Why does the divide between black and white jazz persist?

In jazz, the racial rift that has long plagued our nation is continuously, simultaneously both healed and re-torn. Musicians and listeners alike proclaim a meritocracy, meaning anyone who can play an instrument trumps skin color, ethnicity or nationality at birth. Yet audiences are still often self-segregated, overwhelmingly either white or black (everybody loves Latin jazz!). Bands have a funny way of not being very diversified. Recently, two local “festivals” demonstrated how all God’s chillun’ barely meet, probably despite, rather than due to, organizers’ intentions.

The Brooklyn Jazz Underground is, in its own words, “an association of independent artists with a shared commitment to creativity and community,” and it “aims to build greater awareness of original music emerging from Brooklyn, N.Y.” Likewise, the Central Brooklyn Jazz Consortium is “an organization of venues and individuals committed to the development and preservation of Jazz and related art forms throughout the Borough of Brooklyn.” If only these groups worked together.

The most recent Performance Workshop for Young Jazz Players held by Connection Works at Douglas Street Collective.

The BJU comprises six musicians—five men, one woman—all around the age of 40, from a variety of backgrounds: Danish, Catalan, Canadian and from Pelham (in northern California) and Manhattan (via Philly). Saxophonists Adam Kolker and Dan Pratt, bassists Anne Mette Iversen and Alexis Cuadrado, trumpeter David Smith and drummer Rob Garcia, have all had college-level musical training, teach as adjuncts, are composers as well as improvisers and generate original works that they typically produce themselves, when not serving as support players to more famous jazzers across the range of the genre.

They held a fifth annual festival in which all members led combos, often featuring the others, at Cornelia Street Café in Manhattan over two nights last week. They present themselves and friends on Sunday nights at Sycamore, a flower shop and bar in Brooklyn’s Ditmas Park. Garcia, the BJU’s spokesman, is also executive director of the B-based collective Connection Works, which runs a Brooklyn Jazz Wide Open concert series (its next show, April 13, features saxophonist Joe Lovano and bassist Scott Colley at the Brooklyn Conservatory in Park Slope). Connection Works runs performance workshops for tweens and teens, free to all comers, at Douglas Street Collective (next happening June 4).

The CBJC is rather different. As a fan- and business-supported grassroots group, its mission statement asserts interest in “the development of audiences and the nurturing of institutions and individuals throughout Brooklyn that deal with Jazz as well as other African-American cultural expressions… to build coalitions by working collective and sharing information with the aim of reestablishing the spiritual and emotional connections between African-American artists and their communities.”

Their Central Brooklyn festival runs throughout April—which the Smithsonian promotes as “Jazz Appreciation Month”—with events at more than a dozen locations, mostly in Fort Greene, Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights. The highlights include pianist Doug Carn’s Quartet April 11 at the club For My Sweet (1103 Fulton St.); fest artistic director Jeff King’s band at The Inkwell (408 Rogers Ave.) April 14; and an April 16 panel discussion on the “Women Behind the Music” followed by pianist Goussy Célestin’s trio at Bed-Stuy Restoration Place. There’s a childrens’ program, blues and jazz jams, a Brooklyn Jazz Hall of Fame and Museum Induction and awards and so on.

Neither the Central Brooklyn Jazz Coalition nor the Brooklyn Jazz Underground is ideologically exclusionary. However, I sat in on a CBJC festival panel last spring, and I heard attendees complain that white folks have taken over jazz, that black youth don’t know the music and so Brooklyn’s black culture/community is endangered. Several Central Brooklyn jazz aficionados expressed a palpable sense of embattlement, seemingly dismayed rather than pleased that musicians had drawn listeners from beyond their immediate circles, who came to the fest’s associated bars, restaurants and boutiques with money to spend. But isn’t that what a festival is all about?

If the Underground is distant from the Central Brooklyn coalition’s concerns, Garcia suggests, “Maybe it’s stylistic. They tend to present more straight-ahead, conventional jazz, whereas we lean toward newer trends, experimental kinds of things.” Well, not quite. His coterie has a progressive, but not radical or rebellious, bent, while CBJC mainstays—such as trumpeter Ahmed Abdullah, proprietor of Sistas’ Place—are as apt to draw on the legacy of Sun Ra, one of the furthest out of all American musicians ever.

A deeper look at Brooklyn Jazz Underground programs finds they’ve presented several younger black artists—most recently, brilliant drummer/composer/pianist Tyshawn Sorey. But the perception of a divide between black and white jazz, even in Brooklyn, persists. Does this column perpetuate that, or reveal complexities? Maybe both at once. Given history and reality, could it be otherwise?