How Not to Become a Bitter White Jazz Musician

UPDATE, 2019: I originally wrote the piece below in response to the 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 eight 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 issue 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 actually “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 (and yes, it takes a lifetime) learning to play a form of music you love, only to discover 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 respectful person and playing your ass off.

… WHILE YOU’RE HERE, some other posts to check out:

72 thoughts on “How Not to Become a Bitter White Jazz Musician”

  1. Ian-

    Great piece. peace. Race isn’t a race, but some simply don’t have to carry as much weight. wait? no. ONward.

    Thanks for your words.

  2. Hi Ian.

    You have an incredible career as a write in fron of you—right in front of you. Kudos for a beautiful post and for getting it. Not only getting it but being able to communicate it to people is really a gift. I don’t know what you want to do when you grow up but consider writing and also consider not growing up.
    Peace and be well. Vicki Christina Barcelona

  3. Nice piece Ian. Thought provoking. I agree with you an yet wonder – can’t we just learn and study a music that we respect and enjoy no matter what the name or the heritage ? Evolution is key as Payton suggests. Or should us white folks all just stop playing and learning so as to honor the truth of its heritage ?

  4. Hi Jemilla! “Can’t we just learn and study a music that we respect and enjoy no matter what the name or the heritage?” -Yes.

  5. Thanks Vicki. If I’m not grown up by now I don’t think there’s any danger of it happening any time soon.

  6. Great post Ian. The truth is White jazz musicians are in the “Black Quarterback” stage. There are a lot of White musicians (and Black btw) who simply cannot swing,can’t play the blues,don’t relate to Black people and Black culture AT ALL,and are still be lauded as jazz royalty, They get the beat gigs,teach at all the great places and ignore all things African American. Like the qualified Black quarterback,the qualified White jazz musician will eventually gain the respect from his playing. He might want to hang out with some brothers every now and then! IJS LOL!

  7. Hi Jacques. I think there are two separate issues there–can they play and swing, vs. do they relate to black culture. I think it’s possible (though probably not advisable?) to be a really good player while having no connection to the African American community–check out all those cats who show up every year from Israel or Bulgaria or wherever and scare everybody–but what does that mean for their connection to the musical tradition? Is the cultural history necessary or do the sounds carry it all themselves? I don’t know the answer to those questions, but I would hope that any serious student of the music, of any background, would want to do some deep learning about where the music came from.

  8. seems to me that the post was more about the stagnation in the development in jazz…the racial aspect was tangential. leave it to sensitive rich white kids who have studied “jazz” in collegiate institutions under the tutelage of people who have never been high-level performers or innovators themselves to complain about “racism” in jazz. definitely don’t think the issue of white musicians playing jazz was something Nicholas was thinking about.

  9. Ian, I totally dig you for “getting it”, man – and not being afraid to say what needs to be said. Glad to know that intelligent and respectful minds like yours are part of the musical community. Don’t ever step away from the laptop.

  10. Anonymous, this post wasn’t about Payton’s post but the reactions I saw it getting from some musicians around the internet.
    EDIT: Now that I read it again maybe you’re talking about the people I mentioned who were calling NP racist. They were just stupid, collegiate education or no.

  11. Glad you’re back at it and for what it’s worth, I too took a lot from NP’s poem. It’s fertile food for thought and it’s disappointing how little intellectual breadth there is in most jazz threads/blogs, present company excluded, of course. Thanks for your honesty.

  12. OK then. Thanks for telling me my “unconscious intention.” My conscious intention was to talk about how I feel about having studied and played this music for 25 years and try and offer another way of looking at it in the hope that it might help young players avoid developing chips on their shoulders which can only make them unhappy.

  13. Hi,

    For what it’s worth:

    I’m black. I’m almost 30. I’m not a musician. Most of the jazz I listen to is moribund 1950s hard bop.

    With this information out of the way, I stopped taking Payton’s rant-poem seriously when he called himself a “Postmodern New Orleans musician.”


  14. Firstly Ian, I would like to say that I think this is a great post and great way of looking at the reactions that are coming out.

    Secondly I would like to say to Darwin, what were you reading and what do you know of Ian of Nicholas Payton’s intentions with his poem or of the jazz business in general that you could write something with the audacity that you did.

    Thirdly, as someone who has studied jazz both the way the masters of this music did (via transcription, conversation and the occasional lesson) as well as in the academic setting in college I will say this: there was and still is a racial divide in the music, although not the way it was back in the days of the great pioneers and masters of this music. I studied with both Jackie McLean and Dr. Donald Byrd and the both HATED the word Jazz because of the negative history of the origin of that word as well as the fact that it didn’t credit the heritage of the music.

    There has been so much of African-American innovation and invention that has been stolen throughout the history of this nation that for some people this is not only a sensitive topic, but a part of the struggle that they have and continue to live. If you look at the academic side of jazz today, I have personally seen more people running jazz departments nation no world wide that no little to nothing about jazz or performing it at any level because they are not black and have a Master’s Degree or Doctorate because in Academia the Degree is a more important qualifier for teaching this piece of original American culture than having actual experience and knowledge of this rich tradition and heritage.

    I am of the personal belief that your race doesn’t matter as a performer of this music nor of the learning of it, but you cannot discuss the history of this music without speaking of the life, times, and society that existed during the creation and innovation of this music.

    I mean the fact that someone like Kenny G can sit in public and say that he is an innovator and inventor of circular breathing (which Sidney Bechet was doing long before he was born on Soprano Sax) is a great modern day example of some of the issues of credit stealing that some people don’t want to talk about or face. I’m going to stop now, because I could go on about this, but once again, Excellent Post Ian!

  15. Haneef: Thanks for reading and commenting. The whole jazz education thing is definitely a whole other can of worms (and one I have plenty of mixed feelings about, having gone that route myself like most players of my generation & younger).

    Brad: Thanks, my latest CD is here:

  16. I appreciate your efforts, but it sounds like you wrote this 20 years ago; times have changed. And don’t call me white, or The White, because I am Jeff Riley. And wouldn’t it be wonderful if Nicholas Payton stopped his bigotry? That kind of leadership is far more valuable than trumpeting alone.

  17. i really enjoyed reading your humbling thoughts. great piece! really well written! and truly insightful!

  18. Margerie: thanks!
    Jeff: You are certainly fighting long and valiantly against the caricature of Nicholas Payton which lives in your head.

  19. It’s a cultural thing, dude. Blacks and whites are separated in all musics–check out the Grammy Awards–you’re either white or you’re black–those are even the categories. As a white jazz pianist, I have gotten gigs in mostly white bands or in my own trios with white rhythm sections. I have worked in mixed groups but it doesn’t matter–only Whites come to these gigs–blacks go to their own gigs–even if you bring a black band into a white jazz venue, only white people show up. I am also an accomplished blues pianist and singer and harmonica player but to work in any of the few remaining NYC blues clubs (there are only about 2 left), you have to have a Black in your band if you’re White.

    It’s racism, dude. That’s the way it is in this country. Blacks know it as White Superiority. Whites consider themselves better musicians than Blacks. Louis introduced whites to jazz–whites took it over–I mean Louie’s and Duke’s and Basie’s booking agents were White. White critics ruled jazz criticism for decades. The president of the musicians unions were all White. The recording company execs and A&R men were White and the recording engineers were White. Most of the nation-wide jazz deejays were White–the exception: Daddy-O Daley in Ch Town.

    Black musicians have now moved on into whole other musical worlds–like Hip Hop–come on, name me a handful of White hip hoppers?

    Blacks keep coming up with more and more Black-oriented music genres–like when Whites dominated swing, Blacks came up with be-bop and Charles Parker, Jr., and John Burks Gillespie–two cats who could blow circles around any White cats–WHY? because they invented the music via Black culture–and, yes, White cats played with Parker and Gillespie–Dodo Marmarosa and Al Haig–bassist Teddy Kotick–drummer Buddy Rich–but for the most part, the best be-bop jazz bands were all-Black.

    That’s life in the USA. Most of my White jazz friends go to Europe and play–Italy and Spain especially. Also, White dudes can work 24/7 playing jazz in Shanghai–

    The jazz scene here in New York City is now basically white–there are still “Black” clubs (mostly up in Harlem) and “White” clubs, mostly in downtown Manhattan.

    The argument as to whether Whites can play jazz as well as Blacks has been an issue in jazz since Down Beat and Metronome magazines started dealing with just jazz back in the 1940s–Leonard Feather, a Brit jazz critic, ran Blindfold Tests in Down Beat to see if Blacks or Whites could guess who was playing on these records. Blacks always had trouble guessing who the White players were–but Whites always could tell the difference.

    Read Arthur Taylor’s fine book Notes and Tones–it shows you this Black/White division in the conversations of jazz musicians.


  20. i vote with my wallet. period. i buy the brothers because they can play their asses off. i don’t like the other stuff because it sounds *technically* ok but lacks something i can’t put my finger on. soul mebbe.

  21. Ian, Wow…Debate/Shlemate, Jazz/Postmodern Nawlins Whatever. C’mon people. Listen to what you like…learn how to play it even…& if you’re of a mind to, study it…but study those who play it now or did so back in the day, not its “historians” or “critics”. Be passionate about it if that’s your nature. And if you read & then feel a need to join the discussions about it, remember that’s what they are: Discussions…About It. As I believe NP said in his own way, when we define something, we kill it. We leave it no place to go…up, down, out, in, back, forward. Focus on what grabbed you about it in the first place…the SOUND & how it made you FEEL. All the rest is just intellectual masturbation…sometimes & maybe somewhat fulfilling, but not of any lasting essence.

  22. William Styron received the same close-minded grief following the publication of his novel The Confessions of Nat Turner. Then, it was a number of black intellectuals denouncing his choice to write about a slave revolt.
    I have never understood criticizing the thoughtful efforts of artists to get inside of and portray the experiences of others in a way that has, as one byproduct, the raising of awareness of some person or group of persons’ experiences. This is what ART does, be it via music, writing, visually or what have you.
    I choose to focus my energy on those who create bridges, not tear them down.

  23. Ian, I’ll drop the NP thing, but listen: Stop calling me white because it has a negative meaning. “White” means slave owning and I don’t appreciate it. Change the name jazz, AND ALSO the name white. I am Jeff Riley. Calling me white is as ignorant as calling creative music jazz or Black American music.

  24. Great article, It was very succinct. I have a love for all music and have found that we as a people tend to restrict or expand our vision based on our abilities to grow and understand. I am 67 years old, I am still growing and with God’s help, understanding. Great article.

  25. Thanks everyone for your comments.

    Jeff, it’s your inalienable right to believe any weird thing you like, such as Nick Payton being a racist or “white” equaling “slave owner.” Hooray America!

  26. Hey Ian,

    I appreciate the sentiment with which you wrote this blog. I agree with most of what you said and to varying degrees what has been said in these comments. I have been writing a book the last three years about my own experiences and anthropological observations about race and music. There are so many layers to the issue. In my opinion, most people seem to recognize only the layers that relatively comfortably apply to them.

    As a “white” person who plays and dances many forms of “black” music, I believe what is missing from most of the arguments, are some of the same unmentionables missing from the discussions about the 1% and 99%. To me, it comes down to symbols and expression – what attracts us to them, and ultimately the audio and visual ones we are born with and the ones we choose to express ourselves to establish relative status and power.

    I think we would all remiss not to mention how historically there has been a pattern of “black flight” that happens when too many white people get into an expression originally created by black people. Often what happens as a result of this type of white gentrification, both commercially and soulfully, is that that art loses legitimacy and popularity because of that huge elephant in the room (with the exception of rock and even then there’s limits when compared to hip-hop and R&B infused pop).

    I believe we all have a right to express whatever we want in whatever medium we choose. The real issue that nobody has mentioned, in my opinion, is the concept of what experiences define relative “oppression” and relative “urgency to express” in relation to the the symbols recognized to express those experiences. Once we truly and honestly do that, especially as white people, I think we can more constructively confront and put to bed both the personal demons and elephants that Payton and reactionaries like yourself are bringing up.

    It’s just too easy to say that “race” is man made, and that there have been a smattering white people that have contributed stylistically to jazz to justify your own place. Also, does it alway have to be about contribution and innovation? Or are we really talking about some other type of power?

  27. Thanks for your thoughts, Jonathan. When you put it that way, it brings up all sorts of parallels to gentrification, which I’m sure adds another layer of food for thought for those of us who’ve already “moved in.”

    As for “justifying your place,” I think that’s done how it’s always been done–playing the music at a high level while being aware that there are cultural factors at work in this music which go beyond the ability to burn on Giant Steps or whatever.

  28. “I don’t care if a dude is purple with green breath as long as he can swing.”- Miles Davis.

    You should not either…

  29. Hi Nona, that’s right, of course–my post was more about being prepared to run into people who don’t necessarily agree, and keeping a sense of perspective about it.

  30. Ian..”calling me white is like calling me Christopher Columbus, a man who murdered thousands after raping them and enslaving them and murdering them and burning down their villages and bringing genocide and disease.” Wow Nona…”I don’t care if a dude is Hitler as long as he can swing.”

  31. Loads of luck with your heroic quest to eradicate the word “white”, Jeff! Or is it sarcastic? I don’t even know anymore.

  32. Issues of race aside, since that issue is being discussed to death, is the fact that jazz, black music, or whatever you want to label it is not popular because of the intellectual snobbery of the players, and the fact that they do not play for their audience, and do not reach out to a wider segment of the music loving public. I know too many players who feel that actually “entertaining” their audience would detract from their “art”. Yet, the great pioneers of this music always “entertained”. It’s still possible to play to your audience’s level without lowering the level of the music. Too many players behave as if they’re above everyone else, and then bitch and moan when no one comes out to hear their music. Duke, Pres, Dizzy, Miles, Benny Carter, Count Basie, Louis,etc., always entertained while always keeping the music to a high level. They all swung and played tunes. Also, it’s time young players stop regurgitating all of the licks and patterns of the earlier innovators. I also believe that “jazz” education is partially responsible for much of the stagnation of the music, because they teach that jazz is played a certain way. However the innovators didn’t come up with their ideas by playing a certain way, but because they found their own voices. It would be better if musicians just studied music, all music, and also study the great players they admire the most, they may be able to find their own voices and approach to playing and maybe one day we will all just appreciate the music and the player and stop giving a shit about labels and skin color and whatever else detracts from it.

  33. Hey man,

    Nice analysis of Payton’s writing–I totally dig it. I’ll admit that I was turned off by his blog (mostly because I’ve never read it before, and he definitely has quite a voice), but I think I understand the basis of where he’s coming from. He certainly angered quite a few trad jazz fans, though! (This is the community I come closest to being a part of.)

    Also, I had to reread “jazz Fight Club” because I originally saw it as “Jazz Fight Club”. I think I prefer the mental image of Jazz Fight club to jazz Fight Club, though!

  34. Feliks, I don’t think your opinion is unusual–most players I know are aware of the need to connect more with the audience, but it’s going to be an uphill battle if you want to play anything recognizable as “jazz.” The audiences are a hell of a lot different than they were in the days of the masters you mentioned. As for studying music & the great players, and finding one’s own voice, that’s exactly what all the people I went to school with were trying to do, despite the jazz education stereotype.

    Breanna, thanks for your comment. I’ve been to some jam sessions that weren’t far off from your mental image.

  35. The old debate of the cultural significance of viewing African American Classical Music (Jazz) through the prism of race has reared its ugly head once again. And, once again, I view it as not being in a vacuum. Anyone who thinks that the issue of race and/or culture doesn’t play a role in the playing of Jazz just doesn’t get it and their ignorance is very telling, to say the least. But opinions vary and we all know what they are like? Don’t we?

  36. Hi Justine, I realize my post doesn’t really address the implications of these ideas for people who aren’t American (of which there are many playing jazz, obviously), which is a whole other can of worms (do they say that in Australia? I hope so!)–or for people who are neither black nor white, or for women. But I think the main points are still applicable.

  37. Great post- In America, you are either going to live “separate-but-equal” or you are going to GO OUT OF YOUR WAY not to do so. Greater than jazz, the biggest problem with racism in this country has to do less with hate anymore than it has to do with fear and discomfort (out of which hate stems, anyway). White people, who have most of the money and jobs, hire white people because they know and are friends with white people, because white people are familiar and are easier to be comfortable around, being friendly to black people, possibly due to white guilt, and, for the same reason, feeling uncomfortable. Ultimate, races clique up, and separate but equal lives unless you build strong relationships with a diverse array of people different from yourself to better understand them. Not hating black people is not enough; embracing, praising, and making black music and art is not enough; embracing black people, actual people, not just the concept, is the only thing that makes a difference. THAT will help solve the problems of black people not getting the opportunities, the jobs that white people do; THAT will reduce some fundamental misunderstandings about black people, and bring to light how little you really know about the people that you don’t really know. In terms of your altruistic responsibility, it is not enough to sit and be guilty about your race from the slave trade through civil rights–get to know the people, and you’ll understand the race, your race, and your social environment a whole lot better, which always helps better the world.

    As this relates to Payton’s post- he has points; I don’t know if how he expresses it does any good toward racial understanding in ja–…music. It comes out as sweeping generalizations about white people, and the whole inflammatory aspect makes it easy to write him off. He makes all these accusations about why he’s so misunderstood, but the poor composition brings those misunderstandings about! He needs to calm down and compose his thoughts, because dudeman has ideas, and even great ideas can be poison when presented in the wrong manner or context.

  38. Well said in terms of Jazz. There is a new movement called the Stretch Movement. The Stretch Movement is a new movement starting in NYC that was started by John Beaty, Felix Pastorius, and Chris Ward. It is a movement for young instrumentalist that improvise and don’t swing. They understand that Jazz doesn’t describe what they do accurately and see the Jazz Clubs as the wrong places to build a young audience. Nicholas Payton had every opportunity to record and sell records. A great instrumentalist does not make a forward thinking artist. He is no Miles Davis and his music is not something sellable to mass audiences of young people. Race is an easy excuse. The real bravery would be to try to start a new musical style like John, Chris, Felix, and even Zaccai Curtis has joined them. The real atrocity is the financial oppression imposed on the young generation through college education. Nicholas Payton has also profited of Americas youth in this respect. He is the 1% of Jazz. We are Stretch, All are Welcome!!

  39. Thanks “Mom.” I’m no huge fan of the j-word jazz myself, not for any political reason but more because of the Chardonnay-sipping yuppie image it conjures for me, probably because of hearing it spoken by too many overdramatic DJs over the years. But “Stretch” strikes me as something that will sound unbelievably dated in a few years. Just one guy’s opinion!

  40. It’s a shame that there is never any discussion about how jazz was one of the earliest tools for bringing a multi race nation closer together. Long before black and white athletes played together, jazz was chipping away at racial separation. Was it perfect? No. but when I review that time in history that fact shines brightly, and it’s a shame that it’s not celebrated. Was there white/black territorial issues; yes, but there was also a respect and acceptance, not just among the musicians, but it was the first time that it was projected into the culture at large.

    I’ve read enough jazz biographies to know about the ‘behind the scenes’ feelings of exploitations, accusations, and stereotypes; as well as personal prejudice, social activism, and personal insecurities. But none of those issues are unique to America, and most, like a garden plant, will die from lack of watering.

    Jazz was possibly the first true demonstration of an emerging American harmony. The sad part is that there will always be haters, accusers, and dividers among us; it’s sad when jazz is used as a tool for racial division.

  41. It’s sad that jazz, which should be the most inclusive of musical genres, remains one of the most divided.

    I think the only genre worse is classical. Personally, when I go to a show at Carnegie Hall or Lincoln Center, I’m one of the few flies in a glass of milk, and usually one of the few without an AARP card.

  42. While I think that over all the above article is excellent, I still feel that Mr. Carey is being a bit overly apologetic.
    The contributions of white musicians to Jazz are not minor, they are substantial, and without them Jazz as we know it would not have come into being. Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller,and others were not incidental to the evolving tradition, they were essential to it.
    For a better perspective,compare Jazz with Hip-Hop. The contributions of the few white artists of any prominence such as Eminem and Beastie Boys, no matter how good they are/were, are completely incidental. Had they never existed it would have made no difference to the direction Hip-Hop has taken. Consider the issue in terms of culture. Hip-Hop culture is completely African-American. A white Hip-Hop artist has to adopt obviously Black clothing, black mannerisms,black speech patterns, etc., to even begin to be a Hip-Hop artist. This was not at all the case in Jazz. Jazz culture was mixed from the start.
    It might be interesting to consider what I believe to be an accurate observation derived from my own research and my teaching: “America, during the Jazz eras, was more integrated over the air waves,even though it was segregated on the ground. While today, Hip-Hop culture, while more integrated on the ground, might be far more segregated on the airwaves and on the internet.” My students are largely segregated musically- overlaps certainly are there, but mostly a few white musicians into Hip-Hop, with very few, if any, Black musicians into alternative rock, Metal, country Western, etc. Nearly all, if not all, the Black musicians are into Hip-Hop, or a variation (Christian Rap, for example), while only a certain percentage of the Whites are into Hip-Hop. The cultural distinctions are obvious, from the clothing, to the mannerisms. Even what they watch on YouTube tends to be vastly different.
    I don’t think this was the case with Jazz culture, at least not the musical culture. the population at large, was listening to same music even while living in segregated worlds (this also has to do with changing technologies). Jazz musical culture, for the musicians and the audiences, was not overwhelmingly black. Whites didn’t have to adopt clothing, mannerisms, political attitudes, and even speech, to fit in. They fit in to the Jazz cultural community pretty much as they were when they came to it, as did the black musicians.
    Anyway, it’s an interesting consideration I think.

  43. Thanks for your thoughts, Mr. Poole. I’m not sure I agree with you on some points–for example, there’s no way hiphop would be the dominant musical force in the US today if there weren’t millions of white kids listening to it–but the unfairness & segregation I’m talking about was more in the marketplace than on the bandstand. And jazz didn’t exist in a vacuum–it was happening in America, which means black musicians who played it were subject to the same racial animosity they would’ve faced as non-musicians as well. Again, not white musicians’ fault, but I’m suggesting contemporary white jazz musicians just have some understanding of why black musicians might not always be thrilled about jazz “belonging to the world” (even if it already does) and other well-meaning “post-racial” notions.

  44. Let’s play drop the needle. Get a stack of 10 records/cd’s by various artists playing jazz covers. Play them all “blind” (Hide the labels and record jackets) and back to back.

    See if you can tell what color/race they are by their playing.

    If you are intellectually honest, I suspect you won’t be able to tell.

    Have fun!

  45. You may be right, if you’re talking about contemporary, middle-echelon players (you’d have to avoid the majority of the icons of this music due to their individually recognizable voices), but I don’t see how that would change what I wrote above–the fact that jazz can be played by anyone (who’s willing to work their asses off at it, that is!) doesn’t change the fact that it came out of African-American culture, and that white players would be wise to not get bent out of shape about this fact.

  46. There are plenty of factors which could lead a jazz musician to not be able (let alone “allowed”) to make a living, but judging from the numbers, being white isn’t one of them.

  47. nicholas payton is not quite 40 years of age. a brilliant man however he is young like most of us on this blog.

    he has plenty of musical experience, a true talent and intellect- however I don’t refer to a person of 39 for much wisdom. Talk to me when you’re 75+

  48. I wanted to add that I love his writing for trying to get at some truths- it’s pretty thought provoking stuff, otherwise we wouldn’t be discussing it. However, I think it comes from the perspective of someone who’s always been in the music bubble. He’s jazz royalty- born into a jazz family like Wynton, Branford, etc. I love his insight, but it’s also quite narrow in my opinion.

    Yes it is/always has been a privilege to be white in america. Anyone with a brain knows this. It is a huge advantage. But is it not also a privilege to be able to create/play music that means something to you and make a decent living doing so? How many people let alone artists are able to say the same thing? How many people came before him that never enjoyed his success, especially black artists. He speaks of oppression which I agree with him on- but what about own personal story- I wonder if he ever had to flip a burger, or get in rush hour traffic to get to the office by 9 a.m.? And good for him that he doesn’t have to – not saying you should if given the choice- I applaud any artist who finds a way to make it work.

    To me, his thoughts come from within an echo chamber- detached from the rest of the world It’s great that he has such strong convictions, but they resemble much of the music played today- too seperated from humanity, too cerebral.

  49. Thanks for your comments, Rick. One thing to note: this post was more directed at white musicians overreacting to Nic’s comments than his comments themselves. As for Payton himself, I pretty much always find it valuable to read and think about the issues he raises, whether I agree with his opinions about them (“Blurred Lines” really is a sad Marvin Gaye ripoff) or not (I’m not yet convinced the word jazz is as terrible as he thinks it is).

    But there were definitely some annoying-ass white people proclaiming some historically ignorant post-racial b.s. about jazz in the wake of the first BAM blowup–I know because I argued with them. And none of them knew half of what Nic did about the music’s history or could play half of the horn he can. (And yes, I think having the artistic credibility and experience at the feet of the masters he has does add weight to his opinions–again, not that you have to agree with them.) As for the idea that he’s “jazz royalty,” I suppose coming up in a musical family and in the “young lions” era may have given him opportunities, but I don’t think you can seriously say he didn’t deserve them independent of that–the dude was playing incredible amounts of trumpet by the time he was a teenager. So if he never had to take a day job, it’s not due to any legacy admissions. I also don’t think you can say “like Wynton & Branford,” because as far as I can tell there has never been anything LIKE Wynton & Branford (or will be again), in terms of a marketing and promotional tsunami combined with genuine prodigious talent.

  50. “There are plenty of factors which could lead a jazz musician to not be able (let alone “allowed”) to make a living, but judging from the numbers, being white isn’t one of them.”

    Seriously? Then your article is dishonest. In NYC , where I live, I could introduce you to more than a handful of excellent musicians who would have a career if their skin was darker. And some prominent black musicians who will acknowledge this (probably not in public).

  51. NP’s writing is always a good read. I agree that ‘Jazz’ and other types of black music have historically been appropriated by whites and its something we can still see today.

    The origins of particular rhythms have been traced to West Africa. However, I don’t believe that means all Black people have natural rhythm and are soulful as a result of melanin. That’s an old stereotype, most likely rooted in scientific racism and unfortunately adopted and internalized by some Black folk.

  52. “There are plenty of factors which could lead a jazz musician to not be able (let alone “allowed”) to make a living, but judging from the numbers, being white isn’t one of them.”

    I replied to this inane opinion two plus years ago and yet you choose not to respond, although you found it fitting to respond to so many other posts. Are you really unaware of the situation of very talented white musicians not being hired for gigs in black bands? I am of the opinion that many don’t cut it passion, chops, soul or otherwise, but some do and alas their skin is the wrong color. Cry me a river, as you point out, not on the level of oppression as black people continue to live with. But it is a fact. For many reasons as mentioned, but since the late 60s it is the rule , not the exception. And whoever said the jazz scene in New York is mostly white wtf is he talking about?

    Again if you deny this reality you are talking out of both sides of your mouth and this whole discussion is invalid.

  53. jazz is a commodity. made in a racist oppressive society. a win and lose state of existence. some will profit win, some will lose non profit what race you are in a racist society is of no matter when you attempt to sell a product it either will sell or it won’t sell.

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