The topic of race, in jazz as elsewhere, has often been framed as a binary: literally a matter of black and white. We saw this in many of our intraweb debates last year, though of course the issue goes farther back than any of us can recall. The implicit dualism is understandable, and there's obviously still much work to be done along that divide. I stand with both Nicholas Payton and Ethan Iverson, among others, in the conviction that we can gain something vital by talking about it.
In that spirit, I've been thinking a lot this week about what doesn't fit into the binary, and how we might enrich our jazz-and-race conversation by acknowledging it. Before we proceed, two quick homework assignments. First, watch the clip above -- one of the smarter, subtler pieces of sketch writing we've seen from Saturday Night Live in ages. And while I'm assuming that you need no briefing on the subject of Jeremy Lin, "Linsanity," or sports-media Foot in Mouth Syndrome, I'm also going to insist that you spent a few moments with this excellent essay by Jay Caspian Kang.
OK, done? Now bear with me; this will get a little personal.
Part Three of a year-end email conversation with Angelika Beener, Aaron Cohen, Joe Tangari and K. Leander Williams. (Jump to: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5| 6|7 | 8 )
From: Angelika Beener:
Dear Nate, Aaron, Joe and Kelvin,
What a panel. Nate, I’m very humbled to have been invited to discuss this year in jazz with such an awesome group of folks. Hi, everyone.
I know that the older we get, the faster time flies, but 2011 was a whirlwind, and particularly so as it pertains to jazz. A couple of years ago, during my break from working in various capacities within the “industry”, I realized that what I really wanted to do was write about jazz full-time; unabashedly, free of politics, egos, and high-handed outside opinions (based on ego...did I mention ego?). The idea of finally having that kind of freedom was super appealing to me. Then it was just a matter of the right time to launch something. If 2011 wasn’t a blogger’s dream, then I don’t know what would ever be.
This was most definitely a year of groundbreaking happenings and ideas. My first interview of 2011 was with Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson of The Roots, and it happened on the heels of the 31-category axe from the Grammy board, or as I fondly refer to it, punishment for a Black woman with a ‘fro and a bass taking one of the highest honors.
Seriously, though. Steely Dan over Eminem. The Herbie win over Kanye West (though most opposers were smart enough to grit their teeth and clench their fists, rather than say something stupid or step out of line), and now this?
I guess we should have seen a temper tantrum coming down the pike. Steve Stoute’s whining open letter to the Grammy board, where he complained that they had “clearly lost touch with popular culture,” was like a glass of cold water to the face. Not the wake-up-call splash kind, but more like the extremely humiliating and embarrassing kind. Further, that a Black guy of his alleged status could be so unknowingly ignorant and disconnected from his cultural and artistic heritage spoke to a much larger issue. An issue that has, in some form or another, ironically been the hottest debate on the table over the last couple of months. (Insert shadow lurking).
I know what you mean, Nate, about hopes being stirred up by the Esperanza Spalding win. Mine were. I remember getting into a big hullabaloo via Facebook with folks who were appalled by her win. My argument being that whether or not the Grammy board got it right (I happen to think they did), the point was the great symbolism a win like this had.
Ten months later, I kind of feel like that’s all it really amounted to. A lot of symbolism for people who want to see it, but not much more. It’s like the Grammys quarter-backed jazz a great pass straight toward the end zone, but it’s a little too early perhaps to tell if it will result in a touchdown. Hopefully it will pay dividends beyond what the Norah Jones shake up produced some years back, which is likely since there seems to be more of an acknowledgement from Spalding, and less overall denial from the community at large that Spalding is a jazz musician. I guess time will tell. I love Norah Jones, by the way.
On the subject of the recent jazz debates, Aaron, I totally understand the desire to want to stay above the social media jazz face-off fray, and though the argument is age-old and perennial, I think the cast of characters made it compelling this time around.
To my recollection, it started during the summer with pianist Orrin Evans, who received a lot of backlash for saying (amidst yet another club shut down), that there should be more Blacks participating in business aspects of the jazz industry. Then on the musical side, you had Nicholas Payton challenging his peers, the younger generation, and critics alike to respect a certain level of non-manipulatable, fundamental aspects of jazz (or what he was calling “so-called jazz”, before recently settling on Black American Music) established by African Americans. This Evans/Payton one-two punch caught a lot of folks off guard. As it morphed and developed, it even caused contention between Black musicians.
Overall, I thought the whole thing was great. For the first time in a long time, the scene looked less like Black folks watching along the sidelines while the Ken Burns-esque, self-congratulating, so-called experts psycho-analyze them as if they are behind plexiglass, and more like a big family fight which happened behind closed doors, but the neighbors heard through the wall, if that makes sense. Never have things been so seditious, interesting and thought-provoking -- not in my generation. But then again, never (in my generation) has the dialogue been inclusive of so many perspectives. I think we have social media to thank in great part for that. From musicians challenging critics on diversifying their subjects, to critics challenging women to jump into the dialogue in larger numbers (thank you, Nate), to musicians challenging each other to renounce “jazz” as a colonialist concept, I think the broad inclusion of participants made all the difference in 2011.
Incidentally, have you guys seen this?
Inclusion creates a broader perspective and frankly just more stuff to talk about. I think that’s why folks who are casual or non-jazz fans are intrigued by all this. It’s tangible, it’s relatable to something outside of itself. I think jazz desperately needs this kind of flexibility in its dialogue. If we’re trying to gain new supporters of the music, the last thing we can afford to be is rigid in our conversations. No matter how intricate the music, if the talk around the music is interesting and inclusive, I believe people will give it a shot. People will give anything a shot if it’s presented in a way that has some familiar tent poles, and that’s where we come in.
Aaron, I could not agree with you more about where things stand creatively. Jazz is definitely on the upswing, and I think this notion will continue to manifest in 2012, like, majorly. I also love Jason Moran’s recent move to become the Kennedy Center’s artistic advisor. I think if anybody in this business of this generation understands the dire situation of jazz and lack of funding for education, it’s him. (His parents set up the Jason Moran Scholarship at his high school alma mater, HSPVA, very soon after his graduating, and it’s still going). Anyone with that type of personal understanding is an asset to any arts organization. I’m really excited to see where he takes things. There are also so many great albums coming out next year! But I won’t skip ahead, guys. But I will say this: If jazz is in need of a savior, I think Esperanza will end up being just one of them.
Part Two of a year-end email conversation with Angelika Beener, Aaron Cohen, Joe Tangari and K. Leander Williams. (Jump to: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5| 6|7 | 8 )
From: Aaron Cohen
First off: thank you, Nate, for inviting me to take part in this roundtable. All of you are writers who I admire a great deal, and I’m humbled to discuss these issues with you.
To tell the truth, I didn’t read Nicholas Payton’s blog postings until you brought it to my attention. I do have trouble keeping up with jazz blogs (except for this one) — editing a jazz magazine all day, you can imagine I’d want to read SOMETHING else by the time I get home. Anyway, his first posting was rather poetic (he clearly thinks about the rhythms of his phrases), but I really don’t get caught up in whether or not jazz is/isn’t dead, whether or not this or that person is/isn’t really a jazz musician. I’ve been hearing all that since I started getting into the music when I was in my teens (back in the 1980s). I just never found that discourse particularly interesting — it never enhanced, nor detracted from, my enjoyment of the music and it never broadened my understanding of the culture surrounding it. I can say that there is a lot of good and great jazz being recorded now — I receive at least 100 CDs a week (of varying quality, to be sure), and with only having room to review around 35 new releases a month, one can imagine all the work that I am unable to adequately cover. Meanwhile, I’m busy catching up with as many live performances as I can. Here in Chicago, I can find something interesting to see and hear at least three nights out of the week. So I didn’t feel that Payton’s postings infuriated or excited me in any way.
Anyway, to get back to the discussion of Esperanza Spalding, she is a great bassist and a talented singer/conceptualist. I wish she would play bass more, as that’s what I feel she is best at, but I’m also aware that had she stuck just to being a bassist, she would not be the crossover star that she is. (Yeah, I would’ve been one of those who would’ve advised Nat “King” Cole to stick the piano, where he was brilliant, rather than sing, since I preferred Billy Eckstine). As far as whether or not her success is because she has transcended jazz, or will bring more attention to jazz, I just hope that whatever attention she does receive will somehow encourage more funding for music education. Glad that she continues working in Joe Lovano’s group. And I also hope that she does collaborate with Janelle Monae (my wife and I love her).
As far as any siege mentality that jazz may be going through, or any sort of issues involving inclusion, exclusion or insularity, I think that may be more of a New York thing. Here in Chicago (where I’ve lived my whole life, except for college in Wisconsin), we tend to feel slighted in general. Really, controversy about [insert name of Manhattan jazz musician or institution here] matters to Chicagoans about as much as New Yorkers care about [insert name of Chicago jazz politics here].
So I’d rather just concentrate on music/musicians who I like, and this year has been filled with great, great stuff. I was fortunate to see Bill McHenry’s quartet at the Village Vanguard a few weeks ago, and they were terrific (though, sadly, that was also when I heard about Paul Motian’s condition, and his death was the worst jazz story of the year). I was also fortunate to see a number of longtime favorites representing different generations throughout 2011: whether it was Sheila Jordan (at Chicago’s Green Mill) or the Jimmy Heath Big Band (at New York’s Blue Note) or Eric Reed (at Chicago’s Jazz Showcase). I also was fortunate to steal away from the DownBeat booth at the Chicago Jazz Festival to catch Trio 3 + Geri Allen. Still and all, best concert I saw this year would’ve been Aretha Franklin’s first full-length post-surgery gig at the Chicago Theater in May. She infused every note with pure joy of being alive.
As I mentioned in the post above, with 100+ records coming in my mailbox each week, there are so many great ones. Let me first mention the current wave of young Chicagoans — Nate’s colleague Ben Ratliff has been giving much deserved attention to vibist Jason Adasiewicz, and his Sun Rooms’ disc, Spacer (Delmark), is inventive and much fun, as is bass clarinetist Jason Stein’s The Story This Time (Delmark), which brings a sense of joy and energy to the otherwise abstract Lee Konitz-Warne Marsh school. Wonderful compositions on Claudia Quintet’s What Is The Beautiful? (Cuneiform). Darius Jones’ Big Gurl (Smell My Dream) and his Cosmic Lieder with Matthew Shipp (both discs on Aum Fidelity) really caught me off guard. And there were a number of solid recordings from so many people I had been unaware of just a few years ago: Walter Smith III’s III (Criss Cross) and Tyshawn Sorey’s Oblique-I (Pi) come immediately to mind. So many musicians I’ve liked for a few years now are still cranking out thoughtful stuff live and on disc: Vijay Iyer, Matana Roberts, Jeff Parker, Russell Malone...
So, it’s all my way of saying, 2011 is ending with jazz in fine shape in terms of its creative end. There are only a few problems that can’t be easily dismissed, and these are economic: the inadequate funding for music education in the public schools is the most difficult. It’s also shameful that cities continue to use public financing to assist politically connected, large-scale, for-profit ventures rather than help make life easier for non-profit arts organizations and smaller scale music venues. This goes on in Chicago, and I’m guessing it’s also true in New York, New Orleans and elsewhere. But I’ll let my co-panelists weigh in here.
Part One of a year-end email conversation with Angelika Beener, Aaron Cohen, Joe Tangari and K. Leander Williams. (Jump to: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5| 6|7 | 8 )
From: Nate Chinen
Dear Aaron, Angelika, Joe, and Kelvin,
What was jazz in 2011? A righteous cause? A rigid custom? An inexact science? An irrelevant marker? How about a brave frigate in a roiling sea? Or a gray lump of clay, endless in its reshaping? Or a rotting plantation “haunted by its own hungry ghosts”?
One thing I can say with certainty is that jazz, or whatever you choose to call it, was something to fuss over. Blame Twitter, blame the Republican primary, but this was a year of meta-argument and counterargument, leaving many of us with, as they say, all this stuff twirling around in our heads. This was true even beyond our own scrappy guild, which busied itself with questions of qualification and inclusion (and, while we’re at it, unqualifiable exclusion).
No, the debate(s) reached much further this year, piquing the interest of those who would identify themselves as casual jazz fans, or maybe not even go that far. Given the usual in-house caviling about jazz’s dwindling support network, you might reasonably ask whether this uptick in public disputation — about the meaning of jazz, the meaning of “jazz,” and the issue of who gets to play and/or cover it — reflects some sort of inverse correlation. In other words: jazz today has fewer patrons but more partisans. Its base is constricting and getting meaner, as with polar bears on the melting floes, or diehard fans of Glee.
And yet the Year in Jazz was effectively book-ended by two significant broader-culture moments, the first of which we fondly recall with the image at the top of this post. As you all remember, Esperanza Spalding shocked Bieber Nation (and the rest of us) by winning Best New Artist at the Grammys. In the moments before her coup was announced, watching the telecast with my laptop open, unwisely T.U.I., I registered the stark implausibility of a win. Some hours later, chastened, working with the mirthless benefit of hindsight and sobriety, I registered the plain rationality of said win. What changed during that sleepless interval was merely my perspective, along with Spalding’s Q rating. What about the visibility of jazz, on a national platform? Eh.
Jazz in our present age is desperate for saviors, and Esperanza’s breakthrough stirred hearts and hopes. (How else to account for the fact that she just became the first-ever female Jazz Artist of the Year in the DownBeat Readers Poll? Jason, any insights? Angelika, any thoughts?) But this ambassadorship is complicated slightly by her music — especially on Radio Music Society, due out in March— and more than slightly by her pronouncements on the subject. I recently reread her New Yorker profile from March of last year, and came across a scene in which she name-checks Alex Ross’s invaluable 20th-century classical survey, The Rest is Noise. See here:
In particular, she was galvanized by something that Richard Wagner wrote in a letter to Franz Liszt. She dug out the Kindle that she’d been given for Christmas and read aloud: “‘I have felt the pulse of modern art and know that it will die! This knowledge, however, fills me not with despondency but with joy.’ She read on to the end of the passage: ‘We shall live only in the present, in the here and now and create works for the present age alone.’
“I relate that to how I feel about jazz music,” she said. “Music is intended to be for people. And circumstances and people change with the decades, and that’s O.K. And I think that’s what Wagner was saying, too. It was, like, ‘Let it go, let it breathe, let it move, you know? We’re trying to make music for the people.’”
Here’s where we come to the heart of the matter. So much of our recent discussion and debate was fed by a mounting anxiety — heh, I almost called it “panic” — over the art form’s alleged senescence.
Yet it’s telling, somehow, that Spalding’s interpretation of the Wagner note translates “die” into “breathe.” Isn’t this what jazz musicians do — what they’ve always done? An antiquarian repertory is routinely revivified in their enterprising hands. Under the best of circumstances, an established set of practices forms the basis for startling innovation. Jazz feeds on tradition, and ultimately, to some degree, on itself. Which might seem to justify any number of cautionary screeds.
I haven’t yet mentioned Nicholas Payton outright in this post, though he’s obviously been lurking in the shadows. No one in our world was a bigger provocateur in 2011, with the heat sharply intensifying in the last month. Whether making his original argument, combating general dissenters or taking umbrage at specificones, he’s been ruthless about his assertion that “jazz,” as most of us understand it, embodies a kind of systemic oppression. I’m not going to get into a granular analysis or rebuttal here — others have done it, exhaustively, and we only have so much time — but I do want to point out that even at his most incendiary, Payton seeks to ground himself in the lineage of what he calls (reasonably, if impracticably) Black American Music. “What do Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Max Roach, Abbey Lincoln, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Gary Bartz and myself share in common?” he asks. Another way to put it: ain’t no Bitches without Bitches Brew.
Am I alone in feeling that Payton’s main point is a weaponized version of Spalding’s? He seeks communion with the ancestry of his art form, while rejecting both the premise of due tribute and the burden of received wisdom (not to mention acceptable behavior). Spalding doesn’t distance herself nearly as much from “jazz,” but she does take pains to emphasize the fluidity of her relationship to it, and the breadth of her nonjazz interests. This is not unusual in 2011.
Which brings us to the cheers-and-jeers portion of this exchange. The year-end lists are starting to burble up to the surface — my favorite so far this one, by Seth Colter Walls — and I can’t wait to hear what you all found most impressive on record and in real time this year. (Also: most frustrating, most disappointing, most unexpected. Feel free to bring your own modifier.) My own Top 10 albums/songs will go up later this week, so I’ll save that for a later post. It’s a general-interest list, slightly different than the one that I sent in to JazzTimes and the Rhapsody poll, but if we’ve learned anything of late, it’s that genre isn’t a walled garden anyway, so much as an open field. (Joe, I suspect you have something add on that point.)
Earlier I alluded to two larger-culture events that bracketed the year, Spalding’s win representing the first. The second, with all due respect to Paul Motian, can best be summed up with this image:
I’d leave it there, on a note of inarguable splendor, but that wouldn’t much suit the tenor of this post, would it? So instead, allow me to tie up some strands with a resonant quote — from you-know-who, about you-know-who, with a hard jab at you-know-what: