What Happened to the Black People in Jazz?

Last evening, my husband and I went to a concert given by the Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra, and as usual we were treated to a wonderful evening of exciting jazz big-band music.  The group has been around for 20 years, playing the music of all the great names in jazz.  Here is a picture of the band:


This is the third year that we have been subscribers to their five-concert season, and they just keep getting better and better.  But I have noticed something that puzzles me.  Why are the band, and most of their audience white?  Jazz’s beginnings were in the black communities of the US South.  Greats of early jazz are Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Ray Charles, Art Tatum, Charles Mingus, Art Blakey, Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, and Thelonious Monk.  They were all black.  But today’s players and listeners are mostly white.  Where have all the black people gone?  Why are the award-winning high school jazz bands in Seattle mostly white?  Have black people abandoned the music tradition that they themselves started?  What happened in their community that caused this abandonment?

I have a thought, and it’s not a pleasant one.  I wonder if the breakdown of the black family that started in the 1960s contributed to the abandonment of jazz.  I wonder if the rise of gang culture in inner cities, and the rise of hip-hop music has led blacks away from their jazz tradition, toward a new tradition that is often ugly and misogynistic (calling women ho’s and calling for the murder of policemen).  Black people today have black role models in jazz, like Wynton and Branford Marsalis.  I am sad to see the black people of America being led away from a wonderful tradition that they should be unreservedly proud of, and that they should be supporting.  Might a trumpet or trombone, and a place in the school jazz band, help keep black kids off the mean streets?  I wonder.

2 thoughts on “What Happened to the Black People in Jazz?

  1. It is indeed a shame that Jazz has largely lost its inventors and key developers (hardly any important impulses in Jazz have come from white folks). This started indeed in the fifties and sixties, but I am not sure how much the family structures of African-Americans have to do with it. On the other hand, with the advent of modern Jazz, i.e. when Bebop started, Jazz lost large parts of its audience and especially the blacks. Instead of being an entertaining music, played in dance halls, it became an elitist form of art, sometimes difficult to understand.
    Unfortunately, in my view, Jazz has never recovered from that and still carries this aura.
    Pop, Rock and Rap have taken the space which Jazz originally occupied, the large dance floors, the music style which expresses the youth’s views.

  2. Hubby brought home the PBS series on jazz, and we have been watching for a while-it’s very long. It’s very enlightening. Since I’m not as familiar with the early history of jazz, I really appreciate being educated. Thanks!

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