Tuesday, April 7, 2020
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Blue Note Records: A Jazz Retrospective

The drummer counts us off. On four, we hear the bouncing beat of the stand-up bass followed by the swelling croon of two saxophones, one alto and one tenor. The piano then streams in, fingers gliding over the keys like raindrops on a car window. Suddenly, the tap of the high hat, redirecting our ears back to the drummer, who plays combination style, one stick in his right hand erect while the one in his left is ladled to the side almost like a chopstick. Together, each piece finds its proper place in this sonic quilt. This music of improvisation, of passion, of resistance.

This music called jazz.

Irvine Barclay Theatre hosted “JazzReach: Poppin’ — The Story of Blue Note Records” last Friday, a retrospective, multi-media performance to historicize the legendary jazz record label.

New York’s Metta Quintet provided the music for the night, playing classic pieces from Blue Note artists such as drummer Art Blakey and saxophonist Joe Henderson. Intercutting with the songs, our MC for the night enthusiastically relayed the history for us. He explained how Blue Note came together under men who are now referred to as the “Four Pillars:” Max Margulis, Alfred Lion, Francis Wolff and Reid Miles. Margulis and Lion put in the initial financial and conceptual backing while Wolff and Miles added the visuals to the sounds. Wolff took most of the now iconic photographs of musicians in the recording studio and Miles designed poppin’ album artwork.
While I loved that the program offered a night of education and entertainment, I was a little disappointed to learn that one of the most influential platforms for popular Black art in the twentieth century could owe its origins to four white men. Although, I can’t say I’m not too surprised. White managers and label owners dominate the hip hop industry today, so of course the story goes that white people create spaces to profit from blackness.

The real question I have then, is how do white people fit in Black spaces? Not in realms of appropriation or exploitation, of course, but also not in artistic segregation or ignorance. Listening to rap doesn’t make you less racist but purposefully avoiding to participate in Black art doesn’t help either. Oftentimes, white people feel uncomfortable as audiences of Black creativity: they think that since it is not for them, since they cannot relate, then they cannot participate at all in the conversation. But Black art needs white audiences — they need informed white audiences.

White ears need to listen and white eyes need to see.

I also kept thinking about “La La Land” while watching the JazzReach show. Admittedly, I haven’t actually seen the movie. However, from what I’ve pieced together through interviews, reviews and conversations with friends who have seen it, the takeaway from the movie is a celebration not of nostalgia, but of amnesia.

For white people, escaping to the 1940s Old Hollywood musical glamour is recognizably enticing. But do Black people want to return to the 1940s? Or even further, is the world that much different for Black people now compared to then? “La La Land” whitewashes history, erasing the very context that sparked the necessity for jazz. Jazz was the music of Black struggle in the United States. Ryan Gosling cannot bring jazz back to life as part of an industry that helped kill it in the first place.

With that all in mind, the JazzReach program was a prime example of how Black art and white listeners can and should intermingle. There was information, a bit surface-level yes, but still better than a night devoid of history. I hope that the audience, most of them white, walked away that night inspired to learn more. Learning as much as possible about how and why Black art exists is the most effective way for all non-Black audiences to find their place in the crowd.