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On and Off the Grid

What's The Point, Part 1

By Published: February 9, 2012
The Eighties and Beyond

In the mid-eighties, with the emergence of Wynton Marsalis
Wynton Marsalis
Wynton Marsalis
, jazz began to slowly reemerge and become popular again. Because of Wynton and many like him, the public began to be more enlightened and appreciative of jazz. There also started an argument over what jazz is and what it should be called. I personally think that these kinds of arguments cause a separatism that has become very divisive and has worked against the jazz community.

Coming up as a young jazz player, I watched black and white musicians working and recording together. There was camaraderie among them. If you played jazz and were really good, you were accepted, no matter what color you were. I played along side some of the greatest jazz musicians in the world and it didn't matter what my color was, but in the last twenty years that has changed. The Wynton crowd says if it doesn't swing "it ain't jazz." I play both straight-ahead and free, and I consider myself a jazz musician.

Wynton Marsalis

With some, the word jazz brings with it tones of racism and bigotry. Many of the jazz giants such as Max Roach
Max Roach
Max Roach
1925 - 2007
, Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
1899 - 1974
, Thelonious Monk, and many more hated the name "Jazz," but despite their efforts to change it, the name stayed the same. It seems every 20-30 years the same issue comes to the forefront. Recently Nicholas Payton
Nicholas Payton
Nicholas Payton
and a group of musicians want the name jazz changed to BAM (Black American Music) in hopes the new name will give Black America ownership of music and reign in a missing black audience. When I first saw the name I thought he was talking about The Brooklyn Academy of Music—BAM, as it's known in New York. What bothers me more than anything is if you call the music jazz and you don't agree with the word BAM, if you are white, you are a racist and if you are black, you are called Uncle Tom—not cool! I know Nicholas isn't a racist because he uses white musicians in his groups, so why does the language have to be so raw?

I never disputed that black musicians were instrumental in creating this music. My only argument is once the music is created, doesn't it belong to everyone and can't anyone play it? I firmly believe you're not going to bring black audiences to jazz by changing its name to BAM or whatever else you want to call it. Jazz is not dead and did not die in 1959! In the sixties there were many great jazz albums. They may not have made a lot of money, but they were still being recorded by record companies like Blue Note, Columbia and Atlantic, because the executives at these companies believed in the music and the musicians. Here we are 42 years later, and great jazz and jazz musicians are still being recorded.

I think the best way to bring audiences back to jazz is education. Since jazz has been America's Classical Music for over seventy years, it needs to be part of the curriculum in grade schools, even pre-schools. All of us should be working towards this goal. There are many teaching artist working in the public school systems throughout the USA. We need to encourage them to teach and use jazz as part of their program. Let's get school boards and legislators to encourage teachers to teach about jazz in their music appreciation programs and if there aren't any music appreciation programs, start them. Don't wait for Black Appreciation Month to let kids know who Duke Ellington was. One week and one name out of one month a year doesn't cut it.

I was a teaching artist in the NYC public schools from 1995-2001. I taught Literacy Through Songwriting. I started with the blues and its history and moved on 'til I got to jazz. The kids not only got a lesson in Black History, they learned to appreciate and enjoy the music and some of them actually learned to scat sing.

What is confusing is, if you hate the word jazz so much, then don't accept teaching positions in College jazz programs or perform in jazz concerts or jazz clubs. If it is expected that clubs like The Blue Note Jazz Club will change to The Blue Note BAM Club or the Sedona Jazz Festival will change its name to The Sedona BAM Festival or Jazz at Lincoln Center to BAM at Lincoln Center—it will never happen. These clubs and jazz festivals and centers throughout the world have spent tons of money promoting and paying artists to perform jazz, after all these years it won't change.

I've also heard the argument that musicians from the other countries shouldn't be playing jazz. And I say "why not"? We've been playing European classical music ever since we got here. Jazz is now world music, and anyone who plays it is honoring the music and us.

Question: If you are successful in bringing in black audiences, aren't you worried that changing the name to BAM will alienate white audiences and you will lose them? If you lose that audience, aren't you are hurting the music? Decrease the audience and you are back where you started. So, what's the point?

Look out for What's The Point Part II, coming soon.

Photo Credits
Page 1, Miles Davis: Jos.L Knaepen
Page 2: Patrick Marek
Page 3: Richard Conde

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