KUDOS TO NPR
The NPR track record when it comes to jazz is spotty. They’ve had their share of triumphs with such valuable and historically significant shows as “Piano Jazz” and “Jazz Profiles.” But in recent years, the trend on too many NPR stations has been towards more news/talk, less jazz, something the late Nat Hentoff warned was coming decades ago in the pages of “Jazz Times.” Fortunately, there remain some NPR stations like WBGO in New Jersey that haven’t abandoned jazz.
However NPR deserves widespread praise for their current series “Turning The Tables: 8 Women Who Invented Popular Music.” Even if the use of the word “invented” in this context is problematic, there should be no arguments with the selections. Seven of the eight are women of color, and five (Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Mary Lou Williams, Sister Rosetta Tharpe) are either blues or jazz icons. It’s great to see and hear these tributes, and credit should also go to the women critics and journalists who compiled the information.
It’s a great project, an example of something NPR should do more often.
CONVERSATION: AARON COHEN
Author/journalist Aaron Cohen is another among many wonderful people whom I’ve come to know through online communication, though I was already familiar with his writing on jazz, blues, gospel and soul through his years with Downbeat. His most current works include “Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace” (Bloomsbury) and the brand new volume “Move On Up: Chicago Soul Music and Black Cultural Power” (University of Chicago Press). He took some time out after attending the Chicago Jazz Festival to respond to these questions.
1. What were the first musical idioms that interested you and how old were you when you began to seriously listen to music?
“I grew up in Evanston, Ill., which is a comparatively diverse and progressive suburb of Chicago, so I was fortunate that I grew up around many different kinds of music, and could absorb them all when I was a kid. My parents listened mainly to classical and folk music while a close family friend who lived two doors down had an extensive jazz record collection. My friends mostly listened to rock and funk (hip-hop didn’t reach us until my pre-teen years). Funny thing: just this evening at the jazz festival, I ran into a friend, Alexander Mouton, and remembered first listening to Otis Redding in his room when we were 12 (his parents gave him the Jimi Hendrix/Otis Redding “Live At Monterey” album—I remember that I had known about Hendrix, but that Otis guy really set something off in me…)”
“When I would go to the library (often), I would focus on books about music (initially, books about The Beatles) and from there began to study its history more seriously. One book that I liked a lot was Peter Guralnick’s “Sweet Soul Music” about southern R&B and I felt that a similar take on the music and how it worked within the larger social/cultural changes could be written about Chicago. But I didn’t think of writing about music myself until later.”
2. Did you also want to be a musician and do you currently play any instruments?
“At the same time, I was studying piano (from about third grade until my teen years). Ultimately, I didn’t have the discipline to continue. Another funny thing: Evan Schofer, my best friend in high school, suggested we start a rock band; as he started playing the electric guitar and he insisted I learn bass. I didn’t take him up on it, and that’s one decision I regret. Evan is now a prominent sociologist in California, and I’m still trying to convince him that I made a mistake and we could still be famous rock stars. But, really, aside from that, I never gave much thought to becoming a musician myself. When I hear music that I like, I’m so grateful that the sound is out there, I never think about what I could add to the process. And the world already has so much wonderful music:What could I possibly add? I think jazz critic Francis Davis said, “Many people think that music critics are failed musicians. That’s not true. The good ones are failed novelists.”
3. What made you decide to go into music journalism?
“In college, I was writing about all kinds of arts for the college paper (shout out to The Daily Cardinal at the University of Wisconsin-Madison) and had been listening to jazz avidly while also reading several jazz critics (Howard Reich, Francis Davis, Gary Giddins, Nat Hentoff, Martin Williams). After college, I moved back to Chicago and was rather aghast that there were few people my age who seemed to want to engage with the music. I felt—then and now—that any purpose I could have as a writer is to fill a gap and provide such information. (Both of my books arose from feeling that these were stories that hadn’t been told, and needed to be told.)’
“So I started writing about music for alternative weeklies, and from there, small jazz magazines, larger jazz magazines, daily newspapers (like the Chicago Tribune) and then serving as an editor at DownBeat from 2005-2013. Funny thing: As it turned out, there were some wonderful writers covering jazz who were my age back then—Ben Ratliff who was at the New York Times is only a year older than me—but I didn’t know them until after I had started. Which is a good thing, if I knew that Ben and I were essentially the same age before I started writing myself, I would have been too intimidated to do it! (Not that he’s intimidating at all: he’s a very nice person).”
4. Who are some of your favorite musicians?
“So many! Duke Ellington, Curtis Mayfield, Aretha Franklin, Hank Mobley, James Brown, Stevie Wonder, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Jimi Hendrix, Beethoven, The Beatles, The Clash, Fela Kuti, Ornette Coleman, Billie Holiday, John Coltrane, James Jamerson, Slim Smith, Ray Charles, Von Freeman, The Chi-Lites, David Bowie, Woody Guthrie, Sara Vaughan, Eric Dolphy, Joao Gilberto, The Dells, Dinah Washington….the list could go on forever.”
5. What are some of your favorite albums?
“Again, so many! Aretha’s “Amazing Grace,” Curtis Mayfield’s “Curtis,” various editions of Duke Ellington’s 1940 band recordings, Ornette Coleman’s “Shape Of Jazz To Come,” Hank Mobley’s “Soul Station,” The Beatles’ “Abbey Road,” Sam Cooke’s “Live At The Harlem Square Club,” Von Freeman’s “Doin’ It Right Now”…the list goes on and on!”
6. Do you consider yourself more of a critic or an advocate, or do you make a distinction between the two?
“That depends on the context. When I’m reviewing albums, say, for DownBeat, I’m a critic. But this weekend is the Chicago Jazz Festival, and I’m part of its planning committee—so, in this capacity, I’m an advocate. Different perspectives, different tasks, different considerations. I’m happy to learn from all of these different roles.”
7. Chicago is such a critical city in terms of jazz, blues, soul, gospel, you name it. In your view what is it about Chicago that’s made it such a vital center for all types of musical activity, and in particular Black music activity?
“A lot of that stems from the Great Migration—with such a large African American population in Chicago, the music has always been part and parcel of all of that. There was also the generation born here, at the end of the Great Migration, that sought its own identity and music was part of all that. At the same time, there’s a great entrepreneurial spirit within the Black community in Chicago. As a result, there would be more musical output from a large scale level (example would be a record executive/producer like Carl Davis) to many small scale operators (who released tons of 45s in the ’60s and ran music clubs). So there is both the creativity and the economy. Since I’ve studied Chicago so intensely these past few years, it wouldn’t be proper for me to compare Chicago to other cities—If I was to study Detroit, Memphis, Philadelphia with the same intensity that I’ve studied Chicago, I wouldn’t have the time to write anything!”
8. Who would you consider the city’s greatest jazz and blues musicians?
“Von Freeman, Phil Cohran, Andrew Hill, Chaka Khan, Art Ensemble Of Chicago, Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Muhal Richard Abrams, Anthony Braxton, Dinah Washington (granted, some of these left Chicago once they became famous).”
9. What would you consider the city’s critical record labels for those idioms?
“Chess, Vee-Jay, Delmark, Nessa, Bee Hive, Mercury, Alligator.”
10. Your new book examines Chicago soul. What made you want to explore that idiom at this particular moment?
“This goes back to what I mentioned in Question #1. While I’ve accumulated shelves of great books on soul music from the South (especially Memphis) and Detroit, Chicago had not been covered nearly as sufficiently. Especially odd, since there were so many records coming out of Chicago and the city was so immersed in the civil rights and Black Arts Movement. There were two fine books by Robert Pruter, but those were from 25-30 years ago, a couple biographies/memoirs, but that’s really it.”
“I wanted to dig deeper into the social, cultural and political movements that surrounded R&B in Chicago, much like I read Guralnick had done with “Sweet Soul Music” and, more recently, Suzanne E. Smith had achieved with her Motown book, “Dancing In The Street.” As I mentioned earlier, this is something that had been in the back of my mind for a while. The earliest interview I conducted that is in the book was with Terry Callier in 1997 (that was originally for a DownBeat article).”
” Anyway, I didn’t get seriously moving on the book until, around 2011. Between, say, 1997 and that time, I did a bunch of other things that kept me away from this book—I was writing a lot for the Chicago Tribune, DownBeat, and other publications (and, as I mentioned earlier, was a DownBeat editor from 2005-2013). I also obtained a master’s degree in Latin American and Caribbean Studies from the University of Chicago (my thesis was on the music of the Garifuna people of Belize)—that academic/travel experience also made me want to bring my research, analysis of other countries to writing about my hometown.”
“I also wanted to bring my background in jazz writing to looking at how it shaped soul here, and there were also many Chicago artists whose work I find valuable and influential, yet were barely mentioned in earlier books on Chicago soul (Terry Callier, Rotary Connection, Charles Stepney). Crucially, we’re also losing so many artists from that period and I felt an urgency to get their stories down now. I believe that out of the 100+ people I interviewed, about 12 have since left us.”
11. You write for Downbeat and other specialized publications that still value music and arts journalism. But that doesn’t seem the case in many general publications. Are you optimistic or pessimistic regarding the future of music/arts journalism?
“There’s still a lot of great music out there that the public needs to know about. And DownBeat is doing a great job in consistently focusing on bringing jazz artists—famous and yet-to-be-discovered—to people’s attention. But I am not optimistic about the music media as a whole. So many publications are cutting their arts coverage across the board. Money is the issue, of course. And so much of the music that I like is considered outside of the mainstream of popular entertainment, I’ve found that coverage of these artists is often the first thing to get cut. And don’t get me started on whether I’m optimistic or pessimistic about our planet as a whole!”
12. Who are some of your favorite music writers/critics?
“Again so many! There were the jazz critics I mentioned earlier (Gary Giddins, Francis Davis, Ben Ratliff, Howard Reich), but so many other journalists, too (David Hajdu, Charles Shaar Murray, Whitney Balliett, Amanda Petrusich, Adam Shatz, Simon Reynolds). There are also a great many academics who inspired me with their writing on music (Michael Veal, Guthrie Ramsey, Daphne Brooks, Emily Lordi, Suzanne Smith, Travis Jackson). And there are music historians (Peter Guralnick, Robert Gordon). There are also a bunch of writers who have written great things about music, but have chosen to focus on other subjects with equal excellence (Jonathan Eig). Not forgetting the writers of fiction who have used music incredibly well throughout their works (Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Walter Mosley).”
13. Among newer artists, either inside or outside Chicago, who would you cite as potential breakout stars?
“It’s a funny thing: When I started earnestly working on my Chicago soul book, there were many budding performers here who I had no way of knowing about (because they were pre-teens at the time). Now, they’re creating terrific music and the world will hear of them soon. Jamila Woods is already getting pretty well known, but her younger sister Ayanna Woods is absolutely brilliant. Ravyn Lenae wowed me when I saw her last summer (I think she was 19). Another very gifted young R&B singer, Tasha, reminded me a bit of Terry Callier. Ayanna was in her band, as was a great keyboardist/vocalist Akenya Seymour. On the rock side, OHMME is fronted by two immensely talented young women, Macie Stewart and Sima Cunningham (who also have their own projects). So, like I said with #11, a lot of great music is being made in Chicago today, often by very young people.”
14. Do you believe there’s still a place on traditional broadcast radio for jazz, or have specialty shows and satellite radio pretty much eliminated the need for jazz shows on traditional radio stations?
“I believe that there is, but I admit to not listening to radio as much as I should. Too many records for me to get through!”
15. What advice would you give to aspiring writers who want to cover jazz or blues?
“Even though I am pessimistic about the media, I do encourage people to try and write about music if they’re passionate about the subject. Don’t want to regret not following a passion when one had the chance to do so. And, like I said, there is a lot of great music being made (and always will be). My advice would be as open minded and open eared as possible: Try to listen to as much different music as there is around you, follow up the sounds you enjoy the most with reading about their histories.”
“Network with as many writers as you can, and show as much interest in what they do as you want them to be interested in what you do. And also pursue a marketable skill—it won’t hurt your imagination or knowledge as a writer, and may help. A friend of mine is an awesome journalist in New York (E. Tammy Kim),and her training as a lawyer didn’t hurt her abilities to cover a range of subjects, including music (Bob Blumenthal also wrote wonderful essays on jazz history while working as an attorney).”
“Actually, learning how to play an instrument well is another marketable skill! Also be open minded about how to apply your passion for music to other things besides journalism. For me, that includes community college teaching and helping program the Chicago Jazz Festival.”
16. Finally, what future projects are you considering or planning?
“Right now, I’m trying to concentrate on teaching. I have a few ideas for potential books, but nothing solid as of yet. Funny thing: I have many ideas for books that other people should write. So, I guess, in that regard, I’m still an editor!”