from the pages of February 1995



 Jazz And Race

By Sandy Carter


The musical tradition known as jazz is a hybrid with roots in West Africa, Europe, the Caribbean, and North America. Nonetheless, over the last four decades, many African-American musicians have become increasingly vocal regarding the idea that jazz is essentially a black art form. In brief, the argument for the blackness of jazz contends that although jazz is not entirely "pure," the most immediate and significant ancestors of jazz (work songs, spirituals, blues, ragtime, and brass band music) were expressions rooted in black communal life. And in the music's hundred year existence, the tradition's greatest innovators (Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, and Ornette Coleman, to mention only a few) have been black.

Needless to say the view of jazz as black music is controversial. It politicizes the world of art and entertainment, it reminds of racial division, and ultimately it rankles notions of white supremacy. For some, it is a statement of reverse racism aimed at white jazz musicians and is destructive to a "truly democratic music." All of these issues are addressed in Gene Lees's recent book about jazz and race, Cats Of Any Color: Jazz Black And White(Oxford University Press, New York).

Lees, a veteran jazz critic and former editor of Down Beat magazine, draws the title and central theme of his essays from Louis Armstrong's comment, "It's no crime for cats of any color to get together and blow." Believing that jazz is not the property of any one racial group, Lees takes this quote as a reflection of the jazz tradition's noble effort to explore "the full range of human experience and emotion." Unfortunately, as Lees freely acknowledges, jazz lives in a society where questions around the artistic and economic ownership of jazz remain racially volatile.

To provide some background to the conflict, Lees presents a number of anecdotes illustrating the plight of black jazz musicians during the heyday of Jim Crow racism. Included are tales of a 10-year-old Horace Silver observing a concert of Jimmie Lunceford's band through a wooden fence separating him from an outdoor whites-only show in Connecticut; of revered artists such as Oscar Peterson and Nat Cole being refused hair cuts and meals because of their skin color; of the pressures and sanctions bearing on musicians challenging segregation; and of the general disparity between black and white musicians in monetary rewards and popular recognition.

While most serious, liberal-minded jazz fans have some awareness of the racist conditions plaguing black jazz players throughout this century, Lees's stories are nonetheless poignant and necessary reminders of where jazz is coming from. But in laying out some of the old fashioned racial barriers imposed on jazz, Lees has another agenda in mind. Assuming that anti-black feelings are no longer a major problem in the world of jazz, Lees now fears that the historical cumulative effects of white racism have produced a reverse racism that threatens to destroy the egalitarian heart of jazz.

Lees's evidence of the rise of "black xenophobia in jazz" comes mainly from the statements of African American musicians and writers (Amiri Baraka, Spike Lee, Archie Shepp, Stanley Crouch and Wynton Marsalis) advocating jazz as a black-defined aesthetic. He asserts, however, that the idea of black supremacy in jazz has become so popular and politically correct that jazz audiences, black jazz musicians, and even white jazz critics routinely discriminate against white musicians and downgrade their contributions to the jazz heritage. An upholder of jazz as basically an interracial art form celebrating "the human spirit" and "personal vision," Lees argues that "any statement that jazz is black music and only black music is racist on the face of it."

To be sure, there are kernels of truth in Lees's argument. Jazz has never been exclusively black. Its origins are multicultural and scholars on the subject agree that at the turn of the century, when the music became a recognizable idiom, white and black musicians were playing similar, though not identical, forms of music. It is also true that numerous white musicians (Bix Beiderbecke, Benny Goodman, Harry James, Zoot Sims, Gerry Mulligan, Bill Evans, Stan Getz, Dave Brubeck, and Charlie Haden among them) have left distinguished marks on jazz history. It may be further conceded that historically African American jazz players have harbored some bitterness about white musicians "stealing music" originated by black musicians. None of this, however, adds up to a rebuttal of "jazz as black music."

In recent years a generation of young black jazz musicians has taken on the mission of re-establishing the significance of jazz as an African American defined art form. This advocacy, however, does not include claims that all jazz is about or for only black people. Nor has it been argued that whites, by virtue of genes or culture, are incapable of playing authentic and original jazz. What has been articulated is the centrality of jazz to African American culture. Which is to say, the jazz expression of black Americans is a creative reflection of black experience.

Given the historical circumstances of black life in the United States, the many black musical roots of jazz, and the preponderance of technical and stylistic inventions of African American jazz players, it seems clear that the black impact on jazz weighs heavier than that of other groups in our society. Interpreting "the black experience" at times narrowly and at other times abstractly, Lees, however, finds the proposition of black jazz near absurd. In his dramatic, overblown polemic he complains, "How anyone can think that the art of Louis Armstrong--or Benny Carter or Count Basie or Coleman Hawkins or John Coltrane--is the cry of pain of a downtrodden people is beyond me." Later he concludes that jazz is "dead" if it is useful only "for the expression of anger and resentments of an American minority."

No one, of course, has ever argued that jazz or blackness is only about pain and suffering. Wynton Marsalis has, in fact, described jazz as "optimistic music." And down through the century, black musicians have stated and publicly demonstrated that jazz is a music with universal appeal. Nevertheless, it is also a music that takes its primary inspiration from the struggles and achievements of the black community.

Although Lees has been around jazz a long time and is obviously familiar with statements of this kind, they have left little impression on his perspective. A white Canadian who professes to be "color blind," Lees hears in jazz only abstract humanity. Still, when he digs through history to redress the neglect of white contributions to jazz, he consistently exaggerates the Anglo-European influence on black creativity. Yes it is true that Charlie Parker admired Stravinsky; that Miles Davis employed many white musicians and admitted the influence of white trumpeters Harry James and Bobby Hackett; that Ellington's cornetist Rex Stewart studied the solos of Bix Beiderbecke. But this hardly means that the genius of Parker, Davis, and Stewart was equally derived from black and white sources.

Lees's color blindness also presents a problem when it comes to recognizing the political economy of jazz. Particularly since the birth of modern jazz in the 1940s, black musicians have been outspoken critics of how the white domination of record companies, clubs and festivals, magazines, television, and movies hinders the visibility and profitability of jazz. As trumpeter Jimmy Owens once explained: "Black music has never really been controlled by the people who are making that music. Consequently, the amount of money going to the people who perform that music, the musicians, has been very small compared to what goes to the people who control the music." While Lees is well aware of this obvious sore spot on "jazz black and white," his fragmented, selectively focused portrait of jazz history tends to overemphasize the popularity and critical esteem enjoyed by black jazz musicians. As a result, when he quotes from black protests against the white, corporate-dominated music industry, the statements come off more as allegation (and anti-Semitism) than fact.

Interestingly, Lees seems much more committed to addressing the contemporary racial bias in jazz, which he finds most powerfully embodied in Wynton Marsalis's directorship of the prestigious Lincoln Center jazz program. Lees condemns Marsalis for firing most of the organization's white employees, hiring and honoring only black musicians, and preaching a jazz as black music ideology. And in all of this Lees sees the creeping institutionalization of anti-white blackness. Someone a shade or two less wary and not so color blind, might view these moves cautiously, but as an imperfect effort at artistic affirmative action. But Lees's reaction is so hasty and hysterical that one must assume he carries an abiding affection for the good old days of "jazz black and white."

The Marsalis Defense: In August of the past year, Wynton Marsalis responded to charges of racism in a debate with jazz historian James Lincoln Collier at the Lincoln Center in New York. At that time he presented statistics showing that he had hired and showcased many white musicians in the center's jazz program. More recently, he has commented on the criticism of Gene Lees. In a December 18, 1994 interview with San Francisco Examiner reporter Joan Smith, Marsalis explained: "I work with musicians I think are playing the best music. It's not true that we hire only black musicians, but even if we did would that be so odd? Would it be odd if you organized a polka festival and all the musicians were white? To say that my tastes are racist because I don't think a musician should be included that you think should be included is just plain wrong.

"As long as there is democracy, there will be people wanting to play jazz because nothing else will ever so perfectly capture the democratic process in sound. Jazz means working things out musically with other people. You have to listen to other musicians and play with them even if you don't agree with what they're playing. It teaches you the very opposite of racism and anti-Semitism. It teaches you that the world is big enough to accommodate us all."