Tag Archives: Twitter

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:

Jazz According to G

Ted Panken (who I used to listen to on WKCR all the time) has a great new blog, which has already featured some gems–among them, this classic interview with Kenny G, in which Mr. G advances the curious claim that Charlie Parker was nicknamed “Bird” because his reed squeaked. The jazz Twitterverse jumped on this with a vengeance, and has since been abuzz with hundreds of other surprising #kennygjazzfacts. Arcane jazz-nerdery meets humorous lists? I’m there!

My contributions (so far) to the fact-fiesta:

  • They called Louis Armstrong “Pops” because he founded the Boston Pops, and ate Corn Pops, and had so many children.
  • They called the album “Kind of Blue” because Miles was suffering from hypothermia.
  • “Birdland” was actually named after the movie “The Birds” and Harold Land.
  • They call it the saxophone because the first one was actually made out of a phone.
  • “Take The A Train” was supposed to be either “Take The Train” or “Take A Train,” not both!
  • Few people know that “Songbird” was actually a reharmonization of “Ascension.”
  • Who knew that jazz would grow from its beginnings in David Lee Roth’s “Just a Gigolo” to become a worldwide phenomenon?
  • No family has done more for jazz than the Jones brothers–Elvin, Thad, Hank, Tom, James Earl, and Barnaby.
  • Coltrane called his tune “Giant Steps” in honor of Wilt Chamberlain’s feet.
  • Chick Webb was an inspiration to every chick with with webbed feet who dreamed of playing jazz.
  • Few people know that Herbie Hancock got his nickname because he Goes Bananas.
  • Jazz evolved in the late 1800s when rustic field hollers began to incorporate synth bass, DX-7s, and QuadraVerb.
  • WC Handy was such a big sports fan that he named his most famous composition after his favorite hockey team.
  • The word “jazz” was a common American slang term meaning “as exciting as basketball in Utah.
  • I used to think Charlie Parker was great, until I found out he was just reading all those solos out of the Omnibook.
  • Jelly Roll Morton changed his name because “Croissant Morton” sounded too fancy.
  • Coltrane took such long solos because he had lockjaw, which is how he got the nickname Eddie “Lockjaw” Coltrane.
  • King Oliver’s nickname came from his favorite movie, “Oliver!”
  • Joe Henderson wrote “Inner Urge” after waiting in an especially long line for the mens’ room.
  • Everyone knows Kenny G invented jazz, but few remember Wynton Marsalis invented classical music.

More of my questionable attempts at internet humor can be found here.

UPDATE: Some of my favorites from other folks:

  • Is that the “Jazz Masters Cemetery” up ahead? Good–pull-over. I gotta pee. (@AtmosTrio)
  • Tina Brooks is a huge influence on me, both as a saxophone player and as someone who constantly gets mistaken for a woman. (@keithflentge)
  • Trumpeter Booker Little was not only a librarian but a dwarf as well. His real name remains a mystery. (@peterhum)

And I’m grateful to WBGO for giving a shout out to this list! (I’d be even more grateful if they’d give my CD a spin.)*

*No really, why have I had more luck getting attention on the web by being funny than by playing jazz? Is the universe trying to tell me something?

The Jazz Bucket List (via Twitter)

Lee Mergner of the happily resuscitated JazzTimes recently published (and A Blog Supreme mentioned) a list of “jazz-related things to do before you die (or Keith Jarrett kills you)”–an unfair jab, really, as it’s been years since Keith has murdered anyone, unless you count the fatwa he ordered after Umbria.

Anyway, the list had a few I’ve done:

  • “visit the Village Vanguard and soak up the history” (I think that was history I found on my shoes);
  • “walk on hallowed ground at Congo Square in New Orleans” (actually it was more like stumbling–3 hurricanes will do that to you);
  • “memorize at least one solo from a famous jazz record and hum it for someone who might actually recognize it” (welcome to my college social life); and
  • “Buy the CD of a local jazz musician playing a gig where no one pays attention to the music, ever” (That was me. I bought 1000 of them. Most are still in my garage).

Following JT’s lead, I came up with a few more musician-centric suggestions of my own:

  • Make a waiter call his boss at 1am to get the band paid
  • Be told by a relative he only likes “real jazz, like Al Hirt and Kenny G”
  • Take out thousands of dollars in loans to prepare for a career which pays tips and sometimes beer
  • Listen to Trane’s first recording and feel ecstatic joy at how crappy he sounds
  • Get a request for “Summertime,” within 5 minutes of finishing playing “Summertime”
  • Consider renaming your band “[Your Name]’s [Exotic-sounding word]” to get more gigs
  • Consider hiring a DJ, tubist, theremin player, hog-caller, and bearded lady to appeal to the indie crowd
  • Get shredded at a jam session by some kid from Lithuania who looks 14 years old
  • Get asked by a club to play something “jazzier”
  • Get into a physical fight about straight-8ths odd-meter jazz
  • Practice Bird tunes in all 12 keys on a NYC rooftop, get yelled at by neighbors
  • Quit music in heat of passion and then come crawling back
  • Buy 20 copies of my CD and use them as coasters, doorstops, cat toys, or pizza cutters

There were also a few good suggestions from Twitter’s peanut gallery, including the notorious Jazzfamoose (“Realize that Del’s Frozen Lemonade is so much better than who’s on the mainstage at the Newport Jazz Festival,” “Get berated by Lorraine Gordon at the Vanguard” (done that!), “Have your CD get reviewed by @natechinen & still sell less than 500 copies in 2010″), and improviz (“Contact Mingus by Ouija board”–I wouldn’t recommend that, I think he can still punch you from beyond the grave). Got your own? Throw ’em in the comments.