PN Unscripted - Billy Taylor Farewell

Here's a segment that ran as a farewell tribute to Billy Taylor this past Sunday as I was filling in for Ed Blanco's Jazz Cafe on 88.9 WDNA.  This "audio essay" runs about half an hour, and includes both words and music from the late, great pianist and educator.

Billy Taylor Farewell on Feedburner
Billy Taylor Farewell on iTunes

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Listener's Notes - Alligator Records is 40 Years Old

If you've got more than a handful blues albums in your collection, you've probably got some records from Alligator in the mix.  My brother Jon and I have purchased a lot of blues albums, so we know the Alligator label well.  Started in 1971 by Bruce Iglauer as a means to promote his beloved Hound Dog Taylor, Alligator is without a doubt the top blues label in the world.  Koko Taylor, the Living Chicago Blues series, Lonnie Brooks, Albert Collins, Clifton Chenier, Johnny Winter, Lonnie Mack, Roy Buchanan -- and on and on it goes.  By the 1990s, when my brother and I really started getting much deeper into the blues, it seemed that everyone was on Alligator.  Very little has changed, save for the size of the Alligator catalog and the prestige of recording for the label.  Happy 40th anniversary to the folks at Alligator.

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Viewer's Notes - Wynton Marsalis on '60 Minutes' - The King of Jazz?

     The profile of Wynton Marsalis on 60 Minutes has stirred up a small amount of controversy – or could it be called resentment? – for a few people in the jazz community.  On the jazz programmer’s mailing list that I subscribe to, one person writes, “It's really time for us to say it's a better thing for the artist being featured. It does little or nothing for other jazz artists out here trying to make it to get exposure for their work and opinions; consequently, [a profile like this is] not doing much to help jazz in general. I'm not blaming Wynton, but [the story is] so one-dimensional now, it's silly. It's time the mainstream media recognizes there are more creative, articulate and informative jazz artists out here who can play, teach and deliver a message that brings a fresh perspective to the masses.”
     While I would go along with everything stated above, it’s important to point out that a profile on 60 Minutes, to a great extent, is a profile on a mainstream show begun in 1968 on a mainstream broadcast network that’s been in existence (in one form or another) since 1927 and whose content is produced by journalists who are, well experienced.  Morley Safer, the reporter on the Marsalis story, is almost 80 years old.  There’s going to be a certain cultural reserve coming from any program with that pedigree.  You’re going to get the usual watered down Edward R. Murrow, Person to Person feel to things.  In short, what do you expect?

     It's an easy story to put together.  Pick one of the most prominent jazz artists of the past 30 years who helps run the cultural juggernaut that Jazz at Lincoln Center has become -- with an annual operating budget in excess of $40 million -- in New York, where 60 Minutes is produced.  Hell, the two institutions are literally a 15 minute walk from one another.  And, with the tendency in mainstream journalism -- particularly broadcast journalism -- to have a human interest angle on most stories, Marsalis is your lead and your story.  The other guys in the should feel good about getting some time on screen and some substantial quotes for themselves.

     I would argue, however, that to go through the usual heroification of Marsalis as the spokesperson for jazz and goes right back to those early days when the mainstream labeled Paul Whiteman as "The King of Jazz."  While Marsalis is a gifted virtuoso on the trumpet, a fine composer, and a canny entrepreneur, critics are correct in pointing out that Marsalis is not the face of jazz -- not with the recent death of Dr. Billy Taylor -- not ever.  From where I sit, Marsalis (but not necessarily JALC) looks a bit too much to the past, as if Miles never went electric.  And the whole neo-primitive riff in the 60 Minutes piece had too much of the aroma of the Cotton Club about it, as Marsalis seemed to lean into the stereotype of sexual, sensual primitivism: "The more refined your concept, the more primitive you have to be."  Marsalis may be a genius and know what he means, but mainstream America likely missed the point.  The pairing of New Orleans and Havana as "sultry" and "exotic" sister cities, complete with shots of dancing girls, didn't help matters. Furthermore, the presentation of Marsalis as "America's Musical Ambassador" likewise ignores too many people. Back during the Cold War, jazz was a carefully deployed cultural force by the US State Department -- read Satchmo Blows Up the World or listen to Dave Brubeck's The Real Ambassadors. These days, I'd be curious to know who's paying for those overseas JALC gigs.

     Maybe Stanley Crouch, one of Wynton's brothers-in-arms, got it right when he wrote recently about a crisis in black culture made all the more evident by the passing of Billy Taylor.  Who will articulate what the music means to the culture, and, in doing so, make the argument for the importance of culture in general?  Indeed, as Marsalis says to Morley Safer-- on most solid ground -- the state of cultural education in the US is shameful.  There is something good for the mind and the soul -- and for us all -- in learning about our own culture, whether it's Duke Ellington or Walt Whitman. We would make much better decisions as a society, argues Marsalis, if we knew our cultural history better.

     If anything comes of the usual mainstream heroification of "The Spokesperson for X," it would be that other voices would feel compelled join in the mix, that those in jazz and in other areas of the arts who have differing perspectives would step up and add their interpretation of the tune.  While I will fault 60 Minutes for falling into the same old jazz and cultural cliches, I'm not going to fault Marsalis for being himself.  If a man stands up and calls the tune, so be it. 

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Playlist - Guest Host on Jazz Cafe

Song, Artist, Album

Freedom Jazz Dance, Miles Davis Quintet, Miles Smiles
A Shine On Your Shoes, Jane Monheit, Home
The Witching Hour, Russell Malone, Triple Play
Take Out Queen, Wendy Pederson, Miami Jazz Co-op
Groovin High, Billy Taylor, from The Subject is Jazz
Show Me, Billy Taylor, My Fair Lady Covers Jazz
Looking Up, Billy Taylor, It's A Matter of Pride
Four, Billy Taylor, from Jazz and The Young Performer
Welcome Back, Jared Gold, Supersonic
Black Coffee, Gwilym Simcock, Blues Vignette
Basehead, Corey Harris, Greens From The Garden
Hootie Blues, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, American Music - Texas Style
Super American, The Bad Plus, Never Stop
Blue Rondo A La Raad, Glen Ackerman, The Glenious Inner Planet
Swiss Cheese D, Ben Allison and Medicine Wheel, Riding the Nuclear Tiger
Just Three, Negroni's Trio, Just Three
Peripheral Fission, Suresh Singaratnam, Lost in New York

Thanks to Bret Primrack -- AKA Jazz Video Guy -- for uploading the content that became Billy Taylor's "narrative" over his tribute set.

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