‘How Does It Feel To Be Free?’

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

(Photo: Bram VanderMark)

Lincoln responded: “Exploit a career? How can I sing as a black woman, as a Negro, if I don’t exploit the fact that I’m a Negro?”

In the initial two-star album review, Gitler also claimed, “Pride in one’s heritage is one thing, but we don’t need the Elijah Muhammed [sic] type of thinking in jazz.”

The key question here is this: Who’s the “we” that Gitler referred to?

What seemed to escape Gitler—connections among jazz, politics and the broader culture—isn’t lost on Moran, who, in addition to frequently collaborating with visual artists like Theaster Gates, Kara Walker and Carrie Mae Weems, serves as the Kennedy Center’s artistic director for jazz. He also has taught jazz piano at New England Conservatory since 2010.

“I was having students listen to one of Trane’s songs, ‘Transition,’” Moran recalled recently. “I remember a fellow teacher in the class says, ‘Wow, you know, Trane sounds really angry.’ And I was like, ‘But do you know what year this is? Do you know what’s happening to Black people during [1965]?’ I think it was a real moment where I thought, ‘Oh, you know what? People who are not Black think that the civil rights period has nothing to do with them.’ To listen to Trane at this time in his development and separate it from what the country and all his people, including the people in his band, had to go through once they get off the bandstand ... . Damn, how does it feel to be free?”

Being able to make those cultural connections clearly has had an effect on how the arts have been written about; a writer’s background comes to bear on their interpretation of any work—music or otherwise.

“I watched visual artists have to figure that out over the past 25 years,” said Moran, discussing the dearth of Black writers with platforms commensurate to their skills. “There used to be a few artists talks, now there’s zillions of them. ... [Conceptual artist] Adrian Piper says, ‘Artists ought to be writing about what they do and what kinds of presuppositions they go through to make the work.’”

Moran recalled Piper warning him: “‘Jason, be aware that when you start to put your own language to your work, it will anger people, because then it is its own doctrine that cannot be manipulated anymore.’ And that is some freedom.”

Willard Jenkins, the artistic director of the D.C. Jazz Festival and a contributor to DownBeat, currently is at work on Ain’t But a Few of Us, a book that focuses on Black jazz writers, their personal stories and the challenges they’ve faced.

“Leonard Feather and Nat Hentoff had to learn about [the community]; they did not acquire that sensibility from community experience,” Jenkins said recently. “Not that either of them were bad guys; quite the contrary. Both were encouraging to me and my writing endeavors.”

Jenkins went on to note how diverse sensibilities also benefit the jazz ecosystem: “There’s beauty and balance. For example, not everyone is completely without their own stylistic boundaries and limitations. We need a variety of voices and stylistic interests presenting this music.”

Ultimately, the veteran writer and curator sees the need for “a diversity of voices documenting and responding journalistically to this music. And that’s across the board, from jazz and music magazine contributors to liner note writers, to label biography writers, to copywriters for record publicists. For far too long, those provinces have been over-dominated by Euro-Americans. And that must change to better reflect the diversity of cultures making this music; that equation certainly includes gender considerations.”

People like Feather and Hentoff, as well as Gitler, undoubtedly were crucial in documenting the music, but their careers were built off an art form largely comprising Black musicians. Their writing on the music helped establish a lexicon and narrative of what jazz was and, in some ways, still is. But they weren’t the only ones.

Phyl Garland seldom is mentioned in discussions about 20th-century arts journalists, despite working as a critic and editor at Ebony magazine in the ’60s and ’70s, writing for Stereo Review magazine and serving as a professor of journalism at Columbia University. During her tenure at Ebony, the publication boasted a higher circulation than DownBeat, giving her a larger readership than Feather, Hentoff or Gitler. But more importantly, as a Black woman, the lens through which Garland viewed the music was different from that of other writers and offered an important perspective.

The August 1969 issue of Ebony included her Q&A titled “Nina Simone: High Priestess of Soul,” based on an interview in which she and the musician had fallen into “a compatible groove,” as Garland described it. Speaking to Simone, the writer mentioned how “Mississippi Goddam” truly connected with the Black community, saying that “many of us felt the same way.” The use of the word “us” here is significant.

Beyond the makeup of freelance writers at major U.S. jazz publications, the editorial staff of most is overwhelmingly and persistently white. It’s been the case for decades, and that lack of diversity impacts the coverage and perspectives atop those mastheads, even as society has begun to reckon with the realities of being Black in America.

The landscape, though, is broadening. New platforms and gilded publications alike have started to elevate an ever-growing chorus of voices telling the story of jazz. But there’s still work to be done. And questions to ask, such as: Who defines the music?

Writing for the New York Times, Marcus J. Moore focused on the year 2015—when saxophonist Kamasi Washington’s The Epic was released—to contextualize a resurgence of protest in jazz for a recent piece titled “15 Essential Black Liberation Jazz Tracks.” He mentions Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly and sets it alongside recordings that traditionally would be considered within the strictures of the jazz genre.

“The voice is his instrument,” explained Moore, who recently published The Butterfly Effect: How Kendrick Lamar Ignited the Soul of Black America (Atria). “He does a really good job of sliding up and down the scale, almost like a trumpeter. He knows when to step back and let the music breathe—and when to jump in there with a different [kind of vocal] or with a different cadence and make the song something totally different. And at the same time, he’s a bandleader.

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