Book Review – Ain’t But a Few of Us: Black Music Writers Tell Their Story by Willard Jenkins

The paucity of Black journalists who write about jazz has been tackled with insight and honest observations by journalist and author Willard Jenkins in a new book that comes out December 2 called Ain’t But a Few of Us: Black Music Writers Tell Their Story (Duke University Press). Some of these issues have been discussed through the years in his blog called “The Independent Ear.”

Jenkins discovered this was an issue that caught a lot of professionals’ attention and they were willing to share their own thoughts and opinions. Here, musicians, journalists and other publishing professionals discuss their experiences with this phenomenon. With so many different voices and angles, this book stands as a valuable and intelligent inside view.

Part biography, part history lesson, part social perspective and part Q&A interview format, Ain’t But a Few of Us is well-organized, engaging and provocative with crisp writing.

How did you choose the writers in this book to interview?

It was not so much a matter of “choosing” the writers who participated.  I started this “Ain’t But a Few of Us” series in my blog the Independent Ear at www.openskyjazz.com.  If you read the Introduction to the book, you’ll see that the series began with A.B. Spellman, someone I knew from around D.C. and his executive work at the National Endowment for the Arts.  

The next two writers to participate were John Murph and Eugene Holley, who worked with me at the former National Jazz Service Organization and who consider me a mentor. From there, as it continued to gain momentum, I began reaching out to other African American jazz/music writers I was aware of from my reading experiences, some of whom would recommend others.  I also sought out writers I knew were Black from some of the Black perspective jazz publications I contributed to, like Jazz Spotlight News, Pure Jazz, and Jazz Now. The series just sort of grew organically as readers began to express interest in the topic and as other Black jazz/music writers and authors learned of the series and agreed to participate. 

What kinds of experiences did you find they all seemed to have in common?

There’s not necessarily a thread of specific commonality weaved throughout this series in terms of experiences.  And I think that’s the diversity of the viewpoints expressed in Ain’t But a Few of Us – the fact that these interviews are not based on a “common” set of race-related grievances; more of a compilation of experiences that may/may not have been colored by or dictated by race.  This book is decidedly not about a series of grievances or perceived “wrongs;” this is more about Black music writers speaking to their journeys and some of the occasional peculiarities related to their experience that certainly in their perception had much to do about race.  But again, I have to stress that this is not a volume about gripes and grievances.  None of these writers come off as embittered; more detailing issues and matters of race that have come up as either outright roadblocks or bumps in the figurative road of their journeys as music writers.  

Do you propose solutions or new approaches to the challenges and hardships the writers have experienced?

I just think that the pool of music writers of color and women needs to be broadened.  I had a conversation recently with a White jazz journalist who is investigating the possibility of building a mentorship program to encourage more Black music writers from succeeding generations.  I’m hopeful such outreach efforts can close this disparity of who’s writing about jazz.  And I think more needs to be said about the viability of writing about music, beyond the naked pursuit of money.  As I detail in the introduction, writing about the music provided me with a great pathway to explore other, quite fulfilling opportunities to work in the arts beyond writing about music full-time for a living. 

Do you feel that the notion of “ain’t but a few of us” is shifting with more Black voices writing jazz? Are the barriers to entry still around, more subtle, etc.?

 The “barriers to entry” are more about opportunity and vehicles.  As you know, writing about jazz and opportunities to write about jazz are not as prominent in our prints or online as are speculations about what Kim Kardashian is doing or what Beyonce wore to the Met Gala.  However, the online universe is serving a more diverse cadre of writers who no longer have to sit around awaiting the next assignment from a hard copy publication and can seize opportunities to report on things that strike them as important – a la your own experience with your interviews!  I think the message to aspiring Black, women, and writers of color who are immersed in music is more about the viability of writing about their music passions and where that interest might lead.  In Ain’t But a Few of Us, you’ll find more than a few contributors whose writing interests and talents opened important career doors or served as quite useful pursuits along their overall professional journeys.

Other comments?  

I hope this book encourages other Black writers – and women/people of color – with strong music proclivities and with a sense that there are opportunities to explore here – if for no other remuneration than invaluable access to artists, recordings, and performances.

For more information, visit https://www.amazon.com/Aint-But-Few-Us-Writers/dp/1478016396.

Photo courtesy of the author.

© 2022 Debbie Burke

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