Writer Greg Thomas discusses his current series on Race & Jazz

To loosely paraphrase an age-old bromide, Know and recognize the truth and the truth will set you free. The only way to defeat racism is to recognize it’s existence and confront it head on. That my friends is one of the cornerstones of the Independent Ear. Yes there are times when taking positions in recognizing racism in this music is unpopular in some corners. Yes, unfortunately there are those who – high-minded or free of racist impulses or not – somehow fail to recognize racial disparities. Have you ever heard an African American, or any American of color for that matter, come close to forming their lips to suggest that we live in a post-racial society, that we’ve reached the end of racism? Yet that ridiculous notion is afoot in this age of Obama.

Recently I called an otherwise well-meaning jazz magazine editor to raise questions on what I felt was a real imbalance in the images in said magazine purporting to represent jazz music that particular month. The editor’s response was the kind people of color have become all too used to, some variation on how the editor doesn’t “see color” and apparently doesn’t take into account a need to present some measure of balance in the publication. While it seems that all too many in the so-called “majority” populace in this country either don’t, or try hard not to, look at things through the prism of racial perspectives. However years of discrimination — overt or covert — has taught people of color to view life in this country quite differently. Frankly, were we talking about European classical, country & western, heavy metal (though one could make a case for Screamin’ Jay Hawkins as a godfather of that form), or bluegrass music, then perhaps such an imbalance of images (i.e. overwhelmingly white) is excusable owed to the nature of those musics and the great majority who perform them. But we’re not, we’re talking JAZZ MUSIC here… no need to belabor the obvious birth source of that great music. Again, why do people of color always have to point out these disparities?

The brilliant pianist-composer-bandleader Orrin Evans has lately devoted several substantive Facebook messages to issues related to racial disparities as he sees them. As a result a certain writer has branded Orrin a racist. Why is it so disturbing to some folks when these issues and disparities are exposed and laid out for all to see? Why is the response of so many of the so-called “majority” populace in this country, when called to task on issues of racism, respond with some variation of ‘oh, I never knew that/didn’t recognize that/don’t see that?’ Writer and broadcaster Gregory Thomas has recently embarked upon a series of articles in All About Jazz (www.allaboutjazz.com) on subjects relative to race & jazz. In Thomas’ current part 3 of his series, he speaks with the accomplished jazz and film writer Gary Giddins, who recognizes that “Racial sensitivity is not going to go away in our lifetimes. It’s just there – it’s part of America… I’m not sure if the idea of color-blindness is the best virtue when we know there is an inequity in how people get hired. The inequity has to do with racism.”

Greg Thomas was a contributor to the Independent Ear’s ongoing series on black jazz writers, Ain’t But a Few of Us. So naturally we had some questions for him about his current series on race & jazz in AAJ.


Writer Greg Thomas on his best behavior – with his lovely bride

What prompted you to begin this series on Race and Jazz, and how many parts do you anticipate contributing?

I began the series on Race and Jazz Race and Jazz for several reasons. One was to prompt discussions by the jazz community that go deeper than most conversations about race on radio or network and cable television, or even print publications. Another was because I wanted the freedom to write without the usual space and editorial constraints.

Yet another reason is to amplify a conception of culture as a more accurate and acceptable basis for understanding group and individual dynamics rather than the idea of race, a concept tied to skin color and power relations. [Editor’s note: indeed, the whole concept of “race” is an artificial, man-made construct.]

And most of all, I’m doing this 12-part series because I think the key to the resolution to the “race” problem, both in jazz and the society, is found right in the values and practices of the music itself. So, the main motivation is to show how jazz can help us overcome one of the most intractable issues of our time, which has been a problem in the United States since before the nation became a nation.

You’ve certainly spoken the truth, yet some folks would rather not deal with the truth. But ultimately what do you hope readers will take away from your series?

I hope readers gain insight into the various ways race has informed and deformed the jazz discourse over time. Jazz, as a cultural product of black folks in the United States, had to be shaped in part by race, since the idea—and the beliefs and behavior which come from that idea—is central to the history of the nation. So jazz, of necessity, is informed by race, but I think “culture” is the true key to unlock the power and magnificence of this great art form.

But since culture, as I explicated in detail in the second essay of the column, is so often confused with race, “race” ends up deforming the conversations and thoughts of many who discuss jazz history, jazz in contemporary times, as well as the larger meaning and values of the music.

What kind of comments and feedback have you gotten from this series thus far and how would you respond to that feedback?

The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive and supportive, both in the comments section under the essays, and on Facebook. I tried to answer each comment for the very first column entry, so I urge folks reading this to check out the back and forth for the “Jazz vs Racism” essay. The hyperlink above, in my answer to your first question, will take readers to a page at All About Jazz in which each one of the Race and Jazz columns can be accessed.

In one interesting case, a Facebook friend of mine, Darryl Cox, and I had a philosophical disagreement. In a nutshell, I see the glass as half full, and he sees it as half empty, and we had an exchange that amplifies those points of view. In another, Joan Cartwright, founder and director of Women in Jazz South Florida, asked how the column addresses economic fairness as well as jazz and sexism. Again, I suggest that folks check out my responses in the comments section of the first essay to see my answer to her query.

It’s understandable that folks want to address the issues that most concern them. But I wanted to put a spotlight on race and jazz, past and present, to confront the predicaments and silences and disparities caused by race. Class, gender, and other issues are important too, no doubt, but I’m clear on my theme and intent. And those other admittedly related issues will be confronted as they arise organically. For instance, in the third column, the racism that underlies the lack of recognition and economic opportunities of black writers on jazz is discussed.

These days, many folks, as I say in the column, “sweep race under the rug.” I’m pulling the rug away, and exposing some of the dirt, so it can be seen and swept away. I also want the column to serve a maintenance function. All adults who have to clean for themselves know that a one-time sweeping is just that: one-time. Dust and dirt must be cleaned away consistently. So for those already aware of these issues, and who have themselves envisioned and lived their own resolutions to the “race” situation, the column can serve as a way to not only discover but to maintain resolutions to the problem.

As I just mentioned, my third column [has just posted at www.allaboutjazz.com]. It features an interview with Gary Giddins, one of the top jazz writers and critics of the last 30+ years. He identifies disappointing racial disparities in major newsrooms and in specific awards given by the Jazz Journalists Association. He defends the contributions and worth of the work of Amiri Baraka, Stanley Crouch, Albert Murray, and others. So, unlike the first two columns, which dealt with, one, my personal experience in overcoming the temptation of racism, and, two, past examples of how cultural reality and the power of jazz supersede “race,” this third essay is tackling race and jazz in the present-day.

The subject matter may be controversial, but we’ll roll and swing with things no matter what.

What must we do to encourage young writers of color to contribute to the jazz reportage and literature on this music?

Imagine a summer camp for young writers of color, where they would be baptized into the fires of jazz, until they spoke in aesthetic tongues that they don’t fully understand right now. We would show how jazz is tied to others types of roots, pop and fine art music, to various genres they may be more familiar with. We’d have them experience the music live, not just on record, because that way they can have a more sensual engagement with the music. The music has to get in their bodies and their emotions, not just in their heads based on the music’s historical importance. But we’d also play audio and videos of the masters of the idiom, so they can know what the art form sounds like, looks like and feels like, at the very highest levels. Ideally, we’d also have master classes with true living masters of jazz—that would drive home the message too. We’d also show them the ties that bind together the music and the other cultural expressions and practices that give meaning to their lives in the United States, and even globally.

So, education is essential. As is business and entrepreneurship. You and I have talked about the horrible state of the black audience for jazz. We also know that the recording and music industries are in flux, big time. These are problems that can present business opportunities for those with the guts, foresight and vision, and ability to bring resources to bear to address them. If young writers of color see a vibrant scene happening, they are more likely to be drawn to it. Let’s not just wring our hands about the predicaments, let’s swing into action to confront them. Young people, especially those attuned to hip hop entrepreneurship, will be more interested if we, an older generation, act boldly and take risks that can pay off big, or that may have us go down in flames. The risk-taking that doesn’t pay off in the short run—if it doesn’t kill you—can be what Albert Murray, in The Hero and the Blues, wrote of Thomas Mann’s Joseph character: “. . . he proceeds as if each setback were really a recoil action for a greater leap forward, as if each downfall were a deliberately designed crouch for a higher elevation.”

Talk about your recent affiliation with the New York Daily News, how you’re starting to fill the jazz reportage gap at that paper, and your plans for that affiliation.

I have Gary Giddins to thank for urging me to go after a spot writing about jazz at the Daily News.

Howard Mandel, who leads the Jazz Journalists Association, held a town hall meeting in the Big Apple during the APAP conference in January 2010. During this discussion, Gary Giddins talked about the days when all sorts of publications covered jazz, way, way more than today. He specifically mentioned that he thought someone should try to write for the New York Daily News. They hadn’t covered the music in years, which made no sense for the largest circulation daily in the jazz capital.

Later that year I called Gary to discuss this issue further and he urged me to go for it. He said that writers just assume that if a publication wanted to cover jazz, they’d be doing so already, and hence don’t even try to break in. He recalled his own experience at the Village Voice, where he approached them, and as soon as he began writing about jazz, the paper’s advertising revenue from jazz clubs increased.

So I tracked down a retired black executive of the Daily News whom I had met back in the late 1990s to pitch my desire to write for the paper, in terms not only of my fit and experience as a jazz writer but also in business terms. I said to this former Vice-President: why is the Daily News leaving all jazz-related ad revenue to the New York Times and other publications that still cover the music regularly? Although the music industry overall is hurting and the city and the country is coming out of a recession, New York still has a viable, active jazz scene, and several jazz publications are thriving here. I told him they were missing out on advertising dollars.

That’s how you can really get their attention.

The retired Daily News executive liked both aspects of my pitch, so he put me in touch with a key person—a sister—still inside the Daily News, who hooked me up with Robert Heisler, the Features Editor. Fortunately, he digs jazz and likes my writing. (I later found out that the Editor-in-Chief likes jazz too.) In January, my first feature focused on Chick Corea, who was about to perform with Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. The piece was a home run, and elicited great traffic and feedback. Since then they’ve published close to 20 pieces by me, including features on Esperanza Spalding, Jimmy Heath and Benny Golson, Miguel Zenón, Dianne Reeves, Barbara Carroll, Milton Nascimento, Marcus Roberts, the 50th anniversary of Impulse!, the Bill Charlap trio, the pairing of Jason Moran and Meshell Ndegeocello for a “Fats Waller Dance Party” in Harlem, Latin jazz artists and the Grammy cuts controversy, the 10th anniversary of the Juilliard Jazz program, and more.

Just last month, I had a whole page devoted to jazz CD reviews, which I’ll be writing on a monthly basis for the paper.

I share these details in the hope that younger writers of color (and even discouraged ones of my generation and older) will take my example and use it as a model upon which they can learn and succeed. I’ve been in the proverbial shed for a long time as a journalist, over 20 years in fact. So perseverance, strategic planning, excellent execution and consistent follow-through are the keys, along with talent and developing and tapping into a social and professional network.

Right now I’m still working on a freelance basis with the paper; I’m striving to become a staff writer there, while making entry into other publications of note that pay well. Man, I’ve got a family to feed and a daughter a few years from college, so I ain’t got no time to waste!

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4 Responses to Writer Greg Thomas discusses his current series on Race & Jazz

  1. Ron Gill says:

    I read this article with interest, thanks to my friend, Willard Jenkins. Thanks Willard.
    Since moving away from being an active performer, jazz singer, and radio programmer
    at radio/TV station, WGBH, he have been preparing to actively present a section on my
    website to have discussions about the current and past jazz scene as relative to my years
    in Boston. But, in addition, I will have discussions relative to active musicians and especially
    singers.
    This series will be enlightening and I look forward to additional writings here.
    Thanks for the contribution. Only way we can help to prevent the history of jazz from being a
    dying artform. I am concerned about that.
    Ron Gill

  2. Jaleel Shaw says:

    I think this is a very great topic. It’s something that I have also discussed on my facebook page. One fay I posted that “I don’t care if it’s old school or new school as long as it sounds good and if it’s going to be called Jazz, it should have elements of blues and swing. Needless to say, I lost some friends and got a couple nasty emails. I can understand how that is an open statement and that maybe I should’ve been a bit more clear, but ultimately I was saying – know what this music is and where it came from before you jump on the bandwagon and say you’re a jazz musician. I love all types of jazz as well as a lot of what’s going on today. I just think if you’re going to study something, the best way is to get to the root of it and understand it.
    Again, I understand I may have been vague with that statement but at the same time it made me see how simply saying blues and swing can be “offensive” to some people that perform this music today, which is very scary. Again I love a lot of what’s going on in jazz music. I love that the music has gone as far as it has and continues to grow, but does that mean that swing and the blues are negative things that we should keep in the past when it comes to jazz? I look at this the same way I look at slavery or racism today. Some people get very offended when the words slavery or racism come up. It’s like slavery never happened and racism doesn’t exist. Maybe not every jazz musician feels this way, but I know that racism still exists and I’m reminded of it almost every day.
    All in all, I want to play and express myself. My heros didn’t spent to much time (if any) talking about what wasn’t happening and who wasn’t doing what. They DID it. They did what those artist weren’t doing and it wasn’t because they felt like they needed to show what other artists WERENT doing. It was because it was what they WANTED to do. An artist can talk about what other people are not doing until he/she is blue in the face OR he/she can do what’s in his/her heart and show people who HE/She is through the music, which is what I think is the most important thing for an artist to do.

    • Ron Gill says:

      Jaleel, you are right on and don’t let anyone lead you astray, jazz is based on the blues and swing. If the music does not swing, it fails to stand up to the test of time and it’s main ingredient.
      I know that some people who are younger have current music in their heads, and it’s all good, but they REALLY don’t understand the tradition. It’s just music to them. Jazz music stands the test of time: Ellington, Diz, Herbie, Miles, Hubbard, Corea and the rest. And, they all swing.
      I can go on, but I wanted to pass that on to you. You understand. Like Russell Malone told me once, and I pass it on to you, “You’ve Got BIG ears”
      Ron Gill

  3. joan gaylord says:

    Greg, I’ve enjoyed many productive conversations with you on the topics of jazz, racism and jazz & racism so I won’t attempt to capture all that here but simply say I look forward to our next discussion. What I especially like about this interview, though, is the effort to address how we go about fixing these situations.

    Would we all agree that education is (once again) the key?

    Young people need to know their cultural history, the FULL history. They need to know musical history to understand where this incredible music came from (a point Jaleel made so well) before they can help advance it forward. And then they need to learn to write effectively so they are prepared to write those reviews for major papers.

    Heartbreakingly, communities are slashing education budgets with the arts near the top of their lists. It is hard to imagine that the Detroit Public Schools once had a musical program that rivaled any academy. And the churches met the need of many a young musician. What now? What can each of us do to step up and find ways to fill that void? That’s the question I keep trying to answer.

    Thank you, Greg (again) for keeping this topic front and center.

    And to whomever wrote the introduction: “age-old bromide” when you are paraphrasing the Bible? Seriously?

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