UPDATE, 2016: I originally wrote the piece below in response to the specific flare-up which followed Nicholas Payton’s public rejection of the word “jazz,” but the fact that it’s still the most visited page on this site by a long shot, even three years later, tells me these questions are still being thought about, which is good to know (whether you agree with me or not).
By now you’re aware that there was another jazz blogo-Twitter-Facebook-sphere conflagration this week (they seem to crop up every few months or so like drug-resistant bacteria)–this one in response to a post by accomplished trumpeter and opinionator Nicholas Payton (who is always a good read, whether you agree with him or not). The post that set it off, “Why Jazz Isn’t Cool Anymore,” is a collection of thoughts covering Payton’s problems with “jazz” as a word and marketing concept and its place in the history of racism in the music, plus a varety of other stuff including silence and whether it’s romantic to be poor (his take: no). It’s all interesting and debatable, but that’s not what prompted me to write today–my problem is the kinds of reactions these sorts of discussions tend to bring up from some white musicians and fans. (There’s that voice in my head telling me to close the laptop and walk away. No? Shit, here we go.)
On the list of topics most white jazz musicians would rather not be talking about, I think issues of race in jazz fall right behind their parents’ sex lives or when the biopsy results are due back. It’s uncomfortable for all sorts of reasons, which is why most of us choose to avoid getting into it if at all possible. It tends to explode the happy illusion that the jazz scene is a harmonious colorblind family where musical achievement is the only metric that matters. If it is discussed, it’s usually among friends in a non-public setting where good faith can be assumed and people can accept some basic facts as givens:
- that jazz is a music that came out of the African-American community and is a deep part of that culture’s historical identity;
- that great respect is due to the black masters who shaped it;
- that those masters were on the receiving end of vicious racial animosity for much of the music’s history;
- that white musicians unfairly profited from discrimination against black musicians by audiences and the music industry;* but
- that white musicians also played a role in the development of the music; and
- that America isn’t yet over these wounds, and people, especially musicians, ignore this to their own detriment.
[*To be clear, this usually wasn’t the musician’s fault! By all accounts Paul Whiteman was actually a pretty decent guy who cared about his musicians, and Chet Baker openly acknowledged that winning a trumpet poll while Clifford Brown was still alive was ridiculous (and I love Chet, but c’mon). But the fact that nobody calls Paul Whiteman the King of Jazz anymore, or thinks the ODJB was acutally “original” is a good sign that history is a better judge than short-term marketing hype.]
But on the internet, in public, things are very different. Anybody with a Twitter or Facebook account can instantly jump into the fray with thoughts ranging from well-thought-out arguments to idiotic name-calling–so after a brief honeymoon (ten minutes? 15?) of respectful disagreement with Payton, sure enough, out of the woodwork came (mostly white) people calling him a racist, accusing him of calling them thieves, etc. This is par for the course in American discourse (see here) but disappointing, since I like to think jazz musicians are a little more attuned to how loaded these issues can be.
But as I said in one Facebook thread which I couldn’t stop myself from getting sucked into (after it followed the standard devolution from reasoned debate to incoherent jazz Fight Club), it’s unfortunately easy for white jazz players to fall into the trap of walking around in a haze of proactive defensiveness, ready to drop Bill Evans on anyone who brings up racism in the music’s past or present.
But to those white players who feel themselves veering toward that defensiveness, I would say the following:
- The fact is, you are occasionally going to run into people who think you probably shouldn’t be playing this music, or think white people are generally bad for jazz. Some of them may be your friends. Some of them may be your heroes. Some of them may be German tourists who think jazz can only be played in sunglasses. Some of them may know much less about the music than you do. This is just a fact of life and a natural result of the history covered above.
- This is indeed a drag. Trust me, I get it. It’s a drag to spend your life learning to play a form of music you love, only to know there are people who think you’ll never be authentic because of who your parents are. But:
- Compared to what the black architects of this music went through over the first century of its existence, this is a pretty minor price to pay. No one is throwing you in jail. No one is making you walk in the back door or use a separate water fountain. There is no vast population of white jazz musicians being deprived of work by inferior black jazz musicians. Being called a thief is a hell of a lot nicer than some of the names I’m sure those pioneers heard on a regular basis.
- In case you’ve forgotten, being white is an advantage in just about every other area of your life, short of the cost of sunscreen. (In case you need a refresher: see here.)
- This doesn’t mean you should never respond to a dumb argument or defend yourself, just try to have some perspective and be grateful that you live in a relatively peaceful country and can study music and (God forbid) occasionally get paid to play it.
- But if it still bothers you and you really want to change peoples’ minds, take a cue from that Bill Evans guy you’re always mentioning and win them over by being a nice and respectful person and playing your ass off.
… WHILE YOU’RE HERE, some other posts to check out: