Stop the whitewash now!–Rahsaan Roland Kirk, The Jazz and People’s Movement
Hire more Black artists
of the eye and ear.
We demand the termination of television’s
frozen music today!
Throughout the sixties and early seventies people regularly voiced their opinions by demonstrating for every imaginable cause and reason. The civil rights marches in Alabama had been a great catalyst for change and growing numbers began rising up to challenge the madness of the Vietnam War. Inspired by the radical left-wing students who’d recently staged a takeover at Columbia University, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, with the help of Mark Davis, conspired to disrupt the prime-time airwaves for the sake of the music they dearly loved and believed in.
Like a pair of mismatched malcontents, Kirk and Davis spent the summer of 1969 brainstorming ways to rescue Black Classical Music from certain oblivion and manage to thrust it into the consciousness of the unwitting public. Mark devised the idea that jazz musicians should play in the city parks instead of clubs, making it free for everyone to hear and enjoy. A couple of phone calls to television stations and the press, he naively believed, would insure certain exposure for the deserving musicians.
Rahsaan liked the idea of bands setting up on a truck, delivering jazz to every corner of the city like fresh baked bread. “Then came the idea of disrupting television shows,” Mark said with a devilish grin.
“When Rahsaan went into the television studios, the press considered it a revolutionary act,” David Amram pointed out. “They portrayed it as civil disobedience or a riot. He was just trying to give America a wake-up call. Rahsaan wanted to give kids, regardless of their race or nationality, an image they could aspire to, instead of gangsters, pimps, and drug dealers. He felt that perhaps they could put something else on television. Jazz was this great, sophisticated, internationally respected music that at the time was invisible,” Amram lamented.
Max Gordon, proprietor of the Village Vanguard, offered his club on Monday nights as a base for the band of ad-hoc musical guerrillas who became known as “The Jazz and People’s Movement.” Among the crew of conspirators were trumpeter Lee Morgan, Elvin Jones, and Archie Shepp. DJs on WRVR employed special code words on the air to keep those in the know informed of secret meetings and the J&PM’s every move.
“I was not equipped to do this from a musical knowledge point of view, or from a racial point of view, but I was from a Rahsaanian point of view!” Mark chuckled. Davis assisted Kirk in drawing up a petition describing the problems facing musicians and the grim future and certain extinction of Black Classical Music. In a nutshell, their manifesto stated that jazz was America’s number-one contribution to the arts, and if people ignored the rich heritage of this music, they were certain to destroy their own culture through ignorance and neglect. The disgruntled authors demanded that the time had come for the media to recognize the contribution of creative black musicians. They pointed to the fact that jazz musicians rarely appeared on TV and were constantly neglected by limited radio formatting as well.
With the help of Mark Davis, Archie Shepp, and the members of the J&PM, Rahsaan composed this daring declaration in hopes of explaining to “the people” just what their mission was all about:
Statement of Purpose
Many approaches have been used through the ages in the attempted subjugation of the masses of people. One of the very essential facets of the attempted subjugation of the black man in America has been an effort to stifle, obstruct and ultimately destroy black creative genius; and thus, rob the black man of a vital source of pride and liberating strength. In the musical world, for many years a pattern of suppression has been thoroughly inculcated into most Americans. Today many are seemingly unaware that their actions serve in this suppression. Others are of course more intentionally guilty. In any event most Americans for generations have had their eyes, ears and minds closed to what the black artist has to say. Obviously only utilization of the mass media has enabled white society to establish the present state of bigotry and whitewash. The media have been so thoroughly effective in obstructing the exposure of true black genius that many black people are not even remotely familiar with or interested in the creative giants within black society. Such injustice has reaped immense ramifications for white society. By suppressing black creativity, the white man has managed to avoid competitive confrontation—thus insuring his own position and security, both emotionally and monetarily. Concomitantly, he has partially succeeded once more in emasculating a facet of black culture and the black quest for freedom. However, in one respect the pattern of suppression has clearly failed, for though there has been success in blocking the exposure of black artists, and in whitewashing the minds of most Americans, attempts to destroy the sources of creation have not succeeded. Action to end this injustice should have begun long ago. For years, only imitators and those who would sell their souls have been able to attain and sustain prominence on the mass media. Partially through the utilization of an outlandish myth, that in artistic and entertainment fields bigotry no longer exists and by show-rooming those few blacks who have sold out, the media have so far escaped the types of response that such suppression and injustice should and now will evoke. Help in the struggle to open the media and to enable black artists to reach the positions of prominence that their artistry so deserves—to breathe new life into black culture.
–The Jazz and People’s Movement
New York City, 1969
Kirk took the entire summer off from gigging and recording and, with Mark Davis leading the way, visited dozens of clubs around New York City to talk of their plans to protest and to ask his fellow musicians to pledge their support for their crusade.
“We went around to all the clubs and got the musicians to sign the petition. Everyone who played in New York [at the time] signed it. It reads like a who’s who,” Davis said proudly. “It was a thrill to get to meet all these people with Rahsaan. He was such an excellent person to be the leader because he was not limited to one kind of music,” Mark pointed out. “Rahsaan could represent any of the music that was around. We would go into Jimmy Ryan’s and all the New Orleans guys would sign. Then he would sit in while we were there and the people in the club would be aghast because they never heard anybody do continuous breathing on a clarinet. You could see people looking at each other and asking questions like ‘Who is that?’ and ‘How is that possible?’ By the time he would be done they would be amazed, and he would get up like nothing ever happened and walk out. That was a typical experience going into a club with him that summer.”
“The airways belong to the public and we’re here to dramatize that fact,” Lee Morgan told Down Beat. “Jazz is the only real American music but how often do you see jazz musicians in front of the camera? And we’re not talking about jazz musicians playing in the house band.”
On August 27, 1970, some sixty musicians and friends gathered on the corner of Fiftieth Street, outside of Radio City Music Hall, with the intent to disrupt The Merv Griffin Show. Rahsaan and Mark handed out wooden whistles to the crowd and told everybody to start wailing as soon as he gave the signal.
“Halfway into the show, we opened up with our whistles and bells,” Joe Texidor recalled. “Rahsaan pulled out a clarinet and I had a tambourine. I had shaved my head at the time and covered it with coconut oil, so it would shine in the lights. Merv Griffin thought we were a religion. He went downstairs and wouldn’t come back until we quieted down.”
“This caught Merv by surprise,” Ron Burton recalled in an interview on “Radio Free Rahsaan.” “He said ‘I thought I heard birds’ because we started blowin’ these little whistles in the middle of the program. We just kept on blowin’ these whistles. Everybody started looking around. We came out with signs [that read] ‘More Jazz Music On TV,’ ‘Honor American Jazz Music.’ There were all these different signs printed up. Harold Mabern and Lee Morgan were there, and I think Roy Haynes was there on the first one. They all just sat there and talked to Merv after we had interrupted the show. They said, ‘We might as well find out what it’s all about. The show is shot now!’ So, they wanted to know just what could happen to get more of this music on the TV.”
“At the time, the eleven o’clock news always began with the casualties of the Vietnam War,” Mark Davis pointed out. “But Channel 2 started their broadcast that night by showing ‘a group of black militants that took over The Merv Griffin Show.’ The press painted a picture, not of artists who’d been deprived all their lives of, or of a culture that’s been raped, but of crazy black militants out for power.”
“[Rahsaan] gave us the cue and everybody started blowin’ the whistles and horns and messed up the entire show,” Billy Harper told Cadence magazine. “The point was to bring attention to the fact that there was not enough black creative music on television. The first time there was this shock, and everybody saw this on the news and it was just a shocking thing and terrible, so you got to watch out for those musicians!” Harper joked. “And then we tried it on The Johnny Carson Show, but they were ready for that.”
Because of his connection to the jazz world, everyone in the Griffin camp naturally assumed that Art Davis, the orchestra’s bassist, was working as an insider for the J&PM. After all, he appeared on Kirk’s We Free Kings album. At the same time his musician friends assumed he had sold out working for the likes of Merv.
Suddenly Davis found himself in the middle of a sticky situation with no allies on either side. “The sad thing about it is all these people knew me,” Art recalled, regarding the J&PM. “I had recorded with them and [they] did not let me know in advance. Which, in a sense, hurt me because I wouldn’t have gone and told and said, ‘They’re gonna do this and I don’t want any part of it.’ God help me. I was on one of Kirk’s first albums and I recorded with Lee Morgan. All those people knew me,” Dr. Davis explained in an interview in Coda. “They never said a word. But I was portrayed as the great compromiser.”
Art soon found himself forced out of Merv’s band when the show moved from New York to Los Angeles. “It was very sophisticated,” Davis explained. “Merv avoided me. I was supposed to be a good little boy since I had a job. I’m supposed to keep my nose clean. I’m not supposed to do as I felt. So, in a sense I was being made an example of. Everybody else closed ranks and I was what I call ‘White-listed.’”
Davis soon noticed the calls for session, jingle, and soundtrack work stopped coming in. He found it all “very disturbing,” expecting this sort of treatment from the white entertainment establishment, but Art was even more surprised to find that his fellow Afro-Americans had cut him off, “even harder.”
Rahsaan and Mark had been warned that the J&PM had broken FAA regulations and the FBI were keeping track of their every action. “We weren’t worried about going to jail. Maybe we should’ve been,” Mark mused.
As most of the protesters were black, it made them an easy mark for the security guards at the television stations. The only way the Jazz and People’s Movement could slip into The Tonight Show as a group, without rousing suspicion, was to take a tour of the television studios under the guise of a church group from Harlem.
“It was very well planned,” Davis explained. “It happened to be on the night of Carson’s anniversary show. Mayor Lindsay was going to be in the audience along with various celebrities.”
Rahsaan devised that at a specific time, during the taping of the show, he and Mingus and some other musicians would set up in the lobby of the RCA building to gather a crowd with an impromptu jam and cause a ruckus. This would hopefully draw the security away from the protesters and buy them a little more time before everyone was inevitably thrown out. But as the tour ended and the J&PM reached the entrance to the studio, the guards stubbornly refused to let the group enter. “So, we just sat down right there and blocked the doors,” Mark said proudly. “There were maybe fifty of us. We wouldn’t let anybody in. The security didn’t take very kindly to this. A bunch of goons came up and verbally harassed us and stepped on us and smashed into us while they tried to pull open the doors. Just at the point when we were about to be thrown out or arrested, all of a sudden, an elevator door opened and out came Rahsaan with a group of musicians. They were all playing as they were walking. Rahsaan walked right through the crowd and up to the door. He was standing right over me. Rah told the policeman to open the door. The cop said, ‘I’m not opening that door!’ Rahsaan, took his horn in his hands, said, ‘Open that door or I’ll blow it down!’ And the guy opened the door! We went in and set up negotiations and the show went on.”
Davis was ecstatic afterward. “I can’t believe it!” he confided to Rahsaan. “The cop opened the door like you had a cannon in your hands!” To which Kirk boldly replied, “Yeah, and it’s a good thing he opened it, or I would have blown it right down!”
Letters began appearing in Down Beat, written by disgruntled musicians, accusing Kirk of using the Jazz and People’s Movement as a platform to further his own career. Mark protested vehemently, claiming nothing could’ve been farther from the truth: “He’d done this out of love of the music,’’ Davis declared. “That’s what the movement was really about. He had sacrificed his own career during this time, making fewer albums and traveling less. Rahsaan really put his heart into this, believing it would make a difference. I’ll never forget the look on his face when he discovered people thought he was using this for his own advantage,’’ Mark said. “When they questioned his motivation, it took something out of him and he pulled back in all kinds of ways.”
Kirk’s mission to unify his fellow musicians and promote jazz was slowly being undermined by petty jealousy and selfishness. Until this point, the positive feeling Rahsaan generated had been enough to pull everyone together and set their plan in motion. But Kirk was not about to carry the weight of the J&PM on his back while being sniped at by the very people he was trying to help. Eventually, he would drop the whole matter and resume playing his music again.
Things came to a head one night at a meeting at the Vanguard when Rahsaan was confronted by a group of important black community leaders and was told to get rid of Mark Davis right in front of his friend’s astonished face. Everyone had been excited at the prospect of Operation Breadbasket (a high-profile fund-raising group led by Jesse Jackson and Ralph Abernathy, whose goal was to improve the living conditions of the black community across the country) merging with the J&PM. But first there was a small problem to attend to. Who was this guy standing at the forefront of this movement—who wasn’t a musician, who wasn’t black, and by all accounts didn’t belong there?
Never one for beating around the bush, Rahsaan responded immediately. “If you don’t want Mark, you don’t want me!” Kirk firmly replied.
“It brings tears to my eyes when I think of it now,’’ Davis said. “It really meant a lot to me, in terms of binding my friendship with Rahsaan.”
“The funny thing is, people thought Rahsaan was a racist because of ‘Blacknuss,’ but all he was doing was asserting his roots. It was powerful, but there was never any militant racist shit going on,’’ Les Scher clarified.
“Rahsaan used to talk a lot of revolutionary stuff,’’ Joe Texidor said, recalling the time Kirk introduced him to Huey Newton and Bobby Seale of the Black Panthers. “It never occurred to me that he knew these people.”
“Those were heavy times. The meetings were like when the Stalinists and Trotskyites got together,’’ Dan Morgenstern laughed. “Rahsaan was the most sincere and rational among the voices that were raised. At the disruptions he’d tell everybody, ‘Stay calm, don’t blow your cool.’ Rahsaan really wanted to accomplish something while other people were interested in raising a ruckus. I think he was being used by some people with political motivations. He was someone that others could rally around. Everybody liked him. He wasn’t as controversial as Archie.”
Along with Archie Shepp and Roswell Rudd, Kirk invaded the Guggenheim Museum offices to protest their choice of jazz artists who received their annual fellowships. Although Ornette Coleman and Mary Lou Williams were among those honored, Shepp felt the committee’s selection process was biased and had unfairly shunned him year after year, not solely on account of his race but due his political activism.
Mark Davis recounted a particularly telling episode when the talent coordinator from The Tonight Show invited Kirk to perform on the show: “Rahsaan asked him, ‘What about Coleman Hawkins? Y’know who Coleman Hawkins is don’t you?’ When the guy said, ‘No,’ Rahsaan said to me, ‘Mark, you got him. I’m not gonna waste my time. This guy’s a talent buyer for a major TV show and he doesn’t know who Coleman Hawkins is?!’ Then he just got up and walked away.”
Rahsaan was playing down in New Orleans when the J&PM disrupted The Dick Cavett Show. “I was nervous about how it would go without him,” Davis confessed. “He was the spirit, the moving force of the group. I may have been the coordinator but why would these musicians listen to me? We planned that Billy Harper or Lee Morgan would stand up during the show and start to play. This was our biggest crowd yet. The word had gotten around. I bought whistles for everybody. I shopped around the lower Village for them, in those cheap places with tons of gadgets. I wanted something that would really do the job. The louder the better was my criteria! Some of the guys hid whatever they could. I think Lee had a trumpet with him. We didn’t know at what point we would disrupt the show. Cavett had this famous British actor, Trevor Howard, on and asked him what he thought of New York. Howard said he used to love it because he could hear the greatest jazz in the world here, but he didn’t know what happened because there’s so few places left anymore and then, spontaneously everybody stood up. We had no idea he was going to say anything like that! The whistles were so loud that Dick Cavett put his hands over his ears. He didn’t know where to go—the whole place was flooded with sound.”
Davis then sent The Ed Sullivan Show a letter warning them that they were next. With its live audience and numerous commercials, the J&PM would surely throw the show off its tight schedule. Sullivan’s people thought it over and decided it was best to make peace with the J&PM rather than risk a disruption of their show. “I brought the talent coordinator of The Ed Sullivan Show to see Rahsaan and he really dug his version of ‘My Cherie Amour,” Mark continued. Davis claimed that the real reason Kirk wanted to play The Ed Sullivan Show was that it gave him the chance to put an all-star band together, featuring musicians he respected and admired like Charles Mingus, Roy Haynes, and Archie Shepp. “He only took a short solo,” Mark pointed out.
“Roland was a strange guy,” Michael Cuscuna said. The Ed Sullivan Show typifies his light and dark side. He was always fighting for the recognition of jazz, but there was also a saboteur side of him as well. With all they did, disrupting television shows, to get on the biggest one of all and then to bring Archie Shepp on, who Roland had mixed feelings about... It was like letting his angry side make a statement instead of the communicating side.”
“He called me and asked me to make the gig. I was very honored and considered it a privilege that such a great saxophone player would ask me to be part of something like that,” Archie Shepp said reverently. “It was quite an exciting gig and memorable because it was the last Ed Sullivan Show [March 28, 1971].
Right up until showtime Kirk’s all-star band had been slated to play “My Cherie Amour:’ Sullivan’s crew had timed the song for an unusually generous five-minute slot. Upstairs in the dressing room before going on Kirk began to get all worked up. Rocking in rhythm, he started to shout, “We’re gonna burn it down! We’re gonna burn this place down!”
Observing this strange scenario, Davis grew nervous and suspicious. “Why?” he wondered “would Rahsaan have gotten Roy Haynes, Charlie Mingus, and Archie Shepp together to play a Stevie Wonder song?” A moment later his suspicions were confirmed when all hell broke loose live across America as the band busted into a ragged free-for-all scrambled jam of Mingus’ rolling and tumbling “Haitian Fight Song.”
“I’ll never forget it,” John Stubblefield said, recalling the outrageous scene. “Rahsaan was out there and outspoken!”
“It was out! It was gone! It was totally deranged!” Todd Barkan said, chortling with glee.
Joel Dorn summed up the scene with just a few words: “He was gone. Thin air man! Thin fuckin’ air! What a wasted opportunity!”
“They came on at the end. The music was a total shamble,” Dan Morgenstern recalled, shaking his head. “They had the opportunity to do something and reach people, but this was really out there! It might have started out as something remotely recognizable but then it went really out. It was what you might call ‘energy music.’ Even people who were familiar with these artists were scratching their heads. As far as the great unwashed were concerned, it must have been a total puzzle. The purpose of the Jazz and People’s Movement was to make everyone aware that there wasn’t enough jazz represented on television and now they clearly proved the reason why!” Dan said, throwing his hands in the air.
“It was difficult to believe one’s eyes or ears when tuning in the show entirely by accident, not having heard of the booking. I caught Sullivan’s remark about staying tuned for Rahsaan Roland Kirk and his ‘classical jazz musicians,” Leonard Feather wrote in Down Beat.
“After the commercial, around 9:51, there they all were, somewhat bumblingly introduced, but at least accorded captions at the bottom of the screen as each hovered incredibly into view: Rahsaan himself, gaggle of horns at the ready, sounding reveille for his troops. It all happened so fast—as is invariably the case on those rare occasions when uncompromising jazz is presented on a network show—that there was scarcely time to drink in the reality of these men’s presence before their performance was over.”
Once the sonic storm subsided, Ed Sullivan appeared looking pale and wooden, saying, “Wonderful, wonderful! Let’s hear it for Ramsam Roland Kirk!” As the applause dwindled comedian Godfrey Cambridge sneaked up behind Sullivan and slipped an Afro wig over his head, proclaiming Ed “An Honorary Negro” (undoubtedly a dubious distinction in his book). As Feather pointed out, this little prank turned “the whole thing into an ethnic joke rather than the serious exercise it had been.”
“What you couldn’t see,” Mark Davis said “was all the Sullivan people in a state of shock and panic. Those guys were lucky they lived!”
A few nights later when somebody congratulated Kirk on his appearance on the Sullivan show, “Ramsam” reportedly replied, “Thanks, but don’t blame me because he went off the TV, it wasn’t my fault!”
Soon after the Sullivan debacle, Kirk appeared on The Today Show to spread the message of Black Classical Music and field a few questions from host Hugh Downs.
Hugh Downs: Can whites learn to appreciate and play black music?
RRK: Oh, definitely! The only thing we’re saying is that we feel the credit should be given to the black man in this country for what he has contributed. In other words, we credit Bach and Beethoven in Europe for all the beautiful works they’ve written without any qualms. We figured that the music of Sidney Bechet, Duke Ellington, and John Coltrane and all these beautiful people are just like classical musicians in their own right. We call them ‘Black Classical Musicians’ and we just feel that all the rock music and all the styles and fads have been borrowing from this music for years, it’s time for it to y’know ...
HD: That there should be more recognition.
RRK: There should be more recognition and the musicians be able to come on shows like you’ve given us a chance to do to go on panel shows and game shows and talk and be treated just like people in the country y’know?
HD: Perhaps that’ll happen now y’know, that we get a chance to expose more of the music, particularly via a visual medium. To be able to watch you play is something very worthwhile in addition to being able to hear it recorded.
RRK: You see, there are a lot of beautiful musicians that have the same visual thing going on that have never been on television and that will probably never be unless something’s done.
Years after Coltrane’s death, when Rahsaan was first introduced to Ed Sullivan, he asked why the great tenor saxophonist never appeared on his show. Sullivan, America’s most famous emcee, ignorantly inquired, “Does he have any albums out?”
“I may be overstating it but after The Ed Sullivan Show, Rahsaan’s heart was broken,” Mark Davis believed. “The only reason he took The Today Show program was they gave him a half hour slot. They agreed he could bring on members of Basie’s band that he felt deserved more exposure, including trombonist Dicky Wells.”
No matter how disgusted Rahsaan had become over the entire J&PM affair, his wild wit and sense of humor continued to prevail, as demonstrated from this fragment recorded for his “audiobiography”: “Dig it! Dig it! If you can’t dig it then you’re guilty like all those vultures at home that don’t know what’s happenin.’ Like Ed Sullivan…. you think he would have a group like ours on unless he added some monkeys and dancers? He’s still back in the vaudeville days! Old Ed, he really got jealous when they named that horse Mr. Ed, taking the television spotlight away from him. The jive mamajamma! We gotta quit goin’ along with what people say on television because they don’t know. Soon as they get through punchin’ in from nine to five they go to their cozy little comfortable pads and don’t come out and check out none of the brothers makin’ music. They’re just now catchin’ up with New Orleans!”
Down Beat had served as a forum for angry musicians to air their grievances. Even members of the cutting-edge AACM were disillusioned by Kirk’s performance on the Sullivan show: “I respect the musicians who appeared on that show, but you can count me as one who knows they didn’t do shit but make some small amount of bread for a very few,” violinist Leroy Jenkins complained. “Of CBS, I ask: Was that token show our only choice?”
“Whether or not anything of lasting value to black music and/or jazz was accomplished, Kirk’s principles and objectives are to be commended. January 24 was a unique night in the history of jazz on the small screen,” Leonard Feather assessed.
In a 1972 radio interview on WHRB in Boston, Rahsaan clarified the purpose of the Jazz and People’s Movement once and for all: “We were an organization that disrupted television shows and a few radio shows in Mississippi/New York City because we felt that the music everyone calls ‘jazz,’ I call it ‘Black Classical Music,’ wasn’t getting a fair shake and it’s still not getting a fair shake on TV or AM or FM radio. So, we felt that it was time for the musicians to take their own livelihood in hand, so we formed this organization that was made up of musicians and music lovers. There was the late, great Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard… Pharaoh Sanders was part of it. Archie Shepp, and a whole lot of other musicians.
“The first show we disrupted was The Merv Griffin Show. We didn’t go in there against the rules because we had tickets. We had our picket signs and whistles. Some of the musicians had instruments. Some of the music lovers had pickets and whistles and tambourines and shakers and in the middle of one of Merv Griffin’s stupid people he had on a panel… I started off by playing an instrument and the people that was with me, there was about a hundred people, followed suit and we completely disrupted the show and they weren’t able to continue that night. The same thing happened to The Dick Cavett Show. Consequently, a lot of the other shows started getting scared. By this happening they could lose money when someone stops the show like that. See? We got a few shows where we were able to go on and tell what we were about.”
In his last interview, given in November 1977, Rahsaan thought back to the wild times of the J&PM: “People wonder why the group is not in existence, but that was just a period that we had to go through. I knew it was something that couldn’t last, you know, but it was something to show that the musician has ‘get-up’ and does more than put needles in his arm or smoke pot. That really showed people that we cared about what we were into.”