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Saturday, February 5, 2011

Black and White?

I can’t believe they’re still arguing over the black/white thing in the US jazz blogosphere at the moment......... The trumpeter Randy Sandke wrote a book called Where the Dark and the Light Folks Meet: Race and the Mythology, Politics, and Business of Jazz which apparently, (I haven’t read the book), claims that some white jazz musicians got/are getting a raw deal from left-leaning white critics over the years and, due to the political/PC bias of these critics, were never given the credit for their achievements. This has created a storm in a teacup effect with heavy hitters from the jazz blog world weighing in (mostly negatively towards Sandke’s thesis) and Sandke taking on all-comers with huge rebuttals of their arguments, (how much time does Sandke have!? If it was me it would be just too exhausting to go into the minutiae of everyone’s arguments for the sake of rebuttal).

To an outsider to American jazz politics like myself, the arguments about whether somebody dissed Michael Brecker in an article several years ago, or who did or did not claim Bix had a poor sense of rhythm just seems daft. Ethan Iverson has a gigantic piece on it which gets into the fine detail of who said what, when, and about whom. Apparently Sandke is about to give a rebuttal to this piece – which will join the rebuttals he’s already made in response to Howard Mandel and David Adler

From where I’m sitting it seems extraordinary to watch some very famous writers and musicians savaging each other over this subject. Surely this argument about who was most influential and why, or who got their due and who didn’t, is over? It seems especially bizarre to see suggestions being made that X didn’t get his due because he was white, and Y was over-praised because he was black. And vice versa. I really didn’t think so many serious writers and musicians could get so passionately involved in the arcana of these arguments. Surely there are more important things to discuss these days – such as the dwindling playing opportunities for ALL musicians, black OR white?

As to the argument that jazz history has been skewed by a political/racial agenda - without having read the book, but being an avid student of jazz history (via the music rather than the books on it), it seems glaringly obvious that though there have always been good and great white players, the vast bulk of what constitutes the influential history of the music (at least up to 1970), and the major developments in jazz, have emanated from the Afro-American community. There’s no getting away from it – no matter how many Bix’s, Artie Shaws, Benny Goodmans, Stan Getz’s, and Bill Evans’ (and many other great white players) you acknowledge, if you take Armstrong, Ellington, Parker, Davis, Ornette and Coltrane (not to mention Monk and Mingus.....), out of the mix then it’s all over – there’s no real major body of work around which the other musicians – black and white – revolve.

You could make an analogy with classical music in this respect – yes there are lots of great non-German composers (especially post 20th century) but if you take Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Brahms, Mahler, and Schoenberg out of the picture then there probably is no picture left since the development of the music itself is so dependant on the work of these German composers.

Jazz history is completely dependant on the work of these aforementioned jazz greats and the music can’t be imagined without them. And they’re all Afro-Americans. It’s a music that sprung from the Afro-American community in the US and while there were great white players involved from even the earliest times, the major development of the music revolves around Afro-Americans.

At least up as far as 1970

After that the picture is far less clear – you have the rise of the fusion movement, most of which was dominated by white players, and the transformation and maturation of European jazz – undergoing an evolutionary process which saw it change from being an imitation (sometimes poor) of American jazz into something which had highly individual regional characteristics and many really great and original instrumentalists. In America over the past thirty years many influential instrumentalists – Pat Metheny, Michael Brecker, Dave Holland, Brad Mehldau, Kurt Wosenwinkel, Joey Baron, Dave Douglas and many others – have been white. And of course there have been many influential black players as well – Jeff Watts, Terence Blanchard, Mark Turner, Kenny Kirkland, and many others including of course Wynton and Branford Marsalis. However the domination of the music by Afro-Americans has waned since 1970 and to me this is a subject far more worthy of discussion than the current furore over who dissed who, who was quoted out of context, and who said what and when.

It seems to me that Afro-American society at large has pretty much abandoned jazz as being something that has any relevance for them. Of course there are still players coming out of the Afro-American community, and people in the community for whom the whom the music has importance, but as a whole the music doesn’t seem to have much support from the people from whom it originally sprang. In my recent trip to New York I went to 11 gigs in 5 days and saw hardly any Afro-Americans in the audience.

And I think the current apathy and lack of interest in jazz displayed by the vast majority of Afro-Americans is a tragedy for the music and a tragedy for Afro-American culture. And I think it’s a far more interesting and important discussion than the current Stateside squabble that seems to be more about bruised egos and people scoring points off each other than any effort to bring clarity to their argument. And, sitting here on the other side of the Atlantic, the argument itself seems like such a waste of time to me. Surely we have more important fish to fry these days than whether somebody misquoted Gary Giddins!?


  1. Right you are, Ronan . . . there is an amazing amount of furor over Sandke's book. I think a lot of it arises from people seeing the 'Black and White' theme and they immediately think black vs. white, which is not the case at all in Randy's book. He documents the development of the music, and gives insights into social context, plus what various critics wrote, or are writing about the music.

    He addresses the topic that you put forward about the waning black audience and the future of jazz audiences. In my opinion, he is addressing many of the same ideas found in Alyn Shipton's "A New History of Jazz," Stuart Nicholson's "Is Jazz Dead" and Richard Sudhalter's "Lost Chords."

    I played a lot with Randy in the '80s and '90s when I was in New York (before I moved across the pond). He is a brilliant player, composer, and a good author who is trying to make his contribution to the music.

    I think a lot of the furor is overreaction to perceived subject matter -- what people think the book is about -- rather than an open discussion about what he writes in the book. Even though Howard Mandel trashed the book in various blog posts, he did give it a 2 Star review at amazon:

    Where the Dark and Light Folks Meet (Amazon Reviews)

    So, Howard does offer a couple of backhanded compliments on the book, even though he does not agree with the other amazon reviewers (myself being one of them).

    I'd just recommend that people read the book.

    Nice blog you have here, by the way!

    John Goldsby

  2. surely socio-economic factors are an important contributor?
    Take Miles, by the end of the 60s he was sick of playing small clubs (that mostly whites could afford to go to), three sets a night, for relatively little money. Billy Graham took him to a large, white, middle class, rock audience, and in doing so, turned a lot of people on to improvised music.
    I would argue that this white middle class audience was crucial to the music's survival, even if it was, during the 70s, fusion, that became the main attraction.
    Also, jazz was once dance music, what percentage of the black listening public at one time associated jazz exclusively with dancing and entertainment?
    Be-bop marked the beginning of what was essentially the intellectualisation of jazz, it became listening music, art music, not music to dance to. How did this impact the average (non musician) African American's engagement with the music? The Blues, R&B Gospel, Soul, and then Funk, were all more accessible, the music still spoke to people at a level they could relate to, while "jazz" increasingly became music for bourgeois bohemians, especially in Europe.
    I haven't read the book mentioned above, but my personal view is that ethic origin is absolutely irrelevant, great musicians come in all colours, shapes, sizes, in all walks of life, and traditions of music.
    Focussing on one narrow area of the music world, that most people insist on calling "jazz," and then arguing about "whose it is," is counter productive, no one owns music.
    To quote Busoni: "Music was born free; and to win freedom is its destiny."