(Originally posted May 2010.)
While much of Gerald Early’s work has been widely celebrated, his essays about music should be better known in the jazz community.
Tuxedo Junction includes pieces on Monk, Earl Hines, Basie, Armstrong, Marion Brown, Mingus, Lester Young, and Sonny Stitt. The Culture of Bruising has “Pulp and Circumstance: The Story of Jazz in High Places,” a long look at Paul Whiteman et al. Early both edited and contributed the keynote essay to Miles Davis and American Culture, and his book-length history One Nation Under a Groove is about Motown.
Thanks to Evan Pouchak for transcribing the interview.
Ethan Iverson: You’ve recently edited four exciting anthologies of the best of current African-American writing: one each for fiction and non-fiction in 2009 and 2010. On the fiction side there are two pieces about jazz in each book: “Body and Soul” by Wesley Brown is in Best African American Fiction 2010, an excerpt from Harlem Summer by Walter Dean Myers is in Best African American Fiction 2009, and both volumes conclude with excerpts of L. F. Haines’s Up for It: A Tale of the Underground.
Is there new interest in writing about jazz by African-Americans? My impression is that if you had tried to make these anthologies, say, twenty years ago, you might not have found as many jazz-related pieces.
Gerald Early: Well, you may be right about that. These anthologies wouldn’t have been possible twenty years ago in any case.
EI: What’s changed?
GE: African-Americans have become recognized as a particularly salient literary and intellectual audience over the last twenty years. Let me say that such an audience – African-Americans constituting that kind of a public, an intellectual public or a literary public – has always existed! But it’s reached a kind of critical mass point in recent years, and I think it’s become recognized more generally by the white or mainstream institutions that such a black literary and intellectual audience exists. That’s a big part of why these books were able to come out the way they did.
EI: I was struck by your online essay about the rise of “Urban fiction,” the genre fiction aimed for the African-American market that sells so well, which I guess is controversial in content –
GE: Yes, it is.
EI: But I read non-literary detective stories myself for pleasure. I believe in escapism and in the honorable tradition of genre fiction. And I like what you said, that on the way to literature, “Urban fiction” is really a fabulous thing.
GE: Right. Yeah, there’s quite a bit of controversy about that by some African-Americans. Juan Williams, the noted commentator on NPR and Fox News, wrote an op-ed piece a couple of weeks ago where he condemned this type of writing, this black urban literature. And he quoted me! He took the quote out of context to make it seem like I was supporting him, you know. He just took a little snippet, “And professor Gerald Early said…”
I thought that was pretty funny, since I was in fact suggesting just the opposite: It’s actually a good thing that this literature exists. It’s fine, it’s wonderful, it’s why we represent some of it in these books!
Over time, the African-American audience has gotten to be more sophisticated about the things it wants. That audience has also become more differentiated and more nuanced. It’s a complex, complicated and more sophisticated audience than people give it credit for.
These anthologies were meant to reflect that complexity. As far as the jazz stories go, I think there might be a renewed interest in it among certain writers. Jazz has always been a metaphor for a certain kind of creativity or profound, serious, highly engaged kind of creative act among writers, especially among African-American writers. Also, jazz always represented a certain kind of racial crossover and transgressiveness, and some writers still find that appealing.
I was glad to find those stories, and incidentally, I purposely made sure they were included.
EI: I thought that might be Early’s touch, putting the jazz in there!
If there is a resurgence of African-American jazz fiction, it’s great to see it. And in the last couple of years we have the first two noted, full-length, serious jazz biographies that have come from a Black Studies perspective, Douglas Henry Daniels’s book on Lester Young and Robin D. G. Kelley’s on Thelonious Monk.
Stanley Crouch has expressed to me a frustration that so few African-American academics and theorists have paid attention to jazz in a serious way. Do you think that’s fair to say?
GE: Yeah, I think that’s probably kind of fair. There’s serious jazz studies going on, and there are people in black studies, like Robert O’Meally, Farah Griffin, and people like that who are doing stuff with jazz from a Black Studies perspective.
But probably Black Studies leans a little bit more towards having more sympathy towards or a connection with hip-hop. I certainly see more stuff generated about hip-hop than I do about jazz. So I think Stanley’s probably right about that, that there has been insufficient engagement on that level.
But there’s probably been insufficient engagement from scholars in Black Studies on a number of aspects of African-American creative culture. If you look at African-Americans in popular music, African-Americans in popular theatre, and other kinds of culture – there’s been insufficient engagement everywhere. You would think that there would be a lot more written about Paul Robeson, a lot more written about Sammy Davis Jr., a lot more written about a lot of these people than you see. Nobody’s done a biography of Ruby Dee, and she’s certainly an important figure. Why hasn’t somebody done a biography of her? Or Hazel Scott? Just recently we finally got a biography of Lena Horne.
These people, from a Black Studies perspective, have not been studied as much as they deserved. Take somebody like James Weldon Johnson, who wrote “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” among other things. There has been no biography from any Black Studies person on James Weldon Johnson. That’s almost shameful!
There’s probably several reasons for these omissions, but I do think those of us in African-American studies should have more of an engagement in those sorts of things than we do.
EI: Coming from the other side, as a professional musician who’s interested in jazz, I think there’s really room for my community to pick up some slack – or, at least assure whoever’s willing to write about jazz from a Black Studies angle that there’s an interested audience!
My peer group and I know what records to listen to, but we don’t always know there are the written texts to explore as well.
I recently got interested in Coleman Hawkins. After forming strong but novice opinions while listening to his records, I then read the excellent biography by the English writer John Chilton, Song of the Hawk. But it’s also relevant to read Wesley Brown’s “Body and Soul,” collected in Best African American Fiction 2010. Obviously, Brown’s story is a fantasy, but it still evokes an atmosphere that is worlds away from Chilton.
Fingers snapped Coleman out of his reverie.
“Damn, Bean,” Jimmy said. “You ain’t been back an hour and you already off somewhere else.”
“String Bean! You got anything better for me to think about until we get to the Savoy?”
“That’s be difficult to do, since you ain’t never allowed anyone to get much of a peep inside your head.”
“It’s all there for anybody to hear when I play.”
“Things’ve changed since you been away. Folks want a lot more from musicians they’re paying their hard-earned money to see. You know what cats were saying about you when you left?”
Coleman didn’t press Jimmy to answer his own question. Why should he care one way or the other what anyone said about him?
“The word on the street is that you wouldn’t give a damn or a dime to see the Statue of Liberty doing the ‘Lindy’ on the Brooklyn Bridge at high noon!”
He had to give it to Jimmy. That wasn’t bad. And by the time they reached the Savoy, everyone’s throat, including his, was sore from coughing up a load of laughter.
The whole story is informed by signifying, jousting and playing the dozens, all stuff you won’t learn about from most jazz liner notes or biographies. But understanding all sides of a culture will help you understand the music.
GE: I understand what you’re saying. As a professional musician, you’re looking at how this person performed on record and in concert – this person’s abilities as an expressive artist in making this particular type of music – how this person deals with the particular theories and principles of making this music and the like. But a black musician within African-American culture occupies something that’s quite distinct from that.
GE: Very distinct from that.
You know, when I was growing up, somebody like Jimmy Smith was like God. To black people he was God! It was like a Hammond B-3 was the thing! If Jimmy Smith was God, then he had some acolytes under him, like Richard “Groove” Holmes, and Brother Jack McDuff, and these people. And I didn’t know any white people who really liked this music very much. I’m sure there were some because Jimmy Smith was pretty popular, but by and large this was black music.
At any rate, while they certainly had their detractors and there were some who didn’t like that sound, their importance culturally in the African-American community was quite apart from whatever their worth was as musicians. Those that had this groove style of playing (especially with a Hammond organ) occupied a kind of position that I think was quite apart from how any professional musicians might evaluate them based purely on their abilities as musicians. What they were expressing as musicians was deeply connected to the culture.
And I think that it’s important for any musician that is interested in jazz – or anyone who really wants to understand this music – to understand that aspect of the musicians as well. How the first-generation fans decide how they’re going to translate the music into their cultural lives may have nothing to do with how later listeners see it or what they think it’s about.
In a moment I want to get back to the organ thing with your essay on Sonny Stitt, but I want to stay with fiction for a minute.
Thank you for introducing me to a short story that I wouldn’t otherwise know. After reading these recent fiction collections and enjoying the jazz stories, I wondered what else was out there. This led me to James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues,” which I’m sure is seriously old news to you! But I wasn’t aware of “Sonny’s Blues” until two weeks ago. Besides being a great story on its own merits, it deals with heroin addiction and redemption in the context of modern jazz of the ’50s.
GE: Right. I’ve taught that story many times. “Sonny’s Blues” is a classic in American fiction now. If you teach American fiction in the 1950’s, three things that you’re definitely going to teach are Kerouac’s On the Road, Ellison’s Invisible Man, and “Sonny’s Blues.” Whatever else you may teach in such a course, those three you will definitely teach.
“Sonny’s Blues” has been anthologized all over the place, everybody talks about “Sonny’s Blues.” It’s come to be considered the quintessential jazz story. And it does capture something very well about 1950’s jazz from a non-musician’s point of view. When I first read it as a teenager, I immediately appreciated how it captured what jazz meant to me, how it operates culturally, and how it operates as a kind of redemption for people. That story shows how the creative act of jazz is extremely important, not only for the musicians, but for its audience. It’s almost sacred. “Sonny’s Blues” captures all those kind of mythologies surrounding jazz – in a particular moment in the 1950’s, anyway. It’s just really well done.
EI: And that moment is really special: we’re still listening to the records. My generation really loves jazz made by fairly intellectual African-American musicians from the ’50s and ’60s: a certain canon of work from labels like Blue Note and Prestige. While I was reading “Sonny’s Blues,” I couldn’t stop thinking about Sonny Clark. We don’t know too much about Sonny Clark except that based on his records he was obviously a brilliant thinker – and that he tragically destroyed himself with drugs.
My point is that even though it is fiction, Baldwin’s story is a valuable tool if you’re considering not just Sonny Clark but any jazz of that era. And I guess it’s taught in all the literature courses, but if I went back to Brooklyn and called everybody – black or white! – in my address book and asked, “Have you checked out Baldwin’s ‘Sonny’s Blues’?” I’m pretty sure everybody is going to say, “No.”
GE: Wow. It’s the quintessential jazz story. If you teach any kind of course about literature and music or jazz you do “Sonny’s Blues.” I don’t think I’m exaggerating to say it’s probably the most famous piece of fiction by a black writer about jazz.
EI: I’m glad I’m finally catching up. Thanks for that, and also thanks for these new stories in the anthologies.
Up for It: A Tale of the Underground is a feverish tale of jazz, hip-hop, and the ghetto told from the viewpoint of at least two high-schoolers. I couldn’t find a thing about L. F. Haines on the internet: who is L. F. Haines?
GE: L. F. Haines is a pseudonym for a writer I know in Philadelphia who’s a rather odd person. These are excerpts from a manuscript that wasn’t published.
EI: Oh really? I want to read the rest of it, but I can’t buy the book?
GE: No, you can’t buy the book, because this person is not that interested in publishing. It was quite a bit of work just to get the person to agree for me to print these excerpts.
EI: I showed Dave King the following paragraph last night from the amazing first-person narrative in Best African American Fiction 2010. I asked him, “You ever read any of this stuff about drumming in any fiction before?” He said, “No,” and I haven’t, either!
It was something to drive a band, more than a notion, let me tell you. And understand this, pilgrims: Drummers are damn important to a band. I don’t care what you’ve heard otherwise. If they don’t get the rhythm right, they throw the whole band off and nobody can play right. Being a little bit slow on the beat or rushing the tempo can mess up things real bad because a band is a delicate thing, like a clock or a race car or something, and you’ve got to have good coordination. We drummers do more than keep time but keeping time well is very important. And we get tired of hearing people say we play too loud. If the other retards in any given band would learn something about harmony and dynamics, then we wouldn’t need to play so damn loud. We’re not trying to overshadow the band; we’re trying to make sure the damn band can hear us and know where the damn beat is. But don’t get me started. Drummers get no respect!
The drums are the center of most African-American-derived music, and that’s often misunderstood from the European perspective. Usually that Eurocentric shit is just like “Oh the drums ARE too loud. Take those drums away.”
GE: If you’d like to read more of it, I will talk to her and see if she might let you look at a few more chapters. She would be interested in a professional musician’s point of view, and I think she’d be pleased that you like the excerpts.
EI: At least tell her she’s got a fan and that she should consider publishing.
GE: I tell her all the time she should publish this thing. In addition to the music stuff, the adolescent point of view is presented very well.
EI: Yes, the high school girl from this excerpt is a modern Holden Caulfield. And it sounds like Haines is a bit of a Salinger-type herself.
So, I’m writing about jazz and race all the time, and my frank question to you is simply about the terminology: “African-American” versus “Black” versus anything else. I’m wondering if you can tell me the preferred usage.
GE: I wish had an answer, I really don’t.
EI: You probably debated what to call these recent anthologies!
GE: Yeah, there was a serious debate about what to call them. We talked about African-American essays, Black American essays. There was also debate about whether we could put people who weren’t African-American in the book. Those were the two debates.
The generation I grew up with was always partial to “Black American.” I like “black,” which I thought had a nice kind of generic inclusiveness. “African-American” started coming in the eighties with Jesse Jackson and others pushing for that usage. I don’t have anything against “African-American,” and I understand politically why that expression came into existence: it does describe something important about the origins of black people in the United States. But “Black American” was in some ways more important and in a sense even more revolutionary. For a long time “black” was considered to be negative until black people had a revolution to make it positive! I thought that was something that shouldn’t just be tossed off: the way the word “black” started representing something positive about a group of people, their culture, their struggle, and everything else.
So, “African-American” is fine. The difference between my generation and my daughter’s generation is “Black American” and “African-American.” But my uncles and elders, they still like the word “negro.”
EI: I was at a party with Wynton Marsalis and Stanley Crouch, and that’s what their usage was, “negro.” I wasn’t confident enough to use that myself.
GE: Right. There have been times when I’ve used the word “negro.” I don’t have a problem with the word “negro” – but I know that if you use it, some black people would say they want to punch you.
To me, these terms are each very nuanced, and when I write, they capture different kinds of things at different times. They are like your musical palette.
I know Stanley is big on using “negro.” He’ll use “negro” all the time. And I understand this. I think the word “negro” is extremely valuable in in certain contexts. I probably wouldn’t use it as much as Stanley does, but I am not above using it and have on occasion used it.
“Black” I like quite a bit.
I will use “African-American” now, mostly because of politics. If didn’t call these essays “African-American,” we might run into some static. We certainly couldn’t call them “Negro American Essays”! Or “Colored American Essays”!
Although there’s something perverse in me that kind wanted to call them “Negro American Essays.” If I wanted to be retro and kick up some fuss, I should have promoted that usage.
EI: Well, I’m enjoying this conversation because, like so many of your best essays, you are willing to show your uncertainty. When you write about your daughters, or your thinking about Malcolm X for forty years, or what happened last year to Henry Louis Gates – whatever your topic, you come to it from a place that’s very humble and very nuanced and non-Olympian. I think that approach makes your writing that much stronger, I really do.
GE: Ah, well, that’s nice of you to say. I always want to try to be honest with my readers and hope that comes across in the writing. I like to think that from time to time I’m a good writer, but I also like to think I’m pretty honest with people. If the reader can identify with what I’m expressing the reader can get that much more out of the writing. My job is not to preach to a reader but to make the reader aware of certain things about themselves that they may not be aware of.
Academics, they really can be very Olympian. They are trained to be that way from graduate school on.
EI: I’d like to talk about a couple of essays in Tuxedo Junction which are smart without being the least bit academic, “The Gathering of Stones” and the obit for Sonny Stitt that closes the book.
The Stitt piece goes back to the organ business we were talking about with Jimmy Smith.
Actually, the first time I read Tuxedo Junction many years ago, I felt you missed something on Sonny Stitt because I regarded him as the quintessential professional bebopper…
EI: …and your piece was about him playing in organ joints with Gene Ammons. And I sort of thought, “Well, Gerald Early doesn’t know the real Stitt.” That was before. Now I’ve been around the block a few more times, and when I came back to your essay I realized that this might be one of the few places where Stitt is placed in the context of an African-American saxophone player making a living for years playing the real blues in all-black places. This is important to remember when considering his bebop music.
GE: Well, that’s interesting. My piece was an elegy, and the only way I could remember him was how I was introduced to Stitt in Philadelphia where I grew up. My uncles would go out to see jazz performances, and that bluesy style was the kind of jazz they went out to see. They didn’t consider Sonny Stitt as this kind of bopper or something like that, they saw him in tenor sax battles with Gene Ammons with the screaming organ in the background.
I was aware of Stitt as the bopper and everything, but in that essay I wanted to present his loss in the context of participating in an important part of the cultural memory. He had this African-American audience based in part around the honking tenor tradition like Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis and Johnny Griffin and Illinois Jacquet and so forth.
There was a whole culture about saxophone battles and honkers, you know. When I first heard Junior Walker, I said “That’s another honker, man!” I remember when I first heard Gato Barbieri, I said “He’s another honker! He’s got these little avant-garde bleeps in it, but basically he’s another one of these honkers!”
That’s how I saw it, and I thought that was an important thing to remember about Sonny Stitt when he died. But I can understand you saying “Boy, that really missed the mark.”
EI: I now realize you didn’t miss the mark. Stitt’s an artist whose star seems to be receding because the understood trope is that he is a very proficient musician who lacks individuality. But your piece illuminates the cultural aspect. Even on Stitt’s boppiest records, there’s an element in his music which is as deeply mysterious as any other type of feeling, emotion, or technique: It’s the blues, and to really play the blues well is just as hard or harder than bebop.
GE: Of the saxophonists I heard when I was a little kid my favorite was Gene Ammons. That way he had of playing, his bluesy style, the big sound and everything – that was what the adult people I was around liked. They liked that, they liked Ben Webster, they liked Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis. (I didn’t hear Charlie Parker or Ornette Coleman until I got to college.)
That bluesy kind of jazz was really a popular music. My uncles, aunts and everything, they danced to that stuff. They said “Aw, yeah, man, hit it, hit it!” That was what I thought jazz was, because that’s how I saw people respond to it. I didn’t know until college that jazz was supposed to be an intellectual music!
The people I grew up with, they weren’t intellectual people, these were working-class black people listening to this music. Their response to it was very basic. Their response to it was that it had a groove… and the bigger and bluesier the sound, the better!
The first time I was introduced to jazz as an intellectual music was when my sister got Sketches of Spain. I had heard big band music before, a lot of Count Basie and some Quincy Jones. But Gil Evans or George Russell I hadn’t heard. So Sketches of Spain was the first time I was told that you’re supposed to come to this music with a kind of intellectual attitude. (Although the quality of Miles Davis’s trumpet solos did strike me emotionally.)
But my introduction to jazz was as a kind of popular music that didn’t have any particular intellectual significance…and nobody told me that it was supposed to have some kind of intellectual significance.
EI: Well, that sort of leads into the essay framed by your experiences listening to Lester Young in an all-black youth environment in the 1970’s. I think “The Gathering of Stones” is one of the best things ever written about jazz.
Let me quote:
“So you really like jazz, huh?” asked Mike Carpenter, a member of the West Philadelphia team, in an extremely sinister way.
“Yes, I do,” I rather hesitantly replied. “It is a music of great dignity and rich in black cultural heritage.”
I thought this to be a truly innocuous statement, but it must have offended Mike. He looked at me with the sort of disdain any lower-class black ought rightfully to feel when his middle-class brother pontificates like a condescending ass.
GE: That’s pretty funny! I haven’t seen that essay in years. That’s an absolutely true account of that conversation.
EI: I wouldn’t mind hearing more about jazz leaving the working-class African-American experience. Arguably jazz has been more awkward since that transformation.
GE: There’s smooth jazz.
EI: That’s true, there’s a very big African-American following for smooth jazz. There’s a black bar in Brooklyn I go into sometimes and there’s a picture of Kenny G on the wall, which is sort of like life’s greatest irony or something.
GE: My older relatives, when I go back to Philly, they love smooth jazz. They love George Benson, Earl Klugh, they love that kind of music, because for them it still has a certain kind of groove to it that they like, and so it’s cool. Some of them like Kenny G now, I guess.
I would say that a divide came up for me when I was in college, when jazz became much more of an intellectual exercise and I was deeply into classic recordings of jazz from Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton up to Thelonious Monk and Ornette Coleman. At that point a break came, because Grover Washington Jr. became really, really popular. And that was the first time that I really rejected an artist that was popular with African-Americans. A lot of the black kids I hung out with at college loved Grover Washington Jr. They thought it was funky, but I thought it was this kind of sellout music and I didn’t really care for it that much.
By the time I’m describing the events in “The Gathering of Stones” I had really become quite a snob about jazz. In recent years, I’ve wanted to understand two things. One is how jazz’s appeal has become almost exclusively elite. (There’s some people I think who even take a certain kind of pride in how they like jazz because of its snob appeal.) After that, I’d like to get an understanding if it’s possible for jazz (other than smooth jazz) to have a broader appeal ever again.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve became concerned with how I felt I was losing my connection with what jazz was really about – and really concerned about losing connection with my African-American cultural roots in jazz. The more I began to see jazz as this kind of elite art music, the more I lost a fundamental understanding of how the music worked. Because I wasn’t introduced to this music in this way! The people who played jazz for me as a kid didn’t tell me anything intellectual about this music, nor did they think it made them snobs to like it. They thought it was part of what everybody liked.
In some of those essays I’d been kind of thinking about those issues and the divide within myself about jazz. Autobiographically, my own snob turn with jazz represented a disconnect with African-American cultural roots.
It’s not unique, it happens to a lot of second-generation immigrants. You kind of get educated out of your background, and then you’re embarrassed by how Grandma has these habits from the old country. Probably in some way I became embarrassed by how the jazz fans around me when I was growing up didn’t have much of an intellectual appreciation for it.
I’ve spent the last few years running summer workshops teaching schoolteachers about jazz so that they could put it in their curriculum. I’ve wondered: Is it possible that this music can still speak to young people in the way that it spoke to me when I was young? I suggested we just strip it of this intellectual veneer when teaching it to the kids. Too often the teacher treats it like classical music, with long speeches about “Bach this,” and “Mozart this,” and now a whole long speech about “Coltrane this.” Naturally, any kid being true to himself is definitely not going to be interested in what you’re trying to give this whole long speech about. You’re making the music like medicine! “Oh, this is gonna be good for you! Take your vitamins.”
Instead of that approach, which we know doesn’t work, why don’t we pick out some pieces of music that we think the kids might like and not give them any explanation? Let’s just play a selection of enjoyable jazz and tell them, “Pick one of these pieces and write about it.”
We had great success. We had Mose Allison’s “Your Mind Is On Vacation,” and Nina Simone. We did a Benny Goodman piece which was very popular with the kids, not “Sing, Sing, Sing,” but “King Porter Stomp.” The kids loved that one! We didn’t tell them anything about it: “Here. Just listen to this piece.” And Louis Armstrong’s “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans” went over big with the kids.
We never gave them any explanations about these pieces of music, but that didn’t stop the kids from really getting into it or writing about it. This success convinced me that jazz still could speak to people emotionally. That was an important discovery to make, and important for me getting back to my roots.
The greatest power in music is its ability to reach people emotionally. I’m not belittling the intellectual side of jazz or saying that that’s not important. I think it is important. Jazz is a virtuoso music that presents interesting constraints the artists have to transcend. All sorts of intellectual things are very interesting and exciting with jazz. But the emotional impact of the music is the key.
The reason why this whole question came up was not whether could jazz ever speak to young people again, but whether it could ever speak to African-Americans again as it used to in the past. Because African-Americans don’t go out to hear much jazz anymore.
EI: No, they don’t. That’s true.
GE: Based on my experience with these kids, the answer was yes, I think it can. But for that to happen, it would have to be a persistent and careful re-cultivation of that audience, and it will take some time.
EI: Well, it’s interesting and honestly a bit revelatory about how the Jimmy Smith audience evolved into the smooth jazz audience, because I forget about smooth jazz, it’s not even on my radar.
GE: It’s on my radar only because I have so many older black adults around who listen to it.
EI: I’d like to bring something up only in the spirit of inquiry, not as an assertion. I went to see a very good performance of the Alvin Ailey dance troupe at City Center in New York, and I was really struck by how the audience was at least half (if not more) African-American. And it’s not that African-Americans are going to see dance all the time, because I’ve gone to a lot of dance and that simply just isn’t the case. I sort of knew that there would be more black people there than usual…
GE: …But not as many as you found.
EI: Yeah! I was like, “Wow!” My impression is that the black community has really gotten behind Alvin Ailey dance.
And again, I offer this only in the spirit of inquiry: based on this experience I wonder if the black community celebrates Alvin Ailey more than they celebrate, say, John Coltrane. Of course, Ailey died more recently than Coltrane, but arguably Judith Jamison holds the fort down the same way McCoy Tyner does today. Interestingly, Ailey’s signature dance, “Revelations,” is from 1960, the same year of Coltrane’s breakthrough record, My Favorite Things.
You wrote a book about Motown, which was African-American-controlled in a business sense, and maybe the fact that Ailey’s company is also rigorously African-American-controlled is important. Their patrons know that if you invest in Ailey, you invest in African-American culture, not a culture that was easily appropriated by others. Jazz wasn’t as lucky this way: John Coltrane’s music was recorded, packaged, and sold by the white infrastructure both then and now.
GE: That’s a good point that you raise about Ailey, because they will draw a huge African-American audience that you will not see for virtually any other dance group. I’ve seen a lot of dance companies myself, and when I’ve gone to Pilobolus or Mark Morris often I’m the only black person in the audience. Savion Glover played here a couple years ago, and even for him, there wasn’t the same kind of black audience. You get lip service about jazz being part of black culture – “Oh, yes, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk,” you know, “Charlie Parker blah blah blah,” all that sort of stuff. You’ll go into your black elementary school somewhere and they’ll have a few posters up of people like Billie Holiday or something.
But by and large, there isn’t the same sense of ownership of jazz as there is of, as you say, things like Motown, hip-hop, or Alvin Ailey. Black people feel these things were black cultural products. But they don’t feel the same sense of control about jazz, because, after a certain point, they didn’t feel as though they were the essential audience for it.
EI: Oh, that’s deep, right.
GE: I think this has a lot to do with black people’s attitudes about jazz now. As I said before, I don’t think it’s necessarily that black people cannot get into jazz as such. I think they can, and that they would really make more efforts to do so if they felt greater ownership of it. You know, “We’re gonna have a little jazz thing at this church tonight, wanna make sure the young-uns get this stuff” – they would make it more part of their own cultural network. But as it stands now, actually, if you’re around black people and you’re around their cultural rites – I’m a member of a black fraternity, that’s how I keep connected – if you’re around all that kind of stuff, you see very little that’s done to keep jazz alive. Very, very little.
EI: That’s one reason I think that Wynton Marsalis is important. He’s a charismatic African-American figurehead that’s doing outreach and promoting a sense of ownership.
GE: Yeah, Wynton is a highly regarded cultural figure in the African-American community, and he’s probably the most important teacher of jazz. If he didn’t exist, jazz would be even lower on people’s cultural radar than it is now.
I have some people waiting for me, so I’ve got to stop now. But I think black people have a kind of a funny sense of alienation from jazz, which is different from their sense of alienation from the blues, because I think black people also today alienate from the blues, but in a different way than they alienate from jazz.
EI: A cliffhanger! Maybe we can continue another time.