Sunday, June 3, 2007

Jazz fans decry exclusion

When Yoshi's jazz club in Oakland released its much-anticipated 10-year anniversary CD last month, local jazz aficionados were outraged that no African American musicians were included.

The tension grew days later when the Bay Area's jazz community learned that the Berkeley Downtown Jazz Festival had invited only six African American musicians to perform at the five-day event in August.

Together, the two revelations upset musicians, club owners and fans, some of whom say racism is at play in the local jazz scene. Anna DeLeon, owner of Anna's Jazz Island in Berkeley, complained to organizers when she learned who was scheduled to play at her club during the festival.

"There were 17 musicians in four bands, and none were black," said DeLeon. "It is hard for me to imagine how this could happen, how they could not notice."

Word spread quickly as people voiced outrage via e-mail over a problem many said had been simmering for a long time. Jazz professionals met to plan a response. Club owners and musicians went on Doug Edwards' "Music of the World" show on KPFA-FM on May 19. A week later, Susan Muscarella, who books the jazz festival and runs Berkeley's Jazzschool, appeared on the same show to respond.

[snip]

Many artists said that holding black heritage in high esteem is not the point. Inviting six African American artists to a major jazz event that includes dozens of performers and excluding black artists from a selection of 10 performances at the East Bay's most prominent jazz venue is simply unacceptable, they said.

"It is like going to a Chinese restaurant and there are no Chinese people," said Howard Wiley, a local saxophonist. "It is very disheartening and sad, especially from Yoshi's, which calls itself the premiere jazz venue of the Bay Area.

"I mean, we are dealing with jazz and blues, not Hungarian folk music or the invention of computer programs."

Jazz grew out of the African American experience, and many historians call it the most significant contribution from the United States to the music world.

Well-known jazz artists, festival organizers and academics say the two incidents show how African Americans are being squeezed out of the art form more broadly.

"This is stemming from a much larger dynamic with regard to jazz and what is becoming a legitimized and institutionalized lack of inclusion of African Americans," said Glen Pearson, a music instructor at the College of Alameda and a full-time musician. "Jazz was once looked at as inferior music from an inferior culture, and now it has become embraced socially and academically, so there has been some revisionism."

[snip]

"I am comfortable saying that every significant white contributor to jazz studied from someone of African American descent," Pearson said. "So for a world-class jazz venue to not include an African American performer in a 10-year tribute is just so sideways."

[snip]

"The Bay Area is a jazz mecca, considered one of the top three or four markets in the country, so for its premiere venue to leave out African American artists is amazing," said Herve Ernest, executive director of SF Noir, an arts and culture organization that highlights African American contributions, and a co-founder of the North Beach Jazz Festival.

"From what I have perceived and what I've witnessed, there is a certain whitewashing of jazz both locally and nationally," Ernest said. "I think it is done from a marketing standpoint and is a response to the largely white audiences that patronize an establishment."

Ernest said one of the reasons he founded SF Noir was that he noticed the jazz festival audiences were 90 percent white, and he wanted to try to appeal to a more diverse crowd and put a stronger focus on black contributions to the art.

"It really gets me upset that people like Norah Jones (who is white and East Indian) get pushed through with heavy marketing when there are dozens of African American female jazz vocalists who, in my opinion, are 10 times better," he said. "I'm not sure if the exclusion is intended or an honest overlook, but we created jazz and we are still playing it, so we should not be overlooked."

Local jazz artists said they see the discussion as positive in that it is offering a chance to address an issue that has been stewing for some time. A desire to organize has been lacking, said local jazz singer Rhonda Benin, but now a number of musicians are ready to take action.

"It's an ongoing problem that was brought to a head by these two events," said Raymond Nat Turner, an Oakland-based jazz poet. "That set in motion a chain of e-mails and unleashed an energy that had been dormant for years.

"People who had not been communicating have started talking and networking," Turner said.

At a forum at the Oakland Public Conservatory of Music last month, about 35 people discussed how better to support black-owned venues and artists and recruiting more African American children into the world of jazz.

"We are becoming the minority as Europeans and Caucasians take over," Turner said.

Those who attended the forum plan to meet again Sunday to develop a long-term strategy.

"This is an African American art form, and they are excluding the very people who created it and continue to play it," said Benin. "It's a travesty."
Nerdified link. Hat tip to IntelligentaIndigena.

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