Art of Cool Festival
Photo by Alex Boerner
Taharqa Patterson sings with Revive Big Band
Friday, April 28, 2017
Various venues, Downtown Durham
Music festivals bring up a lot of feelings. There’s delight, excitement, curiosity, and most of all, exhaustion. Rarely, though, does an experience at a music festival inspire the kind of visceral frustration I felt bubbling up inside me Friday night.
But let’s start with the good: judging by the crowds, Art of Cool was off to a good start for its fourth year. Early in the evening, Christian Scott
offered a mesmerizing set at the Carolina Theatre. The sound of the trumpeter’s distinct, golden horn gleamed over his backing band’s intoxicating mix of thunderous percussion, fitfully detailed bass, moderate, slick saxophone, and fuzzy, celestial keys. The group's foray into trap jazz
toward the end of its set was fascinating, with two seemingly disparate forms of music rendered into a new amalgam by Scott and his team of experts.
Later, the powerful young women of St. Beauty
masterfully commanded The Pinhook’s small stage, offering a set of strong, smooth songs that managed to turn up and mellow out all at the same time. The band was a necessary antidote to what Revive Big Band
had offered up the street just a few minutes earlier.
The performance, an expansive effort that promised “a journey through the legacy of black culture,”
seemed like an ambitious and exciting project. Its mission was to tour the many branches of black music in the United States. That influence is significant: we wouldn’t have the blues, soul, funk, or most rock ‘n’ roll without people of color. It seemed inevitable, if forgivable, that something
might get left out, given the breadth and depth of the subject matter. My initial qualm was that the journey’s stop-and-go format felt abrupt and jerky, but as I continued to listen, a much larger problem revealed itself.
Across the program, which ran almost eighty minutes, only one woman’s music was included: Aretha Franklin. She was mentioned in passing as the band launched into “Take My Hand (Precious Lord),” a gospel song written by James Dorsey.
So, sorry, Memphis Minnie, Bessie Smith, Big Mama Thornton, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, Eartha Kitt, Billie Holiday, Mahalia Jackson, Etta James, Bessie Jones, Grace Jones, Sharon Jones, Dionne Warwick, Diana Ross, Alice Coltrane, Patti LaBelle, Whitney Houston, Tina Turner, Laura Lee, Millie Jackson, Roberta Flack, Lauryn Hill, Gladys Knight, Chaka Khan, Mavis Staples, Meshell Ndegeocello, Janet Jackson, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Mary J. Blige, Erykah Badu, Missy Elliot, Janelle Monáe, Beyoncé, Solange. Y’all just didn’t make the cut of black women whose contributions to American music are worthwhile. Was there only room for one?
I doubt it. The program sure had time to squeeze in a chunk of Kanye West’s “Gold Digger,”
tacked on to Ray Charles’ “I Got A Woman.”
The band also gave a shoutout to Chuck Berry, the recently deceased rock ‘n’ roll pioneer who installed a camera
in the ladies’ bathroom of the restaurant he owned so he could videotape women using the toilet. There was also time for Pharaohe Monch to spit a verse in “Desire”
about how his pen is a penis, the penis-pen’s ink is sperm, and the pages on which he writes are ovaries—lines that are as biologically unsound as they are absurd (and, quite frankly, gross). Thelonious Monk, Howlin’ Wolf, J Dilla, Louis Armstrong, Little Richard, Lonnie Smith (who also performed with Revive Big Band, his hands fluttering beautifully over the keyboard of his organ), and J. Cole were among the other celebrated artists.
While it’s not entirely fair to call the program outright misogynistic, its content—or perhaps lack thereof—highlights a pervasive problem within the music industry and the world at large. Women, especially women of color, have consistently been written out of history
, and Revive Big Band’s demonstration was another unfortunate addition to that pile.
The lack of work by women of color from a program that claims to explore the depths of black music is disrespectful to those artists' vital creative legacies. At best, their absence is a thoughtless omission on the part of Revive Big Band, indicating a patriarchal line of thinking that considers men the default and women merely auxiliary features.
There were moments where program’s exclusion of women reached a near-sickening irony. The ensemble welcomed a fantastic guest vocalist, Goapale
, to the stage, only to have her sing Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground”
and Donny Hathaway’s “Someday We’ll All Be Free.”
Goapele didn't get to perform any of her own songs
, but Monch performed three of his.
Women of color have given us so much already, in art and far beyond. We owe them better than wiping them out of the stories they helped write.