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Black Cool (from the Underground)
Last week I read the Daily Beast article, "America's New Racial Reality" about what is happening in the so called post-racial era of Barack Obama. I was reminded of that article as I read the comments section of a post a few days ago by Matt at Twenty Dollars, "Just Make Us Look Cool", in which Vijay Iyer writes,
"so you seem to be highlighting this phenomenon wherein white people wield the privilege and power to insult the disempowered, underfunded genre of jazz in all-white, multimillion-dollar hollywood films and tv shows (thereby empowering millions of mostly white viewers to do the same); to gleefully flaunt their own ignorance and hatred of this music; and to revel in the degradation of people who know or care about it.
this suggests to me that maybe this “coolness” problem is really about the freedom of white americans to publicly loathe jazz. maybe the music is a reminder of black american achievement and therefore of white guilt, so it is just easier and more satisfying for white americans to categorically, if unconsciously, reject it."
Jeff Brock, also in the comments, counters with,
"To categorize the rejection of “jazz” as an act of “white america” is silly" and goes on with, "After all, 'jazz' audiences are predominantly white."
While I do agree with much of what Jeff goes on to say about the topic of why jazz isn't "cool" and more widely embraced in the wider world (not going to get into the discussion about what is jazz, which is another can of worms), frankly I don't find the possibility of some subconscious sub rosa bias "silly" at all. It isn't what is fully going on with the rejection of jazz, but that doesn't dismiss it as an ingredient in the possible causes. With the Tea Party "movement" and Joe Wilson's outburst, it is like I said earlier in September in a comment on Andrew Durkin's Jazz: The Music of Unemployment,
"Until the Obamaphobes have some kind of 'intervention-like' revelation and come to question what they hear and believe on their own (and for many, certainly not all, to own up to how much race has to do with it all), they will continue down the road believing more and more illogical and specious arguments."
And should add, possibly act on those arguments. As I see it now, in the climate of today's American new reality maybe the unspoken and unlikely now seems quite utterable and probable. So Vijay's postulate, to me, seems worth considering and exploring. Could "I don't like jazz" be a some kind of coded phrase representing some kind of bias, like the "I just don't like him" or "there is something about him I don't like" answers that some voters gave about Obama during the primaries? I don't want to get into any detailed, point-by-point Glenn Beck Da Vinci Code-like analysis of what is behind the words, for no one can know for sure except the person. Maybe more people do feel like they just don't understand it or are not part of the club, as Nancy said in the comments to the Twenty Dollar post ("I have to say that the reason jazz isn’t cool is because the jazz nerds have effectively shut the rest of us out of it. The way jazz fans fawn over and talk about jazz makes it unwelcome to any casual fan") but I can see that unconscious bias could also be there too. Because the people in the majority often do not see (or can even imagine) that some of biases are systemic and deeply ingrained. No matter how sophisticated, urbane, and fancied suited Wynton Marsalis and the J@LC crowd are, to some in middle and rural America (and yes, even in cities) they are no different than the baggy jeaned, white t-shirted "urban" youth seen hanging out on street corners. Where does something like that come from? It is certainly deep rooted. It's much like a thought experiment I heard about years ago: if you were a two dimensional being, you could never really see or understand the third dimension-much like we can't really "see" or wrap our brains around a fourth dimension. Oh sure, you could hint at it and speculate on it, but to really know it and see it. No. So to some people, believing the possibility that there is bias and prejudges in people (or that those "others" are like you), is like trying to see that fourth dimension. Often, inconceivable!
I'm more inclined to see these issues with jazz, though, as one of economics and class, rather than race. And it certainly has to do with where the power (and hence the money) is. While today much of urban or black and Latino culture and music is fairly mainstream, the power or control in what people see, hear, and for the most part do, is not in the hands of minorities. A small group of tastemakers and insiders lets us know what is cool by what is covered, advertised, or showed. How many minorities are part of this group? Not many. Why?
I tend to agree with Vijay in an earlier comment in the same Twenty Dollar post, that if you threw more money and cultural influence behind jazz or, I believe, at least had more minorities in positions of control you would see more brown, black, and yellow faces in the mainstream, which hopefully would lead to a rise in jazz coverage and thereby more people identifying with jazz, and those that make it, and feeling part of the fraternity. Where is the modern day Johnny Carson, who back in the day at the Tonight Show helped to give millions of non-fans a least a little exposure to hardcore jazzers such as Freddie Hubbard, Dizzy, MJQ, Miles, Ella, Sarah Vaughn by booking them to perform and interviewing them? what would happen if Oprah decided to do a Music Club, like her book club and feature people like Robert Glasper, Maria Schneider, Gretchen Parlato or Vijay (or even some contemporary classical types)? what if Jay Leno did something similar? or if there was some icon like Bono or some other younger adventurous, hip and cool artist/personality/star that could host a new web or TV program featuring different strands of jazz and other creative musicians from other genres, like David Sanborn did in the late 80s with Sunday Night?
Certainly, just throwing money at the jazz exposure problem is not a viable solution because no amount of money will help if people just don't like or want to hear the product or producer (Mitt Romney, I'm talking about you) or the problem is too complicated for simple solutions (urban education and the so called achievement gap). Money can help, but it won't solve the jazz (and classical) cultural relevance gap by itself. For the most part, people like what they already know, they live and associate (mostly) with people they already know or think they know because of similar backgrounds, and they are reluctant to break through that inertia of complacency. Add to that, if the makers don't allow the humanness to come through the music ("too cool for school" attitude) or help to find ways to make connections with the listeners they hope to have, then we deserve the cultural hinterlands. If you didn't grow up with jazz/new classical/whatever art music genre or enthusiastically guided to the music by someone you know and trust or have the openness to come to it on your own, how will you know of the beauty, excitement, mystery, fun, joy, sexiness that can be in the music if we don't help others see it?
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 11:31 PM
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Thanks and credit to all the original photos on this website to: David Andrako, Concrete Temple Theatre, Marcy Begian, Ed Lefkowicz, Donald Martinez, Kimberly McCollum, Geoff Ogle, Joseph C. Phillips Jr., Daniel Wolf-courtesy of Roulette, Andrew Robertson, Viscena Photography, Jennifer Wohrle, Carolyn Wolf, Mark Elzey, Numinosito. The Numinous Changing Same album design artwork by DM Stith. The Numinous The Grey Land album design and artwork by Brock Lefferts. Contact for photo credit and information on specific images.