Has the Complexion of Jazz Changed?

Jazz is indigenous to the African American Culture: Where are all the people?

The birth of jazz in New Orleans was the coming of a unique art form, combining African and Caribbean rhythms with French nuances. It became the music of Black America, with the band stages fully integrated, that is before Jim Crow laws ripped these people apart.

During the first two decades of the 20th century, jazz evolved at a fast pace as musicians such as "Bojangles" Robinson, Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong to name a few artists infected the south and, just up the Mississippi River, Kansas City, with blues, stride, and jazz joints music. This was where blacks went for entertainment. Jim Crow laws shut them out of everywhere else so out of the sweat and beaten backs of black laborers came a sound where blacks could go to swill liquor, jam on homemade instruments and belt out the blues. The birth of jazz by blacks for blacks.

As jazz moved up the river into Chicago and then jumped over to New York, jazz took on a whole new sound, a different look, and different people who tried to control it. Jazz became a money-making industry. All white big bands sprung up and proliferated, especially in New York and Chicago. The battle of the bands and the races were on. Black big bands vs white big bands divided an art form that began with all kinds of people from various parts of the south and Gulf who got together and played together because they loved the music. Jim Crow destroyed all of that; at least tried to.

It didn't take long before white big band leaders knew who were the best composers and musicians as they fled to Harlem looking for band scores and arrangements to play downtown New York. Later, people like Benny Goodman realized that it was time to integrate jazz on the bandstand. White jazz fans would go to the Savoy, the Apollo Theater, the Cotton Club and other major and even small Harlem venues to dance with whomever they wanted, disrupting the color line imposed by Jim Crow. In the south, it was still the "chittlin'" circuit that black musicians were limited to perform in, but up north, jazz culture began to undergo a major change. This began in the late 30's and early 40's.

By the early to mid 40's, another sound within big bands began to squeeze its way out: Bee-Bop. With the entertainer of entertainers, Dizzy Gillespie and music genius Charlie "The Byrd" Parker, began to reduce the size of bands and the nature of their music, mostly because it cost a lot to pay many musicians and the new art form of jazz didn't require a large band.

Black America made the front page of "Times Magazine," "Life," and other mainstream magazines with Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Byrd and Duke Ellington. Jazz was America's popular music, heard on radio stations from coast-to-coast. Yes, country music, classical and other music formats could be heard, but it was jazz that arose out of a country burdened with a depression unmatched in the history of the world, and a world war. It was a time for good feelings, great rhythms, song and dance. Jazz provided all of that.

As the 50's came and went, jazz had more competition for popular music, especially with young people. The R & B sound erupted from the loins of jazz as did rock n' roll. Yes, Miles recorded what remains as the highest sold recording ever, "Kind of Blue," and other jazz forms spun off from Bee-Bop, but the audience sizes began to change in the early 60's into the mid-60's. Then a music revolution blew up in the faces of jazz artists: it was the Beatle invasion, the Beach Boys, Motown sound, Stax records-a new world with all sorts of music competing for the post war youth population later called the Baby Boomers. And, if that wasn't enough, John Coltrane died in June, 1967, leaving many jazz artists crying in their instruments and wondering what to do and where to go next. Jazz as it was came to a screeching halt along with its popularity with black youth.

In an interview that my jazz radio show co-host, jazz pianist Jane Reynolds, and I conducted with famed Coltrane pianist McCoy Tyner, we posted the query of what today's jazz musicians think when they see a smattering of African American attendees in the audience, in virtually all of their concerts. The same question was given to Sonny Rollins as well when we interviewed him.

Tyner and Rollins said that they had to accept it, go with the flow, try to do what they could with middle and high school youth to inspire them to listen to and play jazz. But, there's the competition of Hip-Hop along with Poetry Jams. Tyner thought it was time to include all of that in today's jazz sound. Rollins pointed out that he loves going to Japan because they know everything about American jazz and the performers, current and past, whereas African Americans don't even know who he is or McCoy, who Miles was along with all of the great black jazz artists. If you don't know what jazz is and who's playing, then no one shows up at the band shell, or New York's Village Vanguard or Soshi's in Oakland.

In a conversation I had with Jazz Improv publisher Eric Nemyer, I argued that all of the jazz publications have more white jazz artists featured than black. He disputed it but I remained unmoved from my point. Whenever I read JazzTimes, Jazz Improv, and even the mainstay jazz magazine Down Beat, I continue to see this pattern. The same goes whenever I hear who's attending major jazz festivals, who's coming to Madison, WI, my home town and the place of WORT89.9-FM, and the decline of jazz venues, African American faces continue to dwindle in numbers. Jazz radio has faced the same fate. In the new jazz music section, there are more white faces of jazz artists than black and to add a jolt to today's jazz industry, a great deal of new jazz releases are actually reissues on CD or music found in the vaults getting their just deserve in the sunlight.

I can say, though, that here in Madison, we do have WORT, Madison's community listener-sponsored radio station, where jazz can be heard Monday through Thursday from 2-5 pm (CT) and Saturday morning at 10:00. Jane and I are on Thursdays with our show Strictly Jazz Sounds. WORT also streams, has a two-week archive and does it all in HD.

Competition is a good thing, so don't get me wrong. I concede the point. But, African Americans owe it to their, our culture to learn jazz history in middle and high school. Play in jazz bands that play the jazz of Hank Jones, Mary Lou Williams, Geri Allen, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and many others who Jane and I call the "real" jazz artists. Yes, i do have a bias but don't let that get in the way of youth learning about jazz. In the Madison area, Sun Prairie High School has one of this country's best jazz bands, who've reached the finals of the Duke Ellington jazz competition at the Kennedy Center. These kids are incredible and so is their band leader who seems to be able to bring people like Christian McBride, James Williams, and Jeffrey "Tain" Watts to their local community performing arts center. I applaud them in every way. A point, though, all of the students are white.

I'm arguing for the jazz industry to get into our nation's schools to help our youth learn the history of and learn to play jazz. It's a loss for the African American culture in our country. Before we look ahead to see where we're going, we must learn where we came from. Help these young people know from whence today's music cometh.

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Stephen Higginbotham Braunginn