Ain’t But a Few of Us
Black music writers tell their story: STEVE MONROE
DC-based jazz writer Steve Monroe recently pondered the plight of African American jazz writers based on his own experience in this latest installment in our ongoing series of Ain’t but a Few of Us dialogues…
What motivated you to write about serious music in the first place?
I was working for the sports desk of a daily newspaper and wanted to go to features, to cover music, theater, the arts, do profiles of interesting people, especially those in the black community of Rochester, N.Y., where I was. While working features, I started covering all kinds of music and since I was a jazz fan, became especially interested in the jazz performers who came through town and reviewed and interviewed the ones I could, like Dizzy Gillespie, Billy Taylor, Ron Carter, Bill Evans, Grant Green, many others. The first review and profile I did was of Phil Woods and I was fascinated of the stories he told of Charlie Parker and how he was so influenced by him in the music. That started my jazz reviewing and writing career, was in the mid 70s. Up to then was just a fan, but became interested in reviewing and profiling the greats of the music, the trends, because it was so original American music and had so many genres within its own genre to cover, from soul jazz to avant garde, from the vocalists to the whole swing, big band thing, etc.
When you first started writing about the music were you aware of the dearth of African Americans writing about serious music?
No, but since in the 70s there were only a few even writing professionally about general news to some extent, and features,, sports and business in most media, I did not think much of it then
Why do you suppose that’s still such a glaring disparity – where you have a significant number of black musicians making serious music but so few black media commentators on this music?
Because such a minority of our group are writers, and those of us who are writers maybe have had to be drawn to more prosperous, money making type of writing or communications careers. Jazz/black American music itself has become such a niche art form, within that niche only a few have the time to devote to something that doesn’t make enough money on its own to support anybody, not even most of the musicians, I think that has to be a factor.
Jazz I think like many parts of black America, if not all of it, has become something of an archaeological dig for those types who have the time and intellectual leaning to pursue that type of thing and most of those people with that luxury are not black Americans. Not many blacks have the time or inclination….those who have the time and money to devote to it, I think just do not value it as an art form or cultural beacon like we do….they are into their doctor, lawyer, engineer thing above all and just enjoy jazz as recreation, if they do like it at all.
Do you think that disparity or dearth of African American jazz writers contributes to how the music is covered in the media?
Yes, it has become a fringe, niche art form where, if even the African American populace in general doesn’t support the music, why should mass media outlets devote “X” amount of time and space for something only a few white liberals seem crazy about—I think that is a factor for one thing. If there were more black writers beating the drums in all forms of media for our music it would be covered more, and more as a serious art form…to a certain extent…at least it would be covered more by black media itself, which doesn’t seem to cover it even as much as majority media. I have had to fight to get review space, profile space for jazz in black media outlets I have been a part of…and that’s when I was doing it for free!! So if we can’t get it covered prominently by our own, what chance is there for it in the larger media world?
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 writers covering the music?
Yes, have wondered that, and yes, it probably has something to do with that. It would be natural to promote your own. This is not a color neutral or post racial world yet. Maybe people push certain non African American musicians more in order to promote the whole genre of jazz, claiming they have to do that so the masses will pay attention and support it. I give that a grain of possibility.
What’s your sense of the indifference of so many African American-oriented publications towards serious music?
Mind boggling to a certain extent. It may have to do with the fact that so many whites, and others, Europeans, Asians, others around the world think jazz is so great, that some feel it doesn’t need the backing of its own media. Crazy but have no other explanation for it. It seems our media thinks it is more entertainment than culture, than art, and is just appealing to a niche of whites and blacks and others rather than the masses and therefore if the masses don’t get it, black media can’t spend time on it, because black media has to get paid by advertisers who want/demand to be in front of the masses and if the masses want Kayne and Fat Trel, that’s what black media will give them.
How would you react to the contention that the way and tone of how serious music is covered has anything to do with who is writing about it?
Would agree…may go without saying.
In your experience writing about serious music what have been some of your more rewarding encounters?
My first professional music and jazz assignment was to write about Phil Woods. The way he was courteous, patient with me though my knowledge of the music at that time was limited and certainly much more of a fan based thing than as a reviewer or analyst, made me appreciate the art form he and his peers were pursuing as I think about it now. That was not the case in the other things I had covered, general news, sports for example, where veterans of the business like him were often short, discourteous, very unhelpful to a young reporter/writer.
Covering Sarah Vaughn singing with the Rochester Philharmonic was another special event – I didn’t get to interview her, she was at the top then and didn’t give many interviews at all as I understood. But what was special was the interaction between her jazz motif and the classical, for me, since I had not heard much classical music live at that time and it again made this music, jazz/black American music, special, because it seemed to span and engulf so many other art forms and influence other art forms. It was an education on so many levels.
Interviews with Grant Green, Earl “Fatha” Hines, Keith Jarrett (though he was not the easiest person to interview) were so educational early on, they are still special. Violinist Joe Venuti, again, because I was so young in terms of covering music, I was impressed how patient he was in talking about his music and his life. Knowing and covering Buck Hill all these years, and Nasar Abadey, the veteran folks around D.C. has been an ongoing treat. Sonny Rollins, sort of my all time favorite, at least living (Wes Montgomery probably all time all time), concerts at Blues Alley and Wolf Trap have to rank as well as outstanding encounters/events.
Have to add seeing Charlie Mingus and Sun Ra opened my ears to more than just bebop type jazz, and long live D.C. Space, where I heard Don Cherry and got even more into the freer genres of the music back then.
What obstacles have you encountered – besides difficult editors and indifferent publications – in your efforts at covering serious music?
Venues that see you as a fan who just wants to get in free, and not as a journalist covering a legitimate news story, that has bugged me in the past, that some venue owners see the music, the people who make it as not real stories worth telling or letting journalists cover; they are just entertainers, and everyone must pay, and they don’t see value of the publicity, marketing of what I and others do. These days I may just go ahead and pay just not worry about it, unfortunately, tired of fighting the good fight.
What have been the most intriguing new records you’ve heard so far this year?
—Antonio Parker’s “Live at HR-57”
—Ran Blake, Christine Correa, “down here below”
—Robert Glasper “Black Radio”
—Billy Hart “All Our Reasons”