Annette John-Hall: New name or no, jazz is in trouble

Jazz pianist Orrin Evans favors changing the nameof jazz to Black American Music (BAM).
Jazz pianist Orrin Evans favors changing the nameof jazz to Black American Music (BAM). (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 06, 2012

It's lunchtime in East Mount Airy, and pianist Orrin Evans is working on a killer salad complete with boiled eggs, nuts, and colorful produce - a garden bounty. Healthy eating keeps his blood pressure down, Evans says.

So I'm guessing I'm not helping much when I bring up Evans' life's work, the African American classical music he is passionate about - jazz.

See, these days, just uttering the word jazz is bound to get some people's pressure up. That's because Evans, 36, along with a small group of multiracial, multigenerational artists led by New Orleans trumpeter Nicholas Payton, want to deep-six jazz - the name, not the art form - and resurrect it as Black American Music (BAM).

Why? Because "jazz died in 1959," blogged Payton last year. "Jazz was a limited idea. . . . Jazz is only cool if you don't actually play it for a living. Jazz musicians have accepted the idea that it's OK to be poor."

Ask any musician why they advocate BAM, and the reasons are as varied as a Sonny Rollins solo.

"The fact people find an acknowledgment of black music hard to swallow says a lot," says Ben Wolfe, a white bassist who is one of Evans' closest friends. "The music I play is black American music. It's something to celebrate.

"Why isn't that good news?"

The musicians pretty much agree that marketers have managed to hijack the name to define music that is anything but jazz.

Try Common, Mos Def, and Erykah Badu headlining at the Heineken Jazz Festival a few years ago.

"You've made it so I can't even get a gig at my own festival," Evans argues. "You've polluted my term, so why not drop the term?"

Generational divide

Jazz. BAM. In many ways, preference breaks along generational lines.

"I think there needs to be more discussion," says longtime Philly saxophonist and educator Tony Williams, 80. "I'm very comfortable with the name jazz, and I don't think changing the name is going to make a difference.

"I love Orrin, but I think he may be a little impetuous."

Evans says that when it comes to keeping the music alive, there's little time to waste.

He has always been proactive in engineering his own career. Whether it was teaching at Germantown Friends or playing free jam sessions at the local club, part of Evans' mission is getting his music to the masses. His Twitter and Facebook accounts serve as his personal publicists.

But despite all that he does to promote himself and his music, African American faces are still largely absent from his gigs. And that is Evans' greatest frustration.

"I love black people, and I want them to be exposed to the music," says Evans, the youngest son of opera singer Frances Gooding Evans and playwright Donald T. Evans. "But the music isn't marketing to us. In the last 20 years, I'd like to count the number of jazz musicians that have been on the cover of Ebony. Or Jet. Or Essence, if they're supposed to be reference points to what is hip."

Renaming jazz BAM would draw the desired audience, he says. "If it's about us, we'll check it out."

That kind of rationale doesn't ring so true to saxophonist Lovett Hines, 68, the Clef Club's director of education. Sure, African Americans created the form, but jazz evolved to include many stellar white musicians who contributed mightily: Benny Goodman (who paved the way for Lionel Hampton and Teddy Wilson), Stan Getz, Bill Evans.

"If you leave them out, you're not telling the full picture," Hines says. "Integration allowed the music to develop."

As a lover of the music, I'll say one thing: Jazz, BAM, or whatever you want to call it, is dying a slow death. Whenever I hear about another jazz-studies program slashed or yet another jazz club shuttered, I wonder what will become of the priceless gift my parents gave me.

The renaissance should come from revival, not name change.

"Beethoven is not interchangeable with anything else," Hines says. "Charlie Parker shouldn't be, either."


The Orrin Evans quintet will perform at Jazz After 5 at the Art Museum on March 23.

Contact Annette John-Hall at 215-854-4986 or ajohnhall@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @Annettejh.

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