Because Negroes invented jazz, and because the very best players have so often been Negroes, the art has always been a junction for color trouble in the world of evaluation and promotion. By the end of the ’20s, Duke Ellington was trying to get his buddies to call their art “Negro music,” possibly because Paul Whiteman had been dubbed “King of Jazz.” Variations on this phenomenon have risen and fallen throughout the history of the art.
Since the ’60s, however, certain Negroes who cannot play will claim to be of aesthetic significance on the basis of sociology and some irrelevant ancestral connection to Africa—which provided only part of the mix that became jazz. That had an ironic impact because we are now back to the Paul Whiteman phenomenon, as if all of those white people who had to put up with black nonsense now have their chance to express their rage. This time white musicians who can play are too frequently elevated far beyond their abilities in order to allow white writers to make themselves feel more comfortable about being in the role of evaluating an art from which they feel substantially alienated. Now, having long been devoted to creating an establishment based on “rebellion,” or what Rimbaud called the “love of sacrilege,” they have achieved a moment long desired: Now certain kinds of white men can focus their rebellion on the Negro. Oh, happy day.