Voices of Jazz and Human Rights

Keith Tsuji/Getty Images for Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz -
Earl Klugh (C) holds a guitar workshop at the 2014 International Jazz Day Educational Programs at Osaka School of Music

In celebration of the third edition of International Jazz Day, UNESCO and the Thelonious Monk Institute for Jazz held, on 30 April in Osaka (Japan), a day-long series of educational activities, followed by an All-Star Jazz Concert. Hosted at the Osaka School of Music (OSM), an exciting variety of roundtables, master classes, workshops, screenings and performances promoted the culture of jazz among young and jazz fans.

Born in the African-American community, today jazz belongs to the entire world. For UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova, «jazz embodies the spirit of UNESCO. It brings people together and builds peace, tolerance and understanding. It has been the soundtrack for positive social change, from the fight against racism to the struggle for democracy.”

Musicians such as UNESCO Artist for Peace Marcus Miller, Herbie Hancock and world-renowned trumpeter Terumasa Hino animated educational sessions at the OSM. One of the conferences, focusing on jazz and human rights, was given by the American jazz singer and three-time Grammy Award winner, Dee Dee Bridgewater. She paid tribute to three jazz idols: Billie Holiday (1915-1959), Nina Simone (1933-2003), and Abbey Lincoln (1930-2010). Sharing her thoughts on their songs, Dee Dee discussed their role in the adoption of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, a law prohibiting all forms of segregation in public places. This year, the United States celebrate the 50 year anniversary of this Act.

Keith Tsuji/Getty Images for Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz -
Herbie Hancock (L) and Marcus Miller speak at the 2014 International Jazz Day Educational Programs at Osaka School of Music

The musical works of each of these artists testify to this struggle. Three songs were presented by Dee Dee Bridgewater as particularly symbolic for the emancipation and civil rights for African Americans: Billie Holiday’s "Strange Fruit", Nina Simone’s "Mississippi Goddam" and Abbey Lincoln’s "We Insist, Freedom Now". These songs, which call humanity to unite around human rights and advocating for dignity and tolerance, are part of the world’s jazz heritage. UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador Herbie Hancock states: “Jazz is a response to oppression that's not bullets and blood. It's the expression of hope and freedom."

Workshops illustrate the wonderful variety of the jazz genre, and its impact on everyday life. Topics include a jazz dance workshop led by Tony Award-winning choreographer Hinton Battle; the role of women in jazz, led by Esperanza Spalding, Toshiko Akiyoshi and Roberta Gambarini; the healing power of music during natural disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina and the Tohoku Earthquake; and the influence of quantum physics on the music of Wayne Shorter. A good dose of improvisation, without which a jazz day would be incomplete, crowned the day with intercultural musical performance between students from Thelonious Monk Institute and those of the Osaka Music School.

For the Director-General, jazz is clearly "a lifestyle and a tool for dialogue, even social change." The diverse themes and philosophical scope of sixteen educational activities of the day are proof of how these artists are privileged witnesses of their time. They have the responsibility to educate through their creativity tolerance, reconciliation and dialogue.

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