I’m Todd L. Burns, and welcome to Music Journalism Insider, a newsletter about music journalism. I highlight some of the best stuff I hear, read, and watch every week; publish news about the industry; and interview writers, scholars, and editors about their work. My goal is to share knowledge, celebrate great work, and expand the idea of what music journalism is—and where it happens. Questions, comments, concerns? You can reach me anytime at email@example.com. And if you’re not already subscribed to the newsletter, you can do so at musicjournalisminsider.com.
Today in the newsletter: Interviews with jazz expert Willard Jenkins; Groovin Mood editor-in-chief Dani Pimenta; and associate editor of the Journal of The International Association of the Study of Popular Music, Abigail Gardner. Plus! Reading recommendations, three incredible documentaries, and more! But first…
When early humans first ornamented themselves with stones or seashells, they invented glittering status symbols to evoke admiration and/or envy. Eons later, few contemporary figures have embraced jewelry’s aspirational potential more than hip-hop artists. - Oliver Wang
Willard Jenkins is the artistic director of the DC Jazz Festival as well as an arts consultant, producer, educator, and print and broadcast journalist whose work has spanned decades in the jazz world. His new book is the anthology Ain’t But a Few of Us, a collection of “more than two dozen candid dialogues with Black jazz critics and journalists ranging from Greg Tate, Farah Jasmine Griffin, and Robin D. G. Kelley to Tammy Kernodle, Ron Welburn, and John Murph.” In this excerpt from our interview, Willard discusses why he felt the book needed to be published.
As I moved around the national and—through various festival travel—the international jazz scenes, I was struck by how few Black writers were covering jazz. Considering the historic origins of jazz—to a great extent a product of the African experience in America—this was a puzzling phenomenon I observed for years. Particularly at some overseas festivals, journalists often hung together at concerts, meals and after-hours jazz opportunities. Always, I was the lone Black writer in the pack. This was a disparity I pondered for years. So, by 2010, I started a blog, the Independent Ear, on my website and developed a series of interview questions to pose to the Black jazz writers I was aware of. Eventually those conversations morphed into the book Ain’t But a Few of Us, whose title says it all.
The book is a series of dialogues with Black writers who, at points in their writing careers, have contributed to the jazz dialogue, many of whom have also written about other music. These conversations are all about their journeys in a somewhat biographical manner. However this book is not about grievances or a series of perceived wrongs; this is not a volume of aggrieved testimony. But when you’re a person of color in America, the elements of “race” are a part of your everyday existence, much less your professional pursuits. These are conversations about these writer’s journeys that at some points along those journeys their pursuits were colored or impacted by that specious man-made construct known as “race.”
Dani Pimenta is a journalist, music researcher, cultural producer and DJ, focused on Jamaican and Brazilian music relations. She is the founder and editor in chief of Groovin Mood, a website founded in 2008 dedicated to the reggae and sound system scene, as well as the creator of the Mapa Sound System Brasil project, which has mapped sound systems dedicated to reggae/dub in the country. It became a book in 2019 and an online platform in 2021. In this excerpt from our interview, Dani explains what she’d like to see more of in music journalism.
I really enjoy seeing content about regional music around the world, and how new artists have connected to the musical heritages of their places, and also how music from a certain place develops in other places through immigration, for example. It’s something that always interests me and always makes me excited to read! And I really enjoy reading about the music industry, I think it’s important that this kind of content is available to the public, especially for independent artists to be more autonomous in their journeys.
What would you like to see less of in music journalism right now?
It would be great if even the shortest and fastest content was always well refined, and sometimes this is not the case. I believe that the pressure to deliver content and the speed of information influence this aspect, but it is crucial to pay attention to this and maintain quality.
From Dani Pimenta:
In Brazil, we are going through a very difficult period economically and socially, and there are many people living on the streets and needing help. With the last government and the pandemic, the country is back on the hunger map, from which we had come off a few years ago. We have 33 million people living with hunger.
There is a local project here in São Paulo that I collaborate with and would like to invite people to get to know, called Solidariedade Vegan (“Vegan Solidarity”), led by the artist João Gordo, from the iconic Brazilian punk band Ratos de Porão, and his wife. The project feeds homeless people and always needs cash donations for food preparation and distribution logistics.
On three different occasions, Dutch documentary maker, presenter, and director Bram van Splunteren captured an important bit of music history on film. His body of work in the 1980s and 1990s for Dutch public TV station VPRO is vast, but I wanted to highlight three important documentaries that also made a significant international impact.
In 1986 van Splunteren and interviewer Marcel Vanthilt traveled to New York to shoot a documentary about hip-hop culture. In Big Fun in the Big Town, the two venture into Harlem and the Bronx to interview artists like Doug E Fresh, Schoolly D, Roxanne Shante, and a budding 18 year old rapper named LL Cool J. The film is a unique snapshot of a pivotal moment for the music; the beginning of a golden era of hip-hop, where rap turned from an extension of disco and electro into a harder, more outspoken, more engaged sound, as it simultaneously entered the American mainstream consciousness with Run-D.M.C.’s “Walk This Way.”
Over the years, van Splunteren maintained close relationships with several of his subjects, which led to him revisiting artists on film. A notable example was the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who van Splunteren followed on their very first European Tour in 1988, and many times after. For a feature in 1994, van Splunteren was the only filmmaker with access to guitarist John Frusciante, who at that time had left the band, and was at an extremely low point in his life, reclusive and heavily addicted to cocaine and heroin as well as suffering from severe depression. The heart-wrenching interview shows a fragile Frusciante playing songs from his first solo album and talking about the pressures of fame. The broadcast sent shockwaves through RHCP fandom and, to this day, is one of the most sincere and vulnerable pieces about addiction and mental health struggles in the music world I have seen.
For a 1996 episode of music show Lola Da Musica, titled Drum ‘n Bass - the jazz of the 90s, van Splunteren filmed three exciting new UK acts: Squarepusher, Source Direct, and Photek. Like the two documentaries mentioned above, it shows the artists in their own spaces; in this case their bedroom studios. Van Splunteren demystifies the creative process by showing his subjects at work in a comfortable environment instead of focusing on touring and fame.
Another interesting thing about this documentary, and quite unique for that time period, is that it barely mentions drum ‘n’ bass in relation to club culture at all, and instead goes on to legitimize the emerging sound as a form of innovative music standing on its own. (There are a few jazz detours in the documentary, intended to hammer the comparison home.) There’s also a hilarious contrast between the artists’ preferences for fast, expensive cars and the sorry state of their living rooms. In any case, the film had a big influence on bedroom producers, evidenced by Joy Orbison’s nod to the documentary with his sampling of “we used to like.. do our own thing” on “Ellipsis” in 2012.
What US political reporter wrote a recent book about the history of prog rock?
Abigail Gardner is Professor of Cultural Studies at the University of Gloucestershire. Among other pursuits, she’s the associate editor of the Journal of The International Association of the Study of Popular Music. Her key interests are music, gender, and ageing. In this excerpt from our interview, I asked Abigail why she finds these areas of research so interesting.
I started to think about listening in a different way because of Covid, and how my immediate sonic environment changed. This propelled me into using that idea, the act of listening, as the tool to approach all of my applied research and some of the current political stances on “noise.”
My work on ageing and popular music has been in evidence since 2012 when Ros Jennings and I edited Rock On: Women, Ageing and Popular Music. We were aware that this was a gap in academic work on the subject and over the past decade, have continued to look at aging in relation to audiences and performers and we wrote Aging and Popular Music in Europe in 2019 and that same year I published Ageing and Contemporary Female Musicians, both with Routledge (NY and UK respectively). As editor of the IASPM journal, we are publishing a special edition on aging and popular music which addresses topics such as aging hip hop performers, Schlager stars and Japanese pop music. My co-editors are Dr. Richard Elliott and Professor Line Grenier. It is a rich area and obviously, as I age, I can draw on personal experience!
Thanks for reading! In case you’ve missed any special features, I’ve published a number of them in the newsletter, including articles about music journalism history, what music journalism will be like in 2221, and much more. You can check out all of that here.
I also do a recurring column in the newsletter called Notes On Process. The premise is simple: I share a Google Doc with a music journalist where we go into depth on one of their pieces. It hopefully provides an insight into how music writers do their work. You can check out all editions of Notes On Process here.
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Semafor reporter David Weigel published The Show That Never Ends: The Rise and Fall of Prog Rock in 2017.
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