Our contributor to this latest installment of the series Ain’t But a Few of Us — black music writers telling their story — is Twin Cities-based writer Robin James. I first met Robin at an IAJE conference and later worked with her as part of the short-lived Jazz Journalists Association mentoring program for young African-American writers in honor of the late Harlemite writer Clarence Atkins. That program enabled a small coterie of talented young black writers, including Rahsaan Clark Morris and Bridget Arnwine who earlier contributed to this series, to attend a national critics conference.
Robin James has written a jazz column for several years at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, the Twin Cities African American newspaper. She has continued to contribute to various prints, including a rare interview with Ornette Coleman that she wrote for DownBeat magazine.
What motivated you to write about this music?
At first it was curiosity, which stemmed from attending two jazz concerts in Minneapolis. The first jazz concert I attended was with Joshua Redman and his band in 1996, the other was the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis in 2000. Both men, both concerts changed my thinking about jazz and what this peculiar American art form means to this country. But even before these experiences I had a history with jazz. My grandmother had told me stories about how her husband, a Pullman porter, had developed friendships with jazzmen like Hot Lips Page, Buck Clayton, and Dizzy Gillespie. It took some time before I would learn about who they were.
At the concerts I noticed that there were hardly any women or people of color in the audience. It concerned me. So I wrote about those concert experiences after I was given the tremendous opportunity by the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, an historic Black newspaper and the oldest minority owned company in Minnesota, to write a jazz column, which I began in September 2000.
Then I heard a selection from Joshua’s Spirit of the Moment: Live at the Village Vanguard album on the radio and it pulled me in. I remember diggin’ the music and then becoming curious about it. It was an inspirational moment for me. Then I found out he was on his way to town, so I asked for an interview and, luckily, got one (on his birthday). I was a new reporter and my interview went over its alloted time. But he was very kind to me over the phone and in-person. At the time, I knew nothing except that I was falling in love with the music. And I loved the way it made me feel.
The second jazz concert I attended was the LCJO with Wynton Marsalis. I was dating someone that had spoken very highly of Wynton and the band. During my first trip to visit him in New York, I bought him Wynton’s book, Sweet Sing Blues on the Road as a Christmas gift. Beyond that, I knew nothing about Wynton or his orchestra. But I was deeply curious.
When the band came to town I attended and reviewed the concert. After the concert, at the venue I met Wynton. Someone introduced us and took our picture.
Immediately, he was very warm and his spirit was very welcoming. After seeing LCJO and Wynton in action, I began to question why more people like myself didn’t feel drawn to the music. Although I feel very strongly that jazz chose me, I still have a curiosity that drives me. It makes me want to share my experiences with readers. I hope that someone out there will get curious and inspired to learn more, and explore the music more fully for themselves, in much the same way that I did.
About a year later, I was at the Book Expo America in Chicago where I had traveled to work with book authors. I was a publicist at the time. Wynton’s book Jazz in the Bittersweet Bluees of Life was being released, so it was being promoted there. He played a concert to help with promotions. Briefly we were re-acquainted at the book publisher’s after party.
A month later I was back in Chicago for the Ravinia Festival, where the LCJO and Wynton were performing. It was there that he read aloud my first column where I stated my concern about why more women and people of color were not feeling drawn to jazz. After he read my piece, he offered me encouraging words that inspired me to keep writing about jazz. Wynton also recognized and acknowledged how difficult it is to write.
For someone so accomplished like that to take an interest in me and make time to read my work, at such an early stage, well it made me want to keep going. Keep writing and learning about jazz. I am forever grateful. That meeting changed my life.
After this initial meeting with Wynton, I got in touch with Bob Protzman, who at the time was one of the only full-time jazz writers at a major daily, the St. Paul Pioneer Press. He helped make it possible for me to write jazz previews and reviews for the newspaper. Plus, Protzman was hosting a show on our jazz station KBEM, Jazz 88FM. I listened to him and learned a lot. After that, at my first Jazz Journalists Association event in New York City in 2003, I reached out to veteran jazz writers Ashley Kahn and Gary Giddins. Both were very supportive and also helped me along the way. Due to a referral by Gary, I received my first and only assignment from the Village Voice. I wrote a CD review. My experience working with Village Voice editor Chuck Eddy left a lasting impression on me as well. He taught me how to say something with 250 words or less. Ashley encouraged me by teaching me how to craft pitch letters. I also reached out to Stanley Crouch. He too offered me encouraging words of wisdom andd instruction.
When you began this quest were you aware of the dearth of African Americans writing about this music?
No, I had no idea.
Why do you suppose that’s still such a glaring disparity — where you have a significant number of black musicians making this music but so few black media commentators?
I suppose it comes down to power, access, and interest. Having knowledge of and access to art is powerful. But first you’ve got to have interest, interest in art. Interest in the artist, interest in an audience. All it takes is one voice to spark something great, which can then inspire individuals and a nation. That’s power. But it goes even deeper than that. And as far as I know, the people who’ve been in this business the longest, who have benefited the most, have yet to fully explain their process. Until that happens, and that news is documented or talked about openly, by African Americans and all of those who know the difference, we’re not going to get very far. Very little light has been shed on the subject for whatever reasons. Too much time is devoted to and focused upon everything but the real important issues, which relate directly to economics. People in positions of power feel more comfortable with the same people writing the same things and in the same way. I would welcome a healthy discussion by veteran jazz writers, authors, and editors from jazz publications, and African American-oriented publications in the near future. What it boils down to is that we’re talking about the human condition and humanizing that condition. The music, it’s sources, and implications.
Do you think that disparity or dearth of African American writers contributes to how the music is covered?
Absolutely. From a cultural enrichment standpoint, there’s a lot that has the potential to get missed and/or misunderstood, which can lead to miscommunication. When you’re documenting what’s happening now, you’ve got to be careful about how the information is transmitted. When you’re considering future generations with respect to African American history, I know I strive to get the perspective right, because it may be my one and only shot at doing so. By shaping the now, you’re shaping the future and how it gets viewed later. It’s like African American folklore. When the truth doesn’t get told, you have alternative stories going, that then can get viewed as being myths. The truth doesn’t always get the forum it deserves. Some things get lost in translation. Yes, that’s unfortunate. And yes, that’s 100% preventable.
Since you’ve been writing about this 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 writers covering the music?
At first I used to wonder and question, but now I don’t. I get it. Editors are key here. How they think matters. Or, we’ve been conditioned to believe that. Sure, they get pitched by writers, which in turn helps shape their decision making process. But it still comes down to how they think, which directly relates to what gets covered and who covers what. Again, that leads to economics, and relationships. I don’t know how much a writer’s actual talent, and abilities, or interest adds to the equation. I suppose all of that ought to be considered. In my case, I’m very fortunate in that I write a jazz column and so, my editors let me have free reign. My position is extremely unique, I realize this and feel very grateful to have the freedom to pretty much write about whatever I want to. Of course, I’m asked to be mindful of our audience when I do make my choices.
You are one of the few who have written about the music for an African American-oriented publication. What’s your sense of the indifference of so many African American publications towards this music, despite the fact that so many African American artists continue to create the music?
Again, it comes down to economics. I imagine, other publications have to consider their overall space, content, and advertising budgets. With MSR, the publisher made a conscious choice to devote space to jazz, in good and not so good economic times. We still have a long way to go in this arena. I definitely don’t see a lot of coverage being devoted to jazz [elsewhere], which is very disappointing and troubling to me.
How would you react to the contention that the way and tone of how this music is covered has something to do with who is writing about it?
The way and tone of how serious music is covered has everything to do with who is covering it. It’s like comparing Ben Ratliff’s coverage of Wynton Marsalis to Nate Chinen’s coverage of Wynton. Here we’re talking about individual experience. Individual taste, so an individual’s background, experience and education comes into play. It’s all very intimate in nature. And you can sense the enthusiasm level a writer has for the piece he or she has written. It’s inescapable.
In your experience writing about serious music, what have been some of your most rewarding encounters?
Besides my encounters with Wynton, interviewing Ornette Coleman for a cover story for DownBeat has been a major career high point. Meeting Kenny Burrell and Charlie Haden at the Jazz Bakery. Having Gary Giddins refer me for a CD review for the Village Voice. Receiving the Clarence Atkins fellowship award and attending the National Critics Conference, and from that experience meeting David Ritz, from whom I still seek advice. Co-hosting and creating the jazz radio show Sweet on Jazz with KBEM’s music director Kevin O’Connor. With his invaluable guidance and support I was fortunate enough to interview artists such as Jackie McLean, Lou Rawls, Sonny Rollins, Patrice Rushen, Nnenna Freelon, among others. Writing for the Village Voice and EQ magazine. Becoming a contributing writer for DownBeat. Having had the opportunity to write about jazz for a weekly, a daily, a national jazz magazine, and to broadcast a jazz show, I feel extremely fortunate. All these experiences fuel my passion to keep moving in positive directions with the music. Building long-term relationships with musicians of all calibre and earning their respect and trust is of the utmost importance to me.
What obstacles have you run up against — besides difficult editors and indifferent publications — in your efforts at covering this music?
MSR is a weekly newspaper so I encounter a number of obstacles. My mail gets lost. Sometimes I don’t always get clips out to the labels who don’t have clipping services. I don’t always receive invites to music-related functions. My name doesn’t always appear on regular reviewers mailing lists so I don’t get CDs to review from all record companies releasing jazz or jazz-related music in a timely fashion. I understand the timing that’s involved when it comes to reviewing a CD, but I’ve learned to just keep doing the best I can to get the news out. I’ve come to accept that doing some extra leg work is necessary if I want to keep up and stay on top of the news. It’s tough, but well worth the effort. A column might get bumped, or a front page story could get eliminated or delayed. It all depends on developing news.
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 wider spread public consiousness, who might they be and why?
Dana Hall and Winard Harper are two terriffic drummers out there who don’t record a lot or get a ton of gigs, but they are rich on talent. They deserve more exposure as they have demonstrated commitment and a deep understanding of the music and how it relates to the times we live in now. Jeremy Pelt is another extraordinary talent that you just don’t see or hear enough about. He’s very history-minded, yet future-minded and presents a balanced view of both while he’s telling his story.
What were some of the most intriguing new records you heard in 2009?
Christian McBride’s Kind of Brown featuring his acoustic jazz quintet Inside Straight stands out. It’s a deluxe package. It grooves, swings, it’s bluesy. Speaking of Jeremy, his debut recording Men of Honor for HighNote came out in January, its beautiful. I had the honor of writing the liner notes. All of my writing experiences have brought me to this important assignment. I have a lot of respect for David Ritz who has won several Grammys for his work on liner notes.