Monday, March 19, 2007

don't say it too loud... (part 2)

[See part one]

On Matana Roberts's blog, a post titled "Hello black folks? can you hear me?" delves quite deeply into the web of feelings invested in this community/isolation tension. She starts from an overjoyed observation of the "wall to wall blackness in the audience" at an Alice Coltrane concert, but then gets depressed because "we are struggling cause not only are there not a lot of black folks in the experimental jazz realm that I am a passenger in, but there are rarely any black folks in the damn audience." The comments to the post are interesting too, as other young black American jazz musicians like Corey Wilkes and Jaleel Shaw chip in. Shaw's and Roberts's early educational experiences are really depressing and strange to me, and make this initiative seem particularly relevant.

Echoing Roberts, even Greg Tate, who can't be accused of wishing to minimise black American cultural contributions, finds the scene lacking and points to causes within the Afro-American community: the rejection of its own avant-garde and a lack of pedagogical structure.

It's taken 20 years for people to hear how prophetic [Miles Davis's 70s music] was and predictive it was. For me, the first hip-hop album was (1972's) On the Corner. Miles basically built that whole record around the notion of the break beat and his own version of rhythmically cutting and scratching with a real percussive kind of sound. We haven't really heard any younger players that have been able to synthesize so much of what's going (on) in all music into their own electric acoustic sound.

I think that we're at a real crossroads in terms of black people in jazz culture, because a lot of people worldwide have been studying the tradition and trying to get a hold on all these different creative trends that came about: Miles, Weather Report, Anthony Braxton, Art Ensemble of Chicago. All this music that is eschewed by the black jazz community in America has been picked up by everybody else working in music, whether its in hip hop or Norwegian jazz. One of the questions I pose is whether from a creative standpoint is it even necessary for black people to play jazz for the tradition to extend through this century?

STAR: Aren't the majority of jazz musicians still black?

Because of the dwindling talent pool and opportunities for learning about jazz culture in black communities now, there really aren't that many black jazz musicians under the age of 50 who have international stature. Beyond that, it's are they bringing anything to the language of jazz? Also, if the audience for jazz has almost become predominately not black, is it necessary for black people to even listen to jazz? I'm throwing those out in a real rhetorical kind of way, because if we do a reverse anthropology we know that the music exists because of the ethnological circumstances that produced it.
His questions are vexing, but pointed and difficult to ignore. The names that spring immediately to my mind as post-80s creators and/or scene-builders are indeed around 50 years old (Steve Coleman, William Parker, Hamid Drake, David Murray) or getting there (Greg Osby, Matthew Shipp). Off the top of my head, some who might follow those guys up: Craig Taborn, Mark Turner, Matana Roberts, Jason Moran. The last is fairly well-known, but the others much less so, despite, for examle, Turner's surprisingly large influence on the generation after him (the crowd at the Fly concert in October 2006 was sparse and consisted mostly of student musicians).

So those are the two issues that I can see. On the one hand there is the essentially white[1] jazz media's generally liberal, universalist view, one that wishes to be inclusive, progressive and transparent. For example, Down Beat editor Jason Koransky (as quoted in Willard Jenkins's Is Racism Still an Issue in Jazz?) wrote in an editorial "Forget race, sex, religion and so forth. It's 2003, and we've progressed beyond such backwards thinking."

On the other hand, there is the sense of navigating the fertile but contradictory impulses evoked by Mitchell. The elements that Koransky would wish to "forget" are the very ones Mitchell and Roberts must and/or wish to grapple with. Those categories are constitutive of culture and identity, they cannot be forgotten. Indeed, without them, Roberts would not be able to conceive of a work as powerful as Coin Coin reportedly is. This gap between the positions Kornansky and Mitchell occupy may be what causes a bias towards seeing black musicians as representing continuities ("rooted") and white ones as introducing rifts ("avant-garde").

Have you ever heard a white jazz musician say that they're trying not to be estranged from their white audience, as Mitchell does? Or that they're struggling to represent their roots while expanding upon them? If they do point to roots, it will be to things that are external to (Italian, Jewish or some other immigrant descent) or transgressive of (free jazz, punk, hip hop) the mainstream.

I doubt that any would say something equivalent to Roberts's declaration that "My 'blackness' if you will, and my conciousness of it is at the core of every creative step that I make." Because "whiteness" is generally reduced to either white power rhetoric or a bad joke, all remains is a euphemism: "life experience." For example, Ethan Iverson uses the term in his interview with Stanley Crouch to justify The Bad Plus (Ethan, I hasten to add, is also willing to go beyond the euphemism). Because of the different cultural weights of "blackness" and "life experience," rifts and avant-gardism once more come to seem more inherent in white musicians, while the black community is "absorbed in neo-bop conservatism," to quote "Echos d'un jazz libre d'Amérique" again.

Perhaps making the debate less Americanocentric could help to illuminate what is actually going on, in a couple of ways. First, setting black American jazz in a wider African and African diaspora context could show how the ways West Africans like Lionel Loueke and Hervé Samb, or Guadeloupeans like Franck Nicolas and Christian Laviso are appropriating jazz relate to what black Americans are doing or not doing.

Second, rather than focus again and again on the ever-tense Europe/America fault-line, how about discussing the ways in which Europe and Africa interact musically? The South Africa-London axis is perhaps the most known in avant-jazz circles, but much of Europe (well, at least the major colonial powers) maintains strong links with Africa, both positive and negative. For example, Belgium remains a choice destination for Congolese, influencing Belgian musicians. Players such as Pierre Van Dormael and Fabrizio Cassol remain profoundly impacted by the time they spent in Senegal and with the Aka pygmies, respectively. The best-selling series of albums by the French Sclavis/Texier/Romano trio, is the result of their own African trip. In taking this different view of the problems of tradition, culture and integration, perhaps a fuller image can emerge.

One of Greg Tate's questions, perhaps the most important, remains: why does it matter? why should we care that young black Americans might be disappearing from avant-jazz? After all, "Miles, Weather Report, Anthony Braxton, Art Ensemble of Chicago... [have] been picked up by everybody else working in music, whether its in hip hop or Norwegian jazz," jazz may well no longer have an avant-garde anyway and black American creativity is being expressed in other forms of music.

I care because the forms of music that I am most attracted to, popular or arty, old or new, come from black American culture. There's a feeling, I should say a range of feelings, there that's not found anywhere else, no matter how deeply ingrained the music has become in music around the world. To pick on the same example, could Coin Coin have emerged from anywhere else? Since jazz is my favourite kind of music, I'd like for it to continue participating in that culture and those feelings, and not only in an old-fashioned way, hence the need for an avant-garde approach.

[1] Take a look at the photo spread in this Vanity Fair article from the time of Blue Note's '80s relaunch. The difference between those who make music and those who make money is starkly laid out. Did it really take hip-hop to change the picture?