Jazz, Blues, Roots: We Are Handing Our Dazzling Cultural Legacy Over to Europeans and Asians

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Towards the end of Marley, the new documentary chronicling the brief life and brilliant career of the Jamaican music legend, members of his organization lament the failure of Bob Marley and the Wailers to be embraced by black American audiences. Marley died in 1981 from the melanoma that had spread throughout his body. He was only 36 at the time, but by then was an international icon who filled major concert venues around the globe. He had a devoted cult following among young white Americans, but remained outside the black American cultural mainstream.

To a man who was so much of his people, this must have felt like yet another rejection by his own flesh and blood, something the artist was well familiar with. But his cultural estrangement was largely a result of a marketing conspiracy. Music programmers in major black markets refused to play his music on black radio. Either they didn’t get it, didn’t think it was commercially viable, or both. And if you weren’t getting airplay on black radio, for the black masses you didn’t exist.

That commercial interests conspired to alienate Bob Marley and the Wailers from black American audiences should be reason enough to make cultural warriors of us all. Market forces and slick packaging sidelines so much of the good stuff, reducing popular culture to so much repetitive, mind numbing nonsense. Who knows how many Bob Marleys we’re missing out on because we’re listening to the wrong radio station and our brains and tastes are being turned into mush by the next Lil Wayne, the next Rihanna, the next Beyoncé? Black America has left a broad and deep musical footprint on world culture. But our connections to the roots of this music have become increasingly fragile, eroded by the crass commercialism that most of us have come to love.

So we end up bequeathing our legacy to others. Young white Americans have also become custodians of the blues. In his memoir, B.B. King poignantly describes being booed by a black audience in Baltimore and frequently credits his devoted young white followers for keeping him in business. As for jazz, it too seems to have been placed for adoption. Apart from the invaluable work done by Wynton Marsalis, jazz is being kept alive mainly by Europeans, Israelis, Japanese, white college kids enrolled in campus jazz studies programs—everyone but us.

Those of us who care deeply about our musical legacy won’t simply let others claim it and love it more than we do. It takes effort and word of mouth to discover and support the musical riches buried outside the commercial mainstream, but the rewards are well worth the effort. And, thanks to YouTube, Pandora and public radio, there are far more alternatives to WBLS and BET.

If Marley whets your appetite for more classic reggae, check out Peter Tosh, a member of the Wailers before breaking out on his own. Taj Mahal is another brilliant roots artist whose fan base is largely outside the black community.  My single face-to-face encounter with Bob Marley was backstage at a Taj Mahal concert at New York City’s Bottom Line. Clearly, the two artists were kindred spirits. Taj has managed to thrive for more than four decades, making those musical connections linking blues, reggae, and sounds from West Africa without caving in to commercial pressures. Once again, many thanks to our hip white American, African, European and Asian brethren for keeping Taj Mahal on tour and in demand.

In a more jazz-infused vein is vocalist Rene Marie. Check out her medley of Ravel’s  “Bolero” and Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” on her CD “Live at the Jazz Standard.” It simply takes your breath away.  Someone else you must download is Gregory Porter, an incredibly soulful jazz vocalist blessed with a rich baritone that is part of a tradition harking back to Johnny Hartman, Billy Eckstine and Paul Robeson. Listen. Savor. Spread the word.

Diane Weathers, a former editor in chief of Essence Magazine, is a veteran journalist and freelance writer. She is currently completing her first novel.

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