#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.

Geri Allen On First Christmas Album & Embracing It All

Photo by: Karl Giant

Geri Allen is, with all certainty, the renaissance woman of Modern Jazz. Musician (and more pointedly, instrumentalist), scholar, professor, woman, mother, and African American, Allen has deepened the possibilities of what it means to be a jazz musician. It is likely for this reason that she has been recognized in ways not characteristic of typical jazz commendation. She is the first woman to receive the Danish Jazzpar Prize, she is a Guggenheim Fellow for Musical Composition (2008-2009), she has received honors and awards from various universities, as well as receiving the first Soul Train Lady of Soul award for jazz and an NAACP Image award nomination. Her ever-enduring desire to teach and learn is immersed in her artistry. She is a professor by profession, but she is a natural scholar.  With Allen, nothing is surface. Her works are always layered with a combination of cultural homage, imagination, and inventiveness. The jazz master, whose recording career as a leader is just shy of thirty years, is still embarking on uncharted territories, with the release of her first Christmas album, A Child is Born.

“It was really organic in the way that it happened,” says Allen as we talked during her layover to Pittsburg on a busy travel day. “It found its genesis in the church at Bethany [Baptist Church, in Newark, New Jersey]. We did a concert there two years ago, and the choir embraced the idea of doing this music, and I was so embraced by the church, you know? I felt like I had to come back…and I did come back. I felt so very grateful to be a part of it. So the music really did grow out of that… it has its foundation there.”

Beyond a mere word or concept, foundation has been a guiding principle in Allenʼs career, and while there are many who believe, on some level or another, that leaning on foundation and tradition is a surefire way to stagnate jazz, Allenʼs example could not be a truer testament to the opposite. One of the most innovative musicians in jazz, Allen believes firmly in embracing the totality of her culture in order to arrive at the highest form of artistic expression. “I think people who are innovators…they just donʼt drop out of the air,” says Allen of the idea of separating innovation from tradition. “There is something in place, something that was developed from a body of collective work, something the field or the culture agrees to call innovation, a body of work which has to be acknowledged and evolved within and through, a living and breathing criteria which can then be defined as innovation. There is a foundation in every culture, a respect for its traditions which are celebrated within, and then shared with the world. These define humanity at its best. I donʼt think innovation exists without an acknowledgment of and respect for foundation or culture.”

Allen holds fast to this concept most endearingly on A Child Is Born. The granddaughter of a Methodist minister, she grew up in the church, and found “deep connection” in that sense of community and heritage. She also made a trip to Bethlehem a few years ago, an experience she says undoubtedly influenced the making of this album. “We played the first Jerusalem Jazz Festival, [so] as soon as we got off of the plane and set our bags down, we went straight to the Western Wall, where people are praying and leaving prayers on the Wall. I canʼt even express the feeling of that communion between the people there. And so we performed and then we felt we were so close to Bethlehem, there was no way that we were going miss the opportunity. So, we made the trip there twice, and it was an amazing…I mean,to go to the place where Christ was born, to be there in the cave, to spend time there in meditation, it was certainly life-changing.”

A Child Is Born (Motéma)

Far from a setlist of re-harmed holiday heart-warmers, A Child Is Born is, for one, powerfully thought-provoking, at times pensive, which is a most appropriate evocation of mood given the deeply historical framework of this project. Emory Universityʼs Professor of Music, Reverend Dwight D. Andrews puts it best in his eloquent liner notes for the album in saying, “Ms. Allen has managed to capture the wonder and mystery, innocence, beauty, and hope of the Christmas season.” Comprised of a thoughtful mixture of classic and original repertoire, Allen explores traditional and ancient themes with interpretations of “Imagining Gena at Sunrise” and “Imaging Gena at Sunset” supported by stunning cover art by artist Kabuya Pamela Bowens, which depicts the Black Madonna and Child. The traditional “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” includes stirring vocal samples from the women of the Quilt Collective of Geeʼs Bend, Alabama. Her own “God Is With Us” is based on Matthew 1:23; the angel coming to Joseph in a dream with the message that the Virgin Mary will give birth to a son, Emmanuel, whose name is the titleʼs translation.

Allen also breathes new life into familiar Christmas repertoire with songs like “Away In a Manger”, “Silent Night”, “Angels We Have Heard On High”, and most notably for me, the Thad Jones classic, “A Child Is Born”, a performance which she dedicates to the composerʼs late brother, the illustrious pianist, Hank Jones, who himself was a genius at infusing modern gospel chords and substitutions in jazz repertoire. Allen channels Jones with her exquisite improvisations, marinating in the allure of the song’s chord changes, (and irresistibly quoting the Morey-Churchill classic, “Someday My Prince Will Come”) before getting to the songʼs melody a little after the half-way mark. Allenʼs virtuosic execution, gospel warmth, and breath-taking improvisations on this musical celebration of Christmas are, like all of her work, layered with meaning and reverence, presented with modernism and beauty. It is a balance she strikes unfailingly. Then again, sheʼd have it no other way.

It would be almost impossible (and almost irresponsible) for me not to delve further into this issue of tradition and modernism with someone as brilliant and gifted as Ms. Allen, as she defies the notion that giving reverence to tradition and foundation not only isolates oneʼs artistry, but subsequently pits one against a younger generation of musicians. Beyond Allenʼs originative musical demonstration, she is also one of the biggest advocates and supporters of the next generation of jazz musicians, teaching, mentoring, and hiring them. At this past Monterey Jazz Festival, I caught some of the set from her much buzzed about group Timeline, which features along with bassist, Kenny Davis, the young talents of drummer Kassa Overall and dynamic tap dancer, Maurice Chestnut. “There is a basic issue of connectedness to the culture, and the musicians…have to make an investment in that,” says Allen. “For me, there are certain musicians that I always felt made a really clear investment in that, and when I was growing up in Detroit that was just the way we did things. I mean, the people would come out and dance to the music, they understood what it was about, and they were just in it, because it was a part of the culture, and I think thatʼs what Iʼve wanted to have; that experience within jazz.”

Photo by: Karl Giant

Dance, and tap in particular, is becoming a bit of an underrepresented art, making Allenʼs inclusion of this element of African American heritage in jazz all the more significant. “I think that those aspects of who we are, are what make our stories interesting and unique,” she says.  With a Masterʼs degree in Ethnomusicology from Pittsburgh University, Allen’s long-standing rep for infusing various components of African American history into the jazz element of the culture, is largely influenced by one of her greatest heroes, Mary Lou Williams.

Vijay Iyer, who I really appreciate,” says Allen, “had courage to make a comment some years ago in All About Jazz that basically says people…they go to school and they get degrees in jazz, and then they want to disassociate themselves with the musicʼs culture. They donʼt want to say that theyʼre playing jazz. Then they come up with these other descriptions that people use today [laughs] and he said, ʻWhen did jazz become something to get around or away from?ʼ I think Mary Lou Williams knew that.”

I found myself relating to what Allen was saying from a journalistic vantage. My frustration with the lack of diversity in jazz journalism, and subsequent disappointment in the coverage and acknowledgment of this generationʼs jazz musicians of color is a reflection of a consequence Ms. Allen so acutely discussed, offering a challenge that left me deeply affected. “There is a rainbow of talented, young people out here playing the music today, and that is wonderful, this music is and always has been all embracing. Looking at the next generation of African American musicians playing this music it is important that we continue to embrace these young people as well and encourage them to celebrate their roots, and if other people in the field are not acknowledging that, we should be. I think we have to continue on in the spirit of what Mary Lou Williams was saying, and Dr. Billy Taylor… our heroes would say, this is your culture, embrace it. You donʼt want to lose who you are. And thatʼs what happens when you donʼt embrace your culture…you disappear.  These aspects empower the music, when it remains connected to it’s source.”

I donʼt think Iʼve ever heard words on this subject that have hit me harder than those. Itʼs like I gained ten years worth of perspective in just those few sentences. Sure, the disconnect between Black youth and their cultural inheritance in jazz, is something that remains the major inspiration for this very blog. It is a serious problem. Yet, not until Ms. Allen framed the consequence so candidly, did it click on all cylinders. “Thatʼs what I impart to my students,” Allen continues, “and I have a very diverse and talented group of young people, and they are understanding that this is a music that is culturally based, and it is a music which comes from the African-American experience. If they really want to learn on a deeper level, then theyʼve got to embrace the culture, and I think thatʼs really where the heart of our conversation is. This is the norm with other world musics, you must deal with the cultural criteria. That premise is understood by artists, students, and scholars alike universally. Why is this language a problem when it comes to jazz, why does this idea rattle some people today?”

There may be a lot to fix, but Allen is optimistic — of both the future of jazz and its relation to journalism. She emits a gracious hope which is illuminated in her most recent work, but it is a characteristic she has always embodied.

“Itʼs OK for people to have opinions, thatʼs fine…and itʼs OK to publish opinions, and thatʼs fine. I feel strongly that there is a renaissance of amazing scholars in this area of African American music and culture. Iʼm looking at the writers, people like Farah Jasmine Griffin, people like Robin D.G. Kelley, and George Lewis…people of that ilk, who really are establishing a level of responsibility for how we will write about the music and how we talk about the music. And I just feel that these are the ways to look, [instead of] getting so upset about some of these other things that are not really dealing with the real core of what is happening in the culture. Like the book that Kelly did on Monk…that sets the bar of what the expectation of jazz scholarships should be…real, substantive research on the music, based on a respect for the cultural criteria accepted by the field … the folk. The music truly deserves this level of care. Ten years, you know, Kelly did that research. That kind of time and that kind of love and appreciation for the subject matter is where I want to go, personally, to find out what the facts were on a much deeper level. These discussions about our innovator’s contributions are thrilling. And I think weʼre going to see more of this.”

The beauty in Allenʼs resolution is that it includes and challenges everyone across race, gender and generations. Her powerful message to jazz musicians that true modernism is in the understanding, accepting, acknowledging and embracing of the entirety of the culture; not dismissing, deleting or wishing it away, is as bold and transcending as her life’s work. As journalists, it is this same message…this foundation…that will keep us honest, and tell it like it truly is, and that, says Allen, just like the blues, “is something that never goes out of style.”♦

Don’t miss Geri Allen performing the music of A Child Is Born at Bethany Baptist Church, in Newark, New Jersey on Saturday, December 17th.  Concert is FREE.  Visit her website for more information.  Additionally, partial proceeds from this recording go to the YMWCA of Newark and Vicinity (www.newarkymca.org), who, in association with Bethany, provide quality programs for children and families throughout the community, with emphasis on those in crisis. 

Nice Work If We Can Get It: Women Writing On Jazz

An Open Letter, A Thank You Note, and Pulling the Card On Jazz Journalism and Gender Bias

I’ve never really been one to write rebuttals, or counter-statements to articles that have peaked my interests or plucked at my sensitivities. However, when I read music journalist Nate Chinen’s recent piece on the lack of women writing critically about jazz, I couldn’t resist the opportunity. Not to rebut, as he’s actually a strong proponent for women journalists, and a thoughtful querier of why there is such inadequacy in the field, but to offer my perspective in hopes of shedding some light on the matter. Characteristically, most of the responses to Chinen’s article, thus far have been from men, underscoring his point. The male response has been positive and in line with Chinen, agreeing that the lack of women jazz critics is not only fundamentally disturbing, but a disservice to the documentations and observations of jazz as a whole. I concur. I don’t suppose that I can diagnose the entire problem; it’s an intensely layered and webbed subject. But as a woman, a writer, and a jazz obsessor, I can certainly put my hand on a few maladies.

I got my first taste of working in the music business when I was about nineteen years old, and I knew immediately that I would never do anything else. I’ve always loved jazz, and I’ve always loved to write. Separately, these loves are relatively harmless, but put them together and I am suddenly playing a man’s sport. In fact, throughout my career, before writing became my main focus, once it became obvious to my colleagues and associates that, accompanied by my love for jazz, was a deep understanding of jazz, I went from being a novelty to a threat. Not only do I know “All the Things You Are”, but I can groove to Mehldau playing it in an odd time signature, and “Ooh and Aah” in all the right places over those ridiculous chord progressions in the vamp. Being Black added a complexity. Now they were utterly confused. How dare I know anything about my heritage? Nothing feels creepier than a huddle of White guys having musical orgasms over Mark Turner, and turning their noses up at me and my attempt to casually join the conversation. There is an odd love/hate dynamic when it comes to Black culture, and Black people. Somehow, in the eyes of some, they are different. The assumption? I’m not cultured enough to appreciate my own damn culture. But I digress, a little.

Unlike any other genre, jazz is described for better or worse, as an intellectual art form. And just like there are issues with accepting Black culture and Black people as synonymous, I think there are still stigmas that make it difficult for people to view women as critical thinkers in such a male-dominated art form. Much like the sports industry, where jokingly or not, the all too often assumed capacity of a woman’s understanding is that, “the green team is beating the yellow team,” and that “#42 sure knows how to fill out a pair of shorts”, I think the jazz police have summoned women to the microphone and the audience. Non-vocalist women jazz musicians have it hard enough, let alone someone who actually wants to critique the music.

But I find it that more women are writing about jazz in other contexts. Women like Michelle Mercer and Farah Jasmine Griffin are both compelling authors, who write about jazz. Analytical, probing, and thought-provoking? Yes. However, critical? Not as much. The “bully pulpit” that Chinen passionately encourages women to stand behind is likely less appealing to women. It is for me. I think the reason many musicians don’t like jazz critics is not because they may have received a less than glowing review from one, but because of the presumptuous, unwarrantedly authoritative opinions, which I find are often riddled with reflections of their own personal insecurities. This is not to lump all critics in a jerk pile. There are no anomalies in life, and certainly none in this conversation. Like Chinen, and John Murph, and some others, there are journalists who are informed, respectful, and tactful.  Yet, we have not gotten away from the historically hyper-judgmental jazz critic model. This may be another reason women are slim pickings in this profession. To begin, motivationally, I don’t think many women are coming from this seemingly bitter standpoint. I think women are quicker to ponder than they are to pummel, and unfortunately jazz critics have created that sort of bad rap which women may find to be a bit of a turnoff.

I find myself in the middle of these two styles.  I’m not a critic by any means, but I am pretty fearless when it comes to writing about uncomfortable yet imperative subjects within jazz, which is motivated by my own experiences coming up in this industry, and the glaring issues within it that get talked about behind the scenes but rarely on a public platform.  Writing about these topics is healing, for one.  But beyond my own edifying gratification, the real benefit is when folks are willing to have an honest dialogue, which can be tough.  But that’s when there is growth.  If the music has to grow, then surely we have to.  Jazz journalists cannot stay in a bubble.  And just like the modern jazz musicians of today can’t (and should not be expected to) compete with their deceased predecessors, some journalists have to move on from the fact that they may have interviewed some of them.  It doesn’t give their work any more credence, especially when they think those fortunate experiences equal a right to be imperious and egotistical.

In his article, Chinen sites trumpeter Nicholas Payton as one of the notable musicians who hires and collaborates with a significant number of women (for his big band) without patronizingly doing so.  Chinen follows up this point with the question, “Have we seen a well-considered review of Payton recently from a female jazz critic?”

Ironically, I’d say, “Yeah, from me!”  Well, it’s not a review per se, but it’s a gutsy ass piece, nonetheless.  And at the end of the day, that’s what Chinen is really calling for…(right Nate?)  Although critics, by very nature of the definition, don’t exactly evoke warm and fuzzy thoughts, they don’t have to make us cringe. Criticism, when done right, should actually inspire, inform and intrigue.  It doesn’t have to be wrapped in a big, pink bow…the idea is not to love everything, of course.  But taking the time to seek out the interesting aspects to write about is what separates a critic from a jerk.  (For example, don’t slam someone because you don’t know what else to do!  Trust me, I’ve seen it).  Simply put, let’s do an overhaul of what it means to be a critic by finding inspiration in the really good ones, and I’ll bet we’ll see more women.  And that would be great.

Thanks, Mr. Chinen, for inspiring me to think about this subject a little harder.

This is a blog post, and not a study.  I kindly ask that you not assume that I am making any sweeping judgments about any one group (women, men, critics, Black folks, White folks, etc.)  I am not.  I welcome your feedback.