March 2009 By Nat Hentoff
Oprah & the Jazz Image
Preparing for an interview at New York’s Blue Note jazz club with Ron Carter—master bassist, cellist, challenging leader and composer—I read something he said in Jazz Improv-New York that is seldom said in public: “The black press, the black media has a great deal of responsibility for the lack of—and the possibility of—increasing the visibility and viability of jazz.”
In our conversation, Ron elaborated: “Papers like the Amsterdam News, the Chicago Defender, the L.A. Sentinel, the Pittsburgh Courier, assuming all of them still exist, they
have a responsibility not just to advertise Kangol hats and the latest wedding and church services, but also to say, ‘This music is your contribution to more than your neighborhood!’”
I told him that when I was in my teens, I’d regularly read some of those newspapers for civil rights news, but hardly ever found any jazz. But speaking of spreading the word, I said to Ron, “Currently the major figure in media, all across the country, is Oprah Winfrey. Has she heard much jazz?”
“No,” he said. “The story is she’s not a fan of the music. A person like her has so much power. She’ll say, ‘This is my favorite book of the month,’ and it’ll sell a million copies in two weeks. She makes stuff move!”
“Maybe,” I asked, “since she’s a strong supporter of Barack Obama, if he knows anything about jazz, he can get her involved.”
“Well, the story is that he’s got John Coltrane on his iPod, so we’ll see if Obama has interest in anything other than Coltrane.”
Since Ron mentioned the venerable and still forceful Amsterdam News in Harlem, I told him of the time when Adam Clayton Powell, the formidable congressman from Harlem, started a newspaper there in competition with “The Amsterdam,” as it was called. I knew the editor, and often saw him at jazz clubs, but the music was scarcely covered in the new paper. I asked him why. Usually forthright, the editor vamped for a while, and finally indicated that jazz didn’t have the “image” the paper wanted to be too closely associated with.
That reminded me of conversations I had long ago with Sterling Brown, an extraordinary poet, folklorist, expert on the blues, and author of such seminal books as Southern Road, for which James Weldon Johnson wrote the introduction, saying that Brown “had deepened the meaning and multiplied the implications of black folk poetry.”
Starting in 1929, Sterling Brown taught English for some 40 years at Howard University, where his papers are archived. When we spoke long ago, he startled me by saying that during all the time he was at Howard University, he was not allowed to include jazz in his courses. It was a question of the music’s origins in such bawdy places as Storyville in New Orleans, and its early denunciations in some pulpits as “the devil’s music.” A matter of “image.”
“So what I did,” Brown told me, “was bring in recordings such as Stravinsky’s ‘Ragtime’ and certain works by Darius Milhaud, who had been influenced by jazz.
“Then I’d say to the students, ‘Now I’ll show you where this music came from,’ and I’d put on some stride piano recordings by Luckey Roberts, and the music of Duke Ellington.”
Other jazz musicians who’d attended black colleges also told me that jazz was, to say the least, frowned on by those in charge.
In his introduction to Ralph Ellison’s masterly collection of writings on jazz, Living With Music (Modern Library), Professor Robert O’Meally, who founded the Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University, where he taught comparative literature, writes of when Ellison appeared at Harvard University in 1973.
O’Meally, a student listening to the panel discussion, indicated to Ellison his concern that the contributions of black culture, including music, remained greatly unrecognized. He asked Ellison, “Don’t you think the Harlem Renaissance failed because we failed to create institutions to preserve our gains?”
Recalled O’Meally in the book’s introduction, “Given that I was a black student in a dashiki, he probably took this to be blankly black-nationalistic. Ralph Ellison drew on his cigar and calmly told me, ‘No.’
“Just before being led toward the stage, he paused to look at me with steely eyes. ‘We do have institutions,’ he said. ‘We have the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. And we have jazz.’
Sterling Brown, during all his years at Howard University, could only teach that truth indirectly. But these days, I’m told that at a number of predominantly black colleges and universities, jazz’s “image”—internationally and here—is one of respect and achievement.
I’d be grateful to learn about the current state of jazz at largely black colleges from students, faculty members and graduates. Please write me c/o JazzTimes.
Toward the end of my interview with Ron Carter, I asked how optimistic he is about the future of his calling. “One sign of jazz’s survival, in this country,” he said, “is that schools of high educational level, colleges and universities, are teaching it. And there are still jazz camps. There are some wonderful young players out there who are determined to make the music theirs. As long as they can maintain that focus, we’re going to hear the music and be with it for a very long time.”
In Paris in 1969, when Carter was being interviewed by Art Taylor for his indispensable book, Notes and Tones: Musician to Musician Interviews (Perigee Books), Ron spoke of “the awareness that black colleges must have of our music. I’ve played at some black colleges and we only get booked because the students raised such a clamor to get some jazz. The dean of the school, the dean of music, were making a point of not encouraging jazz.”
Wouldn’t it be splendid if Oprah Winfrey did a show with Ron, musicians from some of the black colleges and universities, and youngsters from all backgrounds from summer jazz camps? Maybe President Obama could do a walk-on.
Originally published in March 2009