Greg Carroll grew up playing jazz because on one hot summer night, he chose to join his father on the porch rather than play hide-and-seek during their family’s weekly pizza dinner. There, with the radio on, he heard two things: Ella Fitzgerald singing “A Tisket, A Tasket” and Lionel Hampton playing the vibraphone.
Carroll loved the music almost instantly. He researched that strange, wonderful sound, soon buying his own vibraphone and playing it professionally for decades, even after he became an administrator.
But even though it was the music that got him into jazz, he became a champion of the art form: someone who teaches, preserves and protects the history of it, because it is the music of his fellow black Americans.
“It excites me to see everyone play it,” said Carroll, who spent eight years as the CEO of the American Jazz Museum in Kansas City, Mo. before resigning in 2015. “But jazz is black folks’ music. It was created by African Americans, born out of the experiences of the people forced on this land as a way to honor their culture – the only thing that couldn’t be ripped away from them. It’s a gift to the world, and it’s welcome to everyone. But it’s historically black, and the more I got into it and learned the history of it, the more I appreciated that. It made me proud.”
Carroll graduated from the University of Northern Colorado in 1985 with a degree in music education and worked as co-band director at Greeley Central High School before moving to Manhattan, Kansas to act as Director of Education for the International Association for Jazz Education. He also worked as Director of Jazz Studies at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
He now acts as founder and CEO of Midnight Blue Jazz, a consulting firm, as well as vice president and co-founder of the non-profit Kansas City Jazz ALIVE.
He believes there’s a lot to learn from jazz. But first, he should tell you, as a black man, he understands the anger he sees in the riots that swept across the world following the murder of George Floyd. He also appreciates the peaceful protests, and it angers him that some don’t know the difference.
It goes back way before Floyd, he said. He learned as a kid that he lives in a parallel world, alongside others, infected by inequalities and systemic racism.
“Look at what happened to our people during reconstruction and then the civil rights movement,” Carroll said. “All of that has always made me a little bit on guard as a black American.”
He’s also a product of those injustices, having experienced them himself, even while living in the nicest neighborhoods and experiencing the same success of the people living there. A policeman once stopped him returning from a gig in his own Manhattan neighborhood simply because he was driving a van with the seats out, a system he used to transport his vibraphone.
“But more importantly, I feel tired,” Carroll said, “and probably one of the most glaring attributes is sadness, and I don’t just feel that for people of color. I feel it for those continuing to incubate the notion of systemic racism. My grandmother told me when someone hurts you, pray for them. I feel sad for the people who aren’t able to see through our lens. If you don’t see that, you fall blind to the inequalities that exist around you. We could be so much better off, not only as a human race but as a country.”
Carroll believes music has a place in this forward momentum towards racial equality. The thing everyone could learn from jazz is the inherent sense of democracy it requires to play it well, he said.
“We have to allow the voices that are spoken to be heard, and that’s improvisation,” Carroll said. “We have to commit to that groove. We can’t have an anti-groove. We have to listen to each other’s voices; to what’s being said. That ultimately makes the music that much more beautiful.”
There is hope, he said, because in those protests, he’s noticed a “rainbow coalition” of people, in his words. In some cases, he sees more non-people-of-color than people-of-color marching for change.
“That should tell you something” he said, “if you’re listening.”