Always on the read for young writers with a viewpoint on creative music, I’ve recently been exchanging Tweets with Brooklyn-based writer Angelika Beener. Ms. Beener, who at least in part comes to this music through the influence of her father, trumpeter Oliver Beener, wields one of the most probing, vibrant and positive pens its been my pleasure to encounter in a minute. She has contributed to the jazz prints, including JazzTimes where she’s written about some of her peer artists, including saxophonists Marcus Strickland and Kenneth Whalum. But as is the case with other writers, its in her blog Alternate Takes (http://alternate-takes.com) where you can sample the true heart of her writing. At Alternate Takes she’s written most recently on the rising vocalist Gregory Porter‘s new Motema release, her dear friend Robert Glasper‘s scintillating new disc “Black Radio,” and an interview with a subject not often covered in the traditional jazz prints (yet another reason to blog!), Max Roach’s lively daughter Dara Roach.
First off, I’d like to thank Willard Jenkins for the invitation to join in on this discussion about the Black jazz audience. I think it’s both a wonderful subject, and a great time in the music to bring it up.
Whether or not people agree, per se, with Nicholas Payton’s BAM ideology, it’s stunning to witness the amount of response and passion associated with the subject. It has become a springboard to more open and honest discussions about race and jazz, which I believe can be a move in the right direction for the music overall.
I agree a great deal with the points Atane [in our most recent dialogue post, preceding our Payton interview] made about the baton dropping between generations. I would just add that jazz is only one of the many African American gems that were seemingly not willed to us. There is an overall abandonment of Black cultural pride in my generation. Utter indifference regarding our history is evident in the glorification of an ignorance our youth seems to revel in. We’ve apparently “arrived” so much so that embracement of our history is viewed as a set back. Black youth are dropping out of high school at record speed and in record numbers, and we can sadly go on and on with disturbing statistics in a myriad of areas. There is no wonder about why there is such a small Black jazz audience.
This being said, I think Atane makes another great point regarding actual and perceived. There is a movement brewing in jazz which is enlisting a younger, Blacker audience. Most strikingly, artists like Robert Glasper and Esperanza Spalding (both of whom have released urban-leaning jazz albums this week) are ushering in this audience in significant numbers. But my mother always said, “Once jazz moved downtown, that was it.” Harlem’s jazz scene is all but ignored, and to be quite honest, most of the better jazz musicians don’t play Harlem. There is an undeniable difference in caliber of musician that generally plays in the Uptown venues and jam sessions. (I say generally, please don’t misunderstand me!) Presenters like Harlem Stage and Revive Da Live are starting to bring that stellar quality back to Harlem, which is essential, but we have a ways to go in terms of a vital scene with top notch musicians. This is a vivid illustration of what I spoke of earlier regarding the way our history is viewed: as something passé and categorical, and in terms of jazz, a place which went “out of style” in the 50s. I have no doubts that the uprooting of the music from its home was a calculated move, and we need to be just as calculative and strategic in bringing it back home.
I would be remiss not to mention the onus on our musicians to help expand the Black audience. To touch on the woman’s perspective, I cannot tell you how many times I’ve walked into a jazz venue, and had to check a nearby mirror to see if I had grown nine more heads from the looks on the faces of the typical jazz audience. That I am viewed as the odd woman out (Black and female) for embracing and enjoying my own culture says a whole lot about the state of the jazz audience. Additionally, to be able to bet that most of the musicians I am watching won’t be leaving with Black women that night says its own mouthful. We are all human beings, with a right to choose to date whomever we please, but we cannot expect to grow our audience, and run from our women. Period. I am exhausted of the “Black women don’t come to the club” thing. Blame is a dangerous and historical tool that we are unfortunately still falling for, instead of looking at the real issues on the table. We have to stop blaming our women for not supporting the music, especially when so many Black male musicians of my generation stumbled into this music themselves. (That one uncle you had who played Ramsey Lewis albums, or that high school band director who hipped you to Bud Powell.) Now all of a sudden we are so cultured that we are above affording a Black woman that same opportunity to happenstance-ly discover a piece of her heritage? White women should be as rewarded for being more “cultured” than Black women, as Black women should be blamed for being robbed of her culture. Black women have been relentlessly disinvited from the jazz community at large (let’s reflect on Miles Davis’ Someday My Prince Will Come album cover). We have to want to see our women in the clubs, and do what is necessary to make that happen. Is it a little extra work? Sure. But that’s called being Black in America. We have always had to be vigilant about education from the days of slavery, and we still do today. We have to remain vigilant.
Cultural disconnect is one of the saddest things to witness, and there are so many dynamics to consider when it comes to rectifying it. Namely, purists versus non-purists (whatever that really means). That’s a discussion for another post, I suppose, but it is a big part of the overall audience problem. We have to be willing to allow a bridging of the gap, however a musician deems artistically necessary, if we are ever going to see a Black audience develop. We don’t have to love all of it, but again, we cannot blame and condemn musicians for their artistic choices. Goodness knows this goes against the very philosophy of what jazz is. It has always been cutting-edge, and brave. We have to allow this tradition to continue, less we compromise the art and further ostracize the audience.
That’s all for now. Thank you again, Willard, for the opportunity to talk to your readership about this very important topic.
NEXT TIME: Greg Osby meditates on issues related to the audience in general… Stay tuned!