Black, White and Beyond
The San Francisco Jazz Organization (SFJAZZ) presented “Jazz and Race: Black, White and Beyond,” a three-day symposium and dialogue panel as part of its SFJAZZ Spring Season. Here is an excerpt of the symposium’s first event, held Fri. March 30, a panel discussion featuring professor/author Dr. Harry Edwards (moderator), saxophonist Steve Coleman, professor/author Dr. Angela Davis, author Nat Hentoff, Blue Note records president Bruce Lundvall and author Richard M. Sudhalter.
Is jazz black music? Issues of authenticity and ownership have pervaded the discourse on race for generations. And for better and for worse, the prerogatives of power and privilege have spawned the function of white authenticity and legitimacy that have de facto called into question, if not flat out infused, the validity of so-called nonwhite contributions and creativity. The burden, unfortunately, is put upon those who are nonwhite to demonstrate their authenticity and legitimacy, even under circumstances where there is a pervasive notion that somehow blacks, for example, are the real deal, the real leather, as opposed to the Naugahyde. You still have to show your legitimacy. And so it is not surprising that we have this question of placing the burden of proof upon those who would advocate a black legitimacy and authenticity and authorship.
Duke Ellington told me that he never liked the term “jazz.” He went to Fletcher Henderson and said, “There’s a lot of confusion about this word ‘jazz.’ Why don’t we call what we do ‘Negro music.’” Black or African-American were not being used then. Fletcher Henderson did not agree. Ellington made it clear again and again that, as he put it, he wanted his music to “tell what it is to be a Negro in this country,” as you can hear in “Black, Brown, and Beige,” “Harlem Airshaft,” “The Deep South Suite,” “Black Beauty.” But, as he told me, in terms of “jazz,” to use that word, over time it became integrated. Louis Bellson, for instance, was his drummer for a long time and one of his favorite drummers. However, Duke’s own mission did not change in terms of his music.
There are and have been originators and originals. The originators, of course, have also been original, but they have substantially, fundamentally, shaped and reshaped the music. You know the names: Ellington, Basie, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, among them. And I would add Bix Beiderbecke, because he brought a particular clarity of lyricism, which Louis Armstrong recognized, and much admired when he jammed with Bix after hours in Chicago. In those days he couldn’t have played with Bix on the stand. Mixed bands weren’t allowed, especially by the guys who ran those clubs. But the originators so far have been almost entirely black, Bix excepted. I would add Jack Teagarden.
As for the originals, they have included Frankie Trumbauer on C-melody saxophone; he was a key influence on Lester Young. Bill Evans. Pee Wee Russell, who was so singular that he did not create a school, because who could follow him? Even the musicians who played with him never thought he could come out of his solos, but he did. And among black originals, Herbie Nichols as pianist and composer, Eric Dolphy, Booker Little and Clifford Brown. It goes on and on. They were influences. Clifford would have been more had he lived long enough. But they weren’t fundamental originators.
There would have been no jazz without its foundations in the black experience in this country: field haulers, work songs, gospel, the common language of the blues. But as Ellington noted, it certainly has become integrated. However, he made his own mission unmistakable. Like all durable art, it’s universal.
Albert Murray said it very well: “I don’t think anybody has achieved a higher synthesis of the American experience than Duke Ellington. He transcended the experience of American Negroes into the actual texture of all human existence, not only in the United States, but in all places throughout the ages.” And Duke is not the only jazz musician to have done that.
Richard M. Sudhalter
One of my favorite words is the word “synecdoche,” which stands for or defines the use of the part of something to define the whole, usually to the exclusion of most other parts. I think this word and the concept it represents has been used for good and mostly for ill by those who have chronicled the history and development of what we have come to call jazz.
I take no issue with what Nat Hentoff and others have said about the origins in the black American experience. But the well-documented fact is that from almost the music’s earliest days, there were white musicians active in and contributory to, and in sometimes major ways, the music that was evolving. Which means that in a way I am most uncomfortable with the entire question of whether jazz is black music or jazz is white music. I think by defining it along those lines and by introducing race as a determinant we divert attention away from the place that we could be concentrating on, and that is to say, the music itself.
From its earliest times on record, we have examples of music that is recognizably and discernibly jazz played by black bands, by white bands, and, starting at the end of the 1920s, by racially mixed bands. And indeed, as a teenager I entered what was to me at that time a wonderful, welcoming and warm world of musical freemasonry, a kind of democracy which existed sometimes in spite of the pressures and influences of the external society and in which your worth was determined only by the content, as a colleague of mine has said, of your choruses.
If you got up on a bandstand and played eight bars and that eight bars was right, it didn’t matter whether the people you were surrounded with were black, were white, were Creole, were Sicilian, were Jewish, were German, were anything else. If you played well, that identified you to a group, which since the 1920s had thrived, had existed and flowered, sometimes in spite of the fact that America was a race conscious society, a discriminatory society, a segregated society. And as was mentioned earlier, Bix Beiderbecke and Louis Armstrong may not have been able to play in the same bands together in public, but they found a way to play together at a time when such things were not countenanced by the society at large.
I’d like to keep the focus not on the politics and not on the racial divisions, but on the music. What does the music tell us? What do the early records tell us about who contributed what? I could sit here and name people I consider innovators within jazz, be they Red Norvo or Joe Venuti and Eddie Lange or even Bing Crosby. I think it’s much more important to approach the music as music and to try to forget, however often we’re reminded of racial division in these times, that anything exists except what comes to our ears and comes to our consciousness and in so doing enriches it.
I also feel a little uncomfortable with the question, mainly because I feel that if it wasn’t for the way that society is set up, it wouldn’t need to be asked. I doubt if a question like that came up among Beethoven or Mozart or people like that. They’re saying, “Well, is this white music that we’re doing?” The only reason we need to ask this question is because of the situation that’s happening. There is definitely what I call an African sensibility that exists within the music itself. And this is aside from all of the politics and the race division and everything that we’re talking about.
When I hear Charlie Parker play, when I heard Louis Armstrong play, when I see Muhammad Ali box, Gale Sayers, Michael Jordan, Allen Iverson, there’s definitely an African sensibility or African retention that comes through that I don’t see with John Stockton, for example. Now, it doesn’t mean that John Stockton’s not good. He’s a great basketball player. I’m just using this as an analogy. This is not to say that Bix or Joe Lovano or any of these people are not great at what they do. They are, or they were, great musicians. I’ve played with many of these people. I’ve played with bands with both white musicians and black musicians.
Those who have been honest who I’ve talked to—and it’s mainly talked about among musicians behind closed doors for the most part—but those who have been honest also hear a difference both on the white side and the black side. I’m not going to mention any names, but they are major musicians who tell me all the time that they hear a difference in this way of being or sensibility or whatever.
I’m very uncomfortable with the whole concept of ownership of this kind of thing. When I speak through my music, I’m a black person in America, and that’s definitely where I’m coming from. That’s definitely what I’m talking about. I don’t know what it is to be a white person in America. I don’t know what it is to be anything else other than what I am. And if you’re truly creating from deep down outside in of you, you’re going to be coming from who you really are. That doesn’t mean I’m going to go out and imitate Benny Goodman. And I don’t know anything about his experience and what that is. I only know about my experience and the people around me.
I believe that music does not have a color. And I also believe that music has many colors. Certainly, this music we call jazz was created by black Americans and then it was shared with musicians from all over the world. I think that Art Blakey may have said it best. He said, “This is not black music; this is American music. No America, no jazz.” I think in this day and age, this great gift that came from black America has been shared by musicians from every country in the world. Whether I go to Japan and hear jazz musicians or to Cuba or to Europe, South America, jazz is a language that’s embraced by many cultures now. It still remains in its very essence, I believe, black American music.
I have not in the 15 years that I’ve been running Blue Note Records ever had a racial issue arise. And I thought, “Geez, am I putting my head in the sand? There must be racial issues that people just don’t talk to me about.” So I purposely talked to all of our artists about this issue. And indeed there is a perception that it does prevail, not to the degree that it did years ago when people had to sleep in other hotels and all that business, which was horrifying. But that there was a sense that it prevailed. But what I heard from all of them is, “It doesn’t happen between the musicians. If you can play, you’re accepted.”
I asked Joe Lovano, who started playing when he was 14 years old, I think with Jack McDuff and people like that and I said to him, “Have you ever felt a draft? Have you ever been in a situation where you felt uncomfortable because you are white, with other musicians?” And he just laughed. He basically said, “What are you talking about, man?” He said, “No. As long as you can play.” And that was the whole issue. If you can play. And I think that kind of sums it up.
But I do believe that it is in essence certainly black American music. But I don’t ask the question. We have so many great black classical artists. No one says, “Can they play at the same level as some of the white classical artists?” It’s not even an issue. And I deal in that world every day as well, because I run Angel and Pentium One Classics.
My bigger concern is with a minority. And the minority is jazz, because those of us who fight for this music every day know that the audience is shrinking, that the market share for jazz is down to about two percent. So our fight is to fight for this minority music and to spread the word and to grow an audience for it. And all the musicians that are part of that of all colors have a real battle. And I take my hat off to any young person that wants to be a jazz musician, because the economic reality of making that decision is not the same as doing something in banking or insurance or for that matter in pop music or rap. It’s a struggle. It’s—you are a real artist, and you’re going to be fighting for a long time for your economic well-being and for your art.
Angela Y. Davis
Our thinking today about jazz and race is inevitably influenced by the recent Ken Burns documentary. It is argued, of course, that jazz is the United States’ most original musical offering to the world. And if we, I suppose, forget about the recent elections, we can say that the United States represents the triumph of democracy in the world. Thus, if jazz is American music par excellence, it must also be democratic music. So I want to ask, what does it mean to talk about jazz as democratic music? Do we refer to the form and structure of the music, the dialectical interplay of solo and group collaboration? Are we talking about the creative resolution of the contradiction between the individual and the community? Is jazz a utopic site for the practice of democracy, racial democracy? Or I want to ask, should we also consider, apart from the music and in relation to the music, the apparatus through which jazz is produced for popular consumption?
Now, one of the most poignant moments in Ken Burns’ documentary for me was the story Dave Brubeck told about the appearance of his picture on the cover of Time magazine, as the first jazz musician to be so honored, before, of course, Duke Ellington. And the irony was that Duke Ellington brought him the magazine and informed him that he was on the cover of Time.
The notion of democracy we usually take for granted is linked to ideologies of capitalism. The individual proves his worth on the capitalist market, and somehow through individual competition harmony is created by the invisible hand. Whenever I heard Wynton Marsalis evoking democracy among the great jazz heroes, I couldn’t help thinking about Adam Smith’s invisible hand. But this is, of course, the 21st century, the era of global capitalism, along whose circuits music, jazz and many other musics now travel. So that this obsolete notion of laissez faire capitalism, this notion still informs our ideas about both capitalism and democracy, and it is an obsolete notion.
I want to raise questions about the marketing of music and musicians. I attended the concert here not too long ago, with Dianne Reeves and Jane Monheit. The question I would ask is why a Jane Monheit receives so much media attention when a Dianne Reeves has been making music for decades and has never been featured on the cover of The New York Times Magazine. Is jazz color-blind? What does it mean to raise questions today about the relation between race and jazz in the era of the decline of affirmative action and the disenfranchisement of vast numbers of black people, especially those who have been convicted of felonies?
What does it mean to raise questions about race when we have supposedly developed a far too sophisticated appreciation of race to assume that race is always about a black-white opposition that needs to be resolved in a more harmonious relation? And don’t we know that race is not always gender as male. Do we really think that racism is an unfortunate social problem to be solved by developing harmonious race relations, good relations between black and white men, who know how to get along with each other both within and outside jazz? I said I wanted to be a little provocative.
Dominant jazz historiography and certainly the historiography that framed Ken Burns’ Jazz has a hard time explaining the place of musicians who are neither black nor white. Consider the important contributions of Cuban, Puerto Rican, Brazilian musicians. And it has a hard time moving away from the assumption that jazz musicians are quintessentially male. Legitimate women musicians are described almost always as playing as well as a man. And I always wonder, “Who is this man?” you know. Any man?
Finally, if we are going to talk about race and jazz, we need to consider the complicated way race still profoundly structures our economy, our ideologies, including, and especially our ideas about gender. For jazz music is always more than the music that moves, inspires, and educates us. And that music in turn is always more than the social terrain on which it is produced. Jazz music does indeed suggest the possibility of something like the practice of freedom.
Richard M. Sudhalter
Steve was talking about the fact that when he plays jazz, it is black music, because he’s bringing a certain set of values and experiences to it. I would say when I play it, for example, I’m not—I don’t think I’m bringing the same things to it, then, that Steve is. And I don’t think what I’m doing is simply posing as a black person—I think that what I have been in my life, what I have felt, what I’ve experienced, is going into that music, although it may be different from Steve’s and different from any number of other people. And I don’t—I would hate to see a qualitative value placed on that, because one of the great glories of the music is that it has been able to absorb many backgrounds, many experiences, many points of view, and still emerge all the richer for it.
I remember years ago, Roy Eldridge did a blindfold test, one of Leonard Feather’s for Down Beat. And Roy started off by saying, “I can tell. I can always tell if the musician is black or white.” He was wrong about 60 percent of the time.
Angela Y. Davis
One of the problems with the question is that the terms are not clear. When we say, “Is jazz black music?” are we talking about black musicians being the only ones who can play authentic jazz? Or are we saying that jazz is related to the history of black people in the Americas? Are we saying that it is linked to the development of black culture? Are we talking about the conditions for producing jazz? I would say that jazz is white music if we talk about the people who make all of the money from it.
I would remind you that Wynton Marsalis is several times a millionaire by now.
But the people who market Wynton are more a millionaire than he is.
Among the young audience today, sadly, it seems to me that there isn’t that much observable interest on the part of young black people in jazz except for the people that are playing the music. And I find this a very sad state of affairs. I know even when I go to the IAJE conferences, I would guess that maybe 80 percent of the kids that are in those high school and college bands are Caucasian. It seems that even in the world of the record business I’ve had a very, very hard time attracting young black executives, male and female, into Blue Note Records. Their interest is in rap. Their interest is in the much broader areas of popular music, if they are young professionals coming up looking for a job.
We have five or six black executives in our company, but it’s very difficult to find young black people who are seriously interested in jazz among the people that we’ve tried to recruit. And I think that’s a rather sad state of affairs. I don’t know how it is at other record companies, but I believe it’s the same. And many of the black executives in record companies have been there for a very long time, and it’s kind of the same faces.
Dr. Harry Edwards
As we move toward changing technology, changing demographics, will the black-white discussion, which has prevailed for the preponderance of the last century, be lost in irrelevancy largely as the music changes and as other populations emerge and begin to participate, perhaps even become the primary and principal audiences for the music? Is race itself within its historical guise going to become irrelevant? Will we cease to discuss black-white issues relative to jazz, since they are basically imbedded in 20th century issues and relationships?
These issues don’t have anything to do with music. These are issues, period, and the music is just a reflection of what’s happening in the society as a whole and the culture as a whole. And as long as it’s an issue in the society, then it’s an issue in art, music, dance and everything else. That’s the way I look at it.
Angela Y. Davis
Why do we consistently think about race as being about black-white relations? Why can’t we think about racialization processes as being a lot more complicated? We rarely talk about whiteness in relation to race. It’s actually the encounter, black-white encounter, that is seen to encapsulate our notion of race relations. And if—we can’t recognize that the whole notion of color-blindness, which seems to be the ideal toward which people are urged to strive, is a racialized ideal. And the assumption somehow is that whiteness is the norm, and that once we all get assimilated into whiteness, then race will become obsolete. And I think that’s very problematic. I want to emphasize again that there are many Latino jazz musicians. Why can’t we talk about the fact that the tradition is a very broad one? The impact of Cuban musicians on jazz, like Dizzy Gillespie on bebop; Puerto Rican musicians.
Dr. Harry Edwards
There appears to be a tendency, irrespective of the realm, to promote a single black artist, for example, when there can be multiple white artists, whether it’s a comedian—you go from Flip Wilson to Bill Cosby to Richard Pryor, then to Eddie Murphy, and finally to Chris Rock, and off you go. But there’s always just one that’s pushed to the forefront, while you have a plethora of white comedians. Some of them haven’t said anything funny in years, but they stay right out there on top and in the forefront, if for no other reason than they are simply old. Do black musicians themselves think that the contributions of deserving black jazz artists receive less attention in marketing and promotion? And to what extent is this related to that type of tradition and the fact that whites are making the marketing decisions?
In my particular company, Caucasians aren’t making those decisions. It’s a group of people, including African-Americans as well as Caucasians. But the answer, within the company I work for, is that our most major selling artist happens to be Cassandra Wilson. We have 29 artists on the label, and 20 of the 29 are African-American. So—and as far as the record deals, it’s a competitive world, so we have just recently signed Bobby McFerrin, again an African-American, who is a very expensive deal. Cassandra Wilson is a very expensive artist to promote and to market, to sign, to record. The same is true of Dianne Reeves, who we started with in 1986. She’s a major, major priority for us. I would have to say that our major selling artists on the Blue Note label happen to be African-American. And I don’t know of any one time they’re in competition with one another in the marketplace. You try to separate the records by a few months. And that’s typical of any record company.
When I first started playing, I remember a lot of older black musicians telling me stories about the music business and everything. And one of the things that they seemed to be concerned about, which I wasn’t concerned about at the time, was [in their words] “Well, if you have a white guy in the band, that guy will always go on to do better than the leader and everybody else. After they learn the music, they’re going to go on and do much better than everybody else.”
And some of them used that as justification for maybe not hiring white people, because they were just jaded and hurt that this has happened over and over. They felt that a black person had to be three to four times as good in order to get ahead, and it still might not happen. I didn’t place much faith in that initially. I didn’t have that experience myself, because I didn’t have any experience. But once I got into the business, I did notice certain patterns that went down. I just chalked it up to, “Well, look who’s running the business. This is the reality. I can’t cry about it. Just have to just go ahead and do what you do.”
We’d all like to just think of music and just make music and that’s it. You have this society that you have to live in, and you have to deal with the same issues whether you decide to become a garbage man or a musician or a professor or whatever. And there are certain realities. How you choose to deal with it, for me, is the real issue.
I look at Charlie Parker and all these people, and I say, “They did what they did in spite of what was happening certainly not because of it.” And, if situations were different, the music could be even greater than it was. And that’s part of it, just having a community when you can push each other on. And I think that what happened with Lester Young and Billie Holiday and all those people is that they bonded together. There was a lot of segregation back then. So people had to bond together. They had no choice. They were all in the same areas. And we don’t have that today. And I feel that that also has had an effect on the music. The community, for me, is not as strong in terms of just the African-American community within the United States.
Richard M. Sudhalter
I would only say that I would like to see a time in my own lifetime when, within the musical community, race, no matter how it’s defined, in terms of black-white polarities or anything else, ceases to be an issue. And I know, in a way, it’s a little bit utopian to think that way, because obviously we’re all being subjected to the pressures of the outside world. But I will maintain that that bonding together, that sense of almost agnostic tightness or close-knitness, which existed in earlier times, should or can again exist.
Angela Y. Davis
We’ve been thinking about jazz from many different perspectives. And it is important to consider those multiple perspective: the perspective of the musician, the perspective of the audience, the perspective of the producer, the critic. But I would also say that it is important not to think about jazz as this refuge, as this space of harmony and this perhaps prefiguring of a better society in the utopian sense, but as—what excites me about jazz is that is the way in which it participates in and incorporates the kinds of struggles that we encounter in our daily lives, in our political lives, in our personal lives.
What excites me about jazz are the possibilities, and I might say political possibilities. Not that jazz is going to change the world, but jazz can change and music and art can help us to develop a different kind of consciousness that might indeed then spur us on to do the work of changing the world. And definitely we are—we live in a world, we inhabit a world that desperately needs changing. I did not evoke the name of our newly selected President for a reason. But considering what we will more than likely encounter over the next period, I think that we really have to learn what it means to not only envision, but to engage in the practice of freedom.
I for one think that race is a very beautiful thing; racism is a horrible thing. There’s no room for it. And I’m not seeing much evidence that it’s really as serious as an issue as it once was. But in speaking to the musicians on the label, a great number of them, it is a perception. And it’s very bothersome to me to hear this. It’s not as overt, but there are perceptions that African-American artists are not paid as well, are not promoted as actively, and that they feel a draft at times. And that is something that we have to fight, very much so. My positive thought is that, despite the fact that we’re dealing with a shrinking audience for this music, there’s every evidence that there’s a young audience coming out for this music again. And that’s only because of the musicians who play the music.
Dr. Harry Edwards
It is amazing to me at one level. That here we sit in the year 2001, over 40 years later. America has put people on the moon. A black man has been, through open and free elections, elected president of South Africa. The Irish Republican Army is shaking hands with the British in London. The Soviet Union has collapsed. I mean, a lot of things have changed. And yet we still are here discussing race and the music. At some point even Rip Van Winkle woke up. The world is passing us by. But this too is an expression of who we are and what we—the world we are creating. It’s like a group of people sitting around an airplane and arguing, “I brought the wings. Therefore, I’m most important. I’m the authentic one. I’m the one that’s the author and who makes this whole thing go.”
“No, no, no. I brought the fuselage. I contributed the fuselage. Without that, what difference does it make if it’s going? You’re not going to be in it, ’cause there’s no place to sit.”
“Oh, no. I brought the engines. Without the engines, wings, fuselage—don’t make any difference.”
Somebody else says, “No. I’m the one that contributed the rudder and the flaps. You may get it up there, but you won’t be able to control it without me. I’m the main one.”
Somebody else is saying, “Well, you all go on and say what you want to say, but what goes up must come down. And I brought the landing gear.”
Rather than all of us understanding what’s really at stake—why can’t we just load up and fly and soar? And that’s what this music is really about.
Originally published in September 2001