IN THE SPIRIT OF SWING
by Todd Stoll
Scrolling through my Facebook feed, dodging political posts (nearly impossible these days…) I am inspired and heartened by the number of gigs, especially big band gigs, my “friends” are playing (FB “friends” being a fluid definition). It appears that there are active big bands in nearly every corner of our fine nation, playing concerts, clubs, bars, dances, wedding receptions and all manner of public and private events. And the music? Wow. We have never lived in a time of greater access to amazing literature. From Benny Carter’s entire “Kansas City Suite” to Ellington’s masterpiece “Black Brown and Beige” to Kenton’s “Cuban Fire,” there is almost unmatched availability of the very finest and most evocative art in the canon of our music.
And the original music? Nearly every day I see a former student, friend, or colleague putting up a notice about a new composition “in concert.” They are playing all over the world, not just down the street at the local high school. And this original music is not only informed, but created using the highest-tech notation and software programs available; it is then printed on heavy gauge, durable, easily read paper that reflects just the right amount of light. No more handwritten, “Is that a dot or a quarter note?” masking taped, mimeographed, sad, thin paper copies. It is a golden age for jazz and big bands? Perhaps not financially, but aesthetically, technically, and by all measurable aspects, musically…yes!
Or is it? In a recent post by a young man I admire, he shared multiple pictures of his band, located in a large to mid-sized northeastern city. The images showed his 16-piece band, in the act of swinging in front of an appreciative audience. For all intents and purposes, it appeared to be a successful evening that paid tribute to his jazz heroes and included some original music. As I looked at the pictures, and remembered my own youthful (and somewhat fumbling) attempts at band leading, I was struck by something — there wasn’t one single band member of color. It was a little jarring for me. This young person leading the band was a great musician who is dedicated to our music in a real and tangible way. He spends countless hours working with urban schools and managing programs for kids without access to quality music education. In other words, he was an advocate for integration in music education. So in his professional environment, why was the opposite his reality?
Now, honestly, unless one has been a band leader in this situation which requires actively calling folks to rehearse (for no money), practice some difficult music (for no money) and perform in pubic (for little money) it may be difficult to assess this. However, having done this, I believe I understand the complicated intersection of gigging musicians, audience communities, and race. And while I believe that many of us, if not all, understand the importance of integration broadly, it is obvious to me (ironically via Facebook) that scores of “us” — informed, educated, progressive thinking, jazz people — are literally segregating the art form. These are strong words, and I believe they should be. WE are segregating the art form of jazz, which is arguably the most integrated art form in history.
Now, while the “why” of this longer, more nuanced conversation and probably best managed by those with advanced degrees in subjects other than music, it appears to me to be partially a case of the classic high school lunch room. One walks into a high school lunch room, and generally sees kids segregating themselves by various groups — athletes, honors students, band members, various social and academic groups, and sometimes by race. Test my theory. Walk into your institutions lunchroom and look around. Of course, we all have the freedom to choose with whom we spend time, but when we are performing in a professional, public jazz setting, (and many times in front of those very kids) we have a moral, social, and spiritual imperative to integrate.
To that end, I make a plea for a call to action by all of “us,” the jazz community of educators, performers, and advocates. Can we try to have integrated bands? By race and gender? This battle was fought and won on bandstands throughout America all through the 1930s, 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s. Our musical elders many times risked their lives for this music, and the courageous ones on all sides found ways to play together, not apart. For our music to be great, to be triumphant, to rise above itself, and transcend the struggles of our existence, we must heed its call for us to be together. The awareness, generosity, and creative energy that makes our music swing, creates that feeling that draws people in and lifts them up is the same spirit that calls for integration. We are all better when we are integrated. The triumph of our music, and our nation, is integration. Let us rise to the level of the art form we support, embody the spirit of the music we serve, and in these particular times, come together.
Todd Stoll has spent nearly thirty years as an educator, performer and leading advocate for jazz. He currently serves as Vice President of Education for Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City where he oversees programs that reach more than 200,000 people each year. His leadership at JALC has revived the institutions commitment to the underserved while embracing 21st century technology as a means for greater access to the music. Since his tenure began in 2011, the education department at JALC produced nearly 20,000 individual events both in its home at Fredrick P Rose Hall, throughout the US, and abroad.