Racism has been a plague on humanity reaching back to the Pharaohs over 5,000 years ago and continues to haunt us to this day. I was disheartened when the Black Lives Matter marches began as a result of black deaths at the hands of police. Why? Because fifty years ago I became personally aware of racism with the assassination of Martin Luther King and the resulting riots that impacted my community. We all know that jazz originated in New Orleans when black musicians applied the rhythms of Africa using the European instruments available to them. A unique American music was born and shared with the world. Black musicians struggled then and continue to face challenges today. Check out Billie Holiday’s 1939 recording of “Strange Fruit” as haunting today as it was eighty years ago. It was not too long ago when Sammy Davis Junior was not permitted to stay at Harrah’s here in Reno and instead stayed at Bill Harrah’s guest house. Today’s article reflects my conversations with black musicians and singers who have performed with the Reno Jazz Orchestra (RJO) to get their thoughts.
Jamie Davis has performed with the RJO on two occasions and travels the world singing classic big band jazz in the tradition of Joe Williams. In some respects, things have not changed since the 1960’s when many great black jazz musicians like Miles Davis and Dexter Gordon moved to Paris to live and perform. In Europe the pay was better, jazz fans filled the clubs, and stress of race relations was much less than here in the states. Davis says the same is true today when he travels overseas. Better pay, better accommodations, recognition of what he brings to performances, and a lot of TV interviews. Even countries you do not consider jazz meccas love jazz. He recently performed in Baku, Azerbaijan to an audience of all ages who knew and loved jazz. For several years he has been invited to perform in Saint Petersburg, Russia during the White Nights festival. Note, the festival celebrates the summer days where the sun never completely sets. Jazz performances are held in the Jazz-Philharmonic Hall Arts where Miles Davis performed in an intimate club. The room has been named in his honor ever since. Russia has had big bands for over seventy years and many musicians Davis performs with have studied jazz in the U.S. So why not move and live in Europe? Davis’ simple answer is it is not home and after his travels he looks forward to coming back home.
Davis believes jazz has been, since its inception, an active participant in inclusiveness. In 1935, Benny Goodman created his chamber jazz trio that included Teddy Wilson. Later he added Lionel Hampton and Charlie Christian to the group. Bold moves then, when black musicians could perform onstage, but the audience was strictly white and of course the black musicians could not enter the theater through the front door.
What are the challenges in today’s jazz world to keep moving forward? The first and foremost may be economic. Jazz recordings and performances make up a very small part of America’s overall entertainment industry so there is little financial incentive for record companies to invest in jazz. It is nearly impossible to make a living performing in the few remaining jazz clubs. As early as the 1940’s European governments funded radio big bands, many of which continue today. The WDR big band based in Cologne is a prime example. Davis believes non-profits (like the RJO! Thank you donors) are an important piece of the puzzle. There are many non-profits across the country promoting and supporting jazz. San Francisco’s SF Jazz is a great example. Marcus Shelby is a local artist in residence writing music and producing concerts tapping the uniqueness of jazz in San Francisco. Last year Shelby composed background music for an Angela Davis’ “Blues Legacies and Black Feminism” May 24th, 2019 concert. A mix of music and spoken word. Another avenue is through our universities where jazz is now an accepted discipline of study. Davis noted his good friends; Trombonist Charles Hamilton, Pianist Shelly Berg, and Baritone Saxophonist Aron Lington are all university professors on the forefront of jazz studies. I need to do a quick UNR Jazz Studies shout out as well!
Lastly, I asked Davis about diversity on the bandstand. Reno is not as diverse as larger cities and finding exceptional musicians of color to perform with us is a challenge. He noted even when he has a gig and hiring musicians, it can be difficult for them to accept the gig. For example, he was hiring a band for a jazz cruise out of Florida, but many of his first call musicians could not take the gig because they could not take the time off from their day job. To help with diversity here he is going to connect me to exceptional black musicians in the Bay Area and I am going to figure out how we can bring them up to play with the RJO … stay tuned!
Tahoe resident Guitarist/vocalist Trey Stone has performed with us on several occasions and you can hear him on our CD “Bring Me the Funk of James Brown”. He was inducted into the Rhythm and Blues Hall of Fame and like Davis has traveled the world with such bands as Rose Royce and Undisputed Truth. Stone had very similar experiences performing in Europe ten years ago; they treated him like a rock star! Growing up in southern California during the 1960s and 70s he did not experience racism but did when visiting his aunt and uncle in Fayetteville, North Carolina. They went to a movie theater where signs indicate white patrons sat downstairs and colored patron must sit in the balcony. One tour with the band Deee-Lite, they rented an old bowling alley in Covington, Kentucky to rehearse. Rehearsals were in the basement where there were still signs above doors that said white only or colored only. It was shocking to him. For several years he had a weekly gig at Harrah’s and it still feels weird to him knowing he could go in through the front door but Sammy Davis Junior could not back in the day.
Stone believes school music programs are key. As a child he would hang out by the music room to listen to the band and eventually the band director came over and asked if he wanted to come in and play. That simple act started a music career that has taken him around the world. He feels fortunate to have the opportunity to perform with the RJO and the feeling is mutual.
Pat Esters and Lori Johnson first joined the RJO on “The Jazz Soul of Porgy and Bess” and have come back many times. Esters as a lead vocalist and Johnson as the vocal arranger/singer. I asked them about their local experiences. Esters grew up in Reno and learned to cope with being the only black person in the room for many years during her professional career. She said that racism comes in all colors, but strongly feels that music is a uniter, a bridge across troubled waters. It is a gift that both performers and audience share.
Johnson was an army “brat” who did not experience racism while growing up. In fact, she became close friends of other service members’ children that continues to this day. Parents are the key and both of her parents led by example. They both laughed about everything and were well liked wherever the family moved. She preferred the schools and housing on base rather than when the family lived off base and she had to attend a local school. Johnson moved to Reno fourteen years ago and felt she was invisible, in the room but ignored. Reno cultural blackness is covert in the sense that the community does not want to discuss the issues we know they are there, to avoid friction. She was disappointed in her company’s Juneteenth educational video that took the positivity of the Juneteenth celebration by attaching the death of George Floyd. Turning Juneteenth into a negative. Our youth need positive alternatives they can choose to direct energy from racism. Johnson has an idea to shape their lives with music. GirlTrek is a national non-profit that encourages women to walk as a first step to inspire healthy living. Johnson says it is a tradition handed down from the time of slavery when the only time black women could congregate and talk freely was when they got together for a walk. She wants to provide our youth a positive outlet through song/rap/dance by organize traveling student teams that would perform at public events such as basketball games at halftime, traveling to other state’s high schools, and Artown.
The spirit of Oliver Nelson’s great ballad “I Hope in Time a Change Will Come” is in me when I see the new generation of all colors standing together to help change our world for the better. Let’s make it happen!
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