Sholto Byrnes: Talking Jazz

"America's only original cultural contribution," wrote Miles Davis, "is the music that our black forefathers brought from Africa, which was changed and developed here." Davis was talking about black music in general, but his statement most certainly included jazz, and no one today would seriously dispute it.
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The Independent Culture

The issue of race in jazz was a serious subject in the early years. The headlines in issues of Down Beat magazine from the 1930s say it all: "Duke Ellington: A Black Genius in a White World" and "Should Negro Musicians Play in White Bands?"

The truth of the matter - that whatever the skin-colour of those who went on to develop it, jazz was and is the pre-eminent music of black origin - had to be recorded, argued Davis. "You won't see it in the history books unless we get the power to write our own history," he continued.

The Mobo Awards, founded in 1996, and whose shortlists are announced on Tuesday, provided an opportunity to add another page to that history book every year. Whoever walked away with the jazz prize (artists of any race and nationality were eligible) took part in a ceremony that honoured not only them but also the music's roots.

Given the long years when black jazz musicians were treated appallingly, denied the same pay levels as their white counterparts, forced to stay in different hotels in the segregated American South, and sometimes had to pander to racial stereotypes just to find work, this was of deep symbolic importance.

But the Mobos, an awards ceremony that declares its mission to be "to promote music of black origin", has decided that it doesn't need a jazz category any more. Ludicrously, risibly, but also insultingly, the reason given to Courtney Pine when he enquired about it was that the judges could not find five artists good enough for a shortlist.

I should remind the reader here that the shortlistees do not have to come from Britain, so their answer effectively suggested that the Mobo academy had trouble selecting five jazz musicians from anywhere in the world.

It's a disgraceful response. Pine says of the Mobos: "It was the only thing that recognised jazz in that way. Jazz was the stepping stone for rock'n'roll, rhythm and blues - all popular music. Folks have got to know that we've been excluded."

The Mobo organisation proffered a different explanation for dropping the jazz category when I called. The ceremony is being televised, I was told, and there simply wasn't time to include all the categories (so why create the new ones that they have?). "Categories are constantly under review and are sometimes rested for them to return in future shows - this is very normal for any awards show," runs the official line. "This was the case, for example, with Best Gospel Act, which did not feature last year but has returned this year." But it's not normal to "rest" categories - did the Whitbread book awards ever "rest" the biography category, for instance?

The Mobo organisers need to be bombarded with complaints, jazz-loving MPs need to be inundated with letters demanding action, and, if necessary, the event needs to be picketed by a large crowd of jazz musicians demonstrating with their horns why they belong inside. Excluding jazz is not just to remove the chance of recognition from younger generations, it is an act which insults the memory of generations now gone.