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The Underbelly of Race and Jazz

It seems like everyone is throwing their hats into the ring in the aftermath of the scrum catalyzed by Nicholas Payton’s thought-provoking and surprisingly controversial blog post this week (suggesting that the word “jazz” be replaced by BAM, an acronym for “black American music”). Yesterday I read the 100+ comments on George Colligan’s excellent “JazzTruth” blog and another thoughtful blog post by Bay Area trumpeter Ian Carey. I also had an interesting conversation at a party and heard a fascinating interview (thanks Bob Hart) with Gene Simmons of the band Kiss. Wondering how I’m going to pull all of THAT together in a blog post?

While some of the dialogue going on consists of angry taunting (largely surrounding the words of an extremely combatative critic with questionable qualifications and even more questionable command of the English language), there is some real discourse going on. I will admit that I don’t really have strong feelings about the term “jazz,” so I’m not going to express a real opinion on that detail (is that wrong of me? I don’t know. BAM does sound pretty good.). The issue that is striking to me is how there could be any question about whether jazz is, in fact, black American music.

I like Bill Evans (and Bix Beiderbecke and Lee Konitz and so on) as much as the next guy. But really? I could get into “historian mode” or “musician mode” to explain the overwhelmingly African roots of the music, and I suppose there are valid counter-arguments – frankly I’m not interested in getting into that. I’m more interested in going into “amateur psychologist” mode (for which I’m even less qualified), because my feeling is that this is where much of the debate comes from.

Anyone who has read my posts about my struggles with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome knows that I’ve spent a lot of time observing the phenomenon of “belonging” (in this case struggling to “belong” in the world of the able-bodied). This leads to amateur psychologist observation #1: “I don’t like to feel like an outsider.” As it pertains to jazz, there are a whole lot of white people involved in the music, whether as players or educators or people involved in (one might say) more peripheral aspects of the music, such as business and journalism. While Caucasians represent a statistical majority in the jazz world, we are outsiders, and it’s not easy. However, as Carey points out eloquently in his blog, get over it! We’re not talking about being a person of color in Apartheid-era South Africa here. If being white and involved in jazz makes you feel uncomfortable, it’s a pretty small price to pay in the grander scheme of things.

Meanwhile, people really like to feel like they have the moral high ground, which leads to amateur psychologist observation #2: “I don’t want to feel morally ambivalent about pursuing success.” If you’re white, success for you on some level means yet another example of a deserving African-American musician (of which there is no shortage) being shunted aside. This is assuming, at least that we view “success” in quantifiable and finite terms. That is a suspect rubric, but I have to concede that ultimately every teaching job, gig or record review I earn is inherently not being given to a person of color. How do I justify this? Me, I do my life’s work with as much integrity as I can, while recognizing that there is a degree of moral ambivalence in there and trying to simply opt out of the unwinnable battle of justifying what I do (studying the blues earnestly for example, without trying to self-consciously achieve Honorary Blackness, if you will). I remember having the formative experience of spending time with the great pianist Dick Katz in the mid-1990s (thanks Phil Schaap!). I naively came right out and asked him how he felt about being a white jazz musician. His very dignified response was, in essence, that of the many African-Americans who hired him (Oscar Pettiford, Roy Eldridge, Benny Carter, etc.) some were strongly anti-white and some were totally color-blind. Ultimately he felt that the nation’s civil rights history was so intense that he had no right to begrudge any musician of color his opinion on the subject, regardless of personal consequences.

The conversation at the party? So I met a perfectly nice gentleman at the Wesleyan holiday party yesterday (not a musician) who, upon learning of my line of work, asked what I’ve been listening to that’s “new and fresh.” The truth was that most recently I’ve been listening to Nicholas Payton’s “Bitches” album, and I explained in the briefest of terms the corresponding buzz going around the jazz web-o-sphere. When I made mention of BAM, his immediate response was to furrow his brow and say, “but . . . WHITE people have contributed a lot to the music too, right?” I gently (as gently as one can yell, anyway – it was a loud party) responded that yes, that’s true on one level, but ultimately it is an overwhelmingly African-American music. He persisted, saying “well, I guess, but it’s not EXCLUSIVELY African-American.” I explained that this is factually correct, but nobody goes around saying that what we call Western classical music isn’t the creation of dead European white people or that samba is anything but Brazilian, even though some non-Brazilians helped to expose the world to it. He relented (I gathered as much out of embarrassment as anything), I soon began conversing with someone else and that was that. But it was striking to me that someone who isn’t even a musician would feel so emotionally invested in protecting white people (yeah, we have it tough, I know) from being deemed outsiders or interlopers in this way.

And then, upon returning home, I was compelled to listen to an archive of a several-years-old NPR interview with Gene Simmons, founding member of Kiss and (I’m told by people with televisions) modern-day reality show star. I’m not sure if he was just trying to push buttons or if he really is a total prick, and I don’t particularly care. But I found it interesting that when Terry Gross persisted in asking for his feelings about music (as opposed to money or fame or adding to his list of 4600 sexual partners), he ultimately said “I believe in my heart, that anyone who gets up there and says that what they’re doing is art, is on crack and is delusional.” When taken in the spirit intended, I think that the only logical conclusion is that Gene Simmons is not someone with whom I would enjoy having lunch (unless, I suppose, he was buying).

However, there is one presumably unintentional germ of truth in there: devoting one’s life to music is a “calling” and not a rational decision. I’ve written plenty about this as well. People (or at least smart, sane people receiving good guidance) do not look at a list of career paths on paper and conclude that “jazz musician” is the safest and most responsible one to take. We do it not because we want to, not because it’s smart or sane, but because we must. This is true of many things in life – is having a baby sane on paper? Is falling in love sane? Is there any logical way to describe what compels one to make a beautiful painting? What would our world be if we all only engaged in activities that were deemed prudent in entirely objective terms? I don’t know, maybe it would be better, but I certainly don’t think we would recognize it.

Therein, I suspect, lies the “answer” that so many white people are looking for to make emotional sense of this inherently uncomfortable debate (and have been looking for since the beginning of jazz, with a steady crescendo corresponding with African-Americans’ gradually increasing empowerment in society). By the logic above, I went into this music with a pure heart and a delusional mind (or, perhaps, a sane one that was no match for my drive). I do it because it “called” me. If that makes me an outsider, that’s no different from my choice to be a foster/adoptive parent, no different from the countless people in history who have fallen in love with a person whose race or gender makes the union socially unacceptable. That is, my siren song comes from the emotional truth, not from a calculated assessment of the tangible outcome – that outcome is something to navigate, for sure, but not the arbiter of truth. Being an outsider is, then, neither an unfair circumstance that should be rectified nor a cross that I bear out of some weird sense of solidarity with people who have in some way been genuinely oppressed. Because (at least I like to think) my relationship with the music is pure, that other stuff is static. It is vitally important on a socio-political level, but on a personal level (insofar as it impacts my art and career) it is simply one among a big and complicated web of circumstances, different from but no bigger or more complicated than anybody else’s.

And ultimately this is the spirit that I perceive in the most civil and upbeat portions of this week’s lively discussion. Beyond the vitrol, beyond the pettiness, there is a great community of people who love this music and value both its roots and its future. In the end that’s what it all comes back to. And whether or not “jazz” (the word) is in fact dead, this musical spirit and community is alive and well.

2 ResponsesLeave one →

  1. rachel green

     /  December 9, 2011

    I think it is important to remember that the more people who play jazz well, regardless of colour, the more the interest in the music grows. The more the interest grows, the more the public demands–access via venues, recordings and concerts. The more response to demand, the more work. For everybody, colour notwithstanding.

  2. Adam Shaw

     /  December 14, 2011

    Hi there, Mr. B.

    > I have to concede that ultimately every teaching job, gig or record review I earn is inherently not being given to a person of color.

    Jazz has included talented and sincerely-oriented people of every stripe from the start. That’s a big part of the history of the music and part of its American-ness. You’ve earned your spot at the table, Noah.

    As far as “BAM” goes, well, removing the word “jazz” from the language would be unhistorical. Anyone who beyond a casual listener who doesn’t know the music springs from Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, John Coltrane, and so on for a gigantic number of African-American founders, is just ignorant and/or insane. I think “jazz” already says that perfectly well. It also includes Gil Evans, Chick Corea, John McLaughlin and any number of non-black cats who made their marks too. The history of jazz is racially and ethnically mixed (that’s part of why it sounds so good!) and as it spreads around the world is likely to become more so.

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