When it announced the kick-off lineup, OKeh Records included pianist John Medeski, guitarist Bill Frisell, a duo project from alto saxophonist David Sanborn and pianist Bob James, and Tunisian oud player and singer Dhafer Youssef. The signing of Dominican pianist Michel Camilo was later announced, signaling more "global perspectives." But with all the label's self-promotional references to jazz and blues, how did black American artists get left out?
The conspicuous absence of black American artists from that initial batch infuriated noted trumpeter, composer, and bandleader Nicholas Payton so much that he questioned OKeh Records' cultural integrity in a blog post entitled, "Why Jazz Is So Not OKeh . . ." He gave a brief history of the label, which was founded in 1918 by German immigrant Otto Heinemann, who initially released whimsical, if forgettable, kitsch before focusing on jazz and blues after nailing a surprising success with Mamie Smith's "Crazy Blues." Not only was it a hit record, "Crazy Blues" was the first recorded blues song by an African American. From there, OKeh Records recruited Clarence Williams in 1922 to function as "race" recordings for its New York studios, and began building its legacy with an array of black stars ranging from Sidney Bechet, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Ida Cox to Little Richard, Major Lance, and Curtis Mayfield. After Payton's cliffs-note account of OKeh Records and its omission of any black American jazz artists in its new lineup, he quipped: "What a way to show gratitude towards a community that gave you life!" Four months after OKeh Records' reactivation, there have been no press releases announcing the release of any black American jazz artists. That said, DL Media did confirm that that the label has signed tenor saxophonist Craig Handy. As of this writing, though, there's been no announcement made about his forthcoming disc. Handy's presence may be a sign that the label may one day live up to its historical legacy, but if OKeh Records doesn't quickly sign more black American jazz artists, it'll remain open to accusations of tokenism.
Besides the cultural minefield, not having a significant black American presence with the re-launching of OKeh Records seems like a strange move from a business and artistic perspective. Why? Because no matter how much you tout the globalization of jazz, black American talent is very much a strong part of that artistic ecosystem, not just as a historical fact but also as a vital force for jazz's continuous innovation. Just look at the worldwide critical and commercial clout of current African-American jazz artists like Robert Glasper, Esperanza Spalding, José James, Gregory Porter, and Christian Scott. While UNESCO and the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz has chosen Istanbul as its host city for this year's International Jazz Day (New York City hosted it last year), there'll be a healthy presence of African-American artists such as drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, bassist Marcus Miller, and singer Dianne Reeves. So while there's no denying the musicianship of Medeski, Sanborn, James, and Frisell, OKeh Records has failed to explain how their music is more "global" than many of their African-American counterparts.