Dave Clark speaks truth to power through jazz

February 26, 2021

Saxophonist Dave Clark, head of Bellarmine’s Jazz Studies program, teaches saxophone, jazz harmony, jazz history, and improvisation and directs the university’s Nouveau Gumbo ensemble. He is also working on a Ph.D. in Leadership in Higher Education, focusing on jazz as a vehicle for teaching social justice issues. The history of jazz, he says, is the history of Black America.
“The way we look at jazz now is kind of this very elegant, sophisticated music where people sit around in ascots with pipes and clink glasses as they discuss the high philosophical things of the day,” he says. “But it started out as this very kind of communal dance, social music. And the thing that's important is that when jazz really kind of starts to get developed in the early 1900s, we're coming at a time where minstrelsy has been the main form of American entertainment for so long. 
“So part of what jazz is doing is refuting this minstrel idea that that's what it's like to be a black American. You had great players like Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bichet and Jelly Roll Morton, who were really geniuses and virtuosos on the instrument and carried themselves in a certain kind of way. … And then jazz becomes the social dance music of the day. The people dancing to it were the young people who were trying to rebel against ‘the establishment,’ so to speak. So jazz has a long history of that. And jazz musicians really have always looked at jazz as a vehicle not only to entertain, but to really kind of speak truth and find a certain sense of their identity.” 
Big Band jazz helped the country recover from the shared trauma of World War II, Clark says. But then jazz musicians split into two factions: those who took it into a more artistic and improvisational direction, like Charlie Parker, who wanted listeners to think about the music, and those who went back to old-school New Orleans-type jazz who were more interested in how the music made you feel.
This is when jazz started to pick up its reputation as “difficult” music, Clark says. “When I talk about it in my classes, they’re like, ‘Oh, jazz—fuddy-duddy music.’ And then I play some Charlie Parker and they go, ‘Wow, that’s pretty cool stuff.’ The important thing we do is try to introduce people, especially in the liberal arts environment, to the beauty and the message and the truth that is spoken in music, particularly jazz, and how it peels back the layers and helps us really understand and contextualize.”
Clark finds that students often don’t have that historical context. “We start talking about the beginnings of the blues. Jazz is an offshoot in many ways of the blues, but the blues are a result of sharecropping. They don’t realize that stuff happened. Sharecropping leads to Black Code laws, which leads to Jim Crow laws, which leads to families being in debt for years.
“Music gives us the gateway into the way a lot of things were structured. And even if you don't think you like the blues, you love the blues, because so many songs are blues-related, either through form or through the vernacular. And once we meet at the place that we all have some love, then we can say, ‘Well, let's look at some places where we haven't been so lucky. And let's try to get more love in those places.’ Music is such a fantastic vehicle to look at some of these issues that are difficult to talk about, at a place that we have some common ground and some goodwill.”
Government might run more smoothly if members of Congress had to engage in a music ensemble or a choir, he suggests.
“You have situations where you have to go in and make music with people. And sometimes you don't really like those people,” he says. “But you have to put that on the back burner, because the music is greater than your dislike. And service to our nation is greater than anybody's dislike of somebody else's particular policy. At the end of the day, what's the best thing I can do for the music? At the end of the day, what's the best thing I can do for my brother and sister? It's the same kind of thing.”
Dave Clark, head of Bellarmine’s Jazz Studies program

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