The Independent Ear

Ain’t But a Few of Us: Tammy Kernodle

We return to our ongoing series of dialogues, Ain’t But a Few of Us, Black music writers tell their story with a true scholar of the music, Tammy Kernodle. I first met Tammy years ago when she gave delivered a very thoughtful, informative talk on NEA Jazz Master Mary Lou Williams at an IAJE conference. Since then Ms. Kernodle has authored a definitive MLW biography, Soul to Soul. Currently a Professor of Musicology at Miami University (Ohio), Tammy matriculated at Virginia State University with a degree in Music and achieved her PhD at Ohio State in Music History. She has served as Scholar in Residence at the American Jazz Museum (Kansas City, MO) and has contributed to Musical Quarterly and the American Music Research Journal, as well as the anthology Women’s Voices Across Musical Worlds. Additionally she is an associate editor of the Encyclopedia of African American Music. She is a contributor to the recent, long overdue and quite comprehensive Black Music Journal published by the Center for Black Music Research on the subject of the too long neglected NEA Jazz Master Melba Liston and her considerable contributions.

Tammy Kernodle

WHAT MOTIVATED YOU TO WRITE ABOUT SERIOUS MUSIC IN THE FIRST PLACE?
I was student teaching in a school whose student population was 90% black, but the faculty/staff of color constituted only 2%. In trying to create lesson plans that went beyond the standard Western canon, I found that there was a small body of scholarship that focused on the development of African American music, but not much in the way of public school curriculum. I really wanted to do more than just show up and do the typical “Beethoven was Black” lecture. I wanted to expose them to not only African American concert composers, but also jazz musicians and other forms of popular culture. I was already investigating graduate programs and decided to delve deeper into what musicology was about. I applied and was accepted to a graduate program in the Midwest (I won’t call the name) and arrived to find that most of my peers were writing dissertations on the Renaissance. The resistance I experienced from some (not all) of my professors in studying and writing about the music of African Americans only inspired me to pursue it even further. I realized that the only reason why an educated, trained professor would stand in the front of a class of graduate students and say that “no American, no Black and no Woman has ever made any substantial contribution to music” was because 1) his training was limited and he had never been exposed to anything beyond the Western canon; 2) The body of literature that framed the canon or the central focus of most music history or music courses needed to be expanded. So I found my purpose in the attempts to suppress my passion for writing about and teaching black music (concert and popular). My writing has one purpose—to expand our understanding of the historical and musicological contexts that have been framed in and through the American experience. I want to write excluded and ignored artists into the canonic history we so precious defend and protect. I don’t write just to write or publish just for the sake of having another line on my resume. I’m very strategic and the subject matter must resonate with me. I grow through the writing I do.

WHEN YOU FIRST STARTED WRITING ABOUT MUSIC WERE YOU AWARE OF THE DEARTH OF AFRICAN AMERICANS WRITING ABOUT SERIOUS MUSIC?
Yes.
Tammy Kernodle 1
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?
This is a hard question. I think part of the problem is that you have diversely trained people out there writing about music and because our methodology approaches to analysis, and use of language is dictated by our training some get excluded from certain opportunities. I’m amazed at how sometimes a cultural theorist or scholar in the area of English or Women Studies will get a writing gig from a certain publication or institution in lieu of a person trained as an Ethnomusicologist or Musicologist. Now, I’m not saying that those individuals are not capable of writing about music, but their approach to it is completely different. Sometimes the prose or narrative takes on a colloquial tone that fails to frame the performance aesthetic of musicians in a language that is comparable to scholarship on concert or classical music. Those individuals become the “central” or only black voices heard, as opportunities are not filtered to individuals who have different training or experiences with the music. I think the road to writing in major publications (trade magazines, etc.) is circuitous for many black scholars. I’m not hating on anyone (trained or untrained) because I can appreciate anyone who takes the time to accurately and seriously write about music, especially black music and not trivialize it. I also believe unless we develop a passion for writing and analyzing the world around us instead of pushing young people to choose a profession that’s going to pay “big,” there’s going to be this dearth.

DO YOU THINK THAT DISPARITY OR DEARTH OF AFRICAN AMERICAN JAZZ WRITERS CONTRIBUTES TO HOW THE MUSIC IS COVERED?
Yes and no. I believe its one of the very reasons why some musicians have been excluded from serious discussions regarding the evolution of jazz after 1965 and why we see the repeated deification of certain artists. I think that there are certain aspects of the history that require a nuanced reading that can only be gained through lived-experience. Jazz has become canonized in such a way that many believe that we have not progressed beyond certain genres and musicians. I’m waiting to see the history expand to more coverage of regional scenes and musicians who are shaping the music where they are. Before Hurricane Katrina, the HBO series Treme and the rising popularity of New Orleans musicians like Trombone Shorty, who was really talking about the New Orleans jazz scene? I have yet to see one jazz history book revisit New Orleans after the closing of Storyville. My point is we need writers to evolve organically from or forge relationships with communities/musicians that are often ignored by the culture industry to continue to expand the historical context.

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?
Tammy Kernodle 2
Yes. It’s always baffled me how someone like Wynton [Marsalis] could be elevated as the “voice” of jazz when individuals like Bertha Hope, Billy Taylor, Carline Ray or Roy Haynes who “lived” and experienced the music as it was developing are never quoted or even talked about. I don’t have a problem with Wynton, but his lived experience in jazz begins in the 1970s if not 1980s. What can he tell you—that extends beyond what you can read–about the rent party culture of Harlem during the 1940s? I’ve sat at the feet of Billy Taylor and heard him talk about hearing a young Thelonious Monk play at a rent party. Taylor left this earth without recounting much of the history he was a part of in the public forums that have been granted to musicians who give you a bunch of repeated anecdotes, sound bites and stories. The same can be said for Carline Ray, who played with the International Sweethearts of Rhythm and worked extensively with Mary Lou Williams in the 1970s and early 1980s. How many writers are going to take the time to develop relationships with pioneering musicians? I’m not slamming Wynton because I believe he does take the promotion of jazz very seriously, but the history of jazz will not be complete if we continue to privilege the voices of some musicians over others. I’m not going to get into the gendered aspects of jazz writing that’s a can of worms that reflects a narrow viewpoint amongst black and white writers.

WHAT’S YOUR SENSE OF THE INDIFFERENCE OF SO MANY AFRICAN AMERICAN-ORIENTED PUBLICATIONS TOWARDS SERIOUS MUSIC, DESPITE THE FACT THAT SO MANY AFRICAN AMERICAN ARTISTS CONTINUE TO CREATE SERIOUS MUSIC?
First many of these publications are no longer black-owned. So the diverse and organic type of coverage of our community has been diluted down to whoever or whatever is popular. They are struggling for relevance against the People magazines of the world. So unfortunately they replicate the templates of white oriented magazines. I look at old issues of Jet and Ebony [magazines] and I’m amazed at the amount of range of coverage black music received. Popular culture in the form of rap, R&B and soul are advanced as “authentic” representations of blackness, which means we have regressed in our own understanding of who we are and what we do. Outside of DownBeat did any black publication discuss Jason Moran’s appointment as Artistic Director of Jazz at the Kennedy Center? Is anyone talking about black singers on the operatic stage? No but go through the last few years of Ebony, Essence or Jet and you will see Beyoncé at least three times; Kerry Washington from “Scandal” at least three times. But where is Angela Brown? Where is Audra McDonald who just made history at the Tony Awards? You won’t see them because that’s not who we as a community embrace or offer as examples of success. More importantly in general we are a public that wants small bits of information that is accessible through our smart phones and tablets. We engage completely different with the published word today, so in order to remain relevant these publications have to tap into what interest the prominent demographic. It’s a really conundrum.

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?
I think there are instances where this is true, but overall I would not apply this to every situation. I’ve read the work of some white writers that I would have sworn were black because of their treatment of the subject matter.

IN YOUR EXPERIENCE WRITING ABOUT SERIOUS MUSIC WHAT HAVE BEEN SOME OF YOUR MOST REWARDING ENCOUNTERS?
I met the family of Mary Lou Williams shortly after one of my first articles on her appeared in a journal. During the Q&A of a public lecture I gave on Williams, her niece stood up and thanked me for my work. She said that I had captured the essence of her aunt and her passion for music. Man, it almost took me out. I don’t know how I held it together. That was priceless to me! Because those were the people who knew her the most. I’ve had a lot of people over the years come to me and say thanks for writing about black women musicians the way you do. I so appreciate your work and that’s what makes it all worth all the struggles I have sometimes in finding resources or finding the right way in which to describe the music.

WHAT OBSTACLES HAVE YOU ENCOUNTERED – BESIDES DIFFICULT EDITORS AND INDIFFERENT PUBLICATIONS – IN YOUR EFFORTS AT COVERING SERIOUS MUSIC?
Family members and their perspectives on their relative’s life and music. Sometimes people have their own agendas and they believe they can dictate what you write, even if it’s not true. My earliest work was on the operas of William Grant Still. Initially his daughter was a supporter of my scholarship (she provided me with many of the materials I’ve used in my work) and when she realized I wasn’t willing to repeat some of the commonly held beliefs that circulated amongst her family members because there was no definitive truth, I became her mortal enemy. My work never dismissed these beliefs, but I could not in good conscious substantiate them. She first wrote a letter to my alma mater requesting that they rescind my thesis because it was “blasphemous” and defamed the legacy of her father’s memory; then when she was ignored she launched a tour complete with the 5-page single spaced typed letter she sent me. I know this sounds crazy, but it’s all true!! I would get messages from people who said I went to this conference and Judith Still was there and she had this display that had her letter to you, etc. I wanted to go straight gangsta on her, but I realized that I was not the only scholar she was targeting. Over the years I would randomly receive these letters from her harassing me further. I never responded. One other scholar actually hired a lawyer; I didn’t because her plan of discrediting me only made my scholarship more popular. But it took a mental and spiritual toll on me and I grew to hate the music of William Grant Still. She is one of the very reasons why I and many other scholars no longer write on Still. But that’s the price you pay when dealing with individuals who have their own readings of their family member’s life and music. What was most distressing is she took issue with two pages of a 70+-page document. Nothing misaligned her family or her father’s music. She just read what she wanted to in those pages. I learned from that scenario that integrity is more important than popularity, but there’s a cost. She reached out to me a few years ago to participate in a conference of Still, but she specified that she wanted me to present on women musicians. I never replied! I didn’t go either because I knew I probably would have caught a case if I were in the same room as her. While I still try and reach out to living musicians and/or family members, I’m more aware of the challenges that some time comes with this. I know my response is long, but the only other obstacle I’ve faced is people wanting to be paid for being interviewed. Even when I explain that I’m writing for scholarly journals I’ve had people blow me off when I can’t pay them for just relating their experiences. I experienced a lot of that when writing my book on Mary Lou Williams. I really tried to talk to as many of the musicians who played with her. Some were cool; others were just plain rude when they learned I had no budget to pay them. That attitude is one of the very reasons that I haven’t seen anyone write on them or mention them in jazz history books.

WHAT HAVE BEEN THE MOST INTRIGUING NEW RECORDS YOU’VE ENCOUNTERED RECENTLY?
Hmm there have been a few I’ve been listening to—Cecile Salvant’s “Womanchild” and Gregory Porter’s “Liquid Spirit.” I really like the unique perspective they took in their song choices and performance approaches.

Posted in General Discussion | Leave a comment

Dicey weather aside Newport soldiers on

Ron Carter
Swinging grace personified: Ron Carter at the bass

Has it been 60 years already? Founded in 1954 by George Wein and an old money Newport couple as a means of broadening the inviting summer hang-out, the Newport Jazz Festival celebrated its unprecedented history with a lineup that reflected many facets of the broad-based aesthetic umbrella that jazz has become. Friday afternoon was perfectly suited for toting the old lawn chairs and scavenging out a good vantage point on the great lawn facing the main, or Ertegun Fort Stage at Fort Adams State Park. The day was notably dominated by artists and bands who’ve largely arrived in the 21st century, starting with the Berklee Global Jazz Ambassadors, a student ensemble directed by pianist Danilo Perez and featuring guest tenorist David Sanchez. They were followed on the main stage by composer Darcy James Argue‘s Secret Society, the miraculous vocalist Cecile McLorin Salvant, and that excitable young gent Jon Batiste & Stay Human, the leader’s yellow suit and pied piper mentality being cause enough for mass revelry in the sun. He closed his raucous set, melodica in mouth, marching his band through the lawn chair brigade, hundreds of smart phones capturing selfies all the while. Someday, after Jon Batiste’s stage & screen career is aloft (watch for it…) a youngster will be leafing through his granny’s keepsake images and ask “Grandma, is that Jon Batiste you’re hugging in the funny-looking yellow suit with the keyboard in his mouth, and what’s Grandpa drinking from that jug?”

On the Quad Stage in the inner courtyard of the old fort, John Zorn held court with several of his Masada cohorts for what amounted to a 2-1/2 hour marathon, one which included the trumpeter Dave Douglas and his boundless well of ideas. Over on the Harbor Stage alto saxman Rudresh Mahanthappa premiered his Charlie Parker Project, promising among other intrigues, Bird in an odd-metered environment. The Old Home Week allure of Newport and the revolving sets/multi stage layout make for a happy madness that is a central part of the festival experience, for it seems only those determined to dig into an advantageous sightline at the MainStage, or plop down in an agreeable festival row chair at the Harbor or Quad stage area are likely to catch entire sets, and even those hearty, determined souls are swayed by the occasional midway snack, crafts fair retail stroll, or one or another of nature’s calls. But at least on this lone day of the three, disagreeable weather wasn’t a culprit if you by chance missed some measure of your chosen sets, as did we.

The impressive throwback/futuristic chanteuse Cecile McLorin Salvant, with the startling pipes (still only 24, no other singer of her generation approaches the extravagant wealth of her lower register and ability to soar upwards with the chops of a vocal Charlie Parker) and proclivity towards Jim Crow era and turn-of-the-20th century lyrics, surely made some new friends that afternoon and on her subsequent Quad Stage performance Saturday afternoon. Fellow writer-photographer (and Ain’t But a Few of Us correspondent) Bridget Arnwine shot some photos standing next to a guy new to Salvant’s artistry who likely summed up many a first Salvant impression: “I’ve never heard her before; she sure does sing some weird songs…, but man she’s great!” Following Cecile was a tough task, but altoist Miguel Zenon impressed at the helm of his “Identities” Big Band, though despite playing a program of complex originals conveyed by largely young guys this audience had likely never heard before, Zenon chose to only address the audience at the end of his program; big mistake for someone establishing himself as a large ensemble leader in this milieu.

The science of meteorology has advanced over the decades to an uncanny ability to predict the weather (yeah, I know, not exactly profound…). Remember when some storm/inclement weather pattern or other would be predicted and you’d think to yourself ‘that may or may not happen.’? Not anymore, these folks nail it now and our advance check of weather.com predicted mad rain for Newport’s Saturday afternoon proceedings. Sure enough from the time we crossed the bridge and entered the queue of traffic slowly snaking its way through the quaint streets to Fort Adams, the rain was relentless, coming down like Trane at full throttle and destined for all day. The complimentary yellow school buses transporting festfans from remote parking lots to the grounds could not arrive quickly enough to stave off many celebrants starting their day soaked like some pet pooch left out in the rain. The ride back to the hotel couldn’t go quickly enough for coaxing off the shoes, wringing out the socks and a complete change of clothes. Missing the Robert Glasper Experiment and Gregory Porter‘s storytelling charm whilst slogging our way in, umbrellas, rain parkas and lawn chair placement later the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra gave a platinum accounting, arrangements including Horace Silver‘s “Señor Blues” and trombonist Vincent Gardner doing his best Jimmy Rushing blues. Wynton on a mission, as always, and in fine fettle at Newport, no quibbles. Alas Saturday was a day more fit for seeking shelter and socializing under some cover than braving the elements to catch what was an exceptional and stylistically expansive day of artists; Dan Melnick is a skilled artistic director indeed. The tented shelter of the Quad Stage (seating is also tented at the Harbor Stage) did beckon, and some substantive sizzle from Cubano conguero Pedrito Martinez’s from-deep-in-the-gut small band was the truth.

Vijay Iyer Vijay Iyer courtesy Matt Merewitz
Sunday did provide a measure of relief from Mother Nature, with only gray skies and intermittent drizzle, but the allure of the Quad and Harbor lineups proved irresistible, particularly as opposed to scoping out a spot in the Main Stage area. The Cookers were followed on the Quad Stage by Vijay Iyer‘s inspiring unit, including Mark Shim on tenor sax and some Haynes family fire, with Graham Haynes on cornet and his nephew Marcus Gillmore on drums. Fils Roy would have enjoyed this set! At one point Iyer broke it down to a deep groove orientation that drew many a nodding head. Surveying the crowd, one experienced a refreshing youngish sector that belies concerns about the graying of the jazz audience. These kids, raised on hip hop, locked into Vijay’s groove with intense familiarity and deep approval. In fact that entire weekend was a breath of fresh air as far as the overall age demographic, recalling an earlier impression that what the younger audience seeks is a portable experience, where they’re not locked into a club table or auditorium seating for two hours, but one where they can freely socialize, move around, keep their smartphones active, and lacking the restrictive nature of those good intention/bad idea pre-show admonishments against photography, snap away at will with their devices.
Graham Haynes & Marcus Gillmore
Uncle Graham Haynes checking out dad Roy’s grandson Marcus Gilmore’s adept and dashing drum work

From Vijay it was a slow drift over to the Harbor Stage to lock down for the next three sets. (Oh boy, Suz found us some front row seats!) Having seen Ravi Coltrane the week prior in Santa Fe with Jack DeJohnette‘s Trio (scroll down for that impression), it was a refreshing contrast to hear his original composition-laden, piano-less quartet featuring the adventurous trumpeter Ralph Alessi. The driver’s seat was industriously occupied by the rambunctious DC-raised drummer Kush Abadey, whose polyrhythmic pallet gave contrasting lift and gravity to Coltrane’s music.

Ron Carter Trio
Elegance came knocking with a velvet glove as NEA Jazz Master Ron Carter‘s suavely, deeply swinging trio filled the Harbor Stage with the kind of élan that never gets old. Time stood still as Carter coaxed a gorgeous “You Are My Sunshine” that was a triumph of pure subtlety over the sometimes disruptive winds of big event jazz. Impeccably draped in matching dark suits and yellow ties, reminding all that Ron Carter is proudly “old school” (and ‘you wanna make something of it’?), guitarist Russell Malone and pianist Donald Vega boast remarkable lines of communication, achieving as full a band sound as any ensemble that weekend. Carter, a warm man and one about whom the old saw “doesn’t suffer fools easily” also fits, agreeably played “My Funny Valentine” as a dedication to a gentleman intending to propose to his beloved right then & there at the Harbor, which he did to the oohs & ahhs delight of Carter’s audience. The temperature rose agreeably as the ebullient pianist-composer and Prince of Panama Danilo Perez played his “Panama 500″ program, significantly buoyed by the presence of the percussionist Roman Diaz in the ensemble. Nothing like some intelligent fire to close a good weekend! Nothing we can do about the weather and despite that lack of cooperation, Newport 60 was a blast!
Danilo
Danilo

Posted in General Discussion | Leave a comment

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 Nextbop.com.

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.

Further information: WWW.THEARTOFCOOLPROJECT.COM

Posted in General Discussion | Leave a comment

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 http://www.NEXTBOP.com. 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 (http://www.theartofcoolproject.com), 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…

WHAT MOTIVATED YOU TO WRITE ABOUT SERIOUS MUSIC IN THE FIRST PLACE?
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).

WHEN YOU FIRST STARTED WRITING ABOUT MUSIC WERE YOU AWARE OF THE DEARTH OF AFRICAN AMERICANS WRITING ABOUT SERIOUS MUSIC?
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.

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?
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.

DO YOU THINK THAT DISPARITY OR DEARTH OF AFRICAN AMERICAN JAZZ WRITERS CONTRIBUTES TO HOW THE MUSIC IS COVERED?
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 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?
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.

WHAT’S YOUR SENSE OF THE INDIFFERENCE OF SO MANY AFRICAN AMERICAN-ORIENTED PUBLICATIONS TOWARDS SERIOUS MUSIC, DESPITE THE FACT THAT SO MANY AFRICAN AMERICAN ARTISTS CONTINUE TO CREATE SERIOUS MUSIC?
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.

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?
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.

IN YOUR EXPERIENCE WRITING ABOUT SERIOUS MUSIC WHAT HAVE BEEN SOME OF YOUR MOST REWARDING ENCOUNTERS?
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.

WHAT OBSTACLES HAVE YOU ENCOUNTERED – BESIDES DIFFICULT EDITORS AND INDIFFERENT PUBLICATIONS – IN YOUR EFFORTS AT COVERING SERIOUS MUSIC?
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.

10. WHAT HAVE BEEN THE MOST INTRIGUING RECORDS RELEASED SO FAR THIS YEAR?
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.

Posted in General Discussion | Leave a comment

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

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.
Ron Welburn 1

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!

Posted in General Discussion | 3 Comments