Gil Noble: Jazz, Journalism, Lessons and Legacy

After 43 years on the air, last Sunday, ABC’s Like It Is came to a sudden and saddening end. Emmy award winning producer and host Gil Noble suffered a stroke this past July and the fate of the program had been subsequently undetermined. The last episode, which re-aired yesterday, was hosted by ABC newscaster Lori Stokes and featured Noble’s daughter Lisa, Bill Cosby, Danny Glover, Al Sharpton, journalists Bill McCreary and Les Payne, and New York City Councilman Charles Barron, who praised Noble’s maverick style of journalism, having profiled political prisoners like Assata Shakur and Mumia Abu Jamal. Noble, who has interviewed some of the most prolific figures in American history, from Adam Clayton Powell, to Muhammad Ali, to Bob Marley, is known for being one of the most provocative journalists of our time. With Noble ultimately becoming unable to return to the public affairs program, ABC has developed a replacement called Here and Now, which is creating push back from the Black community for its seemingly half-hearted development. There is also concern that the new program, while promising to pay particular interest to topics relevant to the Black community, will not be in the same raw spirit, which is Noble’s legacy. If that’s to be so, it’s a real shame. There has been no other program that has given voice to the totality of Black America — politics, current and public affairs, arts, culture and more — than Like It Is. Further, I can’t think of a journalist more progressive, introspective, and passionate than Gil Noble. He was also the first image of a Black journalist that I had ever seen, which made an indelible impression on my conscious and subconscious young mind. Growing up watching Like It Is every Sunday was as routine as afternoon football, church, or any other traditional Sunday activity. Being part of a household which nurtured both the arts, and social and cultural awareness, Like It Is was a reflection of my real life lessons and experiences, particularly as it pertained to jazz.

Read more articles by Angélika Beener!

Noble, an accomplished pianist who initially pursued a career in music, is an avid jazz lover. He has been on the Board of Directors and involved with Jazz Foundation of America for many years, and he frequently showcased jazz musicians on his program. Unlike the comically short and incomprehensive interview segments that are so typical when it comes to jazz profiles on television, Noble would dedicate his entire program to the likes of Oscar Peterson, Sarah Vaughan, Dizzy Gillespie, Abbey Lincoln, Dr. Billy Taylor, Lena Horne, Max Roach, Carmen McRae, Erroll Garner, and Wynton Marsalis. His narratives, in-depth and introspective, helped develop my broad view of how jazz musicians could be perceived beyond my own personal understanding. Noble presented jazz in journalism from a vantage unlike anyone else. He was not only a student and lover of jazz music but a strong advocate for young people having a solid education on the subject.

During his interview with jazz pioneer Sarah Vaughan, she takes him on a tour of her Newark, New Jersey home town, which included a stop by her elementary school. The children playing in the school yard of the building gravitate toward the cameras and chat it up with the host and his subject. As they begin to walk away, Noble stops in his tracks and addresses the students through the school’s gate. “Do you know who this lady is?,” he asks. He then responds to the rounds of flat “No’s” with, “No? That’s part of the problem, isn’t it?” Noble’s blunt yet eloquent scrutiny was his signature. As he walks away he underscores, “If you don’t know who she is, when you go back to class, ask your music teacher who she is, and why she never told you about her.”

I may have been fortunate to have been exposed to the arts and jazz since childhood, therefore enjoying the reinforcement on television, but it was not until adulthood that I realized how immensely crucial and precious this program was for that one example alone. That the likes of this type of education was reaching a network television audience every week remains monumental. So you can understand my elation to make his acquaintance about five years ago.

When trumpeter Charles Tolliver was preparing to release his big band album, With Love, he had a distinct vision for his project, down to the liner notes, which he implored Gil Noble to write. Tolliver, who got his professional start through his friend and mentor, saxophonist Jackie McLean, wanted to pay homage in a personal way. Noble grew up with McLean in the Sugar Hill section of Harlem, and they were best friends from childhood on. Tolliver thought it would be most fitting and honorable if Noble would pen the notes for his Blue Note debut (which he did, beautifully).

Working on this album with Tolliver, I remember that blustery day, trekking up to ABC in the Lincoln Center vicinity to talk details with Mr. Noble and Mr. Tolliver. There were full circle moments to go around that day, for both Tolliver and myself. For me, meeting the man who inspired my perspective about jazz coverage in mainstream media, would prove life-changing.

We sat in a waiting area initially, and then we were brought into Noble’s office. We waited about ten minutes for him to join us, during which time I timidly perused his immense library of books. The room was adorned with African artifacts, artwork and posters, including the famed photo of 52nd Street nightlife in New York City, which was the hub for bebop in the 1940s. When he entered the room, my stomach dropped. He is a tall man, but his presence was ten times that of his height, though his demeanor is intensely quiet, similar to his on-air persona. He sat disarmingly relaxed behind his desk, and Tolliver and I opened the conversation.

We talked about music, and Charles’ project, but mostly about Jackie. J-Mac, as he was nicknamed, had just passed away, and I could see the sadness in Noble’s eyes as he spoke of him. The loss of his best friend was obviously hard, and the vacancy in Noble’s heart was transparent. Noble talked about their childhood, their adventures together as teenagers, and he spoke specifically about the way drugs plagued the lives and careers of so many jazz musicians, and how McLean, who suffered from and conquered drug addiction, educated him about the music industry, as it related to the fragility of growing up Black in that era. It was a conversation that I will never, ever, ever forget. Getting a one-on-one education from someone as brilliant and wise as Noble, in the presence of a jazz master in Charles Tolliver, discussing a jazz giant in Jackie McLean was an experience I don’t think many are fortunate to have. Yet now more than ever, these experiences are crucial. The climate of mainstream jazz journalism (and especially criticism) today is not only broadly monochromatic and misguidedly audacious, as usual, but technological advances give voice to virtually anyone who feels like being an authority on jazz, which isn’t always a good thing. (Examples: Writers who haven’t lived as many years as some artists have had professional careers making proclamations about who is and isn’t innovative, or telling off the Black community of jazz musicians, blaming them for why they are being left out of the dialogue.)

[Taking a deep breath].

Additionally, writers seem to be writing for other writers, rather than using their platforms to work in tandem with the music and nurture a community at large which — fathom this — actually gives a damn. The dangerous duo of ego and lack of diversity remains the affliction that keeps journalism in jazz from reaching full potential. Too many journalists in jazz have traditionally put themselves in front of the artists, and ahead of the music. Moreover, there is still a severe lack of proportion when it comes to editorial and coverage of African-American jazz musicians. This subject itself highlights the unfortunate division within jazz as it pertains to race, with Blacks and Whites largely on total opposite ends on the matter. However, if the spectrum of journalists reflected the diversity of the musicians playing this music, we would have a much better representation of the music overall. Balance is crucial, and autonomy in jazz journalism is ridiculous.

What watching Gil Noble all of these years and having that candid and personal conversation with him has taught me is infinite. But in more specific terms, what it taught me specifically is that as a writer, especially a writer of color, I have to be passionate about truth.

Your allowance of my elaboration, please.

The beauty of being a writer, or of performing any artistic expression, is freedom. In that freedom, there is the allowance to see, hear, feel and interpret things as one wishes. It is truly liberating, and as a writer, I am the last one to impose the gall that I so detest in journalism on other writers. In other words, “Do you.” But what I am saying is that as a Black person, writing about a Black art form, which is mainly analyzed, critiqued and examined through the scope of White men, I have a duty beyond being poetic or incitable. There is another level of responsibility, and here lies the essence of Noble’s genius. His depictions of artists were always supported with a social contextualization (let’s go back to his doubling-back to those students with that message about Sarah Vaughan). Jazz is one art form that cannot be written about in a bubble because it is distinctively intertwined with a culture. Why this is a concept that is resisted and resented in journalism is bewildering to me.

But thank goodness for Gil Noble. He is my hero. Acutely informed, with an immense amount of integrity and creativity, he has laid the groundwork that I can only hope to aspire to build upon. His passion for jazz and politics, and his ability to create a television program which successfully married these subjects for all audiences, for decades, is most inspiring. Most importantly, his convictions spoke through his journalism, but his journalism did not speak through his convictions. He didn’t have to spend time identifying who he is to his audience…it’s eloquently obvious in everything he produced. That’s class.

It is my hope that Like It Is will remain on the air somehow (perhaps through syndication, a-hem, a-hem, BET and TVOne, step up). Most importantly, I hope his wish of the program’s archives becoming utilized in schools comes to fruition. It is a sorely needed narrative.

Interestingly, Like It Is debuted just two months after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and was largely inspired by this event. The last broadcast of Like It Is aired on the same day as Dr. King’s memorial dedication.

My prayers and well wishes for a speedy and full recovery are with the Noble family. This post is dedicated to Gil Noble, Dr. King and pianist and innovator Hank Jones.