Minneapolis festival celebrates African influence on American music


2007 Freedom Jazz Festival will feature Afro-Cuban and West African music as well as straight ahead jazz

After arriving in America, African slaves used drums to communicate to each other, sometimes across plantations. “The slave masters didn’t know the drums could talk,” Lamarr Smith explained, adding that once their real purpose was discovered, the instrument was banned from plantations.

This year’s all-day event is scheduled from noon until 8 pm on Saturday, August 11 at Minnehaha Park. For more information on the 2007 Freedom Jazz Festival, call 612-827-2422, or go to www.freedomjazzfestival.org or www.minneapolisparks.org.

First called “swing music,” then later became known as jazz, “This music is indigenous to America,” added Smith, president of Freedom Jazz Festival, Inc.

For the past eight summers, Smith’s organization has hosted the Freedom Jazz Festival at Minnehaha Park in Minneapolis. This year’s all-day event is scheduled from noon until 8 pm on Saturday, August 11. Smith recalled, “The first year we had 500 people. We had about 4,000 people last year, our largest crowd ever. Minnehaha Park is a great venue because of the sounds of the water, and it is not too big or too small.

“Every year, we tried to get the best of the African American musicians in different genres,” he continued, adding that this year the festival will feature Afro-Cuban and West African music as well as straight ahead jazz. “There’s something for everybody,” Smith said.

More importantly, the annual late summer event keeps alive an art form that many today, including Blacks, have left behind in favor of other types of music, which greatly saddens Smith.

“We don’t even know our history,” he surmised, adding that jazz “is the only American musical art form. This music was invented by [Blacks] for us. It always has been a struggle for us to express ourselves in our music. All of our pain and suffering, hopes and dreams, are embedded in our music. What has happened today is people have come along and they have appropriated the best things in our music as their own.”

Rarely these days can you find jazz on commercial radio. Most of the top-20 radio markets in the U.S. don’t even have a jazz station. In the Twin Cities, for example, not since KTWN (now KQQL) back in the late 1970s and early 1980, then for a time on daytime-only KTCJ-AM (now KFXN, a sports station), has jazz been featured commercially.

During the 1990s and early 2000s, a couple of stations tried and failed programming a “smooth jazz” format. “This whole ‘smooth jazz’ movement is jazz that has been appropriated and used as musical Prozac,” Smith said sadly. “They call it jazz but it’s not.”

Today, only KBEM (88.5 FM), a non-commercial radio station, calls itself a jazz station. Other than Saturdays from 7 am to 7 pm, and a four-hour blues program on Friday evenings, KBEM plays “straight jazz,” according to its business and marketing director Kevin Barnes. Also, one of KZJK-FM’s two high-definition stations has a jazz format (you must have a HD radio to receive it, however).

A longtime jazz aficionado, Smith admitted, “God bless KBEM.” He recalled once calling the station to inquire about its song list, and someone there told him that they use a preplanned format. “They got a computer picking the songs,” he noted.

Growing up in Detroit, Smith’s parents first exposed him to jazz, R&B and blues. “What got me into [jazz] was listening to it with my parents — my mother in particular. Sunday mornings was Nina Simone time. When I hear certain songs, it takes me back.” From then on, he was hooked on jazz, along with others like him who treasured it like gold. “I remember when a new Miles Davis album came around, we carried our albums with us,” he reminisced.

Once upon a time, young musicians would learn how to play an instrument from a “master.” Nowadays, musicians would rather incorporate pre-packaged sounds or use “sampling.” “They strayed from their musical roots when the electronic music came along, and people didn’t have to learn to play anymore,” Smith said.

Schools also de-emphasizing music didn’t help either. Smith pointed out, “If you didn’t play sports, you played in the band. Now most schools either don’t have a music program, or the music program they have already is [for advanced music students]. It’s not for people who want to come and learn how to play.”

Like jazz, even blues isn’t heard much: “Black people today seem to be ashamed of blues,” Smith said. “It is a dying art.” Nonetheless, “Our mission is to create a new generation of jazz lovers.”

Smith began with his two teenage sons: “All they hear is jazz when they ride in the car [with me],” Smith said proudly. “They have seen and felt the music.”

In simply explaining why Smith and his group work hard to put on the annual festival each summer, he said, “What we really want is for people to bring their kids out. When kids go out and hear good jazz, they will think and remember being out in the park with their parents on a beautiful day, having a great time.”

More importantly, it is “to bring Black music and showcase Black musicians in a venue that they would not normally get,” said Smith, adding that he wants more Blacks to come and enjoy it. “I don’t see enough Black faces in the audience,” he said.

He also would like to do a regularly scheduled program on local radio. “I would love to put together a jazz show, where we would be able to play real, honest jazz. Bring in local musicians and talk to them. Do in-depth studies of certain musicians, and constantly remind people of how the music got started.”

In addition to the great music, Smith said a practice first introduced at last year’s festival again will be featured. He explained, “Because the Minnehaha Creek feeds into the Mississippi, we take a vessel of water and put it up on the stage. That vessel of water absorbs the good vibes from that concert. Then at the end of the concert, we do a New Orleans jazz march and play ‘When the Saints Come Marching In.’ Everybody in the audience and the musicians on stage all march and pour that water into the falls, and we send a blessing down to New Orleans, where jazz started.”

Finally, Smith said that the Freedom Jazz Festival will leave all who attend with a peaceful feeling.

“It’s a beautiful thing,” he predicted. “Come, enjoy and be a part of it.”

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-re corder.com.