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Moanin’

On gun violence in the United States

“I merely took the energy it takes to pout, and I wrote some blues.” -Duke Ellington

There was another school shooting this past week.

This one was at a high school in Parkland, Florida. A disgruntled and clearly disturbed 19-year-old former student arrived on school grounds with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, entered the school with apparent ease, and started firing. When he was done 17 people were killed and more than a dozen were wounded. He then unobtrusively snuck out of the school along with throngs of other terrorized young people, ran a quick errand at Walmart, stopped to buy a drink at Subway, and then had lunch at McDonalds before being arrested on the street without incident.

Another day in the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Months before, the young man, Nikolas Cruz, had purchased his own semi-automatic assault rifle almost as easily as on that fateful day he purchased a Big Mac (Florida gun laws are extremely permissive). It did not matter that he had a history of depression and explosive anger, had been expelled from school for bad behavior, and was known to take pleasure in killing animals, nor did it matter that the police had made 39 visits to his home in recent years responding to various “emergencies” often linked to violence, nor that he had quite publicly declared on social media his fascination with and perhaps even his intention to shoot people. Indeed, we now know that the FBI itself had received tips about this very troubled and obviously dangerous teenage boy.

And yet he was able to buy a semi-automatic rifle on the spot and then to kill 17 people with it — because, well, he is a proud bearer of that most sacred of American constitutional liberties, the Second Amendment’s so-called right to bear arms (it also appears that he was the proud owner of a Trump “Make America Great” cap). Or at least he was a rights bearer. Now he is incarcerated, and will surely never again experience a day of freedom.

Readers will have surmised that I am a rather loquacious individual.

And yet when the first news reports of this mass murder broke, I had no words.

A silent scream.

Sadness and grief for the victims, their families, and all of us.

Moan.

I then knew that this would be the topic of my “Blue Monday” column.

There are actually two different jazz classics named “Moanin’.” Both are blues-based tunes steeped in the traditions of Gospel music. Both evoke, in different ways, a sense of pain but also a sense of exuberant life.

The less well-known “Moanin’” was written and arranged by the great Charles Mingus, one of the most innovative and foundational musicians, composers, arrangers, and band leaders of modern jazz. Mingus was there at the birth of bebop. He played the famous 1953 “Jazz at Massey Hall” concert along with the creators of the music: Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, and Max Roach. He led a series of great bands and made numerous recordings that were important musically but also politically (perhaps the most famous was his “Fables of Faubus,” recorded in 1959 to mock Arkansas Governor Orville Faubus, who called out the National Guard to prevent the integration of Little Rock public schools in 1957, the year of my birth). And while jazz musicians well understand his seminal influence, he became a minor pop star in 1979 with the release of Mingus, a best-selling Joni Mitchell tribute album, produced in collaboration with Mingus himself, and featuring the top jazz musicians of the day, including Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, and Jaco Pastorius. (I actually attended a 1979 concert at Forest Hills Stadium featuring this music and a version of this band. I was accompanied by a future Indianapolis real estate mogul.)

Here is Mingus’s “Moanin’.”

The tune was featured on Mingus’s Blues and Roots album, recorded in 1959 and released in 1960, with an all-star lineup that included John Handy and Jackie McLean on alto sax, Booker Ervin on tenor sax, Pepper Adams (featured on this tune) on baritone sax, Jimmy Knepper and Willie Dennis on trombone, Horace Parlan or Mal Waldron on piano, Dannie Richmond on drums, and Mingus on bass. Wailing and propulsive, the tune combines sections carefully arranged for an octet with piercing improvised solos. (I recommend this brilliant music review, apparently written by a Colorado College student named Abe Mamet.)

The more famous song by the same name was written by Bobby Timmons, an extraordinary jazz pianist and composer with an astonishing output, who suffered from heroin addiction and alcohol abuse and died from liver problems caused by alcoholism in 1974 at the age of 39. Timmons grew up in Philadelphia with Lee Morgan and recorded extensively with him. Both were important members of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers group, and Timmons’s “Moanin” was first recorded for Blakey’s 1958 album, which was originally self-titled ( Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers Blue Note 403), but quickly became known by the name of its hit opening track: “Moanin’.”

Here is a live version of the tune, which gives a sense of Blakey’s stage presence, and also features both Timmons and Morgan (along with Benny Golson and Jymie Merritt, also of Philadelphia):

Timmons also recorded the tune with his own trio for his 1960 album This Here is Bobby Timmons, in which his distinctive, blues-inflected style of playing was featured:

But the version that is probably most responsible for the tune’s popularity was recorded by the vocal group Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross on their 1960 album Lambert, Hendricks, Ross: The Hottest New Group in Jazz!

The lyrics, written by the great Jon Hendricks, have often been re-recorded, and are well known:

Every Mornin’ finds me moanin’ (Yes, Lord)
Cuz of all I the trouble I see
Life’s a losing gamble to me
Ev’ry body knows I moanin’
Every evening I am moanin’
I’m alone and crying the blues
I’m so tired of paying the dues
Ev’ry body knows I’m moanin’
Lord I spend many a days and nights alone with my grief
And I pray, really and truly pray
Somebody will come and bring me relief

Every mornin’ finds me moanin’
Cuz of all I the trouble I see
Life’s a losing gamble to me
Ev’ry body knows I moanin’

That’s how I felt when I learned about the Parkland massacre. And I can only imagine how those closer to the events or to the situation must have felt. (I am thankful that my own children, now 31 and 26, do not venture daily into a public school. I also remember that we did send them both off to school the day after the 1999 Columbine massacre. I vaguely recall feeling afraid, but I honestly do not really remember what that experience was like. Forgetfulness is perhaps sometimes a good thing.)

Donald Trump’s vacuous speech, delivered too late, with not a mention of guns, and read from a teleprompter with his typical lack of human warmth or sincerity, helped to transform a sense of grief into a sense of indignation. The predictable responses of Ted Cruz and Paul Ryan — “now is not the time to politicize a tragedy,” “guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” etc. — only strengthened my political sense that gun violence in our society represents a moral and political crisis that demands a serious public policy solution. I thought about the powerful philosophical arguments advanced by Firmin DeBrabender in his recent book Do Guns Make Us Free?: Democracy and the Armed Society . I thought about the powerful analysis of the links between “American exceptionalism” and the lack of a serious movement for gun control in the U.S. that Kristin Goss offered in her 2008 classic Disarmed: The Missing Movement for Gun Control in America. I thought about the bravery of Gabby Giffords and her husband Mark Kelly, and of the important work of the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. I thought about David Hogg, a senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, who gave such a powerful interview to Stephanie Rhule on MSNBC, explaining why his peers, and his generation, demand responsible public action so that young people with problems are given the attention they need rather than easy access to guns, and that serious gun control measures are introduced so that these massacres are no longer regular occurrences. This young man and his fellow students are demanding a real commitment to public safety and public health. A sane approach to firearms and a rational, compassionate, and responsible approach to mental health. They are demanding nothing less than publicsanity.

And these thoughts brought to mind a recent recording of “Moanin’” by Jazzmeia Horn. Horn is a brilliant young jazz singer who has won numerous honors, including the 2015 Thelonious Monk Jazz Institute International Competition. It seems especially appropriate to include her here, at Public Seminar, since she was a student at the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music, the conservatory linked to the New School, which is also the sponsor of Public Seminar. But the main reason to close this column with Jazzmeia Horn is because this terrifically talented 27-year old African-American woman sings with such exuberance. In this recording, from her 2017 album A Social Call, she links “Moanin’” with “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the spiritual written by James Weldon Johnson in 1900 that is often considered to be the anthem of the civil rights movement.

I choose to imagine that Jazzmeia Horn sings here for her history but also for us all; that her youthful energy and creativity is the voice of the future; and that our mourning, and our moaning, and our indignation, can engender new forms of empowerment, elevation, and enlightenment in the dark times we face.

Also for you:

Jeffrey C. Isaac

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