Gregory Thomas: Ain't But a Few of Us

Willard Jenkins By

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Gregory ThomasLike most of the participants in our ongoing dialogue with African American music writers, Gregory Thomas has both feet and hands in several camps. Thomas' byline has been featured in numerous publications, including Salon.com, Guardian Observer (London), American Legacy, Africana.com, BlackAmericaWeb.com, Daily News (New York, NY), TBWT.com, Callaloo, The Village Voice, and others. He was the founding editor-in-chief of Harlem World magazine.

Additionally, Thomas has taught jazz education at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Thurgood Marshall Academy, and the Frederick Douglass Academy for the Jazz Museum in Harlem's Harlem Speaks Education Initiative. He has hosted radio specials on WBAI (99.5 FM, Pacifica Radio in New York City), where for several years he has hosted a regular jazz show the first Monday evening of each month.

All About Jazz: What motivated you to write about this music?

Gregory Thomas: The foundation was the music my parents listened to, which included jazz, and my deep study and enjoyment of the giants of jazz I'd been listening to very intently since high school. Inspired by a high school stage band concert, I began to play the alto sax at 15 years old. I took lessons with a local Staten Island legend, Caesar DiMauro; studied music theory and saxophone method books; played in various classical and jazz ensembles; tuned in regularly to WRVR, WBGO and WKCR; and minored in music at Hamilton College, where I also hosted a jazz radio show for three years. Sharing a melody line with trumpet icon Clark Terry there, on April 17, 1984 in the college chapel, was an epiphany, a mystical experience of musical ecstasy.

A few years after graduating from Hamilton I met Keith Clinkscales and Leonard Burnett, later of Vibe and Savoy, who launched their first publication, Urban Profile, in the late '80s. I was more troubled by how relatively few black folk attend live jazz performances than by the dearth of black writers about jazz. So Keith and Len published my very first professional piece: "Why Black Folks Should Support Jazz." I became a staff writer for the Brooklyn-based City Sun several years later, and wrote about jazz and other subjects. Since then I've free-lanced for many publications.

My initial goals as a jazz journalist were to report accurately, and educate readers gently, while describing a recording or a concert so the reader felt that he or she had experienced it too. Usually if I don't like a performance, live or on record, I just don't write about it. I'm not into bashing artists to feed my ego or further my career. My major objective now is to share my knowledge and adoration of the music on as many platforms to as many people as possible—in print, on radio, on stage at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, and on the internet and mobile through the TV series I host, Jazz It Up!

AAJ: When you started covering the music were you aware of the dearth of African Americans writing about serious music?

GT: Well it wasn't as bad then as it seems to me now. I'd read pieces on jazz by Stanley Crouch and Greg Tate in the Village Voice, Gene Seymour in the Nation and New York Newsday, as well as jazz writings by Harlemite Herb Boyd, and a contemporary of mine, Eugene Holley, in various publications. Playthell Benjamin wrote about jazz (and a whole lot more) for the Voice and other periodicals. All of these guys were in New York in my early years as a writer, as were the ever-looming presence of the elder grand masters—Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray.

AAJ: Why do you suppose that's still such a glaring disparity—where you have a significant number of black musicians playing this music but so few black jazz media commentators?

GT: I suppose that most black commentators who focus on music generally deal with more popular genres. And in 2009, there are less and less publications that even cover "serious music" anymore. The glaring disparity has to do with black musicians being acculturated early on to the cultural power and appeal of jazz expression, particularly since their ancestors founded and innovated the blues idiom vernacular called jazz, versus black media commentators who privilege popular forms (and the career benefits that could bring) over jazz, a fine art that they may not even like or feel qualified to write about.

Pop and youth culture hold a powerful sway. You have to go deep in the woodshed to write about jazz with substance. Most black commentators, even those in the academy, apparently aren't ready, willing or able to go that deep in the shed about the musical form at the very pinnacle of their culture, as developed in the United States. With some notable exceptions, this has been the case through the entire history of the music.

[Editor's note: on that academy tip, one wonders if we will ever see the likes of such leading black scholar-intellectuals as Henry Louis Gates, Cornel West, or Michael Eric Dyson write extensively on the subject of jazz music, with the same degree of vigor with which at least West and Dyson have taken up the pen to wax rhapsodic on black pop. Still waitin...']

But hey, on the other hand, perhaps writing about the fine arts, about "serious music," considering our difficult history in this land, was aptly viewed as a luxury until more recent times.

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