Ain’t But a Few of Us
Black music writers tell their story…
Ron Welburn is a professor in the English Department at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, and is the Director of the Certificate program in Native American Studies. Of Assateague/Gingaskin & Cherokee Native American and African American heritage, he grew up in the Philadelphia area. As a jazz writer Prof. Welburn was editor of a journal called The Grackle back in the mid-late ’70s, and a former frequent contributor to JazzTimes magazine. He also formerly coordinated the Jazz Oral History Project for the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University-Newark.
One of Welburn’s primary research pursuits is the historical presence of Native American musicians in jazz; these have included “Big Chief” Russell Moore, a Native trombonist Welburn interviewed for the ISJ oral history project. Ron Welburn is also a published poet.
As a writer I first recall encountering Ron’s byline back when I contributed to Jim Harrison’s Jazz Spotlight News in the 1970s, one of the few African-American published jazz journals. Given the Grackle and his other notable experiences writing about the music, Ron Welburn was a natural for this occasional and ongoing dialogue with black writers and the often peculiar challenges they’ve faced getting in print.
For those new to this series of dialogues, which began in 2010, the basic premise is that despite the historic origins of jazz music, the history of African Americans writing about jazz from a journalistic or critical perspective has not been robust or even representative of the impact African Americans have made on this music, particularly from a sheer numbers perspective. Classic example: none of the major jazz periodicals down through the generations has ever had a black editor.
WHAT MOTIVATED YOU TO WRITE ABOUT SERIOUS MUSIC IN THE FIRST PLACE?
My original motivation, which turned into my first published article in 1963, was what I saw as the discrepancy of radio jazz programming in Philadelphia compared to NY. I was particularly annoyed that the commercial FM deejays Sid Mark, Joel Dorn and Del Shields avoided playing records by Ornette, Cecil, et al, though they played Coltrane, Dolphy, McIntyre, and Prince Lasha. Local pianist Damon Spiro, to whom I expressed my concerns, invited me to submit an article to the tabloid of the Jazz at Home Club, whose sessions I was attending. “What’s Wrong with Philadelphia’s Radio Jazz?” was the article’s title. Those deejays didn’t like it; Hal Ross of WXPN at Penn thought it was great. Sure, I was on a high horse! Once I got to Lincoln University in my native Chester County, PA, I had a chance to review LPs for the school newspaper.
WHEN YOU FIRST STARTED WRITING ABOUT MUSIC WERE YOU AWARE OF THE DEARTH OF AFRICAN AMERICANS WRITING ABOUT SERIOUS MUSIC?
Yes, I became aware of that around the same time (1962?63). As a Down Beat subscriber I learned about Barbara Gardner; then Leroi Jones’ [column] “Apple Cores.” I think trumpeter Kenny Dorham and Bill Quinn began a few years later.
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 THE MUSIC?
African Americans seem to have promoted few academic outlets for critical music writing. I can only suppose that editors at newspapers and populist magazines feel “serious” music journalism will not interest their readers, and would rather not support a position where artists could be “torn down.”
DO YOU THINK THAT DISPARITY OR DEARTH OF AFRICAN AMERICAN JAZZ WRITERS CONTRIBUTES TO HOW THE MUSIC IS COVERED?
My better frame of reference for this answer is up to about 1984 or so. There’s never been much room for a conversation. Young white writers have chomped at the bit to write about this music, and for gratis. I’ve never figured out, fully at least, why young writers of color tend to shy away from this kind of writing but are in the foreground criticizing those (whites) who do. Maybe it’s an orientation whites have that writers of color in mainstream journalism shun.
When I was reading Latin New York I became aware of good writing by Aurora Flores; and I met and talked with Max Salazar who I don’t think ever pulled together his writings from LNY and other places into a book (and he cautiously shared a few ideas with John Storm Roberts who then wrote The Latin Tinge). Hilly Saunders with his paper and my Cherokee buddy Lewis MacMillan (New York City Jazz Gazette) didn’t promote much critical writing in their publications. I did a few pieces for Ken Smikle’s publication; Ornette Coleman told me he liked the one I wrote on his harmolodic method. Today, I’m among a few Natives writing about Indians in jazz, blues and pop; yet even for these venues the “serious” writing isn’t fully there.
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?
First, I haven’t published any serious music reviews since 2001, after some 36 years because I just couldn’t keep up with that, my teaching, serious illnesses of an uncle and a friend, and writing a book. Second, what I’ve seen and studied tells me cultural wars are a mainstay in American life, and I place the onus for them on the music industry more than the musicians. White musicians are just musicians wanting to perform a vibrant music that makes them part of a significant culture. Even those who didn’t or prefer still not to perform with black musicians are just trying to make it. It’s the machinery and politics of culture that exploits them as pawns, and they haven’t got a clue!
People who start publications tend to call on their friends-devotees to write for them. Essentially, that’s how it was with The Grackle: Improvised Music in Transition, which published five issues between 1976 and 1979. The Grackle was meant to be a forum of ideas for us three that created it: James T. Stewart, Roger Riggins, and me. I invited Victor Manuel Rosa to write on Latin/Nuyorican music. But I turned away at least two white writers who virtually begged for opportunities to write. I didn’t like doing that, but I told them they had outlets not accessible to us, and being in the early stages we had ideas we wanted to work out.
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?
There may be some truth to that but I’m not absolutely sold on it. Serious music journalism has an academic quality, and I see nothing wrong with that. Perhaps it could continue to loosen itself rhetorically; but if writers of color are afraid of offending their readers, whites will always fill the void.
Publishing venues differ according to who they view as their readers. The late Eileen Southern and since the 1980s Samuel Floyd edited academic publications; I don’t fully recall many serious essays about jazz in Southern’s journal. Bear in mind the context that jazz was not considered “serious music” by anybody. Attitudes by writers in the jazz magazines “were what they were”; but the most egregiously racist one I read was a review of Albert Murray’s Stomping the Blues where the reviewer accused him of not knowing anything about the blues!
IN YOUR EXPERIENCE WRITING ABOUT SERIOUS MUSIC WHAT HAVE BEEN SOME OF YOUR MOST REWARDING ENCOUNTERS?
I’ve been blessed by enjoying just about all my encounters that turned into writings either assigned or volunteered. Some were outside the jazz field. Just to name a few:
• While the music editor for the Syracuse New Times didn’t want me writing for it, I published a remembrance in 1972 or so of hearing Albert Ayler for the first time in 1962; and I also covered the Newport Jazz Festival New York and the downtown Counter festival during 1972?75. As he was bearing down on me, and I was leaving, I was able to wave in his face my award of a Jazz Criticism Fellowship from the Music Critics Association and the Smithsonian for my writing in that alternative weekly newspaper. He was sour; but the editor/publisher was delighted.
• Covering a few festivals of Asian music and writing a few articles for Music Journal, at the invitation of Guy Freedman, a wonder individual to whom I was introduced by pianist Ran Blake.
• Reviewing international music recordings for a little Philadelphia-based library publication, Rockingchair. I was studying ethnomusicology at the time and wrestling with Spanish, but also reviewed belly dance music, Greek, Isreali, Arab North African, Bhutanese, French Canadian, Grand Comoro Islands. I had a ball! (I did very well in four years of high school Latin; if I could have chosen another career it would have been linguistics; besides those language cultures I would have focused on southern and eastern Algonquian languages).
• Covering Creek/Kaw tenor saxophonist Jim Pepper at the South Street Seaport, and reviewing Comin’ and Goin’.
WHAT OBSTACLES HAVE YOU ENCOUNTERED – BESIDES DIFFICULT EDITORS AND INDIFFERENT PUBLICATIONS – IN YOUR EFFORTS AT COVERING SERIOUS MUSIC?
Nothing terribly caustic. I learned that editors of black newspapers weren’t concerned about the timeliness of a review; and they were not above cutting the final paragraph or two of a relatively short review, which is what the New York Amsterdam News did, once, maybe twice. But I believe everything happens for a reason. The “breaks” I didn’t get meant I probably wasn’t supposed to be there.
WHAT HAVE BEEN THE MOST INTRIGUING RECORDS RELEASED SO FAR THIS YEAR?
Thanks to Glenn Siegel, music director at UMass Amherst’s WMUA and creator of the Magic Triangle series and Jazz Shares, this year I’ve heard some promising music and CDs by Makaya McCraven, Split Decision (Chicago Sessions CS0018)(albeit a 2012 CD) and Mike Reed’s People, Places & Things: About Us (Music and Mike Reed—well, yes, a 2009 CD).
The most exciting and innovating music I’ve heard in the last five years live and on CD includes Michelle Rosewoman who came here with her ensemble and I bought her The In Side Out and hope she does more orchestrations like that; and Rudresh Mahanthappa, who with his cohort is, I think, rewriting the vocabulary for playing the saxophone as part of, in my experience of listening and as an amateur musician, a long arch coming out of South Asia. A development like this in jazz was bound to happen
Yet, a 1997 concert at Mount Holyoke College by Sonny Rollins tops just about any concert I’d heard before or since. Astounding!!! I’m still speechless!