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Sustaining the Spirit of Life

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By Hugh B. Price
President, National Urban League

The great saxophonist Sonny Rollins once said that Lionel Hampton, the prolific, beloved vibraphonist who died in New York City August 31 at the age of 94, was not only a great musician, but also a great showman; and thus, embodied the spirit of jazz.


To which anyone who knows anything about jazz, or has seen Hampton perform will say: Amen.
Of course, given what jazz music itself represents, Rollins' insight means that Lionel Hampton embodied the spirit of life itself. For jazz, created primarily by African Americans in the racial melange that was New Orleans in the 1890s, piercingly expressed the swirling, complex facets of modern life.
Jazz signified both Black Americans' protest of their oppression and the celebration of their humanity and the possibilities life in America offered even to them. It was their declaration that they were determined to have a good time living regardless of the fractured, shifting -- and especially for Blacks in America -- often dangerous nature of life.
All the things in jazz -- the dynamic of swing (joy); the acceptance that sadness is an inescapable part of life; the relentless pursuit of excellence which is central to the music; the understanding that improvisation is crucial to the attempt to live well; and, most of all, the celebration of being still here -- have contributed immeasurably to keeping Black Americans spiritually hearty.
That was why Lionel Hampton's funeral in New York City last weekend began with a New Orleans-style funeral procession from Harlem's historic Cotton Club to the towering Riverside Church, and the two-hour service, filled with music and humorous reference to "Hamp," was decidedly more celebratory than funeral.
I'm keeping the spirit of Lionel Hampton and what he represented foremost in my mind this week as our nation and decent people everywhere pause to remember the great tragedy of last September 11 -- to remember the innocent civilians aboard the jetliners and in the buildings in New York and Washington who lost their lives; to remember the heroic devotion to duty of the firefighters, police, and emergency medical technicians who ran into danger then, and the selflessness displayed by many civilians, both in harm's way at the epicenters of the devastation and across the world.
Few of us would say that the psychological wounds have healed, even as we have struggled to return to the rhythms of our own lives. Who can forget the astonishing pictures and photographs of that day?
For us at the national headquarters of the National Urban League, on Wall Street in Lower Manhattan less than a mile east of the World Trade Center, the memories will always remain as sharp as the brilliance of the blue, cloudless sky that morning.
We watched, amazed, as the entire area -- our neighborhood -- was engulfed in a maelstrom of incredible, unthinkable destruction and death; and we saw the same violence occurring at the Pentagon.
In the months since the visible scars of our part of Lower Manhattan, by the East River, have been cleaned up, washed away and paved over. We survived. We're getting on with life. We've got work to do.
But resting not very far below the surface of that determination are the memories of the photographs of the lost that in the days and weeks that followed last September 11th appeared all over New York City, silent testimonials to the true magnitude of what had occurred; and of the brief biographies of the dead which filled the pages of local newspapers.
The fabric of American society was torn to jagged edges a year ago and although many are working at the re-stitching to make it stronger than ever before, the hurt has not disappeared.
Indeed, several recent stories marking the anniversary show that powerful threads of alienation and gloom and near-despair exist among some of those most seriously injured in the attacks and the friends, family members and loved ones of those who perished.
Then, there are the larger tears in the fabric of American society -- namely, the economic downturn that has pushed the number of people without jobs who are now classified as "long-term unemployed" to record levels. According to federal labor department statistics, the 3 million Americans who've been out of work for at least 15 weeks represent a 50-percent increase from a year ago -- and fully half of them have been jobless for at least six months.
Given the slowness of the economic recovery, and the powerful worldwide forces re-shaping the global workplace, the rise in long-term joblessness here is an ominous sign.
That's why it's important to take note of and take our clues from both the life of Lionel Hampton and the celebration of his life. We accept the sadness and the tragedy that is part of life, but we also declare, in honor of the many thousands gone, that we're determined to live -- and help others live -- well.

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