Long since Saunders King’s electric elevation smacked blues with reverberating amplification, Oakland has continued to be ground zero for a music, dance, and art that is particularly northern Californian while also being globally relevant.
Oakland is a giant. As undeniable as Tupac, as underground as Marvin Holmes, as glamorous as Sheila E., as powerful as Larry Graham and the Pointer Sisters, this is a vast neighborhood of rhythm; a place where everything exists at once under your nose and all too often unchecked.
Celebrating the genius that the urban experience generates, The Malcolm X Jazz Festival is in its 14th year. Organized by the Eastside Arts Alliance, the festival celebrates the legacy of Malcolm X with multiple stages of live music, graffiti arts, live painting, vendors, food and more.
It’s an ongoing conversation about Oakland’s social and musical histories that elevates the city’s often overlooked role in this planet’s jazz, funk, and hip hop scenes. Unlike festivals dreamed up over corporate marketing meetings, The Malcolm X Jazz Festival continues to swell from its community’s heart, just as it did 14 years ago when it sprang from a nascent Eastside Arts Alliance.
Consummate artist and Oakland native Traci Bartlow knows this. She is a 12-year core member of the East Side Arts Alliance who, aside from developing curriculum and teaching at Eastside’s youth program, developed one of the festival’s lasting community traditions: the dance cipher.
“In honoring the ideals that Malcolm X teaches in terms of knowing your history and culture and Black self determination, I didn’t want it just to be the typical dance battle,” says Bartlow. “I wanted the dance elements of this particular stage to really represent the culture.”
“In the dance ciphers we have a host, someone that is well known and knowledgeable in a specific dance style. As a host, they share history and information about [a particular] dance style and also have a DJ to play that style. So for one hour there will be, let’s say the House dance cipher. And in addition to the information that the hosts share, there’ll be some performance, as well as just an open cipher for people to dance,” added Bartlow.
Elena Serrano co-organizes the festival on behalf of the Eastside Arts Alliance. Sitting at the foot of the Alliance’s stage one afternoon, she recalled why, in 1999, her colleagues chose to focus on Jazz as the festival’s core genre.
“That was really a decision to choose an American music that grew up here, that is the United States’ classical music, for whatever that means, but rooted in the African American community,” says Serrano. “But also, there’s Latin Jazz and Asian Jazz, and Jazz in Hip Hop, so it was able to speak to all the different members of our neighborhood.”
As she spoke, a group of young artists, accompanied by an art instructor, filed out of the Alliance’s building to spray paint an announcement on a blank wall that serves as the Alliance’s de facto billboard.
In three or four script styles, the words go up letter by letter. Further down the wall, there sits a portrait of late poet and forerunner of the Black Arts Movement, Amiri Baraka, reciting into a stylized microphone as though hurtling his voice toward Oakland’s civic center. This year’s festival is dedicated to Baraka’s work and legacy.
“Baraka so much exemplified to us really working at your art, really crafting it,” says Serrano. “But also keeping it centered in your neighborhood and being as committed to art as community.”
A portrait of Malcolm X watches over the Eastside Arts Alliance stage from its perch above a set of windows that peer out at the avenue. From where she sits, Serrano can look down from the portrait and see the young artists finish their aerosol billboard across the street.
“This is an example of a community using art and culture to strengthen and build power in their community,” says Serrano.
The 14th annual Malcom X Jazz Festival takes place on May 17, 2014 at San Antonio Park in Oakland. For more information visit the Eastside Arts Alliance website.