In this op-ed, scholar Shalom Goldman writes about the “often overlooked” contribution that American Muslims made to the jazz movement. “Fans of what is now known as the ‘straight-ahead’ jazz of the 1950s and 60s, will recognize the Arabic names of jazz greats Ahmad Jamal (piano) and Yusuf Lateef (reeds) . After their conversions these musicians performed using only their Arabic names. Other performers, such as the drummer Art Blakey, (Abdullah ibn Buhainah) and trumpeter and composer Kenny Dorham (Abdul Hamid) took Arabic names but preferred to appear professionally under their given Christian names.
Here are some other snippets from the op-ed:
— Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers —one of the great proving grounds for generations of musicians —grew out of an earlier small orchestra, the Messengers—most of whom were converts to Islam through the Ahmadiyya. And some scholars have suggested (and I am persuaded by this) that the name Messengers has Islamic resonance.
— After their conversions [to Islam] both Art Blakey (in 1947) and and Ahmad Jamal (in 1959) traveled to North Africa to study Islam and to absorb local musical traditions and make them part of their musical art. These journeys and later pilgrimages by other jazz musicians had a profound effect on jazz history, and they influenced African musicians to study and play jazz.
— In an interview in 1979 with Down Beat, drummer Art Blakey sent the record straight and stated that he went to Africa for religious purposes. “I didn’t go to Africa to study drums – somebody wrote that – I went to Africa because there wasn’t anything else for me to do. I couldn’t get any gigs, and I had to work my way over on a boat. I went over there to study religion and philosophy. I didn’t bother with the drums, I wasn’t after that. I went over there to see what I could do about religion. When I was growing up I had no choice, I was just thrown into a church and told this is what I was going to be. I didn’t want to be their Christian. I didn’t like it. You could study politics in this country, but I didn’t have access to the religions of the world. That’s why I went to Africa. When I got back people got the idea I went there to learn about music.”
— A few years after Blakey and Jamal, another jazz great , Yusef Lateef (whose given name was William Emanuel Huddleston) traveled to a number of West African countries, gave concerts, and studied new musical forms.
For more information on Muslim jazz greats, Goldman recommends this website: “The Sultans of Swing: The Prophetics and Aesthetics of Muslim Jazz Musicians”