by Bettina Covo and Todd Bryant Weeks
All photos by Walter Karling
MUSIC: it’s the universal language that has the ability to transcend boundaries, unite cultures and elevate the soul. In its purest sense, music does not discriminate or judge – it simply is. And yet there is still often conflict and discrimination within the music community when it comes to issues of race, gender, age and politics.
On Feb. 13 the Jazz Mentors series, sponsored by the Council for Living Music, tackled the subject of “Social Justice, Diversity and Entrepreneurship in Jazz.” The event showcased the wisdom and experience of four prominent performers: Lakecia Benjamin, Michael Leonhart, Ulysses Owens Jr., and Rudresh Mahanthappa. Jazz Mentors 8 provided another solid opportunity for jazz artists young and old to come together around key issues that affect their careers.
Moderated by Jazz Rep Todd Weeks, this diverse group of artists attracted an equally diverse audience as they discussed a variety of topics ranging from hiring practices to race and gender identification and discrimination within the jazz scene, to meaningful ways for musicians to openly express their views in the current political climate.
Saxophonist and composer Rudresh Mahanthappa is known today for his unique blend of music and multi-cultural traditions and styles, cultivating progressive jazz and south Indian classical music. He has received many accolades, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, as well as being named the Alto Saxophonist of the Year four of the past five years in Downbeat’s International Critics Polls.
Mahanthappa began the discussion about his experience of the “prejudice of exoticism.” As an East Indian/American who began his career as a blues player, he is still sometimes dogged by the question, “Why aren’t you a sitar or tabla player?” Speaking about his early years as a musician, Mahanthappa recalled his college experience. “It wasn’t until college that I saw there was a huge black and white community of musicians and I was neither. I faced discrimination from all sides.”
Lakecia Benjamin, saxophonist and bandleader, has shared the stage with some of the most prominent artists in the world today, including Stevie Wonder, Alicia Keys, The Roots, Macy Gray and many more. A native-born New Yorker from Washington Heights, Benjamin was refreshingly direct in her assessment of the scene.
For Benjamin, education and economics continue to play a decisive role in shaping young musicians. She explained it very simply: “It’s about exposing kids to live music and providing access to a solid musical education. Without funding, it’s hard for many kids from lower income families to have that access. I will often teach kids for free if they can’t afford it. I want to share and give back as much as possible. But this needs to change.”
Creative drive and the need to be heard were themes shared by all the artists. Trumpeter-songwriter-arranger-producer Michael Leonhart, who has performed and recorded with some of the most important ensembles and musicians in the world (including Steely Dan, James Brown, Ringo Starr and Brian Eno) spoke about the importance of diversity as a necessary component in any jazz musician’s approach to their art. “When I was a kid,” said Leonhart, “My sister sang in a gospel choir and she was the only white girl in the ensemble. She loved the music and loved being a part of the group.” That early life lesson left an indelible mark and encouraged Leonhart to pursue a “color blind” approach to his work in a career where he has engaged with musicians from multiple genres.
Grammy winner Ulysses Owens Jr. has become one of New York City’s premier drummers, and has established himself as a leader of today’s jazz generation. Known for his fiery, textural and complex style, Owens has performed and recorded as a member of the Christian McBride Trio, and worked alongside Wynton Marsalis, Mulgrew Miller, Joey Alexander, Renee Fleming, and many others.
As a teacher at the Juilliard Jazz Department, Owens readily admitted that the jazz program there has failed to attract as diverse a student population as is the goal, despite the school’s highly diverse faculty. He echoed the sentiment that education is, sadly, often made available only to those who can afford it, which begs the question: How can we cross the economic barrier and allow music education to be more accessible to all?
Owens spoke passionately about identifying as an artist, but also as a person of color. “Everything I do comes from being a black man. But it’s the music that makes the real statement. We need to acknowledge the line that’s been drawn in the sand and then transcend it.” He continued, “In order to accomplish that, you have to be on the front lines. Remember, a single song can make a powerful statement.”
During the Q&A portion of the event, an audience member stated: “Jazz is the ultimate symbol of democracy.” All music is about collaboration, a give and take where egos must be placed to the side in order to communicate, integrate and create. Leonhart agreed: “The truth is we need more patience and listening. We always do it in music. Let’s learn to do it in our everyday lives.”
Owens reminded us it’s important to ask the question: “How can we work together to find a commonality? We often realize, at the core of any issue, that we essentially want the same things. In music, even if you don’t like the person playing next to you, it’s always comes down to expression through the music. That’s what unites us. Our power is with our art!”
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