Willard Jenkins: On Talking With Black Jazz Writers

Willard Jenkins. i i

hide captionWillard Jenkins.

Ronnie James
Willard Jenkins.

Willard Jenkins.

Ronnie James

I started reading Willard Jenkins' blog, The Independent Ear, well before I knew who he was or that he even lived in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area. Jenkins, of course, is what you might call a heavy cat: he's a tremendously successful arts administrator, writer, educator, radio broadcaster, festival producer and general-purpose jazz consultant. Check out the Open Sky Jazz Web site for more information.

I've been especially interested in his series of conversations with African American jazz writers, which he calls Ain't But A Few Of Us. I've always been curious about the relative dearth of black writers (or folks who aren't white males) covering jazz in prominent locations, and have even lobbed a few attempts to induce further inquiry about the issue. So it's been revealing to read the candid thoughts of folks I admire like A.B. Spellman, K. Leander Williams and Greg Tate, among many other contributors whose work I'm just discovering.

I recently met Jenkins at the annual Congressional Black Caucus Foundation jazz concert, where he moderated a panel discussion about developing a young jazz audience in a world where public schools are continually cutting music education. I followed up with him about his series in an e-mail interview:

——-

Why did you decide to do this series in the first place?

I decided to run this series because —- and this is quite clear from the various participants in this ongoing dialogue —- clearly, despite the historic origins of this music we call jazz, there have never been an abundance of African Americans (or women, or people of color period) writing about the music. And when you take into account the complete and vast bibliography of jazz you find even fewer African Americans have written books on the subject than those who have contributed to periodicals. So in a way we're exploring that disparity, but more importantly, I wanted to have a dialogue with those who are out here as to their various experiences —- including both triumphs and tribulations.

Why do you call it "serious music"?

I refer to "serious music" as a somewhat covert means of separating the efforts of the participants in this dialogue from those many black writers who've written about black pop —- from blues to R&B to hip hop —- and even they are lacking great numbers compared to their white counterparts.

What do you think would change if there were more black jazz writers in prominent places?

I think the aggregate responses to the question "Do you think that disparity or dearth of African American writers contributes to how the music is covered?" say it all. I've also found myself numerous times wondering aloud how it is that certain musicians are elevated over others, not that this disparity we're discussing is the sole reason for that/those elevation(s).

Why, if at all, is it important that black people are interested in jazz?

It is important that black people are interested in jazz because it is a core element of African American culture and what African Americans have contributed to American culture. These should be points of great pride in the African American experience.

Why, if at all, is it important that black people write about jazz?

It is important that within the realm of literature written about jazz music, that there is a cultural diversity of voices, including those who come from the community of origin of this music.

Why are there relatively few black jazz bloggers, if blogging is more-or-less free?

I don't have an answer for your perception of a disparity of black jazz bloggers, other than to suggest that it is a microcosm of the central issue of this dialogue — the overall small numbers of black commentators on jazz.

What's your impression of interest in jazz among black people who are younger — who are more likely to be bloggers?

My impression of interest in jazz among young black people is something I touched on at the CBCF jazz forum —- those parents from the baby boom generation (my generation) failed to bring jazz music to our children the way our parents brought it to us, primarily by simply having it around the house and playing it. There are a lot of reasons behind that, including the fact that my generation grew up with more choices than our parents' generation did; and succeeding generations have had exceedingly more choices than we had. Not to mention the fact that the baby boom generation grew up during a time when pop-rock-R&B took over and dominated the airwaves, supplanted jazz on the radio, and seized the television medium completely. Consequently I think baby boomers have to a great extent been products of arrested musical development; that is they have stayed with those more popular music genres —- even to the point of being more invested in "oldies" of their development years than in current contemporary music —- and have not grown in terms of their music sensibilities to embrace the more "serious" forms of music, i.e. jazz, classical, contemporary chamber music, opera, etc. Supposedly when we grow and develop we don't for example continue to read books and publications that are geared more towards children or teens. So why not the same relationship with music?

What needs to happen to get African American oriented publications interested in jazz again?

I'm afraid African American publications —- as my colleagues seem to indicate clearly in this dialogue —- are a bit of a lost cause; at least they are until some miracle occurs and jazz music becomes somehow a more commercial art form; and that's something only the most extreme optimists among us can envision.

When we discuss this spectre of race in this country, often we are well-served to talk about class. What does socioeconomic class have to do with jazz fandom, and jazz media?

Socioeconomic class is certainly a factor, particularly when you consider the sheer costs associated with attending live jazz events.

What are the best answers you've heard so far as to how to build the audience for serious music — especially if music programs keep getting cut from schools?

Stay tuned for those "best answers" ... I'm still in a constant quest for the answers and initiatives that will best serve our need to build a more robust jazz audience.

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