An artist I respect and admire once chewed me out because I wasn’t familiar with James P. Johnson’s Carolina Shout. The message was very clear: “Every jazz pianist should know this piece. Otherwise, you have no true relationship with the jazz piano tradition.”
Of course, my initial response to this statement was defensive. Who cares?!
Second: Guilt. Yeah, I should know this piece. I’d better check out Johnson if I want to be a true jazz pianist.
Third: Confusion. I do respect the jazz tradition. I’ve checked out lots of music from the 1920’s! I like music from the 1920’s! Why is knowing Carolina Shout so important?
Last: Acceptance. I don’t need to know Carolina Shout to make meaningful music. Maybe we’ll cross paths in the future, but for now, I’m going to keep on doing what I’m doing.
But one question remains: Why don’t I know Carolina Shout?
Here’s what I do know:
Most importantly, I know that I’m seriously dedicated to my craft and that if something warrants checking out, I check it out! I would describe myself as a diligent student of music.
But out of 22 years (I’m 25 now) of being in pre-school, elementary school, high school, music school, music camp and university, not one of my teachers ever mentioned James P. Johnson. I’ve been to many live concerts and I own a lot of music. I’ve never heard a performance of Carolina Shout. I’m not a jazz scholar (clearly), but I’ve read my fair share of biographies, blogs, essays, history books and theory books. I’ve never read about James P. Johnson. I’ve never seen or heard his name on television, the radio, magazines, newspapers, the Internet or any other form of mainstream media. And since hearing his name for the first time on this occasion, I haven’t heard of him since.
The real question: Why isn’t anybody talking about James P. Johnson?
I have no doubt that Johnson is an important figure in music history and that he contributed significantly to jazz culture. But if nobody talks about him, nobody’s going know him! If people talked about Johnson like they talk about Scott Joplin, George Gershwin, Oscar Peterson or J.S. Bach, then people would check him out!
The most telling part of this story is that I was one of ten pianists being chewed out that day. They never heard of him either! I’ll admit that some pianists are less diligent than others, but regardless, you have to admit that this isn’t only a case of pianists neglecting the jazz tradition. If ten diligent jazz pianists have never heard of a cultural icon, then something more revealing must be happening. I would argue that this is also a reflection of society neglecting the value of cultural preservation.
The deep question: Who’s responsible for preserving culture?
You are! We are!
If something moves us so deeply that we feel the duty to preserve it’s impact for later years and future generations, then we are responsible for making that contribution. The bottom line is that unless we do something about it, our generation is going to forget and worse, the next generations won’t know it ever existed! Write about it, speak about it, record it and perform it. And do it often!
It’s silly to assume that the younger generation will preserve culture. Not because their negligent, but because they can’t preserve what they’ve never heard of. The younger generation also won’t preserve what doesn’t move them. Carolina Shout was written almost 100 years ago. In cultural years, that’s a long time ago. And in many cases when it comes to art, the older it is, the harder it is for them to relate. Which is why you need the older generation to pass on their passion and enthusiasm. When I was young, my habits were at the mercy of the previous generation. Unfortunately, they missed an opportunity when it comes to the preservation of Carolina Shout.
(Side Note: This isn’t about Carolina Shout anymore. There’s a much bigger picture here. One that involves learning from our ancestors and not being part of a regressing culture.)
While we’re on the subject, a colleague of mine once gave me a funny look because I wasn’t familiar with Randy Weston’s playing. My best friend doesn’t know any songs by The Beatles and yesterday I heard someone laugh because their friend didn’t know who Susan Boyle was. For the diligent, this raises the last issue: You can’t know everything.
The lesson: Don’t chew people out for not knowing something. The reason they don’t know is because you never told them!
A compromise: I’ll give you permission to chew me out, but only if you chew out the entire jazz community too. We’re all in this together!
UPDATE: I’ve written a response (link)