Thursday, June 07, 2007

That Age-Old Issue

In 1936 jazz led the way, as Benny Goodman’s racially integrated quartet broke the color line with Lionel Hampton on vibes and Teddy Wilson on piano. Even today it is really the only form of music where you can see racially mixed groups on a regular basis. Yet issues of race persist. The latest controversy being a ten-year anniversary CD released by the Oakland jazz club Yoshi’s, which did not include any African American artists. Feelings of ill will were compounded by what many argue to be an under-representation of African American musicians at a local jazz festival. The SF Chronicle reports:

"'It is like going to a Chinese restaurant and there are no Chinese people,’ said Howard Wiley, a local saxophonist. ‘It is very disheartening and sad, especially from Yoshi's, which calls itself the premiere jazz venue of the Bay Area.

‘I mean, we are dealing with jazz and blues, not Hungarian folk music or the invention of computer programs.’’

Yoshi’s offered a response:

“Peter Williams, Yoshi's artistic director, said the exclusion was an oversight and that the club does not have the right to record all the performers that appear there.

‘We apologize to anyone who feels slighted by the omission of African American artists on this project, as that was never our intention,’ he wrote in an e-mail to concerned supporters. ‘This compilation CD was meant to celebrate a milestone for us in the Bay Area and not necessarily meant to be a representation of all the artists and music styles ever played at our club.’”

It is folly to deny the African American roots of jazz, so it is perfectly understandable how the CD’s line-up could trouble people. However, had the disk only included selections by Marion McPartland and Joe Pass, would many serious jazz listeners complain?

In this case the inclusion of lesser artists and the exclusion of local Bay Area talent seem to be as much a part of the problem. So many great musicians have played the club. No disrespect intended, but are Joey DeFrancesco and Robben Ford really on a par with McPartland and Pass? Eddie Gale is a great trumpeter from San Jose who has played the club, and will play Vision Fest in New York on June 23rd. He would have been a perfect artist to include (and not that it should matter, but he is African American). Choosing the line-up for such a project is always a delicate balance, but including more local talent that could benefit from the exposure might have helped.