Writing about racism 25 years ago was just as challenging as it is now. Jazz has long been thought of as being on the right side of history, ahead of less woke areas like sports, government, the military, business and, well, pretty much every other aspect of America. Throughout the 20th century, while segregation loomed large, jazz was often integrated. But one only needs to look at the history of jazz artists touring the South to find plenty of examples where race was an issue, both on and off the bandstand.
Nonetheless, by 1995 the jazz community congratulated itself, at least publicly, for breaking down racial barriers, offering equal opportunity to players regardless of skin color. And yet deep resentments were simmering under the surface of this seemingly postracial mini-society. Some black artists felt that the industry and media—predominantly white and inherently biased—were ever eager to hype some young “Great White Hope,” while some white artists felt that, in what they saw as reverse racism, they were treated as second-class citizens and not authentic players. Middle-aged or mid-career artists complained about being passed over and were often content to point to the faces of artists who were different from them, be they black or white, as the cause. Finally, there was the ongoing controversy and backlash surrounding Wynton Marsalis’ nascent Jazz at Lincoln Center program: Whose jazz history should it celebrate, and who should be hired to celebrate it?
That’s a whole lot of context for this piece, but it helps explain why we decided to have a writer explore the topic of whether jazz was indeed as racially fair and aware as it seemed to be. James T. Jones IV, a Detroit native and the nephew of Betty Carter, was the pop music critic for USA Today and had a real affinity for jazz. I can’t remember if he pitched the story to us or we pitched it to him; I do remember that he was intrigued by the possibilities, but also concerned about the breadth and nuance of the story. He wanted to cover all angles, and that was the rub.
I remember James calling me to beg off on his deadline. “This story is going to kill me,” he said. “Every time I think I’ve wrapped it up, I find another aspect.” (Sadly, James died a year later, but it was a heart attack, not the story, that killed him.) He eventually turned in a very strong piece of journalism with real diversity of sources, opinions, and experiences. Interestingly, he was insistent that his own race not be identified anywhere in the magazine. Photos of writers weren’t common and Google Image search wasn’t an option, so the average reader had no idea of the author’s racial identity. He was very proud that afterward some readers wrote us saying he had to be white and others said he had to be black.
For the cover, we opted for a simple black-and-white illustration whose split image we hoped would convey the way that black and white people can see the same things quite differently. The response to the issue reflected that polarization. Who was the singer Vanessa Rubin to complain about being discriminated against by a club owner who demanded she eat in the kitchen? It was the kind of question a white person can ask without understanding history and context. Why do I as a black artist have to consider diversity on my bandstand? That question itself inferred the existence of reverse racism.
This piece was the first JazzTimes ever ran about a societal issue; in subsequent years, we would publish many more. James’ story was a turning point for the magazine because it made us realize that not only was it okay to run articles that did more than profile artists or review performances, but that it was incumbent upon us to do so.
Rereading it now, the piece holds up well, though of course it’s disappointing to read about the same problems we’re still dealing with in our society. Unfortunately, what’s past is present.