Jazz–Its Meaning, Its Future

Against the Current, No. 66, January/February 1997

Melba Joyce Boyd and Donald Walden

Melba Joyce Boyd and Donald Walden, both long-time Detroit artists, presented these talks at an international conference, “‘April in Paris:’ African American Music and Europe,” organized by the Centre d’Etudes Afro-americaines, Universite de la Sorbonne Nouvelle, Paris III and the W.E.B. DuBois Institute of Harvard University, April 24-27, 1996.  Boyd is a poet, the author of a work on the politics and poetry of Frances E. W. Harper (“Discarded Legacy,” Wayne State University Press, 1994) and currently chairs the Africana Studies Department at Wayne State University.  Donald Walden’s most recent recording is “A Portrait of You” (Fante-Si Records, Detroit).  The talks have been transcribed and somewhat abridged by “Against the Current”.

Melba Joyce Boyd: What Donald Walden and I will talk about falls essentially under three categories.  We hope to build up to certain kinds of concerns that we have with regard to the declining numbers of young Blacks, in Detroit in particular and think America in general, who are strongly interested in jazz as an artistic and cultural realm of expression.

I’ll start by talking specifically about the Montreux-Detroit Jazz Festival, which began in 1980 as a cultural exchange between Montreux, Switzerland and Detroit, Michigan.  Then we’ll talk about the “benefits” that the Montreux-Detroit jazz exchange is supposed to render with regard to Detroit jazz and Detroit jazz musicians.  Finally (will come) the discussion of “Whose jazz is it anyway?”

We’d like to start out by communicating to you in the format we are most familiar with .  .  .  .  I’d like to read a poem, “Ain’t No Jazz on Tuesdays in Copenhagen,” which I think reflects with some level of humor on the subjects of jazz and the Black America-European exchange.  Then Donald Walden will play a response.

[At this point Melba Joyce Boyd reads her poem, followed by a tenor saxophone solo by Donald Walden.  She then rereads the poem with accompaniment from Walden.]

“ain’t no jazz on tuesdays in Copenhagen”

(summer solstice `87, for Bo and Dotty)

ain’t no jazz
on tuesdays
in Copenhagen.
I said,
ain’t no jazz
on Tuesdays
in Copenhagen.
The guards was
on strike,
the museum doors
was locked
and the japanese
was computing over
chicken chow mein.
The rain was soaking
and we was mildewing
outside La Fontaine,
but ain’t no jazz
on tuesdays
in Copenhagen.
The mermaid was tuning
her timbre
when a bloated,
blistered sailor
started talking’ bout
hunting witches.
my watch stopped
under the solstice
at 12:26 then
we slipped into
Dexter Gordon
was gazing serious
out of a black
and white print
and James Brown
was pleading from
a platter
for us
to take it higher!
Then my sweater
caught on fire!
But ain’t no jazz
on tuesdays
in Copenhagen.
I said,
ain’t no jazz
on tuesdays
in Copenhagen.

So now you’ve gotten a taste of what kind of jazz comes out of Detroit.

I don’t know how many of you are familiar with the Montreux-Detroit Jazz Festival, which began in 1980.  It’s a very big festival that runs four days over the Labor Day weekend, and draws thousands of people to the city.

The event takes place in Hart Plaza, which is a large center with two circular concert amphitheaters and a third stage, all by the Detroit River.  Detroit borders Canada at the river, and there’s an international draw to the festival: The Montreux connection in particular involves the Montreux (Switzerland) Jazz Festival.  I’d like Donald to continue .  .  .

Donald Walden: The festival’s name seems to me kind of incongruous.  I can’t think of very many jazz musicians who come from Montreux, Switzerland; but I can think of dozens of jazz musicians who came from Detroit.

So it’s a bit incongruous to me that a jazz festival in Detroit, which gave the world such musicians as Barry Harris, Pepper Adams, Donald Byrd, Tommy Flanagan, Geri Allen-I could go on and on-would have a “Montreux” label.

However, part of the European influence on this music is the fact that the citizens of Montreux had the good sense to have a jazz festival for a number of years before Detroit put one together.  And it was done that way in order to somewhat validate the Detroit festival.

[Editor’s note: The Detroit Renaissance Foundation, which initiated the festival, contracted with the Montreux festival to adopt its name in a kind of franchising arrangement, in order to use the prestige of “Montreux” to gain legitimacy and corporate sponsorships.  After 1993, when the Detroit Renaissance Foundation ceased its participation, the festival-by now a major civic event -was saved by the Detroit Music Hall, which stepped in to organize it.]

That raises an issue of great contention to many of us who believe there is too much European influence.  To validate jazz, or Black American music, by European standards-it makes you wonder if that’s wise.

But in the first four or five years there was an exchange between groups from Detroit performing at the Montreux festival in Switzerland, which in turn sent groups of Swiss musicians to Detroit.  These weren’t necessarily jazz groups, sometimes they were Swiss folk musicians.  (Since 1991 that exchange has become less regular.)

MJB: I think one of the points Donald alluded to, with regard to this European legitimization, is an ironic consideration when you look at the history of Black artists in Europe, where the musicians and other artists for a long time have gone to be acknowledged as artists, in a way they wouldn’t be credited in the American mainstream.

Image of a Black City

Now, if you’re aware of the social and political interpretations of the city of Detroit, the way a predominantly Black city like Detroit is projected through the media, one has to be a bit pissed off.

I had a conversation yesterday with a young man who asked if Detroit is as bad as they say it is. I asked what he meant.  He said: Well, the images we get are that it’s all burnt out and everyone’s out of work.

The reality is that Detroit is actually a Black cultural center of intellectual life and also artistic production.  Additionally it’s a place with probably the largest Black middle class in the country, and one of the most productive and politically sophisticated Black communities in the country-with regard to not only its education but also its history as a labor movement city.

So we come to understand that (what) the artists have to say, coming out of the vortex of Detroit-whether that’s verbally as reflected in my poetry or in terms of its oral construction in both the poetry and music-represents a culture of protest and a political impetus that’s quite militant, a response to the sort of racism that’s involved in a presentation of Black America.

That’s just to set the record straight for those of you who don’t know that Detroit’s not a burnt-out city, and that people live with more inspiration there than most other places.

The Fate of Jazz at Home

Our second concern here has to do with what’s happening with jazz in Detroit.  Detroit is a very large metropolitan area, with over a million people in the city and around four million in the metropolitan area.

When we look in particular at what’s happening with jazz in Detroit, I was reflecting earlier that there was a time in the public education system where young people could study music.  I myself studied music for many years; I was much more into it before I even thought of doing this writing thing.

Now the situation has changed dramatically.  The arts aren’t encouraged, and I’m sure this isn’t something unique to Detroit.  In a technological era they’re much more interested in stocking schools with computers than with saxophones and clarinets.

I think that’s unfortunate, because we aren’t talking about the production of a simply popular music, but also I believe we’re losing ground culturally.  There’s a declining number of young Blacks actually considering and studying music, just in terms of knowledge even if not dedication to the music.

And there’s a cultural gap, I think, that’s getting larger, so that when I teach my students in a Black American Culture course they don’t have even a basic understanding of the structure of the music; and it’s actually very frightening.

DW: I would just like to relate a couple of my experiences as a jazz educator.  Right now I’m teaching at two major universities, the Oberlin Conservatory and the University of Michigan.  This makes the third university where I’ve taught in the last five years.  In those five years I’ve had no more than six Black students majoring in jazz studies.  I’m not lying, or exaggerating: It’s unreal how we are about to give this music away.

I taught at Michigan State University for a year, where I had one Black student who wanted to become a jazz singer.  She wanted to study with me to be a jazz vocalist.  I asked what kind of standards did she do. She asked me: What’s a standard?

I could tell you many stories.  At the University of Michigan this year I gave a written test to two different classes of jazz majors.  The first question on the test was to fill in: Lester “____” Young.  One person filled in the blank with “Prez.”

I gave a sound test to identify a variety of music, not very esoteric-nothing that every jazz fan on the street shouldn’t know. I played Dizzy Gillespie’s big band from a radio broadcast around 1949-50.  The only person who even took a guess as to what it was thought it was Benny Goodman.  I can tell you many similiar stories.

Even with adults, if I were to stop ten people on the streets of any American city-any ten, Black or white doesn’t matter-they would know less about jazz than any ten I would stop on the streets in almost any European country.  If it weren’t for the European market this music probably would have dissipated completely by now.

It’s a distressing situation, but not dead. There’s always young people like James Carter (see “Radical Rhythms,” by Kim Hunter, “ATC” 55, March-April 1995-ed.) who has come from the Detroit schools and making big waves in the jazz community right now. And there’s a young Detroit piano player, Carlos McKinney, straight out of high school, who missed his first month of classes at the New School in New York because he was on gigs in Europe.  He’s managing to play his way through college, spending more time in recording studios and on the road than in the classroom.  So the music isn’t about to die, but the situation is very bad in a lot of ways.

“Smooth” Jazz

People think of Detroit as this terrific jazz mecca.  The major “jazz” radio station in Detroit, which goes by the call letters WJZZ, plays no jazz at all. (Subsequently the station dropped the pretext and changed its letters.-ed.) There’s a new phenomenon in the radio industry called “smooth jazz.”  Smooth jazz-I haven’t figured out what that means yet. But there’s a number of stations playing nothing but this.

A new station just came on the air in Detroit.  They advertise themselves as a jazz station with the background of an Anita Baker record.  Anita Baker is not a jazz singer.  They follow that up with Kenny G-whose music may have some improvisation and jazz elements, but isn’t what we want to think about as jazz.

Another area for concern is the people that do the educating.  I function as a jazz educator, but the majority of my life has been spent as a professional musician, not an educator.  But in most schools it’s the other way around.  People who have never played in a band, never been on the road, don’t know anything about the life of a jazz musician, are teaching jazz.

One of the most influential organizations in the field right now is the International Association of Jazz Educators, which is about 99% Caucasian.  There’s a Black Caucus-in a jazz organization there’s a Black Caucus, I’m not able to quite understand that!

I was at the IAJE convention in Atlanta this past January.  Being an educator, I went to a number of presentations, where the overwhelming thing I was hearing seemed to be to nullify the fact that this is an essentially Black music, that jazz exists out of the African-American experience.

I have a whole book that’s written by a member of this organization (“Jazz Theory and Practice”, by Richard J. Lawn and Jeffrey L. Hellmer, Belmont CA: Wadsworth Publishing Co.)-a very good book as a matter of fact, which I’ve used for some teaching ideas in my own classes.  I’ve noted in several places where this work mentions the “early” influence in jazz of African-American or African polyrhythms.

But there are too many references to the “early” influences of African this, or African-American that-if you don’t know any better reading this, it’s as if these influences have to do with the music early on, but now it’s a “world music.”

That’s another issue: They want to call jazz “world music,” but it comes from Black America and wouldn’t exist had there not been slavery.  It’s the expression of the whole Black experience in America; and I think the attempt to define the aesthetic of this music by other standards will water the music down to the point where it will no longer be jazz-maybe improvisational music, but something other than jazz.

MJB: Just a final comment before opening up for discussion.  To touch further on what Donald says about where the music comes from: As an educator I’ve also noted that with the decline of the importance and influence of jazz I’m also seeing a decline in the political sophistication of my students, their capacity to analyze politically what’s going on in their worlds.

I guess I could take on some of the people who like to reference rap as being the new musical voice of this time. And I acknowledge that-but I have a lot of problems with what that voice says, and the level or lack of sophistication of the perspectives that are reflected in that voice.  It’s not capable of addressing all the dynamics that are affecting the Black American experience at this particular time, even though there are insights there.

And I think one has to consider what I call the ideological and spiritual sophistication of jazz. As we and our youth get further away from that sophistication we also are going to lose political ground.  I think also that has a lot to do with the-shall we say-shortcomings in some of the political expressions of Black leadership that we are seeing.

That’s another discussion, but it’s certainly the way I feel about the state of Black America.  And I think it’s directly related to the way jazz is being pushed into the background and what’s being put forward in the form of “smooth jazz,” a cleaned-up, bowtied-up jazz that we see on television and hear on popular radio.

Excerpt From Discussion Period

Q. (Questions from the audience are only partially audible on the tape. The substance of the question included a defense of rap and concluded as follows.) Jazz, like classical music, is suited to certain groups of people who have the time and capacity to appreciate it. What you’ve called “easy jazz” or light jazz, I think, provides a stepping stone for people who don’t understand jazz but can (progress) toward it.

MJB: First with regard to rap, I didn’t say it’s without legitimacy.  I said I felt rap has particular limitations .  .  .

I’m not so sure “easy jazz” is a stepping stone.  I see it as a blockage.  I’m not so sure-and I’ll give the microphone to Donald-but in my experience people are still playing jazz in the community in clubs, and that’s still a core source of experience.  In that sense jazz is still a mass music.  So it’s more complicated; when you talk about “popular,” you have to consider what is “mass” and what you would call Black culture.

There’s a difference between “popular,” in the sense of the way the culture is turned into a market commodity, and in the sense of where the musicians convene and people express themselves.  I think Donald should answer you more directly.

DW: In addition to being termed a classical music, jazz is also an art music.  As such it isn’t expected to sell millions of records.  Nonetheless it is also a folk music because it expresses the aspirations, the needs and personality of the folk that it comes from.

In regards to the music’s lack of popularity, I think also that in the early sixties the music became less social.  There was a time in the thirties and forties when due to the constraints of recording technology-three to four-minute records-people would dance to the music.

In the late 1950s because of the advent of LP records the music became less danceable.  Recordings became longer.  It became more like concert music.

But the next issue is that taste is manipulated.  If the radio fills the airwaves with any particular thing, you’ll find yourself liking the best of the worst.  If you’re in a city where you could only hear country and western for a period of time, you’ll find something within that genre that you’ll like.

People don’t have a fair chance at deciding whether they like jazz if there isn’t exposure, if they don’t hear it. If you go to a live concert where you see little kids, two years old, you’ll see that they like the music if we get an honest chance to reach their ears. We excuse ourselves for not supporting this music; the rest of the world does.

MJB: What Donald is saying is that in a minute the music won’t be anybody’s, because it won’t exist.  Culture isn’t static, and a lot of what happens is very market-driven.  Young people today are much more immediately concerned with survival-how am I going to make a living?-than when I was coming up.

If in fact this music comes out of the guts of Black America, and Black America begins to cease making it or becomes minimized in its production, it will become a remote art-it’s probably as close already to being a remote art as poetry, and believe me, that’s hard! What Donald is saying is that it wouldn’t be jazz any more, but another form.

Q. (The substance of this question was about the loss of cultural and historical understanding of the interconnectedness of various forms of Black musical expression, and how this might be recuperated through education.)

MJB: That’s an excellent question, which I think connects up with what this panel in general is concerned about.  You’re right that there’s a discontinuity in terms of a cultural perspective.  As you say, we were taught the spirituals; when I was growing up in the fifties I had a Black music teacher and we studied the spirituals in music class-in class.

Now you have a situation where there seems to be utter educational confusion, even at a time when you have Black educators and administrators who are attempting to configure what they call an Afrocentric education, and so forth.

In this attempt at a grand recuperation of the Golden Era when there were African kings and queens, and despots, we have lost a sense of appreciation for the essence of what African American culture is, which is a culture of struggle.

You have to start with the spirituals, at the base of the culture, and you develop an aesthetic understanding and depth on the basis of where you are right now. I think that as educators we have to undertake a serious examination of what we are losing in this frantic reach for some kind of essentialism.  But you’re actually right.we have to look at how we survived the system when Black Studies didn’t have a name.

ATC 66, January-February 1997