Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Maybe it's just a slow news day ...

...but I found myself one evening last week channel surfing and thinking about how much the television offerings have deteriorated since the great consolidation of the airways. Despite extensive cable offerings and at least five major network channels operating -- there's little more than the steady diet of crime shows, reality garbage, what I've begun to call "the last one standing" show; and pundits all yelling across the bow of anyone who dares to disagree with their always declarative proclamations!

PBS is in perpetual fundraising mode with the strangest assortment of barkers and snake oil salesmen and women one can imagine. If not that, there's the ever-present Andre Rieu (and where on earth did he come from, anyway?). I'm aware that the entire system of public broadcasting is under threat, but are we too late already? Is there now little left to save -- except for the occasional NOVA or Frontline? (And, yes, I'm sending my letters of protest to my representatives.) Were it it not for CSPAN, I'd probably cancel my account and bury myself in books again -- and blogs, or course.

I'd decided long ago (when considering a new more powerful teevee set or even HDTV) that I wouldn't invest another cent in the medium until the art catches up with the technology!

In this kind of petulant mode I happened across a KQED fundraiser featuring the exciting trumpet player, Chris Botti. I paused mid-remote-flick to hear him introducing a 16 year-old new jazz singer as the newest "...Sarah Vaughn or Ella Fitzgerald." This was an arresting statement and -- with remote hovering in mid-air -- I listened more closely. This kid must really be somethin', says I to no one in particular. The orchestra vamped for a few bars -- then she swung into gear, "every time it rains -- it rains -- (beat beat) pennies from heaven!" What a disappointment.

There was something familiar about all this, though -- and I suddenly recalled what it was:

Many posts back I found myself writing about the slow and methodical way black culture was being absorbed into American culture -- but that it was a one way street -- with our stuff going in and nothing coming out except the derivatives. These beautiful brass solos coming from Chris Botti were little more than Miles Davis in whiteface. It was again like hearing Lightnin' Hopkins swinging the blues from Eric Clapton's guitar! It was the recently-deceased Billy Preston swinging the entire Beatles combo from his electric piano or Hammond organ -- and never receiving so much as a mention except by the occasional critic who might refer to him as "the fifth Beatle."

On Sunday night I watched the Tony Awards along with the rest of the country -- and flinched at the irony of the Jersey Boys receiving their awards after a segment that clearly was based on Frankie Valli and his group singing Doo-Wop (picked up from black kids on the street corner of Philly or Detroit) and here were these broadway stars doing the Motown Temptations choreography with nary a credit to the originators nor an apology for the theft!

I thought of that really exciting young rhythm & blues singer from Britain who does such a credible job of covering Billie Holiday et al as she sexily slinks across the stage in her bare feet and hippy-like garb cradling the mike and breathing huskily the lyrics of old standards made famous in her grandparent's time. She's phenomenal -- and I'm moved by her ability to express those songs of my youth so movingly.

We've done a great job. Our culture is now so infused into the mainstream that artists rarely take the time to credit the source. It's all American, now. No longer black. Covers are no longer covers. Though depicted as a teenager hanging outside the windows of little black country churches to learn the licks that would bring him unanticipated fame, Elvis went to his grave "The King." Hogwash! He and Pat Boone and the others of the time brought to the public music and style that could not make it into the recording studios and film from the originators who couldn't get a contract and were still being let in the back door to perform in clubs that their friends couldn't follow them into. Even Sammy Davis Jr. and Dorothy Dandridge had to leave the clubs they worked in between shows, and could not be housed in the hotels where they performed. I later learned that this was also true in Hawaii where the Islanders who entertained were not permitted to stay in those posh hotels between shows but gathered at a small cafe nearby where they entertained each other. White supremacy reigned, and it was and is ugly, indeed!

On Sunday as I watched Chris Botti and the parade of young previously undiscovered white entertainers (except for Sting), I realized that the day has indeed come when people no longer are even aware that what they're watching are all the derivatives; those who have learned successfully and elegantly, to "paint by color." The music, the dance, the songs, of African Americans continue to find success most readily (surely in jazz) when adopted and performed by white performers.

I guess I'm resentful. And -- It concerns me when I find myself wondering where the new Dizzy Gillespies and Miles Davises and Louis Armstrongs and Ellas and Sarahs are going to come from? They once came up through the music programs in our public schools and lifted those kids out of the muck and into some measure of financial success (until late in the last century). But more important than the loss of a pathway to success through the arts -- I wonder about the loss of creativity -- of the kind that produced them for the world to emulate?

As I've said before, we've taken away access to the instruments and lessons that once were the keys to a kind of art that changed world culture. Having done that -- leaving them with no more than a pair of lips and a body that moves rhythmically -- differently than any others, our kids have turned that into an art form (Hip Hop and Rap) that has again taken over the world and become so infused into other cultures that I find myself seeking out Asian and Arabian and Island cultures on the teevee -- just to watch exotic-looking kids emulating Philly, Compton, and Oakland dance moves -- right down to the most intricate steps and rhythms.

Would sure like to see the more intricate and complicated demands of jazz continue to grow and prosper, but from our own. Learned in the late eighties that the best of contemporary jazz is now coming from the choir lofts of the country. Contemporary black gospel is jazz come home!

Ask Vicki Winans, and Kirk Franklin, et al. I suspect that those Texas mega-churches have been largely built by jazz-power. Ever watch them folks rock? Make a joyful noise ain't just a whistlin' Dixie. Those saints can blow!

Photo: Taken at Reid's Records the day that the great Motown gospel singer, Vanessa Bell Armstrong, and her entourage visited. We'd just been honored with a plaque for outstanding pioneer work in introducing black gospel music on a grand scale to the music world.

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