Jazzmobile, the first non-profit organization dedicated jazz music that brought legends like Sarah Vaughan and Duke Ellington to the community, is today as vibrant as ever. For 47 years, the vision of Dr. Billy Taylor, to bring live jazz music to your doorstep, or even your backyard (literally), has brought the most ravishing and prolific performers out into the communities, rather than relying on the community to go find the jazz. Access, education, and great entertainment are some of the fundamental pillars to Jazzmobile’s purpose. The Revivalist was so privileged to speak to Linda Walton, VP of Programming at Jazzmobile about The Harlem Jazz Shrines Festival, the new “renaissance” in Harlem, and her “best of” memories of Jazzmobile performances.
When was Jazzmobile founded?
In 1964. It was founded by Dr. Billy Taylor, who is a noted jazz pianist and educator, along with Daphne Arnstein.
What was the first public program of Jazzmobile?
The first we did was a concert. We have a mobile unit that goes from neighborhood to neighborhood, performing jazz concerts. That’s the essence. So I guess the first event was this mobile unit going from neighborhood to neighborhood, providing access to jazz, which was one of Dr. Taylor’s missions, and reasons for founding jazz mobile, so everyone could have access to jazz, and it would not be hampered by their ability to pay or by proximity—basically bringing the music to the community and also heightening the visibility of jazz.
How do you determine what artists you would like to perform during any given season?
There are a number of artists that have a long history with Jazzmobile, and the nature of their work, our primary focus is on straight ahead jazz, but it’s certainly broadened to Latin jazz and other sort of explorations by jazz artists, but primarily it’s straight ahead. A lot of it is just the knowledge of myself and my colleagues. And like I said, resident historian Johnny Gary, who’s been around for over 35 years here at Jazzmobile. So based on collective knowledge, we decide on who performs, but for those artists, the ones who understand the mission of Jazzmobile, because in essence for those musicians who participate, it’s basically a give back. They don’t make a significant amount of money with Jazzmobile, but they believe in the mission. We do free concerts, so it’s to be understood that it’s about the music, it’s about the mission. Some artists are not willing to perform for our fees, but again a belief in the mission of the organization is very helpful in terms of who we decide to engage.
How long have you been with them for?
What about the work of the organization attracted you to work with Jazzmobile?
I worked in the arts for over 25 years, and have always loved jazz. A lot of my work began to center around Harlem. I had done some work at Harlem Stage, and also as the Events Director at Harlem Arts Alliance, so it was certainly interesting to continue to work in Harlem. I made a relationship with Jazzmobile at Harlem Arts Alliance so there was this natural connection there. There happened to be a position available in programming, and programming has always been a primary interest of mine. It was the understanding of the history of Jazzmobile, it’s position in the community, and my desire to continue to work with arts organizations in Harlem that drew me in.
Why do you think some of the younger generations are so estranged from jazz music? Some young people believe that jazz is now elitist and provides no space for them.
I’m not of the younger generation so I don’t know. I think they are in a better position to answer those questions. I typically don’t like to be drawn into those types of conversations because it’s really about the music. Everyone comes to it in their own ways, and in different ways. I mean, I was thirteen when my brother turned me onto jazz, and my preferences were R&B. I would sit and this music was really foreign music. I was like, “this is not my thing” and it was really awkward sitting there being tortured, but over time, the more I sat with him, the more I heard the music, and the more I was drawn into it. So that was certainly my experience, and listening to the liner notes and being interested in different musicians, that’s how I was drawn to it. Again, everybody comes to it differently.
There’s always—I guess in this world—some level of dissatisfaction with something. Each musician must decide for themselves, what they want to pursue, or what places they want—either institutions or organizations to have promote their jazz music. Is it their kind of jazz? Do they recognize it as something that they can relate to? So it’s really about getting to know, individually, however one comes to the music. It doesn’t matter to me whether they are seeing it at Lincoln Center, or if they are seeing it at one of the neighborhood concerts that we do. So long as jazz is happening somewhere out there in the world, if we can create this critical mass, I’m game.
I don’t quite feel the elitism. It’s just the nature of generations, and how they relate to each other. There are things that are particular to certain generations. There are points of reference. Sometimes there’s a level of maturity and an openness to understand those bridges and understand the differences, and the similarities. But I think each person has to come to those conclusions on their own, and you’re not trying to force one thing on the other. I’m not sitting there trying to force what Jazzmobile does on anyone. This is what we do. This is how we hope to advance jazz in our very small way. A lot of these places are trying to do something in their own way to advance music. Look at what Revive Da Live is doing, clearly. So there is some effort being made in a lot of different camps, if you will. But nevertheless, I think there is always a connective thread.
I think that the Harlem Jazz Shrines, it’s making an effort to find those connective threads preserving what is a rich history, while at the same time, understanding that this tradition does evolve, and it becomes or it is embraced by or experienced by people differently. Jason Moran, or any of the musicians participating in it, Wycliffe Gordon, all of them come to the music in very different ways. But for them, they are first and foremost, creative individuals to their expression, to their personal expression that they are trying to advance. So it’s not for us—or any of us, I would say—to interfere with that expression, or to compete or to deny that expression, or to diminish that expression because it’s not this, or it’s not that. Or someone might say, “there’s that old jazz.” They can say what they will. Or “those new guys, they really don’t know what they are doing.” I think that’s so irrelevant to the music. That’s my take on it.
We interviewed JD Allen the other day, and he said that he sees a new “renaissance” occurring in Harlem. Do you feel similarly?
Yes I do. I’ve been in Harlem since ‘82, so in certainly it has begun to change, and I’ve witnessed the changes since ‘82. Harlem has always been known for—it’s a place of innovation and creativity. I mean, take the Harlem Renaissance. When the components are all in agreement, that’s when this great creativity can take place. Now what’s beginning to happen, there’s a lot of new blood moving into Harlem. You have a lot more activity going on. There are many instances where to revitalize, or reenergize, or keep the arts very present. That kind of activity has really spearheaded what people call a new “renaissance.” I think that’s a good thing. Obviously there’s what’s familiar, and then there’s what’s unfamiliar. Sometimes there is this discomfort that is experienced by the two. Nevertheless it is happening. I’m happy that it’s happening. I think artists have so much to offer. There are these community buildings, not just there’s a developer that comes in and puts up a building, or there’s a new restaurant that opens, but I think the arts primarily, arts and culture is so critical to the development, and continues the viability of a community. The more creativity we have in Harlem, I think the better we’ll be.
It bridges those divides where there’s a difference of people. People may be dissatisfied about one thing or another, but say you can come to a Jazzmobile concert at Grant’s Tomb or Marcus Garvey Park, and everybody’s here for the music, it has this way of building bridges and taking away some of that tension that sometimes exists, I think it’s a great bridge builder.
How did the three organizations, Jazzmobile, The Apollo, and Harlem Stage decide to partner for the Harlem Jazz Shrines Festival?
This is why I love working in the arts, it’s a small word, I’ve been in the arts for 25-30 years maybe. The Executive Producer at the Apollo, Mikki Shepard, she was the founder and Executive Producer over at 651 Arts [Center] over at Brooklyn, and I worked with Mikki at that point. While we were at 651, Mikki developed the Lost Jazz Shrines Project. It was a national project with a focus on those jazz shrines that were noted in cities across the United States: St. Louis, Cleveland, and several other cities. In her capacity as an Executive Producer, she wanted to revisit this idea of the Jazz Shrines, with a focus on Harlem. I think that Jazzmobile would be an obvious choice. We’ve been doing jazz for 47 years. Our soul mission is to present, preserve, promote and propagate jazz—that’s what we do. I think we were natural partners.
Also, I worked with the team at the Apollo, and then at my role at Jazzmobile, so it was an easy collaboration. I can’t think of three finer institutions to do this. Even our focuses are. Look at the different programs at the different institutions, but it’s all focusing on highlighting these incredible institutions that are critical to jazz presence here in Harlem, and to preserve that. We wanted to also add a 21st century spin. I’m so intrigued and excited by the Jason Moran and Meshell Ndegeocello collaboration, the Fats Waller program. That’s just brilliant.
What has been your favorite show since being part of Jazzmobile?
I do know I can answer that. There are two, if you will just allow me…One was a concert that we did with Jimmy Heath, as part of our 88 Jazz Masters Program. Jimmy has been on board with Jazzmobile since the very beginning. He was certainly in conversation with Dr. Taylor in terms of the work that we do here, and certainly the education programs that we’re doing. We close out Grant’s Tomb every summer with Jimmy Heath, and as part of this 88 Jazz Masters Project we created this multilayered program, where Jimmy would be with a big band at Grant’s Tomb to close it out, but there was a threat of rain. And we didn’t know what to do, we didn’t want to call it and go there and have to stop, so we decided to move it indoors. We moved it to Riverside Theater, clearly much smaller than the Grant’s Tomb capacity, which was 2,500 or so. But the concert—despite the fact that we had to move it in, and that there was some confusion and some people couldn’t get in—the concert was MAGICAL. When you present concerts, there’s so much going on, sometimes you don’t get a chance to sit and just enjoy. But that night everything seemed to be all set, so I walked to the back of the theater to sit down with the production director, and the music was MAGICAL. It was unbelievable. That was one of my favorites.
The other one was with Yosvany Terry. We had done an extended residency with him back in 2009, we had him in the community, at different community sites, at a senior center, something in the schools, something at Harlem Stage, with Marcos Vega another scholar, and then we presented him as part of our concert series last summer at Marcus Garvey Park. We worked with him before, we presented him at Central Park, but some of our audience, the Jazzmobile audience were not familiar with Yosvany. Yosvany’s mother and father were in from Cuba. I tell you, I tell you, it was one of those moments where your audience was like “Why did they present him?” They were looking at Jazzmobile at what we traditionally present, and they now see a Yosvany Terry, who nailed it. Just nailed it. So those were my two favorite Jazzmobile concerts since I’ve been here. I think they represent two very distinct types of artists. One, a very legendary jazz artist, and another who has roots in another culture, who has chosen jazz as his vehicle for his expression. To see audiences respond to Yosvany was very satisfying.
Interview by Boyuan Gao