Jazz Fest Still Lacks African American Artists

By Judith Scherr
Friday August 10, 2007

There have been a few African American artists added to the line-up at the Downtown Berkeley Jazz Festival since attention was called in June to the festival’s lack of African American participation. 

But not enough to clearly demonstrate the centrality of the black American experience in the creation of the music known as jazz, according to jazz vocalist and educator Rhonda Benin. Some 11 out of about 35 band leaders whose groups are slated to play at the Aug. 22-26 festival are African American. 

“We’re still underrepresented,” Benin said in an interview Monday with the Daily Planet.  

The issue, which festival critics underscore is not unique to the festival or the Bay Area, burst into local headlines in June when it was revealed almost simultaneously that the Downtown Berkeley Jazz Festival had hired few African American artists and that Oakland’s Yoshi’s had produced a 10-year anniversary CD with no African American musicians.  

With the sponsorship of the city and others, the festival is produced by the Jazz- school, located downtown, and is subsidized in part by city funds. Susan Muscarella is director of both the Jazzschool and the festival. She did not return multiple calls for comment. 

Critics say that, like the festival, the Jazzschool hires few African American instructors, and that it does not show in its curriculum an appreciation for the foundation of jazz, rooted in the experience of black people in America. In a written statement in June, Muscarella defended the festival: “The stated purpose of the festival, incidentally, is to celebrate jazz and related styles of music from throughout the world,” she wrote. “Part of the festival’s mission has been to reflect the diversity of downtown Berkeley, and it has accomplished that and more.” 

Benin is part of a group of African American musicians and their allies that responded with outrage to the lack of African Americans in the festival and represented on the Yoshi’s CD. (Yoshi’s, the downtown Oakland jazz club, issued an apology and pulled the CD at the time.) 

The group Benin works with has written a statement, still in draft form, that places criticism of the festival within the larger context in which the origins and ongoing African American contributions to jazz are widely ignored. 

Benin provided the draft to the the Daily Planet. 

“We … have come together to address what we sense as a general lack of presence of African Americans in Bay Area institutional, commercial and media jazz programming,” it says. “We see this lack of African American presence explicitly and implicitly as exclusion of our artistic and cultural contributions to music created and developed in our community, and this state of affairs has very real economic and artistic impacts on us.”  

The group underscores in the statement that it does not want to damage either the festival or the Jazzschool, but hopes for a real dialogue with these and other groups to promote understanding of the question. 

“Merely changing the numbers in the arts lineups will not solve the underlying problems,” the letter says. 

Benin said Muscarella ought to have entered into meaningful dialogue with the group. Muscarella had proposed a meeting, but wanted to decide who would be in attendance on both sides of the issue and who would moderate it, Benin said. 

Local jazz saxophonist Howard Wiley refused a June invitation to play at the festival, contending the invitation had been simply to boost the number of black musicians after the negative publicity.  

Speaking Monday with the Daily Planet from New York, where he was working, Wiley pointed to the addition of New York-based drummer Winard Harper to the festival lineup as a positive step forward. 

“I’m always the Berkeley optimist—only time will tell,” said Wiley, a Berkeley native. “I hope Susan has learned something from this.” 

In addition to her concerns about the underexposure of African American jazz artists, Benin said she is disturbed about the state of jazz education. She pointed out that the Jazzschool has a contract with the Oakland schools and fears the Berkeley school will bring in its non-African American instructors—it has very few African American teachers—neglecting the importance of passing on jazz as part of the African American heritage, she said. 

“The institutions of learning that offer, for instance, jazz courses without a discussion of the continuing social context of the music are doing a disservice to their students, the public and the music they purport to teach,” says the statement from Benin’s group, which ends with a call for dialogue.