Where We Are, and Where Do We Want to Go?

As America grapples with who it wants to be as a nation, there is another reckoning on the horizon

As America grapples with who it wants to be as a nation, there is another reckoning on the horizon — around racism, sexism, and class disparities in jazz.

The season of social unrest, ignited by the killing of George Floyd, has opened a long-closed door to substantive and much-needed conversations around race and social justice. Like the rest of society, the creative community struggles to process the brutality, protests, and riots they witness. On the heels of a pandemic that left stages dark and venues silent, artists also need platforms where their voices can be heard. 

The 2020 Jazz Philadelphia Summit welcomed the voices of over 250 participants, including 60 presenters, and served as a vehicle for conversations around equality and equity in jazz. Our keynote speaker, Terri Lyne Carrington, has been deeply immersed in social justice issues and is the Founder and Artistic Director of the Berklee Institute for Jazz and Gender Justice. She brought lived-experience as a female musician and expertise as an arts leader to an engaging conversation that set the tone for other critical Summit sessions. MacArthur fellow Vijay Iyer presented a provocative talk on anti-blackness in the music industry. Finally, Melvin Gibbs offered a compelling historical perspective on protest in jazz. Conversations were sometimes tough, but everyone agreed that we must keep having them.

The Summit also offered actionable solutions for dealing with the shock to our stages that the pandemic has wrought. Entrepreneurial artists such as Orrin Evans, Michelle Lordi, Emmet Cohen, Jazzmeia Horn, and Anthony Tidd shared their strategies for adapting to the new challenges, including innovative approaches to presenting and monetizing their music. Presenters of jazz events of varying sizes and from different regions offered their learned experience on live streaming and opening safely. The conversations revealed a commonality of challenges whether the venue was the Monterey Jazz Festival or Chris’ Jazz Cafe. 

With the 2020 Summit behind us, the work continues. Jazz Philadelphia gathers the jazz community throughout the year via our working groups. The Musicians and Artists Working Group participants have been willing to engage in uncomfortable conversations. Those discussions have led to a mutual agreement to embed issues around equality and equity in our programming, including the Co-op Program, Intergenerational Jazz Jams, and the future Philadelphia Jazz Festival.

In fact, the need to support the marginalized in our community has come up in nearly every conversation in our Working Groups. The sexist, and what many would define as patriarchal, history of jazz is not just limiting opportunities for women and girls to perform and study the music. It is restricting the development of the music itself. In our Education Working Group, we explore strategies to support women and girls in their aspirations to study and perform the music they love, including developing a mentorship program.

Jazz Philadelphia is unique in our role and responsibility in the community. We have built trust in the community as a neutral convener. We are the only organization created to improve the jazz ecosystem for everyone—and that’s exactly what we intend to do, by listening to the voices and lived experience of our community via our Collective Impact Work. 

Admittedly, this is deep work requiring commitment from all participants. Thankfully, our Working Groups have leaned into this painstaking process, one that does not yield the immediate satisfaction of a concert performance or a student recital. It’s critical work nonetheless.

For this work, there are no tickets sold, and there is no applause. Nonetheless, these discussions are leading us to solve problems at a systemic level. We are grateful for our community partners and funders who recognize the value of a long-term investment of time and resources. We are grateful to you for your trust. 

I hope you’ll offer thoughts of your own, whether in comments on Facebook posts of this article, in blog comments, or in personal correspondence to me. I look forward to hearing from you.

With Appreciation,

Gerald Veasley
President, Jazz Philadelphia