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Finding A Voice for Black Jazz

Willard Jenkins’ new book Ain't But a Few of Us: Black Music Writers Tell Their Story, sheds light on industry struggle

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Cover of Ain’t But A Few of Us: Black Music Writers Tell Their Story

The following is an excerpt from Willard Jenkins’ latest book, Ain’t But a Few of Us: Black Music Writers Tell Their Story, which was released in December. The author and sociopolitical commentator Robin D. G. Kelley is currently the Gary B. Nash Professor of American History at UCLA. Formerly a professor at USC and at Columbia University’s Center for Jazz Studies (where he held the first Louis Armstrong Chair in Jazz Studies), Kelley has written extensively about both jazz music and hip-hop. 

I remember a poem the late Jayne Cortez used to perform, where the line was, “They want the oil / but they don’t want the people.” Of course, she meant this literally as well as figuratively. It applies to the music, too, indirectly. For many black intellectuals, the music and the people, the music and the context, the music and the community are inseparable. Once you separate these things, it is easy to make the case that jazz transcends race and history—it is a way of claiming jazz’s universalism, but based on a skewed definition of universal as “without connection.”

For me, and for other writers I’m sure, this connection is essential. This is why we tend to move our sites out of the space of performance, recording, and even the tour bus, and into the spaces of living. When we do that, we learn that, historically, few jazz musicians fall into the category of the solitary, tortured, individual artist but come from a community—a community that nurtured, taught, and profoundly shaped the musicians’ path. It allows us to see more clearly the process or pedagogy, or how this music and the values that go along with it are learned, passed down—and how this music is consumed and engaged. Jazz musicians play for audiences who share a history, sometimes share inside knowledge. 

I don’t think there is a whole lot of interest on the part of young black writers and scholars in jazz. I’ve taught courses on jazz and politics, the anthropology of jazz, and a seminar on Thelonious Monk, and the number of black students who take these courses or are interested is quite small. In fact, my biggest frustration with some of the African American students is that they wanted to talk about hip-hop and nothing else. And those who are calling themselves music journalists and critics—and there are a lot who’ve passed through my classes or my office—are committed to writing about hip-hop and popular music but not much more. Our collective musical literacy is quite low. 


I think all of us—at least among Americans—need to take responsibility for our lack of musical, and for that matter poetic, literacy. Music has ceased to be an essential part of our education. It is a combination of budget cuts and priorities. In our neoliberal moment, education has become either a training ground for market-oriented competition on a global scale or a holding cell for the prison-bound—not much in between. Arts education has deteriorated, or it has become, for the younger ones, merely a means of self-expression and narcissism rather than a body of knowledge or a mode of interpretation. 

So my students don’t know how to read a poem, and even those who play an instrument do so in such a mechanical way that they have no philosophy of music. Indeed, we have no philosophy of anything, because no one reads philosophy! Therefore, as writers we have to do two things: first, dumb down any critical discussion of actual music and music-making; and second, find a whole lot of adjectives to describe what we hear and make it appealing to readers without ever having to analyze what we’re hearing. This is why the music schools and programs put together by, say, the AACM in Chicago and elsewhere are so important for creating a new generation who can think about music. 

While I do write about serious music, I do so as a historian rather than a critic. I don’t write reviews of shows or recordings, and the few times I have written on contemporary developments in the music—like my NYT piece on DJs and jazz—I hardly pay attention to what critics are saying about the contemporary scene. In other words, I don’t know who is being elevated over whom at the moment, except when I listen to the jazz station in Los Angeles, KJAZ, and have to endure endless recordings by Jack Sheldon but virtually nothing by Thelonious Monk, let alone Cecil Taylor. 


Unfortunately, the neglect of jazz by African American publications has been going on for a long time. In writing Monk’s biography, I scoured the black press for material—which again, is almost always ignored by other writers, scholars, biographers—and found what I think of as a forgotten legacy of black jazz writers. We need to deal with Rhythm Magazine, a black-owned but short-lived publication. Herbie Nichols wrote for them, and he wrote a regular column for the New York Age, as did John R. Gibson, among others. 

I think all of us— at least among Americans— need to take responsibility for our lack of musical, and for that matter poetic, literacy. 

Few know about Nard Griffin’s little book To Be or Not to Bop?, published in 1948. Dizzy Gillespie stole the title for his memoir from Griffin. We haven’t paid attention to the brilliant writing of Frank London Brown, better known to us as a novelist, who was also a fine jazz writer and an excellent singer himself. There were also many black women writing about this music in the black press. Most people have never heard of Eunice Pye of the LA Sentinel, or Joy Winstall of the Pittsburgh Courier, or Phyl Garland of Ebony. But over time, black publications withdrew from writing about this music and instead fell for the celebrity trap. I think they thought they were losing their readership, and, truth be told, they were competing with mainstream magazines and newspapers that had their own critics. 


Through interviews and inquiries, I’ve made many friends with some amazing artists, and nearly everyone demonstrates a level of generosity and intelligence that hardly comes across in the mainstream reviews. I can name many, but the relationship that has been most transformative for me has been getting to know Randy Weston. I’ve always loved his music since I was a teenager, but meeting the man, benefiting from his insights, his deep commitment and love for all people, especially for Africa and its immense history, his politics and deep knowledge—he’s like the father I wish I had. He is a model musician and composer and a model human being who always has kind and thoughtful things to say. And he’s down with the people! 

If I were in a position where my job was to review musicians I’ve met and befriended critically, I suppose that might be a problem. But I see myself as a historian charged with documenting and understanding the music’s history, meaning, influences, and contexts—not judging it for its worth. Truth is, if the critics had not already determined its importance, I could not make the case to write about these artists as historically significant. Seriously, who would question Randy Weston’s musical value, even those who hate the fact that he consistently insists on the music’s African foundations? 

In my writing I focus on rethinking and revising the history of serious music, and sources therefore continue to be a problem. We need more archives and oral histories. It is incredibly hard to write this history, especially of those artists who have remained under the commercial radar. I think about George Lewis’s magnificent book on the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, A Power Stronger Than Itself, and what a tremendous contribution he made. Just look at the footnotes, and you’ll see why it took so long and just how hard he had to work to reconstruct that story! 


My book on Monk tries to do the same, especially when I try to give little capsule biographies of the folk who rarely made the history books—like Little Benny Harris, Denzil Best, Danny Quebec West, and Vic Coulsen, or even the better-known figures like Herbie Nichols. I fought hard to tell their stories, and some reviewers will complain about the “dizzying” detail in my book! But these stories have to be told, and reviewers, editors, and readers don’t have the patience to engage the bigger, more truthful picture. It’s easier to play into the cult of the individual and write about what’s genius and jacked up about an artist—instead of the community that made the artist who she or he is.