The Independent Ear

Art of cool

A couple of weeks back our ongoing dialogue with black music writers, Ain’t But a Few of Us, included the young writer Anthony Dean-Harris. In addition to detailing how he came to write about jazz, Anthony spoke in very positive tones about a jazz presenting organization called The Art of Cool that he had recently become affiliated with as correspondent to their web site. That somewhat audacious name certainly piqued the curiosity, so based on Dean-Harris’ enthusiastic referral I sought out Art of Cool mover & shaker Cecily Mitchell for some insights into this developing organization devoted to bringing jazz to the Durham, North Carolina area.
Art of Cool
Cicely Mitchell & Al Strong of the Art of Cool

In the vernacular we – at least some of us – know what one might mean by the art of cool. But please tell us your mission with this organization, why you chose that name, and how Art of Cool stands for what you’re trying to do in your part of the country.
Art of Cool is a 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to presenting, preserving and promoting jazz-influenced music. Our goal is to expand the audience for jazz and improvised music. The name evolved from the venues where we originally started presenting jazz which were small local art galleries in the Raleigh-Durham area. We wanted to give reference to jazz without actually saying the word “jazz’ which to be honest can be a barrier for some people. I thumbed through some old albums that my partner, Al Strong, had and picked out “Birth of the Cool”. Art of Cool just made sense and stuck.

How did Cicely Mitchell become a jazz enthusiast?
I met Al Strong, a local trumpeter and professor at St. Augustine’s and North Carolina Central. He turned me on to jazz. I loved soul music and good old-school hip hop before we met. The elements of what I loved about those genres I later realized were the essence of jazz. Al seemed to help me connect all the dots. It was almost instant that jazz was my link to African American tradition and culture.

It’s weird. All through undergrad I kept saying…”I’m going to get into jazz…like Miles and Coltrane.” Yet I always felt a little intimidated. I just didn’t know where to start. Al listens to all the greats all the time so it was simple to just jump in head first. Of course, he’s got quite a collection.

Why Durham, NC and how did you determine that this was a niche in your community that you needed to fill?
Durham, NC has a rich tradition of Black American Music mostly in the blues and soul music. North Carolina in general has a very big jazz connection. The most obvious are John Coltrane, Nina Simone and Thelonious Monk. Aside from the history Durham currently is very strong in arts performance culture. It is home to 2 performance theatres that are currently in the top 100 in box office sales. Durham is home to Duke University as well as North Carolina Central University both schools boast residencies by Branford Marsalis. Nnenna Freelon is a downtown Durham resident. The students and faculty at both schools play around town and make the scene extremely strong. People come to Durham for school or jobs in Research Triangle Park. The population is highly educated and more adept for arts culture like jazz, classical music or plays. So all the pieces are in place in Durham: the players, the audience and the institutions. Art of Cool is here simply to connect them all.

Talk about some of the activities you’ve presented thus far, and be candid about both successes and the not so successful – including some sense of why/how some things may have been successful, and others less so.
We mainly present jazz and soul music in club venues and outdoor stages now. We successfully filled the earlier art galleries that we presented jazz in the first year. We attribute success to the strength of the players on the scene.

We tried to launch the series in art galleries in Raleigh; however, we’ve found that it hasn’t taken off as quickly as Durham. We think it is because Raleigh is more of a rock and bluegrass type of town. Durham is known as the place in the Triangle to go hear jazz or soul music. It is rich in Black American Music offerings.

As an organization, besides the obvious funding, what are some things your organization could use going forward?
Art of Cool would love to build a strong blog community. We hope to reach more people outside of the Triangle by writing more about the resurgence of jazz. Please help spread the word. We also could use visitors to our first annual Art of Cool festival which will be held downtown at 8 venues with over 20+ world-class jazz/soul musicians over two days (April 25-26, 2014). Maceo Parker and Miguel Atwood-Ferguson are the headliners. We announce the full lineup Nov. 15th, 2013.

Art of Cool 1

What kind of future do you foresee for Art of Cool?
- Art of Cool’s future includes: Art of Cool Festival, which will be held each April.
- Start of Cool, which is our jazz education program that we seek to launch next year.
- Launch of a more active blog featuring content about the next generation of jazz musicians which will be led by Anthony Dean-Harris of

Art of Cool is the kind of DIY effort on behalf of the music that has some measure of precedence in history; jazz support organizations have been hatched in numerous communities around the country, to varying degrees of success. No question Art of Cool could certainly be replicated in other communities. To get a better sense of the impact Art of Cool has made on the culture of the Durham, NC community thus far I sought out the impressions of two Durham area residents whose instincts where the music is concerned are impeccable, including vocalist-educator Lenora Zenzalai Helm (whose recent efforts were profiled earlier this year in the Independent Ear), and staunch jazz supporter Aminifu Harvey, a DC-area transplant who has expressed great appreciation for the jazz scene in Durham.

Lenora Zenzalai Helm: Yes, Art of Cool is definitely making a huge impact here in the NC Triangle (Raleigh/Durham/Cary) area. They are putting together a jazz festival – the first one outside of a university-connected event that I know of. They created a groundswell of support, had an impressive marketing strategy of community forums, open meetings with stakeholders (musicians, presenters, businesses, potential funders, etc.) and seemed to include everyone in the decision to “bring a festival to Durham.” A couple of years before this effort, they created a concert series that they used Reverbnation for to audition internationally. The brains behind the whole deal is a musician colleague from NCCU – trumpeter Al Strong, and Cicely Mitchell.

I was on their first concert series last year, and they are in the 2nd season of that series. They also kind of attach their name to any artist coming to town and do an after hours set near that artist’s concert to draw attention to that performance, and create and continue the branding, so that they seem to be ubiquitous. Very clever indeed. I love them (Al and Cicely), and think they are an example of how to “get it done” in a locale where the intersection of small town folk and big ideas meet. Durham is an interesting place with a very particular slice of black history – did you know there was a section of town called “black wall street”? Plus, the success of DPAC (Durham Performing Arts Center – the #1 grossing PAC in the country I’m told) was helpful to the AOCP’s venture toward a festival.

Aminifu Harvey: The Art of Cool. Man this organization has brought some hip and outstanding jazz performers to Durham; the organization has significantly added to the cultural growth of Durham as a leading musical site in North Carolina and the region. The outdoor performances have been family oriented, allowing young and old to mingle. They also are a means of transferring this American music to the very young. In addition Art of Cool has added to the financial stability of the businesses in the area. I try to make sure I attend the indoor concerts also. Why would I want to live anywhere else if I were (which I am a jazz aficionado).I am looking forward to the Art of Cool 2014 season.


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Anthony Dean Harris: Ain’t But a Few of US

Ain’t But a Few of Us
Black music writers tell their story…
Anthony Dean-Harris
Anthony Dean-Harris
I first encountered the young writer Anthony Dean-Harris via his very active jazz-based blog at Just to give you a sense of where he’s been coming from with NEXTBOP, here’s how he characterizes the site: “The philosophy of Nextbop isn’t just about promoting jazz to jazz lovers. Nextbop is about appealing to everyone. It’s about promoting jazz to the world. It’s about showing the indie rock crowd, the punk rock crowd, the hip hop crowd, the R&B crowd, the bluegrass crowd, and so many other scenes that this kind of music is great and it’s not so far off from what you’re used to hearing.” Being all about jazz audience development here with the Independent Ear, and with my work in general, that philosophy certainly struck a chord with this editor!

As with any upwardly mobile, energetic young striver, change is afoot for Anthony Dean-Harris, news he conveyed recently. “I, in consultation with my partner Sebastien, have decided to end Nextbop at the end of this year in order to oversee the blog at The Art of Cool Project (, a non-profit organization that puts on jazz and jazz-related shows in Durham, NC,” with their first festival in the works for April 2014. “Starting [in October] posts for Nextbop will post simultaneously at Art of Cool so as to get folks comfortable, eventually heading there by next year and to grow its audience.”

Clearly Anthony Dean-Harris was a fresh new candidate for this latest installment in the “Ain’t But a Few of Us” series of dialogues with African American jazz writers…

I’ve always loved jazz and grew up around it and I knew I’ve wanted to be a writer since high school when I knew I wanted to go to Trinity University for college because of its jazz station, KRTU San Antonio. However, I didn’t get a scholarship to Trinity, though I did get one for Morehouse College. So I ended up going there and my family soon followed me up to support me, experience the American black mecca [Atlanta] themselves, and keep costs low (or at least as low as one can in an area with a significantly higher cost of living than San Antonio). When I graduated from Morehouse in 2008, the recession had just hit and my family decided that since I was done with school, we’d all head back from Atlanta to our hometown of San Antonio.

Once home, I got involved as a volunteer with a city council race and met the late Kathy Clay-Little, a columnist for the San Antonio Express-News and publisher of the community newspaper African-American Expressions. We were talking at the campaign office one day about her plans to put on a small jazz festival on Fathers’ Day and who she should try to book. When she learned of my love of jazz, she asked if I’d like to cover concerts for her paper. I gladly said yes and one of my first assignments was to attend the annual KRTU spring concert with her, including the opening VIP reception. It was there, before the evening’s performer Ramsey Lewis, that I met many of the folks who ran KRTU. Those folks said I should have a show there, especially since one of their hosts was leaving soon. Over the next few months, I eventually ended up taking over The Line-Up, posting the playlists to my personal blog.

It was around this time that I ran across sites like Nextbop and NPR’s jazz blog, A Blog Supreme. ABS’s editor, Patrick Jarenwattananon, posed a question to a few folks in the jazz scene, asking if they were to share ten albums of jazz music with a newcomer to the genre, which albums would they choose, however all the albums could only be from the last twenty years. Nextbop’s founders, Sebastien Helary and Justin Wee, had a great list and that’s when I was impressed by the site and its potential. I also put together a list unsolicited and sent it to Jarenwattananon, who graciously posted it to the site. That’s how Sebastien ran across my blog with its playlists from my radio show and my writing from college back when I was on the newspaper staff as opinions editor. Seb contacted me about writing for Nextbop and as time went by and we grew a rapport, and as he learned that my college journalism background was perfect training for managing and growing the site, I eventually ended up as Nextbop’s editor and my role as writing about jazz music pretty much cemented.

I can see God’s hand in a lot of this, leading me from one role to another and making me incredibly happy (though still pretty poor, but I get plenty of new music and see a lot of shows in support of this community, so it all works out).

I can’t say I was aware of the dearth of black writers on jazz music, but I can’t say I was too surprised by it. The genre has been growing and changing a lot over the century of its existence, and as it goes with pretty much anything, it’s all too common for blacks to be shut out or limited from telling our own stories, framing our own narratives, or just giving our own perspective built from our backgrounds. Fortunately, it’s a bit easier for us to change this as the internet has democratised access and ability to do so but the work continues.

I don’t like to think there are so many countervailing forces oppressing black journalists in this regard (there might be some who are indeed doing so maliciously, but I don’t want to cut wide swaths like that), but I do think that it could mostly be the public’s lack of familiarity with black voices. Much of my work focuses on contextualization– we are what we see everyday. We cannot know what we have not been exposed to and we’re experts on those things that surround us. There may very well be newspaper, magazine, and web editors who simply aren’t around voices of color who may be aware of black jazz (and R&B/hip hop/soul/etc) music and don’t even know that they don’t know this. In an increasingly nicheified musical landscape where people can read only the coverage they want to read, it may be getting easier to get our voices out there but difficult in entirely different ways to get work into disparate eyes.

I definitely think this, largely because of contextualization. Take for example Kanye West‘s recent appearance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. The following day, there were many posts on music blogs linking to the performance– the standard web aggregation coverage of the day without much substance added to it other than “Watch this video!” It may have been noted that Charlie Wilson was present and singing, but a black voice well versed in Wilson’s body of work could have noted how many of Wilson’s trademark “shabba-dabba-tweet-tweet-tweet”s (and one or two “ooh’-weeEE’s) he ad-libbed. Of course, white writers who aren’t exposed to the back catalog of The Gap Band may not have even noticed this merited mentioning because they don’t know what they don’t know. This is how that added black perspective affects the discourse.

For black music to be, as it always has been, a crucial part of culture, informed people must also be part of the discourse about the music’s impact.

Since I’ve been writing about jazz, especially as I’ve run my own publication, I’ve come to realize essentially how this job and the attention given to some artists over others natually occurs. I’ve realized some of the seemingly trivial things like appealing album art determines whether or not I’ll devote attention to an album, or when an email hits my inbox at just the right time for me to care, or how important having a good press release and readily accessible songs to stream make spreading the word more appealing to me. Seeing the inner workings of music journalism like this helped me realize the whole industry functions like this to some degree, and this doesn’t even take into consideration how it all works in other genres or larger publications who may pay more attention to SEO optimization than merely discussing quality music and informing the masses of talent that needs a voice. The inner workings of the machine and its simple extension of how we as people pay attention to things explains so much about why music journalism is how it is.

So taking added diversity into account in this regard adjusts things a bit because it’s easy to assume people of different cultural backgrounds would have their respective attention drawn to different works. It’s the nature of the beast.

When it comes to how black publications cover music of this sort, I don’t like to think of it too differently from how mainstream white publications cover mainstream pop music in comparison to other more sophisticated kinds of music. I’ve been so immersed in the world of jazz since I’ve been listening as a child, but especially since I’ve been involved in Nextbop and radio hosting at KRTU, that I have forgotten that this music does indeed have a tendency to be rather inaccessible. My listening to music for musicality, dynamism, quick decisions made on the spot, communalism between musicians, and other aspects that don’t bore me like simplicity does is distinctly different from how many others listen to music, searching for quick, visceral connection and catchiness. Every culture has this sort of dichotomy in its art and I’m loath to say black art may have this problem more than other cultures, though black culture’s influence on culture at large does shine a different sort of spotlight on the matter that is at times distressing.

I’d agree with this in much the same way writing about essentially anything is affected by who is doing the writing.

I’m a writer who loves not only music but also television and film. I’m one of those guys who uses the word “showrunner” a lot and cares about Aaron Sorkin’s oeuvre and things of that sort. When people ask me why I care about these sorts of things and how I remember details about television like I do, I tell them it’s all part of being a storyteller. In one’s family or circle of friends, there’s always some person at dinner — a guy back in college, that crazy uncle, a fellow bar patron — who tells stories in a way that makes people listen. Maybe the person describes things ornately, maybe s/he uses wild hand gestures, maybe s/he has a great voice. Whatever it is, the storyteller has attributes that makes his or her stories unique and appealing. A person tells a story in his or her own way that people remember, that causes them to come back for more. If a storyteller has a tendency to talk about interoffice relationships, or uses a camera to show the story, or uses the internet to talk about what happened at a jazz club in New York, these are all different ways to tell a story. I always try to understand that each medium lends itself to different strategies and means of performing the same function– there are people out there who want to hear what the storyteller has to say.

The most rewarding experience I’ve had since running Nextbop was putting together our first unofficial day party during the South By SouthWest festival in Austin, Texas, this last March. It was the first event I had ever organized and we had bands of renown local to Texas and throughout the world agree to play a little burger place built from a reformed car garage. It was humbling that such talented people like Australia’s Hiatus Kaiyote and Canada’s BADBADNOTGOOD would agree to play such an event for a clear novice like me at something like this, and moreso that it was attended as well as it was. I’m looking to put on another party this coming March without me being nearly as exasperated as I was the first time around, but after the dust cleared and everyone who was there had a great time, I could step back and marvel at just what happened. Writing is such a solitary act (and writers, like many artists, are often very critical of themselves to the point of self-loathing). So to throw an event where people actually show up and enjoy what it is that you do and are happy to say so is extremely satisfying.

Though lately, I’ve really enjoyed editing the work of others for Nextbop. There are essays like Jon Wertheim’s critique of trumpeter Nicholas Payton‘s contentious nature, or Ben Gray’s series looking at original versions of jazz songs and comparing them to cover versions, or just being blessed to post anything Angelika Beener writes that makes me immensely proud of Nextbop and what it has grown to be over these few years.

Since I’ve mostly been working as my own editor and manager since taking up music journalism, the most difficult part of all this is learning the ropes about all this on my own. Arranging interviews, obtaining press credentials for events, keeping in contact with publicists, and things of that sort is still a fish out of water thing for me. Another part of that, though, is figuring out how to make all this a viable business. Nextbop has been a labor of love for four years now and has yet to make money. I’ve been working on selling ad space to change that, but this, too, is one of those roles in the business that’s new to me. Running the whole business and learning the trade has been a lot to tackle, and though it’s been slow going, it’s sometimes a comfort to realize what I’ve picked up along the way in doing so.

Laura Mvula‘s Sing to the Moon
Thundercat‘s Apocalypse
Gerald Clayton‘s A Life Forum
The Stepkids‘ Troubadour
Butcher Brown‘s a & b-sides
Terence Blanchard‘s Magnetic
There’s definitely a lot more but I’ll get to that in the next few months around the time for year-end lists with the rest of the Nextbop staff.

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Ain’t But a Few of Us: Ron Welburn

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.
Ron Welburn

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.

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.

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.”

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.
Ron Welburn 1

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.

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!

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’.

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.

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!

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Reflections on the JJA Award

Many thanks again to the Jazz Journalists Association for the 2013 Lifetime Achievement Award, and to my friend Bret Primack “The Jazz Video Guy” for his subsequent YouTube interview (see url below). The following interview appears in the current issue of the Tri-C JazzFest newsletter.

WVJ on wall
The Jazz Journalists Association recently presented Tri-C JazzFest Artistic Director Willard Jenkins with the 2013 JJA Lifetime Achievement Award in Jazz Journalism.
With that in mind, we put a few questions to him about jazz journalism and how he came to advocate for the music.

You just got an award from the Jazz Journalists Association. Does the press do a good job of representing jazz to new audiences?
I think the press does a substandard job of representing jazz — period. And here I’m speaking of press outlets, not those many learned and earnest jazz writers who strive for bylines and yearn to cover this music more broadly than publications or editors enable them to.

All too often writers have a tendency to shoot over the heads of their potential readers in an effort at patting themselves on the back for their supposed acumen and “insider” knowledge of what I refer to as the science of music. I’m not advocating outright cheerleading or dumbing down of one’s prose, just a sense of mindfulness that those who read your reportage may need non-technical elements, real storytelling to draw them into the fold of interest.

How long have you had your blog and what prompted you to start it?
I’ve had my blog The Independent Ear for about seven years now. I was prompted to start it purely to have a creative outlet to express some of the issues and elements of this music that I find missing in the mainstream jazz prints. I use it as an outlet to write what I choose to write, without publication-imposed restrictions.

I like dealing with issues, like the plight of African Americans writing about jazz that I dealt with over the course of months under the heading of “Ain’t But a Few of Us.” Or perhaps it’s talking with an exceptional and under-publicized artist like the pianist Sumi Tonooka and her latest composition project.

At our Tri-C JazzFest last April, I came away even more impressed than I already was with the exciting young vocalist Cecile McLorin Salvant. I checked her out during the festival, found her not only to be an unusual talent with an amazing vocal range, but a young woman of uncommon grace and maturity for one so young, so I wrote a piece about her efforts at our festival coupled with the release of her first stateside album “Woman Child.”

As artistic director of the Tri-C JazzFest, you get to dream big every year about what artists to bring into town. How do you approach the challenge?­

First of all, working for Tri-C JazzFest has been a blessing, as has my other jazz presenting work. That work has enabled me to bring artists to our stages that I firmly believe our audience ­needs to hear, must hear, deserves to be exposed to.

My task is to keep an open mind to what’s out here and not be closed to my own personal proclivities; to have a sense of what’s good for our audiences and venues and what makes sense to bring to Cleveland; also be on the listen for what might challenge our Cleveland audience.

Throughout the year I keep a fluid document full of ideas that come to mind throughout the year while listening to new releases, meeting and interviewing artists, broadcasting the music, and just experiencing the music.

Tell us about your father’s record collection and how it influenced your ear.
Like most of my peers, I listened to the music of the day growing up, and for my time that was Motown, Stax, James Brown, etc., whatever they were playing on WAMO or WABQ. However, my dad’s record collection was a constant source of what I’ll call alternative inspiration, as was Cleveland’s last full-time jazz radio station, WCUY.

So I was exposed to the Duke Ellingtons, Count Basies, Sarah Vaughans, Ella Fitzgeralds, Cannonball Adderleys, Jimmy Smiths, Miles Davis and the like from an early age. My dad was also a bit of an early adapter in the stereo revolution – where the mark of good taste became your home sound system. I remember Christmas 1961 watching my father assemble a new home sound system and being fascinated by the process, and later how good the music suddenly sounded – not only the Temptations, Smokey Robinson and Isley Brothers I’d slip on the turntable, but also the great jazz artists he was always spinning.

My appreciation for music and collecting records increased exponentially when I got to college at Kent State and I became known as a voracious record collector — someone who wouldn’t hesitate to commandeer a friend’s car to make the drive to Cleveland to the old Record Rendezvous to scarf up the strange new album Miles Davis had just released called “Bitches Brew.”

On campus I became the guy who introduced new music to my friends because I was the guy who took chances and experimented with what might be unknown to others. So not only might that mean the latest Miles, but I’d also be the first on campus to introduce new groups like Earth, Wind & Fire to my circle. Record collecting became sort of my social niche.

And that all stemmed from my father’s early influence.

What advice do you have for people who think of jazz as intimidating? Where should they start?
I’d say people should simply start with trying to listen to a variety of sounds and artists and determine their own listening pleasure. Maybe a good place to start would be the Smithsonian’s comprehensive recorded survey of the music.

When encountering a jazz performance, listen to the interaction between musicians, check how they subtly communicate with each other, and know that behind this mysterious element known as improvisation is some measure of a blueprint; these musicians aren’t just going onstage and playing random notes — or improvising in the purest sense of the word. They go equipped with certain mores and sensibilities that in the best of all worlds has them attuned to their fellow musicians to create a cohesive, pleasant, stimulating experience for the audience.

Who’s the long-gone jazz artist you’d most like to have met?
That’s a tough one because I could say Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Mary Lou Williams. But ultimately I think that would have to be Louis Armstrong.

To hear more from Jenkins, check out this video on YouTube:

…And this from the 2013 Jazz Hero Award in DC…

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A Woman’s perspective pt. 7: author Karen Chilton

The latest contributor to our ongoing dialogue with women jazz writers and so far one photographer, is author Karen Chilton. Among Karen’s notable contributions are books on the lives of two exceptional artists, pianist Hazel Scott and vocalist Gloria Lynne, who fit the bill of underrated/overlooked. I first met Karen at a Randy Weston book signing for “African Rhythms” in Brooklyn; later she contributed to our Ain’t But a Few of Us conversation with African American jazz writers, and here she returns for one Woman’s Perspective on the challenges of writing about jazz music.

Please list your writing affiliations and any books or other projects you’re working on currently that you’d like to mention.

HAZEL SCOTT: The Pioneering Journey of a Jazz Pianist from Café Society to Hollywood to HUAC (University of Michigan Press) by Karen Chilton

I WISH YOU LOVE by Gloria Lynne & Karen Chilton (co-author)

AIN’T NOTHING LIKE THE REAL THING: How the Apollo Theater Shaped American Entertainment (Edited by Richard Carlin and Kinshasha Holman Conwill) “The Empress Bessie Smith” by Karen Chilton (contributor)

Current work-in-progress: CONVERGENCE a stage play by Karen Chilton (Note: The lead male character is a jazz pianist. Looking forward to collaborating with Jonathan Batiste on original compositions for the play).

What has been your experience writing about music in general jazz in particular?

For me, this work has always been a labor of love—heavy on the labor, deep in love. You go into it knowing that your subject matter is not mainstream, that this is not a commercial pursuit. There will be no significant capital gains, no record-breaking book sales, no swarms of recognition… Generally speaking, when it comes to jazz as a subject, publishers are difficult to secure, the amount of distribution your book receives can be a challenge, and the marketing/p.r. will likely be up to you. So, once you’ve faced those realities, you adjust your expectations appropriately, and write the best book you can for that small but devoted audience that you know will appreciate your efforts. For those of us who truly love the music, writing about jazz and its legends is a privilege. The experience, I suppose, is a duplicitous one — a sometimes thankless job that you’re eternally grateful to be doing.

What was it about writing about music that attracted you to this pursuit initially?

I quite literally fell into this work. I am an actor & writer…and an avid music lover, jazz in particular. I moved to New York from Chicago in ’92 to pursue a career in the theater. Just weeks prior to my big move, I wrote a ‘letter to the editor’ of Mirabella magazine after reading an article about the great Senegelese artist Youssou N’Dour. The writer of the article had gone on a diatribe about how African Americans don’t support African music. Long story short, I offered another perspective on the situation, and it was published in the next issue. At the time, Spike Lee was working with N’Dour and had just produced a video for him. Someone from Spike’s camp saw my letter in Mirabella, and contacted me to thank me for writing what I did. I told her I’d be moving to New York in just a few weeks to begin my acting career, as well as my day job as a contributing writer for DIASPORA magazine (formerly CLASS magazine). She suggested that we meet and arranged for me to interview Youssou N’Dour! An auspicious beginning, to be sure. The piece was well-received by an international readership. From that point forward, the publisher asked me to focus primarily on music for the magazine. Writing about music felt like the most natural thing in the world. I continued with features on artists like Seal, Sade, and Jon Lucien. By the time my first book opportunity rolled around (many years later) with jazz vocalist, Gloria Lynne ["I Wish You Love"], I had dozens of music articles to present as a ‘track record’ to publishers. Although I didn’t necessarily set out to do this work, I’ve welcomed it as one aspect of my artistic life; a great departure that, in many ways, helps ground and balance everything else.

Oddly enough, it is the actor in me, not the writer that is intrigued by the lives and careers of performing artists. It is an incessant curiosity about what makes performers tick, what makes us get up on a stage and do what we do; a curiosity centered on a performer’s instincts, our impulses. The stories of African American performers, past and present, are an endless source of inspiration. Even with regard to my recent work writing jazz memoir/biographies, it has all been fueled by my actor’s inquisitiveness. It is a character study. And once the writing is done, the hope is that my curiosity results in some compelling storytelling. Storytelling is how I tend to look at both careers as an actor and a writer. They are extensions of one another. Now whether the story I want to tell reveals itself as a book, a play, or a poem is not up to me, and I know better than to question it. Essentially, whether it’s on the stage or the page, it is the expression of the same gift. In fact, it was Youssou N’Dour who said to me all those years ago: “We are both griots.”

Would you describe your experiences writing about music as overall positive, and if so why or why not?

It has been a positive experience by virtue of the fact that I get to do it. There are worse ways to spend your time than having stimulating conversations with great musicians who are passionate about their life’s work, digging through the archives of vintage magazines and photos romanticizing about an era gone by, researching, writing and contributing a little something of your own to the jazz archives. Yet, it’s not been without its challenges. Because I am not affiliated with any organizations, universities, newspapers, magazines or media outlets, it is the one area of my career that is almost entirely autonomous. I choose my own subject matter—write what I want, when I want. I don’t have to wait on a phone call to be given the greenlight to put pen to paper. It only gets dicey when I have to pitch my work to the publishing industry and get them to co-sign my ideas. Without those aforementioned affiliations, my credibility is always in question. It takes a tremendous amount of patience having to prove yourself repeatedly in an industry where, with every published project, you think you’ve gained some ground… until you discover you’re back at square one. And I do believe that has a lot to do with the industry’s lack of interest in jazz writing in general because of its limited commercial appeal.

I’ve worked with large and small publishers and for HAZEL SCOTT, a university press. The frustration was the same. Writing about jazz, I’ve always gotten the sense that there is a presumption, whether it’s unspoken or not, that a woman writer’s understanding of the music and ability to write about it is limited. It’s a subtle thing. It can mean that after you’ve done all your homework and presented a solid draft, an editor feels he has to school you on some names, dates, or events that you may have left out. Or in your pitch to publishers, you realize that you’re in there trying to convince them not only of the validity and worthiness of women in jazz as a subject but also your ability as a woman to write about the subject. My experience has been tainted by both gender and racial bias. I recall during my Hazel Scott journey, an editor remarked: “This is a great idea for a book… it would be a great book, if it was written by someone else.” Well, someone else like whom? Why wouldn’t a Black woman writer be trusted to write the life story of another Black woman? Is our history, the history of Black music, our people, our artists, not safe in our own hands? All of these issues have come into play for me throughout my journey as a writer. It’s the dicey part.

Women occupy an interesting place in the jazz pantheon; on the one hand women instrumentalists are in the distinct minority, at least as far as prominence, and on the other hand women absolutely dominate the ranks of jazz singers. What’s your sense of that imbalance?

Patriarchy. It is simply a reflection of the larger patriarchal society in which we all live. Jazz remains male-dominated, male-centered, male-identified. Historically, women have been expected to look pretty and sing with the band, not swing with the band. That expectation, I think, still persists. No one expected a beautiful woman to pick up a trumpet and blow like Valaida Snow did back in the day. It was considered less than feminine. Not women’s work. It has so much to do with our definitions of the female role in society. When you consider the fact that quite a few legendary jazz vocalists like Sarah Vaughan and Carmen McRae were very fine musicians, you have to conclude that they did what was necessary in order to have lasting musical careers. Of course there are exceptions, Mary Lou Williams, Hazel Scott, Marian McPartland, Dorothy Donegan, and the popular all-girl orchestras that were the rage in the 1930s and 40s. But their stories are filled with the trials and tribulations associated with being female musicians in a male-dominated industry. Even today, it must be difficult terrain to navigate for women instrumentalists. When you look at the success of Esperanza Spalding, who is both a wonderful vocalist and musician, you wonder how that career would have unfolded if she had just played the bass and never sang a note.

Would you describe yourself as a music critic or a music journalist and why?

Neither. I often feel like an interloper. I’m definitely not a music critic—I listen to what I like and, admittedly, I’m far too in love with the subject to write objectively about it. A journalist, definitely not. I am simply an artist who writes to support my acting habit. My tendency to write about jazz and include jazz in many of the creative works I develop is out of a deep passion for the music.

Its been suggested that one of the real keys to solving the critical jazz audience development issue is that those who present the music must find creative ways to attract more women to their audiences; some wisdom suggesting that where more women go, men will follow. Is this an apt characterization of the jazz audience conundrum, and if so are there elements you might suggest to those who present jazz as to better attracting women audience members?

Quite honestly, I haven’t really looked at the audience development issue from the vantage point of gender. I’ve always looked at it from the perspective of race. I’ve spent more time contemplating why there aren’t more African Americans in the audience at jazz concerts than why there aren’t more women. When I frequent Dizzy’s Club or Jazz at Lincoln Center or the Newport Jazz Festival, I see plenty of couples; what I don’t see is African Americans in large numbers.

I’m interested in exploring what efforts can be made to generate more interest in the music among the American masses. Perhaps it’s a matter of marketing. Maybe the promotion of new jazz recordings, jazz festivals and concerts needs to be re-worked to target a wider audience and not just the tried-and-true devoted jazzbeaus. Jazz has a tendency to come across as a unique, elite world. Not everyone feels welcome. [Editor's note: I'm reminded here of poet Sekou Sundiata's line about how he wasn't into John Coltrane at first because he felt he needed " belong to something..." to get Trane] Or perhaps they’ve lost interest. Maybe it’s an image problem where the general public doesn’t view jazz as being new or modern or progressive. And certainly jazz labels aren’t able to spend the major dollars that commercial labels spend to promote their artists. I’m grasping at straws here because it’s a puzzling situation, and I’m afraid I don’t have a cogent answer.

This question also leads to a larger discussion about what is and isn’t jazz. I’ve noticed that many of the festivals promoted as “Jazz Fests” in major cities are really not jazz at all. The lineup is full of more R&B and Soul artists than legit jazz artists. So, the term is used so loosely which further complicates marketing and promotion efforts. You don’t always know what you’re getting.

There does seem to be some new excitement among younger audiences now with the ever-expanding popularity of artists like Esperanza Spalding and Robert Glasper. I’m also inspired by the young lions on the scene Jonathan Batiste, Aaron Diehl, Kris Bowers, among others. There’s hope, yet.

Clearly writing about music, and particularly writing about jazz, could well be characterized as “a man’s world.” Do you feel like that’s due more to the nature of the music or to some form(s) of overt exclusion from “the boy’s club”?

It’s definitely not the nature of the music. Music has no gender.

Nevertheless, it was once suggested to me that jazz is a medium that demands a certain male energy, a kind of high-testosterone virility that’s needed to really handle an instrument that women simply don’t come by easily; that female sensibilities are better suited to song, interpreting a lyric, bringing emotional depth to a tune… unless she’s playing an instrument that is considered more feminine—a flute, perhaps, or a harp, a violin. Now, I thought this comment was rather absurd but, again, I think it comes down to our perceptions of the female role in this music and in the larger society in general that frames this discussion. Where do we fit? Who gets to judge? And in the final analysis, does it really matter as long as the end result is great music? I mean, is there something particularly masculine about the sound of Oscar Peterson and specifically feminine about Mary Lou Williams?

Early in my career, a literary agent asked me why I bothered writing about jazz—“You can’t make any money off of that,” she said. “And besides, all those books are written by European men anyway.” So, according to her, it’s not just a ‘boy’s club’ –it’s male, white, and probably not even American. Her comments stayed with me for awhile, and I don’t think she was totally off base. The suggestion here is that people from other nations might have a greater interest and respect for this American music form than we do.

While I don’t think there is any overt exclusionary process keeping women from writing about jazz, I do believe there is an expectation that writers on the subject should be men.

Have you ever found it more difficult to pursue writing about music due to gender issues? If so please detail some of your writing experiences that may have been fairly or unfairly colored by gender.

Proving gender bias is a delicate matter. It’s rarely overt, like modern racism. It comes at you ever so subtly. It’s having your ideas dismissed before they are even given careful consideration. It’s being condescended to as if you aren’t fully capable of handling the task at hand. It’s how something is said, not necessarily what’s being said that can leave you feeling like you’re merely being tolerated, not respected. I remember when working on HAZEL SCOTT, the editor wanted me to “hurry up and get to the music.” Well, I had access to Hazel’s personal journals and she spent a great deal of time writing about her childhood. I recognized how important her upbringing was to her overall success so I wanted to honor that in the book. The editor felt that the early chapters were “too precious” but I’m writing about a child prodigy—so, how can I skip over the childhood? And why should I? What’s the rush? Is it the page count? I’ve seen biographies on male musicians that were four and five hundred pages long, why do I have to get this woman’s story in under 300 (including the source notes, bibliography, and index)? We worked through it but I did feel a certain kind of impatience coming from the publisher’s end. Fortunately, we were able to find a middle ground, but I STILL wish I had a few more of her wonderful childhood stories in the book that were cut. Here I am years later, mourning that 100 pages that were crossed out with red marker. Oh well.

A more egregious experience was when a writer contacted me by phone and asked if I could help him with some research for a book he was writing on a lesser known jazz musician, a sideman for many greats. I’m typically more than happy to help out a fellow writer, but how this writer found me was a bit shady. Turns out, his editor had GIVEN him my book proposal for HAZEL SCOTT. A proposal he had in his possession because the publishing house had passed on my project. Apparently, they found my work very thorough, well-researched and well-written and believed that this first-time author could benefit from my expertise. Now. Let me get this straight—the same editor that passed on my project somehow thought it was cool for him to pass along my book proposal (full of five + years of research), photos, marketing ideas, endorsements, contact information, etc. to a writer whose book idea he did choose to publish? I was expected to graciously assist this first-time author writing a biography about a lesser-known sideman who landed a deal with a major publisher who passed on my project but thought I was just the person to help HIM? I still can’t fathom why either of them thought this was anything but insulting. Needless to say, that was a very brief conversation.

What can be done to encourage more women to write about music in particular, jazz in general?

For us girls to keep doing what we’re doing. I’ve seen firsthand what a source of inspiration we can be to other women when we show up at book signings and events where they can see us, hear us, read our work. There is a certain level of camaraderie that exists among women writers. While I may not be able to hook up a fellow woman writer with an agent or a publisher (as I’ve often been asked to do), I can give her the lowdown on how to navigate the terrain, real information that can help light the way.

What have been some of the most personally satisfying music performances you’ve either written about or simply experienced over the last year?

In the last year, I can only recall experiences. It’s been a minute since I’ve written about jazz. One of the most amazing concerts I attended was the tour de force duo of pianists Jonathan Batiste and Aaron Diehl at Dizzy’s Club. Aaron reminded me of what it must have felt like to see Billy Strayhorn or Teddy Wilson back in the day and Jonathan is such an original character, so adventurous and ambitious, an old soul with a youthful spirit. It was wonderful. Roy Hargrove at the Village Vanguard last year also blew my mind. I’m a huge fan of his. Huge. In fact, I wrote HAZEL SCOTT to his album ROY HARGROVE WITH STRINGS. I listened to it over and over for hours each day. There was something in those arrangements that was comforting, not at all distracting. And Wynton Marsalis’ MIDNIGHT BLUES which is also trumpet with strings that I listened to repeatedly during that process. Why I chose to listen to trumpets while writing about a pianist, who knows…

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