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Can We Revive the Black Community’s Interest in Jazz?

John Coltrane

John Coltrane

Although jazz is widely known as an original creation of African-American people, the numbers are showing a painful lack of attention and regard for this art form from the people who created it.

That’s a well-established fact, but Atlanta Blackstar wondered, How do we rectify the problem? Is there a way to get Black people excited about jazz once again?

According to data from a study conducted by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the audience for jazz is a largely white one. White Americans make up around 80 percent of jazz concert attendees. Blacks account for just 17 percent of those attending concerts and 20 percent of those listening to jazz recordings. Around a third (34 percent) of those who “like jazz best,” identify as Black.

The strongest identifier for participation in jazz (going to concerts, purchasing CDs) is education. The more educated a person is, the more likely that person is to engage in and support jazz and most other arts. In turn, education strongly correlates with income. Support for jazz increasees the higher the income, according to the jazzhouse.org.

Taking into account that Black people in America are generally funneled into worse school systems than their white counterparts, these numbers make a little more sense.

The only way, it seems, to turn this phenomenon around is to not only make jazz more accessible to the very people that invented it, but to do it at a young age.

In an article titled “Jazz in America: Who’s Listening?” by Scott K. DeVeaux, DeVeaux suggests that if African-Americans were more inclined by educational training to attend concerts and more able to afford to do so, they would support jazz in even greater numbers than they now do.

“The data bear this out: nearly half (49 percent) of African-Americans expressed a desire to attend more jazz concerts, as opposed to less than a quarter (22 percent) of whites,” he writes.

“The problem is, it’s not just a decline in jazz, there is a decline in opera and in classical music, period,” said Alexander Smalls, owner of the popular New York jazz venue and restaurant Minton’s. “Primarily because we are a society of now. If it’s not happening right in front of people, they have no reference. We have done such a bad job at educating, so there is no celebration of the music. We need to bring jazz out of its classical state and put it in more of a contemporary setting and do a better job in bringing the music and the value of this discipline to the audience that we want.”

The best way to make such a beautiful genre accessible is to bring it to children at a young age, create programs that promote jazz in schools and let children grow up with the art.

“I think that when something becomes a part of your life at the age of four instead of fourteen/ fifteen it just becomes a habit and becomes part of you,” said Ronald Markham, president and CEO of the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra. “I play music because I grew up in a small church that had amazing music. So I do think that institutionalizing it as a young age you will have a better chance of it becoming a part of a person’s life.”

What people are saying

11 thoughts on “Can We Revive the Black Community’s Interest in Jazz?

  1. Lawrence Davies says:

    This is an interesting question, but it's one that needs to be tempered by a certain amount of historical perspective.

    On the one hand, I agree with Montford's article. The lack of diversity in jazz in institutional and high-art settings is a significant problem that needs to be rectified. The links Montford makes to educational opportunity clearly show how this situation links into wider socio-economic inequalities.

    At the same time, I think the question "Can we revive the Black Community's interest in jazz?" is by no means unproblematic.

    Jazz has a dual identity: it is both "art music" which means it ostensibly transcends the identity of its consumers and performers, and African American music – which means it is called on to reflect African American identity and experience specifically. Jazz – and blues, for that matter – are perhaps the only genres that both reflect and transcend the circumstances of their production. (You can read this simultaneity in either an optimistic or a pessimistic way, but that's another story).

    What is very important to note, though, is that the history of jazz has been predominantly written by white men. The idea that African Americans might be abandoning the artistic merits of jazz and preferring something else appears as early as the 1930s, when a number of white jazz critics began to promote New Orleans jazz as a form of authentic, African American 'folk music'. In contrast, these critics – who wrote some of the earilest histories of jazz – heard commercial swing music as an abomination, and regularly chastised black swing performers and audiences for having 'abandoned their heritage'.

    Rewind to the 1910s and 20s, of course, and you had many African American intellectuals and writers chastising 'jazz' for promoting stereotypical depictions of African Americans. They recommended instead that the African American community embrace classical music as a form of racial uplift. Fast forward to the 1940s, 50s and 60s, and the musicians we see as most influential such as Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman etc were by no means as popular in the black community as African American entertainers such as Nat King Cole, Ray Charles, Bill Doggett, James Brown, etc.

    The question Montford asks therefore also assumes a very clear cut shift of audience for jazz, as though there was a period of time where jazz was universally popular amongst African Americans, and then at a particular point white people woke up to the music and took it over. The reality is far more complex, and in many ways *more* uncomfortable: there has always been a white audience for jazz, and this white audience has often used its institutional privilege to assert what it thinks African Americans "should" be listening to. Likewise, jazz as an 'elite' music has always been a relatively niche interest to African American audiences in comparison to pop genres such as soul, doo-wop, RnB, or swing – in the same way that many African Americans across the 20th Century have devoted themselves to classical music and opera.

    So to ask 'can we revive the Black Community's interest in jazz' is to assume a homogenous cultural experience in a way that would never be applied to white people or 'white culture'. It taps into a historical double standard, which hears music performed or written by whites as "music", but hears music performed or written by African Americans as "black music".

    Yes, we do need to improve access to education, diversity in elite institutions – that's obvious, but it isn't the question Montford poses. This is not to say that we can't recognise jazz as an important part of African American cultural heritage; in fact, it is imperative that we do so. But in doing so it is vital to understand how the cultural status of African American music has been fought over by both black and white voices. Unfortunately those white voices have often come out on top, projecting essentialist notions of 'black culture' and an assumption of inherent racial difference. Lamenting a lack of interest specifically in jazz is to tap into an outdated and often white-authored notion that African Americans *should* be making some types of music but not others. It is not necessarily a route to empowerment.

  2. Sorry, I don't agree with the premise of education, or the lack their of, to the appreciation to jazz. There are so many other paths this topic could have ventured. It is unfortunate that this writer took the shortcut to a dead end.

  3. Sorry, I don't agree with the premise of education, or the lack their of, to the appreciation to jazz. There are so many other paths this topic could have ventured. It is unfortunate that this writer took the shortcut to a dead end.

  4. Ybpa Voyage says:

    You can revive interest amongst black people by infusing it more with Hip Hop music.

    Hip Hop was traditionally largely based off of Jazz samples and has gone through many successful periods of sampling jazz with groups like A Tribe Called Quest and producers like Pete Rock etc.

    More jazz influenced production in hip hop (particularly more mainstream hip hop) could get black people to become more interested again.

  5. Daron Nelson says:

    damn come black folks. This music is a world treasure.

  6. Terrell Davis says:

    I have loved Jazz since I was 15 years old. When my friends were all into this new music form called rap and breaking (yes I was there at the very beginning of rap) I was listening to Dizzy
    Gillespie, Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Noel Pointer, who later in life became one of my dearest friends. What helped me discover Jazz at such an early age was the local Jazz radio station in NY at the time WRVR. The cool smooth tones of the Disc Jockeys and the different styles of the artist they would play.
    I went to the Jazz club in my neighborhood one night (a school night at that), a place called Fat Tuesdays to see Dizzy perform live when I was 16. I wasn't old enough to drink but I told the door guy I just wanted to hear Dizzy play, not drink, so he let me in. I got there between sets and took a seat at the bar as the tables were full, and out of no where Dizzy stands next to me at the bar and says, "hey young fella, what you doin here?" I was floored that the man I had been listening to was right next to me and talking to me! I told him how big a fan of him I was and I couldn't wait to see him live when I got the chance. He took his whole break to talk to me and told me stories about when he played in Europe and how the fans over there were my age. I was blown away that this living legend of Jazz was talking to me like we were old drinking buddies from way back. I told him about a particular song of his that was my favorite, and he performed it the very first song of the set and said that it was for the young fella at the bar. I damn near passed out! So yeah, I hope the Black community revives its interest in Jazz, its truly our creation, lets not lose it.

  7. AljoniMusiCo says:

    From what we've seen and experienced; sadly, the answer is no. Actually, the interest in Jazz is fading more than not.. Not only in the Black communities, but in general–unfortunately.

  8. David Irwin says:

    Years ago, when I was living in Atlanta, I posed this question to a African-American gentleman I met on the MARTA train. His explanation was surprising. He said that lots of young people came to Morehouse and Spellman College, and gradually became very well-versed in jazz, but then moved away to other cities.

  9. one problem is that jazz, since the 1960's, has stagnated and become a museum piece to be studied. there's been no innovation in over 40 years. that's long enough to kill anything.

  10. Max Acree says:

    George Neidorf There have been plenty of innovations in jazz over the past 40 years, but no one has listened to them apparently, I would say the rise of Jazz Fusion and general jazz influenced electronic styles is something that's only really come about since the late 70s and early 80s. Plus what the fuck is innovation anyway? I wouldn't call any of the "Pop stars" of today innovative in anything but pushing an image onto the people.

  11. George Neidorf Oddly enough, your estimated date coincides with the indoctrination of jazz as a emerging presence in academia. I don;t think that's a coincidence, and the transition of the music to what is now primarily an academic discipline (i.e. far more learn jazz in school than through "street-level" practical experience, as was once the norm) only exacerbates your point. the music doesn't speak to or reflect everyday people andymore, so unsurprisingly, everyday people are turning their backs on us.

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