Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The color of memory

As have been rightfully linked throughout the jazz blog world, Mwanji's two essays on jazz and race are fantastic and important reading. I want to touch on a tangent of it that comes up in Matana Roberts' blog, especially in the comment from Jaleel Shaw. He writes:
I believe there are many reasons why we don't have more blacks at our shows. One is education. When I look back to my education in the public school, I wasn't taught about my culture at all. When I think about most of my fellow students, most of their parents weren't either. When I was coming up playing the horn, almost all of my music teachers in public schools were discouraging. They tried their best to make me quit and definitely didn't want to see me make it. ... So if most of the kids today aren't taught about their culture, their music, where are they going to go? What are they going to gravitate to?
There's two points in here that need to be addressed: the lack of respect or awareness of cultural history; and the accessibility of the music.

On one of my recent trips to NYC, my hostelmates were a bunch of gangly Swiss teenage (or early-20s) males. They were graffiti artists, with an arsenal of spraypaint bottles and Sharpie markers, sketching on pads at every turn. They were also avid hip-hop listeners, having gone on a crate-digging trip earlier in the week and playing tunes from their iPods when I got to the hostel. I asked them about the popularity of hip-hop culture in Europe, and they said that it was more popular there than in the States. Now, I'm talking about the totality of hip-hop culture here, the four elements that KRS-One and the rest of the old-school refer to: breakdancing, MCing, DJing, and graffiti. (The debatable fifth element would be beatboxing.) The Under Pressure festival here in Montreal every summer is essentially a block party celebrating those four elements, and at the best of times the crowd is half-and-half, but predominantly white. This is not a rhetorical question, this is one I would love an answer to: what has gone on in black communities that has prohibited them from respecting, admiring, and honouring their own cultural history?

MuchMusic (the Canadian relative of MTV) runs a 30-second spot every Black History Month, flashing the faces of pioneering black artists in jazz, soul, hip-hop, and rock. The idea is that without them, there would not have been any of these genres. It closes with a black kid saying "No way," and fades out to "kNOw the history." It's a travesty that anyone would have to be reminded of Prince's or Hendrix's contributions to modern music. At a certain point, it ceases to be strictly Black History and is more generally History, that shouldn't have to be relegated to a certain month. Christian McBride and ?uestlove both worried, in the wake of James Brown's death, that younger generations will remember Mr. Brown through Eddie Murphy's impersonations. James Brown was and is the lifeblood of so much music - funk, soul, and hip-hop to name but three - that it seems like a ludicrous possibility to me, but it may be a reality.

Shaw also brings up your boy, Flavor Flav, indulging in various incarnations of "minstrelsy" reality-TV style, in the 21st century, and Matana argues that he's essentially tarnishing the legacy of Public Enemy. I agree. Chuck D is still active, but on the fringes; Flav is a household vision, Viking helmet, clocks and all. Shaw and Roberts raise the question: can we no longer recognize minstrelsy? Do we no longer care? Why do so many hip-hop videos propagate the clich├ęs of bling and sex, and any MC with real things to say gets lumped in the "conscious" camp? And this is in hip-hop, the lingua franca of modern African-American culture for 20-odd years. It doesn't bode well for jazz.

I remember something Branford Marsalis wrote a while ago, on his website I believe, essentially saying that jazz was something upwardly-mobile black people were supposed to like once they reached a certain age. That very well may be true, and it would also explain the "'black jazz is stuck in the mainstream and/or past' sentiment." There's a certain type of jazz upwardly-mobile 40-something Blacks are supposed to gravitate towards, and young Black avant-garde artists don't fit that bill.

The second issue is one of accessibility, which I've written about before. Never mind the interest or ability (or lack thereof) to teach students the history of African-American music, instruments cost money. Music lessons cost money. Conservatory training costs a lot of money. LaTasha Diggs responds to Matana's post saying that she had to pass on the Alice Coltrane concert because it was too expensive. Yes, artists should be paid, but I'll reiterate my belief that cover charges plus drink minimums add up to a cost that can be prohibitively expensive for the most interested listeners. It's necessary to supplement these concerts with lower-cost community involvement, like going to the high schools or community centres or whatever the case may be. If the listeners won't come to the musicians, the musicians need to go to the listeners. I remember in elementary and high school we would sometimes have visiting performers that would put on shows that dealt with some sort of knowledge or awareness. From what I've read about Matana's Coin Coin project, a modified version of it would be fantastic in schools. Jazz has to get out of its non-social aspect and engage its communities. That's where the AACM has succeeded.

1 comment:

Dan said...

Nice post David. Community involvement is huge - the Jazz Institute of Chicago puts on free concerts in the park district throughout the year with the best local talent from Chicago represented. Still, the crowds are middle aged to elderly, with a few exceptions. I think another big barrier in terms of youth audience development are the crucial musical taste development years of 16-20, during which kids are too young to get into 21+ clubs where a lot of the music is being made, in the US at least.