In Memoriam: Greg Tate 1957–2021

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Greg Tate not only wrote about music and culture, he became an active participant, too.

(Photo: R.I. Sutherland-Cohen)

The death of cultural critic and practitioner Greg Tate in New York City on Dec. 7 unexpectedly cut short the career of an exceptionally perceptive and expressive voice on jazz and other music, visual art, politics and race in America. He was 64.

A poet of the vernacular, Tate’s colorful yet erudite writing emerged during the early 1980s in publications including DownBeat, the Village Voice, Vibe and Spin magazine, covering the works of artists ranging from Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor to Michael Jackson, Public Enemy and De La Soul. Credited in tribute obituaries in The New Yorker, The New York Times and NPR with raising analysis of rap and hip-hop to academic levels of detailed insight while sustaining a general readership, Tate based his reportage and opinions in deep knowledge of global Black history and white legacies of art and philosophy, too.

His mission was clear from the first sentence of “Cult-Nats Meet Freaky-Deke,” his Voice article of 1986. “Somewhere along the road to probable madness or a meaningful life,” he wrote, “I decided that what black culture needs is a popular poststructuralism – accessible writing bent on deconstructing the whole of black culture. … The future of black culture demands that this generation bring forth a world-wise and stoopidfresh intelligentsia.”

Although Tate’s works unfailingly demonstrated and were intended to advance African-American empowerment and agency, he was neither doctrinaire nor exclusionary. Rather, his inclusionary perspective resulted in influential considerations of painter Jean Michel Basquiat and the Whitney Biennials in ARTNews, guitarist Carlos Santana, novelist Don DeLillo, scholars Henry Louis Gates and Robert Farris Thompson (who died Nov. 29), among many more. Many of Tate’s essays are collected in Flyboy In The Buttermilk (1992) and Flyboy 2: The Greg Tate Reader (2016). His most recent piece, “Afropessimism and its Discontents,” was in the Sept. 17 issue of The Nation.

Tate believed that in the 20th century, “Much of what America sold to the world as uniquely American in character — music, dance, fashion, humor, spirituality, grassroots politics, slang, literature and sports — was uniquely African American in origin, conception and inspiration. … (T)oday, counter to Thomas Jefferson’s widely known notions of Black cognitive inferiority, the grandsons and daughters of antebellum America’s slave commodities have become the masters of the nation’s creative profile.”

Not only documenting that profile, he helped to raise it.

In 1985, he co-founded the Black Rock Coalition with trumpeter Lewis “Flip” Barnes (his college roommate) and guitarists Vernon Reid and Ronny Drayton. In the late ’90s, he stepped out as the improvising conductor/guitarist/beat-producer of Burnt Sugar, the Arkestra Chamber (which recently released Angels Over Oakanda, its 20th recording). Recalling his transition from pundit to participant in a Zoom call late last September, he said, “Like everybody in my high school, I was in a little r&b band and tried to play some guitar, but I put it down. Years later, I woke up one morning and said, ‘I can’t not do this. At least I’ve got to try my hand at putting a band together and writing songs.’”

Inspired by Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, James Brown, Lawrence Douglas “Butch” Morris’ conduction protocols, George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic tribalism and Manfred Eicher’s ECM production style, Tate originally construed Burnt Sugar as a loose amalgam of collaborators. However, following international press attention and tours, repeat performances at the Apollo Theater and Lincoln Center and acclaimed albums such as The Rites (for which Morris created spontaneous arrangements of Igor Stravinsky’s themes), Burnt Sugar stabilized its core personnel.

Tate was also the author of Midnight Lightning: Jimi Hendrix and the Black Experience (2003) and editor of Everything But the Burden: What White People Are Taking From Black Culture (2003). He credited that title to a poem by his mother regarding the appropriation and exploitation of African American creativity, a topic with paradoxical complexities that he, like critic Amiri Baraka before him, saw extending into sociological, economic and business realms.

Born in Dayton, Ohio, to parents active in Congress for Racial Equality (CORE), at 13 Tate moved with his family to Washington, D.C., where he later graduated from Howard University. Tate’s earliest journalistic experience was in community radio. He broke into publication in alternative weekly newspapers. During the past decade he held visiting positions at Brown, Columbia, Princeton and Yale universities, and Williams College.

Although held in high esteem by his colleagues and protégés, Tate was self-deferential when discussing his career, citing a broad coterie of distinguished collaborators. Yet his own productivity was unmistakable.

“The singularly transcendent thing about jazz is that it allows one human being’s voice the right to assume universal proportions through self-expression in a collective framework,” he wrote in a two-part examination of Davis’ electric period, published by DownBeat. Greg Tate’s life has ended, but his efforts will generate new thinking and art for generations to come. DB



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