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Questions of Bias at Jazz Festival, School

By Judith Scherr
Tuesday June 05, 2007

A Berkeley jazz school that has profited from tens of thousands of city dollars is remiss in hiring an almost all-white faculty, serves mostly white students and has engaged only a handful of African Americans for the Downtown Berkeley Jazz Festival, say local African American musicians and supporters. 

It’s like the master appropriating the work of the slaves, Samuel Fredericks, owner of Samuel’s Gallery in Jack London Square and specializing in African American art, told the Daily Planet.  

Fredericks is one of a group of people who have been meeting for about three weeks to address the question of how race affects the jazz community. In separate interviews with the Daily Planet, many of the group underscored that the discussions are aimed at giving African Americans their due, not taking away from talented white artists. 

“As far as the dominant culture is concerned, jazz is deemed too important to have been created by black people,” Fredericks said. “Whatever comes from a colonized people, you own it.” 

At issue locally has been the recent revelation that the Downtown Berkeley Jazz Festival, produced by the Jazzschool at 2067 Addison St., has hired few African American artists for the August festival. Almost simultaneously Yoshi’s, the celebrated Oakland jazz club, produced a 10-year anniversary CD with no African American musicians. (The CD has reportedly been pulled from circulation.)  

African Americans have been aware for decades of the expropriation of jazz, said Rhonda Benin, also part of the group meeting on the question. And so the problems at Yoshi’s and the jazz festival came as no surprise.  

Concerns around the Berkeley festival have been festering for the event’s three years of existence, according to Anna de Leon, owner of Anna’s Jazz Island in downtown Berkeley.  

De Leon said she was outraged a few weeks ago when Susan Muscarella, director of both the Jazzschool and the festival, sent de Leon an e-mail with the names of the artists she had booked at de Leon’s club for the festival. “She proposed four artists—there was no black group,” de Leon told the Daily Planet on Friday. 

` “I objected. I said that’s not OK,” she said. “My belief is that jazz originated in the African American community and comes out of the African American experience.” 

An e-mail from de Leon about the situation went the rounds of Bay Area jazz musicians, which led to a forum and follow-up show on Doug Edwards’ KPFA program Ear Thyme, several community meetings and a story Friday in the San Francisco Chronicle. 

Refusing to be interviewed, Muscarella sent an e-mail statement to the Planet, saying that the Chronicle article was “heavy on sensationalism.”  

In an apparent response to criticisms of lack of diversity, Muscarella said, “The stated purpose of the festival, incidentally, is to celebrate jazz and related styles of music from throughout the world. Part of the festival’s mission has been to reflect the diversity of downtown Berkeley, and it has accomplished that and more.” 

Muscarella further stated that as a female artist, “the minority throughout the history of jazz, I am particularly sensitive to any issue around discrimination and diversity.” 

The controversy over the booking, which Muscarella says is still in progress, led to the scrutiny of the Jazzschool itself, its board of directors and its faculty.  

As for the board of directors, there might be either zero or one African American on it, depending on whom you talk to. 

Another concern is the lack of diversity in the school’s Sunday concerts. Benin said she counted 25 Sunday performers on the school web site. “There were two black people in the line-up,” she said. 

Out of about 92 people listed as faculty at the school, “There are three, maybe four African American teachers,” jazz saxophonist Howard Wiley told the Planet.  

Wiley, who was born in Berkeley, said there is “no excuse” for not hiring African American teachers and performers, given the large number of highly respected black artists in the area. 

“There’s blatant bias right under our nose,” he said. “If the most left [area acts like that] what does it say for the country?”  

In a June 1 e-mail to the Jazzschool which he copied to the Planet, Wiley turned down an invitation to play at the festival. “Your attempt to quickly hire me and other black musicians seems to be damage control as you are well aware of the publicity around your racist hiring practices,” Wiley wrote. 

Adding fuel to the fire is that the city of Berkeley is listed on the festival web site as a co-sponsor of the event. Further, according to Economic Development Director Michael Caplan, the city has just refinanced and consolidated two loans to the jazz school, equal to $88,000. 

“Muscarella’s getting all kinds of public funding,” said jazz bass player Michael Jones. 

On Friday, Caplan said he was unaware of the controversy, but said he would discuss the question with Muscarella.  

Budget Manager Tracy Vesely said in an e-mail that the Jazzschool has received grants of around $3,000 in 2005 and 2006 and has been awarded a $9,000 grant for 2007. Civic Arts Coordinator, Mary Ann Merker, said the Civic Arts Commission looks at criteria such as diversity when it makes its awards. 

Muscarella told The Chronicle: “I hold African American heritage in high esteem. But I do choose quality and not ethnicity alone.” 

“Jazz is the highest order of our black music,” Jones told the Daily Planet. Muscarella “went to the Chronicle and told us we weren’t qualified,” Jones said. 

Rather than hiring highly qualified Bay Area artists who need work, “she’s shipping in a singer from Germany,” Jones said. 

Fredericks said, while the immediate focus is on the festival and Yoshi’s CD, “It’s much bigger than the flap over the Jazzschool and Yoshi’s. What’s happening now is the tip of the iceberg.” 

White musicians have the money and the power to reinvent history, he said, “to build monuments to themselves.”  

The group that has emerged from the controversy is looking for answers. “Nobody has a roadmap,” Fredericks said.  

“We’re ready for some real hard work,” Benin said. “Everybody should come to the table on this in truth and honesty.”  

The group meets at the Public Conservatory of Music in Oakland: 836-4649.