A Tribute to the Blues, Jazz and One Young Man’s Words

Jermaine Fields-Tisdale, a 15-year-old Detroiter, will take the stage tonight. He is not nervous; in fact, the chance to perform energizes him. For he will be speaking the words of a great man, something all actors relish.

Tisdale, a student at the Detroit School of Arts, will be among a group of young Detroiters performing their own words and doing a reading of Martin Luther King Jr.’s opening address to the 1964 Berlin Jazz Festival. The high-school sophomore’s performance is part of the Freedom 2011 concert at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History.

The event, co-sponsored by the Detroit Jazz Fest, will honor and celebrate Black History Month through music, poetry and speech. Tickets are sold out, but there is some free standing-room space available.

Tisdale heard about the event from one of his teachers, and he was “ready and willing” to participate. He is in his high school’s communication and media arts program. He hopes to go into acting or broadcasting when he graduates. He also is part of the celebrated Mosiac Youth Theatre of Detroit. His biological age might be young, but he has the voice and poise of someone far older and wiser.

Tisdale said he wants his reading of “On the Importance of Jazz” to show the many themes King’s words express. Yes, King talked about jazz, the blues, music. But as an African American male, Tisdale heard much more. How musicians expressed the Black experience through music. How music expressed your identity in an environment that largely excluded and persecuted people just like him. And how some things – like faith, love and happiness – are things all people need.

Jazz speaks for life. The Blues tell the story of life’s difficulties, and if you think for a moment, you will realize that they take the hardest realities of life and put them into music, only to come out with some new hope or sense of triumph. This is triumphant music.

“No matter how hard life is for you, music has a way of expressing it. Jazz is gives you a feeling of relief. It gives you a feeling of warmth and sweet rhythm and sweet harmony. It opens up your soul,” Tisdale said.

It is no wonder that so much of the search for identity among American Negroes was championed by Jazz musicians. Long before the modern essayists and scholars wrote of racial identity as a problem for a multiracial world, musicians were returning to their roots to affirm that which was stirring within their souls.

“When I was reading over the speech, I noticed that everything he said may have been directed at what was happening in 1964, but you could apply it to what is happening now,” Tisdale said. “Everybody needs music. Everybody needs love every day. Everybody needs to be happy. And you need to hold onto faith. That’s an everlasting thing for 1964 and 2011.”

Much of the power of our Freedom Movement in the United States has come from this music. It has strengthened us with its sweet rhythms when courage began to fail. It has calmed us with its rich harmonies when spirits were down.

For Tisdale, Dr. King’s timeless communication skills are powerful lessons. This man spoke what so many felt; Tisdale hopes to try to do those words justice tonight.

And now, Jazz is exported to the world. For in the particular struggle of the Negro in America there is something akin to the universal struggle of modern man. Everybody has the Blues. Everybody longs for meaning. Everybody needs to love and be loved. Everybody needs to clap hands and be happy. Everybody longs for faith.

“I hope that whoever is listening to that speech really hears the words. I want them to get the words out to them so they can understand the message. I want it to change their outlook,” Tisdale said.


Note: Freedom 2011 is drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts’ curated celebration of inspirational music from the Civil Rights Movement. The program will also include original works honoring icons from James Brown to August Wilson. The concert will indict early 21st century politics, and even take a humorous look at the minstrel. Featured musicians include Geri Allen, Robert Hurst, Wessell Anderson, Nicholas Payton and Mavis SWAN Poole. InsideOut’s Citywide Poets also will open the show with a poetry performance related to black history.

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