Five Black Jazzworld Figures Detail How Racism Impacts The Industry

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Vocalist Lauren Henderson (clockwise from top-left), broadcaster and journalist Mark Ruffin, manager Gail Boyd, venue-owner Gerry Eastman and bassist John Clayton recount some of their experiences in the jazzworld.

(Photo: Courtesy Of Artists)

It’s primarily been my experience, that white musicians within jazz have been great allies to people of color in jazz. That’s one of the things that jazz musicians are proud of. Even during Jim Crow, part of your day may be dealing with the realities of Jim Crow, but the other part would be like, “What’s your name again, do you play? Come on! Let’s do something!” It is [a source of] kinship that continues today.

With the George Floyd protests, I like that people’s eyes are finally open and they’re not ignoring what they see. I want this moment to lead to more equality on a larger array of platforms and situations. So, for musicians of color, I want them to be the managers of venues, for instance. I want them to head up record labels—we all have to start our own labels if we want to be involved in a label. And how about hiring Blacks and other people of color to be in those positions? Especially because—hello—it’s a music that we created. Now is the time for all of us to come together to make sure that jazz is a broader world of opportunity.

Gerry Eastman: owner of Williamsburg Music Center

I’m [one of] the only Black-owned businesses in all of Williamsburg, which is almost criminal, and we’re an arts organization, and we didn’t qualify for any government assistance. So, we’re just sitting here. Before the pandemic, we were really trying to address the problem of—in the jazzworld, there are so many schools offering courses in jazz studies, that there’s a flood of people that consider themselves jazz musicians. But they probably have somebody paying their bills, so they’re willing to play for free. You see a lot of people playing music that came out of the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, who are [playing] what they learned in college, and you don’t hear a lot of original music. The jazz scene in New York has shifted.

This changes the music, because it turns into more revisionist. And most of the original kind of what I would call “white jazz” tends to be more smooth jazz or kind of funk-based jazz, just more pop-y. Either it sounds like 1968 or 1945 or it sounds like covers of Michael Jackson tunes on alto saxophones. It’s not people in the tradition of what I call “The Trifecta”: John Coltrane, Duke Ellington and Miles Davis. It’s in some other realm.

I advertise my business as Black-owned and I try to promote as many Black artists as possible. We don’t discourage anybody from playing here, but we do try to make sure we have a lot of artists of color. When you go to the major jazz venues in New York, most of the time it’s not people of color playing there.

Lauren Henderson: vocalist and owner of Brontosaurus Records

One thing I’ve noticed in the music industry in general that makes it very unfortunate and creates a huge divide amongst us is that there tends to be a token presentation of [Black people].

As a vocalist, I noticed in the earlier stages of my career that at times it was almost like being cast: “We want a Black woman to sing at this event, to tour, and so on.” Is my voice even a factor? I have my own presentation. Just because we’re all Black women doesn’t mean we all present songs and music in the same way. But I can’t tell you how many times growing up—and definitely early on in New York— people would say, “Why aren’t you belting?” And my approach, as you know, is not that. I find this ignorance unfortunate. Would you go up to Diana Krall and tell her to start belting? I don’t think so. Or would you go up to Norah Jones and say something like that? Why is that acceptable to say to me? Perhaps inclinations, prejudice and racism. I have to call that out. These experiences have shaped how I approach running my label. I’m never going to say, “OK, I already have a Black bassist, so I don’t need another one.”

I often heard about pay inequities and experienced them myself. With my label, I’m very strict about not taking advantage of people or having them work for free, which plays a major role in systemic racism. Many POC in jazz have to deal with fighting for proper compensation for their work. Some think, “Oh, she’s just starting, she’s a woman of color, maybe I can have her do this thing for exposure and help her out,” or what have you. It’s hard to say at times, especially now with the pandemic on top of everything else, but we deserve to be paid for our work. Period.

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Ethan Iverson
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