[JPL] Commercialism trumps race in Yoshi's CD flap
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Wed Jun 6 10:36:54 EDT 2007
Brenda Payton: Commercialism trumps race in Yoshi's CD flap
Column by Brenda Payton
Inside Bay Area
Article Last Updated:06/06/2007 07:19:52 AM PDT
Who would have imagined a commemorative jazz CD could cause such a ruckus?
Yoshi's anniversary CD, marking the jazz club's 10 years in Oakland, was
withdrawn last week because of complaints the recording didn't include any
It was a glaring omission in a musical form created by African Americans.
The producer apologized, saying it was hastily put together and the absence
of African Americans was an unfortunate oversight. However, the controversy
has sparked a soulsearching discussion about race and jazz.
In some ways the reaction to the Yoshi's CD was so strong because the club
has such a solid track record of presenting African-American jazz musicians.
Yoshi's is where you go in the Bay Area to hear the jazz masters, still
predominately African Americans. If any club has demonstrated its
longstanding awareness of the central role played by African-American jazz
musicians, it's Yoshi's. It was an "Et Tu, Brutus" moment.
The controversy grew when it was revealed only six of the musicians booked
for the fiveday Berkeley Downtown Jazz Festival in August are African
American. The booking agent called the criticism unfounded, saying only half
of the musicians for the festival have been signed. She said 30 percent of
the musicians at last year's festival were African American.
In the ensuing discussion, some African- American jazz musicians have said
they find themselves excluded from national and international festivals.
David Murray, an internationally renowned saxophonist originally from
Berkeley, said that in Europe he is frequently the draw for a four- or
five-day festival and the only African-American musician in the lineup.
Some suggested white musicians are more appealing to audiences that are
predominately white. Others say it is the watered- down commercialized music
that gets promoted.
As a longtime, serious jazz lover, I would argue commercialization trumps
race here. There are plenty of watered-down musicians, both white and
African American. In my experience, people who are serious about the music
don't care about the race of the musicians. Jazz lovers know the music
originated in the African-American community, out of that particular
experience. They know the innovators have been African Americans.
But in a puzzling reality, the audiences at most jazz concerts these days
are predominately white. I've never understood that. As in most serious
musical forms, whether classical European or East Indian, you have to be
exposed to the music to learn and appreciate it. Ironically, the majority of
African Americans don't seem to have had the exposure to this
African-American musical form.
A couple of organizations and individuals are hoping to use the recent
controversy to promote jazz among African Americans and other people of
color. Elena Serrano of Eastside Alliance and Marcel Diallo of the New Black
World sponsored a community discussion last week, focusing on strategies to
promote additional and alternative venues for the music.
Here's another curious observation about the jazz world. A former colleague
who dated a white jazz musician told me she'd noticed the groups are mostly
segregated, comprising either white or African- American musicians, usually
not mixed. I haven't done a study, but thinking about the performances I've
seen over the years, I tend to agree.
In his new book, "Dude, Where's My Black Studies Department?," Cecil Brown
describes a somewhat surreal experience of being at a jazz club in Berkeley
where white musicians were playing the black musical form for a white
audience. He said he and the waitress were the only African Americans in the
As in nearly every issue in our country, race is a factor, often
subconsciously. It should come as no surprise that it operates in jazz.
Historically, jazz played a major role in the social and cultural
integration of this country.
Given the origins of jazz and the continued prominent influence of African-
American jazz musicians, it seems unthinkable it could fade into the white
mainstream. However, considering our country's lack of historical
perspective, I understand why some African-American musicians worry about
The international (and according to Sun Ra, the intergalactic) appeal of
jazz speaks to the power of the art form. I don't think anyone who loves the
music would want to put restrictions on who can play it. In one of those
truisms about art, it comes out of a specific experience, yet it connects
with and expresses universal realities. Once an art form is unleashed, it
cannot be contained. Nor would most artists want it to be.
At the same time, no one wants the forces of commercialization to obscure
the history and essence of jazz music.
Columnist Brenda Payton can be reached at bpayton at angnewspapers.com.
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