OVER the years, there has been a systematic decline in the patronage of jazz by black audiences, a phenomenon which reached an unprecedented level in 2015. And this was despite the fact that the year witnessed tremendous jazz activity – much more than previous years – even as the scene recorded a comparatively low number of new stars.
I had the privilege of watching videos of some of the major live activities that attracted the attention of the jazz world in 2015 and was completely disappointed that all the concerts was dominated by white audiences. In some cases, you could count the number of black devotees on the fingers of one hand, a situation that becomes rather worrisome when you realise that the icons and jazz masters for which the concerts were organised were black musicians.
The anniversary of Billy Strayhorn’s 100th birthday in November is a glaring case in point. He wrote the classic Take The ‘A’ Train, a song that became the signature tune for the famous Duke Ellington Orchestra. A historical event, there was also a discussion on his impact on Duke Ellington in particular and jazz in general to conclude proceedings. The concert was full to over- flowing with white audiences. The Gigi Gryce Birthday Celebration with the Chris Byas Group at Smalls West 10th Street, New York, did not fare better as only a few black faces turned up.
But perhaps the most obvious was the 2015 NEA Jazz Masters Awards where the saxophonist Archie Shepp was honoured by the National Endowment for the Arts in October 2015. From the video, one could see a sea of heads belonging to white faces. The award is the highest honour that the institute bestows on a jazz musician, and that edition attracted a cash prize of 25 dollars, an award ceremony and a grand celebratory concert.
The reality of this phenomenon first dawned on me four years ago when, in London, I attended a few jazz clubs including Jazz Café and Ronnie Scott’s Club. At Jazz Café where saxophonist Archie Shepp performed, only this writer, his son, two of his Nigerian friends and the pianist Funso Ogundipe were black among the teeming population of the white audience that filled the club. On another occasion, the story was the same at the famous Ronnie Scott’s whose ambience and operational tradition had completely changed in favour of white culture and supremacy. Even my good friend, Ademola Johnson who used to be honoured with a special seat – for his remarkable patronage and passion for jazz – told me he had not been to the club in years.
The question I have always found difficult to answer is, “Why this sudden reversal of situations?” I stumbled on Archie Shepp’s interview with the All About Jazz magazine where he kind of spelt it all out. His explanation is quite illuminating and elucidating. The reasoning behind his contention is as sound and cogent as his credentials for making the pronouncement. The interview roams from the genesis of this attitudinal shift to its impact on today’s generation of black musicians who are embracing the hip hop culture, and the solution to the problem:
“I can understand why African-American audiences are not in tune with so-called jazz music,” Shepp begins. “First of all, up until the ‘40s and ‘50s – let’s say until Coltrane – much of this music still had roots in the African-American community. Coleman Hawkins lived in Harlem. Dexter Gordon, all these people, they came from the African-American community. Today, more and more of the so-called jazz musicians are fleeing into suburbia like all the other black middle class people. And so how can they expect we can relate to people we no longer associate with? There are no longer any references.”
About the current situation’s effect on the young generation of musicians and their audiences, Shepp is not surprised at all that young black kids are listening to rap music.
“When I was a boy”, he explains, “to buy a saxophone, I could go to the pawn shop and maybe get a saxophone for a hundred dollars. Or as my grandmother did, she helped me buy a saxophone for five hundred. But today, a saxophone costs five thousand dollars. What youngster in the ghetto is going to be able to buy a saxophone? Of course, they buy records and turntables and they create new instruments. They’re making something out of nothing. I’m all for these young people. In fact, I think we have to come over to their side. We should begin to make connections with their life style, their culture and their music. I would love to have heard Coltrane play with Digable Planets or James Brown. Those things just never happened because our people never saw the connection.”
Shepp blames the low attendance of black audiences on the distance of venues saying, “In the 20s and 30s up until the 50s, many of those clubs were located right in the community. Connie’s Inn was in Harlem. White people went to the Negro neighborhoods to hear jazz music. Now, blacks have to go to Lincoln Center in New York to hear this music, to hear players like Wynton Marsalis, who have now become the black bourgeoisie. This used to be a people’s music. It is no longer. The music has actually been taken out of our community and awarded to middle class white communities, where poor blacks are now expected to go on buses and trains to hear their own music. And actually, the music they‘re expected to hear is music that they never hear on radio. The music they hear on radio is popular music. They’re not hearing Coltrane and Ellington on most of the popular stations. You have to tune to so-called jazz stations for that. And really, to listen to this music requires special training.”
“African-American art music is serious music. It’s just like classical music. You can’t just come on in the middle of Coltrane playing “Impressions” or “Transition” and expect you are going to pat your feet. This is a very special type of music that has been created. It has evolved over a century or so into a rather complex music – complex art music.”
According to Shepp, the situation has come with far-reaching implications and consequences – the prospect of jazz becoming ‘white’ music – its domination by white players and producers.
“There is not a single major night club in the United States owned by an African-American. African-Americans don’t make saxophones. We don’t produce trombones. We play them. We’re not producers. We’re basically consumers. We don’t own anything and we don’t control anything. And so it’s no accident that Ella Fitzgerald is being replaced by some young white singer. Coltrane has become a white man. At all the big, so-called jazz concerts, there are fewer and fewer African-Americans performing – more and more white players who are being put in the place of those African-Americans. I just did a documentary film in France. The young man was talking about great saxophone players. And I mentioned George Coleman. Of course, he was talking about Joe Lovano and the fact that Joe is now playing two instruments at the same time. Joe Lovano used to come to my gigs and sit in at Sweet Basil years ago. Now he’s a big super star. I love Joe. Nice guy. I then said, ‘well, haven’t you guys ever heard of George Coleman or Gary Bartz?’ And you know what they said? ‘Who are they?’”
The valid point the ex-Coltrane disciple and university professor of African-American Studies is making is that jazz is black art music on the same parallel with European classical music. It is not black dance music, so-called jazz music. It is music people listen to and not dance to. So we do have black art music. Unfortunately, we have not bothered to treasure that music!