‘How Does It Feel To Be Free?’


Multi-instrumentalist Jon Batiste is facilitating a series of music-forward protests through his WE ARE organization.

(Photo: Bram VanderMark)

PREDATORY RECORDING CONTRACTS have extracted wealth from Black artists for as long as there’s been a music industry, and Nicole Mitchell—a flutist and director of jazz studies at the University of Pittsburgh—knows this history a bit too well.

“It’s criminal, this aspect of the music—Black musicians getting the short end of the stick financially with record labels. Erroll Garner is known to have been the first jazz artist to sue a record label and win,” Mitchell said about the pianist’s dealings with Columbia. “I think that was really rare and difficult for him to achieve. We have his archive at Pitt, which reveals the whole legal process that he went through.”

Problematic arrangements between labels and performers, unfortunately, have continued for decades and still are not fully behind us. About 20 years ago, Mitchell and saxophonist David Boykin co-founded Dreamtime Records to release the first three albums by her Black Earth Ensemble. “As a new artist, I found more dignity in starting things myself than trying to sell myself with a label,” Mitchell recalled. “Eventually, I started working with small labels and got away from putting out things on my own. As a consequence, I’ve lost some rights to my music. Sometimes, I regret that, but it’s definitely a full-time job, putting records out.”

The bandleader and educator cited a variety of skills any player needs to have today: booking gigs, arranging travel and having general knowledge of finances and copyright law, among them.

“[It] sets us up for predatory situations,” she said about working independently. “I have to say in most cases—even the labels I work with today—they try to keep rights for your masters. … A few of them, like FPE, agree to licensing. I have not seen any evolution with this, especially now, where the public has an expectation to listen to music for free online.”

Getting to the point of releasing music, though, sometimes is predicated on the formal training any given performer might have access to. And while there’s a history of jazz—and a wealth of other Black music—being handed down through mentor-mentee relationships, academia is another arena that starkly displays a persistent, if evolving, disparity in equity.

Mitchell’s perspective on the jazz ecosystem easily encompasses higher education, having worked in academia for years before taking on her post at Pitt, a role previously held by the indomitable pianist Geri Allen (1957–2017).

“From my experience as a college professor in the Chicago area, in Southern California and now in Pittsburgh, it’s troubling to witness that the number of Black students actually granted access to jazz programs in this country is entirely too low,” she said. “Black students are a dwindling minority in these jazz programs, which in turn [results in] very few Black professors leading jazz programs. The problem starts in elementary school and high school, where many schools continue to be segregated and the majority of Black students have less access to public-school music programs.”

In 2019, Philip A. Ewell, a cellist and associate professor of music theory at Hunter College in New York, delivered the keynote address at the annual meeting of the Society for Music Theory. In his paper, “Music Theory and the White Racial Frame,” Ewell said that of SMT’s membership, 90 percent of full-time employees in music theory and 93 percent of all associate and full professors of music theory were white. His analysis also encompassed music-theory textbooks, finding that of “the 2,930 musical examples in all seven textbooks, 49 were written by nonwhites.”

That’s less than two percent, and the books, Ewell said, account for about 96 percent of the market.

Meanwhile, Mitchell is working to change the model from the inside by reconnecting the music with a people who live near her campus.

Her school is developing a new program and venue called JazzLab, which Mitchell described as a cross between The Velvet Lounge and The Stone (located at The New School in New York City), aiming to “increase collaboration between Pitt’s jazz students and community musicians.”

“I’m looking at community collaboration as key for bringing jazz studies closer to the heart of its origins. If a student learns to play well, but lacks understanding of the history or lacks respect for Black people, then that does the music a disservice,” she said.

Even if the program’s goals eventually are achieved, other overarching problems remain, including the subjugation of the music within curricula.

PIANIST, COMPOSER AND CURATOR Jason Moran—who was signed to Blue Note for more than a decade before he began to self-release recordings—noted from his home in New York that the conservatory model gives much more weight to a classical mode of composition, and focuses less on the culture and aesthetics that jazz historically has been couched in. He said this includes “the visual cues that artists give ... kinds of invitations to a listener. A title to a photograph, all those things, they’re invitations.

“Jazz education tries to teach you that none of that matters: Your photograph doesn’t matter, the clothes you wear on stage don’t matter, that your [song] titles don’t matter ... that the language around it doesn’t matter. It’s just the sound. You know why? Because then they can eliminate Blackness from it easier. And I’m not joking when I say that. ’Cause if you just focus on the sound, you won’t have to look at [Duke] Ellington and 20 African American men standing up there [on the bandstand], right? You won’t have to look at Abbey Lincoln’s Afro.”

Lincoln, an intensely emotive vocalist, donned natural hair as early as 1961 on the cover of her album Straight Ahead, an act in that moment ranking as a radical political and cultural statement. It was an outward signifier of a shift in her music’s intent.

In the Nov. 9, 1961, issue of DownBeat, journalist Ira Gitler, who reviewed the album, critiqued the singer’s overtly Afrocentric sensibilities, saying, “Now that Abbey Lincoln has found herself as a Negro, I hope she can find herself as a militant but less one-sided American Negro. It could help her performance.”

The following year, DownBeat presented a panel discussion, partly in response to criticism of Gitler’s review, with excerpts published beginning in the March 15, 1962, issue as a two-part series titled “Racial Prejudice In Jazz.” During the discussion—which included Lincoln; drummer Max Roach, Lincoln’s husband at the time; trumpeter Don Ellis; pianist Lalo Schifrin; and critic Nat Hentoff—Gitler doubled down on his comments, claiming that the singer used “the fact that [she is] a Negro to exploit a career.”

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