A Subtle and Insidious Racism

I am interrupting my series The Best Advice to cover a topic I’ve been meaning to get to since I first started this blog: the institutional racism, hiding in plain sight, that affects the way jazz is treated in academia. Ironically, the reason I am choosing to write about this now is the announcement of some great news yesterday. My good friend Nick Weiser took over as the director of a new jazz studies major at SUNY Fredonia less than two years ago, and one of the big bands at the school, the Fredonia New Jazz Ensemble, has just been awarded a DownBeat Award for Outstanding Performance by a College Large Jazz Ensemble. Having had the pleasure of visiting Fredonia on a few occasions this year and working as a clinician with that band, I am not at all surprised. The school culture within the student body and faculty seemed, at least to an outsider, to be extraordinarily supportive and enthusiastic, and I couldn’t be happier for this ensemble’s hard work and dedication to recognized in so public and prestigious a way. I hope this sets an example to other schools that have yet to afford their students the opportunity to participate in jazz at a high level.

It can be difficult to put a finger on the influence of racism in the context of academia because the students and faculty most immediately affected by it are often not members of a historically oppressed group. The reason for this is that it is the Blackness of the music, not of its practitioners, that is bearing the burden of prejudice in higher education. There is, quite simply, a double standard so pervasive that it manages to go unnoticed, or at least unaddressed. Consider the following truths, not representative of the place of jazz in all schools, but certainly in too many.

  • Schools with “music education” majors that allow students to graduate with no substantial jazz knowledge, understanding, or ability. Who is to teach America’s children about this essential artistic contribution to the world and piece of our history, if not their music teachers? Honestly, is Persichetti more reflective of America’s past, present, and future than Duke Ellington? Only the most myopic and biased of worldviews could produce a “yes” in response to that question.

  • Schools with jazz degree programs that fail to provide their jazz majors with lessons from a primary teacher who actually plays jazz. I’ve heard this justified with the (not-untrue) observation that one can learn a lot by studying with someone who makes music differently from you. I agree. I studied for one glorious, mind-altering semester with pianist Harold Danko while at Eastman, and it was great for me. That said, can you imagine the petitions and online hubbub if an aspiring orchestral trombonist arrived for the first day at an expensive conservatory to discover her assigned teacher was a dedicated New Orleans tailgate specialist with no classical performing experience? The outrage goes both ways.

  • Schools with classes in “20th Century Music” in which the names Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, and John Coltrane are never mentioned.

  • College big bands that mysteriously rehearse at 6:00, 7:00, or 8:00 pm while their classical counterparts rehearse six hours earlier. This seems an awful lot like an after-school activity to me. I guess if anyone is going to have to sacrifice, it will be the jazz groups, eh….

  • Disproportionate funding for guest artists, repertoire, commissions, and touring skewed toward Orchestras, Wind Ensembles, and Choirs and away from anything derived even partially from something non-European. Perhaps Chris Rock’s words best encapsulate this attitude:

I could go on and on about this subject, but I’m starting to feel too depressed. I will leave you with a short anecdote. In order to have my Doctoral Research Project/Dissertation topic approved, I had to submit a proposal including a explanation of what the project was to be, a sample of my text, and a bibliography. The proposal was to be examined by a committee that would then render a decision. Thankfully, the proposal was approved, and I was able to complete my research and write the rest of the paper. I found out when I was nearly finished that during the committee meeting, jazz faculty had to explain to other members of the committee what “transcribing a solo” is, and why it would be important to my paper (largely an analysis of my transcriptions), and an example of “scholarship.” If this kind of ignorance exists in one of the world’s most elite music schools, one which has a thriving and well-regarded jazz program offering bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees in the subject, and which embraces jazz in its theory and education departments, I can only imagine how things are at lesser institutions.

Thank you for reading. As always, I welcome your questions and comments below. Please stay tuned for The Best Advice, Part IV: Brian Pareschi, coming next week.

Nikola Tomic5 Comments