Black and Blue

Black and Blue

by Eric Nisenson
Originally published in Jazz Notes
copyright © 1999 Eric Nisenson

When Jazz Notes asked me to expand on some of the thoughts about race and racism in my recent book Blue: The Murder of Jazz I was a bit hesitant. Race has become such a sticky issue in the current jazz scene, so loaded with potential misunderstanding and misinterpretation. However, after reading Stanley Dance's review of my Blue in JazzTimes, I was made aware that these issues need further clarification.

I will not repeat my feelings about Dance's review (JazzTimes published my letter in its June issue) except to say that I was shocked that he so mischaracterized my ideas that it is obvious he did not really read the book, or if he did he was not paying very close attention to what I was actually saying. But what really amazed me were his comments about the issues concerning race that I discussed in Blue. He termed me a "pro-white" writer whose thoughts on jazz and race were "shameful." This is all because I suggested that Jazz at Lincoln Center has ignored the contributions of non-African-American musicians. By that I did not mean simply that white American players alone have been excluded. I also meant artists whose origins were abroad, e.g., Toshiko Akiyoshi, Django Reinhardt, and Abdullah Ibrahim. The only program devoted to a non-African- American male was the one dedicated to the music of Gerry Mulligan (who had recently died). I make it very clear throughout Blue that most of the great jazz musicians have been black Americans. But the racial atmosphere in jazz has become so polarized that just suggesting that perhaps there have been at least a handful of non-African American jazz musicians who have made contributions to this music is "pro-white" and "shameful." Amazing. Race has become the McCarthyism of the current jazz scene.

I do not want to further discuss all the issues discussed in Blue. It must be faced that much of this new kind of McCarthyism has arisen, at least to an extent, from the cadre that runs Jazz At Lincoln Center. Whenever they are criticized they always spin it in a racial direction. The reasons for this criticism, they insist, is because white jazz writer are envious and resentful that black musicians and critics are finally heading up such an important jazz institution like JALC. Of course, some of the severest criticism of JALC comes not from critics but from musicians, most of them African-Americans (and it is their criticism which has most influenced me).

But more bothersome to me is the misunderstanding of what I am actually saying about race in Blue. My real problem is not with supposed anti-white bias but rather with the racism toward racial minorities that has been so endemic to our society for so long. The idea that only black people can authentically play the music developed by African-Americans is borne out of this ugly racial heritage. As Dizzy Gillespie put it, saying that only blacks can play jazz is wrong because it implies that this is all blacks can do and of course black people can do anything they want. Any member of the Ku Klux Klan would readily agree that only blacks can and should play this music (those whites who try and play it are "traitors to their race" according to those sick morons). That in itself does not make it wrong, of course. But it does show up the place from which this kind of distorted thinking comes from -- WHITE supremacy. It is horrifying that even some black people have subconsioucly bought into a few of the main tenets of racism.

Racism also comes into play when some writers and musicians insist that true jazz must reflect the lives, sensibilities, and milieu of African- Americans. This idea arises from the racial stereotype that all African- Americans are alike in every way. No literary critic would dare say that, say, novels must always reflect the Anglo-Saxon world view because they invented the art of the novel. Can you imagine some literary critic or writer publicly stating such an absurd idea? Yet in the current climate in the jazz world, refuting such nonsense is now interpreted as denying the key contributions to jazz of African-Americans. What I do point out, in perhaps the key idea in Blue is that the existentialist nature of jazz was bprmeout of the African-American experience. So my primary argument is that at I the deepestlevel jazz is a reflection of the lives and experiences of African-Americans. Yet according to some, Blue is "pro-white." Amazing.

Incidentally, there is now an ugly backlash looming from some members of the jazz scene. There are several writers and fans who have gone way out of their way to exaggerate the importance of white jazzmen. This is just a continuation of the continuum (to use a favorite word of Albert Murray's) of racism.

I knew a long-time jazz fan on the west coast who told me once that only blacks can play "authentic" jazz because they were "naturally" closer to their feelings. This reminds me of what a (former) friend once said to me: "You know, I respect you Jews because you people are smarter than most other people." He meant this as a compliment, of course. But I felt, rightly, that this was a deeply insulting remark. I told this story to Sonny Rollins (whom I have been interviewing for my next book), adding, "I've known a lot of stupid Jews, Sonny." He laughed and he replied, "And I've known a lot of black people who have absolutely no sense of rhythm at all!"

You would think that by this late date the idea that ethnicity dictate any kind of innate ability would have long been proven false beyond dispute. Yet in his book Sweet Swing Blues on the Road Wynton Marsalis answers the question "Why are the best jazz musicians black?" by saying "Stanley Crouch says 'They invented it.' The people who invent something are always the best at doing it. . . ." That kind of logic has been used by white supremacists for a long time now (has either Marsalis or Crouch pondered the fact that white people invented basketball?). It is quite simply a tenet of racism. I realize that it may seem self-contradictory to state on the one hand that most of the great jazzmen have been black and then to say that race does not determine one's ability to play jazz. I believe there is a very obvious reason why so many of the great jazzmen have been black: any serious black musician throughout most of this century knew that jazz was the only place where he/she would be allowed to develop as a great artist. If, say, Art Tatum had dreams of being a concert pianist, he would have to face the brutal truth sooner or later that most black musicians could not even get lucrative studio gigs. Jazz was the one place in which the door was wide open. This was not, of course, true for white musicians. If they were talented enough they had several choices when it came to a career in music, jazz just being one of them. In other words, the reason that African-Americans dominate jazz is social, not genetic.

If this just sounds like more Brotherhood Day blather, read Stanley Dance's review of Blue. According to Mr. Dance, the reason my comments about race are "shameful" is because I did not point out in my book that, in Dance's words, ". . . none of the pro-white critics has, so far to my knowledge, had a word to say about the virtually lilywhite groups that play to largely white audiences at jazz parties throughout the country." Think about that for a moment. No matter if you believe that some of the policies of JALC are racist or not, this statement is outrageous. Dance does not deny that some of the policies of JALC may be racist, or in the terms of another writer "racialist". What Mr., Dance is obviously stating is that because of these "lilywhite jazz parties" (of which I am unaware) the racism at JALC is perfectly justified and correct. Of course, these supposed jazz parties are irrelevant to the issues discussed in Blue, as well as a ludicrous comparison to a public institution as important as JALC). Dance's implicit contention is that two wrongs make a right. And this twaddle is coming from Stanley Dance, of all people, one of the most conservative critics in jazz. By the way, if Mr. Dance had read the book thoroughly he would have come across a fairly lengthy passage in which I state that the apparent racialist policies at JALC might be an understandable reaction to the decades and decades of exclusion for blacks throughout the music industry. Yes, it is understandable for anyone aware of this truly "shameful" history to want to avenge this ugly heritage. But it is still wrong because racism in any form is ALWAYS wrong. Period. If you buy into racism in any of its snake-like forms you will find yourself stuck with the "whole ball of wax" (to quote that great humanitarian Spiro Agnew). And the losers when racism prevails are always the minorities. Always.

But in this current atmosphere, just writing the above makes me, in the eyes of some, "pro-white", someone who denies the dominant contributions that African-American have made to jazz. In other words, I am a racist. In Tom Piazza's book Blues Up and Down (published, as was my Blue: The Murder of Jazz, by St. Martin's Press), he argues that critics of JALC are basically racist. His argument is often bizarre and Byzantine, but basically his contention is that those who criticize neoclassicism or JALC are white middle-class jazz writers who have certain fantasies about the rebelliousness of black musicians; which is why we are so insistent about the importance of innovation and continual evolution in jazz. Of course what this argument ignores is that these ideas, at least for me, were lessons I learned mainly from Miles Davis and George Russell (among many others), two of the greatest African-American jazzmen.

When I was a kid I was certain that by the end of this century racism crap would be finally a dead and buried issue. I never would have dreamt that not only would it still be with us, but that it should be pushing up its ugly head in the world of jazz, a place where there has been historically a superior racial atmosphere than the greater American society. It was never as perfect as it should be, of course. But there was greater acceptance and compassion than elsewhere. in our society.I hope that this racial McCarthyism will die an ignoble death like the original version of this disease did.

I was also asked by Jazz Notes to write about sexism in jazz. We all know that women have rarely been taken seriously in the jazz world. They have for too long been treated almost like a female reporter in an NFL dressing room. In addition, homosexuals have found the jazz world to be rather less than tolerant if not downright homophobic. I believe that this macho attitude in jazz also springs from a form of racism Jazz is too often viewed as an a form of athletics rather than as a fine art. We all have lists in our heads of jazzmen who have gained fame for their physical dexterity rather than the profundity or subtlety of their music. I believe that this kind of thing arises from the belief that great jazz is created by "native genius" rather than the kind of artistic brilliance that we associate with other art forms. But in recent years this attitude seems to be changing at least to a degree. Pianists Joanne Brackeen, Geri Allen, Renee Rosnes, and Marilyn Crispell, trumpeters Ingrid Jensen and Rebecca Coupe Franks, saxophonists Jane Ira Bloom, Jane Bunnett, Virginia Mayhew, and Fostina Dixon, drummers Terri Lyne Carrington, Alison Miller, and Cindy Blackman, guitarist Sheryl Bailey, and the big band Diva, among others, have been getting the respect and attention that they deserve. Three books detailing the very significant roles women have played in the history of jazz have been published over the course of the past two decades and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., presented its third annual three-day Mary Lou Williams Women In Jazz Festival this past spring, with panel discussions during the day and performances in the evenings. This is all to the good, but there is still a long way to go. An egregious problem waiting to be addressed is the virtual absence of female instrumentalists in otherwise all-male groups and big bands, except in bands lead by a woman.

One of the main points in Blue is that the greater the variety of sensibilities that create jazz the greater the variety of music. Although jazz is in many ways profoundly different from other art forms, this is one thing it does share. If Wynton Marsalis is right -- and I think that he is -- when he says that jazz reflects American democracy, then this is a lesson that needs to be embraced not only by the jazz world but but also the greater society in which that world exists.

Jazz has never been a "pure" art form. It was created as a melding of European and African musical traditions. Out of this alchemy arose an art form greater than the sum of its parts. This is a great lesson for us all. It is saddening that so many who profess to love this beautiful musical art seem to be forgetting the profound and compassionate vision so close to its heart.


C o m m e n t s

Racism and Jazz 1 of 7
yugenfardan@aol.com April 17, 03

I enjoy reading about any level of debate regarding the origins and/or posterity of America's only classical music. Seems Brother Eric's book, Mr. Dance's critique, and Stanley Crouch's lucidity, got folks talking about the music. This is a good thing. I will reserve my comments but will say we need to be careful about 'integration' and diversity' because both words portend 'power sharing'. Is the mainstream literary community, publications, and labels ready to do that, or remain the arbiters of what and who has legitimacy?

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