A. Jazz Appreciation Month
Since 2001, April has been celebrated as Jazz Appreciation Month, something I feel about in the same manner as I do Black History Month, Women’s History Month, Hispanic Heritage Month, Black Music Month, etc. A major part of my professional and personal life has always been dedicated to celebrating the greatness of jazz, blues and all Black music, as well as recognizing the unique histories and key contributions of all this nation’s diverse populations, so special months don’t mean a lot to me. But I find them valuable in general, because they initiate discussion and focus attention on subjects and in areas that aren’t always in the spotlight. It’s especially true in regards to jazz and blues.
But while it’s great to see programs like the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History doing specials on legendary figures (this year they celebrated the great promoter/advocate/record label head Norman Granz), the jazz world at large needs to do more outreach during the month with radio and television outlets, as well as mainstream newspapers, magazines and websites to further emphasize the importance of the month. I’ve seen minimal mention of it outside of the specialist press, and even in the mainstream music community as usual jazz is getting the short end of the stick. There was a time when “alternative” newspapers prided themselves on having comprehensive music sections, where over the course of a month all types of styles, genres and artists were covered. But today that has largely disappeared, and their coverage is no more inclusive than that of any conventional newspaper/magazine/website, except that they may extend the focus to areas like alternative rock, trap rap, or whatever other pop style is in vogue.
There’s nothing wrong, by the way, with those idioms getting coverage. Even if I don’t personally want to read about death metal or EDM, I see the value in having it covered and artists making what’s considered vital or important recordings in that field given their just due. What I DON”T understand and cannot abide is the notion that ONLY certain acts and styles should be presented, and that album sales, downloads, or radio airplay should dictate coverage. That should be the case for fanzines, not serious publications, and certainly not for any newspaper, magazine or website that considers itself in the business of serious journalism.
Cultural analysis and overview once was a major part of any great publication, but sadly that is far from the case in too many instances these days. One thing that Jazz Appreciation Month should do is stimulate the desire for more sustained and consistent coverage of jazz, and indeed all this nation’s great roots musical styles. While giving cover stories to the latest hot item is fine, that shouldn’t be either the only or the main approach taken by those in charge of arts journalism.
B. Good/Bad News
As is always the case, one can view the jazz/blues world in terms of half empty or half full (sometimes it seems almost totally empty). But there are some good things to be recognized this month,and one of them is the 40th anniversary of the superb Boston area jazz broadcaster Eric Jackson.
My first encounter with Eric was when I moved to Boston in 1978. He was just then getting established on WGBH-FM, Boston’s premier public radio station. As was the case then and now, WGBH (wgbh.org online) is far from a bastion of jazz programming. But they did have the good sense to put Eric on weeknights and give him plenty of airtime. His show was titled “Eric in the Evening,” and I believe it ran from 7-12 midnight (might have been 11, it’s been over four decades now, so the memory’s a bit hazy). His program blended vintage and current recordings, knowledgeable analysis and reflection, periodic musician interviews, even remotes from concert sites. He also wasn’t nearly as verbose as some DJs, knowing the difference between offering informative slices and boring everyone to tears with too much detail.
It was both a magical program and great antidote to a blowhard who at that time was on mornings on another station, WBUR-FM, whose name I won’t mention now because he’s deceased. But this guy would get on and attack many of the music’s greats, pretty much anyone who didn’t fit into his very narrow definition of what constituted jazz. Eric’s nightly show offered not just a wonderful counter to that toxic nonsense in the daytime, but provided fans with many hours of vital info.
A few years ago, WGBH followed in the footsteps of many other public radio stations nationwide by cutting back drastically on its music programming in favor of talk/news. Eric lost his weeknight spot, but continues on the weekends. You can hear him Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from 8-11 p.m. CDT (9-12 EDT). A most Happy 40th Anniversary Eric and may you have another 40 or more.
The second piece of good news concerns the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale getting a major grant. It was announced recently that the Museum was getting a $460,000 Public Humanities implementation grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The award includes funding for a two-year staff position in Public Humanities. This will also support the creation and installation of some special permanent exhibits. These will be designed by Solid Light, Inc., a Louisville-based organization, under the supervision of Museum Director Shelley Ritter. They will fill nearly 9,000 square feet, and offer interactive experiences connecting with Blues figures and their role in American musical culture. As someone who covered the Museum’s opening in the late ’80s, I couldn’t be happier to see this happening now. It is a wonderful thing, and anyone who cares about either blues or music in general needs to visit this Museum. I certainly plan to return once this exhibit is completed, even though the only place in Mississippi I’ve ever enjoyed spending much time was Oxford.
On the bad news front, a couple of my Facebook friends who are also involved in music coverage/presentation lost their gigs. Bob Bernotas, a nationally recognized and admired expert on jazz who lectures at Rutgers, had his fine Sunday morning show “Just Jazz featuring the Sinatra Hour” on WRNJ-AM unceremoniously canceled at the end of March by another of these corporate cretins who are doing so much to destroy America’s cultural legacy.
WRNJ has room on its airwaves for shows about feet (one titled “Pedicure Pointers” is hosted by Dr. Helene Nguyen) but no space for a great jazz program. Nothing against either the doctor or folks who get pedicures, but it amazes me what finds its way onto radio these days vs. what is deemed unnecessary or unimportant. Bob’s expertise and knowledge will still be available via his writing and lecturing, but the loss of his show is another blow to cultural and musical literacy, especially coupled with the demise of Reuben Jackson’s wonderful “Friday Night Jazz” on WVUR-FM, which also ends this month.
That was preceded on March 27th by the cancellation after 15 years of Scott Barretta’s weekly music column in the Jackson (Mississippi) newspaper the Clarion Ledger. Scott posted the dismissive notice of his column, which was devoted to covering blues acts throughout the region, and it includes this priceless nonsense: “As we continually evolve with an increasing focus on our digital audiences and the content they seek from us, we are constantly reassigning how we can best utilize our resources to meet the needs of our readers. We have recently made the difficult decision to reduce the number of freelance columns focused on certain niche topics. As a result, the Clarion Ledger will case to publish your regular column as of March 31, 2018.”
That some blowhard can’t even see the disgusting irony in a MISSISSIPPI newspaper calling a blues column a “niche topic” speaks volumes about so many of the people currently running publications. Thankfully, Scott will still be publishing his regional music events page online at https://highway 61music.blogspot.com and doing his weekly Highway 61 radio show. But the loss of his column, contrary to the idiocy contained in those two paragraphs, greatly hurts rather than improves the needs of that paper’s readers, whether they are online or in print.
Appreciation for Pianist Cecil Taylor
My first encounter with the remarkable pianist/composer/bandleader Cecil Taylor, who died in early April at 89, was as a college freshman in 1970. Though I had taken piano lessons for four years and tried to play (poorly) what I thought was jazz, I hadn’t heard anything remotely close to what came roaring out of my speakers the day I first heard “Unit Structures.” Here was someone playing with ferocity and fire, yet in the middle of all that rhythmic intensity, there was also remarkable melodic beauty. He ranged and roamed over the keyboard. One minute he would seem to be playing it like a drum, then the next coaxing gorgeous melodies and phrases out of host of sonic waves. Over subsequent decades I got to hear Taylor playing solo, duet, trios and full groups, and in every setting, you never knew what you’d get, but you knew it would be special and spectacular. He might do a Broadway standard one moment, then jump into an original piece that was as furious as a runaway freight train, yet still carefully constructed to the point that everything eventually would fit together perfectly.
He was a conservatory-trained pianist who could play sparse or extensive lines, offer probing and/or challenging accompaniment, present challenging and unforgettable solos, or engage in drum/piano and/or piano/sax dialogues that were unforgettable with such equally amazing players as Jimmy Lyons, Steve Lacy and Sunny Murray. One of his earliest musical partners bassist Buell Neidlinger passed last month at 82. Murray died in December in 81, while Lyons, who played with Taylor for 27 years, passed in 1986. Taylor didn’t particularly like either the term “jazz” or “avant-garde,” but his music was certainly innovative and distinctive. Sadly, it was also mostly deemed not worth recording by numerous record labels, and the bulk of his releases were done for foreign companies that have long since vanished. You can find his recordings in various places if you look hard enough and are willing in some instances to pay hefty prices.
Because much of Taylor’s music and compositions didn’t fit into some folks’ pre-conceived notions of “swing,” there were those in the jazz world who mocked and dismissed his music. But anyone who truly understands the real heart of the music could hear that Taylor was indeed playing a brand of jazz that was singular, courageous and very enjoyable for those willing to truly listen and not be alienated by the lack of what some would consider necessary elements of jazz performance.
The day after his passing WKCR-FM devoted their entire broadcast day to his music. That enabled listeners to journey from the early sounds of “Jazz Advance” (1956) and his live recordings from the Café Montmartre in Copenhagen, Denmark (1962) right up to recent dates. They offered a recorded portrait of a full and impressive evolution in keyboard sound and scope. If such masters as Tatum, Powell, Monk, and Peterson were all beyond category, so was Cecil Taylor.
John Murph is a prolific writer on jazz and other idioms, as well as a DJ, located in the Washington D.C. area. As with a number of others who’ve contributed to this space, I initially encountered him online via Facebook, and we remain friends in that arena. I also read some of his contributions to National Public Radio’s journalistic side. He’s well versed on a number of subjects, and I am happy he took a few minutes out of a very busy schedule that includes contributions to Down Beat, Jazz Times and other publications to answer these questions.
What originally got you interested in jazz, or in music on more than a superficial basis?Growing up in Mississippi, I was constantly surrounded by music. I heard R&B, soul, jazz, funk, Latin and blues, and reggae, gospel and pop intermingled with each other. It seems as if there was a soundtrack to just about every activity I engaged in during my childhood. For some reason, as a kid, I had a strong gravitation toward long instrumentals, which again wasn’t always jazz. Groups like Mandrill, Funkadelic, War, Santana, Malo and Earth, Wind & Fire had these instrumental tracks that always fascinated me.
I heard those songs alongside ’70s Ramsey Lewis, Herbie Hancock, Return to Forever, Weather Report, Patrice Rushen, Grover Washington, Jr., Bobbi Humphrey, Miles Davis, and Donald Byrd. So I never had a formal introduction to jazz. It’s just part of my childhood soundtrack.
My father’s taste in jazz was more in the Blue Note Jimmy Smith, Kenny Burrell and J.J. Johnson bag than the stuff my uncles played, which was more jazz-funk and jazz-fusion. It wasn’t until that transition period between junior year in high school and freshmen year in college that I began connecting the dots between musicians such as Wayne Shorter’s work with Weather Report, his stuff with Carlos Santana’s solo work, then Miles Davis’ 60s stuff, that I started appreciating more of the straight-ahead or post-bop stuff. My love for jazz and other genres just continued to blossom.
When did you decide that you wanted to pursue a writing career?
I began writing about jazz and getting paid in college when I was a writer for Mississippi State University’s college newspaper, The Reflector. It was there where I did my first interview with a jazz musician – Ramsey Lewis, who had come to the school to perform.
Who are some of the people that you’ve either read or been influenced by in terms of writing/criticism?
At first I was captivated by the language of people like Greg Tate, Stanley Crouch, Willard Jenkins, Tom Terrell and Reuben Jackson. I soon realized that I couldn’t write in their particular styles; it always came off as if I was trying to be too hip. So I concentrated on clarity and strong narrative. I came to appreciate other writers like Ashley Khan, Aaron Cohen, Ben Ratliff, Emily Nussbaum, Anthony Lane, or even science-fiction novelist Octavia E. Butler because of the economy of their prose, the clarity of their ideas, and the strength and historical heft of their essays.
Do you view yourself as more of a critic or an advocate or both?
I see myself more of a journalist than a critic because I love the art of feature writing, particularly think pieces. Certainly there is some advocacy in there, especially when I have to convince editors of mainstream media outlets that jazz is worthy of continuous work. Also within the jazz press, I try to tell the stories of musicians whose voices may be suppressed by systemic racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism, xenophobia, etc.
Who are some of your favorite artists?
Wow. That’s such a long list. There are artists such as Wayne Shorter, Prince, Parliament-Funkadelic, Geri Allen, Teena Marie, John Coltrane, Millie Jackson, Minnie Riperton, Earth, Wind & Fire, Herbie Hancock, Sun Ra, Joe Zawinul, Ornette Coleman, Curtis Mayfield, Mavis Staples – whose works I find myself continuous going back to and finding new depths. But that list is barely scratching the surface.
What are some of your favorite recordings?
Herbie Hancock’s “The Prisoner” and “Head Hunters”; Parliament’s “Motor Booty Affair” and “Funkentelechy v. Placebo Syndrome”; Miles Davis’ “Nefertiti” and “On the Corner”; Wayne Shorter’s “Atlantis”; Prince’s “Sign O’ The Times” and “Lovesexy”; Minnie Riperton’s “Come Into My Garden”; Teena Marie’s “Irons in the Fire”; Marvin Gaye’s “Here, My Dear” and “What’s Going On”; Sly & The Family Stone’s “There’s a Riot Going On” – to name just a few.
You also worked for NPR. How would you describe your time there or assess that experience?
For the most part, it was a valuable learning experience because it opened my world to the profession of digital media production. It also reinforced the idea of clarity when telling stories as opposed to trying to get too hip with the language.
Do you consider standard broadcast radio still an important outlet for jazz?
Yes, we need all the outlets we can utilize.
How do you feel about the view some have that the music should have some other name besides jazz, whether it is Black classical music, great Black music, etc?
I think it’s important to remind people of jazz’s black roots and that fact that black people worldwide continue to be some of the music’s most significant innovators. But calling it Black classical music or Great Black Music gets in this unending game of semantics.
For better or worse, we have to call the music something in order to talk about, promote it, and advocate for it. I’m not entirely opposed to calling it Black classical music. But I do flinch when I hear people say, “Let’s do away with labels and just call it music” because that argument gets us nowhere when it comes to specifics of why the music is important, and why it needs to be taught, and why it needs to be funded. Saying “Let’s just call it music” is just as empty and bogus as saying “All Lives Matter” when you’re trying to get people to focus on the violence against black people in the U.S.
Who would you consider some of the key contemporary jazz artists?
Gregory Porter, Terri Lyne Carrington, Cecile McLorin Salvant, Christian Scott, Esperanza Spalding, Dianne Reeves, Shabaka Hutchings, Nubya Garcia, Roxy Coss, Todd Marcus, Jason Moran, Vijay Iyer, Arturo O’Farrill, Wayne Shorter, Dave Douglas, Terence Blanchard, Kurt Elling, Andrew D’Angelo – there’s too many to mention.
What things would you like to see the jazz community do more of in terms of outreach and audience expansion?
Create viable platforms that combine quality jazz programming with say, DJ culture; look into new venues – possibly pop-up venues; make jazz more viable for younger people and/or lower-income people to hear.
Would you support a separate television awards show for jazz and other music idioms ignored by the Grammy Awards broadcast?
If it’s well-produced, yes.
Do you enjoy other styles like blues, gospel, R&B/soul, etc?
Yes, of course.
Have films like Don Cheadle’s Miles production and “LaLa Land” helped, hurt, or had no impact in regards to exposing jazz to a broader audience?
I don’t have any statistics to back me up, but I would say, “no impact.”
Are labels, particularly American labels, putting too much emphasis on reissues and not enough of new material?
I don’t think so. I see so much new stuff out that it’s hard to keep up.
Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future?
Do you also play an instrument, sing or write music?
Not anymore. I sang in high school choir and I played drums in high school band. I DJ though. Does that count?
Would you take a job in the industry as a publicist or A&R person?
It depends upon the company. I’ve written several press releases and bios for labels such as Concord Records and Blue Note, so it’s not outside the realm of possibilities.
Do you have a positive or negative view of streaming services?
Streaming may be good for hearing samples of people’s music; it’s a good way of promotion. But I don’t like it when people just stop it there. They should buy the music. And I’m a strong advocate for physical copies.
What books would you recommend for anyone just getting into the music, and would you advise others to pursue a career in music journalism?
Valerie Wilmer’s “As Serious as Your Life”; Greg Tate’s “Fly Boy in the Buttermilk”; Stanley Crouch’s “Notes from the Hanging Judge”; Ben Ratliff’s “The Jazz Ear”; Michelle Mercer’s “Footprints”; LeRoi Jones’s “Blues People; Howard Mandel’s “Future Jazz”; Nat Nentoff’s The Jazz Life”; A.B. Spellman’s “Four Lives in the Bebop Business” – just to name a few.
I wouldn’t dissuade anyone from pursuing a career in music journalism if that’s their dream. I would tell them that it’s a long-distance run in terms of economic stability, recognition, and honing one’s craft.