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Gordon Vernick is a professor of music and the coordinator of jazz studies at Georgia State University. The self-described “teacher, mentor and tormentor” is an advocate for music of all genres. His online music series, Jazz Insights, was created to help novices learn about jazz through simple explanations and musical examples. (Photo by Mark Ludbrook)

My father was a professional jazz musician in New York, so I grew up around musicians. There was something about the forward motion of hearing them play — the instant connection fostered — that I couldn’t put it into words but wanted to capture. To this day, Billie Holiday makes me speechless when I hear her sing. When horn players like Stan Getz play a ballad, or I hear recordings by Eddie James “Son” House, Charley Patton and William Robert “Bill” Dixon, I’m verklempt, overwhelmed. Throughout history, all great performers have shared one characteristic: complete honesty, because audiences can sense someone who is not telling the truth.

We are not telling the truth where conversations around race in America are concerned. We refuse to acknowledge, for example, that Mississippi in the 1820s, ‘30s and ‘40s was the wealthiest state in the nation because of cotton. We won’t admit that the beneficiaries of America’s caste system were pro-slavery because they had a vested interest in preserving the status quo. The police in the South started out as slave catchers — it wasn’t about crime prevention — yet only my African American friends are saying, “Oh, this is nothing new for us, the police have been doing this to us for generations.”

Four hundred years of unequal treatment of human beings has created a wide gulf between Black Americans and white Americans that keeps manifesting in political and social unrest. If we don’t bridge the chasm, I don’t believe we’ll see forward motion in my lifetime.

The first people totalitarian governments typically arrest are writers and composers because truth-tellers are so powerful. What artists do is take all the intangibles you can’t put into words, and put it into sound — sound that has the power to heal, connect and bring people together. If I‘m listening to someone sing a beautiful aria from a Mozart opera, that singer is re-creating music from the page exactly as written by the composer. But if I hear Billie Holiday sing Strange Fruit, she sings it differently every time and her ability to improvise — which is fundamental to jazz — is the high point of recognition for us. 

Jazz is like any language, you can’t learn it by reading it in a book or on sheet of paper. You have to imitate and assimilate it before it becomes part of your vocabulary. The door is open. . . . We need to start listening, learning and improvising to foster connections, find harmony and finally achieve forward motion.

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