By Medicine Hat News Opinion on April 8, 2021.
Truthfully there is no problem with jazz. Like it or not, jazz music has a long and rich legacy that tells the story of African pain being transformed into the majesty of the spirit expressed through sound. But you wouldn’t know that from the new curriculum proposed for Alberta’s elementary school students, whose music studies include the statement that “big band ensembles give jazz music a larger sound” as exemplified by music by Glenn Miller, and Mart Kenney, Premier Jason Kenney’s grandfather. Considering how generic it is and how much other vital information is left out, this statement is particularly gobsmacking.
Those of us who have formally studied and professionally perform it understand we are bearers of a unique culture whose most significant aspects are the direct result of black genius and spirituality. Big-band music was developed and perfected by black musicians before Miller or Kenney, who exemplified this “larger sound” after the fact. It is certainly a music built by many, but at its core jazz is a black story, stemming from ancient forms of West African music brought to America by peoples whose languages and arts were literally beaten out of them. The echoes of these wonderful African forms still resonate in jazz today: expressions of life, forbidden by slave owners, covertly coded deep into gospel, folk, and the early forms of New Orleans music from which jazz evolved. Thus, in many ways, a white jazz musician like myself is an ambassador, creating original music that transmits the core black DNA, which makes the best elements of jazz possible.
So to choose a relatively unknown bandleader like Kenney over the legends of the genre or a fellow Albertan, such as black vocalist and trombonist Clarence “Big” Miller, feels educationally criminal. Miller was not only an internationally recognized artist of his own, but also a member of the two greatest big bands of all time, led by Duke Ellington and Count Basie. I don’t sense this was race related, or anything more than lazy research on the part of the curriculum’s creators, but it does not help correct the notion that white people in positions of power inevitably act in ways that devalue black achievement, to put it mildly.
The story of jazz is one of black genius being taken on by white genius, and we must honour that legacy in small matters as much as large. For indeed the creation of this great American art form by black people is no small matter. It is a huge matter. Glenn Miller and Mart Kenney help tell the story, but in this case we must speak of our black brothers and sisters first, the black artists that made Glenn Miller, Kenney, myself and all other artists possible. It is not the “politically correct” thing to do; it is both the factually accurate and right thing to do.
Dr. Daniel Schnee is an anthropologist and former student of Pulitzer Prize winning jazz icon Ornette Coleman.