The State of Black Music and Beyond: The Jazz Inspiration By Eulis Cathey
Jazz Radio Host and Producer]
Music has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. From childhood, it has been as integral and essential as any experience I’ve had in defining who I am. I was fortunate to grow up in a household filled with music; my father, who was a member of a vocal quartet in high school, played the music of the Mills Brothers, Nat King Cole, Johnny Mathis, Sarah Vaughan and others. He was also a fan of pianists, like Oscar Peterson and Earl Grant. I heard a lot, and listened to as much as I could: the music of Motown, Stax, Atlantic, and all of the popular artists of the day. I was an instrumentalist as well, studying clarinet and piano, and later singing in vocal groups and choirs. So I have always been immersed in music. But when jazz became the musical focal point of my life in my teens—with the sense of wonder, creativity, discovery and improvisation that is at the heart of it—the term Black Music took on a whole new meaning. Because it was then that I realized the correlation between the music I grew up with and the new music and sounds that now enveloped me. I recognized the continuum; the arrangements, solos, song structures of classic R&B, and the logical connection with jazz.
I was a Jazz announcer in college, while pursuing my communications degree, and upon graduation, after a few years in television, moved to a professional position in jazz radio. My career then moved in a pivotal direction: to the record industry. I joined the Black Music Divisions of Island, then Virgin Records, and have also held executive jazz positions in A&R and promotion with several labels, including Verve, Atlantic, and N-Coded Music. It was an enriching time; working for all of these labels provided an incredible perspective on the true scope of what black music truly means...and is. Not just R&B and jazz, but the music of the African Diaspora: African to Caribbean, Reggae to Brazilian, and more. And let’s not forget the fusion era, beginning with the explorations of Miles Davis at the dawn of the ‘70s, that spawned the likes of Weather Report, The Mahavishnu Orchestra, Return to Forever, and many other groups. All of this leads me to the future. Over the past couple of decades, in R&B, hip-hop, popular music, and in jazz, musicians have, in their own way, sought to break boundaries; to create their own fusion of genres. This restlessness—the need to present your art in new and exciting ways—is what keeps music alive, fresh and invigorating. Whether it’s Kendrick Lamar, Robert Glasper, Terri Lyne Carrington, Esperanza Spalding, Kamasi Washington, or any of a number of others who are pushing the envelope, these forays are what musical growth and expansion are all about. With each passing day, the idea is for the music to continue to change and evolve, but always with a historical base. To maintain a reverence for the past, with an eye toward the future, with each successive generation adding to the story.
Some of the issues that my colleagues have mentioned during this series (streaming vs. radio, the future of terrestrial and commercial radio, the continued exposure and education of our youth to jazz) are very real and pressing concerns. But never underestimate the power of creativity. The influence of black music, in all of its forms, is a cultural juggernaut in this society, and with jazz music as a creative core and inspiration, it will continue to be so. In the face of extraordinary challenges...black music will prevail.
Eulis Cathey is a veteran of more than 35 years in radio and the record industry. He is an independent producer and artist manager, and can heard on SiriusXM Satellite Radio’s Real Jazz and Watercolors channels, and WBGO, 88.3 FM in Newark, NJ. Cathey’s essay, “The Jazz Inspiration,” is part of the Living Legends Foundation’s series on “The State of Black Music and Beyond.”