Jason Moran talks jazz and gentrification

October 16, 2018

Maurice Jackson, associate professor of history and African-American studies, and Jason Moran, the university’s distinguished artist in residence and composer of the score for the movie Selma, held a discussion, “DC Jazz: Stories of Jazz Music in Washington, D.C.” in Copley Hall on Oct. 2.

The talk, moderated by Dwandalyn Reece, curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, explored the intersection of race, class, history, and jazz in D.C., and discussed how gentrification is suffocating once-thriving cultural institutions.

Jackson, who edited a recent book on the history of jazz in the District, likened the city’s culture to the title of the 1963 John Coltrane album “Both Directions at Once.” The tension, Jackson said, is characterized by historic cultural institutions like jazz clubs on one hand, and a rapidly gentrifying cityscape that is pricing out those institutions and longtime resident on the other. “Buildings are going up everywhere, and people are being forced out,” Jackson said.

Jackson pointed to the transformation of U Street to illustrate the conflict in the district between historic black culture and gentrification. “U Street is a centerpiece. It is the black Wall Street, and also the black 125th Street,” Jackson said. He described it as a convergence of black music, art, intellectualism, and business.

“These high forms of art come together on the street,” Jackson said. They manifest themselves in the street’s jazz clubs, he said, many of which are under threat of closing due to rising rents.

Moran spoke specifically on the March 2016 closing of the historic jazz club Bohemian Caverns. The U Street club, frequented by Duke Ellington, was a home to local black music and culture for decades.

“Generations of people have showed up here to listen,” Moran said. “Now that basement sits empty. To me it’s a big wound to the city, that a corner where we have gathered for so long sits empty, because mostly a price-tag.”

Moran described a trend of developers turning this culture into a commodity to market to an affluent clientele, evidenced by the new upscale U Street apartment complex The Ellington. “They sell the idea of the culture, meanwhile wiping it away,” Moran said. “It’s a really strange place that the music sits in, because not only does it get disregarded at one point, but then you turn the corner and then it’s sold at the other.”

Still, Moran said he envisions an upswing for jazz in areas like U Street in Harlem where clubs have largely been priced out. One method he proposed is for local governments to give loans to artists. “As long as there’s a footprint for where we can go, that corner where Bohemian Caverns was. Too many millions of people have walked that corner to go hear some music,” he said.

Reece said that a lack of public knowledge of the city’s history was to blame. “A lot of people have cultural and historical amnesia,” Reece said. “They don’t know the history of these places.”

Moran believes the city government can become the defender of D.C. history, sticking up for a culture he sees as disrespected by many residents and developers. “The city owes it to the musicians who live here to create the culture that attracts people that they then try to sell,” he said.

Peter Guthrie
Peter is a sophomore in the SFS from Kentucky who looks like he still listens to Vampire Weekend.

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