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

Where’s the Black Audience?

Illustration by McDavid Henderson
Illustration: McDavid Henderson

Everyone who’s followed jazz for more than 10 years has witnessed this scenario firsthand. A great musician (Sonny Rollins or McCoy Tyner, for example) comes to town with an equally excellent band for a one-night engagement in a major city’s biggest jazz club. A faithful audience gathers, and what eventually occurs is a great concert given by a mostly African-American band before a largely white audience. It’s a situation that has become so customary it seldom gets questioned, even if the concerts are being given during Black History Month. While critics continue to argue whether white or black artists get preferential treatment in the jazz media, a better question might be, Where’s the black audience for jazz?

Now before the polemicists fire up their word processors, let’s stipulate to a few things, as they say in court. This is not an implicit bid to exclude whites, Latinos, Asians or anyone else who treasures jazz from participating in either playing or appreciating it.

Unfortunately, it has become impossible to even attempt an objective discussion of any issue involving culture and color without including this type of preamble, but nonetheless jazz is such a vital, exciting and delightful music that it belongs to the world, something that makes the continuing ambivalence toward the music among many blacks even more troubling.

Yes, there are African-Americans across the nation who’ve been longtime, faithful fans of jazz, who continue to buy the records and support the few stations in the country still playing it. You can hear outstanding specialty programs on African-American college radio stations in places like Atlanta, Nashville or Washington, D.C., and BET’s Jazz Channel has done its best (within certain parameters) to raise awareness within the African-American community. Also, festivals in New Orleans and Atlanta and Los Angeles and Chicago do attract African-American fans among their constituencies. In addition, many distinguished black academics and critics have fought the good fight to expand the audience for jazz in Black America. Such landmark books as Amiri Baraka’s Blues People or A.B. Spellman’s Black Music were integral works that awakened and enriched the lives of many young African-Americans, showing us that jazz certainly had deep and considerable black roots. Bill Cosby’s efforts with both situation and dramatic television, as well as Dr. Billy Taylor’s longtime national-television journalist gigs have been equally invaluable.


In addition, there has long been the thesis advanced that the avant-garde killed jazz in the black community by finally and forever divorcing the music from all semblance of soul, structure, etc. Personally, I never heard any outside or avant-garde music live until attending college in Massachusetts in the ’70s, but there are those convinced that one evening’s exposure to Ornette Coleman or Albert Ayler in the ’60s forever ended the lure of jazz among vast numbers of African-Americans. Personally, I’d argue that the demise of many major clubs in black communities, due to ill-timed urban renewal initiatives, probably had a lot more to do with generations not experiencing or enjoying jazz than a mass recoil from hearing Ascension, but that’s another issue. Whatever the case, except for brief periods of popularity during the early ’70s thanks to Miles Davis and the CTI label, the black audience for jazz has ranged from small to meager, and there aren’t any visible signs of major improvement. Without lapsing into pseudo-political territory, let me suggest a few reasons for that situation as well as some potential remedies. These are not listed in order of importance.

The regular presence in African-American media.

Whether they’ve tried in the past and failed or not, jazz labels must either continue or begin to advertise in African-American periodicals. Such magazines as Ebony, Jet, Essence, even Savoy, have sizable constituencies and represent potential untapped fans. The same holds true for African-American newspapers, which continue to have a healthy readership, even if journalism surveys and consultants ignore them. These publications and magazines also usually have critics and writers looking for stories. A couple of articles about Dianne Reeves or James Carter in a few more local African-American newspapers will do far more for their profile in the black community than more New York Times or National Public Radio profiles, though these also certainly have their share of African-American fans. Anyone who goes back through the archives of such great black newspapers as the Pittsburgh Courier, Baltimore Afro-American or Chicago Defender will see regular, distinguished coverage of the arts in general and jazz specifically, a reality that obliterates the myth that African-Americans don’t have their own critical tradition. Record labels might also think about servicing critics who write for black publications. There are quite a few who would love to review jazz titles if they could get them.


The establishment of a jazz equivalent of Vibe or The Source.

This one’s trickier, and I can already hear the cries of reverse racism coming from the more conservative end of the jazz press. But there should have been a black-owned and operated jazz magazine a long time ago. The long defunct, sorely missed Black Sports magazine (once edited by Bryant Gumbel) as well as the edition of Players magazine that featured Donald Bogle doing television and JazzTimes‘ own Stanley Crouch reviewing jazz represented two examples of popular magazines with a black viewpoint that were incisive, often controversial and far more diversified in coverage and approach than anything currently on the market. Also, it is no slight on anyone to say that the perspectives of black writers on jazz might be a bit different than those of their white counterparts. It is unfortunate, but until the society reaches that mystical point in time like the Star Trek bunch, there are segments of various communities that will respond more favorably to a publication reflecting what they feel is their experience and sensibility than those they feel don’t.

The return of jazz to mainstream black radio.

Here, we’re probably looking at the impossible, but in the ’50s and early ’60s, there were some jazz types such as Cannonball Adderley, Lee Morgan and (dare I say it) Ramsey Lewis whose songs were regularly aired on R&B and soul stations. There were a number of African-American owned and operated outlets that also had extensive jazz and blues specialty programs on the weekend, and there was at least a presence on the airwaves that’s completely missing today. Given the conglomerate grip on broadcasting that’s now extended into the urban arena, we’re not likely to hear much jazz on urban stations, but if jazz artists really want to reach more African-American listeners, this is another area that needs much work. Artists might also again begin to think about cutting single versions of tunes, and maybe even, in appropriate situations, remixing cuts for radio. Just to cite two potential examples, there are songs on the recent releases by John Scofield (Überjam) and Pat Metheny (Speaking of Now) that rhythmically and musically would work on urban radio stations in a remixed format. The same holds true for tracks from past releases by Olu Dara or Russell Gunn. If those labels already tried that tack and failed, my apologies, but if they didn’t, they missed the boat. Having someone like Olu Dara on a program such as The Tom Joyner Morning Show (assuming it would book him) would not just bolster him, it would help the cause for jazz artists everywhere.


Less emphasis on history, hipness, etc.

Too many young African-Americans, including my own 16-year-old, view jazz as either antiquated, esoteric or both. Certainly it is important to know about the music’s innovators, heroes and great figures, but there’s nothing wrong with beginning someone’s immersion into jazz with less intense, more pop-influenced material, or using vintage jazz-rock or soul-jazz as an introductory vehicle. It’s also a little silly to get upset because there are large groups of people unaware of Lester Young, John Coltrane, etc. Rather than submitting them to a verbal beatdown, engage them and gradually introduce them to the beauty of their music. The problem is that few people are willing to listen, much less consider, the rantings of elitist snobs who hector them, dismiss their musical preferences or otherwise infer they’re less culturally aware because they don’t own 100 Duke Ellington albums or haven’t spent their entire lifetime patrolling used-record stores. On the other hand, showing the undeniable links between various idioms, or the influence of jazz on other more familiar styles, can often work wonders. There’s a sizable number of jazz converts who have been swayed by the rapper Guru in hip-hop publications. He’s one of the many hip-hop figures who need to be engaged and recruited rather than ridiculed or attacked.

More outreach to the African-American community by jazz performers.

Yes, there are plenty of great black jazz players who’ve spent lifetimes in the black community, and they are hardly the target of this missive. But for every Randy Weston or Max Roach, there are many others who for whatever reason don’t play black clubs, appear at community functions or otherwise interact among African-Americans as a whole. Black club promoters should be a priority-one outlet for jazz labels and performers. For all those who continue to dog Wynton Marsalis, he is one of the very few jazz musicians of any color that is well-0known and admired throughout the black community, even by people who don’t care about anything other than the 20 pop songs being endlessly recycled on urban radio.


Lobbying to increase availability of BET’s Jazz Channel.

BET on Jazz: The Jazz Channel is available here in Nashville only via digital cable. I recently bought a Dish Network satellite system, which not only doesn’t have the Jazz Channel, it has no current plans to add it. Every phone call inquiring about it only brings the response, “We’ll add it to our list of potential stations we’re considering getting.” While some of the channel’s featured artists may lack jazz pedigree, the outlet’s overall importance and visibility as an advocate for the music deserves bolstering. Call your cable or satellite operator today and demand the Jazz Channel.

More publicity for jazz’s online sites.

As someone who frequently uses the Internet professionally, I know there’s a host of great sites that might hook the younger computer junkies. But unless you’re a subscriber to jazz periodicals, or can actually get the Jazz Channel in your town, these young eyes are among the least likely persons to know these jazz Web sites exist. Jazz Web sites are much better recruiters of youthful ears than aged critics or older musicians, and they can also help get newer listeners up to speed faster.


Enhanced jazz presence in black retail record stores.

The record store in my neighborhood stocks only a small amount of highly commercial jazz titles, mostly of the smooth variety. Some of that is undoubtedly due to demand, because it also recently stopped carrying gospel, but some of it is also because distributors who handle jazz product have never contacted the shop. If the titles aren’t even in black community stores, who could expect those fans that do live there to know about them? Only music junkies and players exhaust their disposable incomes buying every rag in sight and scouring the reviews and new-release lists. Far more people will peruse what’s available in a store, perhaps ponder it and then make their selections. It’s also not possible for jazz to be played in stores that don’t get the records in the first places.

Jazz performances at venues other than those in white neighborhoods.

The loss of so many small black-owned clubs dealt a major blow to jazz and the music’s identification within the community. Now the bulk of tiny mom-and-pop clubs either play records or book only R&B/soul/pop cover bands. There may not be much money in it, and that’s an old story for jazz musicians, but some of the finest shows you’d ever hear were done at places like the Paradise in Memphis or even Elks Lounges. No one is trying to glamorize the chitlin’ circuit, but many African-Americans saw lots of great music in similar places. Black colleges should also be utilized more often as locales for jazz concerts.


Highlight notable young black jazz stars.

The aforementioned Reeves, Carter, Gunn, Dara and many others like Cassandra Wilson, Mark Turner and Joshua Redman are bright, photogenic, and could certainly be persuasive and eloquent jazz champions in the black community. Again, some of these people have already done some of that, but they could certainly do more of it. Here’s where some efforts could be combined, like campaigns in black publications and ads that use these individuals in principal roles. Big posters of Wilson, Gunn or Carter in black record stores, just like the huge ones of country stars in Nashville’s or R&B greats in New Orleans’ Tower Records, only enhance and expand their visibility.

These are only a handful of suggestions designed to heighten the popularity of jazz and black jazz artists in the black community. As someone who loves a host of idioms, jazz included, I’ve long found it a mystifying proposition that so much energy and rhetoric is expended on cultural racism, but so little time and attention is devoted to ensuring that the black audience for jazz isn’t restricted to journalists, musicians and record collectors.

Originally Published