Jazz, Blackness and Shame

In her second contribution to The Independent Ear, the uncompromising saxophonist-composer and budding music/socio- cultural commentator Matana Roberts details her personal grounding and addresses the issue of the black audience for jazz, music education, coping with judgmental educators and assorted other related matters on her fertile mind.

   Matana Roberts


Black folks and Jazz Music?  Why don’t I see black folks at my shows or even on the stage for that matter?  Is there a legacy of shame involved?  Well sure — I’d agree in some small respect that this shame is definitely part of the music’s legacy… the drug culture of the music lent itself to that.  But honestly for me personally that was never really an issue.  I grew up hearing some of the styles of music that I in fact play today and was surrounded by kinfolk that had a certain reverence for art in all it’s forms.  My family loved music and art.  Now does that mean my family encouraged me to be a saxophonist?  Absolutely not, but they never discouraged me either.  I grew up under the assumption that I could be anything I wanted to be.  I grew up in an environment to believe that as long as I enriched my mind, there would be no limitations in how I could enrich my life.


    My grandfather, a WWll vet, was a postal worker by day and a philosopher, poet and father of 3 by night.  My grandmother was a secondary school teacher and an avid student of many, many subjects that interested her as well as a  mother of 3 by night.  These day jobs they had represented very respectable professions for people of color in the ’50s.  I don’t get the impression that they or anyone else in my family — on both sides for that matter — looked at the job of a musician as being shameful, but I do suspect they did see it as being within the box of what White AmeriKKKa said was acceptable for black folks — and that would be to ENTERTAIN.  And if there is one common theme I have seen in my family research so far on both sides was a silent fight not to be confined to a box of what white folk deemed acceptable.


    If there are black folks discouraging their children from playing this music I think it would have more to do with that legacy than anything about playing so called "devil’s music".  (Though one can argue about all the bling associated with black pop music — but that’s another essay.)  In my opinion there is an economic status thing at play too.  My maternal grandmother pulled me aside every chance she could get to tell me that the kind of presence I had was one that only a high powered lawyer could posses.  I would just smile at this, but frankly sometimes when I’m freaked out about how exactly I’m going to make my rent, I wished I would have listened to her for purely economical reasons; as my last argument with a somewhat nasty student loan collector went something like this:


collector: "so ms. roberts, what exactly is it that you are doing with your life?"


Me: "Well sir, I’m trying to make a contribution."


collector: (insert smirk here) "by playing in a band ms. roberts?"


Me: "um… well if you want to put it like that, then sure."


collector: "you should be ashamed of yourself…"


 That’s basically where my shame has come from so far in this lifetime in relationship to music.  Isn’t that something?  I’m pretty sure my ancestors were not betting on that scenario.  My shame has come in the throes of trying to get a college education in the U.S.  In America, where descendants of the folk that actually helped to build some of these financial empires from the bottom up can’t afford to finance their own education.  Isn’t that sad?


    The legacy left in most American black families like mine is a legacy that requires a certain pride in self-sufficiency… you leave the field negro mentality behind and you surpass the house negro mentality by having your very own field and your very own house that you can do with as you please.  I’m pretty sure every black person in this country felt a strong reminder of that watching the Hurricane Katrina disaster on CNN.  It definitely showed that if you ain’t got some extra change stashed somewhere, your "can’twealljustgetalong" black ass might end up floating down a river too…  I know I felt that…


    But also a part of that legacy is to strive to surpass innovation, to surpass the standard already set.  In jazz music black folks have already done that in many ways.  We surpassed a standard for musical creativity and made it our own, and I think that some of us are continuing to do that.  My family always encouraged me in very silent ways (by example) to reach and not be afraid to grab and hold on despite the obstacles.  I think because of this past history of what black folks have already done in regards to this music has created an atmosphere of where now most black folk find the music boring — except for those iconic heroes like Coltrane.


    I personally think the lack of black folks at my concerts and on the stage has more to do with the legacy of ghetto economics.  And frankly the way jazz has become embraced by educational institutions does not make the ghetto economist leap with joy.  What negro would pay close to 30 thousand dollars a year to essentially learn to be black?  (This is a wide generalization I know, but work with me here please, I’m having fun.)  Well this negro did, and I do regret it to some extent. 


    I was able to fund a chunk of it thanks to a few small scholarships and grants, but since I didn’t really fit neatly into any particular musical box where my professors would go "well that Roberts, sounds like Bird!!! — let’s give her some money!!!"  I all but got ignored until towards the end of my institutional music collegiate experience where I finally ran into some teachers who understood the importance of original voices and it’s history in this music.  But regardless, I still have somewhat of a greenpapered bounty on my black ass thanks to my pursuit of knowledge — american style — hence the nasty psychological collector conversations I pretty much experience on the regular; a modern ball and chain if you will.  Something that my family fought hard to free their descendants from, but I guess I took the bait because I felt that getting a college education as a black american was one of my duties and so I did it, and at this point there’s no turning back now.  Life is full of little ironies.


    What I mainly see is a lack of diversity in music education institutions  — from the bottom up.  I’ve been on the bottom and I’ve been on the up.  I guess what hurts the most about this stuff sometimes is I actually gave people some money to tell me I wouldn’t be an artist.  (Thank God for the AACM, Chad Taylor, Josh Abrams, and Vonski.)  I had one professor seriously say to me "the only way you are going to get some gigs is if you marry a musician", and another who encouraged me to find another profession as I just wasn’t "getting it" — and this was only two out of a team of nitwits. 


    Seeing as no musician in his right mind has stepped forward to bound my finger with a shiny trinket I’d say that professor was projecting some of his own bullshit on me.  [Editor’s note: would that be in the classic "those who can’t…" parlance?  Just wondering aloud…]  And the second guy — well perhaps he just wasn’t getting me.  Though some of these early experiences definitely destroyed my self esteem for a time, I will say, now looking back in retrospect, that my family’s silent way of encouraging me to persevere anything actually helped.  First off by passing me some of the stories that I speak of in my COIN COIN project [details coming in The Independent Ear], showing me that if you fight and stand up for yourself you can survive.


    I’m only just beginning to find out what tremendous thing this has done and is contiuing to do for my artistic psyche.  And then in some ways an unspoken guideline in most black households — or at least the ones I was around — was this (and please don’t get your panties or briefs in a bunch over this, it’s just a gross generalization and not necessarily one I proscribe to anymore) treat anything that a white person says that is in any position of power over you as suspect information (especially if it’s commentary on your "ability").  This included teachers.  As a kid I had already been singled out negatively a few times by white teachers and I will always be thankful that my parents immediately sensed the problem was with the teachers and not with me.  My parents, grandparents did not ever come out and say this little credo exactly to me, it was always in the familial air; passed down generations through stories of our kinfolk…  Know what I mean?


    I’ve had many white teachers in this music and a good bulk of them I very, very much value.  But in order to deal with some of the idiots — as I described above — who were both white, I think now in retrospect I learned my family history in some ways as a coping mechanism.


    Now back to the lack of diversity in jazz education, which feeds jazz performance venues, which feeds jazz record labels, which [fed] the International Association of Jazz Education that [had] to have a "Black Caucus ” — is that not fucked up?  It’s because the music on a purely educational level is not diverse?  That’s so sad.  I’ve taught workshops to audiences that were completely filled with upstanding young white men, no students of color, sometimes not even any women.  It’s crazy.  (But maybe not so crazy since technically according to my last entries I’m white too, which means that possibly some of those upstanding young white men that I have taught have a negro or two dangling in their family trees too… so then that means the workshops were probably diverse… but just secretly diverse!  what?  whoo, my definiton of race is definitely changing…  I’m definitely having some fun here… 


    Anyway, I digress again…  I basically can report that on a cultural peer level it’s god awful lonely.  But for me it’s not really about schools anymore, or color, that’s done, now it’s about the work, and for better or for worse my saxophone was a tool given to me to get through all the madness and do the work.  It’s a tool for me to try to make sense of the madness, and perhaps a tool for me to create just a little of my own.  I can gladly report to the ancestors when I make that final transition that I stayed outside the box, maybe not in the way they may have hoped for, but I stayed and that I felt it pertinent to bring them closer to me to make it a little easier to deal.


…just some random thoughts.

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