Winter JazzFest and the White Jazz Narrative: REBOOT

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!

About Alex Rodríguez

Writer, Organizer, Trombonist
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12 Responses to Winter JazzFest and the White Jazz Narrative: REBOOT

  1. David says:

    Where are you finding Ratliff’s “fetish for the young, hip, fashionable and white” in these comments? The first three are evident, but you are falsely equating young listeners with white listeners, without presenting any evidence. America is increasingly becoming a nonwhite nation demographically, doesn’t it follow that a new, young audience will not be all white? Perhaps I’m missing something because I don’t live near New York, but you seem to be under the assumption that young crowds are necessarily white. In other words, why isn’t this new audience non-white? Or non-mixed? Or, how is it more white than the audiences at Lincoln Center or the Village Vanguard?

    Also, your lament that Ratliff “is basically turning his nose at the thousands of audience members, many of them black, who have supported jazz through thick and thin,” strikes me as cherry picking. Ratliff is also turning his nose at white audience members, not because they are white, but because they are old, a different form of prejudice altogether. You’re throwing together a bunch of topics for discussion (the dearth of black jazz critics, ageism, audience composition) in a way that lacks coherence.

    Finally, is it disrespectful for an organization presenting live jazz to not have an explicitly educational aim? We already have Jazzmobile and Lincoln Center, why does Winter JazzFest need to be so explicitly educational? Can’t a music festival just be a music festival? The world is big enough for both JALC and JazzFest.

    • arodjazz says:

      David, you have honed right in on the questions here that I have struggled most to answer. Allow me to do my best to clarify:

      1) The young people in the audience at Winter JazzFest are overwhelmingly white. This comes from my own experience of attending the festival for three years now.

      2) The nonwhite audience members to whom I was referring are the ones who, for example, make up a majority of the listenership of WBGO. This is a massively-overlooked community of passionate jazz aficionados to whom Ratliff’s perspective is not very useful. You are correct, however, that there are lots of white people who can’t stand this newfangled thing the kids are playing these days, either.

      3) I have, indeed, thrown a lot of topics together in a way that lacks coherence. This is messy stuff we’re dealing with here!

      4) There are many ways for a jazz presenter to respect the music’s legacy, including but certainly not limited to educational programming. I believe that Winter JazzFest actually does an excellent job in this regard, by promoting musical perspectives such as those of Butch Morris, JD Allen, Orrin Evans and many others. However, Ratliff’s attitude (not unique to Ratliff, I’ll add) distorts this perspective.

      5) I would be much happier if there was a little more JazzFest in JALC, and a little more JALC in Jazzfest. My biggest concern is that these two approaches, both solidly representing the jazz community, remain ideologically separate and racially coded.

      • David says:

        WBGO is a Newark station, right? So perhaps the question should be why aren’t enough festivals venturing into North Jersey? Also, your perspective of worrying about whether the audience is white/black/mixed/other reflects a sense (however minor) of black ownership of jazz. Is that even applicable anymore in an era which most musicians come out of the academy (as opposed to apprenticeships in clubs in Harlem)?

      • arodjazz says:

        It’s not about ownership; it’s about lineage. To me, the lineage, meaning and value of jazz are derived primarily from an African-American musical tradition — that doesn’t mean that anyone “owns” it, but certainly in a world where white people DO own so much more that black people, the issue is certainly still applicable.

      • David says:

        But what responsibility do musicians and promoters have regarding the African American lineage/roots of jazz? Is it not enough to be playing music so informed by African American culture?

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  3. paulbradymusic says:


    Since we attended WJF together, you pretty much know my take, but I thought I’d chime on the following anyway:

    “I wonder about the long-term benefits and sustainability of the model, which is predicated on a small group of young, mostly-white enthusiasts and a massive cohort of musicians willing to perform for essentially no money — word on the street is that individual musicians are lucky to pocket $75 for their efforts.”

    I think that it’s obvious to most people in the jazz-know that Winter Jazzfest co-exists along side the APAP (Association of Performing Arts Presenters) conference — essentially an important showcase of artists for talent buyers, agents, and press. (I know you noticed all the industry-types at the WJF with APAP press credentials.) The fact that musicians who participated — many of them used to far higher fees — are willing to play at WJF for $75 is because they may nail down a gig at a 3000 seat concert hall that will pay them $10,000 as a result.

    Additionally, to showcase at the actual APAP conference costs artists upwards of $600 or more. And it’s almost a necessity to showcase at APAP if artists want the high paying jobs. Granted, Wayne Shorter and his circle are not showcasing at APAP, but I’ll tell you who did showcase in the very same suite at the Hilton that I did with Hot Club of Detroit this year: Tom Harrell, Wycliffe Gordon, Ronnie Cuber, all veterans one might think don’t need a showcase. Those high paying jobs don’t just fall into musician’s in-boxes. Does that $75 — think of it as two weeks of groceries — sound any better now?

    The only thing I find off about Ratliff’s recent comments on WJF was one sentence from his review:

    “It felt like a trade show this year, so much so that it even felt a little strange reviewing it as a series of performances.”

    Felt like a trade show? No, IS a trade show.

    Until next year.

    • arodjazz says:

      It seems to me like Winter JazzFest isn’t sure if it wants to be a trade show or a hip, “underground” jazz hang. You’re absolutely right that none of this would be happening without APAP, but I wonder if this is really going to lead to any big-payday gigs for Charles Gayle, Mike Pride or Jen Shyu…

      Excellent point about the APAP showcase costs … your observations point to a larger-scale problem that underlies the whole system.

  4. Sean Gough says:

    The thing with Ratliff is hard to articulate, but I’m with you! Like too many critics, he sounds more like he’s writing about literature than about music (jazz) – which has literary qualities, but is mainly beautiful because it cannot be described as linearly or precisely (or static-ly!) as he’d like to use the right whimsical adjectives to do. And “Redrawing Rhythmic Strategies” for a headline? Yah, that’s the kind of catchy verbiage that’s gonna get people to buy Steve Coleman’s new record 🙂

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