When it comes to talking about music, harmony is the last thing SFJAZZ wants.
For 18 years, the premiere jazz organization has largely let the music do the talking, whether through orchestral maneuvers or on-the-fly improvisations. Yet for a long time, it has really wanted to talk about jazz, in a way different from its traditional education outreach of school and community center assemblies, film screenings and music programs.
So this spring festival season, Dee Spencer wanted to make sure there was something people would talk about and decided to combine two American passions: jazz and race politics.
“Jazz & Race: Black, White, and Beyond” brings together for three days the top thinkers and shakers in jazz. The discussion that promises to produce the most heat is the first, 8 p.m. Friday at San Francisco’s Masonic Auditorium. The panelists include saxophonist and M-Base Collective founder Steve Coleman; UC Santa Cruz professor, activist and author Angela Davis, Washington Post columnist and jazz historian Nat Hentoff; Blue Note Records president Bruce Lundvall; and author Richard M. Sudhalter.
“These are people who would not ordinarily go out to lunch together,” says Spencer, the SFJAZZ director of education, “much less be in the same room and have a discussion together.”
Spencer, a pianist and professor of music at San Francisco State University, deliberately chose divergent viewpoints to provoke the spirited exchange she so favors.
“I don’t think slapping high fives for two hours is stimulating or informative,” she says. “I think this particular topic is extremely rare, extremely unique and fairly adventurous. I’ve never shied away from questions about race and jazz.”
The organizers spent two months agonizing over each question; Spencer compares the process to musicians coming onto a bandstand and taking a long time deciding their playset.
“We need a theme, we need a tune that everyone can solo on,” she recalls. How these discordant elements will play and improvise together promises to echo the spirit of the music itself.
Spencer won’t give away any of the questions, although the SFJAZZ Web site asks right off, “is jazz music black?” in its description of the special event. “I think it’s going to be lively,” she laughs. “I don’t think anybody is going to sleep through it.”
As moderator Harry Edwards sees it, the evening won’t be so much exciting as incendiary. The UC Berkeley sociology professor has spent much of his academic career fielding issues surrounding race, and compares such talks to walking into “a crowded minefield that could go off in any direction, from the insensitive to the insane. Race itself is an insane absurdity.”
An avid jazz-lover himself, Edwards grew up only about a mile from Miles Davis. In east St. Louis, “in the black side of town, in a segregated town, you could hear this music,” he recalls. No matter where he was, “I could put on some Miles and be right back in St. Louis,” he says. “This music was grounding for me.”
Edwards seems a natural to moderate the three-day event not so much for his qualifications, but for his doubts: “Why are we asking these questions?”
Talking about who made jazz, he explains, is like a bunch of people arguing who’s responsible for making a plane fly. “Well, I brought the wings, which make it fly.’ Someone else is saying, I brought the engine. Without that, you’re still on the ground ‘”
Posing a question such as “is jazz music black?” goes to the heart of how people define themselves by the music, Edwards observes: “Who we are, what we find beautiful, what expresses us, what moves us and what makes us feel.”
The timing of this three-day event follows in the wake of Ken Burns’ 10-part series on jazz.
“It was a total and absolute and wonderful coincidence,” Spencer says. “We couldn’t have planned it better if we tried.”
Both Edward and Spencer hope this will be an ongoing series, with future explorations on topics such as gender, Afro-Cuban influences, the Asian-American movement, even the parallels of jazz with science and athleticism.
Wrestling with race, Edwards says, speaks to America’s obsessions with issues like dominance. “But having said that, we probably have to go through it, to get past it to go beyond.”
Adds Spencer: “I hope this is just the beginning.”
Vera H-C Chan is the Times’ events editor. You can reach her at 925-977-8428 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
* What: “Jazz & Race: Black, White and Beyond”
* Where: Nob Hill Masonic Auditorium, 1111 Masonic St., San Francisco and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Forum, 701 Mission St., San Francisco
* When: Friday through Sunday. Panel discussion 8 p.m. Friday., symposium and discussions noon Saturday with authors Jon Panish and James Lincoln Collier, and Sunday with authors Scott DeVeaux and James L. Conyers.
* How much: $5-$17
* CONTACT: 415-398-5655, ext. 128, www.sfjazz.org