Walls

It would be hard to imagine that earthquakes and trumpets could have something in common, but historically, they do. Whereas the effect of quakes is well known, according to the Bible the walls of Jericho were not victims of seismic activity: it took trumpets to fell those ramparts—a wall of sound to level a wall of stone. Never underestimate the power of a Jewish brass band. But I digress—“walls” is the topic. Mankind has spent the greater part of history building, maintaining, repairing, destroying, and rebuilding walls. Man has built walls around walls, as with the curtain walls around the keep in medieval castles, or the multi-layered temples of the Maya. There are walls that tower to unscalable heights, and “walls” that plunge to dangerous depths, such as moats, deep trenches, or even canyons. Walls keep out the unwanted: enemies, strangers, wild animals, the weather, the sea, in-laws....

Walls can be made of stone, wood, concrete, bamboo, barbed wire, water, distance, time, zip code, and attitude. Perhaps it is the last of these that is the most impenetrable: the wall that man chooses to put between him and the rest of the world. Walls keep out the foreign, the different, the unknown, the daring. With his attitude, man walls-out acceptance, love, understanding, tolerance, and forgiveness. His insecurities are the powerful building blocks of his complex system of walls. He locks his gates against sex, racial differences, emotions, accountability, love, innovation, and religion. Walls of hate are more impenetrable than those of the thickest Dover stone. The chilly fortresses of the Middle Ages were by far more accommodating than today’s dungeons of bigotry. The Great Wall of China pales before the barricades of White America. Where are the trumpets when we really need them?

Upon learning I was a musician, a shop owner in Boston tried to tell me of a famous trumpet player he had once seen in a hotel lobby. He couldn’t remember the name, but the only clue he could give was that the man was a “spear chucker.” Trying to ignore the racial slur I searched my mind for all the black trumpet players I could think of. No one I suggested was the right person, so the shop owner turned to his sixteen-year-old daughter for help and said, “You remember, the spear chucker.” After about ten minutes we finally determined that the musician in question turned out to be none other than Duke Ellington! Never mind that the shop owner had the instrument wrong, he was unable to see past his bigotry to acknowledge anything other than skin color. Poor Duke. For all of his achievements, his musical innovations, his vast output of recordings, his awards, and his incalculable influence on music and musicians to come, he couldn’t earn a label in this person’s mind other than “spear chucker.”

At least the Israelites were able to render Jericho impotent with a few blasts of the lip. A couple of high “C’s” and the walls were history. The Duke had a more formidable problem. He wasn’t dealing with inanimate stone. His legions of scales, armies of improvisations, and battalions of chord progressions—not to mention one hot band— were not able to make a mere pinhole in the shop owner’s dike. The bigot was holed-in for the duration. The only thing that will eventually smoke him out is the grave—death by natural causes, mind you, for killing a man because of his beliefs is not the answer. Killing the animal would just make ourselves animals (and that is an insult to animals).

An alternative would be for the man’s daughter to marry a black man. Now, wouldn’t that be poetic justice? Pity the poor son-in-law, though. This is all highly improbable, however, in light of the fact that the term “spear chucker” was in the daughter’s vocabulary to begin with. She was doomed from the start. Raised in that household, she never had a chance. It’s no wonder that racism continues to breed. It begins at home. The impressionable young adopt the white-sheet mentalities and hangman’s-noose attitudes of their parents. They come into this world with a built-in arsenal of hate. The foundations of their walls are laid at birth and the blocks firmly in place before they even know how to ride a tricycle.

The deepest insecurities build the strongest walls. The weaker the character, the harder the stone. Again I ask, where are the trumpets when we so desperately need them? The fanfares of Martin Luther King were silenced by an assassin’s bullet, yet the same method toppled the bigotry of George Wallace. What good is a legacy of hate? What can possibly come of it other than rampant anarchy and destruction? Is that any climate in which to raise our children?

We need to expand the music programs in schools, and teach everyone to play an instrument. Imagine if every person on the planet were a jazz musician. Imagine if we were all playing in time, with no time for guns. Then, King’s “mountain top” music would truly live on, as would that of Duke, Bird, Trane, Prez, Diz, and the Count. Play on, sweet trumpets. Never stop, and that little bit of “Jericho” in all of us will soon vanish; for in your music lies the power to temper, to heal, and to unite.

©2002 Stuart Vail
Polaroid Image Transfer "Walls" ©1999 Joanne Warfield

TOP

Back to