Race Continues to Undermine Jazz’s Future

IS JAZZ BLACK MUSIC?, "Where does jazz come from, to whom does it ‘belong’ and is this important?," as advertised publicly by Jazz at Lincoln Center (now on Columbus Circle), polarized some and infuriated many attendees of this "JAZZ TALK," a presentation of the Irene Diamond Education Center, January 31, 2008. As Moderator Lewis Porter, a Professor of Music and author, explained that he purposefully titled the topic as an issue to provoke inquiry and at the same time disavowed the statement as his opinion.

Panelists were well chosen and insightfully represented their positions. On Mr. Porter’s right was Don Byron, a prolific musician/composer, artist-in-residence, educator with Daniel Carter, a reed, flute, trumpet player also well known as Danny for his work with "Other Dimensions in Music" and "Test." On Mr. Porter’s left, the Village Voice’s most productive international POLITICAL analyst Nat Hentoff, who in 2003 "received the first NEA Jazz Masters Jazz Advocate Award as a critic."

Audio dialogue from a 1959 movie that included "Negro" in the scripted conversation included the question, "Were they or were they not the creators of jazz?," established the tone for this evening’s presentation. Nat Hentoff answered first by relating what Duke Ellington told him. Duke went to Fletcher Henderson and suggested replacing "Jazz" with "Negro" so that their music would be identified as an ethnic music. Hentoff also stated that there is a difference between the "Originators," like Louis Armstrong, Lester Young, Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, and "Originals" who became well known for their recordings. Daniel Carter injected, "Anyone can get inspired." Don Byron reported his observation: "Blacks have a special relationship . . . that comes out of speech and the way we walk . . . a special kind of musicianship," emphasizing "the idea to steal ownership is a nasty impulse". . . . "A lot of technology (borrowed from black performers) in film was used to make and elevate white performers." Fred Astaire was mentioned as an example. Mr. Hentoff corroborated by describing knowledge of white vs. black recording contracts. Don Byron attempted to close the issue by stating: We (meaning he spoke for all blacks), let’s call it ‘ethnicity’ not ‘Race’."

However, the nature of the discussion continued along historically familiar lines as panelists added well intended and educational information. Hentoff was first to state that many classical composers transcribed and performed compositions and that Ellington listened to sounds during his international travels and put their influence into his music. "Charlie Parker loved Country music." Mr. Hentoff concluded, "it’s the individual." Continuing that theme Mr. Byron described that in today’s colleges "players are listening to Michael Brecker and are not looking back at all."

Lewis Porter posed the issue of whites writing about blacks? Nat Hentoff grabbed the subject and described his experience as New York’s Downbeat correspondent citing that there were no blacks on the Chicago staff and that he was fired ostensibly for hiring a woman of color for his office. He reported feeling "liberated." From that point on he would "write as a fan, not as a critic."

The audience posed questions for the panel. The first, posed by this writer, addressed the words "Jazz" and "Black" by suggesting that indigenous Caribes from the Caribbean and Native American Indians must have contributed to the creation of the music in New Orleans before the Civil War and before 1917 when the word jazz was first used on a sound recording. Mr. Hentoff agreed about including indigenous people as did Mr. Porter but Mr. Porter describing that his scholarly research revealed that "Jazz" first appeared in print in reference to baseball.

Although the provocative title may have brought out a sold out a house and many African-American attendees, the senior publicist Phoebe Jacobs demonstrably commented afterwards that its inclusion substituted for many other worthwhile subjects.

The next Lewis Porter moderated session will be with Randy Weston, a musician committed to the heritage of Africa. The next panel titled, "Hoofin’ It Jazz and Tap" will bring Harold "Stumpy" Cromer, Jared Grimes and Stephanie Larriere to JALC on Columbus Circle. Catch what’s happening online at www.jalc.org.

Daniel Kassell
Member, Jazz Journalist Association
© 1/31/08 All Rights Reserved

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Professor Lewis Porter
Dan Kassell

Dan Kassell expands his curiosity by attending concerts, conventions, lectures and movies to take note of the History of Jazz from the indigenous Caribes in the Caribbean to Algiers New Orleans, Chicago and New York. As a member of the Jersey Jazz Society since 1972 he's witnessed musicians who learned from jazz's founders. Reviews also appear in AllAboutJazz.com, Amazon and BarnesandNoble.com and historically in AllAboutJazz-New York, Mississippi Rag or Jersey Jazz since 1972.

First inspired by Thomas "Fats" Waller playing "Your Feet's Too Big," Benny Goodman's 1938 Carnegie Hall Concert, Louis Armstrong solos, Duke Ellington's Famous Orchestra and Bob Wilber with Marty Gross and Kenny Davern's Soprano Summit he's also became fascinated by the spontaneous improvisation of Free Jazz while working on publicity for Chico Freeman.

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