Is jazz music elitist? - Daily Monitor

Is jazz music elitist?

Sunday July 3 2011



Come October 7th, Kampala will- for the fourth time- hold a Jazz extravaganza themed Jazz Safari. And as usual, the Safari will have international headliners whose jazz pedigree has been applauded by thousands of fans worldwide and rewarded by all major awarding ceremonies.

This time round, the organisers of this year’s Jazz Safari have among the artistes they have ferried to our dusty streets is a gentleman called Howard Hewett. According to the popular US-based Rolling Stones Magazines founded in 1967, it considers Howard Hewett as the “premier vocalist in the post Marvin Gaye era of romantic pop.”

The famous artist/songwriter Babyface considers him among the finest artistes in the world. That is the caliber of the artiste that is to ply his trade in Serena Hotel at this year’s Jazz Safari. Doesn’t that sound all mouthwatering for all music lovers? Well not for everyone.

Actually very few appreciate or even understand the kind of music genre Hewett is to perform, let alone know the artiste himself. That is not all. Jazz music as a genre has been accused by some quarters as music for snobs, music for the elite or those that believe that they belong to a certain class-an upper class of sorts-that can only appreciate that kind of music.

It is that tag of “music for snobs” that has had almost all Jazz concerts in Uganda restricted to auditoriums of classy hotels and witnessed by the who is who of our corporate world. But for a music genre whose origins can be traced amongst the earliest black slaves in America who used to play it in their dingy bars, isn’t it ironic that it is now related with the elite of our society?

“To enjoy Jazz, you certainly need a sophisticated ear, not an elitist one. Jazz demands that you listen to it not just hear it. It’s a genre in infancy in Uganda hence the high ticket prices. In 1995 an ugly Motorola phone cost Shs2.8M and credit was bought in dollars. Now calls are literally free and all have phones! When numbers of Jazz lovers increase, ticket prices will reduce,” says Tshaka Mayanja, one of the organisers of Jazz Safari and a jazz connoisseur as well.

But it is not about prices of tickets, it is about that lack of mass appeal Jazz has with many Ugandans which if we are to rewind back time in the 60s, was never the case. Jazz music at that time was the in-vogue music. It was so popular that one of the greatest jazz artistes of all time Louis Armstrong actually held a concert in Kampala that was held at, no not a fancy hotel, but at Nakivubo stadium. It was a packed show as well.

“By then jazz was mainstream and on the charts. Music since then has evolved and new, easier to digest genres have cropped up. Jazz however remained for those that have a sophisticated ear. It became a delicacy.
The same can be said of funk, disco and breakdancing,” says Mayanja. “But you will be astonished at how Jazz is growing among the youth. Our database on Radio One’s jazz evening show on Sunday’s, is growing very fast,” he adds.

It could go down as one of the biggest music ironies. Poor black man’s music, now enjoyed by a Tusker drinking clientele. Or could the tide be turning. Last year’s jazz safari that was held at Serena Hotel pulled in the largest crowd ever with the crowd having an interesting mix of bank officer to campus student.