How Not to Become a Bitter White Jazz Musician

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:

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

  1. 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!

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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!

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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+

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. “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).

  13. I’m not saying nobody has ever lost an opportunity for being white–I’m saying that there are thousands of professional jazz musicians who happen to be white making a living at the moment (as tenuous as that may be, for any artist, let alone a jazz musician), so the numbers don’t back up the idea that “they” won’t “allow” you to make a living as a white jazz musician. And the many many opportunities lost to people who were not white over the first century of this music count for something.

  14. 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.

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