Ililli Ahmed: The Gift of Jazz

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Ililli Ahmed

Producer: Odyssey Showcase

Playing at: National Gallery of Canada

Odyssey Showcase’s “The Gift of Jazz” and the Appropriation of Black Music History 

A review by Ililli Ahmed, Youth Editor

Hosted by Stefan Keyes and produced by the Odyssey Showcase, “The Gift of Jazz” enters among the ranks of appropriative Black History Month events, in which white folks capitalize off black culture whilst simultaneously claiming to be champions of diversity.

This truth is first captured upon one’s entrance to the event, hosted at the National Art Gallery on February 13th and 14th; crowds of middle aged white people filled the rows and seldom black faces could be found. The second giveaway was the realization that the self-appointed star of the show, Ms.Deborah Davis, a white woman, sang the majority of the chosen Jazz ballads from iconic black singers such as Ella Fitzgerald, Betsy Smith and Louise Prima. Her renowned co-singer, Michael. C. Hanna, exemplified African American artists such as Louis Armstrong, and Stefan Keyes was an accompanying vocalist on many of the songs, and performed an excellent solo near the end of the show.

Truthfully, for me to analyze this concert from a musical perspective would be amiss… I am in no way familiar with jazz singing techniques, nor am I a classically trained instrumentalist. From a social outlook, however, the ramifications of “The Gift of Jazz” are evident.

Based on its advertisements, “The Gift of Jazz” supposedly demonstrated the history of jazz throughout the late 20th century, from its African roots to the swing, blues and ragtime era, finishing with a demonstration of Black Canadian Jazz. What was presented, however, was a show in which a white woman took center stage, shamelessly singing negro spirituals and jazz standards pertaining to black civil rights, while incredibly talented Black guests, such as former English poet laureate Jamaal Jackson Rogers and talented gospel singer Sheril Shaw were tokenly featured, with Rogers performing two slam poet pieces describing the progression of Jazz and its influence on hip hop and rap and Ms.Shaw singing Aretha Franklin’s “Chains Chains Chains” and “Do Right Woman.” Both of their performances were absolutely jaw-dropping, especially Shaw’s solos, but both left me feeling empty, as their fleeting features were soon replaced by more of Ms.Davis’ singing. Besides the co-singing of Michael C. Hanna, their features in the showcase felt like a thinly veiled attempt at black representation in an otherwise white dominated production.

All in all, having taken time out of my busy schedule to attend “The Gift of Jazz,” I was incredibly disappointed and genuinely upset by its creation. Thankfully, the performances by Jamaal Jackson Rogers, Michael C Hanna, Stefan Keyes and Sheril Shaw provided rays of light in an otherwise gloomy showcase, all of whom exemplified the heart and soul of Black jazz. Overall, the devastating tokenization and appropriation of Black history was a great offence on the part of Odyssey Showcase producers, and Ms.Davis’s inability to grasp the importance of displaying Black jazz through Black artists was a shame to see. If you would like to support genuine Black art, however, please check out the incredible work of those mentioned above, and please attend Sheril Shaw’s May 30th concert, of which the details can be found in the attached photo.


About the reviewer

Ililli Ahmed is a Second Year Conflict Studies and Human Rights student , minoring in Public Administration, at the University of Ottawa. If you are a young Black person who would like to write for Black Ottawa Scene, you can contact her at ililli.s.ahmed@gmail.com for more information.

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