Sunday, June 12, 2005

All of the notes but none of the music ...

Spent last evening in the suburbs in the company of my friend and his grandson, a really fine 14 year-old youngster, an avid musician aspiring to find a place in the jazz scene once he matures into it. Both his parents are professional classical musicians so his world is rich with potential. I looked over at his innocent ruddy cheeks with the dark bangs stopping just above his brows in the way of the English schoolboy. He plays in a middle school jazz band that involves 80 youngsters. I thought about him and about his world in contrast to my own and that of the children I see around me from my windows. It is stark.

This morning I met with a black entrepreneur who is considering taking on some of my writings for some national exposure (don't ask). We were acquainted many years ago when we both were residents of Berkeley and when he headed the school board there and I was an aide to a member of the Berkeley City Council. He is now heading up a task force that is trying to address the out of control spate of black on black crime in Richmond. It was he who masterminded a summit about a week ago that brought together all of the forces (civic, faith, nonprofits, social agencies, and political figures and the media) to spend a full day examining the causes and effects of this frightening situation.

I learned from him that there have been 90 shootings since January 1st (all black), resulting in countless injuries and 10 deaths, the most recent being two days ago within a block of NIAD, the place where Dorrie spends her days. She'd mentioned when she came home on Thursday the yellow tape that surrounded the block. I felt a chill but it was quickly dissipated as my mind absorbed this no longer unfamiliar announcement and the buzzer sounded on the micro wave oven announcing supper.

Richmond is now listed as the most dangerous city in the entire state. It is the 12th most dangerous in the nation. It is a city without its soul ... .

Last night I sat in one of the clubhouses in Rossmoor, a relatively affluent mostly white gated community of 10,000. The room held perhaps 75 elders (except for Matthew) to listen to a concert featuring Dmitri Matheny on flugelhorn accompanied by a jazz pianist whose name I didn't catch. They were playing standards so "standard" that I could have named the arrangers and hummed the lead on anything played (and did to the annoyance of the woman sitting to my left!). It was a typical 'white folks' audience -- sitting quietly between songs and clapping politely as the ends were tagged; so sterile. I've seen a far greater level of enthusiasm in a chamber music audience -- but only in a highly controlled manner that dictates precisely where applause is allowed (only at the end of the piece and surely not ever after a movement).

It was clear that no one in the room realized that jazz here was totally out of context, and that the only way to fully experience this music is to be in an "affirmative action" crowd made up of at least 65% black folks. Only half of the experience is derived from what happens onstage, the other half comes to life from those listening. It's the old "call and response" that feeds the musicians and floats under them in a way that provides the impetus for creativity -- the "music". It's the same element that a rousing black gospel choir provides for the preacher to soar over and drives the frenzy that good preaching evokes and sets up the spontaneous altar shuffle, the occasional swoon -- and the "speaking in tongues" phenomena. Black audiences relate to performers one-on-one. The response is immediate, passionate, noisy, with shouts of appreciation of any especially inventive phrase -- and right in the middle of a riff! They're participants in the performance. They're sophisticated and pick up every nuance and the players know it. Musicians work as hard to bring that to life in an audience as black preachers do to get folks to "testify!"

It was clear that those two very accomplished white musicians last night were striving to bring the audience into their realm, but they were left with only the notes. They had no idea of how to produce the jazz experience in that "civilized" room. I'm not even sure that they knew that they have only partial control over the end product -- the music. I wonder if they know that the notes that they play may be on the charts on the music stands before them -- but that the music is in the people they are trying so hard to emulate. These audiences don't have a clue.

The black kids who are wielding the guns on our streets probably have no idea that the product being so faithfully imitated in Matt's 80-piece middle school jazz band, and that which was being presented last night at Rossmoor originated on the streets, in the clubs, in the choir lofts of street-front churches is their legacy -- bought and paid for by much pain and humiliation by black musicians who preceded them. They've lost sight of that blacks created America's only original internationally-celebrated art form by a lifetime. Perhaps they never knew. Where would they have learned about themselves and their culture -- about jazz?

Because the links have never been made to a culture that continues to enrich the world, these kids are bereft of a crucial connection to their own souls. Self-hatred has been internalized to the point where what we're seeing may actually be a leaderless revolution" misnamed - "Crime in the Streets." Life has been cheapened by successive wars communicated by successive major developments in the delivery of information to masses now armed to emulate the destruction on their own scarred and crime-ridden city streets of neighborhoods that exist in a state of hopelessness.

The black musicians who created the playbook that has lived into our times climbed out of the ghettos and into international prominence through their instruments and access to instruction through either working as teens with older pros or with borrowed instruments through public school programs. The access to this art has now been stripped from school curricula. That is, except for the Matts out in the safety of the suburbs where affluent parents have created foundations through which to augment the arts and keep them as avenues to fame and fortune -- for the enrichment of their own children. What Richmond kids have access to are illegal drugs and guns. The 49% dropout rate can probably be partially attributed to the loss of the arts in public schools. Those 49% of students of color drop out of school by the tenth grade.

Bereft of alternatives but with music and "the beat" crying for expression from somewhere deep within, our kids have been left with only their voices -- their lips -- to use -- and out of that they've fashioned rap, Hip Hop,, an art form that has swept the world and become the vehicle for poets and DeeJays of every language. They've re-shaped street culture at least one more time. That so much of it expresses rage should be a surprise to no one. Rage has become the irresistible driving force for much of the contemporary music of the young, and rightly so. But it transforms when expressed by those who've been lucky enough to attain the resources to combine their artistry with that of others -- often across cultures -- and in the way of Josh Redman, Jill Scott, Paul "DJ Spookie" Miller, and Will Power.

There was a sadness for me last night. I found myself wondering where the new black players are going to come from? Will the art form simply die when the sources have all become derivative and innovation has succumbed to market forces and aging memories? What will happen when there is no one left who remembers that -- once the emotional content has been stripped away -- once the performer is no longer fed by the listener; once the "call and response" has disappeared ... are we simply listening to empty echoes of what once was? And are the sounds I heard last night merely ashes to the embers of the originals? Is this new hybrid composed of black innovation plus white emulation going to be enough to resurrect the souls of our children? Will education ever become relevant enough to nourish and promote their entry into the culture with full credit for ancestral contributions already invested? Or will black culture continue to be expropriated without recognition; with critical elements left on the cutting-room floor because we've simply forgotten all of the elements and accept it in a form that is soul-less?

... and ... in the final analysis, is the essence of what jazz is being defined by the emulators? 

What will that mean?

I wonder if "all of the notes but none of the music" isn't a metaphor for a lot of what I'm living in these confusing final years?

Something to think about before falling to sleep tonight ... .

Photo: Ceramic on wood. This was an award received by our store, Reid's Records, for having pioneered black gospel music and for having contributed significantly to the popularizing of the art form. Geoffrey's Circle in downtown Oakland hosted the event in the early mid-90's.

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