30 March 2007

Towards "A Full Understanding"

Jazz and race. It's a topic that's been making it's way around the blogosphere lately. By the time I get this post up, the whole thing probably will have passed over. Fine. This isn't something that one just rattles off a casual sketch about. It deserves a well thought-out, carefully worded, conscientious effort even from a blog, the most notoriously casual and unregulated of all media outlets. I'd undoubtedly have less to talk about here (which would be a good thing) if more people had put more thought and more effort into what they've written. Here, then, are my responses to the good, the bad and the ugly of what has been said recently. My sincere thanks and congratulations to anyone who actually reads the whole thing.

This is undoubtedly the touchiest subject to fall within the purview of this blog (sorry guys, B-flat versus C tubas doesn't even register on the scale). With that in mind, let me establish a few things from the outset that the reader may want to keep in mind while evaluating my comments. This is a classic example of a situation where everyone wants to be the victim. Needless to say, African Americans as a group have endured victimization the likes of which few other Americans can relate to directly, both in general, and specifically with regard to the exploitation of certain largely African American musical contributions and innovations. I get that. This particular situation proves that we are all victims of what has been perpetrated, albeit to varying degrees. It is understandable that some amount of the animosity and distrust created by these injustices endures in succeeding generations of musicians who, individually, have not really done anything to each other.

I am white: to say that I too feel victimized is simply for me to be honest, but could also be interpreted as ignorant. Hence, I need the reader to realize that I by no means consider my own victimization to be on par with the ongoing oppression and exploitation of blacks. It is too easy for whites to come across as insensitive on this matter, and also too easy for blacks to take it this way when it may not have been meant as such. Please do not take anything I say here as an indication of a lack of empathy or historical knowledge (there will be more on my background later). I am acutely aware of the existence and the fallacies of the "cult of white victimhood" (Twin Citeans may recognize that phrase; I'm stealing it from this disturbing City Pages article of last year, which has nothing to do with music, but which many readers will find interesting nonetheless). I do not subscribe to this school of thought; it is a propaganda victory of the right wing designed to whip up racial tensions ("divide and conquer"). My victimization pales in comparison to the real issues here, but I am a victim nonetheless and I insist on the right to voice my concerns. I will do so by taking various recent online statements as starting points and working out from there. At the conclusion of each discussion, I will afford each of these people the opportunity to cover their asses by giving an assignment to each of them based on the claims made in their statements. These people (and anyone else) are thusly invited to post their completed assignments as comments to this entry. Without further ado:

White folks know the historical value of jazz as an art form. They will stop at nothing to write themselves a part of it. But their presence means the scarce resources are taken from the black artists who are the true keepers of the legacy. White males will recognize the dead and dying ones, but never anoint the younger turks like James Carter and Christian McBride. Of course , we shouldn't expect them to. They had always looked out first for their own.


The best thing white musicians can do is get out of the way and let them play. Let them be heard, let them be able to sustain a living and leave a legacy. I am still searching for a true white jazz musician. And I have heard many. I hear intellect, but not "soul" and energy. Maybe one day , I will hear one. In the meantime, I refuse to lower the standards I was taught so that they can pretend they have a right to our legacy. Do you think they would accept a black man playing Irish or Yiddish music?

A gem of ethnomusicological scholarship, if I don't say so myself. I have faith that the black supremacist account of jazz history is espoused by a relatively small number of individuals, so small in fact that I'm not sure I've ever met one of these people in person. If I have, they have all been unusually kind to me. Nonetheless, as this document proves, they are out there somewhere, and even if they only express their "real" views in private, anonymously or through one-way online conduits, those views are communicated often enough that this is by no means a dead issue. As the bumper sticker says, if what I'm about to say makes you feel attacked, it is probably a counter-attack.

Dropping McBride's name the way he does is ridiculous. I don't know anyone I've ever worked with, black or white, who wouldn't give up their first born child for McBride's ability. Carter I'm not so sure about, but I hardly find him to be a good example of a musician who has been systematically denied media attention. More like the other way around.

The intellect/soul dichotomy and its many variants should be familiar to anyone who reads about music regularly. It's a bad enough to dismiss a whole slew of musicians (including at least a few widely acknowledged masters) as worthless based entirely on the color of their skin, but to do so on this hopelessly subjective and cliched basis is laughable. Would I accept a black man playing Irish music? Of course. No less than I would accept a black man playing classical music, which many do quite well. How do you explain that?

Assignment for Greg: write a five paragraph essay on the music of one or more of the following white musicians, explaining in specific and widely accepted/understood musical and sociological terms why those in question are not worthy of being called jazz musicians.
(1) Bill Evans
(2) Dave Holland
(3) Pat Martino

Whether or not there are authentic systems in [Dave] Douglas’s music is not even close to the point. To me, the question is: What is jazz music? What I really don't like is how the avant-garde, which is more like contemporary European music, is treated as the solution to jazz to the exclusion of real jazz. I realized the problem years ago when Roland Kirk complained to Cecil Taylor in Downbeat that Cecil wouldn't let him sit in with his band. Cecil said they had arrangements, and that's why he didn't let Kirk sit it, but that's not a good reason. That's what holds the music back. It is a real problem that there is no agreed-upon place for avant-garde musicians and the musicians who play real jazz to play together. Because if the avant-garde musicians stay away from the jazz musicians, their music gets to the point where it has less and less to do with jazz. I don't like that.
-Stanley Crouch

The first thing jump out at me about Crouch's statement is a perverse concern with defining jazz, a position which the reader must acknowledge in order to evaluate everything he says during the interview. His approach is notable (but not unique) in the way it aspires to neutrality in order to conceal a value judgement (which, make no bones about it, he wants you to share). Douglas is not a bad musician, he's just not playing jazz, or at least not "real jazz." Sounds objective enough, but let's consider the source: coming from someone who takes stylistic labels for granted, perhaps it could be taken as a neutral statement; coming from Stanley Crouch, it is a veiled condemnation. His statement quoted earlier in the article that "Douglas is not a bad musician" now seems suspiciously candy-coated. Of course, he's entitled to his opinion; from reading the whole interview, I would expect that the two of us most likely share many tastes in music. I simply find the elevation of the "what is jazz?" question to be a bit misguided in general, and given what we know about him, I don't think it is one bit unreasonable to wonder if this is really just about music.

Of course, at this point in the interview, he makes it clear enough that he is expressing opinions rather than facts, but these are opinions about sociology, not music. He doesn't like the avant-garde because arrangements make participation in music-making more exclusive? What about the musical results? I don't think it's too extreme to insist that the musical outcome of any given event is far more significant in any evaluation of it's overall success than the logistics of how inclusive the event is, yet Crouch attempts no such evaluation here, not even on a subjective basis. Hence, not only has he elevated the all-trivial question of stylistic definition to the height of concern, but he answers the question not by evaluating musical properties but by wallowing in social concerns.

On top of all of this, it's ludicrous that he assails the avant-garde for being exclusive. As if any old dope could have simply sat in with Charlie Parker! The stories I've heard about people trying didn't have particularly happy endings. A rift between the mainstream and the avant-garde is an inevitable consequence of a virile art form, and in most cases, I'm not sure members of the two groups are terribly disappointed that they cannot play together. Kirk was not exactly a mainstream guy himself after all, and as petty a thing as it is to say, I feel obligated to point out the obvious fact that he was also blind. Could that have had something to do with it? I've sat in with groups playing original material even though that meant I had to read. I'm having someone do the same with one of my groups tonight. The solution is not to do away with arrangements, but to be a competent sight-reader, which most jazz musicians are anyway these days. Of course, the dixieland guys also think that arrangements are wrong-headed, but Crouch's own stated interests would seem to reach far beyond that. Last I checked, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra plays "arrangements." Does that fact by itself "hold the music back?" Wait...don't answer that.

Another grave mistake is to lump the entire avant-garde together. "Free" music most certainly does not use arrangements. It is nothing less than the single most inclusive Western musical form yet devised. Yes, it tolerates charlatans to a greater extent than most musical traditions as a consequence of this openness, but it also enables what are to me some of the most compelling possibilities anywhere in all of art. Any idiot can see that Crouch's ideal of "real jazz" is far more exclusive than this.

Assignment for Stanley:Write a five paragraph essay defining jazz. Use specific and widely accepted/understood musical and sociological terms.

"Defining 'who can play' is subject to a great deal of cultural bias that breaks down largely along racial lines. Of course, to suggest that the criteria for evaluating the music should emanate from the culture that spawned the music would be interpreted as 'reverse racism."
-Eric Gould

Which culture would that be? Perhaps the culture of New Orleans, which was more thoroughly integrated in the late 1800's than some American cities are today? I think you could argue that race became a larger factor in jazz only after it moved on to places where race was a larger factor in general, but that is a superfluous observation to make here. What Gould is saying implies ownership, and that is more worth examining in depth. Outsiders are being asked to take on a false consciousness and assimilate the value judgments of what is assumed to be a largely foreign culture in exchange for membership in the "jazz" club. Even if you find this reasonable, it certainly isn't very nice. Perhaps the reason you seldom hear such things these days from Europeans talking about their classical tradition is because they have not suffered exploitation like American blacks have. At some point, you'll just have to take my word that I aim to be as sensitive to these issues as any outsider can be without actually having been in the victim's shoes. I still do not think that it helps matters to militantly guard a culture's artistic contributions from all outsiders as if it were a trade secret. It would, in fact, be a tremendous gesture of goodwill and reconciliation to be open to many interpretations of what jazz might mean to people of diverse backgrounds, and in fact, that view is not altogether unusual these days. Some will inevitably reply that the ongoing possibility of exploitation precludes this, a view which I find unduly conservative, but which I suppose I can't disagree with entirely. But just to be clear, if this is indeed the way we're operating these days, I hereby grant permission to all non-whites to play classical music, and to synthesize new musical works from this and other streams of tradition. You can bet your life that I would be labeled a racist if I opined to the contrary.

In any case, here's your assignment, Eric:
Write a five paragraph essay detailing the criteria for evaluation that you think should be used to decide who can play. Use specific and widely accepted/understood musical and sociological terms.

The reason most of the whites & asians come out and support is because they're still trying to cop what we're doin'...especially the creative music, because they don't have a full understanding which propels them. Blacks in some since have moved on like Miles and on to tha next.

Aargh. This takes the cake. Let's again reason by analogy to European classical music: when was the last time a white classical pianist gave a recital for a predominantly Korean audience and subsequently complained that there were too few white men in the audience and that the only reason it was packed with young Korean women is that they were there to cop his phrasing? I would hope that this a strictly hypothetical situation, and that if it's not, plenty of people would be lining up to speak out against such an attitude. I can only speak for one white person (myself), but that's not why I go the hear live music. I mean, it's just so much easier to cop that shit from records because that way you can hear it more than once (and of course, most of us are pretty slow, so we need to hear things many times before we can remember them).

In all seriousness now, the "full understanding" line is the single most offensive thing I've read in music-related discourse in quite a while. I most certainly do not understand fully why music has such a profound effect on me. I think that if I did, it would lose some of it's attraction. That's not a white or a black sentiment, that's the sentiment of all people who play music for it's own sake rather than to have their ego stroked. If you aren't in it for the music; if you're a Stanley Crouch type who's more concerned with who and how than what; if you believe that people of different races are genetically predisposed to sound a certain way; then you are the one who lacks a "full understanding" and you really need to go hang out at Berkleeuntil you inevitably run into some kid from Uzbekistan who sounds like he grew up in Chicago. How's that for "cultural context"?

Assignment for Corey:at the first set break of your next gig, go up to five unknown white people in the audience and ask them why they came. Report back. (Extra credit: go up to five men and five women and ask them why they came. That question is on a lot of people's minds also, and is no less controversial.)


Wynton Marsalis recently appeared on The Daily Show, where he described the music of Armstrong, Ellington and Parker as "subversive." His latest release is supposed to carry on that tradition. I don't need to see a genuine copy of Wynton's tax return to get a decent idea of what he makes and how he lives, and I don't find that to be the least bit subversive, the provocative subject matter of his music notwithstanding. Let me tell you why. (note: I am not a blanket Wynton hater. J Mood is one of my favorites of all time; why the hell won't he do that anymore?)

To be an art musician of any kind is still subversive, but not in the way jazz used to be. Jazz musicians of all races live in less-than-affluent circumstances, eschewing "American Dream" bullshit in favor of a hard scrabble life with few lights at the end of the tunnel. Many own instruments that are worth the price of a car. Some of their record collections are worth more than that. In an age when "the best thing for America" is to earn as much money and buy as much plastic shit as humanly possible, they refuse to comply, even though many of them possess exceptional intellects and would have no trouble distinguishing themselves quickly in a more lucrative field. That is pretty damn subversive, but it is only indirectly related to continuing concerns about race. I don't think white people purposely infiltrated the ranks of the working stiff musician in order to hijack the subversive power of the jazz community away from race and towards their own agenda. I think it's merely a symptom of the quality of "real jazz" that it inevitably attracted such arduous followers from all over the place. In any case, subversive people are more dangerous than subversive music. If the current situation somehow represents a failure to fans of subversion, I think they have missed the point.

Conclusion/Full Disclosure/Considering The Source:

I am white and had a comfortable middle class upbringing, but my parents did not shelter me by any stretch of the imagination. I went to inner city public schools for all but 6th through 8th grade, including an elementary school that was at one point 70% black. That doesn't make me an expert on or a member of the culture (although a good high school friend once jokingly elected me and another white friend as official black people), but it does mean that I have more than just a cursory grasp on the past and the present of black history. Maybe it is insensitive to say so, but I do in fact feel downright victimized by much of what I've read over the last several weeks, if not in a rather minor way. It is genuinely disheartening. Why is it even worth complaining about from my end? Take these five exhibits together and you have an impossible situation. Go your own way and you are an ingrate, co-opting the jazz label without any justification. Follow tradition and you are simply stealing from black innovators. It's a catch 22.

Notice that only one of these five people take the position that white people are innately incapable of playing jazz, but that the various others lay out a web of demands which, taken together, cannot possibly be met. Simply by being white and playing most any form of American music, you are prone to run up against one of these objections. That's not the attitude that I see in the people I play with, nor is that an attitude I feel entitled to take towards European music. No, the race issue in jazz is not dead, but resolving it has got to be a two-way street. If there's anything I can do, I will, but I will not stop transcribing black musicians, nor will I stop working in avant-garde or "classical" influenced groups, and when pressed by a well-intentioned (if annoying) inquisitor about what kind of music I play, I will not hesitate to answer "jazz". "Full understanding" sounds more like "hidden agenda" to me. I have no agenda in doing these things other than to relieve the constant urge to make music, and I'd like to think that this attitude transcends all racial and social boundaries. I don't seek to understand my musical inclinations, only to translate them into tangible high-quality musical products (the establishment of that criterion being, of course, highly subjective and mediated only by my own value judgments). I take offense to no one who does the same, and I ask only the same treatment in return.


Lane Savant said...

"Lost Chords" by Richard M. Sudhalter
Oxford University press. www.oup.com
some of my (Scots) ancestors are here because of inhuman treatment by the powers-that-were. They had to pay for the trip.
The original source for African slaves was other Africans. It's not a matter of race or color. It's a matter of power and social position.
We are getting along here in America.

Stefan Kac said...

I'm not quite sure how to take this one. I haven't read Sudhalter's book; what I understand to be his basic premise (that white musicians in fact contributed something to jazz) is agreeable enough. I would posit that the really dark stuff happened behind the scenes and in the media; I'm not aware of too many white jazz musicians of any repute from around that time who were viciously racist, although there's plenty we'll never know about many of them. If I'm not mistaken, LaRocca did try to take credit for things he shouldn't have, which is the kind of thing that continues to stir up bad feelings. As for the statement that "We are getting along here in America", I'm not entirely sure what you mean, but I'm inclined to disagree with each of the possibilities anyway.