Surrealistic is, undoubtedly, one of the better words to describe a crowd of people gathered near the Confederate Monument in Savannah’s Forsyth Park with their attention focused on something which the figure portrayed atop the structure likely would never have imagined possible. The crowd’s collective passion on Saturday, September 23, 2023, was surging to the sounds of jazz flooding the air as the week-long Savannah Jazz Festival began its weekend wind-down.
Up on his memorial perch, if the battle-weary Confederate soldier’s bronze eyes were able to take in the scene, he likely would have gasped at the throngs of Black, White, Brown, Yellow, and in-between shades of humanity spread across the park on the grass, on blankets, beneath tents, around the Forsyth Fountain, on benches, and lined up at multi-ethnic-flavored food trucks. Back during his 1800s Civil War time, he would have been staring at a very different scene. Filling the area then would have been wounded comrades, captured Union soldiers, and scrambling slaves. The noise of moans, grunts, groans, and impatient orders would have sounded from every direction.
On this warm early-fall sunny day in 2023, what might have amazed him more than anything else were the musicians taking to the stage, some yards away, with intentional brilliance and purpose: The Demetrius Doctor Trio and The Wives, the Martin Lesch Band, the Savannah Jazz Hall of Fame, and Buckwheat Zydeco, Jr. and Ils Sont Partis Band. (And this was just the line-up while I was there, not the performers from the night before or those who would be playing until long after my departure.) What possibly may have astonished him above all else was the musicians’ polyphonic often racially-diversified artistry, and the way pockets of people danced so uninhibitedly to their blood-stirring beats.
He might have been exceptionally moved, toward any given emotional expression, while listening to the Demetrius Doctor Trio’s closing medley. Imagine his heart and mind struggling to process the sight and sound of the Trio’s talented White bass player accompanying his fellow Black musicians on their closing jazz-infused medley of these songs: Burt Bacharach’s “What the World Needs Now Is Love,” easing into Stevie Wonder’s “Love’s In Need of Love Today,” and blending that with the third verse of brothers James and Rosamond Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” commonly referred to as the Black National Anthem. Interestingly enough, with its absence of any actual reference to race, in another twist of historical surrealism the soldier could have assumed the words applied to his own struggles:
… God of our weary years
Could it be those words, and all the people gathered before him on the campground, were in honor of him? Were all those laughing, chatting, strangely-dressed souls there to celebrate the sincerity of his dedicated, although failed, efforts to keep sons and daughters of African descent in chains? To maintain a power structure more beneficial to his wealthier kinfolks than to himself? What a magnificent thing that would be! Except something in the silent language of numerous faces made it clear it was more unlikely than likely.
Pathways to Recognition
Good poetry, of which James Weldon Johnson wrote a lot, has a way of drilling through rigid biases and opening pathways to recognition of our common humanity. Along with giving myself a break from hurricane recovery repairs, poetry was another reason I chose to arrive at the jazz concert when I did. According to the festival’s program, saxophonist Jody Espina was scheduled to become the 47th inductee into the Savannah Jazz Hall of Fame. As it happened, I had first met Espina some 14 years prior and wrote about that encounter in The River of Winged Dreams:
“...'Sounds Scribbled Mixed-Media Platinum’ was written during a sound painting performance, featuring Savannah’s Creative Force Artists Collective and jazzman saxophonist Jody Espina, at the Jepson Center for the Arts. My purpose for attending the event was to write a news article about it but as the painters and sculptors created their extraordinary works, while Espina and his ensemble exploded jazz throughout the atrium of the Jepson Center, my pen insisted on dancing to their creative beat and the poem wrote itself in the space intended for my notes….”’
Things like that, whether I want them to or not, sometimes happen in my world when it comes to poetry. I’m not going to include the entire 40-line poem with this blog post but here are two stanzas from it:
Such a human being, one observes,
My plan at the festival was to place an autographed copy of River in Espina’s hands if I got an opportunity to do so. It did not work out quite that way but one of the festival volunteers was kind enough to act on my behalf and deliver the book to him backstage. The book in my hand was yet another image which might have caused the Confederate statue’s eyebrow to creak upward an inch or so. Not to mention the sight of a black mayor on stage long enough to put in some valuable face time with the jubilant crowd during this election year.
What might that exhausted soldier have thought about the broad-ranging scope of the music itself? Every variation of it tended to put a smile on the face of programmer Theron “Ike” Carter, a friend and another Hall of Fame inductee who prefers the term "African-American classical music" to the word jazz? Would that dedicated soldier have been able to appreciate the way it is celebrated around the world for how it embraces diverse cultural traditions and, by its nature, advocates on behalf of international unity? Would he realize its value as an effective instrument for promoting and even implementing democratic principles? Maybe yes or maybe no.
For the moment at hand, it was enough for those who had not been wiped out by the pandemic, annihilated by climate change, or erased from the world by 21st century gun violence, to be in the park occupying their own niche in history with a sense of something very close to an exhilarating sense of anticipated liberation.
Contemporary award-winning American author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.