By Joseph Leichman
Rick DellaRatta is confident that jazz can enlighten people, binding together players and fans from warring countries and different religions. His band, Jazz for Peace, has proven that: The pianist/vocalist has played with musicians of almost every creed and color - from Jewish, Palestinian, and Turkish to Icelandic, Puerto Rican, and Cuban.
But what DellaRatta wants to do does not end with a "coda," or closing section, on the treble clef. He wants to save the world, and he thinks jazz is the way to do it.
"We have reached a point where we have to stop thinking of individual countries, and we need to start thinking about how we, as a species, are going to save this planet from ravages like global warming, disease, and terrorist behavior," said DellaRatta, a Manhattan resident.
"The key to solving the world's problems is raising the level of consciousness among our species collectively. Jazz embraces artistry, creativity, intellectuality, individuality, and, many people will argue - I will, definitely - that it embraces humanitarian concepts. When you embrace these qualities collectively, you're raising a person's level of consciousness."
DellaRatta's first foray into mainstream musical peacemaking was his September 2002 performance at the United Nations. His band consisted of Israeli, Palestinian, and American jazz musicians, and spawned over 300 subsequent benefit concerts around the world. Jazz for Peace is the paradigm for musical inclusion, as DellaRatta surrounds himself with jazz greats Lenny White (America), Eddie Gomez (Puerto Rico), and Paquito D'Rivera (Cuba).
The United Nations concert was significant in Jazz for Peace's development because it was a rare indicator that Israeli and Palestinians could co-exist. Coinciding with the intifada, the concert showcased Middle Eastern musicians finding common ground that only a few believed existed.
"Israeli and Palestinian musicians have been jamming at my apartment in New York City for years," said DellaRatta, whose latest release, also called "Jazz for Peace," is available for purchase through his Website. The site also has a donations link, through which visitors can help further the group's charitable endeavors: instrument donations for schools, concert tickets for students and the homeless, and more benefit concerts.
"A lot of Israeli musicians and Palestinian musicians have performed together. You'd never know that one was Israeli and one was Palestinian. We're showing that a universal language like jazz cuts through race boundaries and religious boundaries, and is accepted all over the world."
DellaRatta acknowledged that there are basic cultural differences between Israeli and Palestinian musicians. In fact, he said, musicians everywhere often hold extremely fervent political views, and voice them when necessary. Jazz's beauty, though, according to the Jazz for Peace founder, is its ability to serve as a bridge, enabling different people to understand one another.
As an example, he pointed to Charles Black, a former Yale and Columbia University law professor. Born in segregated Austin, Texas, in 1915, Black was a "racist by default," DellaRatta said, until, at age 16, he saw Louis Armstrong perform at an Austin hotel. Inspired by Armstrong's virtuosity, Black went on to write the key brief supporting Linda Brown in 1954's historic Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka.
"Jazz is an example of the profoundly positive influence of embracing positive qualities. Musicians respect each other enough to agree to disagree," said DellaRatta. "That willingness helps us find common ground and use our disagreements constructively."
Jazz for Peace is unlikely to end thousands of years of turmoil in the Middle East, said DellaRatta, nor will it restore the polar ice caps. But for such changes to occur, he said, humanity as a whole must embrace those qualities that jazz underscores: cooperation, enlightenment, and conscientiousness.
"What Jazz for Peace has done," he said, "is create a new industry, in which our goal is achievement, not profitability. Achievement has to come before profit. We want to help organizations who are helping people all around the world. We are on an unsustainable path of destruction. We're 'slipping on the banana peel,' so to speak. We have to kick it up a notch as a species."
The next time Jazz for Peace will "kick it up a notch" in this area is September 23, when the group will perform in Manhattan. The concert will benefit a Freemason society called the "Kings of Kings Grand Council A.A.A.S.R." Between now and then, the group will perform benefits in Washinton, D.C. and Baltimore
"Are we reaching our potential of consciousness? Absolutely not," said DellaRatta. "And that's because we are not collectively embracing the positive qualities in one another. We have the ability to examine history, and choose to not slip on the same banana peel."