June 10, 2020
2020 HINDSIGHT REFLECTIONS
I need to do better. Everyone needs to do better, but this starts with me and my little world, so that’s what I’ll talk about.
I’m not an overly political person. I will say that I’ve never voted for a Republican and that my Dad was involved in the local Democratic party. He had me distribute campaign literature to all the houses in our precinct when I was a kid. My Mom marched in Montgomery in 1965 and smuggled books to Jews in the Soviet Union a decade after that. But me: I’ve never been quick to march or join causes or discuss politics. I don’t know why, really. Maybe it’s because I really don’t like confrontations. If something is burning a hole in my stomach, I’m more likely to work it out from a piano bench. That’s on me. That’s my baggage.
But what’s happening now isn’t about politics, really. It’s about humanity, and how people deal with each other when they don’t look alike. And it’s about how the playing field has been so uneven for so long, it truly blows my mind.
After living in New York for 13 years, I decided to move back to Chicago for many reasons. One of them was to get a fresh start and to play different kinds of music with different kinds of people, although I wasn’t quite sure how to make that happen. So I was completely surprised to find out how segregated Chicago was (and is); not just where people live, but also within the music scene. It still pisses me off when I hear someone refer to “a South Side guy” as a transparent reference to someone with black skin. I was lucky enough to start gigging right away, but almost never did I encounter people of color on the bandstand. But, as I said, I was pretty busy, so, even though I was disappointed about the lack of diversity, I didn’t do anything to change my situation. That’s on me. That’s my baggage.
One exception to that trend was when Dana Hall called to ask if I’d be interested in joining the Chicago Jazz Ensemble, a big band in which he and Jon Faddis had leadership roles. I said yes, and immediately noticed that the band was a very healthy mix of black and white faces, providing an environment that I’d so rarely encountered. It was a great feeling, and the band played a lot of enjoyable music at a very high level; I’m extremely grateful to Dana for offering the opportunity. Plus, it gave me the chance to make music with Chicago stalwarts like Larry Bowen, Pharez Whitted, Jarrard Harris, Bobbi Wilsyn and the legendary and recently departed Art Hoyle, in addition to Dana and Jon. My tenure with the band overlapped with a long run in the orchestra pit of “Wicked.” Oddly enough, the rather jarring disconnect between the lily white world of that orchestra pit and the “gorgeous mosaic” (ex-NYC mayor David Dinkins’s term) of the CJE provided me with a soothing sense of equilibrium.
I’m fully aware (and extremely grateful) that I owe a large percentage of my lifetime earnings to music that is born of the Black Experience, and that an even higher amount of the music that I love to play (and listen to) comes from the same source. The thought that I may have been given (because of my white face) opportunities denied to a qualified person of color (due to the “marketplace”) is a notion that truly horrifies me, and it’s one that floats through my mind every day. Struggling to know how to prevent that from happening, I reach out to anyone reading this for suggestions.
I hope that evolution kind of works like this:
1. An early generation engages in practices that we now realize are abhorrent, but was not realized at the time.
2. The next generation starts to realize the unfairness of these practices, but strives to keep the status quo due to self-interest.
3. The generation following those in step #2 starts to realize that changes have to be made, and takes steps to implement them using the established infrastructure, making progress agonizingly slow. Two steps forward; one step back.
4. The ensuing generation, generally fueled by youthful energy, decides that enough is enough, and speaks up with a new urgency. This finally brings about long-overdue changes, aided in part by attrition and the inevitable departure of those with Old School attitudes.
I realize that it’s fairly naive to assume that people in the power structure will change merely because “it’s the right thing to do”, so let me suggest reasons coming from two different angles:
First, in the macro-universe that is dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic as I write this, the black community is suffering disproportately, largely due to economic conditions that make social distancing and telecommuting extremely difficult. Even so, the virus is color-blind and, as a result, anyone can infect anyone. If we can more evenly level the playing field so that Bezos, Gates and Buffett aren’t worth more than the combined wealth of households in our country’s bottom 50% , then we will have created a safer and healthier environment for EVERYONE.
Second, in the micro-universe that is invested in the creation of art, consider the unlimited potential when artists of different backgrounds come together to combine their unique experiences. It takes a leap of faith to venture out of one’s comfort zone at the expense of what is familiar and safe, but the upside is certainly worth the effort. In Mayor Dinkins’s Gorgeous Mosaic, each component maintains its identity, but, when in collboration with other components, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, to quote Aristotle.
So, in this Annus Horribilus 2020, let’s hope that what appears to be a tipping point leads to far better things. Everyone needs to do better. Especially me. I’ll start by calling out anyone who is still comfortable with the old intolerant and marginalizing way of looking at the world. Angela Davis articulated it far better than I can: “In a racist society it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist.”