To the editors:
As a cultural worker who prefers to labor quietly at the task of jazz promotion, it is not often I choose to enter the often fractious arena of jazz philosophy. The exchange between Mark Ruffin and Neil Tesser [Letters, November 12 and 26] however provides an occasion to contribute my perspective in a deliberative manner.
First, WNUA doesn’t really have to play any jazz. That they do is certainly their acknowledgment of the debt owed to the jazz art for their appropriation of the sophisticated air attached to that musical genre. WNUA plays jazz-based and popular instrumental music, which is exceptional in that the jazz-based instrumental format is a marked departure for a commercial radio station. Until the advent of the “New Adult Contemporary” format, only the occasional instrumental song was included in a radio universe inhabited mainly by the pop vocalist.
Secondly, the question of whether a song by David Sanborn, George Duke, David Benoit or Marcus Miller will lead a listener to Hank Crawford, Cannonball Adderly, Bill Evans or Miles Davis can only be answered anecdotally for now. From my experience in the late 60s, listening to Triad radio (remember? ” . . . one vibration expressed an infinite number of ways”) or a nascent WBMX mixing, in the latter instance, Roy Ayers into Santana into Isaac Hayes or in the former case, Jethro Tull into Yusef Lateef into Alice Coltrane into Tibetan chants, I can say free form radio had a profound influence on my listening habits. Unfortunately that programming theory (or nontheory) is incompatible with corporate radio realities partly due to “niche” formatting, where one man’s “ghettoization” is another’s “block programming.” Still I have to give WNUA a B for effort. They really don’t have to try harder.
And thirdly, the African American improvisational traditions in blues and jazz have always been sites of oppositional cultural expression and resistance. In jazz improvisation this often meant taking old songs or contemporary popular songs and completely reinterpreting them or creating entirely new musical forms which were often appropriated by mainstream pop (and this is part of what makes WNUA so problematic).
As a jazz broadcaster for nearly 20 years, I’m convinced that artists like Mr. Ayers, Mr. Davis, Ramsey Lewis, Stanley Turrentine, Bill Cobham, Donald Byrd and groups like the Crusaders, Weather Report, Tony Williams Lifetime and Return to Forever have indeed caused, if not a shift, certainly a broadening of what constitutes “mainstream” to include voices like Mr. Duke, Gerald Albright, Art Porter, Noel Pointer, Kevin Eubanks, Henry Johnson, Billy Childs, John Beasley, Joshua Redman, Steve Coleman and many other artists who struggle to maintain the oppositional character of the music within the context of the popular vernacular.
Cries for “purity”. aside, in my opinion, these artists are squarely within the African American improvisational tradition of innovation and expression that is jazz. Yet they are continually marginalized and/or dismissed for not adhering to the rhythms and vocabulary of the 40s and 50s by a jazz critical establishment dominated by white male “avant-gardists” standing as arbiters of the jazz aesthetic.
I’m sure Mr. Tesser must be sensitive to the fact that, here 100 years on, the position of “jazz critic” at most American daily papers and general market magazines is held by whites. Even the monthly jazz magazine mastheads reflect this situation. This observation is not intended to suggest that these folks are unqualified or that this is somehow a premeditated decision on the part of the media (including TV and radio, yes, even public radio), but good conscience and simple fairness must bring one to ask, where are the black voices in this discourse?
On the horizon is the eventual merging of jazz improv and hip-hop. At the doorstep is Dizzy Gillespie’s predicted unification of North and South American jazz forms. The questions Mr. Tesser posed are particularly significant in this light, but as we continue into our second jazz century I simply hope the answers will include voices from both inside and outside the jazz establishment.