Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Black History, Black Culture, Black Audiences, Black Lives

I have to first apologize for not being so much of a blogger lately. I'll try to get better at doing more posts, but I honestly can't promise it. The more I get into playing this music, the more I realize I have so much to learn and very little time to do so. But again, I will try... thanks for being patient... 

The reason for this post, is to respond in full to a post by a fellow musician, the great pianist Ethan Iverson. I've been listening to Ethan's playing since I first heard him with the band "The Bad Plus". From there I went on to find him on recordings by Reid Anderson (one of the first bassist I used when I first started my band in Philly at the age of 15), and the great drummers Billy Hart and Tootie Heath. 

I’ve always been into reading blogs and I’ve been following Ethan Iverson’s blog “Do the math” for years now. He recently did a great post on the movie “Whiplash” that caught my attention. I hadn't seen the movie and was wondering why I was so apprehensive when it came to it. Ethans post pretty much summed up why I didn't want to see the movie.  But near the end of his post, I came across these two paragraphs, which I honestly read probably 5 times before I finished his post:

Nobody in jazz these days plays to predominantly black gatekeepers or audiences, whether in the clubs or in the schools. It's essentially an esoteric art music for those who love it, everybody welcome - because we truly do need every goddamn fan we can get!

Naturally, the more black people involved the better. Unfortunately, when the topic of contemporary jazz is at hand, it feels like - although I don't know for sure! - many in black intelligentsia aren't that interested.

A few days after reading that, I was compelled to respond to Ethan, which I did on Twitter with these Tweets to him.

I read your post on Whiplash. Just wanted to address the part about "black intelligentsia not being interested"

For one, I think we have to remember there was a time when blacks couldn't use the same entrance to clubs as whites

If a club told me I had to use a separate entrance, I still wouldn't want to go to that club once things changed.

We also have to remember that there used to be clubs in black communities (like Harlem) that blacks went to & even owned...

Of many things that have changed, It's very clear that there aren't many "jazz" clubs in black communities any more.

We also have to consider education. I never learned about "jazz" or anything that had to do with my culture in grade school.

Luckily I had a mother that was into this music & exposed me to it & other styles of music at a young age.

In school, the (meant to say we) learned about Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart.

I love Bach, but looking back, I wonder why I wasn't taught about Bird, Ellington, & other American musicians in school.

I was a music ed. major at Berklee. When I went to do my student teaching I noticed the urban schools had no music classes.

Meanwhile, the suburban schools were learning all about Ellington, Monk, Armstrong and other American musicians/composers

Almost all of the suburban schools I visited didn't have many if any black students. The urban schools were all black.

I can't say this is exactly why "many in the black intelligentsia aren't interested" in jazz, but I think it's beyond a start.

I wish I would've responded via this blog first instead of posting all of that  on twitter, but hey, here I am now. And I'd like to explain every tweet I sent if they aren't clear.

For one, I have to I believe there are many different things that play into why there may not be many african americans/blacks in the audience at "jazz" shows and why it may be perceived that most black people aren't interested in the music. There have been many responses to this question. From the music becoming stagnant, to the location of the clubs, to how the music relates to black culture today.... It's definitely been a topic for a while now. At least it has amongst the black musicians.

I have to start by saying that I'm from Philadelphia. And throughout my early stages as a musician, I  always played to a diverse audience that not only included many different races, but also included many different age groups. In fact, I can't remember seeing anything BUT diverse audiences every time I've performed in Philly up until now. Though all of that seemed to change once I left Philly. I'm not sure why that is. I do know for sure that Philadelphia is a special place, but is Philly less segregated than other cities around the world?? And do more people know about jazz in Philadelphia than other places in the US? Maybe. 

So why is it that we don't see african americans/black people in jazz clubs and why does it seem like some of us aren't interested in it? I'd like to first talk about black history/culture in schools.

 I was a dual major in music education and performance at Berklee College Of Music. During my second to last semester at Berklee, I visited many schools inside and outside the city of Boston to decide which 2 schools I was going to go to do my student teaching. While researching the schools in Boston, I was surprised to find that some of the schools in the urban communities didn't have a music class at all, while the suburban schools not only had a music class, but were teaching their students about the great composers and musicians in American history. And I'm talking about Black American composers and musicians like Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, and John Coltrane....! It was amazing.

   When I look back at my education in Philadelphia, I wasn't taught very much about my history as an African American in grade school or high school. I received history lessons about my culture at home from my mother and from the many great mentors and teachers I had OUTSIDE of the Philadelphia school system. That goes for Black art, music, and literature as well. Luckily, my mother was (and still is) a huge fan of jazz music and was listening to John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Pharaoh Sanders, Miles Davis, and more before I was even born. So I was exposed to that music as a child and continued to learn about it as I began playing the saxophone. But where would I be or who would I be if my mother hadn't been exposed to that music or her culture and history? I can surely tell you I would not be here typing this very post right now if it weren't for everything I've learned from her.
  The truth is, if a child is not getting exposed to his/her culture and history at home and isn't getting it from school. Where is he/she going to get it? How can we hold him/her responsible for getting that information? My answer?  We can't. The sad thing is, in situations like this, it becomes a cycle. And if that child grows up and has children that get the same education at the same kind of school that he/she did, the history becomes lost and that child grows up not truly knowing about his/her culture and heritage and how great it is.

To go even deeper into this, I have to say that I believe black history and black culture is not only important to the black community but is important to our country (and the world) as a whole. When I think about what happened in Ferguson, Missouri with Mike Brown and in New York with Eric Gardner,  I wonder what the police officers responsible for those deaths learned about black culture and history when THEY were in school. Or if they were even exposed to anything that had to do with a Black man outside of what they may have seen on TV or in the movies. 

If everything those officers saw about black culture came from TV or the movies, that means 9 times out of 10, they've only been exposed to negative portrayals of  black men and nothing but stereotypical figures that paint us as uneducated, violent people who's lives aren't worth much and don't have a future. There's definitely tons of that in the media. I don't think those police officers were exposed to the great African Americans that help build this country. Or about slavery and how it was one of the most horrendous things to happen in the history of this WORLD. Or about the great black leaders that fought to end slavery. The civil rights movement....  About the great African American inventors that are responsible for so many things that we all need in every day life.... About the great writers like James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, and Lorraine Hansbury...  Or the great composers and musicians like Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Billy Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus and others that have influenced and inspired people around the world.

The truth is, black culture/history is American culture/history. And it's not taught in most schools. At least not in this country. There are some people that are given the opportunity to attend schools that include black culture and history in their curriculums, and there are those that are fortunate to have parents that teach them about black history and exposed them to the culture. But I truly believe that until it's taught in all schools and is considered as important as the other parts of American history that ARE taught in schools, we can not expect to see more diverse audiences or expect more people to be interested in jazz music anytime soon.

Lastly, I would like to discuss my tweet about the history of black people in clubs. I've always tried to imagine what it was like to perform in a club that didn't allow you to use the front entrance. And how it may have felt for blacks that wanted to attend a show where they had to use a different entrance than the one the white patrons used. I didn't live in those days, but I don't think those days were that long ago.  I personally can't imagine wanting to go anywhere that made me use a separate entrance than everyone else, let alone perform in one. 

As I say that, I know I would've been in trouble in those days based on the fact that it wasn't only clubs that didn't allow blacks to use the same entrances or bathrooms back in the day. I probably would've had to stay home most of the time to avoid being angered by those discriminating boundaries. But maybe like everyone else, I would've dealt with it if I was around during those times. I often wonder how many people were put off by those rules to the point that they didn't want to go to any clubs to see live music back in those days, but the truth is, many black people had to use separate doors and bathrooms almost every time they stepped out of their own doors. And the African American community has continued to go to the movies, go to restaurants, and go see concerts by artists of other genres today. So maybe I don't really have an argument when it comes to Black people not going to jazz clubs because of that part of history.

 There is one thing.. I've spoken to some of the masters of this music that were around during those times, and they all remind me that there was a time when there were many clubs in Harlem and other black communities. I've also been told that there were indeed more diverse audiences Uptown back then. Some of the clubs even had blacks owners. But when all of the black owned businesses in Harlem and the other black communities disappeared, that included many of those clubs and their black patrons. Which to me means that maybe we would see more black people in jazz clubs if there were more jazz clubs in the black communities...

To conclude, I believe it all boils down to exposure and education with this music, this history and this culture. I myself came to this music by being exposed to many different styles of jazz. And I'd be lying if I said I liked all of them at first. Some took time to grow on me, others I got hooked to immediately, while some are still growing on me to this day.

 So what can you do to help spread the word about this music?? Buy a friend a recording of something you think he/she may like, or take that friend to a show that you think he/she may be into.. Parents - take your children to performances and expose them to as much music as possible and buy them recordings too. And If you can, buy your child a musical instrument (I personally think everyone should learn to play something at some point in their life), have them take lessons, and expose them to the masters of that instrument. Who knows, you may be responsible for the next jazz master, next jazz journalist, or next huge jazz fan. Push to have more black history classes in your child's school. Write your representatives and let them know this is an important issue to you... So that your child can know the true story of America. What's most important is that you'll be giving someone a chance to better understand this culture and it's history, which is something I think more people need to do today.