The third in our ongoing series of black jazz writers telling their story features the perspectives of Eugene Holley. Back in the early 90s our staff at the former National Jazz Service Organization was blessed with the talents of two then-aspiring jazz journalists. The last installment in this series came from the perspective of John Murph, whose tenure at NJSO was actually preceded by Eugene Holley. In those days the DC area had not one but two radio outlets that prominently featured jazz music. WPFW continues to carry the torch today, but in the early 90s we also had WDCU as a potent jazz radio resource. Though he was largely a pinch-hitting programmer, whenever Eugene Holley showed up at WDCU you could count on some distinguished radio.
Not long after that Eugene began contributing to DownBeat and JazzTimes magazines, as well as a number of general interest publications. His perspectives have always been literate, informative, and geared not only to the cognoscenti but also to those who may be new to the music. Our dialogue began with the usual opening question about how Eugene Holley came to write about this music.
Eugene Holley: I started writing about jazz when I worked as a DJ at WDCU-FM (now defunct) in Washington, DC in 1987. I wrote a couple of reviews for their program guide. Then I wrote for the NJSO Journal and, thanks to you, I started getting published in DownBeat, JazzTimes, and Tower Pulse magazines.
When you started on this quest were you aware of the dearth of African Americans writing about serious music?
At forst no, because my jazz mentors: [Willard Jenkins], A.B. Spellman, and Bill Brower (to name a select few) were very visible on the scene and in print. It wasn’t until a few years later that I noticed the scarcity [of black jazz writers] on a national scale.
Why do you suppose that remains such a glaring disparity — where you have a significant number of black musicians making serious music but so few black media commentators?
The answer is complex: First, there’s the lack of exposure of jazz on American media — radio, TV, film, and so on. As you know, its worse in Black media. Then, there’s the nature of the music itself: jazz is a listeners’ music; not easily accessible to those of a pop sensibility — although there are a lot of musicians where that doesn’t apply. Then, the arts are not supported in public schools, where most Blacks matriculate. Another factor is generational: A substantial number of African-American parents born after 1970 don’t have a jazz collection to pass to their young. Couple that with the fact that most jazz clubs of note are not located in black communities. It wasn’t until I lived in Harlem that I had the pleasure of walking to a club — St. Nick’s Pub! All of those factors contribute to the problem.
Do you think that disparity or dearth of African-American writers contributes to how the music is covered?
That depends on the location. If its the big urban cities like New York, DC, or Chicago… probably. Anywhere else, probably not. Also, there’s an assumption in the question that those Black [music] writers automatically like jazz.
Since you’ve been writing about serious music, have you ever found yourself questioning why some musicians may be elevated over others and is it your sense that has anything to do with the lack of cultural diversity among the writers covering this music?
I used to feel that the reasons for certain artists getting elevated were mostly due to race — but after being in the business for a minute, now I think other variables like marketing, demographics, and a strong management/publicity team, are also considerable factors that determine who gets jazz props. That’s not to say that race is not a factor, it is in all aspects of modern life. But I’ve seen white musicians who can play, but never got signed, and Black musicians who are mediocre, who get reams of publicity. Those factors are more important than the diversity, or lack thereof, of the writers.
What’s your sense of the indifference of so many African American-oriented publications towards serious music, despite the fact that so many African American artists continue to create serious music?
No question, the bottom line… money! Although jazz lovers are diverse, their diversity doesn’t translate into the kind of economics Black publications find feasable. There’s also the perception that jazz is too deep for the readers. I’ve had several editors of well-known Black publications tell me that verbatim!
How would you react to the contention that the way and tone of how serious music is covered has something to do with who is writing about it?
I do think there is something to be said about that. We jazz writers are basically advocates for the music. Sometimes that advocacy — mixed with jazz writer jargon — coupled with the unavoidable bitterness of knowing that the music you love is ignored, is off-putting to jazz neophytes, who are already intimidated by jazz in the first place. Writers need to strike a balance between writing for the informed jazz listener and the wider audience, without dumbing-down or alienating either group.
In your experience writing about serious music what have been some of your most rewarding encounters?
Traveling for free to cover festivals; meeting Herbie Hancock, Mario Bauza, Albert Murray, and countless other musicians.
What obstacles have you run up against — besides difficult editors and indifferent publications — in your efforts at covering serious music?
Not getting paid for my work. Writing for publications, only to see them fold. But although I’m in a dry spell now, I’ve been very fortunate to have been published for twenty-plus years.
If you were pressed to list several musicians who may be somewhat bubbling under the surface or just about to break through as far as public consciousness, who might they be and why?
Here’s my short list:
Francisco Mela: a dynamic Afro-Cuban drummer; Elvin Jones meets Chano Pozo!
JD Allen: a saxophone colossus for the twenty-first century.
Kellylee Evans: the best singer from Canada (including Diana Krall!).
Kurt Rosenwinkel: a guitarist at home with jazz and hip-hop.
Brian Blade: a Louisiana drumming dynamo who has held it down for Wayne Shorter and Joni Mitchell.
As we approach the second half of 2009 what for you have been the most intriguing record releases so far this year?
Joe Lovano’s Us Five, "Folk Art" (w/Esperanza Spalding and Francisco Mela)
Branford Marsalis Quartet, "Metamorphosen"
Eliane Elias, "Bossa Nova Stories"
Jane Bunnett, "Embracing Voices"
Melvin Gibbs’ Elevated Entity, "The Ancients Speak"