In the days when I was a lot more impressionable than I am now, I remember reading an interview with a celebrated avant garde jazz pianist. According to reliable sources of information, this artist could best be described as high maintenance in his modus operandi.
The jazz pianist complained about the plaudits given to some of the great concert pianists of the last century, saying that those musicians did not compose the music they performed, while he was creating new music a lot of the time. It is likely that many young people read the interview and took his complaints at face value.
A short while after reading the article, I saw a television programme with some friends that featured one of those concert pianists who was maligned in the interview. I remembered the jazz pianist’s complaints and mentioned them. Luckily, there were some older and wiser people present who explained to me that the concert pianist in question was a great torch bearer of Classical music tradition – for this reason, he deserved to be respected for his skills and talents.
I learnt from that encounter that some comparisons don’t really make much sense. The avant garde jazz pianist was a great artist in his own right. His recordings will serve as a testament to his improvising skills and his technique as an instrumentalist. He was making music in a completely different genre to the great concert pianist. The terms of reference for attaching value to their outputs had to be appreciated in the relevant context each time.
Black artists in Britain are currently in the process of negotiating terms of reference for our work. Hopefully the time will soon come when the contexts for the work we create and present will be clear to everyone.