Not So Black And White In Brooklyn

Howard Mandel's latest column in City Arts, a New York City publication, muses on how jazz audiences, and sometimes jazz bands, sometimes still self-segregate on so-called racial lines. He points out two intriguing, concurrent phenomena.

Two jazz festivals overtly carrying the banner for the borough of Brooklyn recently launched: the Brooklyn Jazz Underground Festival, and the ongoing Central Brooklyn Jazz Festival. They share similar messages:

The Brooklyn Jazz Underground is, in its own words, "an association of independent artists with a shared commitment to creativity and community," and it "aims to build greater awareness of original music emerging from Brooklyn, N.Y." Likewise, the Central Brooklyn Jazz Consortium is "an organization of venues and individuals committed to the development and preservation of Jazz and related art forms throughout the Borough of Brooklyn." If only these groups worked together.

But they don't, really. Their members, presenting venues and audiences hardly overlap; as Mandel points out, the BJU are largely Europeans and white Americans working in Ditmas Park, Park Slope and Gowanus, while the Central Brooklyn Jazz Coalition is dedicated to "Jazz as well as other African-American cultural expressions," and is based in the heart of the borough's black community, including Fort Greene, Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights.

To understand this disconnect could make for a book about the history of jazz in Brooklyn. But I do want to offer one thought.

If we can now say we have Brooklyn jazz that is generally encoded as white, and Brooklyn jazz that is generally encoded as black, we're probably referring to musical sub-communities that can also be assessed in ways other than skin color. Neighborhood geography is one of them; I would predict that age, socioeconomic class and shared cultural experience of participants are others. Musical style — as in, what audiences hear as an end product — may be a factor; musical philosophies, and common musical histories among performers, are also possibilities. Given the relative frequency of multi-ethnic collaborations on jazz bandstands, "racial" fault lines within a jazz community at large are probably masking other significant divisions.

Anybody else notice what Mandel is reporting here — maybe even in places other than Brooklyn? [City Arts: The Jazz Divide] Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit