Sunday, March 25, 2007

race: how many of us are just visiting?

I apologize for the lack of proper referencing, and the disjointed nature of this post. Most of these fragments were for separate articles, all in very rough form, but in light of Mwanji Ezana’s excellent articles on race and the jazz ‘avant-garde’ (‘don't say it too loud… part 1’ and ‘part 2’) and the blogospheric responses, it seems like a good opportunity to put it out there, ready or not….

“Let me ask you something… we Italians, we got our families, and we got the church; the Irish they have the homeland, jews their tradition; even the niggas, they got their music. What about you people, Mr. Wilson, what do you have?”
“The United States of America; the rest of you are just visiting.”
from Robert De Niro dir. (2006), The Good Shepherd.
I’m going to assume the following: discrimination and inequalities exist in these musics, and the (political and economic) systems in which these musics operate. Maybe in my most blinkered moments I hope that ‘we’ are different from other traditions (say, West European Concert Music), but I know that we’re embedded in a systemic problem.

A couple of anecdotes (both relatively recent):
  • A micro-festival: two non-white performers (neither black), one woman, out of a pool of maybe two dozen performers.
  • A small, single-day academic conference on experimental music: one woman speaker, no non-white faces.
Beyond this, however, is the the inability or reluctance to acknowledge, never mind tackle, this issue. Do we even want to take note of this? I wish I could say this was an exception….
I also know that propping up a mirror can be difficult and painful; that our first instincts may be to deny, deny, and then deny some more. It’s not our fault, we’ll say, and maybe later, well, we didn’t do this deliberately—with intent.
But none of that is going to get us anywhere.
Improvisative practices and traditions thrives on diversity, difference and, maybe, contradictions, but good intentions alone will not suffice. (I doubt Goodman, Wilson and Krupa came together by good intentions or by blind luck.)

exclusion from stories and contexts

‘Avant-garde’ does not mean one thing, but one of its meanings might be ‘transcending’ the mundane reality of historical, social, political specificity. Experimentalism (with or without the capital E) might mean flights of fancy ‘unrestrained’ by tradition and individual or collective identity.
Now, let me interpolate something here: those that are able to transcend historical specificity (class, race, gender, etc.) do so from a position of privilege.
I’m not saying that only white, upper/middle-class, heterosexual men can be avant-garde or experimental, but I am saying that it may be easier for those of us who fit that description to be seen as avant-garde or experimental. Maybe these terms have been defined with that in mind….
How often have we heard the lazy line that jazz follows in the footsteps of West European Concert Music. (Oh, we’ve laughed at that, but I digress….) What do you need to sweep under the carpet in order for that model of pre-ordained, inevitable, cultural evolution to work? Are musicians such as Fred Anderson or Bern Nix largely excluded from the (white sanctioned?) canon of avant-garders because their approach does not scan with experimentalist ideologies? Bern Nix’s approach to the instrument is as radical as anything I know, but, free from the screeches’n’scrawls and technological paraphernalia of officially sanctioned Radical Guitar™, is evidently not worthy of the canon. (Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith once critiqued the expression ‘extended technique’ as a way in which white, european avant-garde composers could appropriate the ‘novelty’ of techniques that have been well known—perhaps well documented, perhaps antique—in non-Western cultures.)

How does this match up on the avant-garde scale: John Zorn vs. Steve Coleman?
Or Reid vs. Frisell? So how come Vernon Reid, nominally (weren’t they all?) part of that Downtown scene, was so readily seen as a sell-out—just a rock musician who could have been—or a cross-over artist?

I remember, vaguely, in the middle of an angry, sometimes barely-veiled-racist, letters pages exchange regarding Public Enemy in Keyboard magazine in the early ’90s, one (black) writer asked when we would be able to talk about Duke Ellington as a great composer, and not a great jazz composer.

I’ve already done the Grove Taste Challenge, so I don’t need to repeat myself, but I recall George E. Lewis’ story about composer-performers Anthony Davis and Gerry Hemingway attampting to register as a composer with their publisher. Hemingway (in my mind the more performerly of the two) had no problems. Davis (closer of the two, perhaps, to the composer end of the spectrum) was prevented from doing so, and had to change publishers in order to achieve this.

beyond education that echoes colonialism

Questions of education and outreach tend to focus on, to put it bluntly, ‘bringing black folk back into the fold’. Well, beyond the patronizing, neo-colonialist streak, unless we accept major institutional revolutions we may still be in a situation of a token few black professors teaching white students, or that of white folk educating black folk about their own (African-American) self-worth. Do ‘we’ want ‘them’ to come to ‘us’, or are ‘we’ to go to ‘them’? ‘Outreach’ and ‘education’ can be the most misleading of words: who’s needs to educate who? Who needs to reach out to who?
We need a radical overhaul of how we talk and discuss education and outreach; what its ultimate societal aims are. Unless we do this, don’t see much success in a system that would ultimately keep ontological power—the power, in this case, to define the aims and objectives, the qualities and shape of, the avant-garde—in the hands of white hegemony.

Imagine a white guy barges into NAACP meeting and saying “don’t worry I will liberate you!” (Some people come very close to this.)

I have, however, a modest proposal to the overhaul of music education: let’s not call Charles Ives a Great (American) Composer, let’s make sure he’s identified as a white, male, middle-class, American composer. Let’s make sure that actors identified with positions of privilege cannot escape their markers. The New York School? White Men’s Club. Post-War European Avant-Garde? The same. Let’s stop pretending that we have a cultural (social and economic) meritocracy. Let’s see how much longer the system can bear up under such explicit hi-lighting of inequality.

follow the money

Race intersects with class in complex, but seemingly inexplicable, ways (if we’ve learned anything from the discussions surrounding Obama). This whole issue is tied up with funding, ticket prices, artists’ sustenance (to put it unglamorously), and access (including even less glamorous subjects such as public transportation and venue location). Does the music (and ‘unfettered’ experimentation) become a luxury for the middle-classes? The wealthy?

Try these for size:
  1. We want cultural participation by all (or the many).
  2. Economic factors stand in the way of this cultural participation.
If you disagree with A and B, you may as well stop reading now….
The bad ol’ days of the aristocratic patronage of the arts are over. However, the funding objectives have, in many respects, reverted to a pre-20th century model.
Let’s get a few things out of the way. In the context of music, the funding and subsidies that jazz and improvised musics receive is dwarfed what is received by institutions such as, say, national/regional orchestras and opera houses. Modern orchestras cannot exist without some form of subsidy. Indeed, I doubt ticket sales would sustain a big-budget, technicolor, bells’n’whistles staging of the Ring cycle (something that is done periodically). Yet, by and large, these are the venues and cultural forums for the white (and ‘almost-white’) middle-classes and, particularly in the U.S. and England, the rich. Music as it stands is becoming too much of a playground for the wealthy.
If we agree with points A and B, arts funding needs to be re-thought-out. As it currently stands, funding (including through taxation) is often used to subsidize the vanity projects and playthings of the haves and have-mores. (Hmm… am I sounding awfully socialist here?)

And what are the goals of the Lincoln Center—what are the dreams, desires and aspirations that the Lincoln Center (sees itself) embodying?

meanwhile, off the black-white axis

What does this mean for those of us who are not black, but not (quite) white either; those of us who have had the luxury of some choice in which ‘side’ to play for (in many cases, for unfortunate political expediency)? ‘White’ when convenient to do so, not-white, when otherwise. We can’t/won’t/shouldn’t sit on the fence, that’s for sure.
And what of those of us with (in some circumstances) perhaps less mobility than African Americans? e.g. Latinos in Southern California, Pakistani in England, Moroccans in The Netherlands?

and what about gender?

One final question: when is the equivalent debate on gender and jazz about to hit the blogosphere?

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