BAM or JAZZ: Part Two!

BAM or JAZZ: Part Two!
Greg Thomas By

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Jazz, an art form given birth in the United States by descendents of the formerly enslaved, has a complicated relationship with race. Although race, as a popular idea, has no basis in biology, many people mentally adhere to the idea of dividing groups of people based on "race" as opposed to understanding how groups of people evolve (or regress) via culture, so very real social dynamics and results exist based on the belief in race.

A key purpose of this column is to explore culture vs. race as it manifests in the discourse of jazz, historically and presently. Today's column will continue a conversation with an authority on the history of jazz criticism, John Gennari, author of Blowin' Hot and Cool: Jazz and Its Critics (The University of Chicago Press, 2006). The most recent Race and Jazz column confronted a current controversy, the move by some black American musicians, prompted by trumpeter Nicholas Payton, a provocateur who on his blog calls himself "The Savior of Archaic Pop," to purportedly stop using the word jazz all together (or at least for a 90-day publicity boycott) and instead to call their artistic work Black American Music (#BAM).

Chapter Index
1. #BAM: Additional Thoughts
2. John Gennari Interview: Part 2

#BAM: Additional Thoughts

Before the discussion with Gennari continues, here are a few additional thoughts on the current brouhaha. Some claim that the #BAM acronym—a tweet- friendly hashtag—is a better marketing tool for their music. That remains to be seen. However, if we take that argument at face value, branding and positioning become the issue. As a brand, jazz is well-established in the marketplace, though it isn't nearly as popular as more commercial music. Some advocating #BAM argue that the negative associations aligned with the word jazz far outweigh the positives, if they even acknowledge the positives at all. The leader of #BAM has written that the positives are an "illusion." Such a claim is obviously a matter of opinion, not fact. The supposition that jazz has and always will have mostly negative meanings is propaganda parading under the cloak of what Payton calls "the truth."

"Black American" became a term of widespread use among native-born U.S. Negroes—the common term before "black Americans," and before Malcolm X made Negro a term of derision—in the 1960s. At best, black American is an expression of ethnic, cultural and national identity, not a racial designation. Using that identification as a vehicle to market music in a global economy—and not simply as a pedagogical description of the music's origins—will be an interesting experiment to observe. Perhaps a study of the relative financial performance of U.S. films that are marketed (or thought of) as "black movies" overseas would be a fruitful exercise.

In their classic work on marketing, Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind (Warner Books, 1987), originally published in 1981, Al Ries and Jack Trout describe positioning as "an organized system for finding a window in the mind. It is based on the concept that communication can only take place at the right time and under the right circumstances." To Ries and Trout, the example of a generation of U.S. Negroes embracing the word "black" in the 1960s was a powerful positioning move at that time and in that circumstance. The late 1950s through the 1960s was a period in which the pent-up frustrations and the desire for freedom by the victims of the Jim Crow system of white supremacy burst into the purpose, passion and perception of the Civil Rights movement.

As a word, "black" had (and still has) all sorts of negative denotations and connotations, but the embrace of "black" as a point of cultural pride was an important step, according to Ries and Trout, in communicating the reframing of the self-perception of a people. Embracing "black" a generation ago was brilliant positioning. Muhammad Ali let go of his birth name, Cassius Clay, and media and society accepted the "repositioned" name. The same thing happened with "black" over "Negro," at least until the perpetual need for group-identification brought in the term "African American."

Unfortunately, the instigator of #BAM isn't just saying that jazz fits under the umbrella of Black American Music. Based on Payton's public pronouncements, he is attempting to deposition the word "jazz" completely and reposition #BAM in its place.

Not only is that move akin to throwing out the baby with the bath water; it's also tantamount to a parent disowning their grown, mature offspring because they really believe their progeny is a "bastard orphan," as the leader of #BAM puts it. Jazz is a branch of the tree called black American music; jazz was given birth in the womb of black American culture. But now the self-professed leader of #BAM, almost 50 years after "black American" became commonly used before he was even born, wants to replace the term jazz with his own come-lately coinage because he claims that jazz has "too much of a negative history to ever be socially respected."

Really? Not only is the word jazz not going anywhere, one wonders what time warp said "leader" is living in.

As percussionist, educator and bandleader Bobby Sanabria has written:

Blaming the word "jazz" for the current sad state of the music, in terms of cultural relevance to most Americans, is ridiculous. Mr. Payton stated, in the panel discussion at Birdland, that the image the word jazz portrays is, to most people, of a drug-induced, negative stereotype of a musician (along with other negative attributes). I assume he bases this image from the reference point of the 1940s/'50s/'60s, when heroin ravaged many of our great talents.

But today? Most jazz musicians today will talk to you about being on a macrobiotic diet, how [well] their kids are doing in school, and how they're thinking about becoming vegans or Buddhists. Who in f**k's name is he talking to, hangin' with? That is a stereotype based on ignorance. And trust me, you have those stereotypes in all styles of music...Besides, jazz musicians have already done the research. Drugs like heroin don't make you play better. No one today on the scene is into hard drugs. Not to say there aren't some, but I would say it is smaller percentage than the national average.

Where I come from (the South Bronx) the image of the jazz musician was always one of a person devoted to a majestic art form. Why? Because it took years of devotion, study, and dedication to play the music. If you said you were a jazz musician it meant that you were serious, an intellectual, a person to be looked up to because you were Worldly.

Clearly, being a great instrumentalist, as Payton undoubtedly is, does not make one, ipso facto, a great writer, a social or cultural leader, a historian or a sociologist. No doubt, Payton has prompted open discussion about important issues that too often are swept under the rug. Yet, as history has shown time and time again, demagogues employ propaganda, not scholarly or critical standards, to advance political aims. History shows that such persons create nemeses and enemies to vilify—"jazz" is the key "villain" in this case—and resort to the poison of personal insult because they can't brook dissent from the party line and won't face up to other perspectives which expose the gaping holes in their so-called ideological truth.

The professed leader of #BAM, the self-proclaimed "Savior," pretends that #BAM is a movement. The controversy has most certainly brought more media attention and publicity to him, but it's premature and presumptuous to call it a movement at this early stage. A heap of hits on a blog and attention to one musician's "Internet hustle" does not a movement make. How many musicians have actually signed on, and, moreover, how many have actually stopped using the word "jazz"? Before it becomes a movement, how about achieving what Malcolm Gladwell calls a "tipping point"? To what promised land is this leader taking those few—not all, mind you—who conform to his point of view slavishly as sycophants?

The issues brought up by this controversy, which some would call a tempest in a teapot, considering how relatively small the jazz world seems to be, are, nonetheless, quite important. Yet the followers or co-signers of #BAM, or anyone who takes this young man so seriously, would be advised to reference the Greek myth of Narcissus (which happens to be the source of the Trumpet Narcissus plant). The title of Richard Pryor's third album release, in 1974, might serve as fair warning too.

In Shakespearean terms, the young said leader "doth protest too much" about the "integrity" of his stance. If he were to refuse to play in any venue or festival with the word jazz in the title, or that's associated with jazz, and stop being interviewed and reviewed in jazz publications and blogs as a matter of principle, that would show integrity, an allegiance to the "j" word stance he so vociferously trumpets at present. No charge of hypocrisy would stick. Such a cut-your-nose-to-spite-your-face move might be career suicide, though, unless he really believes that the hip hop and r&b communities will accept him. Don't hold your breath, but perhaps they will bow down to the self-styled "Savior" since he plays even more instruments on his latest recording, Bitches (In + Out, 2011), than Prince or even Stevie Wonder ever did, as he has declared, puffily.

One never knows, do one?

Perhaps the title of his latest recording will be an entrée into the hip hop ranks.

Yet the leader of #BAM correctly notes that "great social change has always started with a movement." With that point in mind, consider that this whole discourse fits well within the category of cultural politics. Culture, at this level, involves contestation over values and meaning. (For details about this process, see the essay "The Canonization of Jazz and Afro-American Literature.") To focus on the meaning and value of jazz, we'll need to look beyond the ruse and publicity ploy at the core of this controversy as well as the authoritarian impulse and rhetorical camouflage; the Messiah and Napoleon complexes; the "shit-talking" bravado; the regression to juvenile rant and sophomoric, puerile rave; the specious sophistry substituting for logic and reason; the conflation of the personal and political; and, in a blinding display of generational myopia, the supercilious insult to the masters of the jazz idiom by declaring, in a retrograde revision of history, that they were victims of a "colonial mindset" when actually they were some of the most free-thinking and cosmopolitan of their time.

Once we get past that morass, we can confront bona fide issues about what this music means and the values we believe and deeply feel it embodies.

With such a cultural basis for discussion as the foundation, together we can take action and fight like hell to make better the lives and careers of jazz musicians and others involved in perpetuating the music. This would not only serve individuals and their families well, but would be beneficial for American culture and the global society overall.

Ironically, the meaning and value of jazz has the potential to be a veritable saving grace for the sad state of our reality-television ethos, yet, unfortunately, a talented young musician seems to place more importance on riding a wave of publicity, feeding his ego, and gorging his id.

Now, speaking of real movements, not only did a Civil Rights movement arise in the 1960s, but also a Black Arts Movement, and black nationalist and black radical movements as well. Each had antecedents, some dating back to the 19th century. Before jumping on the #BAM bandwagon, wouldn't it be wise to comprehend and review the lessons learned from the previous movements? What are their legacies? What mistakes and missteps can generations that follow in the wake of those movements avoid?

Historical and cultural analysis can provide responses to those questions. Those interested in judicious answers can turn to a plethora of real scholars and writers. We'll continue our Race and Jazz conversation with one of them—John Gennari—in a moment.

For more, those who'd like to frame black unity in a way that avoids the trap of essentialism—something someone calling himself a "post-modern" New Orleans musician would be advised to do—peer into We Who Are Dark: The Philosophical Foundations of Black Solidarity (Harvard University Press, 2005), by Tommie Shelby.

As regards social movements in general, consider texts such as People, Power, Change: Movements of Social Transformation (Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1970), by Luther P. Gerlach; The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (Harper & Rowe, 1951), by Eric Hoffer; and The Possessed (or The Devils or Demons) (Penguin Classics, 2008), by Fyodor Dostoevsky. For some crucial perspective on what Albert Murray called "the most imaginatively documented and politically sophisticated working prospective on the built-in contradictions and disjunctions of the Negro Revolution," check out the classic The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual: From Its Origins to the Present (W.H. Allen, 1969), by Harold Cruse.



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