Randy Sandke: Let the Facts Speak
Interview with musician and author of book about race and jazz
Randy Sandke has been a professional jazz musician for more than thirty years. As a trumpeter, he’s played with instrumentalists Michael Brecker, Benny Goodman, Kenny Barron, Dick Hyman, Mulgrew Miller, Bill Charlap, Eric Reed, Frank Wess, Ray Anderson, Chris Potter, Scott Hamilton, Wycliffe Gordon, Warren Vache, and Mel Lewis, as well as singers such as Mel Torme, Jon Hendricks, Rosemary Clooney, Cab Calloway and John Pizzarelli. Sandke has recorded over twenty albums. Nat Hentoff recently wrote about Sandke’s jazz album for kids, Jazz For Juniors. He is the author of Harmony for a New Millennium: An Introduction to Metatonal Music (2002) and he has also contributed to the Oxford Companion to Jazz and the Annual Review of Jazz Studies.
Sandke talked with JT about his latest book, Where the Dark and the Light Folks Meet: race and the Mythology, Politics, and Business of Jazz.
You’re very much a musician first and writer second. Why did you decide to get into the writing game?
I’d done a little bit of writing before. This book began as an attempt to understand why my creative music was getting so little notice. I not only experienced a wall of silence and disinterest, but outright hostility from some quarters. I came of age in the ‘60s when innovation was encouraged. I know there has always been resistance to new approaches, but historically, creative musicians have teamed with champions in the critical community to achieve acceptance. In the 1980s and ‘90s especially, I sensed an institutional push to keep new ideas out of the creative marketplace. I wanted to study this situation and try to determine what had changed in the jazz world.
I started researching and digging more and more into the history. I’ve always had an interest in jazz history because I started listening to jazz first by discovering my parents’ 78s (mostly music from the ‘20s and ‘30s). I’ve always had a long view of jazz history. Then I started examining jazz historiography, which is a fancy word for how the story of jazz is told. I put all these things together and the result was this book.
What do you think has changed in the way jazz is presented or recognized?
I think there were huge and fateful societal changes starting in the 1960s. As the African-American writer Shelby Steele relates, we went from the Civil Rights era to an era of racial redress in which the ideals of integration were abandoned in favor of those embracing racial separatism. Jazz, which once led society in terms of integration, got swallowed up in the same divisive racial and non-musical issues that divided the country through most of its history.
I chart this course in a chapter called “The Road to Radicalism.” As I see it, jazz has gone through three stages as far as how it functioned within the larger society. Initially it was taken as a form of popular entertainment, and then after WWII became viewed as a serious art form. Since the ‘80s, it developed into an icon representing African-American achievement and as such was increasingly racialized, though I think this view has relaxed somewhat since the turn of the new millennium.
Talking about racial issues in the jazz world, or anywhere for that matter, can be difficult.
You have to walk a fine line when discussing racial matters, and as I point out in the book, almost anything you say is likely to offend someone. To me, these difficulties underscore the timeliness and necessity for frankly discussing these issues. I don’t deny that jazz originally came from a black environment and the majority of its greatest exponents have been African-American. For me, and I think most white jazz musicians, I grew up idolizing so many great African-American musicians. They were my heroes and mentors. But I don’t like to see their memory and artistic legacy manipulated to promote a separatist agenda. I don’t think that’s what they stood for, and I don’t think that’s what jazz should stand for either.
One unique aspect of this book is that it has a strong point of view and a thesis of sorts. For people who haven’t read the book yet, can you summarize your basic thesis and main points?
The book is about how jazz history has frequently been used as a tool to promote social change. While I’m totally in accord with achieving equal rights for all Americans, a lot of jazz history has become misrepresented and distorted to serve social and non-musical agendas. As I say, since the ‘80s the sociological aspect has become so dominant that the creative aspect of jazz became severely compromised. You can see it very clearly in colleges today. There is a real schism in the way jazz is taught at universities: on the one hand you have music departments teaching primarily white students the mechanics of playing jazz; on the other you have cultural studies departments that teach jazz is black music born of oppression and racism.
Much of the jazz discourse today is dominated by the latter view. Because of the economic downturn, almost all the books on jazz today are coming out of the academic presses. In seminars, meetings and academic get-togethers all over the US and Europe, jazz gets sucked into a world view of oppression and negativity. I thought it was important to present an alternative view, in which jazz has always crossed borders of race and class, and by the way, enriched many African-American artists in the process. As a working musician, I also wanted to inject a little reality into the often fanciful and overly-theoretical beliefs of the cultural studies crowd.
I must say that I encountered great difficulty in getting this book published. Perhaps not surprisingly, academic presses didn’t want to touch it with a ten foot pole. Of course one of their reasons is that I criticize authors they publish. A book like mine couldn’t have been written by an academic because it would have meant jeopardizing one’s professional career. I guess I don’t feel I have much of a career to sacrifice, and the little corner of the jazz world I inhabit hasn’t been overtaken by social issues. I do take on some major critics who are still active, so in that way my book is slightly suicidal. But those critics were never going to write favorably about me anyhow; they’ve already pigeonholed me as a swing musician with nothing important to say.
How much do you blame the field of jazz journalism for all of this?
I think the jazz journalists have a crucial role as impartial arbiters between business interests, ideologues and the musicians. There are a few that do that in an exemplary way. But too many blindly follow trends and support whomever is hyped. Too often, those writing for major and influential publications just review whoever is playing at the clubs and festivals. That’s fine, but they never question why certain musicians get a chance to perform their own music in such public places and others don’t. There’s a huge story there that no one seems willing to confront.
Now with the demise of the major labels, almost nobody is being promoted. I almost feel sorry for journalists today who are inundated with piles of self-produced CDs, for which there is no quality control.
Certainly jazz critics tend to be more interested in edgy and left-of-center artists and music. And mainstream jazz artists can end up being somewhat invisible in the media.
There are two kinds of mainstream. There’s the Wynton Marsalis, Young Lions mainstream that were taken plenty seriously in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Then there are the swing mainstream players who typically function below the radar screen. Why one brand of stylistic resuscitation is viewed with respect and the other isn’t is beyond me. As far as critics preferring left-of-center or avant garde material, if it’s truly original I think it’s great that journalists encourage it, because obviously the marketplace doesn’t. There are a few welcome exceptions, though, such as Dave Douglas and Vijay Iyer.
I think a lot of critics and writers feel that jazz spent itself creatively in it’s avant garde phase, and that everything that can be done has been done. I strongly disagree. I feel there are a many areas where the music could still evolve, which doesn’t mean total anarchy. That’s what I’m interested in, but as I said, I’ve found next to no support for my creative projects. I still owe a bank nearly a hundred thousand dollars for recording and releasing my own music.
The title and cover photo refer directly to “Basin Street Blues” and the close working relationship between Jack Teagarden and Louis Armstrong. Was there something very concrete you were trying to say in evoking that tune and those two artists? Or were you just trying to send a symbolic message?
The focus of the book is “where the dark and light folks meet” [lyric from “Basin Street Blues”]. It tells how black and whites have interacted throughout jazz history, and how the music and society in general has benefited from this interracial contact. I quote Milt Hinton, the great African-American bass player, who says, “Jazz players were integrating way before society decided to do that.”
The photograph on the cover shows two musicians, one happens to be black and one happens to be white, who made fantastic and timeless music together. Perhaps that was a time when things were looking more hopeful for that kind of coming together than they have been for the last 30 years. But as I’ve said, I think we’re over the worst of the separatist dynamic. I sure hope so. The fact that we have an African-American (though I prefer saying interracial) president is a very positive sign.
What do you hope the impact of this book will be?
I hope it gets people thinking and talking. That’s what I’d like to see. And also to express a point of view that I feel isn’t heard enough. Thank God we don’t have to suffer through theories proclaiming that opera is white music, and Marilyn Horne or Jessye Norman are inauthentic and don’t have a right to sing it (though they do have a right to sing the blues, as the song title goes).
The book is very well-researched and the material comes from a broad range of sources. How long did it take?
I worked on the book for about ten years. I gave a few talks at the Institute of Jazz Studies, which helped refine my ideas. It’s always wonderful to talk with Dan Morgenstern, who gave me much sage advice. I tried to discuss my views with as many different people as possible in and out of the music business to get different perspectives. I also interviewed several musicians on tours, at jazz parties and festivals.
Where else did you do research?
I spent a week in New Orleans, going to the Hogan Archives every day and reading through manuscripts, and also talking to curator Bruce Boyd Raeburn, who was extremely helpful. I also did research at the Institute of Jazz Studies, the Schomburg Center and New York Public Library. I put a premium on first-person accounts. I think in jazz there’s too much of a tendency to rely on secondary sources and, as I show in the book, they’re often unreliable.
Was there some material that you left out of the book?
Yes, I may do another book at some point and might include some of the material I left out. There are whole chapters, like one on African-Americans in radio. It’s true that black musicians didn’t get sponsorship in the ‘30s like the white swing bands, but they were still a significant presence on radio. I also wrote a chapter on racial incidents in which African-American musicians were victimized by discrimination, and in some cases, physical abuse.
In the process of your research and reading through all that jazz literature, what jazz writers did you come to admire?
I think the best writers are the ones that make me want to go back and listen to the records with fresh ears. I prefer reading biographies and autobiographies, and there are some very good ones. Ed Berger’s one on Benny Carter is chock full of information and perspective. He has no axe to grind; it’s just giving the whole story. Jean-Pierre Leon’s biography of Bix Beiderbecke: I know that some people have raised objections, but I thought it was very good.
I’ll tell you a book that really impressed me: Larry Gushee’s book on the Original Creole Band. Gushee labored through all kinds of minutiae and obscure sources and let the facts speak for themselves. He was able to shine a light on a period that very little had been written about.
What non-fiction books or biographies do you admire and find yourself rereading?
One writer who’s given me a lot of inspiration is Paul Johnson, an English historian. His books take on huge subjects. He’s done a history of the Jews, a history of the American people, a book on world history from the 20s through the 80s, and a history of art, to name a few. What I like is the way he covers sweeping and complex issues by selecting vivid and well-chosen facts.
Did you struggle with the mechanics of writing this book?
I had a great editor, Evan Spring, who is a graduate of the Rutgers graduate school program under Lewis Porter. He’s now the editor of the Annual Review of Jazz Studies. He’s not only expert at writing and editing, but also jazz history. I give Evan a lot of credit. I think we had the same goal. We both wanted to be clear and concise with no bullshit. Like Jack Webb on Dragnet, we wanted to present just the facts, ma’am.
Are you going to write another book?
I moved out of New York and we’re having a house built in Pennsylvania. Most of my possessions are in storage, so I’m not taking on any big projects right now. I’m just doing gigs that fall my way. This weekend I’ll be at the Newport Jazz Festival with George Wein’s Newport All-Stars. I also want see how this book is received. I could easily put together writings I’ve already done and produce another book. I might do that, but I can’t say for sure right now. I do enjoy the writing and the digging and the thinking, almost as much as playing and writing music.