Is Jazz Black Music?

In January, I was on a panel at Jazz at Lincoln Center. The subject, “Is Jazz Black Music?” is still a lively and even combative one in some quarters. When I was invited, what first came to mind was Duke Ellington telling me long ago that in the 1920s, he went to Fletcher Henderson and said, “Why don’t we drop the word ‘jazz’ and call what we’re doing ‘Negro music’? Then there won’t be any confusion.” Henderson took a pass. But years later, when Louie Bellson was in Ellington’s band, Duke said he was the most extraordinary drummer he’d ever heard.

We wouldn’t have been at Lincoln Center for that discussion had it not been for black field hollers, ring games, call-and-response church music and the blues. So it’s indisputable that jazz began as black music. On the panel, I proposed a line—obviously debatable—between the continuing originators of this music and those who were original musicians but hadn’t very deeply shaped the directions of jazz. Duke used to tell me it’s always been the individuals whom others followed, and he named Sidney Bechet as an example.

My partial list of originators—and I’m sure you have yours—includes Louis Armstrong, Mr. Ellington, Count Basie, Charlie Christian, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Lester Young. All were black, and some were influenced by non-blacks.

Lester Young told me that Frank Trumbauer, mainly known for his association with Bix Beiderbecke, “was my idol. When I started to play, I bought all his records and I imagine I can still play those solos. I tried to get the sound of the C-melody saxophone on the tenor. That’s why I don’t sound like other people. Trumbauer always told a little story.” But Trumbauer, though an original, didn’t affect, as Prez did, the stories of countless jazz musicians around the world.

The moderator that night at Lincoln Center was historian and jazz professor Lewis Porter. He made the salient point that although the roots of the originators were black, they had big ears and were open to an infinite diversity of influences. As Charles Hersch notes in his important new book, Subversive Sounds: Race and the Birth of Jazz in New Orleans (University of Chicago Press), the jazz culture there “included [transmutations of] quadrilles, mazurkas and schottisches.”

On the panel, I mentioned that world-traveler Duke Ellington absorbed into his music the colors, dynamics and stories of the regional and national sounds he heard.

Porter emphasized, “It’s typical of African-American music that jazz players are open to influences.” Eric Dolphy told me how hearing birds singing became part of his music. But again, the roots are black. Or, as Porter put it, being that open “doesn’t make it non-black.”

That’s true of both originators and originals. A necessarily partial list of the originals who are influential but didn’t profoundly change the course of jazz would encompass such non-black players as Bix Beiderbecke (at whom Louis Armstrong marveled during Chicago after-hours sessions), Pee Wee Russell, Jack Teagarden, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Bill Evans, Jim Hall, Phil Woods and bandleader Woody Herman.

The black roots of jazz of course quintessentially nourished all of these non-blacks, and many others. And the next unexpected originator, like Ornette Coleman swooping into New York, could come from any place in the world. Between sets one night, John Lewis and I were talking about who might become the new compelling shepherd—the individual others would follow, in Duke Ellington’s phrase.

“Right now,” John said, “in a club in Romania, it could be a bassist or a trumpet player in a combo there.”

He or she hasn’t broken through the jazz firmament yet. And it certainly could be a she. As of now, that female person isn’t in the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra because Wynton Marsalis hasn’t yet found a woman musician, of whatever nationality, color or age, who meets his standards for being a regular member. Since Wynton does have big ears, I remain puzzled at this omission. As a challenge (one I’ve issued the trumpeter before), why doesn’t he try a blind audition for once?

What I forgot to add about jazz and blackness at that Jazz at Lincoln Center panel was a scene I once witnessed at a club in New York where Charles Mingus was working. When a set was over, Mingus came off the stand and we started talking. A man strode over—a very black man—and pointing at Mingus, said accusingly, “You’re not black enough to play the blues!” Neither Mingus nor I had ever seen this guy before.

Mingus drew back his arm, clenched a fist, thought better of it, rushed back on the stand, got his bass, brought it down to where the accuser still stood, and played a blues that, as I felt it, shook the room.

The very black man, without a word, slunk away.

Mingus was one of the closest friends I’ve ever had, and he believed, as Bird said, “Anyone can play this music if they can feel it.” Or listen to it.

I suppose these probes of how black this music is now or in the future—or any of the people who play it—will continue. But I prefer Thelonious Monk’s approach to defining the essence of jazz. As the late Leslie Gourse reported in Straight No Chaser: The Life and Genius of Thelonious Monk (Schirmer Books), Monk told a New York Post columnist in 1960, “I never tried to think of a definition [of jazz]. You’re supposed to know jazz when you hear it. What do you do when someone gives you something? You feel glad about it.”

Originally published in June 2008

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