Beneath the Underdog: Jazz politics, baby

Jan 20, 2016 at 1:00 am

My work colleagues were sent the following email. It was signed by 112 "members of the jazz community." For some reason, it wasn't sent directly to me, even though I'm clearly listed as the music editor on our masthead. I'm choosing to not list all of their names here, but trust me, it is a lengthy alphabetical list with 112 people. That gives it a full, granite-slate style impression. The email was sent by Glenn Tucker, a pianist from Ann Arbor whose bio on his own website reads that he "is known for enthusiastic versatility and a balance between youthful energy and dedication to history" and who "has performed music representing the entire jazz canon both as a leader and sideman."

Dear Editors,

As members of the jazz community, we are alarmed that neither of the Metro Times' year-end local music lists included jazz. This omission belies the importance of the jazz scene, which produced an especially strong and diverse year of recordings in 2015. For a publication that covers a lot of local music, jazz performances, recordings, and personalities are consistently underreported. This is a disservice to our community as well as your readers.

 The Metro Times' list favored new and up-and-coming artists. Under-30 artists De'Sean Jones, Michael Malis, Marcus Elliot, Alexander White (EP), Cory Allen, Emma Aboukasm, and Glenn Tucker all released debut or sophomore albums of original music in 2015, representing influences from gospel to the avant-garde. The Hughes-Smith Quintet and Andrew Bishop both made the Allmusic list for the year's best jazz internationally.

 An obvious single pick for a year-end list is Detroit Jazz City, produced by Don Was for Blue Note, curated by local gem Marion Hayden. Other veteran releases include bassist-to-the-stars Ralphe Armstrong's studio debut, Bert's staple John Douglas' debut, and a Japanese release from mainstay pianist Pamela Wise Harrison, all of which feature original compositions.

 These are but a few examples from 2015. Jazz has always been an integral part of the Detroit sound, and we refuse to be excluded from coverage of music in this city.


(112 signatures)

So, OK. First off, the tone here is a bit interesting. My mother never told me that "you catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar," because who wants flies? But on a personal level, I'm a bit surprised that not one of these 112 people reached out directly to say, "Hey why don't you cover more local jazz?" Especially because I do know a few of them.

My first response is to go defensive. First of all, I do know a bit about this music. When I was 16 years old, back in 1984, one of the very first interviews I did was with Don Cherry, and it ran in the first issue of my fanzine Chemical Imbalance. I saw the Arkestra perform over three dozen times while leader Sun Ra was alive. This here little local music column is named after Charles Mingus' autobiography, etc.

And though I never saw Faruq Z. Bey perform (with or without Griot Galaxy) and only caught Marcus Belgrave once before his untimely passing last year, I do feel like I know a bit about Detroit jazz. We've run some great jazz features and previews in the 13 months I've been here. And we'll soon run very strong pieces on Leonard King and the Lyman Woodard Organization as well as the legacy of Dorothy Ashby. Could we run more articles on jazz? Heck, yes. We could also cover dance music, metal, and contemporary gospel so much better than we do. (I'm working on those things, as well!)

Which brings us to the simple point that this email itself from these 112 "members of the jazz community" is super odd in saying that there are no jazz records on the list it refers to. Two and a half of the records on the list are jazz. To say that there is no super trad, retro jazz? Sure, that's correct. There is no Dixieland on the list, and probably nothing that Marsalis would like. Look at the members of the funky jazz band Will Sessions — I believe that many of the members of this internationally celebrated jazz band even graduated from the Wayne State jazz studies program? Or even if they didn't they are an internationally celebrated funky jazz band.

Chatoyant is stretching the definitions of experimental jazz with their incredible sound — they are an exquisite contemporary Detroit experimental jazz band. Viands may be making music with synthesizers (which is definitely a bit of a stretch for most jazz fans) but the music is entirely improvised. So perhaps they could be called half-jazz? One could even argue that Warren Defever's tape release owes a lot to the music of Pharoah Sanders. Is Sanders a part of "the entire jazz canon"? How about Archie Shepp, Cecil Taylor, Annette Peacock, Albert Ayler, or any other freeform trailblazers of the last 50-plus years? Those are just the names that come to mind first and foremost, as they're within my own personal taste.

And that brings us to my last point. I'm not here to promote my own personal taste. If I were, it would just be 1950s black gospel, weirdo minimalist drone records from the early 1970s, spiritual jazz, and way too much writing about Electric Light Orchestra.

But thankfully, I'm not here at this job to just foist my own music nerd taste onto others. I'm here to try to serve the entire Detroit music community, as much as is possible. And I totally appreciate any time that I receive constructive criticism. I will now work harder to connect with local jazz artists. I'm super glad that these folks have sent along a starter list of contemporary artists to check out too! We obviously need to soon work with both Michael Malis and Marion Hayden, for instance. Kudos.

I'm surprised that the jazz community adopted the tactics of other boring groups when they decide to launch a "call to action." Canvassing this many people together all in one letter to condemn a paper's coverage seems like a lot more work than, for instance, sending along suggestions (and perhaps samples of this actual music) and just canning the theatrics. I'm puzzled when music lovers want to form a Continental Congress rather than send out a line to me.

But I'm always here, and always available to listen to whatever music people email me. I do listen to every link or record I get sent. I've discovered great music that way. I'm lucky to live in such a great music town, with such an incredible and rich history as well as multiple current music scenes. Please, always feel free to drop a line to tell me what I'm doing, right or wrong.