Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

The Gig: Oprah’s Bop Club

Around this time last year, an issue of GQ ignited the sort of minor flare-up now commonplace in our entertainment culture. What set it off was an interview with Chris Bridges, a.k.a. Ludacris, which included a complaint about Oprah Winfrey. Apparently some of the rapper’s comments had been edited out when he appeared on Oprah’s enormously successful daytime talk show. That didn’t sit well with Ludacris, who sounded the cry of an anti-hip-hop bias, speculating that he had been invited on the show only because of his role in Crash, then an Oscar-nominated film.

The sharks, smelling blood, began to circle. “Maybe she’s got a problem with hip-hop,” groused Ice Cube, an old-school rap provocateur, in a different glossy rag. A more contemporary antihero, 50 Cent, dismissed Oprah’s work as a divertissement for middle-class white women. Finally there was a response to the criticism, sort of, when MTV cornered the media baroness on a red carpet: “I respect other people’s rights to do whatever they want to do in music and art and whatever. So I am my own person, they are their own people.” Winfrey added: “I feel rap is a form of expression, as is jazz.”

Aha. Wait, what? Oprah didn’t go on to clarify her remarks, and MTV didn’t bother to parse them. So there’s no way to know why she brought jazz into the equation. Perhaps just as an African-American-generated music, like hip-hop. Or maybe in response to the interviewer’s question, which wasn’t reported. Whatever the case, one thing is clear: The world’s most influential woman explained her putative snub of one genre partly by invoking another. And while it’s arguable as to whether Oprah really has slighted hip-hop, there can be no question whatsoever about her utter lack of support for jazz.

The Oprah Winfrey Show has been television’s top-rated talk show for 20 consecutive seasons, according to Nielsen ratings. But what’s even more impressive than the numbers is the intensity of many viewers’ attention. Oprah fans are more than fans; they live by their heroine’s edicts, worship at the altar of her taste.

Consider the pull of Oprah’s Book Club, universally acknowledged as the heavyweight champion of publishing endorsements. Or, more germane for our purposes, consider the example of trumpeter Chris Botti. Late in 2004 he appeared on Oprah’s program, playing “Someone to Watch Over Me” at what was billed as “A Fairytale Wedding.” (File that under Best Wedding Gig Ever.) In the same episode, Botti also appeared in Oprah’s Chicago studio, where he received a hug and a glowing appraisal. Within a week of the show, Botti had sold more than 50,000 copies of his album, When I Fall in Love, leapfrogging 109 spots on Billboard’s Top 200 to no. 37.

Perhaps you’re wondering how this squares with the Oprah-Disses-Jazz argument. Well, Botti is the exception, in more ways than one. First off, he appears to be the only jazz artist to receive that imprimatur throughout Oprah’s entire broadcast career. And while he’s a jazz musician by training, the trumpeter travels in an orbit clearly identifiable as adult contemporary pop. That’s not to disparage Botti or his success: To borrow a phrase of recent coinage, he is his own person, I am my own person. When I interviewed him a year and a half ago for JT, he spoke candidly about both his jazz influences and his pop positioning. “If Keith Jarrett were to go on Oprah and people were to hear that music,” he said at one point, “I think they would freak out and flood the record stores.”

But of course, that pianist hasn’t been on Oprah, and neither have any of his contemporaries, including the celeb-savvy Herbie Hancock. A recent Web search turned up an interview with Wynton Marsalis in O, The Oprah Magazine, but Winfrey didn’t conduct it, and the trumpeter and Jazz at Lincoln Center statesman still hasn’t been on her show. According to Blue Note, neither has Dianne Reeves nor Cassandra Wilson, despite each artist’s public embodiment of something like a Winfrey-esque code of self-empowerment.

Does Oprah have an obligation to jazz, though? That’s an open question, subject to honest debate. Over the years I have found myself frustrated by her obvious disinterest. Couldn’t she just fake it? It would take so little on her part, and mean so much. But along with that sentiment comes a strain of indignation that I only admit with chagrin. It can feel at times like jazz is a responsibility Oprah is shirking, as an African-American icon and an arbiter of mainstream culture. The problem with that line of thinking is its small-mindedness, to say nothing of its racial pigeonholing. Give in to grumbling about Oprah’s (literal) embrace of Botti and you start to sound disconcertingly like 50 Cent.

So far this year, The Oprah Winfrey Show has flogged causes both noble (autism, addiction) and questionable (The Secret, a self-help doctrine). What always seems admirably clear-trust me, I watched a lot of episodes to earn the right to say this-is Winfrey’s commitment to each preoccupation. Whether it’s a Discovery Channel documentary or a seven-day diet plan, she projects frothy enthusiasm. It can be heavy-handed or misguided, but it’s there.

Of course it should be noted that Oprah’s choices are hardly arbitrary. The Secret was already a phenomenon when she adopted its message, and even Botti was familiar to some viewers, having toured for years with Sting. One of the few musical segments on The Oprah Winfrey Show this spring involved the R&B heartthrob Chris Brown, not really a bold feat of booking.

That she hasn’t offered even that measured approval to a jazz artist is our tough luck. It’s also her prerogative, and maybe a blessing in disguise. Every time I think about a thoughtful improviser and composer I’d like to see on Oprah-say, saxophonist Matana Roberts-I remember the queasy misgivings that derailed Jonathan Franzen. He’s the writer whose comments prompted Winfrey to drop his novel The Corrections as an Oprah’s Book Club selection. (He cringed at some of the club’s “schmaltzy, one-dimensional” past choices, and balked at the “logo of corporate ownership” that was to festoon his book jacket.)

Franzen, widely excoriated as an elitist and even a misogynist, had one legitimate (if overanxious) concern: the autonomy of his art. That happens to be the only asset most jazz musicians have in abundance, and it carries more meaning than any album chart. Cold comfort, but that’s reality, at least as long as Winfrey considers jazz “a form of expression” rather than a cherished music.

Originally Published
Nate Chinen

Nate Chinen

Nate Chinen is the director of editorial content for WBGO and a longtime contributor to JazzTimes, which published 125 installments of his column “The Gig” between 2004 and 2017. For 12 years, he was a critic for The New York Times; prior to that, he wrote about jazz for the Village Voice, the Philadelphia City Paper, and several other publications. He is the author of Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century (2018) and the co-author of George Wein’s autobiography Myself Among Others: A Life in Music (2003).