Jazz Community Responds to Trayvon Martin Tragedy

Trayvon Martin

Sean Bell. Amadou Diallo. Danroy Henry. Ramarley Graham. Orlando Barlow. Aaron Campbell. Timothy Stansbury. Oscar Grant. In the land of freedom and opportunity, the possibilities for these names to become household ones should be endless, and are what fundamentally define for what America stands, at its core. Instead, these names represent a reality which has been carved out specifically for Black males of this country. Sadly, we add 17-year-old Trayvon Martin to this list of people who will never reach the potential on which America thrives in theory, but fails in practice.

The story of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed, Black teenage boy who was stalked and subsequently murdered last month by a crime watch volunteer who deemed him “suspicious” as he walked home from a convenience store, has been elevated to an international one, largely in part by social and Black media outlets.  President Obama has called for  Americans to do some “soul searching”, personalizing the tragedy in a statement last week.  Nationwide rallies and public statements from influential figures in politics, entertainment and elsewhere have taken over mainstream media, which initially all but bypassed this story.  As a mother of a young son, as a journalist, and as a part of the jazz community, it remains a priority for me to do my part in keeping this story in the forefront of the American conscious.  It was also important that sentiments within the jazz community be well represented alongside those of the rest of the world.

Trayvon’s killer, George Zimmerman, (who was not part of a registered watch group, and who has a record for previously assaulting a police officer), has yet to be arrested; protected by one of the scariest laws in the nation. “It’s this backward, unjust, NRA- driven law that has let Zimmerman go free,” says pianist Vijay Iyer of the “Stand Your Ground” self-defense law which is currently in place in 24 states. “[President Obama’s] choice to step into this firestorm was courageous, and also strategic. All the focus has been on the 3-second-long ‘If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon’ quote, but he said some other very important things, too.” Iyer points out that as President, Barack Obama cannot override the law, which was passed in Florida in 2005, but says his statement that ‘we examine the laws and context for what happened’ is a ‘clear reference’ to “Stand Your Ground”.

The following is courtesy of Al Jezeera:

Here is a full explanation of the “Stand Your Ground” bill, as explained by Josh Horwitz, Executive Director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence (“Arming Zimmerman”).  The first prong of the law explicitly removes an individual’s duty to retreat from a conflict when he/she can safely do so . The second prong explicitly protects killers acting under the first prong:

“A person who uses force as permitted in s. 776.012, s. 776.013, or s. 776.031 is justified in using such force and is immune from criminal prosecution and civil action for the use of such force … A law enforcement agency … may not arrest the person for using force unless it determines that there is probable cause that the force that was used was unlawful.” [emphasis added.]

Despite the racial divide which this story has illuminated, President Obama’s imploring of the nation and its parents to have basic empathy in this case is something drummer Otis Brown III is relating to and coping with. “I explained the whole case and we talked about it,” says Brown who has two sons under ten years old.  “It’s like, do I really have to have a talk with them now about how some people are not going to like them or immediately treat them a certain way  because of the way they look?  We did, and they understood it, but as a parent, it’s kind of disheartening when you see a look come over their face… you see their mind working and I saw it when I was talking to them.  It was definitely a teaching moment. It’s the reality of how we live that you have to talk to your kids, especially Black males and for me, it was a crazy juxtaposition because we were just featured in [Esperanza Spalding’s] “Black Gold” video, and I’m explaining that concept to them… understanding and knowing your worth, and no more than a year later I have to, on the other hand, explain that some people think you’re worthless.”
Like so many others, Brown used his social media platform to denounce the notion that Trayvon’s hoodie sweatshirt somehow led him to a death sentence.  “The stats of how violent Black youth may be or how they dress is an ad hominem argument to the Trayvon Martin case,” says trumpeter Nicholas Payton.  “Zimmerman killed that boy in cold blood. He pursued a young man who was clearly more scared than he. You mean to tell me I need to modify my behavior or style of dress to thwart the danger of being shot by a pathological killer?”

Saxophonist and educator Wade Fulton Dean adds, “Let me be clear, a hoodie or any article of clothing for that matter, is not a catalyst for suspicion or a prediction of criminal activity.  Let’s be real, brothers Malcolm and Martin were struck down in suits.”

Saxophonist Marcus Strickland recounts “one of many” reminders that no matter how Black males may try to appear less “threatening”, (which is a poisonous ideology to begin with) they are not exempt from racial profiling.  “At 19 years old I had the great honor to play with Wynton Marsalis at a very exclusive event.  People of all races were very generous to us with their kind words after the performance.  I felt great!  Then as I walked home from the train that night, still dressed in a tuxedo, with an instrument that was appraised to be $5,000 at that time, strapped to my back, an elderly lady looked back at me and proceeded to walk much faster and get her keys out so she could quickly enter the safety of her apartment building (she also yanked at the door to close it faster).   I thought to myself, ‘No matter what I do, where I go, or how I dress my skin color will always conjure up the same image in the mind of people like this woman.’  Trayvon could have easily been me or anybody else of color, and as you see, a hoodie has nothing at all to do with it.”

“There is nothing we as Black people need to do to stop people from committing hate crimes against us,” says Payton.   “What needs to stop is the idea that the killing of another person based on prejudice is ever justifiable, no matter the race. The notion that we as Blacks have somehow brought this on ourselves is the same red herring they’ve been trying to sell us for centuries. I ain’t buying.”

“A hoodie is worn by people of all colors, not exclusively by dangerous Black males,” adds Strickland.  “Furthermore, not all Black males are dangerous.  The hoodie is not the issue, bigotry is the issue.  Although I deeply appreciate the many pros of the The Post Civil Rights era it is not an era of Post Racism, it is merely the spawn of more excuses and more subtle ways to carry out racism. The Sanford Police Department is full of it, Geraldo is full of it, and Zimmerman should have been arrested by now.  Given George Zimmerman’s history of violence, his racial slur in the 911 call, Zimmerman’s agressive pursuit of Trayvon, and the eye-witnesses’ accounts of no reason for the shooting there is already enough reason to make an arrest.  The tragedy has garnered a response from the President of the United States and the FBI  – shouldn’t that, in addition to the evidence, be enough warning that it’s time for an arrest and trial?  Furthermore, if Trayvon were not Black with a hoodie on would he be shot by Zimmerman?  If Trayvon were were not Black would it take this long for the Sanford Police to realize there is not enough evidence to prove Zimmerman’s innocence?  Has Trayvon’s skin color influenced the Sanford Police departments benefit of the doubt for Zimmerman?  Should the benefit of doubt rule over due process and evidence against Zimmerman?”

The questions posed are deserving of answers, especially to Trayvon’s parents.  Iyer is optimistic, but also calls out the silence and ignorance of right-wing media. “The nationwide grassroots protest movement formed around [this case] has been inspiring.  The national conversation about this incident has been characterized by typical racism and hotheaded ignorance that has become commonplace in the FOX News era, as television commentators continually weigh in without any factual knowledge or expertise.  This has created an ongoing atmosphere of hostility that validates prejudice over justice, righteous indignation over compassion, and divisiveness over community.”

Community has been a big part of this story, and it seems the Black community’s reaction is being put to the test, with a sort of call to action for how Blacks should respond to Black on Black crime.  Spiritual advisor and life coach Iyanla Vanzant spoke this past Sunday on Washington Watch With Roland Martin about the pathology of Black on Black crime, and that by devaluing life, it leaves the community vulnerable to these types of horrific crimes.

Brown points out the nation’s overall blind eye to Trayvon and how devaluing of African American lives is well beyond a Black issue.  “Just a couple of weeks ago, there were millions of people  trying to get Joseph Kony… White, Black, whatever. Retweeting stuff, posting stuff, and now that it’s an American kid that gets killed… it’s real lopsided that we have mostly people of color protesting. You don’t really see other races galvanizing in the same way, but Joseph Kony, it’s like, ‘Oh he’s a war criminal.’  So are African kids more valuable than African America kids?  It shouldn’t be the case the either way, but there should be the same amount of uproar for this case.”

“It angers me that America still is hell-bent on painting blackness with this wide, uninformed, mono-chromatic brush,” says Dean. “Blackness is not a stereotype; blackness is not a mystery. Blackness is a narrative of complexity and triumph. Professor Henry Louis Gates said, ‘If there are forty million black Americans, then there are forty million ways to be black.’ We are indeed a nuanced people. We are equal participants in this brilliant enterprise called America. The suspicions and misconceptions do harm and tarry from participating in celebration which is Black culture. And so I say to all of America, do not label your brown skinned brother and sister. For the label that you attempt to place on them can easily be placed on yourself.”

I cannot say that Trayvon Martin was a “typical kid”.  Black males in America do not have the luxury of such a general, fair and balanced terminology.  Personally, I don’t know a Black male who has not been profiled in some way or another.  “To be honest, I feel like I’m profiled very often,” says saxophonist Jaleel Shaw.  “There have been many times that I’ve been pulled over by the police, double checked at an airport, or watched in stores. Although I can say there are many times that I haven’t, the times that I have definitely stick out. Today, when a cop car is behind me, or before I even walk into some places, I sometimes feel uncomfortable.”

Cards as stacked against us as they are, I cannot help but look at Trayvon Martin as a regular kid; a kid who loved the outdoors, had aspirations of a career in aviation, and had a girlfriend he was crazy about.  He doesn’t just look like President Obama’s potential son, but my own actual one.  Which leaves me breathless.  I have come to grips with the fact that my son’s life lessons, and those of his non-Black friends will be very different.  Teaching my son how to deal with overwhelming racism within law enforcement, and raising him to be a kid who stays out of trouble in the first place, is something I am ready for.  To explain how something like this can happen to a kid who did all of the right things is what I’m not.

**A special thank you to all of the musicians who took time out of their busy schedules to let their voices be heard on this matter.

#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.

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.

Ambrose Akinmusire: An Emergence of Truth

Photo by Demandre Ward

Ambrose Akinmusire was born in 1982, a symbolic and transformational year in jazz.    Wynton Marsalis had just released his self-titled debut album on Columbia Records, while he was still a part of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers.  This album would prove symbolic, as it represented what was to come; a desperately needed re-emergence and preponderance of acoustic and straight-ahead jazz.  This revitalization during the 1980s produced several pivotal artists who bridged the cultural gap, and served as the catalysts who incited the current generation of jazz musicians.  Now, almost exactly thirty years later, Oakland native Akinmusire is at the apex of a similar potential revival.

Winner of the 2007 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Trumpet Competition, Akinmusire has been on the jazz radar as a paramount player for a few years now.  Fast forward to the present… Downbeat Magazine named Akinmusire both Rising Star Jazz Artist of the Year and Rising Star Trumpet in their 2011 Critics Poll, in addition to giving his Blue Note debut, When the Heart Emerges Glistening, a glowing four-star review.  The Los Angeles Times named Akinmusire one of their 2011 “Faces to Watch” and The New York Times has also hailed the virtuoso, placing him on everyone’s it-list.  Now this time, the critics are unanimously on the money. Akinmusire and his quintet have emerged as a force with which to be reckoned; raising the stakes when it comes to individuality, intent, vision and modernism.

Unlike the respective eras of his predecessors; when Blanchard, Payton and Hargrove exploded onto the scene, Akinmusire has arrived at a time when there is so much disparity, discrepancy and downright indifference about jazz.  Follow any social media threads about the genre and it’s instantly apparent that there are a lot of disparaging sentiments toward the general state of jazz and every imaginable (and sometimes unimaginable) sub-context.  And whether you agree or take issue with what’s on the table, the underlying truth is that people are frustrated, making Akinmusire’s advent that much more substantial.

Much of the jazz audience proclaims an air of stagnation, lack of inventiveness and compromise of the art form.  Akinmusire agrees.  These subjects are compounded by matters of race, culture and the overall state of the music industry, making the waters for diagnosis conveniently murky for most, but not all.  “I don’t think many people are doing it,” Akinmusire blatantly states.  “I think a lot of people want the approval of critics, so they end up dumbing their shit down.”

For Akinmusire, the intent is first and needs to be established long before getting on the band stand.  His quintet is made up of close friends and long-time collaborators: tenor saxophonist Walter Smith III, pianist Gerald Clayton, bassist Harish Raghavan and fellow Oakland native, drummer Justin Brown.  Growing up in Oakland, Akinmusire’s philosophies about loyalty and community are entrenched in his artistry.  “I try to be as honest as possible with myself.  I try not to hang out with people who I don’t like.  I try to trust my instinct.  In five seconds of being around somebody, I know whether or not I can really vibe with them.  So, I think that’s related to the music too.  I try to surround myself with musicians who I feel challenged by as opposed to musicians who are just killing.  I try to surround myself with musicians who I don’t know how they’re going to sound six months from now, or five years from now, or ten years.   If I hear somebody playing, and I can say OK, twenty years from now, I know exactly how they’re going to sound; I don’t really fuck with them. I think all of that is related.”

From the opening track of When the Heart Emerges Glistening, there is a relentless fire which rages from the band, causing a neck-snapping reaction from the listener.  It is reminiscent, but only in the sense that you are transported to a time when jazz as a whole was courageous and bold.  The telepathic nature of the band’s interaction and the ensuing execution is mind-blowing.  “I think that everybody in the band is extremely hard on themselves; they’re never satisfied,” says Akinmusire, as he tries to put their chemistry into words.  “Like, if we had the best performance ever, and you come backstage, we’re all gonna be sitting there with our heads down like ‘Man, that sucked I need to practice.’  Everybody is constantly shedding and trying to move forward.  And there are no egos in the band at all…at all.  Nobody ever gets mad at the other person for messing up or changing parts or anything like that.  So, I think there’s that and also we’ve known each other for so long.  I grew up with Justin.  I met him when he was in middle school.  I’ve known Walter since 2001.  Harish, I’ve known for maybe 6 years.  Gerald, I met when he was still in high school, and Sam Harris (the new pianist in the group), I went to Manhattan School of Music with him.  And I just grew up like that.  I grew up in North Oakland and there’s this saying that you stick with your crew from the beginning to the end, even if there have been some weird, funny development issues, it will eventually…you know…it’s like family.  No matter what, you’re supposed to have their back.  I think that everybody who I have in the band has the same sort of outlook and I think you hear that in the music.

To co-produce the album, Akinmusire called upon his mentor, fellow Manhattan School alum, and Blue Note label mate, Jason Moran, to help translate the magic which is so essential to the band, to record format.  “I didn’t have to explain anything to him; that’s why I picked him, because he’s all about hitting and being real honest…he embodies that in his art,” explains Akinmusire, who wanted the album to feel as raw and in-the-moment as possible.  “It was just a constant reminder to come out of the booth and see Jason sitting there.  It was like, I gotta be about the music.  I can’t be like I’m on Blue Note and stressing about this shit.  He helped to relax me and helped me to remember my purpose as an artist.”

This element of intangible guidance and rearing from Moran is quite familiar to Akinmusire.  Having never had a trumpet lesson until he reached college, he honed his skills as a trumpeter in a very unconventional fashion, especially for these days of extreme institutionalization of the music.  Akinmusire recalls, “I went to a jazz camp… I don’t know how we heard about it.  Maybe there was a flier at the school, and I went.  And all these old-school musicians were teaching there and they sort of became my mentors.  Bassist Herbie Lewis… I met him, and then Donald Bailey, who played with Jimmy Smith and all these people.  They just sort of started mentoring me.  They would pick me up from the house, and take me record shopping or bring me on their gigs, and I would just sit there.  Some taught at college. They would pick me up and take me to their college classes.  They really just started mentoring me.  I never really had a teacher.  I didn’t sit there and play rudimental studies, and stuff, it was really ‘groid’, like ‘Here’s a trumpet and I’m going to teach you about the history…about the music.’  Just through stories, just old-school style.  Like, most of these guys, they were old-school.  They didn’t know shit about classical studies, they just picked their shit up and played…smoked weed; some of them were ex-Black Panthers, like real ‘groid’, you know?  I mean, I would get with Roy [Hargrove] and Nick [Payton] when they came into town like, ‘Is my embouchure OK?  Yeah?  OK, cool.’  But I never had a lesson.”

This crucial piece of Akinmusire’s story is no doubt the principal component of the development of his prodigious voice.  It also manifested as an expected point of contention, when he got to the collegiate juncture of study.  “By the time I came to high school, I already knew Billy Higgins, I knew Joe Henderson.  So you got these cats [at Manhattan School] telling me blah-blah-blah, and I’m thinking, ‘That’s not what he was just telling me.’  So there was a lot of arguing.”

The institutionalized setting in which jazz has found itself engulfed, is one of the most debated issues, with most viewing the predicament as a double-edged sword.  The argument being, that while the formal setting of jazz in schools gives exposure to young people who may not have otherwise discovered the art form, in a time where venues for jazz are closing at record speed, and pop-culture is eerily dominating, the flip side is an ill-appropriate, overly-Westernized approach to jazz, stripping it of its most essential elements; otherwise known as its “Blackness”.

We’re all being honest here, right?

Photo by Clay Patrick McBride

The overall discontentment with jazz is comfortably enigmatic, until you dig deeper and realize this “thing” everyone is missing, is the part which is most ancestral and least able to be captured in a school setting severely devoid of Black people.  Consequently there are two broad views:  One which has many Black people arguing that they are being written out of the jazz “present” and conversely, the other has many people strongly, but naively believing there is no room or relevance for race in a discussion regarding jazz.  Akinmusire’s take is based on neither premise, per se and as in his music, Akinmusire’s honesty is no bullshit.

“I don’t think you can take someone’s culture,” he explains.  “Once something becomes tangible, then you can take it away and that’s because we don’t have it here in our hearts.  So maybe that’s why I don’t understand [the first viewpoint].  It’s like, I’m Black; you can’t take that away from me. I live jazz; you can’t take that away from me.  If we have a whole community who understands that it’s here [points to his heart], you can’t take that away from us.  That’s the way it was with the be-boppers, before jazz education came and made it this tangible thing and a lot of people started believing it.”

The moment he said that to me, my vision cleared.  Honestly, it never really dawned on me that the onus might be on the Black jazz community, or lack thereof.  Akinmusire was born to a Mississippi-raised mother, and a Nigerian father; neither of whom were musical or very familiar with jazz.  The first musician on either side of his family, who was discovered by jazz, and not the other way around, Akinmusire truly speaks from a rare and untainted perspective.

“To say ‘this is ours’…that’s a known thing, we don’t need to necessarily say that, and saying it is not necessarily  going to make people not want to take it away if that’s what they’re trying to do.  It’s just going to exclude people like, ‘Oh I can’t do that.’  And those people might have valid things to say and contribute to the music.  I think if you just live that…like, to me, Mark Turner is like that.  He’ll never say a word.  Or, like Marcus Gilmore.  These cats don’t talk, but if you get on the band stand with them, you know you have to deal, and that’s some black shit.  Like yeah, this is our music.  But if you’re not stepping up to the plate and playing like that, then yeah you have to talk ‘They’re taking it away.’  You think Trane had to say that?  He didn’t have to say nothing. You think Lee Konitz was going to get up there with the John Coltrane Quartet?  You don’t have to say nothing.”

BOOM.

It was a bucket of ice water thrown to the face, but I’m wide awake and that’s a good thing.  The truth is, Black art forms have been habitually and historically compromised, but there comes a time when the discussion has to lead to a diagnosis and the diagnosis has to lead to a treatment and then, the treatment has to begin and Akinmusire, through his words, but ultimately through his music, has given jazz a serious bedside visit.

“George Wein hit me up last year and was like, ‘I want you to play at Zankel Hall,’”  Akinmusire tells me as we stroll down a Williamsburg street on a sunny Brooklyn afternoon.  “He wanted the quintet.  I said, ‘How about I do a big band…an all-black big band?’  He was like, ‘Yeah it’s cool!  Is that because you want to reclaim the music?’ I said, ‘No…it’s just that I want the community;  I miss the community.’  When I was coming up it was really inspiring.  I used to go out and see Roy Hargrove, Eric Lewis, Marcus and EJ Strickland, Bilal…that shit was so inspiring for me to come to New York and see all these great Black musicians just really trying to push themselves and now that doesn’t really happen and I think that the music is suffering because of the lack of community of Blacks.  If we don’t have a community, we can’t really complain, so I think that’s what needs to happen first.”

Photo by Clay Patrick McBride

 

That sense of community also influences Akinmusire’s writing, as he composes specifically with his tightly knit quintet in mind. He says of the interwoven nature of his band, “It’s a blessing and a curse because I can’t write for anybody else, because I’ve been playing with Walter for so long. Justin is the only drummer I’ve been playing with consistently for the last thirteen years.  I mean there was Zach Harmon, when I was working at the Monk Institute. That was two years.  But really, with all of my compositions, I’m hearing Justin.  So when I play with other people, when they try to interpret their way it just doesn’t feel right… same thing with Walter.  He has such a specific sound and tone and way of phrasing and you know, we phrase together so when I play with somebody else and they’re not really getting it, I find myself feeling uneasy and getting upset… same thing with Harish.”  Akinmusire penned twelve of the thirteen songs on When the Heart Emerges Glistening, his pieces as distinguished and refreshing as his playing.  The album feels cinematic, in part with a theme-like pensiveness throughout. There is nothing surface about this album, but it never compromises its accessibility.  It is one of the most modern statements to come along in a while, with the culmination of history that is obviously Akinmusire’s foundation clearly not acting as a hindrance to his singular voice.

 

“I feel like people who consider themselves traditionalists are ignorant, and that comes from a lack of understanding that whatever it is you’re analyzing is related to the history of that time,” says Akinmusire about the strongholds which many so-called jazz purists have cemented in their expectations.  “So bebop was relating to what was happening at that time and it was modern at that time.  So I just try to play the music that’s of the now right now and that’s related to me and I just try to be honest with who I am.  Today I feel this way and tomorrow I may feel another way and I think it takes courage to say what I thought yesterday was wrong and I think a lot of people are scared to do that.  That’s one thing my girlfriend has taught me.  She’s very honest and she will die for honesty, and that’s something that has affected my music… same thing with my mom.”

 

What is most treasurable about Akinmusire is that like the title of this record, which represents a stripping down of all that is apparent to expose what is really important in life, he himself, stripped of the critical acclaim and accolades is, at his core, the epitome of an artist.  The word honesty or a variation of such is used in this piece alone fourteen times, not because of redundancy on my part, or naïveté on Akinmusire’s.  But because it’s the engine of innovation; the thing which will help elevate jazz to its purpose once more.♦


 

Remembering Michael

“There have been others, but never two lovers like music…music…and me.”

Michael Jackson

It has always been slightly unsettling for me to celebrate or commemorate an artist around the anniversary of his or her death.  After all, it is what a particular artist accomplished or inspired during their lifetime that is being remembered, and only logical that we therefore reflect upon them during their coming into the world, and not their departure from it.  But when it comes to Michael Jackson, it’s a different story — at least for me, and I believe, for many.  I think this is because Michael’s actual death was so profound.  The gaping hole left in the hearts of millions symbolized that losing Michael Jackson was the single most culturally impacting event of our lifetime.  I’m sure you know exactly where you were and what you felt when you learned that Michael was gone.

I was either so young, or not yet born when we tragically lost musical giants like John Lennon, Otis Redding, Sam Cooke and Lee Morgan.  Furthermore, my mom was pregnant with my older brother when both Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, and had already mourned the previous deaths of JFK and Malcolm X.  America has undoubtedly suffered terrible loss of artistic, cultural and political icons within the scope of our lifetimes.  But, the interesting thing about Michael’s death, which is so distinctive, is that because his career spanned over 40 years, our parents and even grand-parents loved him just the same as those of my generation, and for all intents and purposes, actually “knew” him first, as much as the Thriller generation loves to claim him as being “really” ours.  (I’m guilty).

Michael’s impact is so far beyond music, and the various contexts through which he can be intensely studied and analyzed are indicative of that.  One thing that deeply affected me upon his death was that for all who thought that Michael Jackson forgot that he was Black…well, the media had not.  But thankfully, neither did Black folks.  Michael was celebrated and memorialized most appropriately by his people; without the damper of controversy and distractions, which were exacerbated by the media.  The beautifully relentless home-going celebration at the Apollo Theater in Harlem was the most brilliant example to the world that Michael not only understood his roots, but he was the embodiment of Black culture.

That being said, Michael’s indelible influence on the world is unprecedented and I cannot even grasp the totality of what that really means.  It surpasses any sort of quantification.  In a sense, like Michael himself, his influence is not to be understood but simply appreciated and respected.  There’s nothing else to do with such an other-worldly gift we are so blessed to have experienced.  Here, some of the most prominent artists in modern jazz have taken a moment to reflect on what Michael Jackson means to them.  Besides, Michael’s musical influence reaches every corner of every genre of music; a lesser discussed topic as it relates to jazz, but perhaps one of the most important angles to look at.  Enjoy.

—————————————–

“To me, Michael Jackson is important as an artist because not only did he understand the role of the artist in society — he went far beyond it.”
Ambrose Akinmusire

“One thing that’s great about Michael, which isn’t often discussed or recognized, is that Off The Wall and Thriller are, for lack of a better word, Jazz records. The chordal structures, melodic content, string and horn arrangements, the Blues, the drive and swing of the rhythm section are all hallmarks of the so-called Jazz idiom. They represent, so far, the pinnacle of success for Black Popular Music and it is of no coincidence that those two records coincided with the return of the music otherwise referred to as straight-ahead Jazz. These records did more than just turn people on to Michael Jackson or R&B, they made people fans of music at a time when the industry was in a slump, much like so-called Jazz did around the turn of the century. ‘Thriller’ and ‘Off The Wall’ are essentially a continuum of the work first established on the ‘Hot Fives’ and ‘Hot Sevens’ by the world’s first Rock star, Louis Armstrong.”
– Nicholas Payton

“Michael Jackson proved that music and dance are probably the most powerful uniting forces in this world.  His style continues to cross genres, religious beliefs, class systems, and political and racial divides more than any other artist to date.  Everyone in every corner of the world knows his name and image.  And all of this came from this simple fact of how unique and great his music and dancing really was.  It was produced, executed, and recorded to the highest level, and it will keep on influencing peoples’ lives beyond our years.”
– Mike Moreno

“MJ is an icon. Unbelievably talented and devoted his life to his passion for art and humanity.  So hugely influential and groundbreaking, and seemed like such a beautifully gentle, caring soul.  Growing up on his music, I think we all felt a personal connection.  He makes us want to sing along, get up and dance, lay down and cry, stand up and shout, reflect upon and then actively do something.  That’s what art should do.  I will forever shake my head in amazement at his singing, his dancing; he was the greatest entertainer who ever lived and quite possibly ever will.  No one can touch that.”
– Gretchen Parlato

“The feeling I always got from MJ’s music is that he never hid or second guessed his inner voice and passion.  You undeniably feel every word and every dance move.  So overwhelmingly inspiring.”
Casey Benjamin

“I believe Michael Jackson was here to show us how small the world really is, and his vehicle was his talent as an entertainer.  No matter where one is from, when one is born, what language one speaks, what doctrine one reveres, etc… most of the world that existed during or exists post his life has been moved deeply by Michael’s talent.  This is evidence of something much larger than fame.  It is evidence of what is possible.  Genius, in my opinion, is not measured by mere talent.  It is measured by what those talents have contributed to the world.  His impact on us was so huge because he constantly had a vector, a purpose for the talents he was given.”
Marcus Strickland

“Nobody has been MEGA famous for as long as he has.  Also, with the ability to change and be a pioneer in each change.  He is a master vocalist-performer-dancer and just has a musical sound of his own.  Not to mention he has inspired everyone, and is hands down, the most famous person to walk the Earth.”
Robert Glasper

“Michael Jackson was clearly an artist of the highest order. Perhaps the quality that he possessed which stood out to me most was his ability to convey a particular message with utmost sincerity, sophistication, character and execution. His influence is seemingly infinite and his legacy will live on forever. I am truly grateful that I was born during his lifetime.
– Marcus Gilmore

“MJ was an extension in the evolution of Black entertainment.,  He pulled from James Brown, Sammy Davis Jr. and Jackie Wilson, making him the greatest in his time.”
– Jesse McB
ride

“Michael was a beacon for excellence as an artist.  He was always looking for the next level of perfection.”
– Kendrick Scott

“MJ is the epitome of timeless.  His influence on my generation is profound.  From his music to the ‘Beat It’ jacket.  You wanted to sing, dance, and be like Mike.  And that impact is just as strong on my 5-year old.”
– Keyon Harrold

“Michael Jackson was a great inspiration to me for many different reasons, but there are three that stand out.  One, he checked out and absorbed everything. If you listen to songs or look at videos of MJ when he was young, he knew James Brown, Ray Charles, and all the legends that came before him.  He knew many genres of music and appreciated them.  I even saw a video of him tap dancing to Mingus on You Tube.  The beautiful thing is that you can hear all of these influences in all the music he did.  Two, he was a true activist/humanitarian. He wasn’t afraid to speak out about the bad things that were going on in the world.  He wasn’t passive and he put his thoughts in his music. He wasn’t trying to be politically correct and didn’t care what others thought.  Three, he was all about moving forward.  If you look at MJ throughout his career, he always surrounded himself with those that were current and had something fresh to say. He reminds me of Miles Davis in that way.”
Jaleel Shaw

“Michael Jackson single-handedly squashed every stereotype in music.  His God given ability, style, and personality are the blueprint to date.”
– Kenneth Whalum III


I loved the cartoons in the Thriller record sleeve.. The one of MJ and paul mccartney pulling the girl was particularly memorable.. Seeing that image, it was hard to hear the song and not laugh! That record and the album art were definitely a highlight of the Vasandani family record collection.
– Sachal Vasandani

“MJ for me was and still is the total package of an entertainer.  He had everything: the voice, moves and the charisma.  He was always striving to better himself as an artist.  He never took his talents for granted.  He always knew where he was going and what steps to take to get him there.”
– Johnathan Blake

Thank you, Michael.

Nicholas Payton on Jazz, Politics and the Courage to be Himself

“If I can’t be myself, what’s the point in saying anything?”

Photo by: Angelika Beener

This is a mantra that trumpeter Nicholas Payton lives by. Outspoken; at times shocking, at times brutally honest, at times perfectly poetic, Payton is as verbally diverse as he is musically.

At just 37 years old, Payton has the depth and breadth of experience and perspective of someone twice his age.  A musical prodigy and professional musician for over twenty years, the New Orleans native is the culture, and an authoritative figure in Black music.  The Grammy © winning musician, with nine albums to boast, is also accomplished on several instruments including piano, bass, and drums; an adeptness he was able to demonstrate on his latest album Bitches, an autobiographical musical memoir of love and heartbreak.

One of jazz music’s most vigorous provocateurs, Payton has unabashedly confronted every elephant in the room when it comes to jazz, particularly as it pertains to race, culture and politics.  Payton does not shy away, instead forcing critics, fans, and fellow musicians alike to deal with the uncomfortable yet imperative subjects.  If ever there was a figure in jazz today, who voices what others only ponder, it is Nicholas Payton, who has carried on the tradition of some of the most outspoken jazz musicians I can think of: Miles Davis and Wynton Marsalis.  (Must be a trumpeter thing.  The trumpet, after all, has always symbolized an awakening, a truth, a call to action.)

“A lot of folks have gotten really upset with me about a lot of stuff I’ve said, and that’s OK,” says Payton.  “To me, you wouldn’t be getting upset really, if what I was saying didn’t have any merit, you know, and it’s affirmation to me that I need to continue to speak.  I do feel like I have a gift of sorts to provoke thought, and to get people to think and to have a voice out here for what I feel is not really represented in the way that I feel that it should be.  To not do that, to me is…I would feel like I’m not being responsible.  I would feel a burden of guilt, perhaps, for not doing something about something I feel like I am called to do, so to speak.”

There is arguably no genre of music that reaches more points of contention when it comes to definition than jazz.  Critics, documenters and so-called historians have long used their position and power to inject their theories of what is and isn’t jazz; many times with detrimental consequence to Black inventors.  Moreover, Black jazz musicians have experienced their share of disproportionate exposure, appreciation, and financial support.  Internally, the subject has been strained between musicians, and as the spectrum of jazz musicians broadens, so do the theories of what constitutes as credible.  Payton deals with this issue head on, striking a chord with some, and striking a nerve with others; a divide that is more often than not, a racial one.  “To me you’re not furthering the so- called jazz tradition if you don’t address the fundamentals of what that thing is.  To me, it has to have to have a blues sensibility…it has to have a groove sensibility.  If you obscure both of those and highlight the European elements of it, then to me it ceases to be what’s known as jazz.  I mean, it’s fine for what it is, but don’t call it jazz.”

In our ridiculously labeled “post-racial” era, it seems as if when someone brings up the issue of race as a matter of speaking their truth, they, in turn, will automatically be looked at as some form of a racist.  It is conveniently almost in poor taste to even bring up race in this day and age; a cop out to some, others branding one as being angry.  Nicholas refutes all of these suggestions, and challenges people to deal with what’s on the table.  In a generation where an African-American tradition can be almost devoid of African-American participants in various mediums on any given day (read your average jazz blog, magazine or festival or club line-up), we have come face to face with a cultural crisis.  Post young lion era, jazz has become less of itself and more of something else: grunge, rock, country, ambient…

Photo by: Adam Weiss

“I do have a problem in general with just this whole notion that so-called jazz can be whatever you want it to be.  Just this whole like ‘Oh, you can mix this with Indian music and not have to deal with [the tradition], you can mix it with Eastern European music…’  It’s like, why?  Why is that necessary? Those [styles of] music have those traditions.  Most ethnic music…most music [styles] period, have an improvisatory aspect of it. So why is it necessary to take Black music and just kinda make it what you want, and that’s OK?  That’s really what my whole beef is.  People have died to play this music.  This music is our path to freedom.  And now that we are able to enjoy some of the fruits of all the work that our ancestors did, you’re not just gonna take this and make it what you want to make it.  Respect our tradition.”

When it comes to the passing on the tradition to Black youth, Payton is not so sure that the mark is being met, and with good reason.  I can attest to this myself.  When working on a radio broadcast a few years back, which featured the top five or so college jazz bands in the tri-state area, including Julliard, The New School, and SUNY Purchase, there was not one black musician among them – in ANY band; a blaring signal to me that the institutionalization of jazz may not be in the interest of serving Black youth.  “When has an institution ever been a good thing?,” Payton blatantly stated to me.  “In anything Black, already the connotation to me is not good.  When does that ever mean anything positive?  Prison is an institution.  Institutions are funded by people who have money who want to see a certain thing.  Which doesn’t necessarily serve the so-called  “people”, and doesn’t necessarily serve the so-called “community”.  It serves some kind of interest.  It’s become an institution and that’s so not what the spirit of the music is supposed to be.  A big reason why you’re not seeing Black kids matriculate into college level programs is because there aren’t high school level programs; jazz bands after school, etc. If you look at…programs…I don’t want to call them out, but a lot of institutions that have high school outreach.  Which ones do they go to?  They don’t really go to the ones in the ‘hood.  Where are those musicians coming from?  The Black church used to be a big source.  Music in general is just dying in the Black community.  There used to be a piano is every house, didn’t matter if you was poor or not.  People sang in the choir, they had some kind of musical outlet.”

Being from New Orleans, Payton is as close to the social foundation of jazz music as anyone can get, and Payton draws clear correlation between the culture and the music, which he believes need to co-exist, unquestionably.  “Jazz music has a social function, and I think the music has gotten away from that, and the more it’s sort of gotten in other arenas like the concert hall, and the performing arts centers, and the schools, it became something else.  It’s life and you have to feel it, and that intuitive part of it, which is the most important part, it’s all but overlooked.  You go to colleges, and you know, all these young cats, and they can read fly shit and they can play all these changes and intricate things, and then you call a medium tempo blues, and they can’t hold it together.  That’s a part of the problem.”

Photo by: Ingrid Hertfelder

Photo by Ingrid Hertfelder

Payton’s protective stance has been a hot button for many.  His one or two sentence observations and proclamations about jazz on Facebook can easily garner upwards of two hundred spirited response comments; a testament to his belief that while all is calm on the surface, just below is a sea of controversy.  And everyone wants in.  But while he may have a reputation for being a thorn in your side (depending on where you stand on the issues) he is also a staunch supporter of today’s up and coming jazz musicians, often a humbly silent hero behind significant good deeds in the jazz community.  For Payton, it’s just simply the right thing to do.

“I’m not just paying lip service.  I’m not just trying to be controversial or drum up controversy.  I mean these things. And to me, if you gonna talk the talk, then you gotta walk the walk.  I want to support that because you know, I can’t say all of this shit about well ‘such and such doesn’t do for the music’ and not contribute myself.  And I feel a lot of musicians are selfish, like if someone don’t give them a CD or if they gotta pay to get in a club, they won’t go, and I don’t do that.  If I show up, unless the guy [at the door] recognizes me off the bat, I’ll pay the whatever.  Because this is how I make my money.  How you gonna expect to get all the time and you don’t want to ever give?  I feel like I’ve been blessed and given a lot, and for me just to be able to support cats who I feel have a voice, and who have done some interesting things.  I’m not a rich man, I’m not Coca-Cola [laughs] but I’ll give my last dollar to someone I feel is trying to do something, because quality has to be supported.  And if I don’t do it then who’s gonna do it?  I don’t look to wait for somebody else to do things if I feel I have the power to do it. I really feel like we’re fighting a losing battle here and there’s just not enough people who are willing to do shit for one another in this world, and I just don’t wanna be that kind of person, and I don’t care if I don’t see anyone else doing it, then I’ll die trying to do the things I believe.  Otherwise what worth is my life if I’m not consistent in not only what I say, but what I do…how I live?  On every level, I wanna be the same person, and exude all the things that I believe.  Otherwise my life is for naught.”

In times where one of jazz music’s biggest challenges is letting the world know it is alive and thriving, Payton makes it a point to do his part on an individual level.  Inspired in part by the way jazz musicians are still treated and regarded in our society, Payton believes things need to change on a lot of levels.  “That’s why I’ve come to have disdain for the word jazz.  Because it automatically just means that you’re gonna be disrespected.  It’s OK to treat you any kinda way.  It’s OK that there are only two people in the club, it’s OK for them to tell you ‘There’s a whole menu, but ya’ll can only eat this off the menu.’  It’s OK to not have a dressing room, or a dressing room with no ventilation.  At a certain point you have to learn to say no.”

Payton has said “no” to much of what’s going on in the world of jazz today, but never without profound insight.  Whether you agree or doggedly reject where he’s coming from, you will walk away different.  He will leave an impression on your brain, and a desire in your heart to at least think about what he’s saying.  This is the most intriguing aspect of Nicholas Payton off of his horn.  At the end of the most heated debate, the one sentiment that everyone can agree on is that they love Nicholas for being who he is.

“But on a broader level there’s room for it all to exist.  I’m not gonna hate on anybody’s right to express themselves the way they want to, but I’m certainly gonna say what I have to say about it and because I feel like what I represent is not really talked about, I find myself having to be vocal because no one is really saying it.  And I’ve kinda had to accept somewhat being the fall guy for what is actually right.  So I’m like well cool, if that’s what it has to be fine, but I know what I can’t do.  I can’t just be the kind of person to sit there and let it happen, because to me then I’m part of the problem…that’s not me.”