By Daniel Garrett
“Canonization is the process by which a person, a work (or oeuvre), or a form is assessed by institutional elites and experts as of high value, value so high that the person, the work, or the form will be remembered and studied over long periods of time. Canons are yardsticks of value used especially in academia,” wrote Gregory V. Thomas, writer and critic, in an essay—“The Canonization of Jazz and Afro-American Literature”—that appeared in the journal Callaloo (Callaloo 25.1, Winter 2002; pages 288-308) and is still accessible via the Muse.jhu.edu web site. Artistic and intellectual works and their makers that are firmly established are enjoyed and resented, explicated and misunderstood, by diverse populations—young and old, native and foreign, of both genders, of various ethnicities and religions. We see those canonized works and figures as models of meaning, as belonging to an order to which attention and respect must be paid; and, often, part of the payment is a certain amount of imitation. What is at stake? Value and freedom: what is valuable and what is allowed? The critical function—exploring and evaluating work—is a fundamental part of the canonization process; and it begins with each comment made about the significance of a work, an artist, a thinker. As Greg Thomas wrote in his essay on canonization, “Although canons change, the very process of delineating the fundamentals of a form, and the individuals and works that drive a form’s development, solidifies for lay people, critics, scholars, and practitioners of the form, who’s who and what’s what.” Greg Thomas’s essay on canonization focuses on the work of Wynton Marsalis in African-American improvisational music (jazz) and Henry Louis Gates Jr. in African-American literary studies. Greg Thomas is an astute celebrator and critic of African-American culture, especially of jazz. Others—such as Gwendolyn Midlo Hall in Africans in Colonial Louisiana: The Development of Afro-Creole Culture in the Eighteenth Century (Louisiana State University Press, 1995), William Pollitzer in The Gullah People and Their African Heritage (University of Georgia Press, 1999), and editor Jacob Gordon with The African Presence in Black America (Africa World Press, 2004)—have focused on African cultural habits and values that long survived in America; and, as much has been written regarding the lives, artistry, and politics of the descendants in America of enslaved Africans and free blacks, that is of African-Americans, many of whom had and have complexions more diverse than the word black would indicate, most of what is written now about African-Americans is little more than a footnote: and those who add something comprehensive or new to public knowledge must be commended. Greg Thomas’s essay on canonization in jazz and literature respects both aesthetics and the context in which art is created and valued; and the essay is a fine piece of critical commentary, clear, reasoned, sure; and it identifies Marsalis and Gates as cultural heroes—not simply in light of their good intentions but in light of their genuine achievements—while also paying attention to some of the controversies surrounding some of their choices. Greg Thomas, who received a newspaper award in the critique and review category from the New York Association of Black Journalists in 1995, has done recently a series of radio programs on jazz for New York’s listener-sponsored, progressive broadcast station WBAI at 99.5 on the FM dial (the work that recently brought him to my attention); and he hosts an internet television program, “Jazz It Up!”; and he is a writer for the online and print publication All About Jazz. Greg Thomas seems a good choice, a very intelligent person, with whom to discuss critical practices and ideas: consequently, in July 2007, I sent to Thomas a list of questions via electronic mail and looked forward to his responses: responses I received in two weeks, and which discuss new and classic jazz and popular recordings; the distinctions to be made regarding fine art, pop art, and folk art; the nature of the critical impulse and the importance of critical standards to canon-making; the work of black intellectuals, and the importance of Albert Murray and Ralph Ellison (and Arnold Rampersad’s questionable biography of Ellison); the requirements of mature manhood; keys to flexibility; generational imperatives and icons; and high points in human history.
Daniel, Compulsive Reader: I have been listening, either briefly or at length, to music coming from different directions in recent weeks and months, including Joshua Redman (Back East) and Lucinda Williams (West), as well as Modest Mouse (We Were Dead…), Bloc Party (A Weekend in the City), Bebo Valdés (Bebo), Streisand (Live in Concert 2006), Arctic Monkeys (Favorite Worst Nightmare), Eric Bibb (Diamond Days), Elliott Smith (New Moon), Randy Crawford and Joe Sample (Feeling Good), the Dears (Gang of Losers), Skye (Mind How You Go), Leela James (A Change Is Gonna Come) and Lizz Wright (Dreaming Wide Awake). There is a lot of music out in the world. Are there new recordings that have impressed you recently? (If so, which ones; and why?)
Greg, Jazz It Up: Yes. I recently reviewed vibraphonist Terry Gibbs’s latest recording, Findin’ the Groove for All About Jazz-New York. It features the great Hubert Laws on flute, swingin’ hard. It’s a great CD. There’s also Kenny Garrett’s Beyond the Wall, Sonny Rollins’s Sonny, Please, Wynton Marsalis’s From the Plantation to the Penitentiary and Michael Brecker’s very last recording, Pilgrimage. These recordings are very different, but they share a life force, a vigor, that appeals to me. Generally speaking, I’m most impressed when technical prowess suffuses profound emotional content. These all have such qualities. I like percussionist Joe Chambers’s The Outlaw, and baritone saxophonist Gary Smulyan’s Hidden Treasures, which features drummer Billy Drummond and bassist Christian McBride, the best of his generation of bass players (he’s actually one of the best of any generation). Among male jazz singers today, I dig Grady Tate (From the Heart), Tom Lellis (Avenue of the Americas), and among the ladies, favor Dianne Reeves and Lizz Wright. Most of the new recordings I listen to are within the jazz idiom, my passion. But frankly I’ve been listening to a lot of jazz at the Pandora.com site too. You can create an online radio channel with any artist or even a song, and hear music in that musical vein. I’ve discovered many recordings and artists there that I wasn’t aware of.
Daniel, Compulsive Reader: Which older recordings do you find yourself returning to?
Greg, Jazz It Up: Classics such as Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, Cannonball Adderley’s Somethin’ Else, Duke Ellington’s Jazz Party and The Ellington Suites, John Coltrane’s Blue Train, anything by Clifford Brown, Sarah Vaughan’s Swingin’ Easy, Louis Armstrong Meets Oscar Peterson, Ben Webster and Harry Edison’s Ben and Sweets, Charlie Parker’s Confirmation: The Best of the Verve Years, Dexter Gordon’s Sophisticated Giant, a compilation titled Spotlight on Nancy Wilson, Jon Hendricks’s Freddie Freeloader, and Clark Terry’s Squeeze Me. I’m also partial to more recent recordings such as Nicholas Payton’s Payton’s Place, Mulgrew Miller’s Hand in Hand, Dianne Reeves’s The Grand Encounter, George Benson’s Tenderly, and Pete Christlieb and Warne Marsh’s Apogee, which blew my mind when I was in college. And when it’s time for that lovin’ feelin’, I play music by one or more of the following artists: Luther Vandross, Jon Lucien, Joe, Duke Ellington’s Ellington Indigos, Fourplay’s Between the Sheets, a Ben Webster compilation, Dreamsville, Sarah Vaughan singing ballads, or turn on the television to one of Music Choice’s R&B stations.
Daniel, Compulsive Reader: In a piece you wrote for the jazz publication All About Jazz (October 19, 2006), you acknowledge that people have asked whether Louis Armstrong was first an artist or an entertainer. You note that evoking happiness was a goal for Armstrong, and that he transcended such supposed dichotomies (as between art and entertainment). Do you think it’s possible for an artist to sustain a career without being entertaining?
Greg, Jazz It Up: While it may be possible, it’s highly unlikely that performing artists can achieve and maintain a successful career without being entertaining, which presumes that an audience likes an artist, is drawn to him or her, and can be transported, if only briefly, into a place that takes them away from the cares and concerns of everyday living. But entertainment can be more than just a diversion; at the higher levels art that entertains can provide soul sustenance and even inspiration to carry on and achieve, in spite of the many obstacles we all face.
Daniel, Compulsive Reader: I am interested in work that offers a vision of a modern, complex society, work that offers a perspective that is rich, and less concerned with whether that work is considered high art or low art, as long as the work offers imagination, intelligence, pleasure, and sympathy, qualities that one has to discern for one’s self—these qualities cannot be assumed just because a work uses a certain form, imagery, or rhetoric. We have to pay careful attention to the details and to the spirit of a work. I expect art to acknowledge and accept human depth and human diversity, and to facilitate understanding rather than discourage it. Do you think that the division between high art and low art is still relevant; and is so, why so; and if not, why not?
Greg, Jazz It Up: I don’t use the phrases “high art” and “low art.” Fine art, pop art, and folk art have more utility as academic, pedagogical distinctions among various genres and levels within an art form. But it’s inaccurate to think of these analytical frameworks as totally separate. Each feeds into the other, and we usually start with the most basic—the folk level, for instance the blues. Popular connotes widespread reception by the public, and, last, the fine art level is produced by masters of an idiom, who, to paraphrase Albert Murray, extend, elaborate and refine the folk and pop levels into masterpieces. Here are two examples of fine art musical masterpieces: one, Whitney Houston’s fantastic version of the “Star Spangled Banner” at the 1991 Super Bowl during the Persian Gulf War, and Donny Hathaway’s interpretation of “For All We Know” from Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway. I’m moved every time I hear these. I mention these two examples outside of the realm of jazz—which is a fine art—to indicate that masterpieces can be found in other musical genres too.
Daniel, Compulsive Reader: In your essay on canonization, published by Callaloo (2002), in which you discuss jazz and literature, you state, “The dangers of canon making are clear. First, trying to be too many things to too many people, thus not being enough to anyone. Second, the determination of who’s in and out of a canon, and which works are in or out, occurring too often by a few institutional elites, who may use narrow, self-serving criteria for selection. Third, the possibility of an overshadowing of the work of the truly great (always few in number) because of a bias toward inclusion, resulting in minor figures outnumbering the major. The last point carries a certain irony, because canons, when looked at by those who are left out, are associated with exclusion.” Knowing that, why do you think canons remain important, necessary, useful?
Greg, Jazz It Up: Although the process of canonization has its dangers, canons are yet useful to delineate the masters and masterworks of an art form. Canons are oftentimes determined by scholars who produce and edit anthologies used in colleges and universities. I think they serve a useful critical function because they provide academics and professors a measure, a yardstick to share widely agreed upon standards of an art form with students. In the same way that journalism is the first run of history, critical assessments of artworks are the first run of canonization.
Daniel, Compulsive Reader: I have thought of criticism often as an articulation that involves appreciation, celebration, exploration, and evaluation, which I see as positives, but very often many people speak of criticism as rejection and repudiation, as primarily negative. What do you think of as “the critical impulse”?
Greg, Jazz It Up: The critical impulse doesn’t have to be viewed as negative. By my reckoning, the main function of a critic, within the artistic realm at least, is to serve as a go-between for an art and artists with the public. A critic should know the values, standards and the basic-to-advanced practices of an art form to best evaluate the work of an artist for the public. I also think that a critic should consider the intentions of the artist in the creation of a particular work of art. This is tantamount to what you call “the spirit of a work.” That way, a critic can better assess those intentions, that spirit, within the context of an art form’s traditions. If critics don’t know, understand and appreciate a tradition, how can they assess whether a work of art fits within or even goes beyond that tradition?
Daniel, Compulsive Reader: What does an ideal piece of critical commentary have to contain?
Greg, Jazz It Up: Again, within the artistic frame, critical commentary should evoke the artwork so a reader feels that he or she is seeing the piece, or a listener hearing the music, etc. It should make reference to the artistic tradition and to the past works of an artist also. The critic provides an interpretation based on authority grounded in those elements I mention above. Ideally, critics shouldn’t be so presumptuous or arrogant to actually think that their take is the “be all and end all” of interpretation. Especially since the best authorities are the artists! I’m not down with placing the critic above the artist, a move that unfortunately became au courant in the academy in the post-civil rights era with the rise of certain writers and scholars (many from France) whose work in critical theory, deconstruction and post-structuralism was and still remains unintelligible to most regular readers. (I like some of Michel Foucault’s work, however, particularly his idea of the “entrepreneur of the self,” which I studied while doing some grad work in American studies at NYU.) Many academic critics speak to a very small audience of other scholars within their fields. I view the critical function from my perspective as a journalist, and think that if we as “critics” are to connect artists and art works with the public, that we should speak and write in a manner that can be understood by an educated public.
Daniel, Compulsive Reader: I have read (in your brief All About Jazz biography) that you began to like jazz as a very young man, after listening to Grover Washington, Earl Klugh, Chuck Mangione, and Earth, Wind and Fire, and Stevie Wonder. Do you recall what it was in their work that you were responding to? What, if anything, has changed about your perception of them?
Greg, Jazz It Up: Man, I still dig those cats! Not only was the music of those artists and groups the soundtrack of my youth at a time when I began immersing myself in the sounds of the improvisational musical tradition spearheaded by black Americans, but they became my bridge to the whole jazz tradition. My father had these groups in his collection, and my mom’s eclectic music collection also influenced my early tastes. Of course, the musicians and groups you list above fused elements of jazz, R&B, pop and others styles of music. But I’ve always immersed myself deeply in things that capture my attention, so I actually researched the musical history and careers of those and others (Al Jarreau, for example) that I listened to during that time. For instance, I fell in love with a tune by Joe Sample, “Carmel,” which I heard on the late, great radio station WRVR, which broadcast from the Riverside Church. “Carmel” had compositional elements of funk, Latin, and classical, all within an instrumental and improvisational framework. I loved the way he combined these elements, creating strong grooves and smooth transitions. Once I did my due diligence, I discovered his history with the Jazz Crusaders.
Regarding the others you mention: I love Grover Washington’s soulfulness, and he’s one of my favorite soprano saxophonists. I love his tone on that instrument. I speak of him in the present tense although he’s no longer with us since the wonderful technology of recording has preserved Grover’s music for the ages. I still like Earl Klugh’s expert acoustic guitar playing; and as I write this, I’m looking at a CD cover of a compilation on the Blue Note label, titled Love Songs. It’s marvelous. I was also impressed by the opinion of jazz drummer Kenny Washington, known as the “Jazz Maniac” from his days as a host on WBGO in Newark, New Jersey. Kenny played with Earl Klugh early in his career and told me that Klugh is “a genius.” Klugh can play anything he wants to: fusion, straight-ahead, classical.
I don’t hear much from Chuck Mangione these days, but every time I hear a tune from his Feels So Good recording (I still remember the blissful look on his face as he hugged his horn on that album cover), it takes me back to the late ’70s. Earth, Wind and Fire is one of the classic R&B groups of all time! The colorful, metaphysical album covers were alluring, their harmonized, falsetto singing moving, and their lyrics powerful. I can listen to them anytime and be transported to the land of soul. Stevie Wonder? What new can be said about His Highness? He’s one of the true musical greats of the past 50 years, and as quiet as it’s kept, he too can play anything. In fact, in the first episode of “Jazz it Up!,” we show him playing John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” with bassist Stanley Clarke!
Daniel, Compulsive Reader: What was the college radio show that you hosted, as a student, like? How long was the program, what was the format, how many weeks, months, or years did it last, and what kind of response did you get?
Greg, Jazz It Up: WHCR was the call letters of the station at my alma mater, Hamilton College, where I hosted a jazz show for three years. I had either a two or three hour time slot, and I loved it! Those years prepared me for the broadcast work that I’m doing now on WBAI-NY (the first Monday of each month from 9pm-11pm) and for “Jazz it Up!” I got a good response back then, from fellow jazz lovers on campus and from the student station management.
Daniel, Compulsive Reader: My first publications were as a boy in a professional Louisiana daily newspaper, and a high school photocopy-and-staple publication, a New York college student newspaper, and a magazine devoted to Africa. I wonder what your first publications were.
Greg, Jazz It Up: My first professional essay was published back in 1989 or 1990 in a short-lived publication, Urban Profile, which was launched by Keith Clinkscales and Leonard Burnett after they graduated from Florida A&M. Keith went on to Harvard Business School, and after graduating Quincy Jones tapped him to run Vibe; Leonard Burnett ran advertising for that publication. The two then helmed Savoy. Now Len Burnett has launched Uptown magazine. In 1991, I began writing for the City Sun, which still holds the distinction of being the best black weekly newspaper published in New York City the last quarter century. Too bad mis-management did it in. In college I published several essays in Hamilton’s student newspaper, The Spectator. I detail the circumstances of these pieces in my 1995 Village Voice cover story, “The Black Studies War,” in which I posed Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Temple University professor Molefi Asante as two poles in an ideological battle over the direction of the field of black studies.
The college essays were the culmination of a campaign that I spearheaded with a brilliant South African student, Paul Ngobeni, to hold Hamilton’s feet to the fire with respect to its low percentage of black and Latino students, and also to demand that the college administration and faculty initiate some form of black studies. See, for three years I held positions in the college’s student government: during my first year of matriculation, I was a freshman representative; and for the next two years, held the position of chair of the academic chamber. In that capacity I had access to the files of various committees that revealed to me the future plans of this highly respected private college. Those plans didn’t include study of African or black American history or culture. So in the last semester of my senior year I organized a campaign. We sent student reps to the heads of each academic department to ask that they consider more content involving African and black American history and culture. We also published pieces every week in The Spectator and read commentaries on WHCR to garner student support and to alert the faculty and administration of our concerns and requests. I wrote the final piece of the campaign, in which I took the college to task for not living up to its own stated principles by detailing a comparison of similar institutions that all had black studies departments or programs, and a higher enrollment of students of color. So, we used direct negotiation, the power of media, and shame to motivate the powers that be at Hamilton to make a change for the betterment of the institution. I’m proud that today there is an Africana studies concentration at Hamilton, and that black and Latino students are close to 10% of the student population. My experience with the power of strategic planning and the tactical use of critique to bring positive change at my alma mater grounded my eventual career path.
Daniel, Compulsive Reader: What was writing for The City Sun like?
Greg, Jazz It Up: Exciting, exasperating, a great learning experience, a deep disappointment. I cut my journalism teeth there, penning jazz reviews, as well as stories on health care, education and business. I loved working at the City Sun with writers whom I respect such as Armond White and Herb Boyd, and an excellent editor, Maitefa Angaza. I also respected the journalistic integrity of its late publisher, Andrew Cooper. I learned a great deal about the newspaper business. What was exasperating was not being paid consistently. I was very disappointed when the publication folded.
Daniel, Compulsive Reader: You have written for various publications—including online sites such as Salon and Africana.com, and newspapers and magazines such as the Manchester Guardian (U.K.), the New York Daily News, and American Legacy. What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of freelance writing?
Greg, Jazz It Up: I also served as the founding editor-in-chief of Harlem World magazine from 2002 to 2005. The advantage of freelance writing, for me, is the freedom to write for a variety of publications, not being beholden to any one in particular. For instance, I write for All About Jazz-New York, and have a feature story on Albert Murray coming out soon for American Legacy magazine. The disadvantage is that too often freelancers are asked or expected to write for free or close to it. It’s a rough way to make a living; in fact, most freelance writers supplement their incomes by other gigs, teaching for example. If a writer can find a steady job as a staff writer, by all means do so. Such positions are few and far between, however.
Daniel, Compulsive Reader: I think of Alexander Crummell, W.E.B. DuBois, Alain Locke, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, and Toni Morrison, as being among the thinkers and writers who demonstrated that an African-American individual could have a cultured life, an intellectual life. Yet, it has been my experience that many people are very surprised when an African-American person takes art and ideas seriously—they are not prepared, they are not welcoming, they are not supportive. I can see that you have found opportunities, but I wonder whether or not you have found misunderstanding and opposition as well.
Greg, Jazz It Up: Well, many rank and file black folks, to be specific, don’t know how one can make a living as an intellectual. Hell, most intellectuals (myself included) don’t know how either! But seriously, being a “public intellectual” is a rarified status for a few select folks who have the security of a university post or are very successful journalists and critics. Again, few and far between. The key for those of us who love the life of the mind and the glories of art is to surround ourselves with others who share the same passions. This is a safeguard against the misunderstandings and opposition to which you refer. I’ve been fortunate to have built lasting friendships with some elders who appreciated my youthful enthusiasm for ideas and culture, for example the recently deceased Michael James, nephew of Duke Ellington. Mike was a protégé of Albert Murray and one of the best read people I’ve ever known.
As a teenager, I admired the dedication and skills Tony Brown displayed as a broadcast journalist. Well, a few years after graduating from college, I worked for him in his midtown Manhattan office, on a campaign called Buy Freedom. That early experience with a black media icon was critical to my career path. And I have friends of my own generation with whom I commune, Hakim Hasan, Preston Ramsey, David Bullock, and Wynton Marsalis among them. With these men, and with my entrepreneurial father, Horace Thomas, Jr., I have been fortunate to discuss not only intellectual, social and cultural issues (including sports!), but also life issues—relationships and women, family ups and downs, individual aspirations and goals, fatherhood, the true definition of success, and much more. It’s crucial to have a support network of like-minded folks, Daniel. I’m also blessed to be in a serious love relationship with a woman, Jewel Kinch, who appreciates my cultural and intellectual passions. Over the years we’ve read and discussed numerous books—on business and marketing, on spirituality, on relationships. In fact, we have a romance and relationships website, VoicesofRomance.com.
Daniel, Compulsive Reader: I sometimes think that people do not know how to respond to the complexity of intelligent young black men—to the ambition and the need for support, to the assertiveness and the insecurity, to the demand for justice and the fear that justice will not come. Yet black masculinity is vivid in much of the public imagination, a presence in film, television, music, and newspaper accounts—and that masculinity is seen as brash, sensual, strong, volatile. Many black boys grow up without fathers and male mentors, a fact that makes the camaraderie of friendship and the promise of political solidarity important, and sometimes inspires personal compromise and sacrifice (black men can give up their personal ambitions for education or prosperity in order to maintain fraternal relationships; and black artists and thinkers can sacrifice sophistication and ties to other cultures if they think their ethnic or local communities will not approve or even understand). As well, father hunger in some boys can become hunger for the male presence, which is then transformed into sexual hunger, sexual desire. Such factors make it hard to discern what a genuine mature masculinity—not merely a pose of masculinity—would look like. How would you define mature masculinity?
Greg, Jazz It Up: That’s a deep question. Let’s initially re-frame “mature masculinity” as “mature manhood.” To me, mature manhood involves living with integrity, being responsible, and having a vision for the future and having the guts to go for it with all of the internal and external resources one can bring to bear. It also involves managing one’s emotions, and maintaining a healthy balance among one’s physical, mental and spiritual existence while building a strong family foundation and contributing to the community. As you can see, these qualities aren’t gender-specific, they’re human. But to confront your original question, I’ll present a formulation that I learned while studying metaphysics (Kabbalah), holistic health, and meditation with the author of the first book I edited, Metu Neter, which is based on a synthesis of African spiritual practices. Although this may venture too close for some to gender stereotypes, generally speaking we could say that masculine involves the externalized, active force in the world whereas feminine involves the internal, the intuitive faculty, and the realm of feelings. Of course we know that individuals have both masculine and feminine traits, as defined above, so the key is to balance those traits within oneself, and to live in the world harmonizing the two. We can metaphorically view the sun and daytime as masculine and the moon and nighttime as feminine. In the same way that we need day and night, the sun and the moon, as well as the left and right hemispheres of our brains, and the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, as human beings we need both masculinity and femininity. The problem that the West faces (not just black folks, or rappers posing as hyper-masculine) is to adjust to a state of mind and living wherein the feminine is respected and not dominated by men and the masculine impulse. This is the quintessential message of a book I highly recommend: The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped Our World View by Richard Tarnas.
Daniel, Compulsive Reader: Have you found a way of healthily handling frustrations regarding personal and public issues?
Greg, Jazz It Up: Regarding public issues, I confront them more so through my educational and cultural work than through debating public, social and cultural issues in print. Unless one makes public policy, writing only goes but so far, though it certainly can influence those policies. Relationships between couples are in a crisis, with over a 50% divorce rate, right? Well, Jewel and I provide resources to improve relationships at our website. Instead of railing against the worst aspects of rap culture, I promote jazz in every way I can, including work with the National Jazz Museum in Harlem’s Executive Director Loren Schoenberg. And I also work directly in the field of education, with one of top private educational franchisors in the world.
Daniel, Compulsive Reader: The philosopher Nietzsche wrote, in “Man Alone by Himself” in his book Human, All Too Human (republished by Dover, 2006), that we often attempt to locate one attitude and one philosophy for all situations, but that an intelligent regard for life, nature, and people, requires that we do not conceive ourselves as rigid. Do you have a philosophy or an approach that helps you to be or to become more flexible?
Greg, Jazz It Up: One of the qualities of jazz that so appeals to me is its supreme flexibility. Jazz incorporates musical styles from around the world while maintaining its core identity. This is jazz at its most cosmopolitan, while maintaining its roots. Jazz players must develop their chops, their technical ability, for not just the sake of self-expression, but also to play in accord with others of varying sensibilities and perspectives, sounds and conceptions. To do so one must develop strong listening skills and respect and tolerance for difference. This is at heart a highly democratic conception, which is fitting, since jazz is an iconic representation of an utopist impulse of those quintessential Americans—colored, Negro, black, take your pick. (I usually don’t use the term “African-American” because I think that phrase should be used for Africans who are in America. I’m not African; I’m a black American.) This is, in literary terms, highly ironic, since black folks have been most repressed as regards full expression of American ideals. Hence, the jazz musician’s journey has been a heroic path, especially today when jazz is not a popular form. In my opinion, this journey has been best explicated and articulated by Ralph Ellison, and by Albert Murray in works such as Stomping the Blues, and The Hero and the Blues, and his first book, The Omni-Americans: Some Alternatives to the Folklore of White Supremacy and the Fakelore of Black Pathology.
The jazz conception, for me, lends itself to such flexibility, as do my spiritual beliefs, and my understanding of the tragi-comic human tale throughout history. “This too shall pass” is a watchword phrase for the wise, for whether it’s a current situation or preoccupation, or even one’s own life or the fate of the earth, this saying holds true, over time. I also believe that one should always “count your blessings.”
I’m also flexible because I have held to certain rigid beliefs in the past that I’ve grown to see as limiting and immature. Some of those beliefs involved “born-again” Christianity, black nationalism (or rather a variant called Afrocentrism), and even what I now call a fundamentalist attitude toward the inviolability of straight-ahead acoustic jazz. No longer do I consider myself an arbiter of what is or isn’t jazz, for example, though I maintain my own personal preferences.
Daniel, Compulsive Reader: E. M. Forster is a terrific writer—creating characters, situations, and stories that embody emotion and values, and I recently read E. M. Forster’s A Room with A View, a story featuring a young woman, Lucy, who becomes engaged to the smart, rich Cecil, though she meets another, less well-placed but energetic and honest young man, George, whom she is drawn to; and while I often identify with different kinds of characters—male, female, rich, poor, intellectual, sensitive, sensual—I found it surprising to see myself in Cecil, whose high ideals actually make him sometimes less than civil to others (Lucy’s mother says that if high ideals make a young man rude, he should get rid of his high ideals—which reminds me of advice I once gave to someone I know who was religious: I said if religion does not help you to judge other people with compassion, what good is it?). I wonder if there has been a time when you have been surprised to see yourself in a literary character, a reflection that was strange or not entirely complimentary.
Greg, Jazz It Up: The naiveté of the main character of Ellison’s Invisible Man hit me hard, since I read it in my 30s, after having gone through some of the belief systems mentioned above. I kept thinking that if I had read it during college, and really internalized the implicit warning to not let others manipulate and use you to their own ends, that I wouldn’t have been as gullible as a teen and young man. And I saw some of myself in the loyalty of Shakespeare’s Benvolio in Romeo and Juliet, a character I played at Tottenville High School on Staten Island during a joint production of that Shakespeare classic and West Side Story. I’m sure there have been others, but these most immediately come to mind. (By the way, Daniel, I totally agree with you—if a religion doesn’t lead you to treat people with compassion, it don’t mean a thing. That’s why I adhere to spirituality more than religion.)
Daniel, Compulsive Reader: What is life in Harlem like now?
Greg, Jazz It Up: This is a matter of perspective. Although I’ve lived in Harlem for over a decade, and used to visit my late uncle Curtis Thomas’s Harlem apartment during the ’70s through the mid-’90s, I’m only one person. Granted, I have a special vantage point of having edited a Harlem magazine, and having extensively researched Harlem real estate and economic development for a Village Voice story I wrote on Randy Daniels, the secretary of state for former New York state governor, George Pataki. That said, it’s an exciting though scary time in Harlem. I love being able to go to Staples, Marshalls, and Starbucks, for instance, along with jazz spots like Showman’s, St. Nick’s Pub, Lenox Lounge, and restaurants such as MoBay Uptown and Londel’s. There are many small businesses making a mark in Harlem too. This is wonderful. But the scary part is whether or not the culture of Harlem will change so much that it’s no longer recognizable as the “cultural capital of black America.” I’m fortunate to know some of the who’s who in Harlem business, religious and cultural circles, and thus know that it’s unlikely that the very culture that makes Harlem Harlem will go away anytime soon. The leadership of Harlem ain’t havin’ that, and tourists don’t want that either. But I feel for those who can’t or won’t be able to afford to live in Harlem, many of whom are multi-generation Harlemites. As former New York City Mayor David Dinkins once told me in a phone interview, “The price of progress is some gentrification.”
Daniel, Compulsive Reader: You have taught jazz—for the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), among other institutions. How did you do that?
Greg, Jazz It Up: Luck—opportunity presented itself, and I was prepared. I had been hired by Jayme Koszyns, then director of the education and humanities department at BAM to be the liaison between BAM and the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation for the annual DanceAfrica program. Jayme decided to use Don Byron’s recording Bug Music in her department as a vehicle for music appreciation, and asked me to execute the initiative. I was in the right place at the right time with the right stuff, so to speak. I loved sharing the music with primary to secondary school students, a love which I’ve replicated with different curricula at various schools in Harlem.
Daniel, Compulsive Reader: What does putting together your internet television broadcast on jazz consist of? And, what are your hopes for the program?
Greg, Jazz It Up: “Jazz it Up!” was the brainchild of George Moorer, founder of Brownstone Digital, Inc., an online production and distribution firm, with three other shows to its credit. One of them, “All About Kids,” features my daughter Kaya as co-host. (George’s son Ryan is host.) Two friends of mine, Eugene Palmore and Norval Soleyn, recommended me to a producer who works with George. He and I met, built a rapport based on shared experience and aspirations, and the rest may be history, if our plans come to fruition. As the first online jazz TV program, we desire to expand the web audience for the music with timely news pieces and powerful performances that capture the essence of what makes jazz so great. There are some offline and other strategies too, but I’m not at liberty to discuss that. Suffice it to say that we understand that jazz must compete in the marketplace; the jazz industry itself must expand. We intend to be part of that expansion.
Daniel, Compulsive Reader: What other forms of music do you pay attention to, and why?
Greg, Jazz It Up: I minored in music at Hamilton, and there surveyed the history of European classical music. The classical music tradition (i.e., the concerto, the symphonic form, and opera) is a great human achievement, so I pay some attention to it, but not avidly so. I’ve made my bed with jazz in that sense. I also check out R&B and gospel. I love Take 6, Brian McKnight, and Oleta Adams. In fact, for years I’ve played Take 6’s “Lullaby” from their Join the Band CD for my daughter to lull her to sleep when she stays with me in Harlem. I dig Basia too, and enjoy Alicia Keys’s sparkle. Queen Latifah’s talent seems to know no bounds. And Beyonce certainly has got it going on, in many, many ways. Goodness gracious!
Sometimes I think that the most exhausting part of any work is paying attention. I do not mean, simply, the attention of an editor’s noticing whether the names of musician Cannonball Adderley and writer Darryl Pinckney are spelled incorrectly, or the attention of a reader dismayed by an article that goes on and on, but the more significant attention required to move beyond the habits of one’s provinces, and the prejudices of one’s era, in order to see culture, or a work, or an individual, clearly and with wholeness. It is easiest to put a label on something or someone and pretend that there is no profit in further investigation (label someone by ethnicity or sexuality and there is no need to wonder if the person ever had an original idea or novel experience); and, once the label is attached, one can go on and concern oneself with gossip and squabbling, money and sex, tribalism and vanity, with social status and social approval. (I have moments of frightening suspicion when I wonder if such squabbling is not the truth of human nature.) However, the artists and thinkers who matter most to me insist on a deeper reality—these are artists and thinkers who claimed the world and have been claimed by it, but more important than that, and a matter of endless invention and rebellion, they are artists and thinkers who speak for individual being: whether poets such as Emily Dickinson, Rainer Rilke, Anna Akhmatova, Robert Lowell, and John Koethe; the novelists Henry James, Thomas Bernhard, Dawn Powell, Chinua Achebe, James Baldwin, and Toni Morrison; painters such as (Michelangelo Merisi, known as) Caravaggio, Cezanne, Van Gogh, and Francis Bacon; film directors Bertolucci, Eric Rohmer, Ousmane Sembene, Andre Techine, and Michael Winterbottom; the philosophers Plato, Nietzsche, and Merleau-Ponty; and essayists such as Montaigne, Walter Pater, T.S. Eliot, Roland Barthes, Susan Sontag, Pauline Kael, and Kwame Anthony Appiah. Through creativity and thought, through passion and vision, through sheer originality, these artists and thinkers dissolve the barriers that others see as fundamental, the beliefs that others feel as essential: these artists and thinkers achieve freedom, for themselves and for those brave enough to deny provinces and prejudices. I hope for far-ranging vision for myself; and when involved in a conversation with anyone I remain curious about how far he or she can see—and concerned about the consequences of what remains unseen.
Daniel, Compulsive Reader: One of the things that I think is interesting about your canonization piece is that you acknowledge differences of opinion—and that is one way of teaching the cultural and political conflicts, and not simplifying cultural or social history. Is it probable that each generation will have to have its own interpretation—of culture; of history—in order to make its way in the world?
Greg, Jazz It Up: Probably so, but each generation should learn the lessons of past generations so as to not repeat mistakes, sure, but also to determine what aspects of that history they desire to continue because of proven communal, social and cultural value. I’d never indict a whole generation, but from what I see of urban youth around me, their styles and manner, I’m very concerned. I have begun to employ a one-on-one strategy with black boys, teens and young men whom I see walking around with their pants so low that their underwear shows: I gently and privately say something like this: “Every generation has its styles, true. But once you get older, you’re likely to look back and realize how silly that style looks. Be an individual, don’t just blindly follow a trend that began in prisons, with inmates who didn’t have belts to wear. It’s UNDERWEAR, which means you wear it underneath your pants!” Come on, you gotta know something’s wrong big time, when we go from southern black folk wisdom like, “Boy, don’t be tearing your drawers in public” to our young men actually walking around town in public with their undergarments showing, on purpose.
Daniel, Compulsive Reader: In your canonization piece, you say about the essayist and novelist Albert Murray, “Murray has been a native insider to the jazz scene since the late 1930s, when he was a student at the Tuskegee Institute. He was close with his idol, Duke Ellington, who called him ‘the unsquarest person I know.’ He is the author of the as-told-to biography of Count Basie, Good Morning Blues, and Stomping the Blues, a perspicacious poetics on jazz and the blues idiom, as well as ten other books, including three novels and a book of poetry. Stomping the Blues places the music within an indigenous, ritualistic context. To Murray, the blues are not a lamentation based on the sociological status of blacks; to the contrary, Murray posits that the blues represents a confrontational and affirmative attitude toward life. Even though life is a low-down dirty shame (with no ultimate purpose), those with heroic aspirations respond to the inevitability of the blues with nimbleness and elegance on the dance floor of life.” Could you say more about what you think about Albert Murray and what evidence you find to support his interpretation of the blues?
Greg, Jazz It Up: I respect and love Albert Murray, and was honored to recently videotape Henry Louis Gates Jr. presenting Murray with Harvard University’s W.E.B. DuBois award, with special guests such as Wynton Marsalis and George Wein in attendance.
Go to a blues club some night, even today in 2007. Although what Murray calls “the blues as such” may be a tale of woe, blues music and musicians (which includes jazz musicians) partake in a life-enhancing ritual that has folks grooving to the universality of the stories, and even engaging in fertility rituals once they leave the club! Jazz, as a fine art, is what Murray calls “the fully-orchestrated blues statement,” so that confrontational and affirmative attitude is present there in spades too.
And the implied diss to sociology in the quote of mine above was intentional, as the insights of Murray (and Ellison before him) reveal how limiting sociological categories are with respect to capturing and reflecting the full range of black American experience, whether cultural or psychological. And this is a pernicious state of affairs: sociological terms become a basis for public policies and for terminologies used by the media. I know what I’m talking about here: I have years of experience in the media, and I majored in public policy in college. So, this isn’t some petty academic dispute. Lives and lifestyles hang in the balance of how others perceive us and in how we perceive ourselves. In part because of the flawed thinking and reasoning of the social sciences, we’ve gone from calling our neighborhoods “ghettos” to describing our collective mental state as supposed “self-hatred” to nowadays some of us actually buying into the ahistorical twaddle called “post-traumatic slavery disorder”! Give us a break from such nonsense! Variations on victimization will get us nowhere fast, though it might get book contracts for those who posit that drivel for profit and to meet the publication requirements of so-called institutions of higher learning. How can you be a victim and have such influence on the world’s styles and culture? How can you be a victim when you have survived enslavement and in spite of continued social repression maintain your faith, and your groove, and still you rise?! How can you understand and achieve the heights of life itself as a fine art when you don’t recognize the hero and heroine within? We know life for black folk is tough. What’s new? Is it as hard for us today as it was in slavery, or during Jim Crow? Hell no, though the reality of a 50% unemployment rate for black men in New York City is a frightening social statistic and cause for shame and protest, not to mention what’s happened in New Orleans post-Katrina. Nonetheless, let’s count our blessings anyway, and keep swingin’! We owe it to our ancestors and our future generations to give nothing less than our best.
Daniel, Compulsive Reader: Albert Murray and Ralph Ellison were friends, and there is a correspondence—a relationship; a similarity—among some of their ideas (and some of their letters to each other can be read in the book Trading Twelves). In your May 7, 2002 Salon essay, you Greg Thomas write that, “The lifestyles and traditions of black Americans are, in Ellison’s eyes, much more than a sociological tale of unremitting woe, misery and defeat. The story of American blacks, central to the nation’s struggle to realize its democratic principles, represents a heroic instance of a supremely creative response to social and economic repression.” What are some of the lifestyles and traditions Ellison found valuable; and what are some of the ongoing traditions that you now find valuable?
Greg, Jazz It Up: Let’s go to the text, as my elder friend Playthell Benjamin is fond of saying. In 1963, in the heat of the civil rights movement, Ellison gave critic Irving Howe one of the fiercest literary ass-whippings of last century, in an essay titled, “The World and the Jug.” Howe thought that Ellison (and James Baldwin) should be as “angry” as Richard Wright in their writings. Regarding Invisible Man, Ellison strongly disagreed: “The real question [is]: How does the Negro writer participate as a writer in the struggle for human freedom? To whom does he address his work? What values emerging from Negro experience does he try to affirm?
I started with the primary assumption that men with black skins, having retained their humanity before all of the conscious efforts made to dehumanize them, especially following the Reconstruction, are unquestionably human. Thus they have the obligation of freeing themselves—whoever their allies might be—by depending upon the validity of their own experience for an accurate picture of the reality they seek to change, and for a gauge of the values they would see made manifest. Crucial to this view is the belief that their resistance to provocation, their coolness under pressure, their sense of timing and their tenacious hold on the ideal of freedom are indispensable values in the struggle, and are at least as characteristic of American Negroes as the hatred, fear and vindictiveness which Wright chose to emphasize.”
I find these qualities and ideals, forged in the smithy of oppression, in the heat of survival, and in the multi-generation fight for freedom as citizens of this nation, highly valuable. I pray that in spite of the current devolution of black American culture, we can somehow, someway not lose them.
Daniel, Compulsive Reader: Your Salon essay commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of the complex and rich novel Invisible Man, and in that essay you noted the criticism its author Ellison has received through the years for not subordinating art to politics. I find that political impotence inclines people to want to use whatever else might have influence, such as art—but I do not think that political meaning can be substituted for aesthetic meaning; and I think that artistic force mostly has artistic effects. You wrote that, “Black nationalists were miffed at the character of Ras the ‘Exhorter/Destroyer,’ a rabble-rousing West Indian ‘community organizer’ who views the world in Invisible Man almost exclusively through the lens of race. Ras is ready to resort to violence against his foes, black or white, to achieve his separatist goals. Even today, black nationalists are wary of Ellison’s work; to them, it’s too pro-American, and too inherently critical of their narrow or romantic preoccupations with Africa or with the blackness of blackness.” What you describe is a failure of insight, a failure of empathy, and even a failure of politics in Ras and those who identify with him. Why do you think such failures persist?
Greg, Jazz It Up: Those failures persist because black folks are still discriminated against, and some of our people turn to folk ideologies such as black nationalism or Afrocentricity as a source of pride, and a salve against psychological misery. Some think it’s a source of historical accuracy, but they are sadly mistaken. I invite all those who subscribe to such thinking to read the work of historian Wilson Jeremiah Moses, the preeminent scholar of black nationalism. They may find that 19th century black nationalists put to shame the 20th and 21st century advocates of that belief. They should also check out Stephen Howe’s Afrocentrism: Mythical Pasts and Imagined Homes. So while I understand the basis for such a limited view, I’ve studied too much history to go for that anymore. Afrocentrists and black nationalists, for instance, skirt the issue of African complicity in the slave trade. If human beings were reduced to chattel, someone didn’t just buy them, someone had to sell them also. Read Hugh Thomas’s The Slave Trade for more on the subject of the slave trade. Plus, European Enlightenment ideals led to the eventual destruction of the slave system. The very idea of human freedom and democracy are Western notions, even if it took the Old and New Worlds hundreds of years to live up to those ideals by banning the slave trade.
However, one thing that black nationalists have correct is the necessity of black Americans using our economic and cultural weight to our own advantage. Harold Cruse, in The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual and Plural but Equal, made it clear that ethnic groups rise to prominence under capitalism based on economic and cultural power. We’ve been so focused on political and civil rights gains that economics and finance have not been addressed adequately by black leadership, although economic development is part of their rhetoric. Unfortunately, the overwhelming focus on race and racism obscures the gains that we have made in the past 40 years, and how we can best chart the course for future advancement. Some leaders, such as the Rev. Dr. Calvin Butts, a neighbor of mine in Harlem, and pastor of the historic Abyssinian Baptist Church, don’t just talk the talk. Through the Abyssinian Development Corporation, Rev. Butts, Sheena Wright and their staff now control hundreds of millions of dollars worth of real estate uptown. But we are so far behind other groups who have long understood that in a capitalist society, money talks and rhetorical b.s. walks, that such efforts are just the beginning of what in actuality is the next stage of the movement: economic empowerment.
Daniel, Compulsive Reader: What is your assessment of Arnold Rampersad’s biography of Ralph Ellison?
Greg, Jazz It Up: I’m saddened by the fact that someone whom I believe has a fundamental dislike of Ralph Ellison chose to paint such a biased portrait of Ellison’s life and achievements. Rampersad, who by the way isn’t a native black American, claims that Ellison’s inability to finish the second novel was directly linked to his increasing distance from black folks. I disagree in the strongest terms. Ellison, even withstanding what can be judged as his personal faults, was a supreme example of black American achievement. And I’m not only referring to Invisible Man, a canonical novel of the 20th century. As quiet as it’s kept, in his splendid essays, Ellison defined black American culture! This is no small feat, since identity is so crucial to a people’s understanding of themselves and their role in history as well as their collective present and future. Further, Ellison made it clear that black Americans and the profound culture we created is central to American culture writ large. As my late friend and mentor Michael James used to say: Multi-generation black Americans are co-creators of America. Dig that, and think about the implications of that fact the next time someone who is a more recent entry into the United States of America has the nerve to treat you as if you have second-class status. If you know thyself, you won’t fall for either being patronized or one-upped by those who stand on your ancestors’ shoulders.
But Ellison didn’t stop there. Check out what he said to three young black writers in 1967: “Any people who could endure all of that brutalization and keep together, who could undergo such dismemberment and resuscitate itself, and endure until it could take the initiative in achieving its own freedom is obviously more than the sum of its brutalization. Seen in this perspective, theirs has been one of the great human experiences and one of the great triumphs of the human spirit in modern times. In fact, in the history of the world.”
Note that this statement was made to three young black writers in a piece called “A Very Stern Discipline” in Conversations with Ralph Ellison (University Press of Mississippi, 1995). These were not the only black writers that Ellison spoke with for posterity. There’s also Leon Forrest, Hollie West, James Alan McPherson, Robert Stepto, Michael S. Harper, Ishmael Reed, Quincy Troupe and Steve Cannon, all from that same collection.
Ellison sent money to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and to Jesse Jackson’s two presidential campaigns. He stayed in touch with friends from his birthplace of Oklahoma, and was tight with Romare Bearden, Nathan Scott, and Albert Murray. The notion that Ellison withdrew himself from black people is a damn lie. He lived in Harlem on Riverside Drive for many decades before he died.
What Ellison would not do, based on his own conception of his function as a writer, is become a spokesman. He didn’t see that as his role. But since he knew that black folks are fundamental to the American enterprise, he did feel obligated to, as young folks say these days, “represent” our people in the upper reaches of literary society, and in various organizations. This wasn’t a desire to just be around white people, as implied in the biography. He was drawn to those who shared his passions for art, literature, culture, freedom and democracy, no matter their “race.” It’s also important to note that Ellison’s own experience with the left during the ’30s and 40s shaped his views on the dangers of political engagement for an artist. Moreover, I think that he was bruised by being unfairly and ignorantly called an Uncle Tom by younger blacks influenced by the black power movement on college campuses during the aftermath of the struggle in the ’60s. His skin and attitudes likely thickened thereby. Calling Ralph Ellison a Tom is a stupid as calling Louis Armstrong a Tom, when he was the paterfamilias of the jazz idiom!
Ellison may not have been able to complete the second novel, but his first and only novel along with his brilliant, insightful essays and interviews are a testament to his legacy way more than Rampersad’s slanted biography, which I concede was well-researched. Still, I agree with Darryl Pinckney’s review in the New York Review of Books; Pinckney contends that Lawrence Jackson’s Ralph Ellison: Emergence of Genius gives a much better account of the story of Invisible Man and its genesis. Those interested in Ellison’s biography owe it to themselves to read that very good work, and not depend only on Rampersad’s hit job.
Daniel, Compulsive Reader: Do you know the works of Charles Johnson and Percival Everett (and if so, what do you think of them)?
Greg, Jazz It Up: I’m not familiar with the work of Everett. But I’ve read several of Johnson’s works of fiction, which I’ve liked. Some criticize him for stock characterizations. I’d have to take another look at the novels before offering any sort of critique. He also wrote a work of literary criticism worth checking out: Being and Race: Black Writing since 1970 (Indiana University Press, 1988). (I did an internet search on Percival Everett—thanks for turning me on to his work—and I’ll definitely check him out, probably starting with Erasure , the main character of which is named Thelonious ‘Monk’ Ellison. I bet it’s hilarious.)
Daniel, Compulsive Reader: Who are some of the people we have not mentioned who are doing literary work—creative or critical; fiction, poetry, or scholarly work—that you value?
Greg, Jazz It Up: There are many. I’ll name just a few. I value the integrative mind and writings of Ken Wilber, one of the greatest American philosophers of modern times. I respect the work of Colson Whitehead, of whom I first became aware in the Village Voice , but who took the leap to novel writing, and is quite good. I think that Deepak Chopra’s How to Know God is perhaps a modern-day spiritual classic by way of his explication of various conceptions of God over time, from the punitive Old Testament deity to a perspective that incorporates insights from quantum physics and other of the sciences. New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell is excellent too. He’s exemplary of my notion of scholarly depth and journalistic accessibility as rendered in The Tipping Point and Blink. Jim Camp’s Start With No is perhaps a new paradigm for negotiating and sales. As you can see, my reading tastes are quite varied. I also appreciate the work of T. Harv Eker (Secrets of the Millionaire Mind), Harriette Cole (Choosing Truth: Living an Authentic Life), and Gary Renard (The Disappearance of the Universe and Your Immortal Reality), among many others. I’m reading through A Course in Miracles, which can be termed as a modern-day Bible. It’s extraordinarily profound on psychological and spiritual levels, and points to forgiveness and acceptance of God’s everlasting love as the way back home.
Daniel, Compulsive Reader: I admire Susan Sontag for her interests as well as her insights: she seems to have been someone who surveyed the cultural landscape, identified what was important, and devoted herself to neglected aspects of what was important, making her work rare, significant, and useful. In Susan Sontag’s book Where the Stress Falls (Farrar, Straus, 2001), Sontag writes about writers such as Machado de Assis, Roland Barthes, Danilo Kis, and Borges, as well as about poetry, film, photography, bunraku puppet theater, opera, dance, travel, and politics. Although in the past writers such as W.E.B. DuBois (The Philadelphia Negro, and The World and Africa) and Richard Wright (The Color Curtain, and Pagan Spain) gave themselves permission to discuss the whole world, it is hard for me to imagine today an African-American writer who would cover such terrain. What art forms, other than music and literature, do you enjoy? Do you think that you might write more about them in time?
Greg, Jazz It Up: I enjoy dance and the visual arts also, but I don’t feel versed enough in the specifics of those idioms to be a critic in those areas, although I have written a little about black dance. The work of Albert Murray covers a very wide terrain also, as does the writings of his former protégé Stanley Crouch, though, while often brilliant, I don’t think Crouch’s insights reach anywhere near the level of originality as Murray’s. Albert Murray is, in my opinion, the most original black American thinker and writer of the 20th century. Even more than Ellison, whom I’d say is a close second.
Daniel, Compulsive Reader: Decades ago, in his “Princes and Powers” piece in Nobody Knows My Name (Collected Essays, Library of America, 1998), James Baldwin reported on a Paris conference of colored intellectuals and writers, and Baldwin noted George Lamming’s acknowledgement of the varieties of experience that are encompassed by the word Negro—which merely means black—and the tension that exists between blacks and others and among blacks, a tension that is a fact, a complexity that is a fact, and which can be strength—for the consciousness that tension suggests, but often people attempt to deny that complexity, attempt to see everything as simple. Why attempt to see those relationships as simple, when such a view does not change reality, and can hamper one’s actual movements and strategies?
Greg, Jazz It Up: Well, we live in a middle-brow culture that doesn’t prize intellectuality, especially when it comes in a darker hue. Complexity is not something that the American media handles too well either, perhaps except for public television and select cable channels. To begin to melt down the stupid, inaccurate, lying notion of race, I wish the media would, when referring to black folks, identify ethnicity. By which I mean identifying us by national and ethnic origins, and not just lump all blacks, whether from Africa, the Caribbean, or South or North America, together as if the color of our skins automatically connotes shared experience. That said, I’ll say this directly to your point above: since many people of color (including, for example, Latinos or Hispanics) share political interests, it makes sense to build alliances based on those interests. But when it comes to culture, it’s important to be clear on what makes us distinct.
Daniel, Compulsive Reader: I find myself drawn more and more to the idea of the cosmopolitan, though some people find the idea, and the reality, threatening; and I recall that Anthony Appiah in his book Cosmopolitanism (Norton, 2006; page 97) wrote that, “Once we have found enough we share, there is the further possibility that we will be able to enjoy discovering things we do not yet share.” Any comment?
Greg, Jazz It Up: I too am drawn to the idea of cosmopolitanism, and Appiah’s statement aligns with my point directly above. The danger of the concept, however, is being so of the world that little or no roots remain. Like jazz, I think that we can adapt the best of styles and thoughts and cultures from around the world while remaining rooted in our indigenous experiences.
Daniel, Compulsive Reader: What, if anything, does society, or a community, owe to its artists and intellectuals?
Greg, Jazz It Up: Respect, places to publish and perform works, and a way to make a living in the life of the mind or in artistic endeavors. That notion is better appreciated in countries like France.
Daniel, Compulsive Reader: What is—or should be—the root of cultural authority?
Greg, Jazz It Up: In-depth knowledge of world history, and the varieties of cultural traditions over time and place. That provides a foundation for the true appreciation and apprehension of one’s own cultural configuration—value system, myths and rituals, technologies of survival, artistic creativity, kinship patterns, culinary preferences, secular and sacred percepts, etc. That’s why Albert Murray could intellectually swing with such authority. He published his first book, The Omni-Americans, at the age of 54, after having spent over 40 years studying world drama, history, geography, anthropology, literature and literary criticism, music and aesthetics. He was a native insider to the Negro American tradition as a black southerner from Alabama, who traveled the world after joining the Air Force. He drank in the work of the best writers of the ages, from ancient times to his own. Then he synthesized that knowledge with his understanding of his own idiomatic, vernacular tradition, and has created a grand cosmological conception that directly connects black American culture vis-à-vis the blues and jazz to the greatest artistic achievements of all times and places. Cultural authority on this level is as rare as geniuses are few.
Daniel, Compulsive Reader: In a piece called “The Problem with Black Masculinity and Celebrity” in Michele Wallace’s book Dark Designs and Visual Culture (Duke University Press, 2004), Michele Wallace says that the so-called black leadership that receives the greatest publicity is narcissistic, vaguely ridiculous, and inept, and that while there are genuine black thinkers in many fields, they do not always seek fame—rather, they are concerned with real work, with real issues. What do you think of that?
Greg, Jazz It Up: I think she has a good point, especially in this age of celebrity. For instance, the fact that someone with your depth and catholicity of tastes, Daniel Garrett, does not write for the top publications in the land is an indictment. But something tells me that you gonna keep swingin’ anyway!
Daniel, Compulsive Reader: Who are the people you would name as the icons (or simply, the most significant individuals) of, or for, your own generation?
Greg, Jazz It Up: Two immediately come to mind—Wynton Marsalis and Mae Jemison, the renowned scientist, medical doctor and astronaut. Both of these individuals have ascended to the highest levels of their fields, inspire young people, are cosmopolitan yet rooted in their southern black American culture. One of the nicknames that I’ve given to Wynton (and this is the first time I’ve shared this beyond a handful of people) is IG: Inspiration to our Generation. I have high admiration for the aforementioned Sheena Wright, a lawyer with one of the sharpest business minds you’ll find, and a tough negotiator to boot. Yet she remains grounded, down to earth with a hearty sense of humor, rooted in her culture and community, while raising a family. I also respect Greg Fierce and Maurice Coleman, who are making waves within the banking industry. In media, I admire Tavis Smiley, whose efforts are inspired by commitment, compassion, and abiding concern for the fortunes of black folk and the country’s direction. George Moorer, a Harlemite, a single-father, and founder of Brownstone Digital, Inc., may become the next Robert Johnson.
Daniel, Compulsive Reader: You wrote “An Open Letter to Oprah Winfrey” that appeared on All About Jazz’s web pages April 29, 2007, in which you asked Winfrey to present jazz musicians as performers and speakers. What are the things that could be done by musicians, institutions, and the general public to support jazz?
Greg, Jazz It Up: So much! The black community, both individuals and institutions, can better recognize jazz as a cultural treasure by supporting organizations such as the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, Jazz at Lincoln Center, and the Jazz Foundation of America. And the United States government can make more resources available to jazz musicians, starting with doing the right thing in New Orleans. It’s a crying shame that an inept, corrupt administration has so bungled the relief efforts of a place so central to the history of jazz and the nation. I’m inspired by Oprah’s contributions to our culture and the general society. My “Open Letter” was written to implore her to consider representing the voices of jazz musicians, both their musical voices as well as their intelligent viewpoints. Just as Ken Burns’s documentary series on jazz boosted sales of jazz recordings, Oprah could do the same, overnight.
Daniel, Compulsive Reader: What are some of the ideas, observations, and perceptions that you have been contemplating recently (not necessarily connected with jazz or literature)?
Greg, Jazz It Up: The necessity to build wealth for future generations. Along that line, more black folks facing up to the fact that our bodies will die, and therefore we should create wills. Also, the import of spiritual growth, so that in our everyday lives we truly treat one another as brothers and sisters, no matter what our ethnic or national origins, religious or non-religious beliefs, or gender. And although as creatures of culture, and as critics, it’s important to be grounded in culture, ultimately, from a spiritual vantage point, we need to transcend even culture. Cosmopolitanism with a spiritual core.
Daniel, Compulsive Reader: What does being human mean to you Greg Thomas?
Greg, Jazz It Up: Being human is living a spiritual experience within the confines of a physical body. But our bodies and our egos are the biggest barriers to spiritual realization and transformation. My statements above regarding masculinity and femininity also touch upon my conception of what it means to be human.
Daniel, Compulsive Reader: If you had to name ten works or inventions, from any field, from all fields, from throughout history, as the most important, could you, would you; and if yes, what would they be?
Greg, Jazz It Up: Not in any particular order, here goes:
1. The printing press
3. The works of Shakespeare
4. The holy books of various religions, whether major and minor
5. A Course in Miracles
7. Improvisation, not only in jazz, but in life itself
9. The internet
10. Dostoevsky’s novels
Daniel, Compulsive Reader: What would you Greg Thomas like to achieve with your career?
Greg, Jazz It Up: I’d like to extend the highest values of my culture via educational work, the written word, and broadcast journalism. I will also build wealth to live the lifestyle that my sweetheart Jewel and I envision, to provide for the future of my wonderful, smart, beautiful daughter Kaya, and to support the causes and organizations whose work aligns with my values and desire for a better United States of America and the world. My aspirations are personal and cultural, local and global. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to illuminate my perspectives on life, humanity, literature, music, culture, gender, and all other topics that your incisive questions brought to the table of consideration. I wish you the best in your career, Daniel. You deserve heightened recognition and exposure, and I hope this interview is one small drop that will ripple to your benefit.
(Internet Interview, July 2007)
Greg Thomas is a writer, educator and cultural critic whose critical orientation is grounded in the wise advice of his paternal grandfather, Horace Thomas Sr., who urged him to always differentiate between constructive and destructive criticism: one builds up, the other tears down. Thomas views his cultural and career work, some of which is detailed in the Q&A above, as fulfillment of a black American ancestral imperative.
Greg Thomas’s “Jazz It Up!” Program:
Greg Thomas All About Jazz page (which has links to his recent jazz writings):
The National Jazz Museum in Harlem:
Daniel Garrett, Louisiana-born and a longtime New York resident, and a graduate of the New School for Social Research, is a writer of fiction, poetry, drama, journalism, and criticism; and he has written about books, film, and music for The Compulsive Reader. Daniel Garrett’s first short fiction story was done in sixth grade and was set in Africa, and as a teen he wrote lyrics and narratives and plays on diverse subjects, and in college, in addition to studying writing, philosophy, politics, and other subjects he took courses in African art and music, and he interned at the African-American Institute and published a couple of unsigned articles in its publication Africa Report; and he has since written on African music and on films focused on Africa, as well as on varied African-American topics. Featuring exploration of a wide range of subjects, including painting and sculpture, and the natural environment, Daniel Garrett’s work has appeared in The African, AllAboutJazz.com, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Cinetext.Philo, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, IdentityTheory.com, Option, PopMatters.com, Rain Taxi, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today. Garrett’s “Iconography: Ideas, Images, and Individuals in Film, Books, and Life” was featured by Offscreen.com. Daniel Garrett is the founder of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, which took as its motto “knowledge, discourse, friendship, and social responsibility.” He values individuality.
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