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Ain’t But a Few of Us


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The following is an excerpt from the section "Magazine Freelancers" taken from Ain't But a Few of Us: Black Music Writers Tell Their Story edited by Willard Jenkins (Duke University Press, 2022).

Magazine Freelancers by John Murph

John Murph has successfully channeled his voracious appetite for modern music into a keenly social outlook that takes into account more than just the music or musicians themselves. As an African American music writer who also happens to proudly self-identity as gay, John Murph has often written from those two unique perspectives and against the dual challenge he's faced in securing bylines; consequently, he is that rare writer who has covered music for both African American and gay community publications.

Murph is blessed with an encyclopedic appetite when it comes to modern jazz, the leading edge of hip-hop, trip hop, drum and bass, electronica, house, broken beat, and assorted other jazz-informed hybrids and flavors—including classic R&B and funk—often in various combinations of the above. A devoted "crate digger," it's not unusual to find Murph elbow-deep in assorted vinyl record bins wherever he can find an outlet for his voracious need to hear music.

In over two decades of writing about music, Murph has coupled his diverse music interests with a writing skill and style that translates to both scholars and novices. In the process, he has become one of the more astute modern music observers of his generation. He has written for publications and online sites such as the Washington Post, NPR, The Root, Atlantic Monthly, AARP, the Washington City Paper, the Washington Blade, JazzTimes, DownBeat, Jazzwise, and Vibe magazine.

In the early 1990s, when Suzan Jenkins, then the CEO of the Rhythm and Blues Foundation, sent a tall, slim, bespectacled young Mississippi State University grad to the former National Jazz Service Organization offices for an exploratory chat, the young man from Pass Christian, MS, was quite earnest in expressing his intent to write about music. Murph soon joined the NJSO staff. Given that Murph followed the late Wayne Self and Eugene Holley Jr. in that position, I suppose the NJSO executive director exhibited a soft spot for aspiring jazz writers.

From his NJSO days, Murph went on to develop web content for NPR and then for Black Entertainment Television. All the while, he was growing his keen jazz and modern music writing craft as well as a prodigious appetite for the music. In addition to being a sharp commentator in print, Murph was also a programmer at WPFW-FM in DC, where he was just as likely to spin some newly minted young Brits, Germans, or Norwegians who use jazz as a launching pad toward new expressions as he was the growing crew of new-jack American stalwarts or edgy explorers like guitarist Jean-Paul Bourelly.

I think access is a huge issue. As in most areas of employment in the United States, black writers and writers of color and women may face assignment or employment discrimination at major media outlets by comparison with their white male counterparts. Of course, I have no statistics to back up my claims. But from clear observations, I don't see black writers at such outlets as DownBeat, JazzTimes, NPR, or the Washington Post making the same rapid inroads in jazz journalism as our white male counterparts.

Networking plays a huge part in getting assignments in the jazz community, and it probably plays a bigger role in who gets hired for permanent editorial positions. Some months back, when Brian Zimmerman left his editorial post at DownBeat, I bet that job announcement didn't reach any black and brown writers in the same manner as it did our white counterparts. I could be wrong, and I hope that I am.

I started writing about music in college at Mississippi State University for the school newspaper, The Reflector. When I was growing up, a lot of my family members either listened to music or read about it. The music seemed ever-present, and in several varieties.

During my second year in college I was still an accounting major, but it was music and writing that I really loved and that eventually captured my true spirit. Still, back in college I didn't see music journalism as a viable career option because there weren't that many role models at the magazines, particularly African Americans from my generation. And writers for, say, Rolling Stone, Spin, and Musician magazines seemed galaxies away.

Fortunately, I landed a paid internship at the Smithsonian, working with the Duke Ellington Collection in the American History Museum's Archives Center, which is where I first encountered the influential Reuben Jackson, an African American poet and historian who has also written about music. I did two consecutive summer internships there, which served to open the doors wider for me to pursue music journalism.

When I began contributing on music to various publications, in the beginning I wasn't really conscious of the relatively small numbers of African Americans writing about music. When I arrived in Washington, DC—first interning at the Smithsonian, and later working in arts administration at the National Jazz Service Organization and the Rhythm and Blues Foundation—I had African American mentors, such as Willard Jenkins, Dr. Anthony Brown, and Reuben Jackson. I also befriended other African American writers such as Eugene Holley Jr., Wayne Self, Bill Brower, and the late Tom Terrell. And I was reading a lot of stuff by Greg Tate, Stanley Crouch, and Nelson George.

Perhaps the first thing I noticed when I started writing nationally about serious music was the age gap. I always felt like a kid in the company of other jazz journalists. It wasn't until I started writing for the Washington City Paper, the Washington Blade, JazzTimes, and DownBeat, and attending events like the International Association of Jazz Educators conferences that I began realizing that I was indeed a "flyboy in the buttermilk." It really hit me, when I worked at National Public Radio, just how few black writers there were and how few on the business side of music.

When you look at the field of music writers and you stop and consider the relative scarcity of black music writers, you come up with so many answers and perspectives that it could very well serve as a collegiate sociology course. When it comes to African American music and culture, it always seemed as if our community was much better at creating than documenting, especially after the civil rights era. For some reason, anything vaguely related to the past seems too passé for many African Americans to devote the level of attention that is required to document the music on a regular basis. So when it comes to serious music with a long legacy (e.g., jazz, blues, and increasingly R&B), a lot of that gets ignored for what's currently popular (e.g., hip-hop), and that attitude is far too prevalent in the black media.

You cannot ignore the paucity of coverage of serious music in black media—Ebony, Jet, O, Essence—all of which have the potential of not only giving black music journalists more writing opportunities but also of cultivating a more erudite audience for serious music.

For anyone breaking into music journalism, the task can prove daunting— especially when it becomes more about "why you know" than "what you know." For writers of color, this can prove even more challenging if white editors and publishers see little value in having a multicultural writing staff beyond tokenism.

I do indeed think the scarcity of black writers covering the music ultimately contributes to how music is covered. Take for instance the coverage of jazz singers. If you examined retail outlets such as Amazon.com and Starbucks, your impression would be that the epitome of a jazz singer now is a white female. How the media (print, film, radio, internet) covers jazz and, more importantly, whom they choose to cover feeds into that perception.

I've got nothing against Diana Krall, Jane Monheit, Madeleine Peyroux, or Norah Jones—but it seems incredibly difficult for both emerging and established black American singers to make the same rapid inroads in terms of achieving coverage not only from mainstream glossy magazines but also in the traditional jazz publications, such as JazzTimes and DownBeat magazines. Just to cite one example, I find it incredible that Carla Cook, who has often been cited as one of the best and most natural jazz singers of our generation, has yet to land a major feature story in JazzTimes or DownBeat (that she has also not been afforded many opportunities to record as a leader is also duly noted).

When the singer José James released his splendid debut release The Dreamer, it was somewhat sad that I had to make special note of his race and the fact that it's been a while since a young African American male singer had emerged—compared to, say, Jamie Cullum or Peter Cincotti In my opinion, despite critical (albeit underground) acclaim, José James has yet to receive the same, timely, amount of ink as his white counterparts.

You could also argue the same with regard to some instrumentalists. When the Bad Plus and, again, Jamie Cullum first hit, they graced the covers of JazzTimes and DownBeat. Stefon Harris, JD Allen—not so much. A decade ago, heavy hitters such as the pianist Rodney Kendrick and the guitarist Jean-Paul Bourelly hardly got any ink in comparison to, say, Brad Mehldau and Bill Frisell. I remember a rumor circulating that Rodney Kendricks's personality was "too urban"—or some words to that effect—to achieve a major feature story.

Then there's the whole idea of what is deemed more artistically valid when it comes to jazz artists incorporating contemporary pop music. I notice a certain journalistic disdain or dismissal when some black jazz artists channel R&B, funk, and hip-hop, while their white contemporaries get kudos for giving makeovers to the likes of Radiohead, Nick Drake, and Björk.

I think there's a tendency, of which writers of all creeds are guilty, to try to make "serious music" appear "smarter" than it needs to be. Brad McKee of the Washington City Paper, one of my all-time best editors, told me this: "Jazz is already smart. You don't need to make it sound any smarter. Just be smart." It took me a while to really get to that. But the main takeaway I gathered from that is that oftentimes we forget to insert that human element and a bona fide narrative arc when writing feature stories on "serious musicians," especially if their music is deemed "avant-garde."

When I was writing about Andrew Hill, the late pianist and composer who had a slight hitch in his speech, one of the clichés I always tried to avoid was, "He talks the same way he plays the piano," equating a speech impediment with his distinctive approach to improvisation. Indeed, the ploy is great when trying to portray a distinctive musician as more "artistically exotic" than he or she needs to be, but those clichés can marginalize the artist as well.

I think it's always beneficial for journalists who write a lot for niche magazines, such as JazzTimes, DownBeat, and Jazzwise, to challenge him or herself to write for a mainstream, less informed audience without sacrificing what makes the musician great but also portraying that artist as a well-rounded person—and doing so in a manner that is more easily digested by the average, less deeply immersed reader.

I see intersections occurring in the music I cover—including jazz, hip-hop, drum and bass, house, classical—in terms of "points of reference" from both the musicians' and the music consumers' standpoints. From checking out electronica (house, broken beat, drum and bass) and hip-hop, I've noticed a number of jazz artists (e.g., Marc Cary, Robert Mitchell, Tarus Mateen, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Roy Ayers, Roy Hargrove, Robert Glasper, and Derrick Hodge) playing on those tracks. Some would argue that they are doing it for the money (which is a valid point). But oftentimes these musicians see something of artistic value that attracted them to play those non-jazz genres.

Also, many people listen to a variety of music. I grew up in the 1970s with a healthy diet of R&B and funk, but I also heard country, blues, and jazz. So hearing Willie Nelson, Z. Z. Hill, and Return to Forever was hardly any dif­ferent from hearing Bill Withers, Parliament Funkadelic, and Millie Jackson. It was only when I was in college that I realized that Santana was considered rock, then later Latin-rock. Since Santana was on Columbia Records, as were Earth, Wind & Fire and Weather Report, and the music of all three had a distinctive Afro-Latin tinge, I associated them together, thinking they were all black music—for better or worse.

Then you can link the improvisational nature—particularly when it comes to rhythm—between jazz and hip-hop, drum and bass, and broken beat, in addition to them all being rooted in the African musical diaspora.

Among the musicians I hear most successfully addressing those intersections in their music, from a hip-hop perspective, I would look at how the late J Dilla had a profound influence on jazz-identified artists such as Robert Glasper, Stacy Dillard, Jaleel Shaw, Nicholas Payton, Roy Hargrove, and Jeremy Pelt—but he's not the only influential hip-hop artist on jazz: there's the Wu Tang Clan, Q-Tip, the Roots, A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Dr. Dre, Madlib, Pete Rock, Jazzy Jeff, Mos Def. These hip-hop legends, and many more, have had a significant influence on many post-Motown jazz artists. And we can talk for eons about how many jazz samples filtered through hip-hop during the golden period of that genre.

West London's broken beat scene (e.g., I. G. Culture, Mark de Clive-Lowe, Kaidi Latham, 4hero) is also of note, especially when you hear how its sonic imprint is rooted in electric jazz-funk (i.e., Roy Ayers, Herbie Hancock, Patrice Rushen, Chick Corea, Fela, Tom Browne, Donald Byrd, Sun Ra, the Mizell Brothers, Charles Stephney, and Eddie Henderson) and how that broken beat scene influences the music of today's British jazz renegades such as Leo Tardin, Soweto Kinch, and Robert Mitchell. From a house music perspective, you can look at the works of Jazzanova, Masters at Work, Carl Craig, King Britt, and Moodymann and immediately hear the jazz influences in their work. So these complementary, cross-genre influences are evident from many perspectives.



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