Broken Turtle Blog

Broken Turtle Blog

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Jazz and Poverty

In addition to my interest in uncovering Delaware’s literary past, I’m also interested in uncovering the story of jazz produced by Wilmington’s past musicians since the 1930s. Many know about the contributions of the legendary jazz trumpet player Clifford Brown, but fewer know about the contributions made by those like Lem Winchester, Betty Roché, Gerald Price and others both living and dead. All of the aforementioned have made a mark, to some greater or lesser extent, on the American jazz idiom.

For me the history of Delaware’s literary past is compatible with the history of Wilmington’s jazz. There are a couple of notable parallels regarding the two: the first is the influence they’ve had upon their respective segments of American culture and the other is the lack of respect they’ve received from purveyors of our local cultural establishment. While I firmly believe that the shabby treatment of our literary past has more to do with its content, which tends to deliver some unwelcome truths, the lack of curiosity about our local jazz heritage has more to do with ignorance driven by a kind of covert racism.

Wilmington is a small city of less than 100,000 people. Unlike larger cities that can accommodate its population of poverty, like Philadelphia, Boston or New York, by also containing large middle class and upper class populations, Wilmington’s large population of poor and lower middle class people is too easy to see. A visit to Wilmington’s downtown Market Street any day of the week will demonstrate my point. After the sun goes down on any night, including Friday and Saturday nights, the city’s a virtual ghost town. People from surrounding suburbs are hesitant to come into Wilmington for many reasons. Cultural venues featuring the performance of jazz are sparse, and the long standing 2nd Saturday Poetry Reading, which had been located in the city for over 20 years, has moved out to a suburban location which is inaccessible by public transportation. In fact, local public transportation basically doesn’t exist Saturday night in Wilmington and is inadequate between the city and surrounding suburbs the remainder of the week, which has had the affect of fueling Wilmington’s inability to pull itself out of poverty.

If I may be permitted my artist’s prerogative to invoke some vision of the greater truth, I see inner cities like Wilmington as the convenient dumping ground for a byproduct of capitalist accumulation. That byproduct is poverty. I firmly believe that the amount of poverty is an indication of the amount of wealth accumulated, hoarded and hidden away by the capitalist class for the last 150 or more years. The abject poverty found in the Third World, in failed states especially, is proportional to the amount of excessive wealth that is used as a resource to exploit, poison and threaten those millions living in poverty around the landfills and open sewers of Third World cities.

Back in Wilmington poverty runs deeper than the inability to find a good job (accessible only by inadequate public transportation), by the inability to get out from under housing provided by slumlords, and by an inner city where the illegal drug trade engenders excessive criminal activity. Poverty is more than merely economic. Poverty of the spirit accompanies the poverty of economics.

In a city where once clubs that hosted live jazz dotted its east side and downtown, there is only one club in a gentrified neighborhood on the western fringes of the city where live jazz is regularly performed. There is still a plethora of talented jazz artists in Wilmington that are grossly disproportional to available venues, but are only heard occasionally at venues sponsored by a local church or in a public park or private club. These events are spotty and the musicians are almost never paid. They play merely for something called the love of the music.

Having written literature for more than 50 years, I have come to firmly believe that creating a cultural product for free or little remuneration, much like nearly all of Wilmington’s hugely talented remaining jazz artists, is an indication of our cultural poverty, engendered by those grim reapers of the economic wealth we produce for them, which in turn could have produced a vital cultural wealth for the rest of us. It is easy for the capitalist to impoverish those like the local producers of jazz because they can initially dump the poverty they produce in a place, hidden behind a kind of insidious subconscious racism we have yet to deal with, and almost too easily, yet very conveniently, retreat, as the local 2nd Saturday Poetry Reading has done, into the suburbs. By the same turn, we can deny that such poverty, both economic and cultural, is important, because those who live and try to find a livelihood in the city which we can avoid visiting can easily be ignored simply because we don’t have to see them.

1 comment:

  1. Good points Steve. If there was a golden moment for the jazz and music scene in the city for people like me, it happened in the 1970's, as the counter-culture started ten years earlier seemed unstoppable. Most visible were the clubs which burst upon the scene, with many of them from Market to Union Streets serving as music hot spot shuttle stops. The Flight Deck was open for business, with Art Blakey, Horace Silver, Al Grey, Jimmy Forrest, and other notables. The city was on a roll. What happened?

    To get the good feeling back, we have to look at the real heyday for "the music" in town, from the end of World War Two, to the beginnings of the Vietnam War. That's why people like (former WTUX and WILM announcer) Maurice Simms are essential. Much of the rich history of this period has only been handed down verbally by Simms and a few others over the years to those of us who took the time to listen (Maurice's story of Dizzy Gillespie encountering Clifford Brown for the first time is golden).

    In Post World War Two Wilmington there was a midnight curfew for clubs. While it sounds awful, that law helped things along as world-class musicians liked playing early sets and getting done so after-hour house parties could start that much sooner. I only wish someone had recorded the music at such places, much the way photographer W. Eugene Smith did in New York City in the 1950's (Smith moved into a loft along Sixth Avenue, which became a jazz musicians haven...a hangout for Thelonious Monk, Zoot Sims, Bill Evans, and hundreds more, and Smith recorded it all for 8 years ( has a lot of the tape in their vault).

    Through this golden age, cultural richness continued on Wilmington's East Side, unbeknownst to most of us in other parts of the city and New Castle County. Our comfort zones were being fed a steady dose of "Hit Parade" radio songs (Doris Day's version of "Tweedly Dee", instead of Laverne Baker's, etc.), and we read the news that was fit to print in the News Journal. It took awhile, with the Civil Rights movement, the assassinations, Vietnam, Apartheid, and other stimuli which drove us to the brink and invariable change. By the 70's to me it looked as if Wilmington culture was finally getting the exposure it deserved and needed to survive. Sadly, this crescendo gave way to the collapse we see today.

    Wilmington's Jazz scene was never widely appreciated. The promise of expanding it in the 70's was replaced by the Reagan backlash of the 80's. Combine this with a constant battle with racism and you have the recipe for ruin. But in concluding these thoughts, I have to inject something else to blame for the cultural erosion: too much stimuli.

    Radio is dying, and in its place are self-absorbed i-pod programmers. ALL types of music are caught in the cross hairs by this Balkanization. We are left with an American Idol culture, where diverse artistic expression struggles for recognition and survival. The Brave New World technology, combined with racism, provides a potent poison. When it comes to figuring out how we can rekindle the little flicker of hope we had for jazz 30, 40, or 60 years ago, as usual I'm all ears.

    Pete Simon