"Louis Armstrong Made America Great...But We Still Can't Breathe" SwatTalk
with John Alston H'15, executive and artistic director of the Chester Children's Chorus
Recorded on Tuesday, July 7, 2020
Jim Salier: Good evening, everyone. My name is Jim Sailer. I'm the Swarthmore College class of 1990. I'm a member of the alumni council. It's my pleasure to welcome you here tonight to a really special event in our SwatTalks series. I want to mention first that this will be a recorded session, so it is recording and it will be available on the SwatTalks website, and Lisa Shafer, who manages all the behind-the-scenes for the SwatTalks, will share that URL with you at the end. We will use at the end of this a Q and A. We'll have a question-and-answer with our distinguished guest, and it will be in the chat. And what I like to ask people is if you can, I know everyone's eager to ask questions, and so on. If you can hold off in those questions until Dr. Alston's presentation is done, that would be fantastic. I'm going to move right into introducing our speaker tonight. And what I want to say is I'm going to introduce Dr. Alston. I'm just going to give a brief background about him, and then I'm going to play a video. And the video is very relevant to tonight's work. I also wanted, there's a explanation in the beginning of the video, but I'll just say it here. There's some graphic images in the video, and you should be prepared for that. And after the video, Dr. Alston's gonna speak. But let me say now, it's a real honor to welcome Dr. John Alston here to this SwatTalk. Dr. Alston was a full-time faculty member at Swarthmore, and in that role, he founded the Chester Children's Chorus in 1994, taught a number of subjects in music at the college, is still an adjunct faculty at the college, and is going to talk tonight about the Chester Children's Chorus and many other things, and the Chester Children's Chorus is a phenomenal institution. And he'll talk about that. And he'll talk about music in America and the very relevant issues that we're facing today. And I'm not gonna say anything more about this talk, other than to say I was very privileged to have an hour to talk to Dr. Alston last week, and we had a conversation that lasted an hour, could have gone for three hours, and I'm really delighted that we're gonna have a chance to hear from Dr. Alston tonight. So, with that I'm going to now share my screen, and I will tell you that we tested this earlier. There may be a little bit of choppiness with the video. Hopefully the audio will be just fine as we do this. And let me. -
[Conductor] One, two, three, four. [Chorus]♪ Can you hear me ♪ ♪ I still can't breathe ♪ ♪ Can you hear me ♪ ♪ I can't breathe ♪ ♪ When you see me walking down the street ♪ ♪ Why are you afraid of me ♪ ♪ I'm the one who ought to run ♪ ♪ To a place ♪ ♪ Where I'd be free ♪ ♪ You taught me how to sing your song ♪ ♪ Sweet land of liberty ♪ ♪ I smiled and gave the world the blues ♪ ♪ Why are you afraid of me ♪ ♪ Can you ♪ ♪ Hear me ♪ ♪ I still ♪ ♪ Can't breathe ♪ ♪ Can you hear me ♪ ♪ I can't breathe ♪ ♪ My tears ♪ ♪ Are just like yours ♪ ♪ But they last a little longer ♪ ♪ My fears ♪ ♪ Are just like yours ♪ ♪ But they're so much stronger ♪ ♪ My love ♪ ♪ My love, my love is just like yours ♪ ♪ In the One we both believe ♪ ♪ If you watched your children disappear ♪ ♪ Would you find it hard to breathe ♪ ♪ My name is such sweet poetry ♪ ♪ Gave you your renaissance ♪ ♪ I gave America its music ♪ ♪ Taught you how to dance ♪ ♪ I fought for you ♪ ♪ I died for you ♪ ♪ Helped make the whole world free ♪ ♪ When you see me walking down the street ♪ ♪ Why are you afraid of me ♪ ♪ Can you ♪ ♪ Hear me ♪ ♪ I still can't breathe ♪ ♪ Can you hear me ♪ - I can't breathe. I can't breathe. I can't breathe. I can't breathe. - I cannot breathe. I cannot breathe. ♪ I can't breathe ♪
John Alston: Hey, everybody. Thank you for logging in tonight. I wish we could see each other. Actually, I wish we could shake each other's hands and hug each other and kiss each other on the cheek and share normal germs. That's what I wish. I wish that the world were that good, that we could just share normal germs and know that everything will be okay in a couple of days or a couple of weeks. So, I'd like to talk to you about 1928, 1947, and then fall 2019 in Swarthmore. And in between all of that, a lot of music happened. Many of you have read Teachout's recent biography of Louis Armstrong, and it's stunning. But when you read any history of jazz, when you read anything about New Orleans, it's always described as like this 10-block area where nothing happened except sex, drugs, drinking, and dancing, and all that happened in New Orleans. But in the first two decades of the 20th century, which is when Louis Armstrong was growing up in New Orleans, it was the fifth- or sixth-largest city in the United States. And in 1900, there were almost 300,000 people living in New Orleans. And by the time he left in 1919, there were almost 400,000 people living in New Orleans. So, I say that because, sure, there was a red light district. The musicians just called the district Storyville, right? You went there to drink, to dance, to buy sex. And when all of that was happening, there was always music going on behind that, right? You were drinking, listening to the blues, you were dancing to blues and rags, and you're also dancing to sweet music. Folks were still waltzing and foxtrotting in the 20th century, and that was happening in brothels as well. But keep in mind in a city of 350,000 people, the entire city was music-obsessed. There were at least three opera houses at its peak and four orchestras in a town of 350,000. That is unusual, to say the least. I can't tell you everything about Louis Armstrong and still have time for a Q and A, so we're going to skip around a lot. He had the fortune of being arrested when he was 12 years old for firing off a gun during a Fourth of July celebration, and he landed in a place which has the most unfortunate name. You couldn't make this up. It's the Colored Waif Home for Boys. And he spent two years there, and it was run by an ex military guy, a veteran, and there, Louis Armstrong, he worked his way up from bass drum to something, to tuba, to euphonium, and then finally he's playing cornet, and it was his introduction to classical music. He was playing marches and classical music, and that's when he got it in his ears. And also keep in mind that if he's the singular musician of the 20th century, imagine young Louis Armstrong, teenage Louis Armstrong walking around this city, and he hears opera and he hears a symphony. He only has to hear a great tune half a time, and he's gotten it in his brain forever. So, in this way, in many ways he was the perfect, this was the moment that, he was the moment that early jazz became swing. And it happened in him and he had all of the ingredients. So, a town of 350,000 people. Here's a number you never read about in a jazz history book. I had to search for this otherwise, other places. Between 1882 and 1936, 333 Blacks were lynched. You have to keep that in mind. So, for all the splendor and glory that you hear coming out of that man's horn, he always had in the back of the mind, in the back of his mind, that somebody might hurt him, somebody might kill him, somebody might lynch him. It was always a possibility. By the time he was -I've got to do this quick math- by the time he was 22 years old in 1923, he moved to Chicago, and he's playing with King Oliver, King Oliver and his Creole Jazz Band. Louis was already the greatest cornetist on the planet, the greatest jazz cornetist on the planet. He wasn't playing trumpet yet, but he's young. He's 22 years old and he's smoking everybody in Chicago. He gets a call. He goes out to New York city. He hangs out with Fletcher Henderson's band. He meets all the guys that play in Duke Ellington's band and Fletcher Henderson's band. And they all know that something special is happening. He's so good that even a guy like Bix Beiderbecke, who is a different kind of jazz musician altogether, and he was part of Paul Whiteman's band. And that whole, really white kind of dance music, of sweet music, they would call it, played by white musicians. They were also influenced by Louis Armstrong. He gets the call in 1925 from his wife Lil Hardin. She wants them to come back to Chicago and she wants him to lead his own group. And this is what she sets up for him. 1925, indeed. This is on the marquee of The Dreamland Cafe in Chicago in 1925: "Madam Lil Armstrong's Dreamland Synchopators, featuring Louis Armstrong, world's greatest cornet player." And night after night for three years, he played his early jazz, and little by little, that New Orleans stiff rhythm that you can listen to in these 1917 recordings of the original Dixieland Jazz Band, that got more fluent, his swing became more fluent. And by 1928, he was playing the most miraculous, most miraculous jazz swing eighth note fugue. His famous recordings happened between December 1927 and December 1928. So, with a little poetic license, we can call that his miracle year, right? So, Einstein had his miracle year in 1905. Bam, bam, bam, bam, bam. Armstrong's miracle year was December 27 through December 28. This is when he recorded "Hotter Than That," "Weatherbird," and then in June 1928, he plays "West End Blues." These groups -The Hot Five and The Hot Seven- that these recordings were issued under, they were only a recording band. They only performed once live, but otherwise they were just studio folks. They would go into, I'm pretty sure it was Gennett, but somebody can correct me later. They would go into the Chicago branch of Gennett Studios, which were also in New York city, and they would record these sessions one, two, three takes. And that would be it. When he plays "West End Blues" in June of 1928, the whole world changes. And I know that's a big statement, but I think it's fair to say that the whole world changed for anybody listening to jazz. Anybody interested in jazz would have recognized that something special and absolutely iconic was happening with this recording. So, I'm going to ask Jim to play the opening cadenza for you. This is how "West End Blues" begins, and jazz doesn't begin this way. Jazz begins with five guys playing this thing, this polyphonic texture with this quasi improvisation. And it's noisy, sometimes it's joyful, but it's messy. When you listen to these early recordings, all of a sudden, Louis goes, bam. Can you hit this, Jim? Example one.
♪ ♪ (''West End Blues" by Louis Armstrong")
John Alston: So, what he just played is almost a hundred years old now. It's almost a hundred years ago. So, here's what happens. Let me break it down for you. He opens. (scats melody) That's not particularly special. I'll show you. (scats to "Turkey in the Straw" melody) Any jazz musician in the 1920s could play ragtime rhythm. "Turkey in the Straw" even is where it goes back to. So, he opens up. Nothing special. Then where does this music come from? (scats melody) It's big, right? It's just so big. And it has nothing to do with jazz. He is imagining himself the great tenor soloist in an opera. The orchestra drops out, and there's the cadenza, and the hero saves the day. The other thing he's modeling are the great classical trumpet players that were the soloists in the marching band. John Philip Sousa's band was the most popular musical group at the turn of the century. People were still listening to marches, and their lead trumpeter would stand up front and he would hit Right, but never in a jazz recording. Joe Oliver couldn't play that in his finest moment. He couldn't even imagine doing that. And here's Louis at 27 years old. He changes the world with that cadenza. So, you have old-timey, classical cadenza, tenor stops the show. And then what unfurls next? That's the only word that justifies what's coming. He just blues-es it. He plays a kind of jazz and a swing eighth note that nobody had before. I'm going to do my best to try to get it for you and then we'll play it again. (scats jazz runs) So, he goes from ragtime to classical cadenza to what would have been then been the most modern jazz on the planet. Now, with that little lesson, let's hear the cadenza one more time. Jim, example two, please.
♪ ♪ (Louis Armstrong playing horn)
Bam! And that's not the best part of the song. Louis's solo a few choruses down the road, this is the best part of the song. Can we please hear example three? The world stopped for these 12 bars. Example three.
♪ ♪ (Armstrong and band playing jazz)
Pow. So, what is that? Why is that so great? Well, because it is, John, yes, but besides that. First thing he does is hang on to his trumpet high C. It's a concert B flat, musical folks, but it is his trumpet high C, and trumpeters always think of concert B flat up there as their high C. And he holds it for what seems like an eternity. Check it out. I'm gonna pretend I'm an opera singer. I'm not an opera singer, but... ♪ Ba ba ba ♪ All that tension. He just hangs onto that note. And he knows he's the greatest thing on the planet. He just knows it. He picks the best note in the trumpet repertoire, high C, and he just smacks it and he grabs on, and he does this, ba for 16 glorious beats, and everybody's leaning up on their seats and then wondering what is he gonna do next? What is he gonna do next? And then he does this. (goes jazz scats) So, what is that? What is that all about? First of all, if you just want to think in classical analytical terms, it's a complete contrast to the tension created by the long, long, long note. Tension, tension, tension, tension, tension, tension, then. So, he's just releasing all that tension in another explosion, but it's more than that. It is a gloriously rhetorical moment. Now I don't know what he's saying, but you can clearly hear the language in there. And so I was wondering if there were a historical figure that would speak, I think it would be some combination of Muhammad Ali tinged with Malcolm X. So, I just made this up, has nothing to do with it. You can catch these words. If there were words to this and Muhammad Ali were singing it with a little bit of Malcolm's attitude, it might sound like this. ♪ 'Cause I float like a butterfly ♪ ♪ And sting like a bee ♪ ♪ And my name is Muhammad Ali ♪ ♪ Don't you ever mess with me ♪ He's just yelling at the whole world. So the miracle, the miracle in this solo is that a Black man growing up in Louisiana surrounded by 333 lynchings has the nerve to play a classical cadenza, put it into jazz, and then say, I am the greatest jazz musician on the planet. And then he goes on to say 'this is how jazz is going to be moving forward'. Now, he didn't say that. But all of the other musicians that listened to that, they said it for him. Now, he couldn't possibly have articulated that the way that Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali would in the 1960s because he's a Southern boy living in the zeros and the tens and the twenties, and he wouldn't have made it to Chicago. So, you have to forgive Louis Armstrong for all his showboating. And the next generations of musicians were a little hard on him with that because they didn't live the life that he lived. So, now the world understands how it's supposed to swing, right? So, what happens? Let me catch up here. The swing era was essentially the music played from the Depression through the end of World War II. So, for all of the Depression and World War II Americans, when they weren't making great sacrifices, were dancing their way through their sadness and through their financial and social struggles. Yeah? Louis Armstrong's rhythmic feel becomes the common swing era groove. Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Benny Goodman, even Glenn Miller and those guys, they were all swinging like Louis Armstrong. At the same time in New Orleans and in Memphis, blues musicians were still hitting it hard because they were still playing in brothels and bars. And that blues groove never went away. So, when swing comes back, right? So, swing went up north from New Orleans, formulated, got itself together in Chicago, and it came back to Memphis and New Orleans. And when you combine the bluesy dirty gritty thing that was happening in New Orleans and Memphis with swing, you get rhythm and blues. And if you're interested in this, listen to Louis Jordan play "Let the Good Times Roll." You all know Ray Charles' version, but you have to listen to Louis Jordan. That's a nice jam for 1946. It's gonna make you move. So, it was 1946. Louis Jordan is playing "Let the Good Times Roll." T-Bone Walker's doing his things. Fat Domino is doing his thing. Listen to what Fats Domino says in the mid-50s in a, I think it was an Esquire interview. Here's Fats Domino talking about rhythm and blues and rock and roll. He says, "Rock and roll is nothing but rhythm and blues, and we've been playing it for years down in New Orleans." So, yeah, maybe, Fats. Yeah, I mean, that's his version of the story, right? But it's a little more complicated than that. So, early rock and roll was sort of R & B. Imagine R & B as the spine, the frame, right? Rhythm and blues. Combine that with Western swing, also called hillbilly jazz. And the musicians embraced that term themselves, Western swing, hillbilly jazz, there was boogie, gospel, even Afro Cuban. And then this Pentecostal ecstasy, which you're going to hear when you listen to Little Richard. When you put elements of, when you hang that stuff on rhythm and blues, then you get very early rock and roll. So, Bill Haley in 1952 comes up with a tune called "Rock the Joint." Now, before Bill Haley was a rock musician, he was actually a Texas swing musician. And he just, and I think his backup band were like Bill Haley and the Texas Cowboys. But 1952, when you listen to "Rock the Joint," it is almost rock and roll, but it's not quite because you can still hear the C and W in there, the country-Western. You can hear the Western swing, and they're not quite hitting it like mid-fifties rock and roll. So, you're waiting for Elvis Presley, right? Before there was Elvis Presley in 1955, this is not deep. There was Elvis Presley in 1954. His first recordings, he comes up with "Good Rockin Tonight," which is pretty good. But here's how you know that Elvis Presley didn't know he was singing rock and roll. He recorded another tune called "Milkcow Blues Boogie," You can't have a rock and roll tune named, pardon me, "Milkcow Blues Boogie." So, that title is as schizophrenic as the music. You listen to it, sometimes it's rock and roll. Sometimes, it's a little hillbilly jazz, and they were calling Elvis's music in 1954, early '55, they were calling it rockabilly, and you can still find rockabilly today. 1955, Elvis and his white band mates, they figure it out. And then rock and roll sounds sound like rock and roll. "You Ain't Nothing but a Hound Dog," "Blue Suede Shoes," "Don't Be Cruel." And Little Richard is doing his thing, "Tutti Frutti" in '56. So, from rock and roll, you get the rest of American music. And so my first big question is what would American music be without the blue note, the spiritual, blues, jazz, and swing, and R&B? What would you have had? I'm pretty sure we'd still be dancing the waltz and the foxtrot and the two step, and who knows what America would have been exporting culturally, but it's not likely that it would have been its music. I need to take a step back to 1947. Congress and Roosevelt and Truman, they did a wonderful thing. It's the GI Bill. From 1944 to 1949, nine million World War II vets received educational grants and loans for houses, mortgages, essentially. So, Congress and the federal government essentially built the American middle class. They just invented it after World War II. This is what happened. This one's hard to get through. So, forgive me. This is what happened in Mississippi in 1947, one year in one state, because the GI Bill was administered by state governments. They were block grants to the states. And the reason will become apparent momentarily. It's 1947. It's Mississippi filled with tens of thousands of white World War II vets, Black World War II vets. 3,200 loans and grants were given to veterans in 1947. 3,200. 3,200. Two, two were given to Black veterans. We had such a great opportunity. We had a great opportunity. Reconstruction just quit, right? We just quit in 1877. We had this moment after World War II, when we could have made America the place that we dream about for our children. We had that moment with the GI Bill. We could have taken care of all of the Black veterans, and how much more beautiful the world would have been ,and how much more capital Black families would have because of the GI Bill back then, but we didn't do it. So, I'm, I got to make the transition to Dunkin Donuts in 2019. And I don't have an ending to this, but you'll appreciate the story. It's fall 2019, and I just finished a rehearsal with the concert choir-35 or so- and we're getting ready for our winter concert. And we'd spent about 45 minutes working on Bach's air from his D major suite. And it was like the first or second time that we sang it all the way through. And it's beautiful. And it's an instrumental piece. It's not for vocalists. I just arranged it for them because I thought they'd love it, and they fell in love with it. And then rehearsal ended. And then we broke up into a little theory class, and I'm teaching 10 high school boys and girls harmony and counterpoint. And then after rehearsal, three of the girls want to walk to Dunkin Donuts. We're over in The Ville. If you graduated before 1990, you remember Michael's Pharmacy on the corner in The Ville. It's now a Dunkin Donuts and a Baskin Robbins, which is really great for the Chester Children's Chorus because ice cream after rehearsal is like the best thing in the whole world. So, three of my girls were walking to Dunkin Donuts just to buy some ice cream, and I was going to go over later and pay for it. And on the way there, they pass three elderly white women that are walking in the opposite direction. And when the women look at my girls, one of them clutches her bag immediately. She clutches her bag, and afterwards, the girls told me about it. And one of the girls told me that, "oh, don't worry about it, John. That didn't really bother me." And then for a half hour, she kept on telling me, "don't worry about it, John. It didn't bother me." So, it really hurt her feelings, and it still hurts our feelings. And so the big question, which I don't have an answer to, is what would American education have to be like so that all Americans, all Americans, but especially white Americans, understand the fundamental contributions that both enslaved and then free Blacks made to the creation of the United States? We couldn't have paid our bills after the Revolutionary War. When the Federalists got together and Hamilton was trying to convince folks that, tell you what, we're gonna become a country, but in exchange for that, we're going to pick up the tab for fighting the American Revolution. How would that have been possible without all of the free labor provided by slavery? How would that have been possible? So, who knows what America would have become without the opportunity for us to borrow and win the Revolutionary War, I know this is big stuff, but when that lady is listening to any music, when she's listening to any music that she loves, if it's popular music, it's either directly created by Black folks, or it has been heavily influenced, or at least tinged by it. And I don't want folks to come up to me and say, ah, John, thank you. Thank you for Aretha Franklin. No, it's not like that, but, but just assume that my children, I'm frozen. Give me a second. Just assume that when you see three beautiful Black teens walking to buy some ice cream, the only thing they want to do is buy ice cream. Maybe if they had said, "Don't get scared lady. Just before this, we were singing Bach and Billy Joel, and we get it. Like, we want you to appreciate that we get your stuff, but you need to get our thing as well." So, somehow that needs to change. And yeah, are we going to tear down all of the Robert E. Lee statues and put up Aretha Franklin? And I think we should put up James Brown statutes because that would really get everybody's goat. I think I should quit now so that we have some questions. Thanks for the opportunity. Spend some time on our website. It is possible to make the world a better place in our lifetime, but we will have to be exceptionally uncomfortable if we're gonna get this done. Thank you so much. I'll try a question or two now, Jim, okay?
Jim Sailer: Great.
John Alston: Yeah.
Jim Sailer: John, thank you so much. That was fantastic. And really, really appreciate it. Well, people, now I'm inviting you to put questions you may have into the chat. John, I'm going to just start off with one which came in before, even, but can you talk about the Chester Children's Chorus and kind of where you started and where you are now with it, and why it's more than just, I mean, than just the children's chorus, isn't it as well? And I think people would be very interested to hear about that.
John Alston: All right, but I'd like to do it in a minute so that I have to do some interacting. This is our 26th year. I started with seven boys. I had no idea what I was doing. We sounded terrible. We would sing folk songs and I'd try to teach them to read music. And boy, those first couple of years were a real struggle, except we fell in love with each other immediately. It was just instantaneous recognition. 10 years ago, we got good and we recruit second graders from every school in Chester. So, we meet all 450 second-graders in Chester. We accept 40 to 60. 20 to 30 accept our invitation. And then they come in as rising third graders. We are very serious about our music-making now. We sang our first Mozart requiem about eight years ago. Many of our singers will tell you that the "Lacrimosa" from Mozart's Requiem is their favorite piece of music. We were getting ready to do...We spent a year learning "Messiah," and we were going to perform it in March. And many of you know, we canceled at the very last minute, and that was an absolute heartbreak. We want people, when we step on stage, we want people to respect and admire us for what we know and love, which is gospel and R & B. And we also want people to know that we are learning what we need. We are learning to love what we need so that we can be successful. Hence all of the classical music, and classical music is beautiful as well. We are a year-round program. We have an awesome summer program, and it's slightly less awesome because it's virtual. Actually, sometimes it's a drag because it's virtual. Singing in time is impossible. We are also a very serious math program. We have figured out how to get our middle and high schoolers to practice everything they didn't master in elementary and middle school. And so there're about 110 of us. And when you hear us live for 45 minutes, you will think that the world is exactly the way that it's supposed to be. That's it in a nutshell.
Jim Sailer: Fantastic. Thank you, John. We have lots of questions coming in. The first one is from Laura McKee. And it's: "John, can you say a little bit about your personal story? Where did you grow up and how did music become important to you?"
John Alston: 30 seconds. I grew up in Newark, New Jersey in the sixties. I was actually in Newark, New Jersey during the riots when there were tanks rolling down the street, but I didn't understand what was happening. I joined the Newark Boys Chorus when I was 11 years old. We went to Rome and sang for Pope John Paul's 10th anniversary. Leonard Bernstein was conducting. How incredibly incredible is that? What else can I say? And I just wanted to be a musician ever since. So, Chester just feels like Newark to me. Just feels like home. I never felt at home at Swarthmore. Those of you that took most of my classes knew that, you know, I worked hard, but I was never completely comfortable, but Chester felt comfortable almost immediately. And I understand a lot of the sorrow that the children that I work with. We were broke growing up. I mean, really poor growing up. Single parent. Dad was a spectacular alcoholic, and music saved my life. So, I had this fantasy. I was going to go into Chester and give them Bach, right? Talk about cultural imperialism. That was stupid. But those kids taught me what I was supposed to do with my life. And I'm grateful. And we're going to pay 'em back.
Jim Sailer: Great. Thank you, John. Another question from a Swarthmore alum and Swarthmore staff member, David Eldridge. What are your thoughts about Otis Blackwell?
John Alston: I don't know who he is.
Jim Sailer: Okay. We've got no there. Then we have a question from Christiana Strobek, and Christiana asks, you touched on it just a minute ago, but how do you see the future of singing and your chorus in the age of COVID-19?
John Alston: We're going to get through it. So, I picked this simple song. We are trying to do a virtual choir production of Michael Jackson's "You are Not Alone," and I arranged it for the choir. So, I'm teaching each part. Imagine that you are all a choir. I would sing a part, you would sing it back, but you'd be muted because if you all sang back at me, nothing would line up. So, I'm just trusting the older kids to learn their part. And we do manage to get together. Dunkin Donuts is still the call, so on Saturday, I tell them anybody that will come to Dunkin Donuts, I'll buy you anything you want, and I'll play your part for you and I'll just listen to you. So, we're setting up tents outside our office, and the chairs are spaced apart. We sing very, very quietly. We're not spreading singer droplets. So, they sing very, very quietly. And then we're going to try to do the Zoom choral montage, which is dreadful. I should tell you, whoever asked the question about whoever that was, I know very little about rock and roll. I spent hours reading everything that wasn't jazz in this presentation. If you're interested in a lovely, lovely essay, "The Rolling Stone History of Jazz," not the book. The book is, the first hundred pages are dreadful, but the online article is spectacular. It is clearly written and it will walk you through the transition from rhythm and blues to rock and roll.
Jim Sailer: So, John, we have two similarly themed questions from two giants in the world of Swarthmore College, at least. And that is the first, and I'm gonna read them both to you. And I think you'll know the folks. The first is from Professor Amy Vollmer, and she says: "John, what do you think about this current moment? Can we make some substantive changes or will we lose the opportunity to do so yet again?" And the second is from Maurice Eldridge, and Maurice, another giant in Swarthmore's world, says, "Do you see the world more ready to change in the George Floyd moments than those other lost opportunities to grab on to our aspirations?"
John Alston: I'm going to answer this question, but my version of the answer is no better than anybody else's version on this call. And I'm always a little embarrassed to do this because it's not my wheelhouse, right? I'm not a sociologist or a historian, economist, blah, blah, blah. So, we've been bombarded with Trump's rhetoric, right? It was wearing us out before the shutdown, before the pandemic, then we're all isolated because we're afraid to get sick. And then we watched these horrible murders. So, where we were angry before the lockdown, we were scared during the lockdown. Then we're looking at these horrible images of what can only be described as, these are murders, right? If we're using any other words, these are euphemisms. You can't walk away from that. These are cops, white cops killing, mostly white cops killing Black men. So, now here we are, and we have time to think about it. For maybe the first time in American history, we have very little that's distracting us. We're not shopping. We're not doing all this stupid stuff that makes the economy go, right? I mean, capitalism is this odd, odd thing, right? To make it go, you got to buy junk. So, here we are, we're home, we're saving, and we're being reflective, and then we watch this, and we're angry. And then we're motivated. Is this the moment, Maurice? I certainly hope so. What worries me is if we have a peaceful election and if Biden manages to win, what happens? What happens once the vaccine is readily available and then we go out about our business? And then what happens is what I think unfortunately is what always happens. We get lost in this spectrum of, on the wherever you, whatever your left is, guys. On the one hand is selfishness. And then it kind of extends all the way to indifference. And that's where most Americans are. We don't mean to be bad. We don't mean to be selfish, but we're mostly thinking about that next thing we're going to buy, and we can't do that right now. So, it is a great fortune and misfortune that we saw George Floyd being murdered because right now it's bringing out the best in us because we're not distracted by all the stupid stuff. Can we keep it going? I have no idea. I really have no idea. I hope so.
Jim Sailer: Great. Thank you. Thank you, John. We have several more questions and some more time, too. So, these are fantastic questions. We really appreciate it. This one's a little longer. I'm gonna read this. It says from a Ren Elhi, and I hope I pronounced that okay, Ren. "Thank you, John. Listening to you brought back my time in jazz improv, one of my favorite classes at Swarthmore. Louis Armstrong famously served as a jazz ambassador going around the world for the State Department to play for foreign audiences and help win the cultural cold war. And he also famously canceled a tour to protest the Vietnam War. What sort of music would you want to represent America abroad today? What would you say to musicians who struggled to represent our country's beauty and its flaws to audiences who might never travel to the United States?"
John Alston: Again, another big question, and everybody's top 10 list is as good as everybody else's top 10 list, but after sending the Chester Children's Chorus on its big world tour, you have to send some country-Western musicians out there. You have to send some, have to send some hip-hop artists out there. You got to get the best rap out there. The best rap is magical, absolutely magical. I don't know what style you wouldn't send out there, but for me, I would definitely send C and W, and R & B is a little stale for me, but hip-hop, guys, is still getting it done.
Jim Sailer: Great.
John Alston: Country-Western is good for everybody. Everybody needs their heart broken, so.
Jim Sailer: Okay, so we have another question from Karima Jeffrey, and she says, "John, hi, thank you. I concur with your sentiments entirely, and find it shocking that we still have to point people to the truth of the fundamental contributions that African-descended Americans have made to this country. And although your presentation begins with Armstrong's era, I wonder what your thoughts are about minstrelsy and the paradoxical and problematic way in which this unique performance tradition gave birth to the legacy of Black-inspired, Black-influenced music."
John Alston: It's so painful talking about minstrel song and old Jim Crow who was, you know, this kind of made-up character. I don't have good words for that, folks. It was just horrible. It's horrible, like a lynching is horrible. It's that horrible. When comedians get it right, when comedians make fun of themselves and of other cultures, when they get it right, whether they're black or white, when they get it right, it is funny. It is absolutely funny. But when a comedian is making fun of somebody that doesn't look like him or her, it still comes from a place of love and admiration. You know it deep down inside that the first thing is, would it be okay if I, and then they bust on you, and everybody cracks up. But there was nothing gentle about white folks in the 80s and 90s and the turn of the century laughing at white folks dressed up in exaggerated makeup, so that white folks that don't know anything about Black culture, if that's their introduction to black culture, you're just cringing and thinking, oh no, we can do better than this. We can absolutely do better than this. So, I don't have anything more sophisticated to add to that. But minstrel minstrelsy was just, it's at the very bottom of what the worst white folks did to Black people. It's just disgusting like a lynching is. Sorry, I can't give you more, but it's just dreadful.
Jim Sailer: Okay. Thank you, John. We have a few more minutes. We have a question, I think from a current student, Joy Zhang, and Joy asks: "How do we students at Swarthmore continue to support students in Chester Children's Chorus in a time of turmoil?"
John Alston: This is Joyce? Is that from Joyce?
Jim Sailer: Joy.
John Alston: Joy, Joy. Pardon me, Joy. Joy, we've never met. If you send me an email later, when we open up again, we're going to need between 30 and 50 math coaches to work with our middle and high schoolers. It's one-on-one. Your middle school or high schooler falls in love with you. You fall in love with him or her. With that trust, our kids are willing to practice all of that stuff. You will run the times tables over and over again till there's fluency, and that can only happen in a one on one situation. It is dreadful for an older student to have to do that publicly in a class in front of other students. So, that's the practical solution. The other thing you can do, all of you that are listening, if you would send our, "I Still Can't Breathe" video out to everybody. Maybe the folks managing the Black Lives Matters, the folks out in California, maybe they'll pick it up and start to use it. It would be great. I would love to tell the CCC that a hundred thousand or a million people have seen their video and they'd been moved to do that. That would be great. So, thanks for that question.
Jim Sailer: It's a great answer. Thank you, John. So, Kathleen Feeney has a question. It says, "Beyond singing music from European and African American choral traditions, you also write music for the choir and with the choir, as we saw at the start of this talk. Can you talk more about the process of writing music with your singers?"
John Alston: The idea is to give them harmony and rhythms that they recognize from their own cultural heritage. So, I'm constantly borrowing harmonies and rhythms from R & B, but I'd like the poetry to be kid-friendly, teen-friendly. I'm doing far less and less of that. Now we're doing many, many more cover sets. We did a Prince set a couple of years ago. Talk about how difficult it is to find five Prince songs that kids can sing where the language is good. But Prince had this a Jehovah's Witness streak going on, so he did write some quasi-religious things, and you can find some Prince party music that is, I'm not skirting the question, but if I were a world-class composer, yeah. If I were the guy that wrote, "Let it Be," that'd be great. I write another one and we sing it. But, I'm not, so more and more, I'm interested that the children learn as much music that they don't know. So, I've told this story before. I'm gonna tell it really fast. We did our first Beatles set about six years ago, seven years ago, and after the dress rehearsal, this little fifth-grader came up to me. He's a big old high schooler now. He's got big muscles, And Romello came up to me, and he said, John, that song you wrote, "Let it Be," man, that's fantastic. Thank you. And he thanked me. I said, no, man, I didn't write that. That's the Beatles, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. So, we have a lot of music that we have to learn. They don't need to learn another John Alston tune unless we're covering something that is socially, politically relevant.
Jim Sailer: All right. So, we still have some more questions, but I think we're at our hour, so I'm gonna have one last question. And I thought it was a good opportunity for you to say just about anything you want. It's from Ellen Ansell, and she says, "What have you learned from your choir children about the future?"
John Alston: I don't think you're going to believe me when I tell you. But every day, I wake up with some version of the following question: what can I and our team do to make the Chester Children's Chorus the program that they need it to be so that they can grow up to be the people that the world needs them to be? See, I say that so much, it's practiced, right? But that is the truth. So, what does, what does every school in Chester, what does every school in the United States, what does every teacher teaching a Black kid or a Latino kid, or some other, some other child that's been disenfranchised? What do those teachers and what do those schools have to be so that those children flourish so that they become the best versions of themselves? So, I say to you all tonight, if our children can learn "Messiah," if they can love Mozart's "Requiem," if they can sing Rossini's "Barber of Seville," then they can love Jane Austin. They can love Shakespeare. You got to work hard to learn Shakespeare, but if you get past that, you will love it, too. They can figure out quadratic equations if they're headed to college. So, if they can do what they do with us musically and mathematically, they can surely learn. They can surely become the people that they need to be. So, I'm going to close with this. With the right combination of love and practice, our children are gonna grow up and they're gonna work with your children and not for your children. And that is what gets me up every day. And I am so grateful that you all gave me the opportunity to share some good news, some uncomfortable news, and to brag on the Chester Children's Chorus a little bit, because they're beautiful, just like your children. Thank you so much, and I look forward to sharing some germs in the near future, maybe Valentine's Day. Okay, guys. Thanks so much. Thanks, Jim.
Jim Sailer: John, thank you very much. I want to thank everyone for joining. We had about 270 people join. That's fantastic. I wanted to thank Lisa Shafer from the college who puts all these things together and does all the behind the scenes work and plans all this. I wanna say only that the recording of this will go on the Swarthmore website, on the SwatTalks website. Lisa has posted the URL for the SwatTalks website. I also posted the URL for the Chester Children's Chorus as well. And you can see that video and share that video from that website. And you can do that. So, John, this has been a fantastic evening, and I'll just sign off by saying, I'm in Brooklyn, so I'll just sign off by saying everybody, do the right thing. Good night, everyone.
John Alston: Good night.
Jim Sailer: Good night. Thank you