What's Your Take: Is Racism Still an Issue in Jazz?

What's Your Take
Is Racism Still an Issue in Jazz?

by Willard Jenkins

copyright © 2003 Willard Jenkins

The recent [spring-summer] hullabaloo over Stanley Crouch's dismissal from his JazzTimes column raised some prickly issues that continue to haunt us, despite naive contrary protestations and observations. Yes, racism remains an issue in jazz. The hysteria and vitriol pitched in Crouch's direction throughout his tenure at JazzTimes, and particularly in response to his dismissal, was quite visceral and somewhat disturbing in the aggregate.

But this is not a Stanley Crouch apologia, just an observation of some essential questions that continue to dog this art form and which his 15 minutes of JazzTimes controversy once again brought to the surface. Lost in the firestorm subsequent to Crouch's sacking were several points he made about the general jazz condition, points in which even African American jazz practitioners and observers who had long ago dismissed Crouch's various pronouncements as those of a perpetually "frustrated" musician, found a certain agreement.

Chief among them was an element which African American observers of this art form have always found irritating: the sudden premature elevation of white jazz artists, most often while they are still quite green, as purveyors of the next great movement in jazz. Dave Douglas has become a convenient poster child in these discussions; however he is a proven, exceptional artist. The most recent examples of this inflated reportage and collective anointing as the hippest flavor of the month are such greenhorns as Jane Monheit, The Bad Plus, and Peter Cincotti.

Such cogent observations from Crouch unfortunately got lost in the foggy glasses of many in the jazz community's patent dismissal of Stanley as Wynton Marsalis' erstwhile Boswell. Writers such as Stuart Nicholson and Terry Teachout are among the publicists of this flavor-of-the-month club. Does anybody recall Nicholson's overheated elevation a few seasons back of a few Nordic jazzers as the only real happening thing in jazz? Have any African-American jazz writers ever been given such a platform to postulate on the next big thing? Nicholson's predictions not only graced the pages of Jazz Times, but also the New York Times. The dearth of African-American staff jazz writers at daily newspapers and monthly jazz specialty magazines is yet another crying issue. Of course nowadays when black folks raise these issues, we're accused of "playing the race card," which has become an all too convenient dismissal of these and other very real considerations of racial conditions in jazz. Yes, Jim Crow lives, he has a thirst for jazz, and no blizzard of ignorance or avoidance is going to bury his miserable ass.

Several years ago neo-con commentator D'Nesh D'souza wrote a particularly specious book titled The End of Racism that suggested that indeed that particularly ugly element in our society had ceased to be an issue. From the same pipeline came Abigail and Stephen Thernstrom's book America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible. The otherwise quite thoughtful and reasonable Down Beat magazine editor Jason Koransky dismissed the suggestion that racism continues to play a role in jazz criticism as cited by African American writers who were polled by Daniel King for his Village Voice follow-up piece on the Crouch controversy. Several black writers, myself included, lamented the flavor-of-the-month factor that still operates in jazz writing. Koransky wasn't having it: "That's totally ludicrous," he countered. Perhaps still feeding off the leftover warmth from the Crouch firestorm, in his July editorial column First Take, Jason wrote: "I've had so many discussions with musicians about how they choose with whom they make music, and the answer almost always rings the same: Simply, they collaborate with those who can play. Forget race, sex, religion and so forth." His next line, which struck me as something of a variation on the racism-is-dead canard: "It's 2003, and we've progressed beyond such backwards thinking."

Rather than write an op-ed piece on the festering sore of racism in jazz, I took a poll of non-white jazz musicians, writers, and educators, all of whom are out of the mainstream, all of whom are keen observers beyond their own personal pursuits, some of whom you may not be familiar with. I asked the simple but pointed questions Have we progressed beyond considerations of race in jazz? Is there racism inherent in the media coverage of jazz? Here's their take.

Jeri Brown, vocalist-educator (Halifax, Nova Scotia): "We have not moved beyond considerations of race in jazz. As one of only two full-time processors of jazz in Canada the issue of racism in jazz affects me daily. As a black jazz vocalist I always take pride in knowing I come from a legacy of black vocalists who were ferocious leaders and entertainers of the highest caliber. Their histories paved my way.

On a recent radio panel discussion I was the only black panelist among a sea of blondes and brunettes, all claiming homage to the art form of jazz. A strong consensus was struck from the majority that jazz should be colorless and genderless. They all agreed that jazz should be absorbed by audiences while wearing 'blindfolds'! I experienced a new kind of playful rage when I sat with this talented group of female artists and show hosts at varying stages of their careers. I spoke eloquently as a veteran black jazz vocal artist educator and made thought provoking points which were not too offensive. However, when I left the stage I grew 'hotter' by the second as I recalled the morning event. I was alarmed by the lack of history that these individuals associated when speaking about women in music, let alone women in jazz. It seemed that they wanted to disassociate themselves with cultural or gender [considerations] in order to be free to 'create music,' I fear that the cultural component of jazz is being swept away and ignored, leaving a void that is being filled by a media marketed 'cultureless free for all' group of artists who may be selling records but who are killing an art form!"

Eric Gould, pianist-composer-producer (Cleveland, OH): "How could we have moved beyond consideration of race a mere 40 years after African-Americans were given the right to vote (again), 35 years after we were given the right to fair housing (again), and while the African-American presence in positions of power and influence is still greatly out of proportion to our slice of America's demographic pie?

"There has always been a tension centered around the aesthetic of the music itself. Just as sure as Paul Whiteman was once the 'King of Jazz' and Benny Goodman was the 'King of Swing' the question of what defines 'good' in jazz has always been akin to a prom queen vote. How many white artists tried to emulate Coleman Hawkins in his day? How many tried to emulate John Coltrane in his day? Ahmad Jamal? McCoy Tyner? Illinois Jacquet? The point is that there have always been African-American artists who have operated from an aesthetic that totally embraces the African-American sensibility, yet is rejected by whites (until years later). Which raises the question of the comment by the Down Beat editor who said that in his experience jazz musicians concern themselves with those 'who can play.' Defining 'who can play' is subject to a great deal of cultural bias that breaks down largely along racial lines. Of course, to suggest that the criteria for evaluating the music should emanate from the culture that spawned the music would be interpreted as 'reverse racism.'"

To the question of racism in the media coverage of jazz, Gould asked rhetorically "How could there not be? I'm sure that most is of the benign variety and functions on a level that is easily rationalized away by an argument of competence. But the criteria by which music and musicians are deemed worthy of coverage is dictated by people whose development occurred outside of the culture within which jazz was created. While there are people that are attempting to advance the argument that jazz is a strictly American phenomenon that was developed by African-Americans and whites alike, the historical record speaks otherwise. Jazz emanated from the African-American community, and from an African-American aesthetic, and there have always been white artists who have become proficient practitioners of the art form, and who have to varying degrees adopted that African-American aesthetic. Sometimes though, the degree to which they incorporate the Euro-American aesthetic (which elevates harmony and melody above rhythm and places complexity of conception on a higher strata than pure soulfulness and swing) makes them more marketable to those media types who are more grounded in that perspective."

Dr. Nelson Harrison, trombonist-composer-arranger-entrepreneur (Pittsburgh, PA): "I not only choose to collaborate with those who can play, I often consciously try to use an integrated group when I can. Some may call it tokenism and perhaps it is, because it is a choice that involves more than whether the person can play, it is always a choice from among those who can play. Being a professional musician is not a parlor game of friends who like to play together. It is infested with the same racial dynamics that pollute American society in general. The editorial comment in Down Beat is not only naive but Pollyanna in that its author most likely thinks he sees reality in his purview when actually he sees a narrow slice from an institutionally biased perspective.

"If one looks into the history of jazz, much can be seen in the employment trends of the bread and butter marketplace. From Broadway to San Francisco, Chicago to New Orleans, blacks are struggling to maintain a voice in the music of their own culture. To illustrate that racism has disappeared is naive and simplistic. My 50 years in the music business has shown much camaraderie and some generosity but has not approached a true democracy at all. Sweeping generalizations like the Down Beat editorial statement are attempts to cure the cancer by ignoring the symptoms."

Karlton Hester, Director of Jazz Studies, UC Santa Cruz (Santa Cruz, CA): "We are never (ever) going to win this (racism exists in 'jazz') argument because those who oppose the notion will never (ever) allow themselves to be convinced of our perspective. The quantity and quality of evidence has no impact on the position those in opposition take who dig their heels in obstinately. European Americans can never play second fiddle to African Americans regardless of the facts. It's residual slave era mentality."

Fred Ho, saxophonist, composer, bandleader (Brooklyn, NY): "America remains a bastion of white supremacy. 'Jazz' bands are either all- or majority white or all-or majority black. Few reflect any sort of multi-cultural diversity as reflective of the larger U.S. society with perhaps the exception of my own ensembles (which have included over 20 years, Iranian Americans, Latinos, African Americans, European Americans, Asian/Pacific Americans, etc.). To assert that 'race' doesn't matter anymore is to claim that racism has, for the most part, disappeared. The contrary is the reality. The fact that musicians or artists can make such a misinformed claim goes to show how truly lacking they are in basic knowledge about social reality.

"Oppressed nationalities (so-called 'minorities' who are actually majorities in many urban centers) are underrepresented throughout the 'system' of jazz with the exception of artistic talent. The irony is that reactionaries like Stanley Crouch mouth anti-racism when it serves them, but attack the political struggles of anti-racism and for social justice, are still members of an oppressed nationality and thereby can't escape the social reality of that membership despite how much they might think and desire otherwise. We need to replace Crouch with the likes of Robin D.G. Kelley, Salim Washington, and other 'jazz' writers who are African American but without agendas and axes to grind and who are seekers of artistic ideas beyond the anointed and hyped."

Mark Ruffin, jazz journalist, broadcaster (Chicago, IL): "I never look at race when it comes to pitching [stories] or broadcasting music. Like musicians, I look and listen for what sounds good. My point in the Village Voice piece is that there is a white critical establishment that won't accept black jazz writers. I don't know of any black writer who was ever hired full-time by a big city daily to write on jazz [There have been some: Hollie West, Gene Seymour, Martin Johnson and Calvin Jackson come to mind; Ed.]. I've lived in Chicago all of my life and only white men have told Chicagoans what jazz is. Has there ever been a black editor at Down Beat, Jazziz, or JazzTimes?

"I firmly believe that a certain big city newspaper's jazz writer goes out of his way to verify white jazz artists who he thinks can play. When I look at the things he overlooks, compared to what he writes about, it boggles my mind, and that's the only conclusion I can reach -- he's looking for white dudes to promote. And just how do you explain the hype of the Bad Plus? I think they have a great name though, because they are bad and then some."

Ron Scott, jazz journalist (New York City): "Unfortunately racism is deeply woven into the fabric of American society and jazz is a mere microcosm that remains shackled to the train of bigotry that is linked to every institution in this country. The Down Beat [editor] was correct in stating that jazz musicians choose the best players regardless of color, sex or religion. I guess he never spoke to the many non-white musicians (which I have) that are upset because these same white artists they [once employed] went on to headline at the major clubs and concert halls, get all the publicity and cover stories in the major jazz and national publications. It's called institutional racism. So JazzTimes can fire a Stanley Crouch for whatever reason they please and white artists can be prematurely elevated to greatness well before their time. This is all part of America's 'great white hope' syndrome. Isn't this conversation rather dated or have we really progressed?

"How many blacks are staff writers at jazz publications, own major jazz clubs, [are] artist managers, executives at record labels or concert promoters? Obviously blacks aren't running the jazz store, they're performers! Which leaves whites in charge of jazz, America's only true art form that came from the souls of black musicians. The forum is open, now is the time for honest discussion."

Still think this is a dead issue, we've moved beyond questions of racism in jazz and jazz journalism? What's your take?


Willard Jenkins is vice president of the Jazz Journalists Association. The JJA will conduct a panel on "Racial Considerations in Jazz Journalism" at the International Association for Jazz Education conference in New York City in January 2004.


C o m m e n t s

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John Litweiler October 15, 03

Jazz Notes came today with Willard Jenkins' cover story about racism in jazz. Here are some random thoughts: The one African-American editor at Down Beat in the last 40-odd years was Bill Quinn, who worked there with Dan Morgenstern in the late 1960s -- he came from Muhammad Speaks, where he'd worked with Leon Forrest, and he left Down Beat to, it was said, work for the Democratic National Committee and then teach at Howard University. Quinn was a valuable writer in his couple years at DB and it would be good to know where he is now, what he's doing. Don't know about the current DB staff, but during the '60s, '70s, and '80s there was a real urge to discover and publish black writers, and Barbara Gardner, LeRoi Jones (pre-Amiri Baraka), Brent Staples, Lofton Emenari, Roger Riggins, and others were active at various times. Bet ya that Jazz Times would love to have some prolific black jazz journalists these days. It seems there's long been far too few African-American jazz journalists presenting their perspectives. Ruffin, Emenari, and Rahsaan Clark Morris are the only ones I know of, among the 2 dozen or so jazz crix here in Chicago (the Defender used to have a reviewer who covered jazz intermittently, but he wrote more often about classical music). Maybe the best question is, why don't more African-American writers cover African-American art music? Your point about flavors of the month like Monheit, Cincotti, etc. is well taken. But David Douglas is a real musician and even though I prefer Bobby Bradford, Wadada Leo Smith, etc., I feel a bit sorry for Douglas after Crouch's attack. It's like Rush Limbaugh saying that Nicholas Payton or Roy Hargrove or Terence Blanchard or whoever else got all that publicity a few years ago because the media wanted a black trumpet player to succeed. Come to think of it, who's gotten more column inches in jazz mags, Douglas, Payton, Hargrove, Blanchard, or whoever? cheers, John

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