Wednesday, April 27, 2016

It's Jazz Appreciation Month, But Who's Appreciating it Really?

Screening at South Dallas Cultural Ctr. April 29 & 30 at 7:30 pm FREE!
I’ve written several essays on jazz and its place in American culture but somehow I always come back to the discussion of why isn’t it elevated to the status it deserves. So here we are at the end of yet another National Jazz Appreciation Month and here in Dallas the so-called jazz scene still finds musicians not being paid a decent wage on gigs (if they’re paid at all!) and audiences still disrespecting them while they perform by talking loudly or clinking silverware and glasses.  We also still have just one opportunity to hear this important music on the radio on UNT’s KNTU station, albeit not all day.  My foray into the radio world via WRR to play jazz was a short-lived one because there wasn’t any commitment to fund the program and since I was producing it myself, it couldn’t continue once I retired and was no longer on the City of Dallas payroll (I used comp time to make that show happen!).

So I have to start this blog entry by saying America’s classical music has never enjoyed the status that Europe’s has, at least not in its birthplace. It’s revered around the world but in America it remains second-class music despite the fact that the State Department has routinely used it as a diplomatic tool in its diplomacy efforts. I am inclined to think that because this music was a creation of African Americans and has its roots in the Blues, it will likely never gain its place in “high culture” circles, at least not until it can be completely whitewashed and claimed as something other than music derived from the Black Experience. 

I am always struck by the lack of attention Dallas jazz musicians receive when I go to the few places around town that routinely feature jazz. Admittedly, having a jazz musician for a brother has made me totally intolerant of audience members who don’t come to hear the music but come only to socialize. If you want to impress your date by taking them to a jazz club, impress them by shutting up and listening so that when the musicians take a break, you can chat her up about what y’all just heard! OK, I forget, most of these folks have no idea what they are listening to since too many of them are ignorant of the jazz standards or what musicians are riffing as they improvise.

And let’s not talk about how MIA the music is in school music curricula because therein lies the greatest sign of jazz’s second-class status. Most schools never introduce students to jazz, not even in their band programs. If they do provide some jazz education, often the music students get to play is some watered down composition by composers I never heard of, not jazz classics like those found in the vast catalogs of Duke Ellington or Thelonious Monk or Mary Lou Williams.  So an American student studying piano will learn to play Chopin but never even hear Ellington’s name uttered.  No one can convince me that the reason we find ourselves constantly having to fight to get jazz appreciated every April is because this music was created by the least appreciated Americans i.e. African Americans.

As I go out this weekend to see Ornette: Made in America at South Dallas Cultural Center, I wonder how many people will be in the audience to learn about one of America’s most game changing musicians. I wonder if Ornette Coleman, a Texas native, is well known by music lovers in North Texas. OK, no I don’t because I already know the answer. Nah!

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Miles Ahead Left Me Miles Behind...

I wanted to like Miles Ahead, I really did. I went to the movie anticipating a wonderful cinematic experience, not my usual one of disappointment whenever the topic is Black folks.  I knew I would love Don Cheadle’s performance and the fact that he had a hand in writing this screenplay made me hopeful that it would be wonderful. Well, to say I was underwhelmed is an understatement.

As a diehard jazz fan, I hoped for more emphasis on Miles’ musical genius and less on his pathological lifestyle. Yes, we all know Miles was fuckin’ nuts and was a misogynistic narcissist, and I wouldn’t have minded being re-minded of that but to be sledgehammered throughout the film about this aspect of who Miles was just diminished the narrative’s goal of telling us Miles just wanted to control his product. I don’t know if Don thought we wouldn’t keep watching if there wasn’t excessive violence or what, but he really miscalculated some of us audience member’s ability to engage a narrative that didn’t employ the usual Hollywood bullshit! Since the story was a fictionalized account of Miles’ life with references to real occurrences, I am assuming Cheadle had some creative license to steer this story in whatever direction he saw fit.  How disappointing that he steered it in the path of sensationalism rather than intellectualism. Miles was one deep muthafucka and this story could have been much more intriguing if Cheadle had chosen to dig deeper into where Miles’ music came from and how it developed rather than taking the easy way out and reducing the creative process to the cliché of being guided by a muse i.e. a beautiful woman in this case. It didn’t help my mood that the movie was preceded by a commercial for some luxury car that had Muhammad Ali fighting himself to illustrate the point of striving to be your best self juxtaposed against a white guy playing chess who was doing the same (black man:savage brute; white man: intellectual). 

Maybe I’m just being too sensitive about racial shit and maybe I should not expect so much from movies but I can’t help but wonder how a black man could not think this film is doing Black people, Black culture and Black music a disservice. As I said, no one thinks Miles Davis was a saint and no one believes he died of natural causes but to spend over 2 hours driving home the point that his demons were more relevant than his contribution to America’s classical music seems like a colossal waste of film & time.