On The Future Of Jazz Among Black Folk

Every year, the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation throws a concert and panel discussion as part of its annual conference. It’s notable not only as a musical event — this year’s show features drummer Terri Lyne Carrington’s take on the classic album Money Jungle, featuring vocalist Lizz Wright, as well as alto saxophonist Antonio Hart’s quintet with special guest Jimmy Heath — but also as a cultural one. In this century, anyway, it’s become surprisingly uncommon to see documentation of black jazz artists performing for primarily black audiences.

By the time you read this, the concert will be transpiring or over. But earlier in the day, many of its star musicians and a few distinguished authors assembled for a forum in a cramped Washington Conference Center boardroom. Around 100 to 150 people — the majority African-American, in business attire and middle-aged — were in the house for a discussion titled “If You Really Are Concerned: An African-American Agenda for Jazz.” It took its title from a Billy Taylor song, the last stanza of which goes:

If you really are concerned, then show it
If you really want to help, you can
But you’d better start right now
By making changes when you’re able
Or your world will disappear

As one of the panelists, writer and consultant Willard Jenkins, said in his prefatory remarks, every time African-Americans are gathered to talk about jazz, the room sighs, as if it’s lost control over something which emerged from its community. “Nothing has been stolen — we’ve given it away,” he said. “And we’ve given it away through our neglect.”

So what exactly is the cause for concern? Here’s a quick summary of a few themes batted around:

1. The state of higher education. The youngest panelist, pianist Gerald Clayton, asserted that the rigorous, one-size-fits-all methodology of conservatory-level education was burning out many promising students who came to think that jazz was all about technique. Meanwhile, Terri Lyne Carrington noted that most of the African-American drum students she sees at Berklee don’t study with her, a jazz instructor, but with other instructors who specialize more in popular music. Jenkins proposed that there be more emphasis on instructing young musicians about technique, as well as how to communicate with audiences. And Antonio Hart, who teaches at Queens College, said he makes his students attend a service at a black church in order to better understand the cultural roots of the music they came to study.

2. Connecting jazz with the black church. Several panelists talked about the need to keep music in African-American churches. Lizz Wright said that she grew up as the daughter of a minister, and that once she got into jazz (through Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz), she saw that its values synchronized with those she saw in the religious community around her. Hart said that after much struggle, he finally managed to introduce a well-attended jazz vespers service at his Baptist church in Brooklyn, N.Y. Carrington said she was exploring the idea in her capacity as a concert presenter at Berklee.

3. Youth. Jimmy Heath brought up the need to expose elementary-level students to live instruments, noting that his career choice was between carpentry and the saxophone. Heath’s son, known as Mtume, talked about the need for jazz musicians to embrace the sounds and technologies coming from music that kids listen to today. And Heath’s autobiography co-writer, Joseph McLaren, asserted the need for jazz history to be taught as part of American history curricula.

Plenty of other ideas surfaced, but as often happens at panel discussions, lack of specificity or response doomed them to hang in the wind. As a way of wrapping them up, here are two questions that lingered in my mind once the dust settled:

  • How can we better communicate the need for real-world training, individual attention and cultural history to university program administrators? And how has the rise of jazz in universities, which come with hefty tuition and little employment security, affected who chooses to study jazz in the first place?
  • In a world where live music is slowly receding, what exactly can be done to attract a younger black audience? Which presenting strategies — Jenkins and Carrington hinted at a few — will make them feel welcome at shows? How might we better spread the word to young audiences about young musicians like Gerald Clayton who are open-minded in their influences?
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