much on urban north but southern rural racism. The heartland of Jim Crow, not the periphery.

While the beboppers example was one part of this massive social tumult it played very little direct role in the Civil Rights movement and that movement certainly did not require bebop to start or continue.

Although Swing was a huge industry and there was little creative room for expansive and restless talents like Parker and Monk within it, other stuff was happening.

The urban blues based in Chicago and led by Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf were gathering a head of steam. Soon, the Blues sired soul music and rock n’ roll.   Bebop may have been the most immediate threat to Swing but it was not the only one.

Even within the small American Muslim world, the Ahmadis who had dominated, indeed, sparked all interest in Islam in America since the turn of the century, were eclipsed by the Nation of Islam. This introduced a more racialist, politicised stream of the religion and rendered the Ahmadis virtually irrelevant.

What the story of Bebop, Ahmaddiya Islam and Jim Crow illustrates is an entire culture and society in a state of rapid change. To try to isolate and box off one part of that change from the rest is as futile as trying to grab water in your fist. You can’t.

Ultimately, the story of how a heretical sect of Islam transformed American jazz and society is but a single verse in an ongoing song of social change. It only makes sense when understood in that context.

And that is perhaps the greatest lesson: change is the very nature of human endeavour.

This article first appeared on Life After Aid

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