Monday, March 19, 2007

don't say it too loud... (part 1)

[I started writing this back in August of 2006 as a follow-up to molten... but apart. It's a difficult issue, so I dropped the post and picked it up again a number of times, slowly accumulating reference points. Now seems as good a time as any to publish it, as it fits in with the various jazzblog debates on the state of jazz currently going on. It's not meant to sound definitive, hopefully others with more knowledge of this issue can take the discussion further. Many thanks to Nate and Ethan for their help.]

Reading about jazz, collecting albums and seeing who I and others think of as avant-garde/cutting-edge/innovative, I sometimes find myself wondering if young black musicians haven't disappeared almost totally from that category. Maybe they have - or maybe avant-garde jazz has become an oxymoron (for some reason, recent Ben Ratliff articles have been implying this) - but there are two elements that contribute to this feeling: media selectivity and the strong conciousness of tradition/history/lineage that's both felt within black America and also imposed upon it.

"Echos d'un jazz libre d'Amérique" rather bluntly sets up a racially-divided view of American jazz (translation mine):

These diverse musicians [Tim Berne, Jim Black, Amy Denio, Ellery Eskelin, Gerry Hemingway, Ken Vandermark] work in parallel, but without much contact with the mainstream clubs and radio stations traditionally identified with jazz and the black community - clubs and radios absorbed in neo-bop conservatism. Therefore, they do not cover "the" reality of "the" American jazz scene, but a micro-community (mainly white, especially on the listeners' side) that has been, over the last fifteen years, the site of the most fertile inventions.
This - a white avant-garde apart from a black mainstream - is something that is often stated, explicitly or implicitly. Apart from Don Byron, everyone mentioned in the article quoted above and Will Layman's on fusion is white. Nate Chinen's "Brooklyn Jazz Renaissance" is slightly more balanced, but still prompted heated replies from trumpeter Ahmed Abdullah that, as far as I am aware, went largely unnoticed (perhaps because Abdullah was rather long-winded). Also, the only young black jazz musician prominently cited by Chinen is Robert Glasper, which kind of reinforces the "black jazz is stuck in the mainstream and/or past" sentiment.

In "Experimental Music in Black and White: The AACM in New York, 1970-1985," George Lewis gives historical background on the ways the media have minimised Afro-American avant-gardism:
it may fairly be said that the AACM has received far less credit for [its] role in challenging borders of genre, practice, and cultural reference than members of subsequently emerging experimental music art worlds. In particular, the so-called "downtown" improvisors and the "totalist" composers, two loosely-structured musical communities largely framed and coded as white by press reception, articulated similar discourses of mobility, extending them to an alliance with rock
Of course, the AACM's and the AEC's roles and importance are well-recognised, now. But, without going to "Putting The White Man In Charge" extremes, articles such as the ones cited above (and, tangentially, the infamous blipster débâcle) make me wonder if the same process isn't continuing. Lewis quotes Greg Osby: "I played with all the Downtown cats but nobody called me a Downtown cat."

In the standard jazz history narrative, it's as if black American participation in the avant-garde (in the contextual sense, ie. those who lead into new territory, rather than a style created in the 60s) stopped with the AACM and Cecil Taylor. After that, the story ceases to be about progress and becomes about a clash of aesthetics, retrenchment vs. expansion, Wynton Marsalis vs. John Zorn, or whatever (though sites like Destination: Out and Ear of the Behearer are attempting to redress the balance). Flutist Nicole Mitchell evokes a possible reason why this might be the case:
She went on to articulate the obvious Catch-22 that black composers versed in jazz feel when addressing pan-European art music composition. "I find myself caught in a complex situation of definers," Mitchell acknowledges. "On one hand, I embrace the idea that I am of the continuum of the 'jazz legacy.' I connect with African American people and am intent on being relevant and not estranged from a black audience. Yet and still, I understand the limitations that the name causes. (Willard Jenkins "Racism: On the Notated Page As Well?")
Speaking about black people in rock, Nelson George makes a very valid comment that points to a familiar instance of internal cultural boundary policing:
Black kids do not want to go out with bummy clothes and dirty sneakers. There is a psychological subtext to that, about being in a culture where you are not valued and so you have to value yourself.
I remember watching the "Smells Like Teen Spirit" at age 13 and loving it, but being conflicted as to whether I "could" or "should" feel that way. I also remember speeches from my parents about how and, most importantly, why one should always look one's best, which echoed George's statements.

[on to part two]