From the Ground Up

(UPDATE, 10/22:  This was written at top speed;  I certainly don't have all the answers. One of Payton's amusing tweets in response said something like, "White guys have to stick together.  Can't blame them really."  Talk about the truth!!! 

I opened up a forum to be challenged and promote further discussion.  It's been going for a few days and will auto-close tomorrow night.  On the thread I respond to queries about Ray Brown, race, my peers, and other stuff.  In addition some of the commenters make excellent points, and not all of them agree with me. Thanks for reading.  )

One of my guilty pleasures is looking at 80’s movies I loved as a kid.

Ghostbusters was absolutely amazing when I was 11.  However, the year 1984 was just before I started getting serious about jazz, so I had no awareness of the movie’s casual racism.  Indeed, until I re-watched the film last week, I had completely forgotten that there was a fourth Ghostbuster.   Ernie Hudson’s performance is fine, and judging by this recent interview he’s a nice guy with no real regrets, but the simple fact of the matter is that Hudson in Ghostbusters defines the phrase, “token black.”

I would even go further and call the movie a product of institutional racism:  Hudson was left off the posters of both movies.  His character (not Hudson himself, of course) is clearly the dumbest of the four.  To top it off, Hudson plays the only black character in the movie except for the jail scene, when all the other inmates are black!  (And even dumber than Hudson’s character.)

None of this is news.   Institutional racism runs like a blues bass line through all of white America’s entertainment.  It’s gotten a bit better since Ghostbusters but it is still present.


Recently Ben Ratliff published a valuable article in the New York Times about four young pianists he regards as potential game-changers.  There are two Cuban men, a white man, and a white woman.

I’m not on Twitter (reaching out to @thebadplus is not reaching out to the band members, we’ve never been there) but I’ve learned that Nicholas Payton and some of his friends were miffed that there were no African-Americans in Ratliff’s article.  Among other cranky tweets from October 12, Payton wrote, "I don't believe @benratliff is a racist, but I think institutional racism allows him to imagine a world of Jazz with no African-Americans."

Payton is getting known for throwing his opinions out there as much as for his great trumpet playing.  I like the fact that he’s in there swinging; someone’s got to be.  There must be hundreds (if not thousands) of musicians, especially black musicians, who think the same things he does but don’t dare say them.  I’m sure all of them read his frequently hilarious tweets. (“If you overuse Major#5 chords in effort to give your compositions an instant "vibe", fuck you!” is right up my alley. We call them “girlfriend chords” on my block, because the amateur white jazz composer often titles those reflective polychord waltzes with the name of his girlfriend.)

It is more than cool for Payton to raise some dust with the jazz critical establishment, but his attack on Ratliff misses the point.   The issue Payton is responding to has less to do with race than genre.

The greatest jazz was created and nourished by locally-based African-American folklore.  Some of the many musicians involved in that community were also possessed with the desire to innovate. Since it is easier to write about, many jazz critics -- especially white jazz critics -- have made more of the innovation than the folklore.

I sympathize with those that feel that that innovation holds too much sway in the critical canon.  For example, Hank Jones wasn’t an innovator.  But Hank Jones was pure magic, and it doesn’t say a lot for a rounded perspective that he spent so many of his prime years in the studios instead of being respected as an American Vladimir Horowitz.  More recently, the most visible and vocal critics of innovation taking precedence over folklore are Stanley Crouch and Wynton Marsalis.  I respect them both and have interviewed them (Stanley, Wynton) for DTM.

Looking at his article about new pianists, an uniformed person may think that innovation is all Ben Ratliff cares about.  But Ratliff is more sensitive about this issue than many of his forebears. Coltrane: The Story of a Sound features an in-depth look at innovation versus tradition.  Among other things, he writes about Mulgrew Miller and includes a valuable Miller quote:

...Miller is widely seen by jazz musicians as a master, and outside of musicians, as a bit of a bore.  There is no identifiable element of extramusical transgression inside or outside his playing; he is not combining languages; he is not giving bourgeois culture the finger; he is not straining credulity.  He is not asking you to alter your life.  He plays jazz as black music, and there is a deep sense of propriety to it, but it's not also history and politics and musicology and philosophy: it is music alone.

In an interview for DownBeat in 2005, he talked about moderation and refinement, about a standard of language for jazz piano, about jazz as folk music, and the idea that "folk music is not concerned with evolving."

A lot of people do what a friend of mine calls "interview music," [Miller said].  You do something that's obviously different, and you get the interviews and a certain amount of attention.  Jazz is part progressive art and part folk art, and I've observed it to be heavily critiqued who attribute progressivity to music that lacks a folk element.  When Charlie Parker developed his great conception, the folk element was the same as Lester Young and the blues shouters before him.  Even when Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane played their conceptions, the folk element was intact.  But now, people almost get applauded if they don't include that in their expression.  If I reflected a heavy involvement in Arnold Schoenberg or some other ultra-modern composers, then I would be viewed differently than I am.  Guys who do what I am doing are viewed as passé.

Ratliff goes further in the roundtable The Future of Jazz, where he disagrees with Stuart Nicholson and says, “Newness – as in music that has never been heard before -- is a very tricky idea. I don’t trust it anymore.”  The “delicious side” of jazz lies in “refining its tradition.”  

I don’t have that book with me on tour, I’m lifting this statement from Randy Sandke’s tirade on Chris Kelsey’s blog, where Sandke uses this quote to claim that New York Times is against innovation in jazz.  (Since it is Sandke quoting, it may well be inaccurate.  The whole exchange with Nicholson must be read for the quote to be understood.)

Sandke and Payton have something in common:  they want to see more coverage of the music they think is worthy in the pages of the New York Times.  To help Sandke’s cause, Ratliff is “against innovation.”   To help Payton’s cause, “Institutional racism allows [Ratliff] to imagine a world of Jazz with no African-Americans.”

Institutional racism does exist in arts coverage, perhaps even at the Times today.  However, If Ratliff knew about an African-American pianist at the same stage as Fabian Almazan, Kris Davis, Matt Mitchell, and David Virelles, he undoubtedly would have included them.

Ratliff is looking for music he never heard before.  Perhaps someone aligned with Mulgrew Miller would say of all four of these musicians are making “interview music.”  There are indeed the occasional Emperors With No Clothes or Great White Hopes in jazz.  But, honestly, I’ve already stolen some shit from Matt Mitchell and doing so is not going to get me more interviews:  It’s just for me.

Ratliff is also looking for people that have never been written about.  He’s a newsman, after all, and there’s nothing a newsman likes better than “breaking the story.”  The African-Americans I’ve heard who could conceivably qualify for his list on the innovative side have gotten prizes and notices as soon as they show up.   Indeed, he's already written about Aaron Diehl and Kris Bowers, and I suspect he will be writing about them again.  (I haven't really heard Bowers yet, but I was knocked out by Diehl's set at Dizzy's a couple weeks ago.  Jonathan Batiste was great that night, too, but played much more conventionally than Diehl, although I thought Batiste's set had fabulous entertainment value, sort of with some Harry Connick Jr.-type qualities.)

Of course, there actually may be an innovative African-American jazz pianist with little buzz hovering in the wings.  In the October 12 tweets there were several names I didn’t recognize, and maybe they are new to Ratliff as well.  If one of them qualified, it’s too bad they aren’t on Ratliff’s list.  But Ratliff or Nate Chinen will get there as soon as they get word, no doubt. 

And, it must be said, both Ratliff and Chinen write about non-innovative jazz musicians, too.  The coverage the New York Times gives jazz must be envied by many other musical American cities that have no popular papers that still consider anything about jazz to be news.


I address the rest of this post most pointedly to young black musicians.

In the wake of Wynton Marsalis’s success in the 1980’s, a certain kind of conservatism has become some sort of benchmark of jazz accomplishment.  I now dub this post-1990, resolutely non-avant garde approach “The Ray Brown Trios.”  While Wynton, his brother Branford, and others of the first generation of Young Lions always had a conceptual agenda, the mainly African-American (or mainly black-influenced) “The Ray Brown Trios” that followed often didn’t.

It is incredibly difficult to be a member of “The Ray Brown Trios.”  It’s tantamount to being a great athlete.  You’ve got to able to swing, play the blues, and play uptempo rhythm changes and other steeplechases in a proficient bebop language.  You must always have reverence for the masters.

All that skill and humility offers no guarantee of truly great music, though, especially without a larger aesthetic agenda.  I find many records of the real Ray Brown trio kind of boring to begin with -- Brown was a distinctive voice but I love him best as kind of an ultra-badass studio musician, not on his own records -- and most younger versions of “The Ray Brown Trios” are guaranteed snoozers.

This is just my opinion, of course.  But there have been about 50,000 “The Ray Brown Trios” records made since 1990, and how many of them are ever listened to over and over passionately by fans?  Or even within their own community?  While I don’t really know any members of “The Ray Brown Trios” all that well -- we are oil and water, absolutely! -- my firm impression is that when they talk about music, they talk about the great conservative jazz of the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s, not about how each others’ contemporary records are so great and inspiring.   (It’s barely possible I don’t know the right records, and would be delighted for Payton or somebody else qualified to offer up a list.)

(UPDATE: To make the music kind of music I’m talking about a little clearer, here’s a partial, written-in-30-seconds list of black innovators whose most hair-raising concepts are not accepted by “The Ray Brown Trios”:  Charles Mingus, Mal Waldron, Richard Davis, Ornette Coleman, Ed Blackwell, Billy Hart, Jimmy Garrison, Jack DeJohnette, Andrew Hill, Alice Coltrane, Jaki Byard, Jeff Watts, Ralph Peterson. There's not any of the fire of Kenny Kirkland or the rigor of Marcus Roberts, and of course all three members of the Bandwagon are not even on their radar.  Honestly, there’s not even any Thelonious Monk or McCoy Tyner in “The Ray Brown Trios”  -- whatever surreal, motivic or modal material they use is rounded off and gentle.)

The reason the older records are usually better than modern ones is simple:  those older records document an apotheosis of black community folklore.  It’s a folklore that still doesn’t get enough respect as an intellectual property essential to the American identity.  One of my missions at DTM has been to honor that folklore, in part because I’ve been around far too many young white jazz musicians that have absolutely no knowledge of it.

But that folklore is almost gone.  Black communities in America today have very little to do with jazz, choosing to celebrate hip-hop, soul and other popular musics instead.  The minute some instrumentalists figure out how to really align the most mysterious qualities of jazz with this contemporary folklore there will be some hit jazz records again.  (Right now, Houston seems to be where they are making those coming closest, but nothing has really broken through yet.)

It is a terrible shame that there is not a grass-roots community for black straight-ahead jazz.  Payton and other black musicians must feel this absence even more keenly than I do.  The only answer is to grow interest from the ground up.   Team Marsalis has made a serious attempt at enshrining conventional jazz as a high-art music.  I’m glad JALC is there, but honestly I would trade it for small but serious jazz clubs in every African-American community.  At any rate, attacking the New York Times is far too late in the process.  What Payton is angry about needs to be worked upon at a much deeper level.

More practically -- and the reason I’m taking so long to respond to a few unguarded tweets! -- is my worry that claiming the Times is institutionally racist in its jazz coverage is just a small part of a widespread attitude promulgated by insular musicians.  “Yeah, kid, the Times doesn’t like real jazz.  They are racist, anyway.  Don’t work on your career except to make sure you can always gig with ‘The Ray Brown Trios.’”   Some would undoubtedly go so far to say, “And don’t play anything that Ray himself wouldn’t have liked.” 

This attitude closes doors to futures. As of now, “Doing something first” is the best way for careers in jazz to have longevity.  It’s not just coverage by the New York Times:  It’s why you can play in alternative venues in America, it’s why the European promoter hires you, it’s why independent non-jazz radio plays you, it’s why non-musicians hand your record around. “It’s new.”

It’s unfortunate, but it’s just the way things are.  The first generation Young Lions made some serious money; the second, a bit less. At this point there’s very little money or even just decent gigs to go around for those that aren’t major stylists within the genre.  After you play JALC and the few remaining conventional jazz clubs in America a couple of times, what’s your next step?

Since I’ve moved to New York in 1991, I have seen far too many essentially conservative yet enormously talented black (and white!) musicians stagnate.  Cats who had the biggest gigs in 1993 are playing in restaurants now.  It’s incredibly disturbing.

Some who read this will be distressed about my sardonic phrase, “The Ray Brown Trios.”  Sorry.  It’s an unfriendly phrase.  But even if you think I’m wrong about that music, who would dare claim that approach offers a bright career path?  After the first youthful flush of being celebrated as a great athlete there just aren’t so many gigs.  (That's why Jonathan Batiste's "old-school entertainment" with singing and dancing at Dizzy's was heartening -- he'll have a career that goes places.)

There may come a time when the vocabulary will get more specific.  Stanley and Wynton have staked their claim that real jazz doesn’t need European harmony, rock music, the avant-garde or anything else.  Perhaps if they (and other important big-name institutions that keep growing with the help of that curious phenomenon, “jazz education”) succeed in making “jazz” a certain set of values, it will fit into the larger American cultural map more comfortably.   At that time “The Ray Brown Trios” could have a comeback.  Given proper sun and water, that music could get a lot better.  However, unless it grows from the ground up, this "pure" culture will have to be fed by the European model of patronage, and I’m unconvinced that is a good system for learning how to play the blues. (I’d love to be proven wrong about this.)

If genre clarification does get pushed through, most of my own performing career will take place outside the word, “jazz.”  I won't fight it:  I have too much respect for a century of working-class black jazz musicians who paid unbelievably serious dues.

I admit that's not my first choice, though, since I like calling myself a jazz musician despite the fact my first commitment is to take whatever you love from wherever you can, mash it together and try to move it forward.

This kind of commitment is not just a white thing, of course.  Among the black musicians cited in Ratliff’s article is Henry Threadgill, who talked to me extensively about race and moving it forward, no matter what, in our interview.

Threadgill also told me he’s not jazz!  Well, maybe he isn’t.  If innovation gets pulled out of the equation, he surely won't be. 

But until that day, innovation calls the tune for jazz careers.  Saying that tune is racist is not going to make it go away; besides, I just don’t think it really is racist, anyway.  At any rate, Ray Brown is not going to hire you:  He’s dead.


Bonus track:   I was furious with the Village Voice’s puff-piece about Woody Allen and jazz a few years ago.  Is it institutionally racist?  I thought so, and I wrote about it in “Blue Clarinet.”


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