38th Annual Marion Thompson Wright Lecture

Opening Remarks by Chancellor Nancy Cantor

I am honored and moved, as always, to be here, to follow our remarkable Mayor Ras J. Baraka – statesman, educator, artist, son of Newark.  As we come together for the 38th annual Marion Thompson Wright Lecture, it feels so right to be immersing ourselves in the space that music – jazz and more – has made powerful and empowering in black history and in Newark’s history.  One of the first times that I heard the Mayor speak was in a symposium organized by our colleagues from the Queer Newark project, in this room in October, 2014, reminiscing about club life and jazz as sanctuary spaces, powerful and empowering.  And we all know the strength that our guiding light, Clement Price, derived from those jazz records (vinyl, I’m told) stored in milk crates in his and Mary Sue Sweeney Price’s living room in Newark and many now adorning the walls of the jazz club at 15 Washington Street named in his honor—Clement’s.1 

Powerful and empowering, that is the tune that generations of Newarkers have played, carried forth today by those we look to – including, of course, Stefon (Harris) and Alexis (Morrast) here with us– to keep it going strong, filling the spaces that otherwise too often keep us apart, dare we say segregated, even locked away.  Jazz, music, art in all its creative expression has always been the key to the crossing of borders, boundaries, the unlocking of doors to opportunity, to a bit of justice.  And that continues today indeed, as Alexis plays in Cape Town, and Stefon reminds us there are no mistakes on the bandstand, and improvisational expression fills the halls of NJPAC and Symphony Hall, the rooms of Express Newark and Clement’s, the airwaves of WBGO, and the sanctuary at Bethany (Baptist Church)’s Jazz Vespers, even as the legendary lost spaces between – Sparky J’s, The Key Club, Club Zanzibar, and more – remain as inspirations. 

And as the city moves, as new spaces pop up, trying to be third spaces that don’t fall prey to the separations of history – de jure or de facto – that grabbed space and opportunity for some, and persistently marginalized and held back others, as we yearn for and commit to Newark not being Brooklyn, to equitable growth instead, can we draw strength from and inspirational rhythms to play from the score of one of the greatest jazz cities in the world, as The Guardian called Newark, tracing the route by which sounds of Sarah Vaughan floated forward to Christian McBride and Stefon and Alexis, and onward.2

For just as the long arm of history eerily reminds us today of what hasn’t gone away – think Charlottesville, think travel bans, think bathroom laws, think Dreamers at a precipice – the dogged repetition of our proclivity to divide and separate, at the very same time the persistent and indeed rebellious noises we make, improvising in ways that cover the spaces between, bouncing off one another, crossing generations and borders, covering over time with variation, with novelty, allows for how the City Moves, for how we express Newark forward in some continued improvisation toward equitable growth, toward justice, while the archives of the Institute of Jazz Studies (IJS) and the commentaries of WBGO keep us mercifully aware of the legacy – what we might call the goodness in the long arm of history. Yes, as Farah Jasmine Griffin so encourages us to see the intersection of artistry and progressive politics as empowering and Daphne Brooks traces performance itself as a freeing expression, we settle on how important the notes between the spaces have been to defining the direction of the spaces between the notes, and that continues today, déjà vu all over again.

We are living in a time when the spaces between the notes, bucking up against decades of laws and practices that define some spaces as no-go zones for some peoples, are filled with a medley of voices, but all too often angry and urgent, and almost always speaking past each other, shouting down each other, asserting righteous grievance of their own – absolutely often quite justified – but rarely acknowledging the others’ pain or even their existence.  It is a time when some of the loudness comes from a fear of losing power (and an urgent need to loudly assert dominance) and some comes from a fear of never, ever gaining power (and the fierce urgency of not remaining silent).

And while the shouting often rings a familiar note – even borrowing, as in Charlottesville, from an old score, that in turn evokes old tunes of mobilization – we shall not be moved – that give us some strength in response – yet it also reminds us afresh that there is no exact playbook for this performance, for our time.  It will take the improvisation of a master, pulling the whole lot of us into its spell, into its back and forth and rhythms that move, taking the risk to believe there are no mistakes as Stefon (Harris) assures us on stage, but what about the spaces between the notes, what about this stage of life together?  Can we take the risk, as these musicians and artists all over do, to listen to each other, to bounce off of each other, even to express without suppressing, to play without taking over or shutting out the other, to grab a rightful bit of voice without thinking it’s the only one to hear?  Can we model the spaces between the notes on the metaphors, the harmonious but vibrant even sharp rhythms of the notes between the spaces?

Jazz, performance, and the arts have these metaphors of reaching across, built intrinsically into the genre of collective expression – improvisation; movement; interdependence; interchange – all aimed in some way at empathy, at lifting the spirit (without tricking it though) through the honest, sometimes raw, connections made between people and notes and sounds and experiences and memories, at once painful and uplifting.  Through the honest sound which even when it hurts, tends to draw us closer not push us apart.  Isn’t that precisely what we need today?  Isn’t that what democracy is about, as NJPAC reminds us annually with its James Moody Democracy of Jazz Festival?

For as the city moves (and after all, when this city moves, the world moves too), we need to ensure it covers the spaces between the notes as well and as powerfully as the notes cover the spaces between the people – cover those spaces with walkways to opportunity, with a celebration of the diverse expressions we make and the diverse talents we hear, when the music plays a beautiful sound to hear.  And we will hear it today, in Paul Robeson’s hall, in one of jazz’s legendary cities, in the spirit of Marion Thompson Wright and the soul of Clement Alexander Price that inspires more, more movement toward justice, more time for growth – but equitable growth – for the many, not just the few – because after all, if music is our inspiration, it comes from and reaches out to all.

 

[1] As poignantly described by Joe Pulzone, a Rutgers-Newark 1978 alumna, writing, on the occasion of Clem’s passing, on the power of Clement Price as a teacher, mentor, and jazz collector.

[2] La Gorce, T. (2016, November 11). How Newark became one of the greatest jazz cities in the world. Retrieved from The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/nov/11/newark-new-jersey-jazz-ins....