NPR recently published an article titled On The Future Of Jazz Among Black Folk. If you’ve been to a jazz club lately, then the dearth of black folks in the audience should not really be news to you. There are a lot of conversations about why that is, and the first answer given is the lack of education. You’ll get no arguments from me about that. The decimation of music programs and the lack of instruments in inner city schools has really done a number to many of the communities that birthed this music.
Even without formal education, kids exposed to this music can be receptive to it. I know this from experience. The picture above is my niece at 18 months old with John Coltrane’s Sun Ship record. I didn’t actively make an effort for her to listen to jazz. It was just the music that was usually playing when she visited. In time, she took a liking to it. In the above picture, she pulled out the Coltrane LP herself. I went to put it back on the shelf, but she looked like she was about to cry when I put it back. I pulled it back out and the smile returned. I put the record on the turntable, and she sat down and listened. She acquired a taste for jazz simply by hearing it.
However, lack of exposure is not the only problem. I am glad Jimmy Heath brought up the youth, and his son Mtume mentioned the need for jazz musicians to embrace the sounds and technologies of the music of today. This is essential. If you want growth, you have to go to where the people are. It’s not the other way around.
When it comes to jazz, the one name my non jazz listening friends know is Robert Glasper. They know him because he incorporates the present into his music. Hip hop isn’t an alien art-form to him, nor is it something to deride. It is something that is incorporated into his music with spectacular success. The thing is that with the exception of brilliant musicians like Robert Glasper, the jazz press doesn’t really cover anything beyond straight ahead jazz for the most part. Brass bands are rarely discussed in the jazz press, which is ironic since jazz came out of this style of music in New Orleans.
Modern brass bands in my opinion are the future. They incorporate hip hop, funk and anything else they feel like incorporating, but it is still undeniably jazz. Except to the very vocal people who don’t like hip hop and whatever else the brass bands might throw into the pot. Their brand of jazz has no outside influences (or so they think). What they think or prefer is irrelevant, and at the risk of being flippant, the people who don’t like it don’t matter. It isn’t about them. Four decades ago, their counterparts of the time were complaining when Miles Davis incorporated electric instruments into his music with Bitches Brew. Miles understood that rock and funk music was what young people were listening to. Despite the critics, it was his band playing to an audience of thousands at the Isle of Wight Festival. We shouldn’t forget that.
Today, I see that take charge spirit in Brass Bands. Bands like Rebirth Brass Band, Hypnotic Brass Ensemble and PitchBlak Brass Band to name some. They are incorporating the present with tradition.
Their shows incorporate all the things many people in jazz are clamoring for, like young people, an energetic crowd, dancing (that’s right people actually move!) and yes, black people are well represented in these audiences. Why isn’t there more coverage for these musicians in the jazz world? If I had to speculate, I’d say the gatekeepers probably don’t think it’s “jazz” enough. Many jazz listeners think jazz should be played a certain way (i.e. like it’s 1955). Part of it might be their inherent bias against things they do not care for, which speaks more to their age and/or tastes, than the quality of the material. That’s fine, but then we shouldn’t complain when young people aren’t interested. Young blacks in particular. Rest assured, the typical 21 yr old isn’t interested in going to a jazz club to sit down for supper and listen to standards. Why don’t people get this? There is a lot of room for everyone, yet we consonantly have this narrow definition of what jazz should be. Well, don’t be surprised if you have a narrow audience to match your narrow definition.
Another point that really isn’t made is that maybe black people have moved on. The earlier points I made aside, musical styles fall in and out of favor all the time. Why should jazz be the exception? I’m not pulling a Terry Teachout and saying jazz is dead, it isn’t. I’m simply saying that perhaps we jazz lovers may be blind to the fact that our love for this music just isn’t shared by many people, and it isn’t solely due to lack of exposure and the cutting of education programs. A few years ago, I was at a blues festival, and with the exception of Buddy Guy, the only other black people I saw there were the janitors and cleaning crew. It was before my time, but was there this type of concern for the lack of black people going to blues concerts when more whites started participating and attending concerts, or was it just accepted that black people had moved on to listen to other styles of music?