Jazz Was Not Meant for the Dinner Table
A funny thing happened on the way to "school," and "dinnertime" got really strange. Let me explain. When I was born in 1949, America's musical academia was paying little attention to jazz as an intellectual endeavor. In fact, there was an open hostility from classical music departments across the board towards the genre. Only recently has America begun to take any true African-American intellect seriously. The likes of Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, Henry Louis Gates and Maya Angelou; playwrights like August Wilson; of course, President Barack Obama; and many others from disciplines including science, business, technology and the arts, have all raised the ante for most in America. African American intellect and innovation can no longer be ignored.
But I want to talk jazz for a moment, because early on, jazz was recognized as an enormous intellectual endeavor by many classical giants upon its very inception nearly 100 years ago. That certainly was a good thing. But once pulled into the world of academia, minus its black creators, there was a general attempt to distill it down to essentially a series of Eurocentric musical formulas, e.g., the "blues" is simply a particular scale. Things like that were disastrous in terms of jazz education, and led to a generation of miserably mediocre jazz musicians.
That's what happened when we went to America's "music schools" starting in the '50s. It was a crushing blow that has only recently begun to change. However, in my opinion, that was nothing compared to what we got at "dinnertime." When white restaurateurs finally decided to bring jazz out of Harlem, in a misguided, albeit successful, attempt to get the big tourist money downtown, things really changed. See, jazz was not meant for the dinner table, or in many ways, not even the concert stage. It was meant for dance. Black folk danced to jazz — all kinds of jazz. As a result we were all over the radio, and all over the movies. But that came to a halt with the advent of television. Television is all presentation. I don't think anyone realized it at the time, but closing the dance floors was the kiss of death for jazz in terms of its big-time entertainment value.
The first victims were black folks themselves. They said if I can't dance, I'm going somewhere else. They ran to Rock and Roll and R&B — never to return.
Duke Ellington, The Dorsey Brothers, Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Benny Goodman, Ella Fitzgerald — all were entertainers. They had a look. They put a face on their music. It was entertainment, and intellectually stimulating at the same time. Once we went to school, and became part of the restaurant crowd, we got real boring. We were no longer entertaining. Oh yeah, there are a few people who find intellectual virtuosity and gymnastics entertaining, but not most people. Not when they have time off, let their hair down, and want to be entertained.
I'm not talking about us being clowns, or minstrels. We just stopped having individual styles. We stopped looking fabulous; stopped projecting our true personalities beyond the notes coming out of instruments. We allowed our presentation to become so humble, so meager, that people stopped paying attention.
Every other genre has its own bells and whistles to excite people for sure. But there are some tools that all entertainers have in common — lighting, staging, great audio, and most of all, personalities. We've come a long way with substance, but we jazz musicians have got to get back on track.
If we just add some ingredients from the rest of the entertainment world, people will view jazz as fun once again, and they will come back. If millions didn't love the music today, there wouldn't be what we call a catalog, and my father, Thelonious Sphere Monk, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, John Coltrane, Buddy Rich and so many more, would have disappeared. We wouldn't have had an International Jazz Day concert streamed to 1.2 billion people in 2013, and 2.5 billion people in 2014. None of that would be possible if there wasn't an inherent love of this music, ironically by Americans. We often love ourselves, and don't know it.
So I say to all my friends in jazz — musicians, promoters, club owners, listeners, and everybody — let's bring back the fun. Let's go big. That will bring the attention, and the money will follow.
Thelonious Sphere Monk, III (T.S. Monk) is an internationally acclaimed jazz drummer, composer, bandleader, vocalist and arts educator. The son and musical heir to his father, the legendary jazz composer and pianist Thelonious Monk, he is the co-founder and the Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz.