#BAM at Birdland

L-R Ben Wolfe, Marcus Strickland, Orrin Evans, Gary Bartz, Nicholas Payton and Touré

After what has been acknowledged wholly as one of the most enthralling arts and culture debates of 2011, the Nicholas Payton-inspired firestorm over a post on the trumpeter’s own blog, which challenged the use of the word “jazz” has begun to marinate in its concept and mellow in terms of its seemingly incendiary intention; evidenced by last night’s first BAM (Black American Music) conference held at Birdland jazz club in midtown. Defenses were down and ears were wide open, as Payton led a panel discussion which included pianist Orrin Evans, saxophonist Marcus Strickland, bassist Ben Wolfe and veteran altoist Gary Bartz, who has been a long-time advocate of dumping the “j-word”, as jazz was relentlessly referred throughout the evening. Befittingly moderated by Touré, music journalist, cultural critic, and author of the provocative Who’s Afraid of Post Blackness: What It Means To Be Black Now, the conversation took a hiatus from the social network cosmos, challenging cynics who may have thought this argument would be fleeing at best and fall on its face at worst.  “Just the fact that we’re all here about a word speaks of the issue that has been lurking underneath the surface for a long time,” said Payton. “This is not a new argument; this is an argument that has been had for many, many, many years. It’s just that now I feel we’re in a position to actually do something about it.”

Indeed the likes of Charles Mingus, Max Roach, and Miles Davis precede Payton and panel, when it comes to the aversion to the demeaning racial connotations the term “jazz” holds.  Vince Wilburn Jr., nephew to Miles Davis, echoed his uncle’s sentiments from the audience, which also included pianist Geri Allen, author and professor Farah Jasmine Griffin, and journalist Stanley Crouch, to name a few illustrious figures who came to hear from Payton face to face.

Understanding the concept of disowning this term has been challenging on many fronts, even among fellow musicians, and many are wondering what relabeling the genre to one so broad-sounding as Black American Music can do in terms of marketing and selling product, as well as revivifying the music and its potential audience.  Others are concerned that labeling the music by race will have exclusionary consequences.  “When you study the music it becomes quite clear that it is Black American music,” Wolfe contends.  “And my question is, why is that an issue?  That’s a beautiful thing…for everybody.”  Payton underscored, questioning why no one challenges such undeniable cultural ties between Mexican people and Mariachi, or Polka and eastern Europeans, for example.

“No one is here on this panel because we’re talking about our career; this is about something I believe in,” says Evans addressing the a fore mentioned concern.  He argues instead that as artists taking such an anti-establishment stance, they have the most at stake.  “I thought my house was going to be firebombed,” he joked, referring to his allegiance to the ever-controversial Payton.  “So I don’t think anybody is out here to advance their career.”

The musicians on this panel may not be thinking career advancement per se, but there are many who are concerned with protecting theirs.  Yet as jazz struggles through an incredible identity crisis, and very low overall marketshare (some 3% of all music sales, last I checked), one has to wonder what’s to lose.  Outside of the term jazz having such deep racial connotations, it sets no clear musical indication, anyways.  Jazz can be anything from Louis Armstrong to Kenny G…from Branford Marsalis to Mary J. Blige, depending on your location (the club or the cruise ship).  So, while we don’t know what will come of the BAM movement, and there are definitely some kinks to be worked out, it certainly has everyone’s attention (Payton’s recent posts have garnered upwards of 70,000 views and counting).  That’s something we haven’t been able to say for “jazz” in quite some time.  “We’re trying to find a more suitable label for this great music that is, for the most part, identified by a very, very arbitrary and disdainful word,” said Strickland.  “That’s what we’re here for.” ♦

Nicholas Payton plays Birdland through Sunday, January 8.

17 responses to “#BAM at Birdland

  1. Morning, Angelika. Great to see you yesterday! I’m thankful for the coverage. My blog has actually generated over 150,000 views on the subject. Positive indeed for the music. #BAM!

  2. Humble opinion: this debate is a sad thing, wasted time and energy, and the expression of a sort of narrowmindedness… Jazz is so much wider than just one race (as a species, we should be beyond debating race in 2012) and the word itself is not a disdainful word anymore.

    • The debate is not about race, Neil. This music was created by Black Americans, that is not debatable because it is a fact. Anyone who is uncomfortable with acknowledging that fact needs to take a closer look at the information. To clarify: just like Brazilians and all other cultures play and enjoy Brazilian music, Black Americans and all other cultures can play and enjoy Black American Music. It’s that simple. The disdain for the word j*** comes from word’s history, that isn’t debatable either. These are facts, and the more people acknowledge them the less they will feel uncomfortable or excluded. It is time for us as people to open our minds to the possibility of appropriately relabel this music.

      The word ‘negro’ is outdated. The word ‘secretary’ is outdated. This list could go on and on, but my point is that certain words become outdated because of their history. That is also just a plain and simple fact. BAM!!!

      • Don’t worry, i’m not debating the origins of the genre or anything… and i don’t feel uncomfortable with the fact, or excluded by it because i’m not trying to belong. But that debate about relabeling it “Black American Music” just seems to take the debate to the race issue when we should well be beyond that, that’s all. i don’t see that as a move towards “mind opening” at all… Plus i don’t see disdain in the word Jazz. There was a meaning back then, ok, that’s another fact and i wouldn’t dare denying that, but now it’s a musical genre, and one that has a certain select image: appreciating Jazz is widely seen as a sign of education, of having reached a certain degree of culture, one has to be ABLE to understand Jazz, ABLE of playing it… So i’m sticking to my opinion: useless debate…

      • If anything, the facts about the origins of jazz are important in the way it is taught, but seriously, this debate seems to be more symptomatic of a fear: maybe Jazz has become too big of a word, encompassing too much, and some people may want to bring some other word to the table in order to define what they do? This is just an hypothesis!

      • Neil, if you are ‘beyond’ race then you should not have a problem with the label Black American Music. If the debate was useless it would not get the coverage it is getting, nor would you care so much about this subject and participate yourself. I have played worldwide to many different audiences, varying in education, tastes, etc… and they all enjoy it. If the music is enjoyable it will be enjoyed, if it is overly intellectualized then that is where your assertion of ABILITY applies. Some jazz is enjoyable and some is not. Coltrane’s music has tons of information in it, but he learned the music from the roots. This is why his music is enjoyable – it contains blues/folklore, and the rhythms that make this music so enjoyable. ABILITY is for snobs, enjoyability is for the PEOPLE. Nobody has to ‘belong’, but those who ignore the roots of the music loose sight of what makes this music enjoyable and alive. Black American Music encompasses much more than you think it encompasses. Much more than the J*** word. It’s actually an extremely diverse collection of various music styles. BAM is a descriptive label, but not limiting at all. J*** is just a made up word that has allowed many to ignore the roots and loose sight of what made the music popular in the first place – it has SOUL! Who cares about ABILITY, the people respond to SOUL!! BAM!!

      • it is limiting, that label and debate are limiting, and you’re right, i’m beyond this so i don’t need to reply to whatever you’re saying…

      • Exactly, you are ‘beyond’ wanting to understand this issue. Your only goal is to oppose it, so why would you actually listen to what I am saying. I’ve supplied hard facts to prove my point, all you have done is ‘say’ it is limited. Black American Music is a description, just like Brazilian Music, Klezmer Music, and Irish Traditional Music are all descriptions. You can run from the facts all you want, it will always catch up…

  3. hi angelika –

    thanks for the insightful recap of the panel yesterday. nick’s point is an important one and i’m not sure you all find many who do not acknowledge much of the core he has been blogging about especially in terms of the historical origin of the term jazz. i also do not think you will find anyone in their right mind who will argue about the origin of the music. my concern in all of this discussion is the real end game. what exactly are we looking to accomplish here?

    it is unclear to me how this is going to help ALL of us who are jazz professionals in the big picture of things (african american and other wise). you don’t need to be a genius to see how the artists are struggling to make ends meet these days. we need to create solutions within the community that enhance and help everyone in it. and as a (struggling) community, it may be better to collectively collaborate on pushing out this music using the music itself in hopes of creating awareness and interest (& income) so the musicians and industry professionals can start making decent livings again.

    not that long ago, i personally witnessed nick and his sonictrance band do this and it was fun, intense, beautiful and unforgettable. that magic is exactly what we need right now to energize the base and move forward. the real message is felt and always in the music itself.

    – JV

  4. If and when the dust ever settles on this, and whatever everyone eventually agrees to start calling it, I just want to keep working on playing it.
    That, to me, is what’s important.

  5. I love the idea of calling it Black American Music, but it still doesn’t define the style of music. BAM could refer to hip hop or ragtime or blues or rock and roll, or many other styles/forms of music which origin can be traced to the black enslaved people of America and their descendants.

    • Good point, Faith, and one I hadn’t considered. Apart from the total blurring of stylistic differences this would involve, it would throw the marketing of it an unrealistic nightmare. That’s why it will never happen – regardless of the truth behind it, in the end it’s the big industry money that makes the decisions about genre and style – not the musicians.

  6. It is clear that Mr. Payton is serious about this self-created ‘issue’ – but it really is not an issue. For one thing, at this stage of the game jazz is for better or worse the word that the music industry has, for a hundred years now, used to classify this music – but that’s not the real reason why changing ‘jazz’ to ‘bam’ is a ridiculous and poorly thought-out idea.

    Anyone who really knows about this music is completely aware of its Black origins – but the music has cross-fertilized now into a music which anyone can attempt to play. To attach a racial component in the labeling of it is an unnecessary and even self-defeating notion. I wonder if Mr. Payton can name one music in which the ethnicity of its origins is part of what the music is called. Samba. Polka. Classical. Blues. Rock. Country and Western. Free. Salsa. Pop. Rap. Ambient. Hip Hop. Metal. The list goes on and on. Not _one_ music attaches an indication of its racial origins to what the music is called. And to attempt doing so is throwing a monkey wrench into what is, hopefully, becoming a more evolved world in which race is _utterly_ irrelevant. There is truth in the old canard that music is a universal language which no one race of people can claim as their own. We, ALL of us, are merely PEOPLE. Nothing more, nothing less.

    And again – anyone with an honest interest in this music is absolutely aware of the fact that the original impetus behind the music was engendered by African Americans. This idea strikes me as like drawing a line in the sand – when what we need is to ERASE all lines. It is a frankly silly and self-defeating idea, and one which will thankfully gather no traction or momentum whatsoever. I would stake anything on it – in one month, two years, five years, twenty years, a hundred years from now, the music will still be called jazz – not bam. Should we come with ridiculous sounding names that identify the racial origins of EVERY type of music? Think about that. What would the result of such an action accomplish that could be called in any way positive? Does it honestly strike ANYONE as a good idea?

    I think I have a better idea. Let’s call it MUSIC. One planet, one people, one way of expressing ourselves through the medium of sound. We need unity – NOT division.

  7. One of the things I love about the music under discussion is, although its fundamental roots are from black americans, it is a truly american music. With African rhythmic roots and melodies, the tonality is from western harmony, and even Coltrane has a large debt to a Russian theoretician, Slonimsky. So jazz may be a badly defined term but it is only a word — the music should define itself as wonderful melding of a number of genres.

  8. Pingback: Orrin Evans ‘Flips the Script’ With 19th Release As Leader | ALTERNATE TAKES

  9. Pingback: The Black Arts: Making Jazz In The Mainstream | Jazz24

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