Gregory Thomas: Ain't But a Few of Us
AAJ: Do you think that disparity or dearth of African American writers contributes to how the music is covered?
GT: Sure, but I think we can only take that point so far. Most writers covering jazz readily admit the black American roots of the music, so that's a commonality. But there are different views on the value of certain styles or sub-genres, and so different emphases arise based on stylistic preferences. These and other factors such as those I detail later play an important role in how the music is covered as much or more than race.
As in politics, where race doesn't necessarily determine whether one is, say, liberal or conservative, African-American writers won't share the same opinions about the music based solely on their cultural identification. Anyway, white and other writers who don't identify as "black" still share in the values and expressive content of black American culture by a sort of cultural osmosis, because that blues idiom is in the very fabric, the fiber, of American society and culture writ large. If you consider yourself American... you part black too!
Willard Jenkins (l) with Gregory Thomas (r)
AAJ: Since you've been writing and broadcasting about serious music, have you ever found yourself questioning why some musicians may be elevated over others and is it your sense that has anything to do with the lack of cultural diversity among the writers covering this music?
GT: Yes, I have at times questioned why some musicians may be elevated over others. And though the back story is usually more complicated than a simple "race" analysis, race, being an omnipresent cancer in the body politic, does play a role. It's important to note that race and cultural diversity are actually two different thingsthe confusion between race and culture has been deadlybut I think it better to confront race in jazz to best move beyond it. Race is ultimately trivial and stupid but to transcend it we must face the illusion/delusion of race squarely; this is especially true in the era of Obama.
Record label and public relations support factor in such elevations, as does a need for some writers to find the "next hot artist." So many good jazz artists labor in relative obscurity that when they get some attention, I usually don't have a problem with it. Cultural diversity among writers will flower more perspectives, but not a consensus on which artists deserve to be elevated over others.
However, I don't agree with certain musicians being called "jazz" artists when they themselves will say, for instance, that they play "instrumental R&B." The way the term "jazz" has been marketed is problematic too, especially by festival promoters and the radio industry (i.e. "smooth jazz"). They endeavor to profit from the veneer and sophisticated brand of jazz while pulling in other genres to make more money than they could with jazz proper. That's business. Kenny G, for instance, is a popular pop/R&B instrumentalist, but when he is elevated by the mainstream press as a "jazz" artist due to record sales and radio play over, say, Kenny Garrett, the most influential jazz alto saxophonist of his generation, that's hype, not an accurate evaluation of genre or of artistic weight and authority.
Furthermore, I think there is an undercurrent of race in why artists such as Diana Krall, Chris Botti, and Norah Jones become popular performing a mellow, soothing, less-experimental style of music. They fill a niche in the music and radio industries and for certain market segments. But I don't criticize those artists for that: it's not their fault as individuals that the dumb idea of race is so entrenched that they benefit from white privilege as well as their musical style and talent as artists.
AAJ: What's your sense of the indifference of so many African American-oriented publications towards this music, despite the fact that so many African American artists continue to create serious music?
GT: Jazz is a fine art and most black publications focus on popular music. As Albert Murray says, the quality and range of aesthetic statement can be grouped into folk, pop, and fine art categories, for pedagogical purposes. Our celebrity and profit-driven society overall doesn't value fine art based on intrinsic or long-term value. If it doesn't have a big audience, then it won't be considered relevant to most black publications because they compete in a media field where popularity and celebrity trumps all.
This is especially sad and tragic because elder masters such as Hank Jones, Roy Haynes, Clark Terry, Wayne Shorter, Sonny Rollins, Phil Woods, Barry Harris, Charles McPherson, Jimmy Heath, Reggie Workman, Louis Hayes, Jimmy Cobb, Ben Riley, Benny Golson, Buster Williams, Jon Hendricks, Melba Joyce, Gloria Lynne, Ahmad Jamal, and Grady Tate are still on the scene. I could easily name 20 more living legends unknown to a wider black audience, or to the general public. The audiences consuming black publications are aware of Quincy Jones and Herbie Hancock, and even Wynton Marsalis, but they usually aren't hip to the just-mentioned senior giants. To re-phrase Carter G. Woodson, this is the mis-education of the black American. These artists should be revered and honored by black publications and media outlets as a cultural and ancestral imperative.
American Legacy magazine, for which I've written features on Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray, is one of the few African American periodicals I can point to that delves into the historical and cultural depths beyond pop culture and contemporary hype.
Oprah's fame and world-wide celebrity is larger than just a black audience, so she could reach that demographic and more. I wrote an open letter to Oprah in All About Jazz, inspiring her to have more jazz musicians on her show, not just as performers, but as commentators. Jazz musicians are some of the most worldly, sophisticated and smart people I know. Exposing wider audiences to jazz musicians as artists and as thinkers is one way to address the low cultural moment in which we find ourselves.
The public education system and the music industry are largely at fault for the current state of affairs, where a vicious cycle of mediocrity predominates.
It's incumbent upon those of us who love and value this music's contribution to this nation and the world to be more entrepreneurial. Your blog, Independent Ear, is an example of this. My online jazz news and entertainment series Jazz It Up! is yet another.