April 21, 2007
An Open Letter to Oprah Winfrey: A Jazz Alternative
By Greg Thomas
After watching your two-part town hall meeting: ’After Imus: Now What?’ I'm compelled to reach out to you.
I'm a native New Yorker with southern black American roots and an abiding devotion to the greatest music produced in the U.S.A’jazz. As a teen in the late ’70s, when hearing the scratching of LPs in the Park Hill section of Staten Island, I scratched my head in puzzlement.
Other than the infectious dance beats and a few catchy hooks, I didn't get caught up with rap since my mind was being blown by the sounds of Charlie Parker, Clifford Brown, Benny Carter, John Coltrane, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald and so many other great improvisers, vocalists and band leaders of jazz.
Maybe it's the old soul/old school in me, but to my ears rap sounded like child's play compared to the mature, sophisticated, earthy and sublime jazz music that I immersed myself in as a teen and since.
As an American concerned about the direction of our culture, and as father of a bright and beautiful 11 year-young daughter, I implore you, Oprah, to add the voices of jazz musicians to the discussion of ’Now What?’
There are many articulate, learned and passionate jazz musicians whose views will add dimension and insight to the discourse, and whose music provides an alternative, and even perhaps an antidote to the destructive images and words found in the more popular music of today.
For instance, there's the splendid bassist Christian McBride, 35, a young giant of jazz who's played with the elder statesmen of jazz, with artists such as Sting, David Sanborn and Pat Metheny, as well as with DJ Logic and Ahmir ’?uestlove’ Thompson of The Roots (his homeboy from Philadelphia.)
Another example is the superb tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman, 38, who graduated summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, from Harvard University in 1991. Like McBride, Redman has performed and recorded with his jazz elders, as well as artists and groups such as The Dave Matthews Band, MeShell Ndegeocello, Big Daddy Kane, The Rolling Stones, and Stevie Wonder. Redman was featured in the late Robert Altman's film, Kansas City.
Of course there's composer and trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, 45, artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, whose latest recording, From the Plantation to the Penitentiary confronts many of the same social and cultural issues discussed in your post-Imus town hall meeting. He's been vocal about these matters for over 20 years.
Queen Latifah, 37, an extraordinarily talented artist of music and film, would be a wonderful addition to a discussion among these artists, as Dr. Maya Angelou might agree, since she named Ms. Latifah as one of the well-known artists she respects and admires from the hip hop genre. She's also a very good songstress of jazz and classic R&B, so Ms. Latifah's point of view should be heard. Her father owned a jazz club in Newark, New Jersey, which in part explains her jazz chops.
McBride, Redman, Marsalis and Latifah are the tip of the iceberg of potential guests on a follow-up program to further this urgently needed dialogue, but, in my opinion, as good a group of artists to continue it with as any. But instead of just talking about the issues, perhaps they could also perform together on the show, demonstrating the power of jazz music to bring together those of differing viewpoints and styles.
Just as Jesus was not accepted in his own town of Nazareth, jazz is shunned by most Americans not exposed to its true glories, yet many in Europe and other places in the world recognize it as a fine art representing the best of America and black American culture.
By doing a show with the likes of those above, my beloved sister, you'd continue to turn the tide, raise awareness of, as Abraham Lincoln once said, the ’better angels of our nature,’ and bring even more exposure to the cultural excellence from which we as a people spring.