The music was just right. It was the kind of sound that gets people sitting in their seats tapping toes and nodding heads to the cadence of the rhythm.
Cozily set up in an area known as Community Build Park in Leimert Park, this concert, which kicked off Black Music Month, was a celebration honoring the life and works of Los Angeles native and music legend Eric Dolphy. It featured a stellar lineup of talented musicians, including Panamanian saxophone legend Carlos Garnett and the talented Phil Ranelin Tribe Renaissance.
It drew both jazz lovers and purveyors of the music like Charles Owens, who is conductor of the Luckman Orchestra at Cal State University, Los Angeles; poet Kamau Daaood; music educator and bandleader Dawn Norfleet, Ph.D.; jazz activist and vocalist Sandra Booker and a whole lot of others.
The event was also a perfect one for a moment of reflection. Forty-six years after Dolphy died in Berlin, Germany, from complications of undiagnosed diabetes–and where he had gone to find the success that had eluded him in his native land–Black musicians still faced challenges that hampered their quests for success and financial security.
The answer is a mixed bag that is easily demonstrated by many of the musicians at the Leimert Park concert and by looking at the numbers. Some players, like trombonist Ranelin, never aspired to be a bandleader, but were forced into that role by survival instincts.
“To be quite honest, I never set out to be a bandleader. I think it was a combination of the instrument I played and the fact that there wasn’t enough work to support what I was trying to do. It was out of necessity that I became a bandleader,” said Ranelin, adding that as a writer/composer he also wanted to hear his own music played and heading his own musical ensemble guaranteed that would happen.
On the other hand, musicians like saxophonist Owens heads the Luckman Jazz Orchestra at a major state university. There are many others who have made inroads into areas where traditionally Blacks were not allowed.
And then Wednesday at the California African American Museum in Exposition Park, a panel discussion was held with people who have ascended to the vaulted ranks of musical directors on popular television shows–Michael Bearden of “Lopez Tonight,” Ray Chew with “American Idol,” Rickey Minor from “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” Greg Phillinganes of the “Grammy Awards,” Harold Wheeler from “Dancing with the Stars,” and James “Big Jim” Wright of “The Mo’Nique Show.”
The event, moderated by noted musician and educator Patrice Rushen, looked at the part these individuals have had shaping the American entertainment industry.
That said, there are still countless statistics and personal testimonies from musicians that paint a not-so-rosy picture of the state of the Black musician’s involvement in the mainstream of the American music scene today.
According to a July 2010 article by Susan Elliot in Symphony magazine, during the 1994-95 orchestra season, according to the League of American Orchestras, African Americans accounted for just 1.3 percent of all musicians in the 189 orchestras polled, compared to 1.6 percent for Hispanics and 4.54 percent for Asians. Thirteen years later, during the 2007-08 season, the most recent count available at that time, Blacks were 1.83 percent of musicians in the 154 orchestras polled while Hispanic participation had crept up to 2.42 percent and Asians were at 7.34 percent. The balance of players, 88.4 percent were White.
Obviously, the increase, particularly for Africans Americans is minuscule at best.
In a February 2010 article on the website www.operagasm.com, Greg Sandow takes the issue even deeper in his lament of the lack of African American male leads in classical music.
In the piece, Sandow ticked off the Black women opera singers–eight in total–regularly performing on stage. It’s not a high number at all, but compared to the sole African American male, it’s an avalanche.
That one man, Simon Estes, commented for the article about the number of men potentially available.
“If I were to ask you to name me five African American men singing in lead roles, you would have a problem,” Estes said to Sandow, who went on to note that any company can fill a stage with them (Black men), whenever it produces “Porgy and Bess.”
The article included comments from other African Americans eager to weigh in on the subject and bemoan their absence. It also talked about the early days of exclusion of Blacks from opera, which did not end until eight years after Jackie Robinson broke the Major League Baseball color line.
But in an area like classical music, the problem goes beyond barriers and falls into the realm of access.
First of all, said Sandow, there is the reality that, in general, classical music is not something that the larger African American community includes as part of its life. That makes it even more problematic to pull in Black males.
Then there is the reality of budget cuts and the devastating impact they have had on music in the schools.
Without his public elementary school, veteran trombonist Ranelin probably would not be where he is today musically.
“I got started in elementary school in Indianapolis, Ind. I played in the school orchestra; I started out and remained with the trombone,” says the L.A. resident who jokes that he didn’t choose the trombone, it chose him.
” … I wanted to play saxophone, but since every other kid in the school wanted to play sax, by the time they were issuing an instrument to me all that was left was the trombone.”
Although he played all through elementary and secondary school, Ranelin said it was not until age 19 that he decided that music would become his full-time career.
” … but there wasn’t a lot of work for trombone players in Indianapolis, especially Black trombone players. The White musicians had all the work, or at least the jobs that really paid any amount of money.”
So Ranelin left Indianapolis and ended up in Detroit, where he played in a diverse series of big bands–White, Italian, Salsa etc.
But there were not a lot of Blacks. “It wasn’t totally segregated, but everyone had their list that they worked from. If you were on the list, you were good to go,” said Ranelin, who pointed out that this was not necessarily deliberate exclusion of African Americans then. He notes that the same thing happens today. People have a list of folk they work with and quite often Blacks are not on those lists.
Classically trained jazz violinist Chris Woods finds himself on many of those lists today. The offspring of two classical musicians, Woods, 35, began playing violin at age 4 in South Carolina.
He went to New York’s Manhattan School of Music. His goal was to study classical music, but Woods got distracted along the way by the rhythms, challenges and possibilities of Jazz improvisation.
But at the same time, the young violinist made sure that he was capable of playing a wide variety of musical styles from Hip Hop to Jazz to Rock to Country.
He has also benefited from a resurgence of interest in including strings in bands.
“. . . It seems people have become more aware of the possibility of using string players. They have string sections; you hear about more of that.”
One of those string gigs is playing with the “American Idol” orchestra.
“I’ve been doing that the last three years, and it happened sort of by word of mouth. Someone recommended my sister, (Adrienne, a cellist), who recommended me,” said Woods.
What’s particularly unique about the “American Idol” job is that the contractor who hires the musicians, Ernie Fields Jr., is Black; the music director, Ray Chew, is Black and the former musical director, Rickey Minor, is Black.
Woods believes it’s hard to say whether racism still keeps Blacks out of the entertainment music arena. “I see a lot of my friends working; getting work on these kinds of things. I think at this point, if you are a really good musician and professional, you’ll get the work . . . a lot of the people hiring are African American. It depends on the actual gig, I would imagine.”
Woods does not feel that his skin color has made a difference, even when he plays in Country bands as a studio musician.
Vocalist Booker, who calls herself a Jazz activist and grew up around opera in New Orleans, absolutely sees racism still at work.
Booker started singing at age 2 and was accepted to the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts at age 14. The Crescent City native intended to study to be an opera singer, even though she, like Woods, was intrigued and challenged by Jazz and its improvisational nature.
“Why I call myself a Jazz activist is that I will say what other artists will not. Perhaps not as gracefully, but I am still willing to say what needs to be said, because at the end to be silent comes with a penalty,” asserts Booker.
And she has a lot to say. First, there is the fact that she feels that calling Jazz America’s music without ever acknowledging the reality that Jazz is music created by the American Negro, as she says, is a dangerous travesty.
” . . . if we are not willing to articulate this, we are failing to educate future generations, not only about the sound of Jazz but also the experience (it grew out of).”
There is also the limitations placed on the music, according to Booker.
“If you’re not doing Gershwin’s, nobody wants to hear it; if it’s not like Gerswhin’s bands sang it, then they don’t want to hear it. Where is the evolution? You are not letting the music grow.”
This limitation does not give emerging artists a chance, believes Booker, who also points out that there are a lack of venues to hear music like traditional or straight-ahead Jazz.
Radio stations, she said, limit what they play to so-called smooth Jazz and R & B-tinged Jazz that is evaluated by reviewers, who give little attention, if any to other styles.
The problem for Black music, says the New Orleans transplant, is that, “if you are going to be honest, there always has to be a White version of what is Black music that eventually erases the Black version.”
” . . . we no longer have a community where we are involved in creating music. We always need someone to tell us, when it is good enough.”
But Booker does not reserve her criticism for those who control various aspects of the music. She also faults the musicians themselves who go on club dates and accept lesser treatment; and she blames the musicians’ union for not stepping up to fight for its members by forcing club owners to do the right thing.
Los Angeles-born poet Daaood, who is noted for working with such entities as the Pan Afrikan Peoples Orchestra and Horace Tapscott, agrees with Booker about the nature of the challenge.
“It’s always been two things. It’s always been the music itself, and then there’s the business. Now, business for the most part is what dictates the music.
“People like what they hear, but if the music is not being played over the airwaves, where children coming up hear it, it’s alien to them,” adds Daaood, who described the music played on radios today as commercial and almost formulaic.
“I’m not saying people playing music today are not talented. I’m just saying that you basically have corporate enterprises that dictate what music is going to be exposed to people.”
And the music they are being exposed to, contends the wordsmith, is not what he calls the “creative music” that requires independent thinkers thinking contemplatively, and introspectively.
Daaood, who says he was culturally shaped by the 1960s, believes that while racism is part of the barriers Black musicians face, the real culprit is corporate interests.
“Corporate interests, if they think they can make money off them (musicians), they will. It’s not like they are trying to keep anybody from doing anything.
“I think there is a lot that creative artists can do, if you have the vision, energy and organization skills to do it. I don’t think we take advantage of that aspect, especially the technology,” Daaood pointed out.
And perhaps that is what needs to happen more. Artists need to take control of their own destiny, said Booker, and revert back to the promotional activities of yesteryear, where Black musical groups put on their community-based “back-yard events.” But now take it one step further, urges Daaood, by using the technology the way Hip Hop artists have begun to master and go directly to your potential listeners. This bypasses the cultural barriers. It bypasses the corporate myopia, and it bypasses the need for conformity and uniformity that keeps promoters and others looking for more of the same rather than the most creative.