Monday, June 29, 2009

The Great Jazz Great Debate: Really???

After reading yet another article recently on the "glory years of jazz" and the usual lamentation on the demise of this art form, I couldn't help but wonder if anyone ever worried about the demise of European classical music. So much is made of what jazz is or isn't and how terrible it is that straight-ahead jazz is no longer at the helm of the jazz vanguard, when to me, the real discussion should center on why America cannot accept classical jazz as its only contribution to the classical music genre.

I grew up in a house where jazz was king. I heard the music from the time I was a little girl until I moved away from home to go to college. I had an uncle, and have a brother and a sister, all of who were/are jazz performers. I am a devotee of the music and support it to the best of my ability in the cultural center I manage. So I feel qualified to present what I'm calling an informed opinion about this on-going debate. Jazz in America, has never been elevated to the status of European classical music despite its acceptance by Europeans as such. As is true in so many other instances of Black life, when the measure of worthiness is based on acceptance by others, the true value of the contributions of that life is never fully appreciated by its originators. Jazz is played by all kinds of people who bring all kinds of interpretation to the music. But like, European classical music, it has its classical form from which all other offshoots are derived. When we talk about traditional, straight-ahead jazz, we should actually be calling it classical jazz.

Every civilization has its classical period in the arts and America didn't begin to develop hers until the late 19th, early 20th century when artists in all disciplines finally began to reference America rather than Europe for inspiration and aesthetic development. So in the scheme of world culture, the American arts are infants but no less influential than the arts of classical Europe. You just need to travel the world and see the impact jazz has on world music to know that our major contribution to that world, besides popular music, is jazz. The respect the music receives throughout the world is the reason so many American jazz musicians spend their careers abroad. If the same respect were afforded the music in its birthplace, perhaps we wouldn't need to reminisce about the "good ole days of jazz" because that music would be included in the music curricula of all American music education programs alongside that of Europe.

So much of this debate centers on the importance of particular jazz composers like Coltrane, Miles or Monk and their innovations and how we don't see their genius replicated today. Well that is why they are geniuses! I don't hear anyone complaining about how we don't see any Mozarts or Beethovens anymore as if this kind of prodigy comes around with any frequency. Its that double standard at play; when it's jazz we're talking about, we refuse to place the music in the same arena as European classical music, worthy of the same level of scholarship. It is precisely because jazz is relegated to a lesser status that we constantly engage in the kinds of squabbles contemporary jazz musicians do about what is or is not legitimate jazz expression. Is Ornette Coleman's music any less significant than Duke Ellington's simply because it strays from the classical format? Is freestyle jazz less worthy for the same reason? None of this would even be debatable if jazz were afforded its proper place in the music arena. The fact that American children never even hear the name John Coltrane or Thelonius Monk in the course of their music education unless they take a Jazz studies course underscores my point. The sad reality is that like everything else related to the Black Experience in America, jazz is a constant reminder of the second class citizenship held by African Americans. No matter how esteemed the music is outside our country, it still remains a stepchild at home, despite the efforts of many to change that position. This debate is more about this dichotomy than anything else. I only hope I live to see the day when jazz will become a staple in the musical diet of all Americans.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Missing August & Lloyd...

I recently went to see one of my favorite August Wilson plays, "Joe Turner's Come & Gone" in NYC because it was getting "rave" reviews by the NY critics and I hadn't seen it staged for a while. My sister, brother-in-law and I were hyped to see it and wondered how we'd like it compared to the original production we all had seen. 

Anyone who is in love with August Wilson's work as much as I am knows that the direction of his work is critical because the work is so nuanced, things can go real haywire if that piece of the presentation equation  is not just right. Well it was not "just right" for this production!  In fact it was "just wrong"! I kept expecting August to come down and say "stop this madness!" 

OK, in the interest of full disclosure I should say that what this rant is really about is the notion of white directors directing Black plays. I know there is a lot of controversy about this topic and I certainly believe there may be some validity to the idea that a great director can direct any play. But this play, as do all of Wilson's works, demands a sensitivity to black life that I am not convinced can be felt by anyone other than black people (and frankly, not all black people for that matter). The main problem with this production was a lack of subtlety and the ignoring of that wonderfully nuanced manner of writing so beloved in Wilson's work. Everyone operated at full throttle, almost over the top at all times, making me feel like I wanted to turn down the volume five notches! The " I'm a tortured black man" quivering voice delivery of Herald Loomis (you've all heard it in the 70s black exploitation films of old!) made me want to run up on stage and slap him into realness.  

Maybe I've been spoiled and maybe it's unfair to compare productions that were directed by Lloyd Richards with the blessing of August Wilson to this one but I can't help but to wonder what both would say about this staging of "Joe Turner...". August was a firm believer in the idea that black theater needed to be executed by black people.  He caught a lot of flack for this stance but never backed down from it.  I understand his point and appreciate it given the fact that we as a people are still trying to get our authentic voice heard in all areas of the arts but particularly in the dramatic arts. We still see way too many stereotypical depictions of our life in America whenever the telling is left to others. Sure on occasion, someone non-black comes close but I can't think of a single white writer or director who's gotten it right on.  Like many, I do believe that our stories resonate universally but that does not translate into them being exactly like anyone else's story.  The universality comes in the sub-text: ideas of family torn apart; love gone wrong; dreams shattered; etc.  But, as the cliche goes, "the devil is in the details" and the details of all Wilson plays are what cannot be compromised as they provide the authenticity of the black experience; at least this can be said about the black experience prior to the 21st century dawning. August understood this better than anyone which is why his portfolio of work tells our story so completely, so complexly, so compellingly. It's a difficult story to sum up in an evening's sitting and it's a story I have not experienced in a Wilson staging without ending it with tears, that is until I saw this latest staging.  This one ended with me mad as hell! I felt cheated; like I had been hoodwinked.  My sister and brother-in-law felt the same way and we couldn't help comparing it to our past experiences. I guess we'll have to get a few more years past knowing what Black Life in America was like and in many places continues to be before I can accept a reinterpretation of August Wilson's work.  Right now I think it's too fresh on my mind despite the "post-racial" dynamic we're seeing in American political and social discourse. August Wilson and Lloyd Richards were clear on how our story needed to be framed and presented and I appreciate their steadfast insistence that it be told by us albeit for everyone to experience.   

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Trip; the Impact

Throughout the next few months I plan to post my observations, revelations, hallucinations, and every other thing that changed my personal outlook as a result of my first trip to Africa by way of Senegal. The first is posted and rightfully reflects on Goree Island, the start of our journey as a people to Africa-America.

That this trip was made on the dawning of a new era in American history, an era that will see this great, conflicted nation about to inaugurate a man of African descent as its leader, is an irony not lost on me. It is on the minds of all who accompanied me, from the youngest to the oldest. That it was made during the holiest of times in America, when the most important Judeo-Christian religious ceremonies are celebrated, also seems fitting since most assuredly we all expected to have a spiritual experience that mere words could never articulate.

So bear with me as I bare my feelings about my journey. I promise not to tell you every single detail but I want you to understand how I am processing all that I experienced and for me that will come best as writing and ultimately art. More to come...

Ile de Goree- A Painful Observation

The dirt from Goree will not leave my feet. I scrub and scrub, followed by a Wet Wipe bath and no luck...

It's as if the ancestors want to stay with me forever and make me take their spirits off that wretched island.

The walls of the slave house didn't really speak to me but the air did; the atmosphere did; the sea did.

My thoughts kept fixed on the millions dwelling beneath me as I made my way across the bay to the island aboard a modern day ferry boat, wondering how it must have felt to be on one of those precursors, those slave ships, those wooden graves, leaving my continent bound for who knows, bound...

I watch with a heaviness as the island begins to make itself seen, the prison/garrison barely visible, and I feel the weight of history beginning to pull me down, so standing is not an option.

Then as the boat begins to turn into the port I make myself stand to witness the returning to Goree that hundreds and thousands of African Americans make every year, a returning that bears witness to the horrific beginning of a new African people, the lost ones, the soulless ones, the African Americans.

I fill up; I wonder how I will see myself in the slave house.

Finally, I am in it; I am in the now sanitized torture chambers made palatable by the Senegalese government so that commerce can continue, this time trading in the history of the enslaved rather than the enslaved individuals whose blood, excrement, urine, tears, tears and more tears soaked and stained the stone/dirt floors.

"Enfants" labels a doorway.

The babies/children's room, a room that should never have meaning beyond "playroom" but that has sustained a horrible definition change in this pink prison of death and dying.

"Enfants", I weep...

"Jeune Filles", I look at that doorway and think of the three teenage girls who accompany me on my journey and realize that they and their peers would inhabit this chamber, sustaining rape and degradation daily, sometimes multiple times daily, bearing the bastard children of the enslaver and his minions.

I have no strength when I leave the hallways of that pink atrocity, making my way to the Door of No Return but I must see it, experience being framed in it the way my ancestors must have been as they were pushed out of it towards the waiting wooden death vessels.

The sea still laps at the coast line looking placid and gentle.

But I know just beneath my gaze lies the whole of my soul drowned in this beautiful body Atlantic.

The double assault of European tourists and African hustlers sickens me as I leave the pink disaster zone.

I cannot breathe; my head seems to be closing itself to reason. I weep again while comforting my crying friend who cannot, will not, forget her ancestors' pain.

Ile de Goree I have returned but I cannot sat I will again.

The soul has been filled with ancestral memory and there is no room for anything else to occupy my leaden heart.