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On Arts: If jazz speaks to you, then it belongs to your culture

Sunday, April 08, 2001

By Nate Guidry

SAN FRANCISCO -- Jazz has issues -- issues that that have me wondering whether the music will remain culturally relevant. Reconnecting with an audience -- young and old, male and female -- should be its focus. Having 2 percent of all record sales last year is as close to irrelevancy as any genre might want to be.


Nate Guidry covers jazz for the Post-Gazette and is a regular contributor to JazzTimes magazine.


Instead, the very term "jazz" has become a metaphor for racial polarization, stirring up heated debates among musicians, journalists and historians.

Some of these questions about race and where jazz comes from are interesting and provocative, but ultimately if the music is to survive, we've got to let it just speak for itself.

"Race has no place in jazz," Dave Brubeck told me a few weeks ago in an interview that appears on Page G-3. "It's a big mistake. Jazz music is as healthy as it has been in some time. The music is being taught in high schools and colleges. ... People like Wynton Marsalis and others are doing wonderful things to keep the music in the forefront."

For one month earlier this year, Ken Burns' PBS documentary "Jazz" also brought the music out of the margins and into our collective national conscience.

Burns historiography wasn't without problems. The film had a difficult time placing into context musicians who are neither black nor white. Consider the important contributions of Cuban, Puerto Rican and Brazilian musicians. Burns also had trouble breaking away from the assumption that jazz is quintessentially male.

But there were many issues the film did address. Some of those points were laid out in this newspaper's pages, too. Instead of building momentum from Burns' 19-hour PBS series, some musicians and scholars have used the film to revisit an old orthodoxy -- one that's racially charged and laced with questions of authenticity and legitimacy.

Is jazz black music? Was it historically, and is it now? Or is jazz white music? Did white jazz musicians appropriate the music from black performers, thus becoming carriers of black culture?

"There would have been no jazz without its foundation in the black culture," said jazz critic and historian Nat Hentoff. "There are and have been originators and originals. The originators also have been originals. They have fundamentally shaped and reshaped the music. But the originators, with the exception of Jack Teagarden and a few others, were almost entirely black."

Questions of ownership and authenticity are not new. They have pervaded the discourse in American music since the first minstrel appeared in blackface in the 19th century.

Nonetheless, those questions were the focus of a three-day symposium last weekend at San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

San Francisco appeared an unlikely place for such a discussion, considering it isn't historically a hot bed for jazz. But the Bay Area is a place less about rigidity and more about the interaction of different styles and cultures.

The symposium, titled "Jazz and Race: Black, White and Beyond," was part of the San Francisco Jazz Festival, also known as SFJazz. It was moderated by Harry Edwards, race consultant and professor of sociology at the University of California at Berkeley, and featured authors, scholars and musicians ranging from Richard Sudhalter and Steve Coleman to James Lincoln Collier and Angela Davis, professor of consciousness at the University of California at Santa Cruz.

The music program over the weekend was equally provocative. Saxophonist and festival artistic director Joshua Redman performed with his quartet; there, too, was trumpeter Russell Gunn, who first received national acclaim for his performance on Wynton Marsalis' Pulitzer Prize-winning oratorio "Blood on the Fields."

The festival also featured the Middle Eastern elements of bassist Avisha Cohen and the funk and klezmer sounds of Matt Small's Crushing Spiral Ensemble.

But it was the symposium that drew me to San Francisco.

"Are we talking about blacks being the only ones who play authentic jazz?" Davis asked rhetorically. "Or are we saying that jazz is related to the history of black people in the Americas? Or are we saying it is linked to the development of black culture?

"I would say jazz is linked to the people who make all the money. They are certainly not black. Jazz as we know it and the many music, dance, literary and film practices that have been spawned and influenced by jazz are inconceivable except in the complex context of black culture in the Americas.

"If we are going to talk about race and jazz, we need to consider the complicated way race still profoundly structures our economy, ideology and especially our ideas about gender."

James Lincoln Collier thought differently.

"Is there anything specific in the black culture that produced significant ways of playing?" he asked. "Until someone shows us, we are going to be hard-pressed to say jazz grew out of the black experience. It cannot be something mystical. If we are going to talk about jazz growing out of the black experience, then we must address what elements in jazz are due to what elements in the black culture.

"To begin with," he continued, "we can't talk about a unified black culture any more than we can talk about a unified white culture. Louis Armstrong grew up in a culture of poverty, which was very different from the middle-class culture that Duke Ellington grew up in Washington, D.C.

"Conversely, I grew up in the East, which is different from where the president grew up in Texas."

Now you have a sampling of the scholars' points of view. But talking about jazz won't make it relevant, and arguing about its roots is not particularly productive.

I went to the symposium because these questions continue to arise and because discussions of them can be interesting and provocative. But I suggest you listen to the music. As Harry Edwards said in his closing remarks, "If it speaks to you, then it means somewhere, somehow the music interfaces with your culture."

And that's where ownership belongs.

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