Racism: On the Notated Page As Well?

On the Notated Page As Well?

by Willard Jenkins

copyright © 2004 Willard Jenkins

First published in NewMusicBox

Racism, one of the ugliest of humankind's most base impulses, is a subject that is broached perhaps more frankly in the arts than in the corporate canyons, but it is never an easy discussion. In the last two issues of the Jazz Journalists Association's in-house quarterly, Jazz Notes, I raised several specters of racism in the print media corner of the jazz world. The first installment dealt with such matters as writer Stanley Crouch's summary dismissal as columnist for JazzTimes magazine, a complicated matter that has been detailed ad nauseum in the pages of JazzTimes, in Newsweek, etc. The party line is that Crouch was dismissed because the magazine was fed up with his missed deadlines and the tone of cronyism in his pieces.

But the controversy was made all the more provocative because Crouch is black and has for the last decade written with a particularly sharp neo-conservative bent. Some found it curious that his dismissal came on the heels of his questioning the media's elevation of white artists he finds questionable. Opposition to Crouch and his views seemed unusually coarse; response to his sacking a bit too gleeful. Though Crouch has written many things I disagree with, his summary dismissal as an agent provocateur/columnist is to put it mildly, rather fishy.

One central issue in the initial installment of my Jazz Notes column was what many African American jazz observers view with understandable skepticism as the relatively premature crowning of white jazz artists, often at the perceived expense of more worthy African American artists; the jazz media engaging in what to some is a flavor-of-the-month club mentality. Examples in recent times include such green and inexperienced jazz singers as Jane Monheit and Peter Cincotti; and on a grander scale the trio known as The Bad Plus. Testimony on these issues came from several non-white jazz artists. In the wake of that article, a panel discussion was rather hastily assembled for the annual International Association for Jazz Education (IAJE) conference in New York. The resulting ill-prepared (the writer was a panelist), train-wreck panel discussion did little to advance the dialogue and much to frustrate nearly all in attendance.

The following issue of Jazz Notes, in the "What's Your Take" column, included a thoughtful reader response to matters raised in the first editorial and at the IAJE panel discussion. The reader suggested: "There is a larger point and I believe this point is more poignant for jazz than in most other areas. No one questions the origins of jazz or who are its major innovators. [Jazz] was created by black folk (negroes, African Americans, Afro-Americans, people of African descent, take your pick, but from Africa by way of the middle passage, a little seasoning in the islands and the oppression of slavery swabbed by the oil of European instrumentation and southern plantation culture). Everyone agrees that the music is black in origin. However, the interpretation of the music has primarily been filtered through the lens of white folks. Very few black publications have been devoted to the music and those that have were not widely distributed or read. Said differently, the mainstream jazz media has been dominated and controlled by whites. In fact they have controlled the jazz music industry."

Let's spin this equation around a bit and shine the light on another music arena which black composers have increasingly contributed to over the last three decades. What happens to African American composers who step beyond the black aesthetic of their jazz writing to advance fully notated contemporary composition in the pan-European art music arena? Questions of racism arise concerning the profiling or pigeonholing of these composers. Why is it that in circles that might positively impact their careers, whether it's from the media, recording industry, philanthropic, presenting, or producing side, such composers are forever branded as "jazz" composers, despite the fact that their current work has drifted far afield from what is considered jazz? Is this branding a product of artistic/racial profiling? As with the letter writer's contention in Jazz Notes, in this case the perception of these composers is filtered through the white lens.

There are numerous examples of contemporary African American composers who exemplify this paradigm: David Baker, Fred Tillis, Leroy Jenkins, Roscoe Mitchell, Anthony Braxton, Anthony Davis, James Newton, George Lewis, Wendell Logan, Butch Morris, Billy Childs, Nicole Mitchell, and a host of others. Have their opportunities for commissions and performances of their fully notated contemporary music been stunted by their branding as "jazz" composers? Why are fellow white composers such as John Zorn, who has more than a little jazz-based experience, not thusly branded?

Several composers who've exhibited "crossover" proclivities, two of whom have written extensively on the plight of black composers, were sought for their take on this issue. Composer William Banfield is the author of Musical Landscapes in Color: Conversations with Black American Composers. Trombonist-composer George Lewis has contributed an extensive essay, for a forthcoming anthology, on the development of the Chicago-based African American experimental music collective The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), many of whose members have crossed freely between jazz orientations and pan-European art music. Flutist-composer Nicole Mitchell is likewise a member of the AACM.

Banfield spoke from a perspective of systemic perceptions faced by African American composers. "Black expression in art does not in the American art music definition calculate as art that matters. So, once a black person aligns themselves culturally with black expression, they run the serious risk of never being thought of as a 'classical musician', no matter their own diverse interests."

As Banfield continued, he raised the specter of one of the spiritual fathers of the modern composers who exemplify this sense of broader-based compositional expression, one that blurs the lines of demarcation between jazz and pan-European art music, the historic and under-recognized genius James Reese Europe. Here was a man who not only commanded a fighting black military unit during World War One, but whose members were also working musicians. Europe, a turn-of-the-century exemplar of a proto-jazz aesthetic whose expression varied from marching bands to concert halls, staged notated extended ensemble works by his Clef Club Orchestra at Carnegie Hall.

As Banfield suggests, "James Reese Europe was a great American music conductor. Will the band world ever look at James Reese Europe? Have we ever read anything significant about the groundbreaking work of the Clef Club Orchestra? The 'Black box' is always bigger than the American box, so it is our gift and our demise in terms of mainstream recognition and appreciation."

The dichotomy of improvisers entering the world of the fully notated score was a continuing theme of our exchange.

"The improvisation that creative artistry, particularly in jazz, has introduced as an expressive staple does not fit into the tradition, scope, training, instrumentation, and psychology of the European and American orchestra," says Banfield. The impact is largely one of perception - or more to the point mis-perception - which in turn breeds lack or loss of opportunity for the composer who works from such a broad canvas.

Nicole Mitchell, whose CD Afrika Rising features her Black Earth Ensemble representing the jazz corner of her expression, also sees improvisation as the heart of these misperceptions.

"Another reason that African American composers are 'race branded' is because of frequent use of improvisation in their works. The use of improvisation tends to be intimidating for 'classical' artists, and is assumed to be a 'black' style. Although improvisation is an art that goes to the core of jazz music, it also stretches beyond to many other methods of approach that are overlooked."

She went on to articulate the obvious catch-22 that black composers versed in jazz feel when addressing pan-European art music composition.

"I find myself caught in a complex situation of definers. On one hand, I embrace the idea that I am of the continuum of the 'jazz legacy.' I connect with African American people and am intent on being relevant and not estranged from a black audience. Yet and still, I understand the limitations that the name causes. There is a definite lack of respect that I experience as a composer and performer when I step outside of the 'jazz realm'."

The training of these versatile African American composers, particularly those who have arrived over the last three decades, has come in the conservatory. As Mitchell details, cutting to the core of this issue, "I was originally a classically trained flutist, who later learned to improvise. Since I made a name for myself as a 'jazz artist' it is a label that I cannot seem to escape. For example, I have written chamber pieces that had no intention of expressing a definitive 'jazz' approach. The musicians automatically tended to assume the phrasing in a 'jazzy' style. In these settings, because I am more known as a jazz artist, that fact tends to be played heavily in the program, where I would like to stand on my own, as just a composer."

George Lewis, recipient of a MacArthur "genius" grant and a composer who operates in both acoustic and electronic landscapes, has written a very penetrating and revealing article ("Experimental Music in Black and White: The AACM in New York, 1970-1985") chronicling the development of the AACM. This unique African American musician's collective, founded in Chicago in 1965, strongly encouraged original composition and has spread its influential tentacles across the globe. A paragon of experimental music, the AACM has fostered composition among its members that has crossed liberally between roots and improvisation-based music from the African American tradition, to fully notated pan-European art music. Lewis speaks very succinctly of the musical border-blurring of AACM composers, explaining, "To the extent that AACM musicians challenged racialized hierarchies of aesthetics, method, place, infrastructure, and economics, the organization's work epitomizes the early questioning of borders by artists of color that is only beginning to be explored in serious scholarship on music."

Starting in the 1970s and culminating in the '80s, many AACM composers migrated to New York; these included such prominent members as Muhal Richard Abrams and Leroy Jenkins. Composing jazz expressions represented only part of their approach. According to Lewis, "pursuing membership to varying degrees in a panoply of sociomusical and career networks, including those traditionally centering on high-culture 'art music,' AACM musicians in New York articulated a definitional shift away from rigidly defined and racialized notions of lineage and tradition, toward a more fluid, dialogic relationship with a variety of musical practices that problematized the putative 'jazz' label as it was applied to them."

Furthermore, Lewis clarifies that the AACM "represents an indigenous working-class attempt to open up the space of popular culture to new forms of expression, blurring the boundaries between popular and high culture. As African American musicians sought the same mobility across the breadth of their field that (for example) African American writers and visual artists were striving for, engagement with contemporary pan-European music became a form of boundary-blurring resistance to efforts to restrict the mobility of black musicians, rather than a capitulation to bourgeois values. AACM musicians felt that experimentalism in music need not be bound to particular ideologies, methods, or slogans."

In the end analysis, are African American composers who draw from the breadth of their experience - often across such musical boundaries as African American roots music, jazz, electronic music and broader ethnic expressions - and who bring their aesthetics to pan-European art music, subject to the same measuring stick and ultimate access as their white brethren, sans what we'll call artistic/racial profiling? There is no easy answer to this sense of branding or artistic profiling, only that it has proven to be yet another stumbling block to broader opportunities in the ongoing obstacle course faced by these versatile composers.

C o m m e n t s

Racism in notation? 1 of 5
David W.
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July 12, 04

This is a very valuable and timely article. The tension between proudly proclaiming the cultural/ethnic identity at the root of "Africanist" [to use Brenda Dixon's phrase] expression, and resisting the pigeonholing and stereotyping that often accompanies that very proclamation, remains problematic and oppressive (as Ms. Mitchell's comments eloquently express).

This paradox is no more evident than in George Lewis's own statement: "...AACM musicians challenged racialized hierarchies of aesthetics, method, place, infrastructure, and economics[;] the organization's work epitomizes the early questioning of borders by artists of color that is only beginning to be explored in serious scholarship on music... a definitional shift away from rigidly defined and racialized notions of lineage and tradition, toward a more fluid, dialogic relationship with a variety of musical practices that problematized the putative 'jazz' label..."

Lewis's very challenge to the "high"/"low" art dichotomy, along with his embrace of a dialogic and fluid approach towards aesthetics and semantics is, of course, at least arguably, "Africanist" in nature (cf. Samuel Floyd and others on the Ring Shout as the root trope of African Diasporan cultural expression). The term "classical," meanwhile, continues to imply a primarily Anglo-European perspective on such things (even Nicole Mitchell described her early musical training as "classical," suggesting a contrast with the music she subsequently embraced).

Thus it does seem as if another terminology is needed to describe the art of African-American (and other Diasporan) musicians, from James Reese Europe to the present day. "Jazz" has never been entirely appropriate, even though a lot of people who haven't been comfortable with it have ended up accepting it, in the absence of a someting better.

Perhaps we should be discussing that absence, and suggesting an alternative?

David W.

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