Gregory Thomas: Ain't But a Few of Us
AAJ: How would you react to the contention that the way and tone of how serious music is covered has something to do with who is writing about it?
Gregory Thomas (l) with Barry Harris (r)
GT: How serious music is covered is a matter of individual taste, depth of historical, aesthetic, literary and musical knowledge, native talent and disciplined application of all the above. These factors fluctuate, of course, among writers of varying backgrounds. How the music is covered also has to do with how the writer views his or her social and cultural function. I recently produced and moderated a panel discussion at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem that brought together jazz critics and scholars (Gary Giddins, Howard Mandel, John Gennari) and jazz musicians (Steve Coleman, Lewis Nash, Jon Gordon and Vijay Iyer) for a dialogue. I ventured a definition of the role of jazz criticism: to be a bridge between the artists, the art form and the public for the sake of education, publicity, and aesthetic evaluation. That's how I see my role, so that orientation grounds the tone and approach I take when I write about the music.
AAJ: In your experience writing about serious music what have been some of your most rewarding encounters?
GT: Getting to meet, interview and even become friends with musicians who play the music that most moves my soul has been extremely rewarding. Of course hearing great music live that I otherwise may not have been able to afford is another. When a reader says to me "I felt like I was there," I say to myself: "mission accomplished"! There is also a community of academics and scholars with whom I've interacted as a member of the Jazz Study Group at Columbia University. I'm grateful to Robert O'Meally for asking me to join in 1999, as I worked towards a doctorate in American Studies at NYU. (I decided not to pursue academia as a career.)
Last, but far from least are friendships and mentor relationships I've nurtured over the years that have jazz, and an abiding appreciation of black American culture, at the root.
AAJ: What obstacles have you run up againstbesides difficult editors and indifferent publicationsin your efforts at covering jazz?
GT: The main obstacle, other than those you've mentioned, is making a living covering jazz. So, like many others, I've had to supplement coverage of jazz with other work to support my family. Another obstacle has been getting due recognition in the jazz press about Jazz it Up! Though we had a little coverage in Downbeat and JazzTimes when we launched in 2007, since then the coverage hasn't been commensurate with what we've accomplished. Jazz it Up! is the only online TV series devoted to this music, and over the course of 19 half hour episodes we've garnered 3 million viewers online. That's jazz news that warrants coverage.
Ironically, the organization that produces and presents the Emmy Awards has recognized Jazz it Up!. In fall 2008, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences nominated Jazz it Up! for a Global Media Award in the Long Form Entertainment category. Not one jazz publicationonline or otherwisecovered this achievement.
AAJ: If you were pressed to list several musicians who may be somewhat bubbling under the surface or just about to break through as far as wider spread public consciousness, why might they be and why?
GT: Jonathan Batiste, a young pianist from New Orleans, is a charismatic, fresh voice on jazz piano. I'm also excited about pianist Gerald Clayton, who comes from a great family of musicians; his touch, taste and technique are superb. Dominick Farinacci and Theo Croker (Doc Cheatham's grandson) are two young trumpeters who deserve wider recognition for their fidelity to the tradition while attempting to forge new pathways. Vibraphonist Warren Wolf plays jazz and other genres of music with deep integrity and verve. He's a favorite of Christian McBridethat speaks for itself. Edmar Castaneda is an incredible harpist on the verge too; he plays the harp with a percussive virtuosity that is a wonder to hear and see.
AAJ: What have been the most intriguing new records you've heard this year so far?
GT: Benny Golson, New Time, New 'Tet;
Bobby Broom, Bobby Broom Plays for Monk;
Christian McBride & Inside Straight, Kind of Brown;
Cyrus Chestnut, Spirit;
Roy Hargrove Big Band, Emergence;
Vijay Iyer, Historicity;
Take 6, The Standard.
All Photos: Richard Conde