Is Black Music Worth Celebrating?

In the age of Auto-Tune, devoting a month to black music may seem like a joke, but it’s more important than ever.

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Imagine a music world without Duke Ellington, Miles Davis and Billie Holliday. It’s a scary thought. Now turn on the radio. Hurts, doesn’t it?

Thirty years ago, when President Jimmy Carter first designated June “Black Music Month,” it was intended for all Americans to appreciate black music and its place in the nation's blended musical landscape. It was a fine effort in 1979, when most mainstream black music was still really music. Of course, that’s not to discount John Legend, Alicia Keys and other stellar young musicians who are charting new creative ground. But sadly, much of what is touted as black music now seems far removed from even Aretha Franklin and Luther Vandross, let alone Miles Davis and John Coltrane. A vital connection to the old school has been lost. And much of the new school deserves a failing grade.

Bridging the gap between Ellington and today's forever-falsetto R&B singers and corporate-backed hip-hop artists should be all the more critical in June, when the contributions of black musicians are celebrated through concerts, documentaries and a top 100 countdown of the all-time greatest hip-hop songs. In an age in which Auto-Tune and ringtone hits dominate, should we even be celebrating Black Music Month?

The answer, of course, is yes. If you consider that most celebratory months are used to educate young students, there is enormous potential value in Black Music Month. The key to making the month worth something is taking it from canned marketing campaigns and music marathons on black radio to a month aimed at expanding young people’s sense and understanding of black music.

Michelle Obama took a notable step in the right direction this week by hosting 150 middle school students and high school jazz musicians (along with first daughters Malia and Sasha) at an afternoon jazz concert in the East Room of the White House. Riffs, flourishes and bebop-shebangs filled the room. On stage, two generations of musicians jammed to a syncopated rhythm.

In an interview with The Root, Wynton Marsalis, who played at the event, likened Americans’ relationship with music to our relationship with food—a penchant for the cheap and fast. “We don’t look to those foods for nutrition,” he said. “Commercial interests have reduced music to a product instead of an art.”

Nutrition—the nourishment of young minds—was at the top of the agenda at the program, the first installment of an ongoing White House Music Series. Watching the award-winning trumpeter encourage the students to hold their heads up after their solo and to feel good about what they were playing, it was impossible not to lament the death of school music and arts programs in recent years. Countless studies have shown that technical lessons about how to play an instrument and the lessons of character that go along with it—like learning to feel proud of your hard work and accomplishments—spill over positively into academic achievement and personal development.

To host a jazz concert in the People’s House stressing the “importance of jazz education in every school across the nation” will hopefully make kids “alive and aware of other music besides hip-hop,” as Mrs. Obama said. It will be interesting to see if the recession-era policies the Obama administration ushers through the West Wing will help or hurt the expansive efforts Mrs. Obama is making in the East Wing. But with a president and first lady who clearly admire the arts, the signs are promising.

To make Black Music Month really mean something, we should all get to work. Maybe you’re a semiprofessional musician with the patience to teach. Go volunteer! Maybe you’ve got a neglected clarinet in the back of your closet that needs a new home or an old piano that’s been sitting unused for years and just needs a good tuning and someone to play it. Donate! For Black Music Month to have any meaning in the years to come, we need to nourish young talents who will shape the nature and scope of black music going forward.