The Independent Ear

Ain’t But a Few of Us… on the publishing side as well

The number of black publication efforts on behalf of jazz has been quite modest when one considers the number of jazz publications in the aggregate sense. Currently the most notable – and noble – effort in that regard is Jo Ann Cheatham’s valiant, virtually one-woman effort at continuing to publish her Pure Jazz magazine out of Brooklyn. One recalls such valiant efforts as The Soul & Jazz Record back in the 70s. The 70s and 80s also saw Jim Harrison’s extensive tabloid, the Jazz Spotlite News with its decidedly New York-centric gaze, or the largely regional orientation of Strictly Jazz coming from Atlanta in the early 90s, and Be-Bop And Beyond in the late 80s. Full confession, this writer is most familiar with those publications from both a reader and an eager contributor’s viewpoint.

In the 90s, at the encouragement of the late KPFA (the Pacifica network’s Berkeley, CA flagship station) programmer Doug Edwards and the magazine’s publisher Haybert Houston, I became a regular contributor to Houston’s Bay Area based magazine, Jazz Now. For the most part our ongoing Ain’t But a Few of Us dialogues have focused on the relatively spare number of African American jazz writers, from freelancers to columnists, regular contributors, and authors. An exception was our dialogue with Jo Ann Cheatham, which focused primarily on her Pure Jazz magazine, an installment which will post later this summer. In the meantime I recently re-connected with Haybert Houston by telephone for the following dialogue on the subject of his decidedly grassroots – in every sense of that term! – efforts at publishing Jazz Now, a dialogue which absolutely revealed yet another side of the Ain’t But a Few of Us coin.

Jazz Now

HAYBERT HOUSTON (Jazz Now magazine founder)

Independent Ear: When did you start Jazz Now magazine?

Haybert Houston: I started the magazine in May of 1991. It was just [wife] Stella and I and we actually started working towards publishing the magazine in 1987.

IE: What happened in the ensuing years?

HH: The print edition was first [published] in May of 1991. In 1994 we introduced the first interactive jazz magazine on the internet. We were the first, and it ran simultaneously with the print edition until the print edition stopped in March 2000. The electronic edition continued until ’06. We were actually publishing from ’91 to 2006.

IE: What was your original motivation for beginning the magazine?

HH: I looked around at the jazz magazines we had, and you know DownBeat was the model because it had been around for so long. And what I found was the magazines like JazzTimes and even DownBeat, they talked about the big names all the time; they talked about the names that people all over the world would recognize, the “leaders” of the jazz world. But I knew – just from being here in the [SF] Bay Area – there were millions of jazz musicians making a contribution to the art form that were not being recognized and some of them were older than DownBeat!

IE: In addition to closing that disparity was there a desire on your part to address any racial or cultural disparities in jazz magazine publishing?

HH: I knew that black [musicians] were making major, major contributions to the art form, and a lot of these people… like Robert Porter for example, a trumpeter here in the Bay Area who was a very active organizer of all kinds of musicians in general, and this guy had never been recognized by anybody outside of our area, and he was a black man. I knew his chances of getting in DownBeat or JazzTImes was almost nil; that would never happen no matter what he contributed. So the racial issue was very strong.

I never told anybody [writers] to highlight black people, but I was looking at the cultural contributions, as a publisher, and I wanted to remind the people of that – that these were the people laying the ground work who had made the major contributions and were heads of organizations throughout the country, and the people hadn’t heard of the organizations let alone the musicians.

IE: In addition to feeling that certain musicians’ contributions had been underserved in the jazz media, you felt compelled by the fact that certain black musicians contributions had been ignored?

HH: Exactly! And that was obvious to anybody that you talked to. If you talked to people around the world about that – just asking them who’s making jazz contributions in their area – 99.9% of those people were black. But you had to be a Monterey Jazz Festival performer, or something along those lines, in order for you to get mentioned [in the mainstream jazz publications].

IE: Before you started the magazine, had you written about jazz previously?

HH: No, I had not written anything, so we were real amateurs and that was very difficult, but we managed.

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IE: So how did a couple like you and Stella, who had no particular journalistic experience, how did you motivate yourselves to develop a magazine?

IE: When I decided to go for it I started looking for basic ways to publish a magazine. We’ve got colleges and universities all over the world, but I could not find a thing about what you do to publish a magazine; there were no instructions anywhere, nothing that said if you want to publish a magazine this is what you do, I couldn’t find that [information] anywhere. So I had to go from scratch, to figure out how to publish. And not only that, at the time we started in 1991 we were in a transition period, the world was moving from the pre-computer stage to everything going to desktop [publishing].

So we went to the College of Alameda, took a course in computer technology. After we learned how to use the computer I told the instructor what we wanted to do, I told him the reason we were there was because I was planning to publish a magazine. I asked him what did he suggest I do using the computer sciences and equipment? He said, the first thing I needed to do was start on Apple, to use MacIntosh. So I went back to college to Laney, which is here in Oakland, and I took desktop publishing on Apple MacIntosh. We bought the equipment and we were off and running. We were setting ouR own rules, but I got a lot of help.

I reached out to everybody I knew. My cousin lives in Chicago and I knew that Johnson Publications was there in Chicago and we met with a lady there. I told her what I was gonna do and asked for her help. She suggested that I contact Playboy, because Playboy was the master of magazine distribution. I knew that they distributed their own magazine, but they had a network that distributed most magazines. So that’s how I got the magazine distribution, and it was so helpful because not only did [Playboy] get the magazine out in this country but they hooked me up with Tower Records, which was worldwide and Tower got my magazine in Taiwan and other places that there was no way I could have gotten the magazine otherwise. That’s how – seeking and asking and begging for help – I managed to do that, and we took off.

IE: At its peak what were Jazz Now’s publishing numbers?

HH: They were not where I felt they should have been, but they were sufficient to get us around the world. We had about 20,000 subscribers; by the time we got to that point the internet was taking off and I can’t remember how we tracked the internet numbers, which was a very big issue also.

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IE: How did you go about attracting subscribers?

HH: In the various areas that we covered, I would ask people where did they purchase their magazines, where do you get DownBeat, etc. to find out how those people were connected to the jazz world. And we had questionnaires in the early editions that helped a bit, but it was mostly word of mouth that helped with Jazz Now.

IE: Were you aware at the time that you were the only African American publishing a monthly jazz magazine?

HH: I wasn’t when I started; I kept hearing that, but I wasn’t aware because I had no way of checking that out and I didn’t want to make that claim and have somebody say ‘oh, I’ve been publishing my little newsletter for a hundred years…’ So we never made that claim. Others made that claim for me very often, but I never made that claim because I couldn’t verify it.

IE: How did you go about recruiting writers for the magazine?

HH: I’ll give you an example. I went to most of the jazz shows in my area and there was a lady that I would see at every one of those events. She was a white lady who would be sitting up front, very clean, very sharp, blond hair with a bun in the back looking very conservative. But she was nodding her head with all the music, so I thought ‘this lady is really into the music, she’s always here.’ I found out who she was and I talked with her and I found out that she had been taking pictures at all these different events, so I asked her had she ever considered writing. She said ‘no, I’ve never thought about writing [about the music], this is just for me.’ I finally convinced her. Then I found out about people in the [jazz] community and asked if they knew of anybody writing about jazz and whether they could recommend anybody, and some people would, but it was just kind of a hit & miss, word of mouth thing, it was very basic, we didn’t have headhunters or anything like that.

IE: Did you find in your early experience starting this magazine, in trying to find writers, did you find that there were a number of African Americans writing about jazz?

HH: No, I didn’t find that there were a lot, but I did find some and some of the [black writers] that were writing about it didn’t think that we would last, so they were not interested. So I would have to work really hard to convince somebody that I wanted to write for the magazine. Doug Edwards, a radio broadcaster at KPFA, really helped me a lot; in fact he was with the magazine right up until he died. One of the first articles that we published was about Pearl – of Jazz at Pearls club in San Francisco… I got this guy, a young black guy, to do that article on Pearl for the first issue, and I think he charged me something like $600, which was way more than I could afford, but I had no way of finding out how much people were getting paid until I met with that woman at Ebony.

So the guy over-charged me and I thought ‘wow, I’ve gotta find a better way to do this.’ Doug Edwards told me to tell people that we were a poor magazine, that we would pay them $25 an article; I did that and people agreed because most of the people wanted to write and it wasn’t really about the money.

IE: So as soon as you were able to you did pay writers?

HH: Oh yeah, I paid writers from that time forward, but I just couldn’t pay them very much. I paid them $25 an article and they were happy with that. I was surprised that they were happy with that because for $25 you can’t buy a pack of cigarettes!

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IE: Were you able to attract other black writers to the magazine?

HH: Yes I was and I was so pleased with that. We attracted some really good writers; I think of Elizabeth Goodwin, who was writing for somebody else before I got her. She was a very conservative young woman, but very smart and articulate and had some writing experience. She did a number of interviews throughout the history of the magazine. When I would find somebody that was a writer, I would try to convince them to write for us and in most cases they would.

IE: Did you find an openness, as far as black writers being willing to contribute because of who you were as far as publishing this magazine?

HH: Yes, I was happy about that. A lot of [black writers] said ‘I see where you’re going, don’t worry about trying to pay me,’ and that was very helpful, that made me feel good that I was getting some help. It was very difficult to do what we were doing because #1 I had to pay the printer and I did. I finally got this guy who was going to generate some revenue through advertising and that lasted for a few years but it never really generated enough to cover the cost, so it was really hard to get the advertising support that the magazine demanded and required. So it was hard, but I got a lot of help, and sometimes individuals would give me money for the magazine.

IE: Were these donors black people?

HH: These were primarily black people, but some of them were white. I worked for a company called United States Leasing International. The guy I worked for in that organization, who was a vice president, he gave me about $9,000 [for the magazine], which was just wonderful.

IE: Before you started Jazz Now magazine were you at all aware that there were few African Americans writing about jazz?

HH: I didn’t know who they were, I knew that there had to have been [black writers] but I couldn’t identify anybody. These [black writers] would be introduced to me or referred to me, but I didn’t know a lot of jazz writers at that time.

IE: Why do you suppose its always been such a glaring disparity where you have so many black musicians contributing to the music but so few black people writing about it and black folks in the media in general dealing with the music?

HH: If you look at the publishing industry as a whole, I think that’s where the disparity arises; that’s why I went to Ebony because they had been publishing for years, and they helped me so much. I just chose to go to where I knew there were black writers because I didn’t know of black jazz writers, not just writers but publishers. She didn’t make too many writer recommendations to me, but she helped me in many other ways.

I didn’t know how to find black writers unless they came to me. After the magazine came out, black writers would come to me saying they wanted to write. Most of our writers were new people in the industry who hadn’t written for magazines before but they wanted to and they wanted to make a contribution, or they knew something. Like that lady I mentioned, I would recruit them based on what I thought they could do.

IE: As you sought to provide coverage to underserved jazz musicians, did you think the dearth of African American jazz writers contributed to how the music was covered?

HH: My first answer to that is no, because those writers that were writing on jazz at that time – editors decide what goes in and what does not – a lot of writers had run into [reluctant editors]. They would submit articles and they would get turned down, unless they were huge names. Editors would tell writers that their writing about Joe Blow from Wilson Creek, nobody’s going to buy the magazine, and the writers would tell me about that!

IE: So once you got into publishing, those issues that motivated you as far as your feeling so many contributing jazz musicians were not getting magazine coverage, did it ever occur to you that the way the music was covered had anything to do with the fact that there weren’t a lot of black writers covering the music?

HH: Without a doubt, very strongly! The writers told me that, and when I say the writers I’m only talking about professional writers. Some of them, they wouldn’t even bother, saying ‘no man, I can’t tie up my energies in something that isn’t going to go anywhere [meaning Jazz Now]. That was shocking and it made it very difficult, but that’s what I was trying to overcome, to change all of that. I felt that to a degree we did gather some recognition and we did change some of that. We had some [black] writers that started with me, they grew up with me, and then they started to go over to other magazines and radio broadcasting but they always kept us in mind and knew that [Jazz Now] was where they came from.

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IE: So you got a sense that to a certain degree Jazz Now served as a bit of an incubator?

HH: Oh absolutely, I could see it. We made a difference in the publishing world, I could see that, and I could hear that people recognized what we were trying to do, and we got a lot of support along those lines.

IE: What difference do you feel Jazz Now made?

HH: There was an organization in Germany, the Jazz Institute [in Darmstadt], and this guy was so thrilled that I started the magazine that he helped in any way he could. I had a relationship with him and he told me about the struggle that he had, but he was very, very helpful to me. I got a lot of information from them and also learned a lot.

IE: What is your sense of the indifference of so many African American publications towards jazz music, despite the historic origins of the music?

HH: Not everybody appreciates the art form for what it has contributed. A lot of black folks were church-oriented and the way jazz was originally introduced, where it played out, at one point jazz was looked down upon as a dirty music, it was thought of as just bawdy house music. I’m not sure why we didn’t have more coverage in black publications.

IE: As you continued to cover the music in Jazz Now, what were some of your most rewarding encounters?

HH: When we would get recognition from places like the Monterey Jazz Festival. I got to know those people really well, they supported us and would give us heads-up notice about whatever was going on, and asked us to cover it and go to their shows. From most of the jazz community we were welcomed.

IE: Not only were you the rare African American publishing a jazz magazine, but you were rare geographically [California-base] because there weren’t a lot of jazz publications coming out of the West.

HH: That’s true.

IE: Was that also part of your motivation for publishing?

HH: Oh yes it was. You might remember, the magazine used to say California Jazz Now, the West Coast jazz world, and that was because we knew there was no jazz magazine out here. DownBeat was in [Chicago} and any coverage of the guys in the West was limited.

IE: Did you find a sense of openness from black musicians wanting to assist or be more open to your publishing venture?

HH: I’m happy to say that I did find that. There was a bass player here named Harley White who had an organization that recognized Jazz Now many times. Harley White played bass for Earl “Fatha” Hines. His organization was called Jazz Preservation Society and he gave me an award. His recording secretary was Ed Kelly, one of the most admired piano players on this side of the country, he’s no longer with us but he was great.

IE: So there was some expression of pride amongst black people in the music for the fact that you were doing this.

HH: Yes, there was, and they knew what a struggle it was. People in the jazz community tried to support Jazz Now as best they could.

IE: As you look back on what you were able to achieve with the magazine, what would you say about the whole experience?

HH: It was a very enlightening and rewarding experience, and we’re not talking monetary rewards here. But it was very rewarding; I got to find out that what I’d imagined was true – and that is that there are some truly remarkable musicians who weren’t being covered, and when we got somebody to cover them they were elated to know that we were around – and I’m talking about white musicians in Sweden, or white musicians in Australia – it wasn’t just the black musicians that recognized what we were doing about accentuating those musicians who had been around but had gotten no recognition. People really thought that was a great idea; it never turned around monetarily but we got a lot of praise.

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IE: What was your level of commercial success, in sustaining the magazine financially?

HH: We never publicized this and never talked about it at all – but at one point Stella and I had to declare bankruptcy because I was going overboard in my support and I wasn’t getting the kind of return in order to make it viable. So it was never really a monetary success, most of the time it maintained its own, but then there was a time when it was very, very difficult.

IE: At what point did you evolve Jazz Now into purely an online presence?

HH: When we first got into the 20,000 subscriber range it became much more difficult to publish hard copy, so we reverted to the electronic issue, which we had going at the same time as the [hard copy issue], but the printed issue required a lot of time and money.

IE: Did you say you were the first jazz magazine to publish online?

HH: Yes, we were.

IE: How was it that you became an early adapter to what is now common practice?

HH: I found out that no matter what medium I was using, where I was lacking was a professional advertising person who knew how to generate the revenue. One time my editor, Bob Tate, said ‘you need to pay the advertising guys more. When he made that statement I knew that he didn’t know any more . The advertising guy was supposed to generate the revenue for [Bob] to get paid and he didn’t understand that.

IE: Did you have advertising in your online publication?

HH: Oh yes, I had ads there, and subscriptions, and we had a catalogue of releases there and we would get the musicians to advertise their releases. That helped a lot but not enough to sustain the magazine. It made me feel so good to publish the magazine, to know that I had done something for the art form; I would do it again at the drop of a hat.

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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?
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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.

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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 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.

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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

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!

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Ain’t but a few of us… Steve Monroe tells his story

Ain’t But a Few of Us
Black music writers tell their story: STEVE MONROE

DC-based jazz writer Steve Monroe recently pondered the plight of African American jazz writers based on his own experience in this latest installment in our ongoing series of Ain’t but a Few of Us dialogues…

What motivated you to write about serious music in the first place?

I was working for the sports desk of a daily newspaper and wanted to go to features, to cover music, theater, the arts, do profiles of interesting people, especially those in the black community of Rochester, N.Y., where I was. While working features, I started covering all kinds of music and since I was a jazz fan, became especially interested in the jazz performers who came through town and reviewed and interviewed the ones I could, like Dizzy Gillespie, Billy Taylor, Ron Carter, Bill Evans, Grant Green, many others. The first review and profile I did was of Phil Woods and I was fascinated of the stories he told of Charlie Parker and how he was so influenced by him in the music. That started my jazz reviewing and writing career, was in the mid 70s. Up to then was just a fan, but became interested in reviewing and profiling the greats of the music, the trends, because it was so original American music and had so many genres within its own genre to cover, from soul jazz to avant garde, from the vocalists to the whole swing, big band thing, etc.

When you first started writing about the music were you aware of the dearth of African Americans writing about serious music?

No, but since in the 70s there were only a few even writing professionally about general news to some extent, and features,, sports and business in most media, I did not think much of it then

Why do you suppose that’s still such a glaring disparity – where you have a significant number of black musicians making serious music but so few black media commentators on this music?

Because such a minority of our group are writers, and those of us who are writers maybe have had to be drawn to more prosperous, money making type of writing or communications careers. Jazz/black American music itself has become such a niche art form, within that niche only a few have the time to devote to something that doesn’t make enough money on its own to support anybody, not even most of the musicians, I think that has to be a factor.

Jazz I think like many parts of black America, if not all of it, has become something of an archaeological dig for those types who have the time and intellectual leaning to pursue that type of thing and most of those people with that luxury are not black Americans. Not many blacks have the time or inclination….those who have the time and money to devote to it, I think just do not value it as an art form or cultural beacon like we do….they are into their doctor, lawyer, engineer thing above all and just enjoy jazz as recreation, if they do like it at all.

Do you think that disparity or dearth of African American jazz writers contributes to how the music is covered in the media?

Yes, it has become a fringe, niche art form where, if even the African American populace in general doesn’t support the music, why should mass media outlets devote “X” amount of time and space for something only a few white liberals seem crazy about—I think that is a factor for one thing. If there were more black writers beating the drums in all forms of media for our music it would be covered more, and more as a serious art form…to a certain extent…at least it would be covered more by black media itself, which doesn’t seem to cover it even as much as majority media. I have had to fight to get review space, profile space for jazz in black media outlets I have been a part of…and that’s when I was doing it for free!! So if we can’t get it covered prominently by our own, what chance is there for it in the larger media world?

Since you’ve been writing about serious music, have you ever found yourself questioning why some musicians may be elevated over others, and is it your sense that has anything to do with the lack of cultural diversity among writers covering the music?

Yes, have wondered that, and yes, it probably has something to do with that. It would be natural to promote your own. This is not a color neutral or post racial world yet. Maybe people push certain non African American musicians more in order to promote the whole genre of jazz, claiming they have to do that so the masses will pay attention and support it. I give that a grain of possibility.

What’s your sense of the indifference of so many African American-oriented publications towards serious music?

Mind boggling to a certain extent. It may have to do with the fact that so many whites, and others, Europeans, Asians, others around the world think jazz is so great, that some feel it doesn’t need the backing of its own media. Crazy but have no other explanation for it. It seems our media thinks it is more entertainment than culture, than art, and is just appealing to a niche of whites and blacks and others rather than the masses and therefore if the masses don’t get it, black media can’t spend time on it, because black media has to get paid by advertisers who want/demand to be in front of the masses and if the masses want Kayne and Fat Trel, that’s what black media will give them.

How would you react to the contention that the way and tone of how serious music is covered has anything to do with who is writing about it?

Would agree…may go without saying.

In your experience writing about serious music what have been some of your more rewarding encounters?

My first professional music and jazz assignment was to write about Phil Woods. The way he was courteous, patient with me though my knowledge of the music at that time was limited and certainly much more of a fan based thing than as a reviewer or analyst, made me appreciate the art form he and his peers were pursuing as I think about it now. That was not the case in the other things I had covered, general news, sports for example, where veterans of the business like him were often short, discourteous, very unhelpful to a young reporter/writer.

Covering Sarah Vaughn singing with the Rochester Philharmonic was another special event – I didn’t get to interview her, she was at the top then and didn’t give many interviews at all as I understood. But what was special was the interaction between her jazz motif and the classical, for me, since I had not heard much classical music live at that time and it again made this music, jazz/black American music, special, because it seemed to span and engulf so many other art forms and influence other art forms. It was an education on so many levels.
Interviews with Grant Green, Earl “Fatha” Hines, Keith Jarrett (though he was not the easiest person to interview) were so educational early on, they are still special. Violinist Joe Venuti, again, because I was so young in terms of covering music, I was impressed how patient he was in talking about his music and his life. Knowing and covering Buck Hill all these years, and Nasar Abadey, the veteran folks around D.C. has been an ongoing treat. Sonny Rollins, sort of my all time favorite, at least living (Wes Montgomery probably all time all time), concerts at Blues Alley and Wolf Trap have to rank as well as outstanding encounters/events.

Have to add seeing Charlie Mingus and Sun Ra opened my ears to more than just bebop type jazz, and long live D.C. Space, where I heard Don Cherry and got even more into the freer genres of the music back then.

What obstacles have you encountered – besides difficult editors and indifferent publications – in your efforts at covering serious music?

Venues that see you as a fan who just wants to get in free, and not as a journalist covering a legitimate news story, that has bugged me in the past, that some venue owners see the music, the people who make it as not real stories worth telling or letting journalists cover; they are just entertainers, and everyone must pay, and they don’t see value of the publicity, marketing of what I and others do. These days I may just go ahead and pay just not worry about it, unfortunately, tired of fighting the good fight.

What have been the most intriguing new records you’ve heard so far this year?

Antonio Parker’s “Live at HR-57”
Ran Blake, Christine Correa, “down here below”
Robert Glasper “Black Radio”
Billy Hart “All Our Reasons”

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