Does Jazz Need to Be Renamed?

Saxophonist Sonny Rollins with President Obama (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Saxophonist Sonny Rollins with President Obama (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Annette John-Hall examines the debate surrounding the push by a small group of artists who want to change the name of jazz to Black American Music, or BAM. Their reason? The genre died in 1959 and needs to be revitalized.


It's lunchtime in East Mount Airy, and pianist Orrin Evans is working on a killer salad complete with boiled eggs, nuts, and colorful produce — a garden bounty. Healthy eating keeps his blood pressure down, Evans says.

So I'm guessing I'm not helping much when I bring up Evans' life's work, the African American classical music he is passionate about — jazz.

See, these days, just uttering the word jazz is bound to get some people's pressure up. That's because Evans, 36, along with a small group of multiracial, multigenerational artists led by New Orleans trumpeter Nicholas Payton, want to deep-six jazz — the name, not the art form — and resurrect it as Black American Music (BAM).

Why? Because "jazz died in 1959," blogged Payton last year. "Jazz was a limited idea … Jazz is only cool if you don't actually play it for a living. Jazz musicians have accepted the idea that it's OK to be poor."

Ask any musician why they advocate BAM, and the reasons are as varied as a Sonny Rollins solo.

"The fact people find an acknowledgment of black music hard to swallow says a lot," says Ben Wolfe, a white bassist who is one of Evans' closest friends. "The music I play is black American music. It's something to celebrate.


"Why isn't that good news?"

The musicians pretty much agree that marketers have managed to hijack the name to define music that is anything but jazz.


Read Annette John-Hall’s entire column at the Philadelphia Inquirer.