A Jazz Concert Relives a Dream

At the historic Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem, the Omni-American Future Project aimed to restrengthen the bonds between the Black and Jewish communities.
December 15, 2022
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“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” – Martin Luther King Jr. 

On Monday, November 28 in the middle of the Trump/Kanye/Fuentes storm, what felt like the beginning of a revolution took place at the historic Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem. At the very least, it felt like the beginning of a path back to Martin Luther King’s colorblind dream. 

The Omni-American Future Project — an initiative conceived by the American Sephardi Federation (ASF), the Jazz Leadership Project (JLP), and the Combat Antisemitism Movement (CAM) to restrengthen the bonds between the Black and Jewish communities — hosted its second annual awards ceremony, “Straight Ahead: An Omni-American Future, Fighting Bigotry Together.”

The Project was launched in 2021 with the goal of creating a unique platform that encourages collaboration and mutual understanding between the two communities, using commonalities —particularly music — as a cultural unifier. 

The Project was launched in 2021 with the goal of creating a unique platform that encourages collaboration and mutual understanding between the two communities, using commonalities—particularly music — as a cultural unifier. Co-executive directors Greg Thomas and Aryeh Tepper co-hosted the event, with a backdrop of superb jazz from the Itamar Borochov Quartet. The two award recipients were Harvard professor and political theorist Danielle Allen and writer-philosopher, podcast host, and jazz artist Coleman Hughes.

The initiative emphasizes character and culture — not color. Its unique variation on the nation’s motto, E Pluribus Unum, is “Out of many, one pursuit of civic and cultural excellence.” 

I had never been to Minton’s Playhouse, known for being the fount of modern jazz, but I felt very much at home. I feel this every time I go to Harlem. I feel more at home there than at many synagogues, more at home than when I’m at sterile high-WASP venues. Lined with elegant photos of jazz greats, Minton’s deeply-rooted soul was an immediate respite from today’s ideological storms.

The entire evening felt like a beacon of light, of possibility — hope during a dark and chaotic moment.

The magnetic energy of the event just enhanced this vibe. Indeed, the entire evening felt like a beacon of light, of possibility — hope during a dark and chaotic moment.

“Albert Murray, the Harlem resident, polymath, writer and poet who coined the term ‘Omni-American,’ and whose thought animates much of this evening, reminded us that we must learn to embrace the dragon because the dragon calls forth the hero. If there’s no dragon, then there’s no hero,” said Tepper, who serves as Director of Publications of the ASF.

The Itamar Borochov Quartet

“Well, the bigoted dragons have returned, fired, as always, by resentments of various kinds. But that’s no reason to despair. Their return means that it’s our turn to do our thing and to stomp these blues once again, the blues of racism and antisemitism. The difference is that, as opposed to previous generations, we have a shared history of collaboration to draw upon, as well as the literature and music that strengthens our resilience and fires our aspiration to aim high.”

“Tonight, we’re celebrating and reimagining that history, and in so doing, designing a path forward,” said Thomas, who is CEO of the Jazz Leadership Project.

 “God has wrought many things out of oppression. He has endowed his creatures with the capacity to create — and from this capacity has flowed the sweet songs of sorrow and joy that have allowed man to cope with his environment and many different situations.”

Martin Luther King Jr.

What is an Omni-American?

In 1970, Albert Murray wrote “The Omni-Americans: Black Experience and American Culture.” It quickly became a pivotal book in philosophical discussions about how not just to create MLK’s race-blind society, but also actually move to a society in which race is not “essentialized.”

“The United States is in actuality not a nation of black people and white people,” wrote Murray. “It is a nation of multicolored people. There are white Americans so to speak and black Americans. But any fool can see that white people are not really white and black people are not really black. They are all interrelated one way or another.”

These words, written by Murray at the height of the Black Power movement, “cut against the grain of their moment, and announced the arrival of a major new force in American letters,” said Thomas. “Murray took aim at protest writers and social scientists who accentuated the ‘pathology’ of race in American life. Against narratives of marginalization and victimhood, Murray argued that black art and culture, particularly jazz and blues, stand at the very headwaters of the American mainstream, and that much of what is best in American art embodies the ‘blues-hero tradition’ — a heritage of grace, wit, and inspired improvisation in the face of adversity.”

For Murray, ‘Omni-American’ meant all Americans share a common destiny and a common culture. “The problem is not the existence of ethnic differences,” wrote Murray, “but the intrusion of such differences into areas where they do not belong.”

For Murray, “Omni-American” meant all Americans share a common destiny and a common culture.

“The problem is not the existence of ethnic differences,” Murray wrote, “but the intrusion of such differences into areas where they do not belong. Ethnic differences are the very essence of cultural diversity and national creativity.”

Race, in other words, is very much a divisive construct that has been used for power and manipulation for hundreds of years. Ethnic differences, on the other hand, help create the beautiful mosaic of American culture.

Aryeh Tepper and Greg Thomas

As Tepper put it: “‘Omni-American’ is a vision of American identity grounded in a celebration of America’s composite culture.” Whereas a focus on race fosters division and hatred and ultimately develops into antisemitism and racism, a focus on our shared identity and pluralistic culture can lead not only to less divisiveness but also to an ability for all Americans to reach our best selves.

“The term ‘Omni-American’ implies a sensitive receptivity to the best in American society and culture, no matter the source,” said Tepper. For some, this may sound utopian. But it’s actually far more reality-based than any race-obsessed ideology — and paves a way back to classical liberalism. 

“What the neo-Marxist left and the old-school racist right have in common is resentment, both camps are seething with resentments,” said Tepper. “But we’re not going to do away with suffering, ever. Suffering will always be part of life, and so, resentful people will always be with us. And once we accept that, then we must accept the fact that racism, antisemitism, and democracy go together. In a democracy, people will freely associate with those who share their resentments. And with social media today, it’s much easier to do so.”

For Tepper, what he calls the Omni-American tradition presents an opportunity: the idea of “antagonistic cooperation.” Essentially, this means, “You need dragons in order to have heroes. You need battles to have great generals. You need crises to have great leaders. Once you accept that premise, then opposition is welcomed.” In other words, the persistence of bigotry, antisemitism, and racism offers an opportunity to articulate an “elevated vision of liberal democracy — a perspective that looks at life, not through the lens of resentment, but with as wide a horizon of gratitude as possible, a noble way of moving through life that absorbs vitality wherever it might be found and that joyfully shares its portion in return.”

Our shared culture can be used not only as a bridge but also as a vehicle. “The use of culture includes music to a great degree yet it also incorporates shared values and meaning,” said Thomas. “From that perspective, music is an artistic manifestation of values and meaning by individuals and groups of people.”

“We can aspire to fashion a community of receptive and active human beings who value, together, those virtues and talents that augment life.” – Aryeh Tepper

“We can aspire to fashion a community of receptive and active human beings who value, together, those virtues and talents that augment life,” says Tepper.

“Instead of just criticizing, the Omni-American Future Project is doing the difficult work begun by our ancestors, from Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel to Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray, to achieve a new birth of freedom and friendship.”

American Sephardi Federation Executive Director Jason Guberman

Culture, Not Race

It’s clear that Murray would have blasted the race essentialism of today’s woke ideology. 

“Murray had no patience for those who looked upon Black people as inferior, whether from an old-school racist perspective or a new school sociological perspective that begins with the assumption of Black victimhood,” says Tepper. “What most observers almost always seem to be unaware of for some strange reason is the incontestable fact that Negroes in Harlem, like those elsewhere, also respond to beauty, style, and elegance,” writes Murray, who with Wynton Marsalis cofounded Jazz at Lincoln Center. 

Culture was in fact how Black Americans survived the horrors of racism.

The first step is what Thomas calls “deracialization”: eliminating the concept of race and the practice of racialization from our sense of self and our public life to construct a “non-racial identity.” “By definition and intent, race separates and divides,” writes Thomas. “Separating … culture from race tends toward appreciating human commonalities and differences in a more nuanced manner.” Each of us can choose to “unlearn race” — to stop racializing ourselves and others in speech, thought, and behavior. 

Step two is understanding that culture “helps humans expand beyond our biological inheritance.” In contrast to race, culture “is human meaning and values expressed in forms of creative production (art and technology), rituals, patterns of behavior, and ways of seeing and being in the world — lifestyles,” writes Thomas. Culture supplies what Murray called “equipment for living”: Communal wisdom that is transmitted through art, a shared of vision of how to survive, and thrive, all of which builds up resilience — an ability to face challenges with confidence.

As such, culture, or art, not only has the power to shape our souls and thus change the world, but also it leads to what Tepper calls a “triumph of the human spirit”: an affirmation of life that integrates art and elevated thought. “Great art reveals the depths of the soul and is a bridge connecting our dreams to the world of action.”

“Listening to great music is a shattering experience, throwing the soul into an encounter with an aspect of reality to which the mind can never relate.”

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

Heroism, Nobility, Excellence

In what Tepper and Thomas call the Omni-American Tradition, the focus on culture removes racial divisiveness, serves as a bridge between ethnicities, provides “equipment for living,” and — at its best — propels a drive for honor, nobility and excellence: a heroic approach to life. “A love of human excellence, human beings coming together to share their individual best as part of a joyful team or community,” Tepper said. “You can feel the surge of energy and overflowing joy — the affirmation of life. For Murray, high art is a ladder rooted in the earth with its head in the heavens.” 

I have little doubt that everyone at the awards event felt as inspired as I did, listening to the sublime jazz of the Itamar Borochov Quartet, as well the lyrical speeches urging us to rise above today’s toxicity and create more bridges, more light, more hope. “There is a political-philosophical tradition that extends from Plato and Aristotle — you can add the Bible, too — that takes seriously the power of music to shape the character of individuals and societies,” said Tepper. This tradition has been marginalized and often forgotten in the modern world, but it’s helpful to keep that tradition in mind when reading Murray, who uses music as a means for shaping the American soul.”

“The same heroic sensibility stylized by Murray — the sense of life that transforms obstacles into blessings and sees through the pathology of race to culture, is the Omni-American perspective,” Tepper continued. By refusing to focus on race ourselves, by allowing culture, especially art, to both strengthen us and see past the toxicity to a more noble vision of society, each of us can make a difference. “The mission is to gather beauty, both light and dark, wherever it’s found,” says Tepper.

“Now, more than ever, it is vital that Black and Jewish Americans focus on what unites, rather than divides them.”

Sacha Roytman-Dratwa, Combat Antisemitism Movement 

Jewish-Black Alliance

The shared history of collaboration between Black and Jewish communities was a defining part of the evening. The speakers delineated two chapters of this history. 

The first chapter began on January 16th, 1938 at Carnegie Hall. Bandleader Benny Goodman opened the stage to Black American master musicians such as Count Basie, Lionel Hampton and Johnny Hodges, among others. “Benny’s decision to open the bandstand was the first time that a major American cultural institution had been integrated,” says Tepper. “Remember, this was almost ten years before Jackie Robinson desegregated baseball.”

“In an interview about the concert’s significance, Wynton Marsalis, the winner of last year’s inaugural Albert Murray Award for Omni-American Excellence, emphasized the risk that Benny took in using his platform to break segregation. Wynton even says that Benny risked his life and that all Americans owe him a debt of gratitude.”

“What gave Benny Goodman the strength to desegregate the stage? Benny wanted the best. He wanted the best musicians,” Tepper continues. “In other words, a shared love of human excellence gave Benny the wherewithal and strength to hit segregation upside the head. Jazz is, after all, heroic music. Go back and listen to ‘Sing, Sing, Sing.’ The generation that danced to that song defeated the Nazis.”

The second chapter was of course the Civil Rights Movement. “The same triumphant sense of life, what Ralph Ellison referred to as the ‘rock bottom sense of reality coupled with the sense of the possibility of rising above it,’ the sense of life that transforms obstacles into blessings and is blessedly free of resentment, that says yes to all of life, animated the Civil Rights Movement,” said Tepper. “Dr. King, in Omni-American fashion, rejected the path of resentment, as the movement did as a whole. What’s more, the forces arrayed against the movement facilitated, according to the rules of antagonistic cooperation, the emergence of a moral-political kind of excellence. Thanks to the racists, King had his gloriously enchanting dream that we still remember.” 

And the third chapter? It began that night in Harlem. Tepper suggested calling it “The Omni-American tradition as the cultural complement to the Civil Rights Movement … The Civil Rights Movement taught us that when we judge, we should look at the individual and focus on the content of his or her character. From the beginning the Omni-American tradition has seen through race in order to celebrate human excellence, wherever it’s found,” said Tepper.

Coleman Hughes

In his acceptance speech, Coleman Hughes underscored how integral The Omni-American Future Project is in the current landscape and cited Murray as inspiration for heretics and those who champion open dialogue. “In a cultural moment in which Black and Jewish Americans are being pitted against one another, it’s nice to see an organization that partners across ethnic lines and reminds us that we have more in common than that which divides us,” he said. “…So be kinder to the heretics of our age, consider being a heretic yourself, and in doing so, we can all keep the legacy of Albert Murray alive.”

Given that the event took place at the height of the Trump/Kanye/Fuentes storm, the Omni-American Future Project issued a joint statement in response:

 “At the core of the Omni-American Future Project’s mission is the principle of working together in unity to forge a path ahead toward a more humane American future for everyone. As such, we remain committed to standing up to and speaking out against bigotry, hatred, white supremacy and antisemitism of any kind, from anywhere and in any form. It is unacceptable for any world leaders to engage with persons who are proponents of antisemitic and racist ideas and belief systems.”

I walked out into the brisk night and noticed that directly across from Minton’s is the Hebrew Charter School created by Michael Steinhardt. It was a stark and concrete reminder that the Jewish and Black communities have a shared bond and history that no one can break, and now we have a path to not only write the third chapter of that history but also move to MLK’s post-race society together.

I’m not naïve: I’m very aware that too many from all corners have a vested interest in fomenting toxicity.

On that night in Harlem, a light was lit, and more will follow. As we enter the eight days of Hannukah, there’s no better time to reflect on the candles of cultural unity being lit by the Omni-American Project. 

But on that night in Harlem, a light was lit, and more will follow. As we enter the eight days of Hannukah, there’s no better time to reflect on the candles of cultural unity being lit by the Omni-American Project. That collective light not only represents the best within each of us, but also the very best society we can create, realistically, as humans. For the first time in a while, I felt happy to still be living in NYC, and so close to Harlem. 

Today’s dragons are indeed creating heroes. The passion of Aryeh Tepper, Greg Thomas and others is so contagious that I now want to devote more time to helping bring back that beautiful mosaic — the mosaic that allowed my son to grow up not seeing race, playing with kids from all ethnicities and backgrounds. 

The dragons of woke racism, “Black Hebrew Israelite” racism, and traditional white racism have awakened a revolutionary backlash that we can only hope will move us closer to MLK’s post-race dream, rekindling classical liberalism in the process.  

If we get to that promised land, we can say that a jazz concert in Harlem helped get us there.

Karen Lehrman Bloch is editor in chief of White Rose Magazine. 

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