Ain’t But a Few of Us: Black jazz writers tell their story #10

The latest contributor to our ongoing series of conversations with black music writers is Kelvin L. Williams, an astute New York City-based writer, who has written under the byline K. Leander Williams and who besides the jazz prints like JazzTimes, has managed to land by-lines in an assortment of general interest publications, including The Nation, Entertainment Weekly, the Village Voice, and a lengthy stint at Time Out New York.  Based in Brooklyn, Kelvin evidences an innate curiosity about a mixed bag of music genres, multiple flavors of jazz included.  You may have seen him at some gig or other, sporting a mean porkpie hat in a fashion-forward kinda way…


What motivated you to write about serious music?


I wrote about music in college, but I’d started thinking a lot about different sounds as a teenager.  It was a way to understand the differences in cultural aesthetics.  My folks are from North Carolina but I grew up in suburban Long Island, NY — one of those first-black-family-in-the-area type situations.  (Actually Makanda Ken McIntyre lived a few blocks away from us; I went to grade school with his kids, but I didn’t know he was a musician until much later, after I’d acquired Cecil Taylor’s Unit Structures and came across his picture on an LP with Eric Dolphy.  I was like "Mr. McIntyre?!?")  Anyway, I noticed that our family gatherings, church services, whatever, didn’t sound a whole lot like those around us, and as a kid kinda wondered about that.


When I think back about it I realize that even though we didn’t have as much money as our neighbors, there was always a little extra to spend on the latest singles and stuff.  I can remember all the labels to LPs and 45s by James Brown, Sly Stone, Bill Withers, Tamla/Motown, etc.  Racially-speaking my parents weren’t doctrinaire.  They’d seen Sam Cooke at the Apollo, and yet my Dad was also a real fan of Creedence Clearwater Revival (we had the single "Have You Ever Seen The Rain")… my Mom dug the Rolling Stones (but not, as she says to this day, that "copycat" Tom Jones).  From that, I think I began to intuit that the blues, or gospel-like music, was at the base of everything, so it wasn’t a stretch for me to dig anything descended from that, whether it was "free" jazz, hip hop, or punk rock.


Jazz appeared on the radar somewhere amid all this, though it didn’t become central until later.  Early on, my Dad rented a tenor saxophone for me so I could get music lessons at elementary school, but they didn’t take.  I toughed it out for a couple of years, long enough so that now I get what contemporary saxists are doing.  I was a small kid, so in hindsight I should have started on clarinet or something, but my folks didn’t know.  The woman who was really responsible for my jazz curiosity was my best friend’s mom, a worldly sista whose LP collection was different from my parents’ — which I guess brings us back to aesthetic differences.  I was initially attracted to the visual style of jazz LPs, cool-looking black folks dressed in great clothes.  My friend let me "borrow" several records out of his mom’s collection: Kind of Blue, Carmen McRae Sings Lover Man, Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane, Mingus Mingus Mingus… Time Further Out, and an Art Blakey/Jazz Messengers thing with "I Hear a Rhapsody" on it (it was in a white cover because she’d lost the original).  It turns out that she had been a radio personality in a past life; I think the station was WBNX… she had photos of herself with Duke Ellington.


When you started on this music writing quest were you aware of the dearth of African Americans writing about serious music?


I was aware of it, but It had as much to do with the lack of African-Americans writing about pop music and rock (which I also do) as it did with jazz… it kinda felt like there was a schism that was generational.  You had people who were dealing in academic ways with jazz and the blues because they were older, but not necessarily wanting to get their hands dirty on the contemporary forms of blues like hip hop.  It always felt like a continuum to me — fruit from the same tree.  I had also begun listening to a little African pop music at this time.


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 jazz media commentators?


That’s a hard question to answer, mainly because there’s a real dearth of outlets now that even cover jazz.  I mean, even the major black pop magazine Vibe is gone.  When mass-cultural stuff can’t survive, jazz is kinda at less than zero.


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


Without question.  Any time an aesthetic is underserved there’s gonna be a disparity.  But as I said earlier, in the current climate, where there’s not even much jazz coverage, that’d be a hard thing to even quantify.  I started out by talking about aesthetics, and yes, we could run down the reasons I’m drawn to things that swing, that are blues-centered or whatever, as opposed to someone else’s preference for jazz that’s less so, but we’re currently at this place where all forms of jazz are pretty much neglected — no matter who’s playing or covering it.


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 the writers covering this music?


Well, I feel like there’s a subjective component to any writer’s taste or analysis.  I’m sure folks have looked at stuff I’ve championed and thought "Huh?"  I have no qualms about bumping my taste up against anyone else’s though.  And if as a writer I can’t be persuasive or convince an editor that my taste is something to be valued or curious about, well then the editors will continually go back to the same well, i.e. remain in the comfort of their pre-existing social networks/frameworks.  Simply put, the jobs/opportunities/whatever will go to people who think the same.


What’s your sense of the indifference of so many African American-oriented publications towards serious music, despite the fact that African American artists continue to create serious music?


I’m not so sure that African American publications ever truly felt committed to covering jazz, but the reasons today seem more about what’s perceived as popular or mass-cultural, whereas decades ago my sense is that the indifference had more to do with the implication that the jazz scene was a magnet for deviant behavior or bad role models or something like that.  For quite a while the boozhies didn’t seem to think jazz and the blues were "positive" enough.


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 that’s true of anything.  I mean, only folks who think a certain way about capitalism are covering business for the Wall Street Journal, right?


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


I’m just glad I can say I saw quite a few geniuses in the flesh.  I’ve had the opportunity to hear (and sometimes hang out with and talk to) folks like Jaki Byard, Abbey Lincoln, Tommy Flanagan, Lester Bowie, Sonny Rollins, Dewey Redman, Cecil Taylor, Don Pullen, Geri Allen, and Jackie McLean.  When I started doing this you could still see genius musicians show up and sit in on each other’s gigs in New York.  David Murray might be sitting in with the Mingus Big Band (actually, the last time I saw the tenor saxist George Adams alive was in the Mingus band), or Barry Harris would get up from the piano at Bradley’s in the middle of a tune and James Williams would sit down and start playing.  The first time I heard Brian Blade was when he dropped in for a Kenny Garrett gig.  And to this day one of the best shows I’ve ever seen is one of the first jazz gigs I checked out: Henry Threadgill, Fred Hopkins, and Andrew Cyrille — basically AIR without Steve McCall — in a little bar in Times Square.  They grooved and flowed for nearly two hours; Henry’s horns and stuff were laid out on the pool table.  That kinda thing just doesn’t happen anymore.


What obstacles have you run up against — besides difficult editors and indifferent publications — in your efforts at covering serious music?


Well, it was my own fault, but Don Pullen didn’t like the way I approached him at first and almost wouldn’t talk to me.  It was between sets at Condon’s in Union Square and I didn’t quite know how to get to him because he seemed busy socializing and I didn’t want to intrude.  Then, as he was walking by the bar, I kinda moved into his view, introduced myself and said "I’m gonna want to talk to you a little bit later, before you leave, is that cool?"  He looked at me a bit weird and kept moving.  So after the next set he shot me another weird look and kinda disappeared.  I found out he was downstairs.  When I came down and asked "Mr. Pullen, is it OK if we talk now?"  He looked at me and said "Now that’s more like it.  I don’t know who you are."  He was great after that, and I learned a lesson.


If you were pressed to list several musicians who may be somewhat bubbling under the surface or just about to break through as far as wider spread public consciousness, who might they be and why?


Well, the hardest thing about answering this question is I feel like there’s no shortage of fine musicians, but very few are bona fide conceptualists who might end up being sonic avatars like Ornette Coleman, Sonny Rollins, or David Murray.  I was looking at the back cover of Murray’s 1980 album Ming the other day, and I couldn’t help noticing that every cat on that album ended up carving out their own sonic space over the next 10-15 years.  I don’t think that’s even possible in the current clomate.  That said, I’ll venture the following: Robert Glasper (maybe he’s kinda taken off already); JD Allen; Jason Lindner (though I wish he’d take a break from his electric thing); Ethan Iverson (as a pianist, NOT with the Bad Plus… sorry, Ethan); Stacy Dillard… 


Jazz fans who eye these choices will notice a pattern: I have no qualms with electric jazz in theory, but it seems like the younger cats wanna revisit jazz-fusion, which I don’t think was such a great idea even back in the ’70s — the glaring exception being Miles Davis, who made stupendous electric records.  Boppish momentum can certainly be electrified without going the fusion route.  Paul Motian’s done it in that On Braodway series, so have Threadgill and Ornette.  I still feel it’s a shame that things like James Blood Ulmer’s Odyssey Band and Threadgill’s Very Very Circus were around before the jam-band circuit thing became big.  Those bands might have done well in expanded settings.


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


Martial Solal – Live at the Village Vanguard: I Can’t Give You Anything But Love

Joe Lovano – Us Five (I don’t think enough has been said about how Lovano maintains a high profile while continuing to put out no-nonsense acoustic jazz records.  There are no pop concessions on them.)

JD Allen – Shine

Vijay Iyer –  Historicity

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