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For jazz great Chick Corea, playing anthem at N.Y. Giants game is a high honor

‘The spirit of jazz and the spirit of the founding of our country … was a big step for humanity’

Sometimes I stand for the national anthem.

Most times, depending on which atrocities have been perpetrated against the black community that week, I simply disappear from the press box and reappear when the anthem is finished.

On Sunday, I made a point of being present to hear great jazz pianist Chick Corea perform The Star-Spangled Banner for more than 80,000 fans before the New York Giants-Philadelphia Eagles game at Met Life Stadium.

“I’ve never done anything like this before,” Corea told me in his dressing room last week before a performance at the Blue Note Jazz Club. The opportunity unfolded when the Giants extended the invitation to the iconic pianist after being contacted by someone from the legendary jazz club.

Corea welcomed the opportunity to perform in a new venue.

“I said ‘sure,’ that’d be cool. I’ve really gotten into this. I’m studying the Constitution and the spirit of freedom of speech. I’ve been practicing, I’ve been trying different versions, I’ve been working it out, I don’t want to get fancy and try to be some concert piano player, because really the purpose of the gig is the emotion, and the sentiment of that moment in time that we still hold dear to us, all of us.”

Corea made his Star-Spangled Banner debut at a time when the anthem, thanks to San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, has become a lightening rod for protest in stadiums and arenas across the country.

Since agreeing to perform, Corea has made a deep dive into the roots of the anthem and its author, Frances Scott Key. He has also re-read parts of the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and placed them in the context of the revolutionary fervor from which they evolved.

He chooses to focus on the lofty ideals rather than the specifics of what the anthem and documents represent. “That sentiment should not be attacked. That’s the wrong target to destroy,” he said. “The right target is: Let’s get it right.”

He added: “The spirit of jazz and the spirit of the founding of our country, no matter how shaky and incomplete it was, was a big, big step for humanity. The Constitution and the Declaration of Independence were human rights statements that had never been made before in the history of mankind. We were saying freedom of religion, freedom to think. That sentiment should be promoted, we should nurture that and then fix the other stuff.”

Therein lies the challenge. As an athlete, as an artist, how do you fix it? How do you facilitate reform? For Kaepernick, who kneels while the anthem is being played, and other athletes, one way to fix “the other stuff” is to call attention to injustice during the playing of the national anthem.

Corea said he didn’t have a problem with silent, peaceful demonstration.

“Protest is part of the freedom,” he said. “If you protest correctly, protest without killing people, or damaging things. You cannot sing, or you cannot put your hand over your heart, that’s fine.”

 


I purchased my first Chick Corea album, Now He Sings, Now He Sobs, in 1968. Corea was 26 at the time, just bursting onto the scene. I was a freshman football player at Morgan State College, three years into a transformed view of the role black athletes should play in facilitating reform.

Jim Brown, defying ownership, abruptly walked away from pro football in 1966; Muhammad Ali refused to be inducted into the army in 1967; Tommie Smith and John Carlos staged a protest on the victory stand at the Mexico City Games in 1968 during the playing of the national anthem.

Forty-eight years later, Corea is an iconic jazz pianist and composer. I have enjoyed a substantial career in journalism and the issue of human rights, raised in 1968 by highly visible athletes, persists and the national anthem is at the center of the protest.

I have long advocated for the end of the tradition of playing the national anthem before sports events. The tradition inserts nationalism where it does not belong and politicizes what should be a politically neutral event.

Go to a jazz concert, on the other hand, and the national anthem is nowhere to be found.

“There’s a good reason for that,” Corea said. “Music and art have to stay outside of nationalistic things. Has to. It has to be universal. The universe is about the soul of people. It can’t be about the soul of one nation. It’s the soul of all humanity. It can’t get political, ever, ever, ever, ever. I would never do that.”

Corea was more or less agnostic about the playing of the anthem before sporting events, though I would argue that the rationale he laid out for an anthem-free concert applies to sports. “I don’t want to dictate rules about what groups should do,” he said.

“I’m proud to be an American if being an American means the freedom of human rights: all people created equal, equal opportunity, life, liberty and happiness and music for all. I’m an American in that sense. I’m proud to be known with anything associated with human rights. I’m basically a human rights guy.”

He certainly was on Sunday.

After a week of working out arrangements of the anthem between performances at the Blue Note, Corea chose a simple yet eloquent interpretation of the anthem on Sunday.

“I didn’t want to get too loose,” Corea said after Sunday’s performance. “I had a minute and 50 seconds, so it was a sketch. I hoped they liked it.”

Athletes, like artists, come in all sorts of political shapes and sizes. Some keep sports and art separate from politics; some are apolitical, some, like Kaepernick, use the arena to draw attention to social and human rights issues.

“My tendency is to promote the beauty of the imagination and the artistic part of people. That’s what I like to promote,” Corea said. “Anytime you get into promoting any side of two sides of a play, you’re into a conflict. That’s not the kind of conflict I like in music.”

In the sport of football, conflict is resolved through force, by imposing one’s will on the opponent. Teams that do this effectively and consistently win the championships.

For Corea, the trio, the band, the soloist achieve the championship, not with force, but with chemistry, improvisation and harmony.

“The championship is making the music so that people receive some degree of pleasure and uplift from it. That’s the winning thing,” Corea said. “People smiling, people singing along. That’s the goal. That’s what my life is all about.”

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of “Forty Million Dollar Slaves,” is a writer-at-large for The Undefeated. Contact him at william.rhoden@espn.com.