Reclaiming heritage can cure jazz, community

March 30, 1995|By WILEY A. HALL

This is a story about the fall of jazz. Dr. Billy Taylor and I are sipping coffee in the lobby of the Watergate Hotel in Washington, a block from the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

Our coffee is served in fine china by a waiter wearing evening attire. We are surrounded by the gentle music of classical violins and by the genteel murmur of soft conversation.

Dr. Taylor, 73, is the Kennedy Center's artistic adviser for jazz. A pianist, composer and lecturer, he is one of the jazz world's most distinguished stars. He has a Ph.D in education from the University of Massachusetts. He also has jammed with the likes of Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie and Art Tatum at some of the country's hottest night clubs.

So, we sip our coffee, this jazz giant and I, near the seat of high culture in our nation's capital. The setting is appropriate, for jazz seems to have moved uptown; it has all but abandoned the smoke-filled clubs on the "chitlin' circuit" for the chandelier world of high society. Actually, aspects of this success concern Dr. Taylor. He tells me that African Americans have lost control of their music.

"Let me give you a concrete example," he says. "There are something on the order of 33,000 student jazz ensembles at schools across the country. I would say that at least 90 percent of those ensembles are white."

"Is this bad?" I ask.

"It doesn't bother me that other people appreciate the music," he answers. "In fact, jazz is an inclusive music. That's its power. Jazz invites people to take the language and shape it to their own expression. I argued in my doctoral thesis that jazz is America's classical music -- a controversial concept 20 years ago, but an idea, I am pleased to say, that has become part of the mainstream vernacular now.

"But what bothers me," continues Dr. Taylor, "is that although African Americans created this medium, and although we are responsible for most of the important elements in the jazz repertoire, most young blacks know nothing about it. It is part of their heritage but it is not part of their heritage, if you see the distinction. The older generation -- my generation -- has failed to pass on to the young a sense of their history, a sense of their place, of their pride."

Dr. Taylor says this failure of older musicians to leave a strong legacy for the young is partly responsible for some of the negative elements associated with hip hop music -- the profanity, the abusive attitude toward women and the glorification of violence, for example.

"Perhaps, if the young hip hop musicians and rappers were made familiar with the works of poets such as Langston Hughes and Paul Lawrence Dunbar, their own poetry would have a stronger sense of rhythm," says Dr. Taylor. "Perhaps knowing of the struggles of the musical giants who came before them would empower some of those youngsters to a greater sense of artistic integrity: You don't need to go for the easy rhyme; you don't need to settle for the cheap reaction by using profanity. You don't sell out your art or your community for the fast buck."

The phenomenon Dr. Taylor describes -- the failure to pass down a legacy of shared history and cultural pride -- is true across the board in the black community. One result is an unprecedented epidemic of despair, reflected in street violence and drug abuse.

"In the 1960s, everything seemed to fail at the same time in the black community," explains Dr. Taylor. "While we were fighting the civil rights fight, we were losing our young people. We stopped giving young people the historical perspective they need to survive in this society. The church didn't do it. Families didn't do it. Every element of the community has to share part of the blame. What happened in jazz and to jazz is just a symptom of a larger, more general breakdown."

"So what's the solution?" I ask.

"We have to rebuild that legacy, step by step and brick by brick," Dr. Taylor says firmly. "And although we can operate in the Kennedy Centers, we have to keep one foot in the community. We have to reach back and bring people to sit beside us."

He was speaking of rebuilding an African American audience for jazz. But he also was speaking of rebuilding on a scale much broader than that.

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