The black audience question

Trumpeter Nicholas Payton has fostered a healthy, ongoing dialogue on the subject of the creative music widely known as jazz, the implications of that “J” word (negative as he sees it; preferring Black American Music, or the acronym BAM he has subsequently coined and begun running with), and various aspects and implications. Part of his contention seemed to suggest that somehow some element of theft has occurred relative to the African American origins of this music. I wrote a subsequent piece in The Independent Ear, once again suggesting that there’s really been no theft, that through attrition, lack of interest, and inattention to the legacy, black folks have simply given the music away. Nicholas was quick to disabuse me of the notion that his theory involved thievery, but the ensuing dialogue – including blog, Facebook, and Twitter posts – got me to thinking that perhaps one way to foster a broader dialogue on the puzzling subject of the black audience for the music – BAM, African American Classical Music, jazz or however you call this creative musical force – might be to pose a question to certain black folks who have deep investment in the music and get their take.

I started out by posing this simple question to a select few friends and colleagues in the music; however this question is not limited to that select group and if you wish to be part of the dialogue The Independent Ear would be happy to hear from you and subsequently publish your response in this space as part of a series of such dialogues. So here you go…

Where’s the African American audience for creative music, where did it go, can we recapture that audience, and how can we go about doing so. Is the term “jazz” a hindrance, or is that argument pure nomenclature?

The first two responses come from two extremely talented and brilliant women, both of whom have in-depth histories with the music and care deeply about its future. I’ve also included a thoughtful letter from one of my old BET Jazz colleagues who weighed in on the dialogue that firestarter Nic Payton laid out there for our consideration.

NATALIE BULLOCK BROWN, Producer/Consultant; filmmaker, college/university educator, and one of the producers of the Ken Burns’ PBS series “Jazz”.

I have really been pondering your question and honestly, feel like I should do research and conduct polls! I mean this is the stuff of thesis papers, really. It’s a very deep question. Following is my humble attempt at an answer.

I don’t really know where the African American audience for creative music, aka “jazz,” has gone. But I suspect that integration had something to do with the dispersement. I think that when the African American community was united under Jim Crow, we supported our PEOPLE – whether they were doctors, lawyers, teachers, singers or even jazz musicians. But with integration came many opportunities to be distracted by all the new choices we were afforded, and unified support of the “community” became less and less a priority. Now, we have so many issues as a people, not the least of which is that many of us tend to ascribe the term “white” to anything we don’t do (like speak the King’s English) or don’t understand (like jazz). And it really doesn’t matter what we might call jazz, the thinking will be the same.

Many of us think to be smart is acting white, to eat well and take care of our bodies is acting white, and to play or sing anything other than hip hop, R&B or gospel is – you guessed it – playing the white role; [a] deep pathology in our community now. Deep. And unfortunately, as a result, we’ve walked away from a music – whatever you want to call it – that WE created. Now, our position vis a vis jazz, or BAM, is like that of an absent father who has been away from his offspring for many years. The music has evolved and mutated and grown – it has become so many things to so many people, and spread in ways that could never have been anticipated during the music’s infancy. There’s so much that our community has missed as jazz has grown up. So in many ways, it is hard for us to appreciate what it currently IS because we missed the years of maturation and experimentation – the “teenage years,” if you will.

Now that jazz is all grown up, (even though very much a work in progress, still), it seems to me that African Americans have to want to get to know jazz in order to re-establish the relationship. And that’s on us – not the music. Because the sweet thing about jazz is that it is so completely welcoming, holds no grudges, and forgives absence in a moment, that it will take us back the minute we step back into the clubs, or the concert halls, or the festivals. We have to want it, though. We have to recognize the need, all that we’ve missed, and how enriched and enlightened our lives can be when we return to the music we left.

In other words, we as a people have to grow up. We have to mature and desire clarity, knowledge, wisdom. We have to love ourselves in order to love what has come from us. Only God knows how to accomplish this. In the meantime, I hope that our music will continue to be what it always has been – inviting, funny, transcendent, peaceful, transformational, suggestive, sexy, brilliant, heady, clever, beautiful and all of the other amazing things jazz is. Because eventually, prayerfully, we WILL evolve and grow and return to ourselves. Only then will a true reunion take place.

ALISON CROCKETT, vocalist/educator

Where is the audience for black music? Listening to Drake, Rhianna, and Beyonce. They’re black. That’s where they’re going. This music is part of their lives on a daily basis. It’s on their iPods. They listen to it on YouTube. It’s on the Disney Channel. It’s in Church and school. It’s the music playing at the ice skating rink and the music they dance to in their dance classes.

Music outside of that is “special.” Music that you are told about in school for an assembly; your parents take you out to see to enlarge your cultural perspectives. Or, what your parents may or may not listen to in the car or in the house.

Music is always about function. We use our culture for purpose. In the past, dance music was big band music. But Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie turned it into “art” music; fast and difficult to dance to and use in daily life. Coltrane moved the music into a “spiritual” path and Monk made unique shapes and sounds with it. These different ways of looking at music did not always lend themselves to easy, singable melodies all the time that you could dance to and use in your daily life. Solos became longer and it possibly became more difficult for the unknowledgeable listener to follow the basic structure of the tune. There was Motown and later Gamble and Huff for that. [Editor’s note: Kenny Gamble once told me in an interview that in his orchestrations for the legion of Gamble & Huff hits he always strove to emulate the swinging atmosphere of the Basie band; listen to some of their classic R&B hits – the O’Jays “Love Train for example – the orchestration always swung.] These are not value judgments; I love all these musical expressions. But truth is truth. Its hella hard to dance to “Donna Lee” or sing along with “Brilliant Corners.” Also, the music was listened to in small clubs while you smoked or drank. As people did less of both, and it became more and more expensive to do either in a public situation, I’m assuming there is less going out. Also, you can smoke and drink at home with your state-of-the-art system for watching and listening in your hooked-up living room.

The black community still has yet to embrace en masse any art form of music not embraced by the larger “majority” community. Money is an issue. Economic class is another. We do not value our culture monetarily as a group. I include myself in this assessment. As a mother of 2 young children, I don’t always have the resources between mortgage, groceries, children’s activities, and daycare. There’s only so much left to go around for entertainment and when I do, it’s centered on children, or something that I really want to see. There’s also a long and continuous history of going out and listening to music while drinking in the white community around the country. This is not mirrored in the black community to the same extent. The black community also doesn’t really want to talk about or hear, as a group, themes outside of love, sex, relationships, etc. They do not want to be spoken to about activism, deep thoughts or emotions, complex ideas, etc. Not to put us down, but as a grooup, we would prefer to watch Maury or Oprah when it comes to entertainment.

What do you do about it? I really don’t know. It’s a holdover from the slave mentality I believe. The ship may have already sailed. That may sound like a cop-out, but… there it is. One thing that really needs to be thought of is money and structure. Quincy Jones created Vibe magazine to support hip hop. It helped to legitimize the music. In this day and age, there needs to be a legitimizer in the black community for jazz and jazz-inspired music. There needs to be an embracing of the styles within jazz and a knowledge of what they are: neo-soul, drum ‘n bass, soulful house music, etc. These more electronic modes of music use jazz as their base and should be embraced by the wider American jazz listener and musician. We have to allow the music to evolve also. Whenever I performed with Orrin Evans, there was always a sense of fun in the show. In DC, Allyn Johnson has the same feeling. We musicians need to respond to the public and the public needs to respond to us. We can present the music that we love in a way that people of all ages can respond.

It’s a long educational slog on both sides that can be an invigorating experience for all. Many of the people that I know are interested in hearing good music, but don’t have the time to dig for it or go see it. Creating interfaces for busy people with disposable income is a must. Make the music a part of people’s lives in an organic way, just like people do with country music. My family went to a pig pull of a well known sweet potato farmer in South Carolina and there was not an ounce of music presented; FYI, it is when a local farmer gives a LARGE dinner for all the important people in the area, thanking them for their support. Food was delicious, and there should be music that is a part of it. Though this may be a little bit of a stretch, we have to think outside of the box in order to compete with the multi-leveled, media-saturated environment that we are in today.

And this related note in response to some black folks’ ongoing email dialogue on Nicholas Payton’s think-pieces; from vocalist and former BET Jazz host ANGELA STRIBLING:

Happy New Year All!
Thanks for including me in this post. I often ponder the same thing about the plight of Jazz today and tend to agree with Willard! No one is putting up a fight for it. So, we’re essentially giving it away!

My question is, how can we as jazz musicians and enthusiasts attract more African Americans out to hear this beautiful music?

Like many of you, I perform Straight Ahead Jazz all over the world and get so much support for this art form. However, when it comes to gigs here in the States, I rarely see “us” in the audience…

We know it’s a growing problem… For years we’ve watched this transformation… Now, what can we do to get our people into jazz again?

Without any of us being judgmental or too critical of what we come up with… can we just kick around some ideas? I’d love to hear what you think:)

In the meantime, keep swinging’ and have a Blessed and Prosperous 2012!

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7 Responses to The black audience question

  1. Twentieth century Jazz artists and supporters are unfortunately leaving us. We – boomers and generation xers – did not fight hard enough to keep music education in the schools of our children and grand children.

    Every generation will support the music of its era. Therefore, young people are always going to listen to what they create and what appeals to them. They will not look for what they know nothing about. Therefore, we must expose and teach.

    We – boomers and generation xers — were immersed into the music of the R&B greats — Stevie, Gladys, Patti, The O’jays, SOS, Temptations and many other groups. However, we were also a part of the Jazz community. Jazz was played in our homes, we heard it and saw the joy and excitement as we sneaked a look into the neighborhood bar while walking home some evenings. That time has come and gone. Jazz is now taught in the classroom, in summer and after-school programs.

    Many young parents do not know nor are they able to see the advantages of having their kids enrolled in arts education. They are embracing the hype of more academics to pass standardized testing as justification to exclude music education.

    We said, “It takes a village.” Let’s be the village that makes the commitment to support and help parents in our school districts advocate for music education in their schools. Let’s insist the music taught in our schools include Jazz instructions.

    Where is the Jazz audience? The Jazz audience is in remote non-urban communities in middle and high schools, universities and colleges. These communities are not heavily populated by African Americans.

    As for BAM, that is up to my homeboy. He can call it whatever he wishes. I respect his wishes. As for me, it will always be Jazz, the art form that was created by African Americans in New Orleans – “The Birthplace of Jazz.”

  2. Atane says:

    These conversations about the lack of the black audience for jazz (BAM) is always the same circular discussion that rarely, if ever puts the blame squarely where it belongs, the older generation. They have failed us. Our parents failed us. It’s not “the black community” in total, it is the stewards of the black community, the elders. The older generation needs to squarely look in the mirror and understand that the problem exists because of them. Young kids are a product of their environment. No one grows up in a bubble. So if we see that that the audience continues to dwindle, why are obvious reasons (guardianship/parenting/education/access) not the focus of the conversation?

    I’m a young man who was fortunate enough to have grown up exposed to music, but I can’t say the same for most of my peers. Why didn’t the older generation champion this music to us? When inner-city schools were being decimated by cuts to music education programs, where were our parents to make a stink about it? Why didn’t they raise hell? Why wasn’t this seen as valuable to them? How else will young black kids gain exposure to the music, if one of the main avenues is always on the chopping block? Where were the initiatives to fight this? Meanwhile, as this was going on to poor black kids, jazz education for the people that can afford it is big business and continues to grow. So, why are we shocked when fewer and fewer black kids are getting involved?

    Also, while the black audiences are smaller, the narrative that black people have turned their back on this music is simply not true. I have no delusions that this will ever be popular music for the average black person, but it is quite insidious to continue this meme of black people not coming out to see this music. It’s not true, at least not in NYC. The problem is how jazz is covered. In the NYC press, the jazz world does not exist above Lincoln Center. There is absolutely no coverage of the happenings above there. Everything is either the clubs downtown or midtown (Village Vanguard, Blue Note, Birdland, Iridium, Jazz Standard) and Lincoln Center. All venues frequented by largely by whites. If those were all the places I went to, I’d think blacks didn’t care for the music also. In all this, it’s almost like the clubs in Harlem don’t exist. Clubs where there are black patrons! The Shrine, St. Nicks Pub, Lenox Lounge, Smoke to name some. What about them? I guess if there is no Winter Jazz Fest happening there, then it’s not important.

    Why is there little to no coverage of the Central Brooklyn Jazz Festival? It is mostly attended by black folks. I won’t hold my breath from coverage from the major jazz publications, but it is painful that the black press ignores it entirely also. Young folks aren’t running media companies, so why won’t the older black people with clout come out and show support, or those with influence make sure it gets coverage? How will people know about it, if no one covers it? Who is at fault there? Part of the problem is that no one is exposed to these happenings. I’m glad that outfits like Revivalist at least focus on many of the black musicians still dedicated to the craft. Lord knows NPR, Downbeat and Jazz Times etc won’t cover half these guys grinding away in obscurity.

    To reiterate my point, our parents failed us. That’s why we are in the precarious situation with the music today. They didn’t lead by example.


  3. George Jenkins says:

    I am really shocked and confused by Bro. Nicholas Payton’s being so “quick to disabuse” Mr. Jenkins’ regarding his opinion of Mr. Payton’s theory involving thievery of the jazz audience, or ears.

    We live in a somewhat free society that allows choices, especially regarding one’s choice of entertainment.

    It is my humble opinion that the mainstream of black folks are mostly attracted to the more attractive and fashionable forms of black music . . . R&B and Hip Hop, and for obvious reasons, God’s music, the Gospel.

    If you are a brother or a sister, trying to make a connection, you will have much more luck doing so at an R&B, Hip Hop venue, or at Church on a Sunday morning, than you will at a jazz club (or Bam Club as Mr. Payton would say).

  4. Ron Gill says:

    I have a white friend who is from South Africa, a musician, not jazz, and resides in Boston. He responded to this conversation. I will like to include it on here when I publish my blog next time. Just waiting for his permission to use it.
    Ron Gill

  5. Ron Gill says:

    Jazz is?

    My good friend, Williard Jenkins, has a blog he has had for many years, called Open Sky, and one of the open discussions he has been having concerns the music of jazz and it’s lack of a Black audience. Here are a few comments from that discussion and some emails and from my point of view.

    Open Sky Jazz | With Open Sky Jazz, the possibilities are endless, just like the music.

    The reference to the question of where the term ‘jazz’ is relative in today’s world and where has it gone and how we can recapture it is one that is elusive not only today but in years past. Recalling an article many years ago in a Down Beat Magazine interview in where Betty Carter remarked that she saw less and less Black people in her audiences. That awareness has been evident not only in Black audiences but in White audiences as well. White audiences I had conversations with became aware of it especially when they were attending performances years ago with Black performers, like Harry Belafonte or Sammy Davis. Many remarked to me, why don’t we see more Black people in audiences where major artists like Harry and Sammy perform? So, I think there are many answers rather than just a few.

    Natalie Bullock Brown sees it as an integration of audiences. An argument can be made that could be an answer, but I don’t think so. That’s too easy. Sure, our involvement with other races may make us change our habits and our tastes as well, but what has that got to do with our music? And, who influences who when it comes to listening to jazz?

    There has been much discussion about how and where that audience hears jazz, creative music, or Black American Music. There are night clubs, a disappearing breed, concert halls, and other media outlets like Television. And where are the audiences going to hear these concerts. There are community outlets, museums, local community halls and venues, where not only local musicians perform it, but name artists are brought in as well. This effort is to make artists performances affordable and to give them an audience that they don’t usually have.

    I think that the reason jazz has lost much of its audience, and remember, jazz has not gone away and never will, it just has to find itself and a new place, a new venue. There is a new approach to how jazz is marketed, performed, produced and exposed today. There are no mangers per se in the music business today. Jazz artists produce their own recordings, whether they are producing themselves or others producing and recording them. In todays world, jazz artists and musicians and singers market their own recordings, selling them at performance venues, and wherever the audience is at their performances. So, where is jazz as we knew it? It’s in a different place, not available in many local record shops as we know them, because there are no record shops in todays marketplace.

    Then there are the artists themselves, who are a mixture of ethnicity, and who are influencing the music from their own ethnic backgrounds. The exposure to jazz as we know it has changed. Therefore, we, the audience has to learn to change with it, to grow with it. But, it needs to be exposed to a general audience, and it needs an outlet.

    Jazz music in the hands of a Dizzy Gillespie or a John Coltrane had to grow. It had to grow because its evolution depended on the masters that created that music. Sure, those of us who were dependent on that music thrived on it because Dizzy, Miles Davis and John Coltrane were continuously creating it and improving on it. It was fresh as a new haircut, and it was exciting. It still is.

    A comment that Allyn Johnson stands out, in her reference to attending a public event, where a local farmer gave a LARGE dinner at a pig pull in South Carolina, and “not an ounce of music was presented” at the event where there was a large audience. Case in point, that event was for all the important people as a thank you gesture for their support from the farmer. And while the food was delicious having music should have been a part of it. Maybe even a performance by a local performer or band. Maybe a jazz band?

    To close, many comments in the mail bag related to past experiences with the use of classrooms, colleges and the like. The fact that past generations failed to expose their children to jazz, well, that may be true, but the time is now. There are wonderful and many jazz artists that are performing in as many venues that they can. Expose your children, your friend, your co-worker, and whomever is in the sound of your voice, to the jazz you love. The older generation of jazz artists that are still with us are continuing to make great music and the young people who are out there alongside with them are doing the same. All they need is the support from you and to make whatever contribution you can provide, and whatever it is called, Black American Music or just jazz, is less important than what is being played. Jazz is, alive and well.

    My new blog will have a response to this discussion when I post it in the net issue.

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