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Willard Jenkins speaks for and with Black jazz writers in a new book

Willard Jenkins
c/o the author
Willard Jenkins

Williard Jenkins'  new book, Ain't But a Few of Us, brings together several of the most diverse art and cultural voices of our time to discuss jazz. Race has always been the elephant in the room in the history of art criticism.  Jazz, a vibrant genre born in African-American communities of New Orleans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with its roots in blues and ragtime, has a long history of Black performers, but when it comes to criticism of the art form, the bylines are historically and predominantly white and male.  The text is unique in that Jenkins as editor brings together talented voices to create a collective voice that screams we love this art form as critics despite the reality that there "ain't but a few."

Ain’t But a Few of Us presents over two dozen candid dialogues with black jazz critics and journalists ranging from Greg Tate, Farah Jasmine Griffin, and Jordannah Elizabeth to Leroi Jones, Ron Welburn, and Wayne Shorter. In this conversation, we speak about the intersection of race, jazz and the power of collectivity.


Jamara Wakefield: Before we get into the writing and the essays, talk to us about your personal relationship with jazz.

Willard Jenkins: Well, my personal relationship with jazz began as a child with my father's record collection and my particular fascination and obsession with certain of those recordings. My obsession grew as I entered college at Kent State University in Ohio. And that obsession grew into opportunities to work within jazz. I've written about jazz, I've been an artistic director and concert producer, curator and that kind of thing. I've run jazz organizations. I’ve done a variety of off-the-bandstand activities related to jazz. But writing about the music has always been the core of my entry point or my activities in jazz.

Talk to us about this collection. What is the role of the arts critic and what nuance is really needed to analyze, critique or just observe and witness Black art forms.

The book is the culmination of observations and questions that I've had down through my years working in jazz. As a writer, I expanded my reach by not only reporting on activities within Cleveland and Northeast Ohio, where I was originally based, but writing about jazz activities nationally and internationally through attending festivals, conferences and that kind of thing. Throughout those experiences, it was always interesting to me…we know the historic nature of jazz being, to a great extent, a product of the African experience in America. And the fact that many of the major innovators of this music we call jazz were African Americans. but despite that fact as I continued to write and read various publications, books and newspapers, it was interesting to me that there were so few Black writers on this music we call jazz, despite where the music came from. You can look at that across the board as well for Black writers writing about music in general, despite the fact that Black music is at the core of not only American music, but of world music.

That was an interesting phenomenon to me because I would go to these various gatherings of writers. When you go to a festival, you’re always seated with other writers and there would be very few Black writers covering these various festivals and writing about the music in general. So in 2010 on a blog The Independent Ear through my website, openskyjazz.com, I started a series of interviews with Black writers on this phenomenon, but it wasn't necessarily a means of gathering together a group of aggrieved writers talking about their various grievances down through the years as far as stumbling blocks along the way with their writing about the music. It was more about their journey. Their various journeys indicated clearly that at some points, this specious man-made construct known as race came into play and may very well have inhibited their efforts to write about the music. I developed a series of questions that I would ask each of these writers. After a while it became clear that this had the possibility of becoming a book. So we gathered these interviews and eventually put them together in book form.

Can you talk to us about how the book is organized? I thought the sections in the groupings were really interesting. It was exciting for me was to see what I would consider classic texts about jazz that I read in school, like Leroi Jones and Marc Crawford Requieum For a Heavyweight, but then also to see new voices like Jordanna Elizabeth and Greg Tate. I felt anchored, but I also felt like we were looking into the future.

As far as how it was organized, the writers who contributed to the series of interviews that I originally published online all come from somewhat different perspectives in that some of them are authors who not only contributed to periodicals, but also wrote books. Then there's a section of magazine freelancers. That’s where many of us enter this particular forum as far as writing about jazz as newspaper and magazine freelancers. There's a section of writers who have written for newspapers and who have also been elevated to prominence in having columns on arts, criticism, music, jazz. Then there’s what I refer to as the New Breed section, which is those who have contributed largely online and who have made their own way for the most part and have not necessarily relied on assignments and connections with major publications.

Then there are also a group of people who were actually Black editors and publishers of their own magazines down through the years. I gathered a few of them together. The basic facts behind this book is that as far as the major jazz publications, which would be DownBeat, JazzTimes and magazines of that nature, none of them, and I repeat none of them, have ever had an African-American editor or publisher. The closest was an associate editor at Downbeat magazine by the name of Barbara Gardner. She is someone who evolved to have a very successful career in advertising, but she did serve as a writer and associate editor of Downbeat for a number of years in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s.

Then there's a section that I call Black Dispatch contributors. That points to a certain disparity as well, because these are writers who have written extensively about jazz for Black newspapers, which are generally of a weekly nature. Interestingly enough, there are only two of them that are included in this book which points to the fact that there's been a disparity of jazz coverage in the Black Dispatch newspapers. We talk about that with not only those two writers, but also with other contributors to this series of interviews.

In addition, you mentioned certain pieces that contributed to the jazz aesthetic. We wanted to have the first ever kind of anthology section of writings about jazz down through the years by Black writers. You mentioned Leroi Jones, later known as Amiri Baraka. But he attributed this piece under his birth name Leroi Jones and it's a very powerful piece called “Jazz and the White Critic,” which talks about the disparity of a music which has come from the African experience in America to a large extent, but has not been covered or reported on by Black writers. Most of the music critics and journalists of the music have been other than the Black community. Jones’ essay at the time talks about those disparities in that powerful article, which was kind of a touchstone for the whole theme of the book.

Then, as you mentioned, Marc Crawford whose beautiful meditation on Bud Powell is in the anthology section. And A.B. Spellman has a piece in the anthology section that was taken from a review he did of an extraordinary John Coltrane performance that he witnessed at the Village Gate.

Then there are others. One of our contributors is DC-based writer John Murph. John is not only an African-American writer, but he also self-identifies as gay. He wrote a wonderful piece for JazzTimes on gay jazz artists and their particular journeys and experiences.

We have a number of different pieces in the anthology that speak to various issues and disparities down through the years. You mentioned Greg Tate. He has a beautiful piece in the anthology. He's also one of the interviewees. He has a chapter in the book, but then he also has a piece in the anthology that has great implications just based on the title, “Why Jazz will Always Be Relevant.” That was the kind of thing we sought for the anthology. I have to say many thanks to both Downbeat and JazzTimes, which were very supportive of the idea of these pieces being republished in the book.

I'm thrilled to hear that they were on board to collaborate and to put these essays back in people's hands and read them. It's critical that collaboration between writers and editors and other platforms in the publishing world, so congratulations on that. Did you find anything new when you were revisiting these essays?

I can't say that I found anything new in terms of the anthology pieces, because for the most part I had been familiar with the great majority of them from my readings down through the years. It wasn't a matter so much a matter of discovery for me, but it was a matter of honoring Black writers who've contributed on jazz down through their writings. Their writings are hand-in-glove with the interview pieces and with some of the insights expressed during the interview pieces by the writers.

I should also add that I'm very proud of the fact that we have a number of women contributors to this book. That's another disparity as far as jazz journalism and jazz criticism goes: The small number of women who have contributed to the canon of jazz writing. But fortunately we were able to include a number of women and their contributions on the music and their Interviews and commentary for this book.

When you think about your own life and, and the road you've been on in terms of your career and your personal life how does this book fit or how will it fit into the larger legacy of your work?

How it will fit is the fact that I've had the experience beginning with a Black student newspaper at Kent State University. I've had the experience of writing about this music starting there and then becoming a regular contributor to the daily Cleveland Plain Dealer after I got my degree and went back to Cleveland to work. And from there evolving to write for various magazines and writing liner notes and those various experiences. I've been privileged to have my byline in a number of different sources online as well. Having had that kind of overarching experience and having written or contributed now to books, because I did write as-told-to autobiography NEA Jazz Master Randy Weston, called African Rhythms.

Also having had the experience of being a founding member of the Jazz Journalists Association and having developed the context for the founding of that organization puts me in a position of having observed a lot of various activities and bylines in this music that I think were very helpful in developing this series of interviews and, and now this book.

What can we do though? We have a very active audience, so I'm sure lots of folks. Or, or understanding what you're saying in terms of race disparities and gender disparities and this writing, what can we do so that 200 years from now no one is still covering or there are still disparities. Are there any solutions? What can we do to better diversify the pool of those who write about the music?

I think one of the strongest sectors of what we refer to as the jazz community is clearly jazz education. I always talk about the fact that as this music, there's no shortage of extraordinary musicians playing this music, and they just continue to evolve and they continue to arrive on the scene. There has never been an issue with jazz in terms of a shortage of people qualified to make this music. But the one thing we see in jazz education is that we know that not all of those students are going to become professional musicians.

Take programs like the wonderful program right there in the area that Newark serves, which would be Jazz House Kids in Montclair, New Jersey. Not all of those kids are going to become professional musicians, but we should do all we can to stoke their enthusiasm for the music so that once they do choose a certain professional pursuit that may not be music, they will continue to be energized and enthused and supportive of this music. Because the biggest issue we have with jazz music is a disparity in terms of audience development. We have to continue to develop the audience. We have so many wonderful musicians making this music, recording this music, and performing this music on stage. We have to continue to do a better job of developing the jazz audience and the jazz consumer.

Back to what I was saying about these students. Most of them I'm sure will not become professional musicians, but there are other means for them to be involved with this music. And one of those means is jazz journalism and criticism. And so we need to inculcate that whole idea with these students that here is a wonderful avenue for continuing to be connected with the music in a professional way that doesn't necessarily involve playing. That involves a critical element in the jazz community, and that is jazz journalism and criticism. I hope that we will impress upon these many students who are studying this music, that journalism, criticism and authorship are means of keeping their fingers on the pulse of this music and a means ultimately for diversifying the pool of people who write about this music. . And the same can be thing can be said for broadcasting as well.

I hope we're doing our part to certainly support that mission and support this book so much for spending some time with us today.

Thank you. I want to continue to encourage your audience to support WBGO because I have a program at WPFW in Washington, DC. It's a place for jazz in the Washington, DC metro community. I recognize the importance of jazz radio and of keeping it alive by wonderful entities like WBGO. So, thank you for what you do.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Jamara Wakefield is an arts and culture writer and creator currently living in Newark.