03 June 2011

The Rochester International Jazz Festival & the Illusion of Post-Racial Music

The tenth edition of the Rochester International Jazz Festival (RIJF) is about to open. Many see this as a time to celebrate success. I think it also affords the opportunity for some much needed, critical reflection.

When I read down the RIJF schedule I see lots of what we might call World Music, R&B, Pop, Blues, or Americana. I love Elvis Costello and K.D. Lang. However, I suspect we can, charitably, agree that they hardly are jazz performers. In many instances of course, labels may make no difference; an exception is when a genre – and here I have jazz in mind - is ripe for the endangered list. That said, let’s set aside the overly expansive - dare we say indiscriminate - conception of what counts as “jazz” at the RIJF. My primary worry lies elsewhere.

Consider history. One can exaggerate the extent to which jazz revolves around improvisation. But it undoubtedly is a music defined by creativity and inventiveness. Overwhelmingly, African Americans are responsible for the major innovations in jazz. Musically the pattern is crystal clear – think of the brilliance of Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Ella Fitzgerald, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman. It is only somewhat less clear when we consider “practical’ considerations like organizational forms, from the early New Orleans funeral marches to the Basie Band to Mingus’s Jazz Workshop to the AACM. Obviously, there are lots and lots of excellent jazz musicians who are not African American. And one can easily name non-African Americans who have made substantial contributions to jazz on artistic and practical dimensions. Think, for instance, of Bill Evans and John Hammond respectively. It is nonetheless fair to say that those contributions pale in comparison (pun intended) to the defining innovations of those I listed above.

With that in mind, there are three things to notice about the line-up at RIJF. The first is that the preponderance of performers are white. The “stars” trailing down the left side of the RIJF web page this year are Elvis Costello, Natalie Cole, Chris Botti, K.D. Lang, the Fab Faux, and Bela Fleck. All but Cole are white. That pattern holds once we look beyond the headliners. And it holds too over the past decade. It is, in other words, deep and persistent.

The second thing to notice is that the average age of the few African-American jazz musicians on the program is what we might gently call “advanced.” This year Marcus Strickland is the exception that proves the rule. But what about the myriad other African American musicians in their thirties, forties, and fifties who are renewing and redefining the jazz tradition? They are too numerous to name and are conspicuous by their absence. Of course, age often brings accomplishment and it is wonderful to see Cedar Walton on the program this year. But even if we restrict ourselves to the august, the RIJF organizers seemingly have a narrow view of accomplishment. Where are the other “elders” – from, say, Muhal Richard Abrams through Archie Shepp to Randy Weston - of the music? If these august figures have appeared at RIJF in past years, I missed it.

Finally, you will notice that many of the African American performers who do make it onto the RIJF program fall most plausibly into a non-jazz genre. In recent years, as I recall, we have had Taj Mahal, Booker T, and the Neville Brothers. This year it is Lucky Peterson. Wonderful musicians all. But none is obviously a jazz musician in any meaningful sense. And surely they are not aiming to challenge or transform listeners in the way Abrams or Shepp or Weston continues to do.

As it stands the RIJF schedule does not vaguely reflect jazz history and, as a result, it risks reinforcing and compounding what I think is a massive misinterpretation of the music – that it is not a living, developing enterprise. In that sense, the RIJF patronizes it’s audience, refusing to push any musical boundaries or challenge listeners in any significant way.

When I recently listened to the RIJF producers being interviewed on our local npr station (WXXI ~ 31 May 2011) it became clear that virtually every aspect of festival planning – down to the time it takes, for example, to walk from venue to venue - is carefully considered and calculated and calibrated. This leads me to ask the obvious question: in their programming have the organizers chosen to downplay the historic and ongoing contributions African Americans to jazz? Is this a conscious decision or merely thoughtlessness?

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Blogger eric said...

I'm not sure I can agree with you.... but now that you've forced me to look at it from a standpoint of "who's colored", rather than style and ability of musicianship, I feel I have to point out Kevin Eubanks, Soweto Kinch, Tia Fuller, Davell Crawford (performing two nights) Brienn Perry, Pee Wee Ellis, Kenny Barron, Regina Carter.... I am hopeful that the producers of the XRIJF book performers based on their ability, availability and affordability rather than color.

07 June, 2011 16:07  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Self described, Mr. Crawford: "Despite his age, he has for years been a major force in American Roots Music. He has traveled, recorded, and taught the importance of music not only from New Orleans, but true Roots music from Traditional Jazz, to Gospel, Funk and R&B."

07 June, 2011 18:38  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

And Mr. Perry: "After studying voice in college Brienn signed a recording contract with Castanet Records and made an album with the Solid Gold Revue. They traveled all across the south and southwestern U.S. from New Orleans and Hattiesburg to Los Angeles and Las Vegas playing and singing R&B and the Blues.

Later Brienn returned to Chicago to further pursue his career in music where he worked as a trombone side-man in various Latin, Jazz, Reggae, and Blues bands. [...]

He has smooth jazz vocals reminiscent of Nat King Cole and Sammy Davis Jr., a brilliant, lyrical alto trombone sound, and a broad repertoire to delight any audience."

07 June, 2011 18:44  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

And so, eric, you can find exceptions to my comments. I'm not surprised. But some (see above) do something else. Others, like the talented and conservatory trained Ms. Carter are (in my estimation) wholly unthreatening (I've posted on here before).

Let's remember that this is a WEEK LONG "Jazz Festival" and you are able - charitably - to identify a performer or fewer (out of a dozen or so possibilities) each night - who might support your comment.

having gone back and looked, I'd say you prove my point. Thanks.

I have no doubt that many of the folks appearing at the RIJF are talented. I acknowledged that possibility ion the post. But nothing you've said leads me to reconsider my characterization.

07 June, 2011 18:50  

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