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Jazz at Lincoln Center: "Is Jazz Black Music?"

Daniel Kassell By

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Lewis Porter, Moderator; with Don Byron, Daniel Carter and Nat Hentoff
Jazz Talk: Is Jazz Black Music?
Irene Diamond Education Center
New York, New York
January 31, 2008

Is Jazz Black Music? "Where does jazz come from, to whom does it belong and is this important?" The program, advertised as a "Jazz Talk" by Jazz at Lincoln Center (now on Columbus Circle), polarized some and infuriated many attendees. Moderator Lewis Porter, a professor of music and author, explained that he purposefully titled the topic to provoke inquiry and at the same time disavowed the title and byline as implying a personal opinion of his own.


Panelists were well chosen and insightfully represented their positions. On Mr. Porter's right was Don Byron, a prolific musician/composer, artist-in-residence and educator, and Daniel Carter, a reed, flute, and trumpet player also well known as Danny for his work with "Other Dimensions in Music" and "Test." On Mr. Porter's left was the Village Voice's productive and internationally recognized analyst Nat Hentoff, who in 2003 received the first NEA Jazz Masters Jazz Advocate Award as a critic.


Audio dialogue from a 1959 movie that included "Negro" in the scripted conversation and the question "Were they or were they not the creators of jazz?" established the tone for this evening's presentation. Nat Hentoff answered first by relating what Duke Ellington told him. Duke went to Fletcher Henderson and suggested replacing "Jazz" with "Negro" so that their music would be identified as an ethnic music. Hentoff also stated that there is a difference between the "originators," like Louis Armstrong, Lester Young, Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, and "originals" who became well known for their recordings. Daniel Carter interjected, "Anyone can get inspired." Don Byron observed: "Blacks have a special relationship . . . that comes out of speech and the way we walk . . . a special kind of musicianship," emphasizing "the idea to steal ownership is a nasty impulse. . . A lot of technology, such as film, borrowed from black culture to make and elevate white performers." Fred Astaire was mentioned as an example. Mr. Hentoff corroborated by describing knowledge of white vs. black recording contracts. Don Byron attempted to close the issue by offering "ethnicity" as a substitute for "race."

The nature of the discussion continued along historically familiar lines as panelists added well-intended, often educational information. Hentoff was first to state that many classical composers transcribed and performed jazz compositions and that Ellington listened to the sounds of European music during his international travels and put their influence into his music: "Charlie Parker loved country music," Mr. Hentoff concluded. "It's the individual." Continuing the theme Mr. Byron stated that in today's colleges "players are listening to Michael Brecker and are not looking back at all."

Lewis Porter next posed the issue of whites writing about blacks. Nat Hentoff grabbed the subject and described his experience as New York's Downbeat correspondent, citing that there were no blacks on the Chicago staff and that he was fired ostensibly for hiring a woman of color for his office. He reported feeling "liberated." From that point on he would "write as a fan, not as a critic."

The audience posed questions for the panel. The first, coming from this writer, addressed the words "jazz" and "black" by suggesting that indigenous Caribs from the Caribbean and Native American Indians must have contributed to the creation of the music in New Orleans before the Civil War and before 1917 when the word "jazz" was first used on a sound recording. Mr. Hentoff agreed about including indigenous people as did Mr. Porter, who added that his scholarly research revealed that "jazz" first appeared in print in reference to baseball.

Although the provocative title may have attracted a sold-out a house and many African-American attendees, the senior publicist Phoebe Jacobs suggested afterwards that its inclusion replaced many other worthwhile subjects.

The next Lewis Porter moderated session will be with Randy Weston, a musician committed to the heritage of Africa. The next panel, titled "Hoofin' It Jazz and Tap," will bring Harold "Stumpy" Cromer, Jared Grimes and Stephanie Larriere to JALC on Columbus Circle.

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