by Todd Stoll
A year ago, my second President’s letter addressed a topic I feel is vital to the future of our music and our country; diversity. Unlike my eleven other messages, it was met with a deafening silence; I received only two communications from colleagues in support of (or against) my position. Part of me imagined that this was due to the timing of said piece, it being summer and all, (insert eye roll here…) but I also know that we are uncomfortable discussing issues of race, gender, and equality and in many instances, “we” are very defensive regarding our own positions and behavior.
My friends, the time has come. We are the JAZZ community. Our music was born of the best parts of our nation and the ideals represented by our democracy. Isn’t this issue important enough for us as band leaders, educators, artists, and promoters to address in a much more profound manner? Our nation is at a major point of reflection-and I soon believe we will come to terms with our dark history of slavery, sexism, and inequality on many levels. Our country needs jazz-and its lessons of individual excellence, shared sacrifice, and opportunity. Jazz’s contributions to the American Mythology; stories of triumph in the face of extreme adversity inspire us all to aspire to the best versions of ourselves.
With that said, I am reprinting the bulk of the original piece below.
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 he 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) this may be difficult to assess. However, having done all of these, 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 many times, 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.