How a social justice reckoning changed the music at San Francisco's premiere jazz venue

ByJuan Carlos Guerrero KGO logo
Thursday, March 2, 2023
How a social justice reckoning changed SF's premiere jazz venue
SFJAZZ lets the fight for social justice play out on its stage as it reckons with past bias that harmed Black musicians.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- 2020 was a year of social reckoning in the United States. Many companies reacted to the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor with statements supporting racial equity.

Among them was SFJAZZ who had to reckon with past bias that harmed Black musicians.

She calls herself 'the artist from the hood."

Destiny Muhammad was born in San Jose but she got her music education in Compton.

"I can oftentimes hear and feel the spirit of those times and the energy of those individuals," recalls Muhammad.

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Her family moved to the Los Angeles area in the 1970s, a time when the Watts riots were still fresh in people's minds.

Muhammad listened to the message in songs like "Soul Saga (Song of the Buffalo Soldier)" by Quincy Jones and "What's Going On" by Marvin Gaye.

She liked music and was smitten as a nine-year-old when she saw Harpo Marx play the harp on the "I Love Lucy" show.

But playing the harp became just a dream since her family could not afford to get her an instrument.

When she was in her 30s that dream reawakened after she met a harp maker and signed up for classes.

She had to learn to read music and practice for long hours. The process was isolating but also alienating.

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Very few Black people played the harp. Muhammad did not identify with the people around her and most harp recordings were of classical music. But then one of her teachers told her about a musician from Detroit.

"She said there's a woman that you need to know because I can hear what you are trying to do. And there's a woman by the name of Dorothy Ashby," explained Muhammad.

Ashby was a Black harpist who gained fame for incorporating the harp in modern jazz and bebop, and later R&B music.

Muhammad soaked up the works of Ashby and of fellow harpist Alice Coltrane, the wife of saxophonist John Coltrane.

Through them, Muhammad learned to intertwine the music of these artists with stories of social justice and the Black experience in America.

"I just feel like this is me expressing all of me. I'm not going to be my contemporaries who are primarily focusing on European classical music, which is wonderful, but I need to be all of me and not going to edit that on my instrument," said Muhammad.

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The movement for Black Lives Matter and social justice in the summer of 2020 had SFJAZZ doing some soul-searching. Like other organizations, it put out a statement acknowledging systematic racism and its own biases that impacted Black and other musicians of color.

At the time, the leadership at SFJAZZ included four women and four people of color.

It was then that the music venue named Denise Young as its new chair of the board of trustees.

Young, who is Black, made sure the organization reckoned with its past and implemented steps to change its future.

"We wanted to hear more. We wanted to understand from the community's perspective. What we might be missing and how we might be excluding or not seeing," said Young.

Now, half the board consists of people of color, a third of them Black.

SFJAZZ has also broadened its view of jazz. It asked artists to create original works that include how they feel about racial equity.

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Young said she hears it in what she calls "the silence between the notes."

"Black musicians can play and express music in a myriad of ways. Sometimes there's quiet between a note and between a phrase. And sometimes we think it's quiet. And sometimes it's absolutely not quiet at all. Sometimes it is profoundly raging."

She points at British saxophonist and rapper Soweto Kinch.

"He's a young, incredible artist of African origin and he's got the same worries and frustrations and fears about getting safely from point A to point B. So why shouldn't we create a space for him to express that," said Young.

In May, Kinch will premiere his latest work, White Juju, at SFJAZZ. It touches on the racial upheaval and systemic racism.

"I want people to walk away hearing, not just how you played your instrument, but hearing how you feel about navigating in this world," said Young.

For Muhammad, the same battle for racial equity that she experienced as a child is still present today.

"There are times that I am walking and there is a smell or a feeling and it reminds me of 1970. It reminds me of that 'civil unrest.' The smell of smoke still in the air after the Watts riots. I can feel that time almost cycling back," she said.

Muhammad will also perform at SFJAZZ on March 10. She will perform a special tribute to Ashby and Coltrane, which will include a history of their contributions to jazz and social justice.

See more stories related to Black History Month here.

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