UPDATE: I am re-posting this after taking some time over the weekend to think it through, and added some further thoughts at the end. A more coherent follow-up is also available here. Some of the responses have been very insightful, and I’ll try to keep up in the comments below.
This weekend marks the third year that I will have had the pleasure of attending New York’s Winter JazzFest. As I wrote about my first JazzFest experience in 2009, the inundation of music was exciting, overwhelming and ridiculously fun. 2010 was no different (part 1 and part 2 of last year’s report) and I am quite stoked about checking out this year’s effort (I only made it to Friday this time around …)
A recent series of events, however, has left me with some unsettled feelings about how the festival is being covered and discussed as it continues to grow into a powerful New York jazz institution.
The first thing that set me off-kilter was a quote from the New York Times’s year-end jazz podcast, via Nate Chinen, available here. Longtime NYT critic Ben Ratliff lent the following praise to Winter JazzFest and similar recent jazz developments:
Jazz is always in search of a new audience, and I think — in New York anyway — there’s this glimmer of hope now that younger jazz musicians are actually finding one. And it has nothing to do with Lincoln Center, and it has nothing to do with education per se; it’s like, people who want to go hear music that’s fresh and new and unmediated.
Now, that’s a perfectly benign comment on its own terms, but hearing it just after the news of the death of Dr. Billy Taylor, it didn’t hit me quite right. For Ben Ratliff — who has steadfastly been writing to the same audience (New York Times readers) for over a decade — to dismiss the life’s work of people like Taylor by saying that Winter JazzFest “has nothing to do with education per se” fails to account for the deep influence that educational institutions have had on both the musicians and fans of the music today. In other words, there would be no Winter JazzFest without Dr. Billy Taylor, or even Jazz at Lincoln Center. I’ve been on the record before criticizing Marsalis and Company, but it would be dishonest of me to pretend that the efforts of these institutions — through education in particular — haven’t had a profound impact on my love for jazz.
Worse, the attitude that this comment reveals points to the more sinister and persistent aspects of racism in the jazz world today. Ratliff, a white critic, ignores the thousands of audience members, many of them black, who have supported jazz through thick and thin for decades. He clearly is not someone who espouses any racist beliefs or wishes anyone ill by virtue of the color of their skin; however, Ratliff’s tendency towards the young, hip and fashionable (much of which is geared toward a certain young, white male audience) is revealed in comments like these, and (in my opinion) it fails to account for the legacy of those who have struggled to bring jazz to where it is today. (UPDATE: As Jon Wertheim stated in his thoughtful response to this post, “we could speculate that when he made his comments, Ben hadn’t even thought about race.” This is exactly what I’m trying to say: most of us don’t think about race, but our words can nonetheless reflect a racialized reality.) Anthony Dean-Harris recently pointed to a similar problem in a piece at Nextbop, where he is one of a small number of African Americans writing consistently and passionately about jazz today.
This feeling was reinforced during my evening as the stage manager for NPR’s Toast of the Nation broadcast, at none other than Marsalis’s palace, Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola. I ended up spending much of the evening backstage with Jimmy Heath, whose presence alone exuded the depth and pride of a generation of African-American achievement. He spoke eloquently about his recently-departed contemporaries Taylor and James Moody, and told stories all evening that were at times hilarious, deeply spiritual and incisively prescient. This was a guy who has lived a life (you can read about it here) and had done so in the name of jazz. This is the spirit that today’s jazz community ought to honor.
I wonder if Winter JazzFest has the capacity to do justice to this legacy and the truly unique lineage of musicians like Taylor, Heath and Moody. (UPDATE: the answer is a resounding YES.) White jazz journalists and promoters have struggled with this problem since Hughes Panassie and John Hammond over 80 years ago, and only a few (Nat Hentoff is the best example) have dealt honestly with it. I am, however, optimistic that the passionate and well-meaning forces behind Winter JazzFest will be able to effectively come to terms with this challenge. As long as we can always remember that the jazz community is more inclusive than we think, and take responsibility to serve to the deep and meaningful musical space that has been created for us, the music’s future remains bright.
UPDATE: After attending Friday night’s show and having my mind blown by Butch Morris and JD Allen, it appears that my initial skepticism about Winter JazzFest was somewhat misguided — those behind the festival are clearly not operating with the same biases to which I reacted in the Ratliff comment. For all I can tell, they put on a great show, and have an amazing opportunity to adjust next year to a series of venues that can actually accommodate the huge audience that turned out this weekend. Good luck to Brice, Adam, Meghan, Kim and everyone else as they begin to prepare for next year’s event!