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Yesterday I read Nate Chinen's posting about this year's Chamber Music America New Jazz Works commissioning program and was planning to write a response, but then read an intriguing answer on NPR's A Blog Supreme and I wanted to take up one of the reactions posted on A Blog Supreme:
Someone must have something to say about the fact that none of the [Chamber Music America New Jazz Works] recipients this year are black. And that only a small handful in the past have been either. I by no means intend to suggest that the CMA is racist; if anything, I suspect it's a question of demographics in who's applying for these grants. (As a side note, many of the artists selected this year -- Rez Abbasi, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Jason Kao Hwang and Amir ElSaffar among them -- are from ethnic groups underrepresented in jazz.) This, of course, taps into a larger question about the paths that African Americans are taking in jazz and improvised music these days, and how those career trajectories may differ from the majority of artists who find themselves inspired by abstract expressionism or studying the hand drums of Central Asia or whatever. I am not qualified to elaborate on this; I hope someone else is.
While I certainly agree that the reasons for a lack of African-American grantees was probably more to do with who applied than anything else, the larger question posed of "the paths that African Americans are taking in jazz and improvised music these days" is a bit like why there are so few African-Americans in professional baseball after an honorable and distinguished history in the sport. Just as many black kids who might have picked baseball as their sport of choice now gravitate to basketball or football, I believe that many young African-American musicians will tend not toward jazz but to popular forms (rap, hip-hop, or nu soul), if they consider music at all, because they seem most validated and visible in terms of a broader cultural (and possible financial) relevance and sometimes as an acceptance in the black community as well.
Not that there aren't black musicians interested in abstract expressionism or Eastern cultures or rock or any other art form not typically considered black. Today, as there have almost always been, many African-Americans interested in traditionally non-black musical forms, both serious and arty and more popular (Earl Greyhound, TV on the Radio, Imani Winds, George Walker, Cowboy Troy, Darius Rucker, and I'll include myself in this list). Maybe a problem is how those musicians (and others) are valued or perceived both in the general and black public and press, not on the quality of their work. An on-going dialogue 'Ain't But a Few of Us: Black Jazz Writers Tell Their Story at The Independent Ear discusses the lack of coverage of black serious music by even the mainstream black press but I think it also focuses a light on what all press in general deem important, worth covering or probably more accurately, what the editors believe the readers want to read (actually A Blog Supreme's reaction #4 hints at this dilemma as well). With choice of what is covered denotes the perception of "importance" or "worthiness" and I think writer John Murph put it cogently for some African-American musicians in an interview on The Independent Ear when he says, "...there’s the whole idea of what is deemed more artistically valid when it comes to jazz artists incorporating contemporary pop music. I notice a certain disdain when some black jazz artists channel R&B, funk, and hip-hop, while their white contemporaries get kudos for giving makeovers to the likes of Radiohead, Nick Drake, and Bjork." Is Brad Mehldau better (more valid) than Jason Moran because the former covers songs from critically acclaimed alt-rock band Radiohead and the latter covered a song from proto-hiphop/electronica Afrika Bambaataa? This is of course a silly and wrong question (of course, the jazzers will agree that both are of high artistic merit). But how each artist is perceived by the cultural tastemakers, gatekeepers, and mavens, I think is a more interesting question.
Going back to Nate Chinen and A Blog Supreme's musings on the "grant monsters", those artists that are "grant-ready" who consistently get the funding for their projects, the more substantial question is how those grant monster's 'worth' is perceived by winning grants? My guess is that the perception of them changes when they win (and subsequently, those that don't win are perceived less favorably). Here I think of Steve Reich and his many years as Pulitzer-Prize runner-up. For me and most people, and probably to him, I don't think it mattered that he hadn't won. Disappointing, maybe. Affecting his own worth in new music circles, no. But once he did win, I think there was a subtle shift in the perception of him in others. Rightly or wrongly, award or grant winner (and any buzz surrounding it) can represent to some an air of officialness and validation. Then it DOES affect the future opportunities that musician will receive (much as Malcolm Gladwell talks about early, unseen advantages building up through time, in his book, Outliers). David Lang in an interview on NewMusicBox and Counterstream Radio humorously and candidly talks about this shift in the perceptions of him among others after winning the Pulitzer Prize last year (he even, quite honestly, talks about how he isn't immune himself to this perception game). Is Alfred Hitchcock any less worthy not winning an Oscar? John Stockton and Karl Malone in not winning a NBA championship? Carl Yaztrzemski, in not a World Series? The question isn't on the actual quality of their work, but rightly or wrongly, on the perception of others whether that work IS quality, based on what someone "official" says is quality or valid.
And whether something is perceived as quality hits on the head what I think because since the majority of tastemakers, gatekeepers, mavens are not black (or women), and often come from different socio-economic and educational backgrounds and experiences, maybe sometimes African-American musicians (or women) might not be as fully understood, valued, or appreciated as someone coming from the same background (see John Murph quote above). I think of some of the reactions to the OJ Simpson verdict in the different communities (for the record, I think he was guilty but I also understand the other side quite well), the reaction to Judge Sotomeyer's "wise Latina" remark, and of course the recent brouhaha over the Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates arrest, that all hinge on these different perceptions and thereby hindering full understanding of the other side (the New York Times Room for Debate blog has some interesting thoughts in the Professor Gates arrest as how the conscious and unconscious perceptions of both the professor and the officer contributed to the situation; like one of the experts, I, too have my own personal stories of questioning looks, stoppages, etc. from police and others).
The real question though is can we acknowledge our limitations with own 'cone of experiences' and have empathy and understanding on all sides? I would say, absolutely.
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 6:40 PM
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