Black Music 2012 - "Stretch Your Ears And Your Mind"
May 30, 2012
As we begin the celebration of Black Music Month 2012, it is no surprise that despite the musical vapidness of public support for what is being called “vintage soul and true jazz,” students of our nation's black studies programs are becoming knowledgeable music consumers. The growth of digital and online delivery of music, myriad portable and wireless devices capable of delivering media on demand in any location has spread our music around the world. Now, it’s time to stretch our ears and our minds. African-American music, the foundation for all of America's popular music, is an art worthy of study and appreciation alongside any other tradition. We need more from the music industry than just the adolescent-driven flavors of the day. We need to stretch our ears and our minds.
Surely there must be a place in today's black music market for its veteran jazz and blues innovators. Just as the Top 40 and Rock worlds have continued to make a place for their top pop superstars, including those with deep roots in the blues and black music, we must also recognize and keep alive the spirit of those who create black music. The jazz and blues we’re speaking about here isn’t just the same music we’ve been hearing death knells for the past few years. In most cases, it’s the music created by a younger cast of characters, not longtime jazz musicians. It relies on arrangement and studio production, the benchmarks of pop song craft, more than the spontaneous improvisation that is the soul of jazz and blues. It doesn’t ring with the same tradition of interaction that Charlie Parker’s does. It doesn’t speak with the emotional commitment of the individual the way BB King or John Coltrane’s music does.
Unfortunately, the losers in this recent trend are the true jazz and blues players, too often left unemployed and unheard. Also losers are the general public, which settles for the bland music within easy reach while leaving the rich motherlode of true jazz and blues unexplored. Jazz today is what the record companies and promo people say it is, and they’re not necessarily talking about the improvisation-based music that has been evolving since the turn-of-the century from New Orleans and Mississippi.
The problem with today’s music is not the music itself. There’s good and bad, just like everything else. It’s the labeling. It’s gotten so that any track with a saxophone on it that isn’t David Sanborn is automatically a jazz song.Â They may be funky. They may contain a hint of improvisation, but for the most part, though these pop/jazz and blues songs sound terrific and are technically and musically well made, the message they carry are often empty and sugar-coated, devoid of the emotion that comes from true jazz and blues.
This music is a marketing victory, not a musical one. It’s only a matter of time before this audience, sick from the never-ending flow of the same-tasting wine coolers, wakes from its slumber to savor the real thing. While we've gotten some things right, we've certainly allowed others to go terribly wrong. During the next four weeks, as we celebrate Black Music Month, we will examine the latest findings and share with you some of the reasons we say not only are all men not created equal, they are not connected equally either.
The origins of the entertainment culture can be traced back to the phonograph record and the radio, both of which made possible for the first time the development of a genuinely mass culture. But until very recently, entertainment was a luxury in which we could indulge upon only on occasion. Now it is a daily reality, perhaps a necessity and certainly, in the minds of many of us, an entitlement.
During the next four weeks we will continue in our proud tradition of recognition by combining some stories with those whose dreams have been affected by consolidation, downsizing, unemployment, accidents, illness, poverty and misunderstanding.
We know the clock is ticking. During Black Music Month 2012, we will continue to touch on and recognize some distinguished people and events -- from all sides of our industries. Some of those who we want to recognize this month are people whose efforts and contributions have enriched lives and whose sacrifices might have gone not unnoticed, but unheralded.
From Duke Ellington to Stevie Wonder. From Dinah Washington to Mary J Blige. From Lena Horn to Jill Scott. From Quincy Jones to Ricky Minor. From Sarah Vaughn to Mary J Blige â€¦ their contributions represent every type of music, R&B, hip-hop, jazz, film and television scores, gospel, neo-soul and smooth jazz -- the entire musical spectrum.
There is a chance that our generation may reclaim its earlier legacy. They could have a second coming in terms of social idealism and finding new ways to contribute that mean something beyond themselves. In some realms this new generation already takes pride in what they have bequeathed. Women, for example, are breaking into many male-dominated fields on a broad new scale providing expanded options for those who follow.
This generation didn't invent the genre, but they were the fans and the participants that made it so durable. Even as music remains youth-oriented, today's young music online purchasers couldn't escape the feeling that they wanted something more. They now have to admit that both the performers and the times have changed. The explosion of energy that began in the ‘00s is just a memory
Although there has been some progress made, even since this time last year we still live in a time and country where many continue to be deliberately isolated, racially classified and often systematically deprived, of both the resources and the opportunities to succeed. For too long and despite our obvious talent and gifts, we have been allowed to only assume severely limited roles in our industries.
Black Music Month allows us to reflect upon the rich history of our music and culture. Accumulated experiences and sharing of these histories is what Black Music Month is really about. They define our opportunities. We believe that by recognizing those people, events and opportunities, we may encourage dignity for what our music pioneers accomplished. And perhaps most importantly, we hope to inspire tomorrow's music leaders with the idea that integrity still matters and family values still. It is our feeling that our industries may be on the verge of a new era -- one that is faster, funkier and filled with bold challenges.
Despite the economy and other obstacles, the future looks bright. That's part of the new reality of June -- Black Music Month 2012. Because of the popularity of our music, Urban and Urban AC radio are enjoying their finest hours. As a result we have had a tremendous impact and influence on not only music, but also fashion, movies â€¦ even language and ideas.
Getting In Step With Change
Because of that impact and influence, particularly on our youth, we have an obligation to get in step. Getting in step doesn't mean getting rid of the music sweeps, formats and research that have been part of our success. Rather, it means changing our show prep to include some brief information bits that may just spark the interest of some to change. This year is an important election year and we need to encourage all of our listeners, young and old, to stay up on the issues that affect them and then turn out and vote.
Getting in step also means that those who are in charge must begin paying more attention to our public affairs shows, many of which still run on the weekends, especially early Sunday morning. It means a mention of our musical history that reflects our achievements, not only to preserve the legacy of hundreds of years of struggle, but also to provide a bridge across adversity to a better life.
While we as African-Americans remain an often underrepresented segment within the mainstream, Urban radio and its music have come to mean more than ever before. There are always some who are out front. There have been stations that have become leaders in many cities and hopefully, there will be even more as markets with smaller minority populations discover the influence our stations still have in our communities. All of this serves to prove that we really don't need quotas to succeed â€¦ just opportunity.
There are still opportunities for us to refinance the future and redistribute the wealth and the knowledge. But the only way for us to do this is through change. Change in attitude and change in responsibility. We as African-American communicators must become more aware and more committed to the use of our skills and talents for a purpose greater than ourselves. We must be ready and willing to take full advantage of some earlier lessons learned in the last decade. We must develop an ear of responsibility -- one that owes a great deal to the lessons learned in the era of excess.
The past decade produced uneven black economic development, but also provided several lessons. For one thing, human capital investment pays off in higher earnings. And second, income and employment gains alone do not produce economic equality. And finally, even in a crucial and divided economy, we are all connected.
When we forget that we are all connected, we are capable of the unspeakable. Now would be a good time to wake up to our connections. In order to survive a divided nation and turbulent times, we must remember the music, the message and the messengers. For those of us in black radio, we are the new messengers. Although the method of communicating the message has changed, the obligation is the same. History shows that everything in the music business is cyclical. Black music will always have a place. It’s time to stretch our ears and our minds.
(Next Week Part II)