When Beale Street Was Hot, by Greg Tate

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December 2022 Issue [Readings]

When Beale Street Was Hot


From an interview with the critic and historian Greg Tate, conducted for Ain’t But a Few of Us, a collection of conversations with black jazz critics, edited by Willard Jenkins, which will be published this month by Duke University Press. Tate passed away in December 2021.

Hip-hop, when it was younger and fresher, marked the first time in African-American history when the majority of writers covering a genre were black. The cultural ignorance of non-blacks about black culture and hip-hop created openings and opportunities for black writers at the birth of hip-hop, when the fan base was largely black. The ratio flipped once corporate interests took control. The music became more predictable and redundant, and the most talented, most thoughtful black hip-hop writers became less interested in writing about it.

With jazz, the problem is that so few educated African Americans even support it, preferring black pop. Certainly Cornel West refers to himself as an “intellectual jazz man,” and you have other people like Houston A. Baker Jr., who has written a book on the blues and critical theory. I’m thinking of that generation that came through, whose intellectual maturity occurred in the Seventies, when you pretty much understood black music, particularly jazz, to be part of the black liberation project. That thinking really manifested itself in the post-Coltrane music that was being made on the funkier side of fusion—Herbie Hancock, Norman Connors, and a lot of the collectives, like A Tribe Called Quest, the Awakening, Doug and Jean Carn, Horace Tapscott, and so forth. I think people very much had the sense of the music being at the center, and even at the front lines, of the grassroots politics of the era.

But the real problem with jazz is that it’s no longer a form of expression where what black musicians do or don’t do matters to most black Americans. Jazz has more meaning for black Americans as a history lesson than as a living, breathing cultural experience. It’s not on black radio or on black TV programs; it’s not in black schools, neighborhoods, or churches. The question is how much longer contemporary jazz will even be considered a “black” art form in America. If culture is defined as what people do, then we can say that, in significant numbers, black people don’t do jazz anymore.

My parents are from the Memphis of the Forties and Fifties, when Beale Street was hot. Pops said, “When we were coming up, the musicians were not placed on a pedestal above the community, they were part of the community, and you went to see them, and they were in the black community.” You could go to a bill with six or seven acts for a dollar. Now, if Beyoncé is playing at one of the stadiums in New Jersey or somewhere, folks will save up two hundred, three hundred dollars for that ticket—that’s where their entertainment dollar will go. We find the money to support the things that we have a taste for.

At the end of the day, it’s really going to be the musicians who turn the tide through how they connect with their particular generation. That’s the thing with Kamasi Washington: a lot of the younger people I know, when The Epic came out, went and got the three-album set, and that’s all they played every morning. That’s got nothing to do with hype—if that’s all you needed, a whole bunch of cats would be better known. But there is something about Kamasi’s music. He is coming right out of that Seventies tradition, what people now call spiritual jazz, cosmic jazz, or pan-African jazz. Those brothers could have gone a lot of ways with the music, and they chose something that is really reflective of the neighborhood. It’s in the oral tradition of the music, the music being what my father talked about as a community enterprise. When I went to see Kamasi at the Blue Note, I said, “Man, I ain’t seen this many folks under thirty coming to see anything at the Blue Note, probably since Wynton Marsalis.” But I think that’s where you get into the real mystical qualities of the music. I think those things are the community source.

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