Radicalized, Part 2: Musicians Against Fascism


photo by Scott Friedlander
Arturo O’Farrill addresses the crowd at a Musicians Against Fascism concert/ photo by Scott Friedlander

 On the flight home from Havana last month after the Jazz Plaza Festival, pianist Arturo O’Farrill and I talked about the country to which we were returning.
Donald Trump would soon take the oath of office as president. We each felt uneasy (scared , really), not to mention indignant and insulted. We both also felt motivated—to speak up more forcefully and with greater focus about what we believed in, and to try to strenghten our sense of community with musicians, writers, thinkers and the decent people who read and listen and care.
O’Farrill called me up the next day. He was putting together a concert a Manhattan’s Symphony Space, he said, scheduled for the night before the presidential inauguration, under the banner, “Musicians Against Fascism.”
“Anything I can do to support this?” I asked.
“Yeah, you can emcee.”
I told him that I’d certainly write about the concert, and that maybe I could step up and say a few words. We talked a bit more and then hung up.
I called right back. “Of course I can emcee. I should do it. I’ll do it.”
I’ve been political on the page for at least a decade, writing about, among other things: jazz and American identity; the relationship between the U.S. and Cuba; about indignity, rights and the promise of culture in New Orleans after Hurrican Katrina, and about Islam as heard through music after 9/11.
I’ve spoken truth to power in public at panel discussions and conferences. It seemed high time to quite literally step up and speak out.
It was good to do. I wanted and needed to do it. I’d do it again. I will do it again.
You can stream the whole thing here.

I’m energized and touched by the commitment and enthusiasm of the more than two dozen musicians who took the stage in various configurations over the course of more than three hours at Symphony Space—some of my favorite musicians in New York City showed up, as well as some with which I’m newly enamored. They played their hearts out; some also spoke their minds. Except for the ones coming from or going to gigs, they stayed throughout the show. The full cast:
The Westerlies (Andy Clausen, Zubin Hensler, Willem de Koch, Riley Mulherkar); saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin, drummer Johnathan Blake, bassist Stephan Crump, trumpeter Peter Evans, singer Claudia Acuña and pianist Pablo Vergara, singer/harmonium playerAmirtha Kidambi, drummer Max Jaffe, bassist Brandon Lopez, drummer Tomas Fujiwara, guitarist Mary Halvorson, trumpeter Adam O’Farrill, pianist Fabian Almazan, bassist Daryl Johns, singer Jen Shyu, pianis Toru Dodu, guitarist Liberty Ellman, and singer Somi, singers Tom Abigail and Lily Chapin, Levy Lorenzo (on laptop/synthesizer), bassist William Parker, pianist Matthew Shipp, violinist Sam Bardfeld, trombonist Curtis Fowlkes, bassist Tim Kiah, saxophonist Roy Nathanson, pianist Bill Ware, drummer Austin Williamson, pianist Vijay Iyer, saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, trombonist Kalia Vandever
O’Farrill started the evening off with a brief address, during which he said the following:
We’re gathered to usher in a new era; a new era of strong powerful resistance; an era of cooperation and communication. We’re not here to be sectarian, denominational, ideological or political. On this stage tonight you will see Atheists, Christians, Jews, Conservatives, liberals, communists, socialists and capitalists. But this is not a platform to convert. This is a call to check your agenda at the door and join together and ask how a very bad man with no moral compass and no intellect was allowed to take the nation’s highest office….
We’re gathered to put aside all that divides us and ask our art and our artists to help us find a reason that this happened and most of all help us find a way back to a time when our lives and our worldwide reputation weren’t defined by fear and failure. We also gather to give voice to a rage that many feel and don’t know what to do with. A sadness that is so deep. An illness that has no cure except in when we take action. And act we must. We must organize, demonstrate, be disobedient to our deluded, self-entitled masters. They feel that they have won be installing a silly puppet to satisfy their need for engorgement. But what they’ve done is emboldened us to take the battle beyond the obvious.
And instead of being angry and hateful towards each other, we’re going to work intelligently past our dogmas to agree that we can no longer accept this system. We can no longer sit in silence as we live in our comfortable dogma prisons. We will demand the right for ourselves as we call this day to accountability.

photo by Scott Friedlander
Larry Blumenfeld addresses the crowd at a Musicians Against Fascism concert/photo by Scott Friedlander

I followed with not so much a speech as some connected rallying cries, and some context to gain a galvanizing sense of purpose. And try to inspire them to purposeful action.
“Happy Inauguration Day!” I declared.
I meant that, despite what would happen the next day in Washington DC—”the pilot for a very scary reality-TV series,” I called it; “not a vampire show, but there will be sucking of blood”—we now had the chance to decide what we wished to inaugurate: A season of resistance, perhaps. Focused activism on any number of issues.
I’m here because I’ve been radicalized, I said.
I will not be mesmerized by shiny balls.
I refuse to be infantilized by a man who communicates 140 bitchy characters at a time.
I cannot be dehumanized. I demand to remain civilized.
I acknowledged the presence in spirit of Nat Hentoff, who, when I shared the depth of suffering and neglect and racism I’d found in post-flood New Orleans a decade ago, told me, “You can’t do nothing.”
And of Charlie Haden, who, after the Supreme Court handed George W. Bush the presidency in 2000, told me, “We gotta do something, man.” 
Fabian Almazan, Jen Shyu, Daryl Johns, Jonathan Blake, Lakecia Benjamin, and Mary Halvorson - Musicians Against Fascism at Symphony Space 01-17-17/ photo by Scott Friedlander
Fabian Almazan, Jen Shyu, Daryl Johns, Jonathan Blake, Lakecia Benjamin, and Mary Halvorson – Musicians Against Fascism at Symphony Space 01-17-17/ photo by Scott Friedlander

Before a performance of “Alabama” by the ensemble pictured above, I recited the names of the four black girls who died in 1963, when white supremacists planted dynamite attached to a timing device beneath th front step of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham: Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Carol Denise McNair. John Coltrane composed this song as a response to that hate crime; his phrasing was based on the eulogy delivered by Martin Luther King.
Afterward, I pointed out that Donald Trump’s nominee for U.S. Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, a senator with a markedly racist record, was also from Alabama.
Andy Zee - Musicians Against Fascism at Symphony Space 01-17-17/ photo by Scott Friedlander
Andy Zee speaks at Musicians Against Fascism at Symphony Space 01-17-17/ photo by Scott Friedlander

The concert was a benefit for RefuseFascism.org. Andy Zee, the spokesperson for Manhattan’s Revolution Books and a co-initiator of Refuse Fascism, ade an impassioned call for immediate and sustained activism against the “Trump-Pence regime.”
He emailed to me a few days later, saying:

Everything on the stage of Symphony Space stood in stark contrast to this inauguration. Yes, the performance – especially the performances. But, also the diversity on stage. I was heartened by the younger generation of artists on stage – how you took the spirit and often the compositions of the 1960’s and transmuted them in ways that felt right and of the moment – fired by the passion of resistance. And the artists on stage who come out of the 60’s and on into the 90’s fired the evening with an intensity of new anger and depth. This was an evening of conscience, heart and hope – the fuel of a society wide movement of resistance to stop the fascist regime of Trump and Pence.
 I plan to continue to find ways to work with musicians and audiences, to explore the social justice issues that demand discussion and action, and to keep them connected to our ideas of journalism and culture.
More to come…

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