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Nashville Scene Black, White, and Blue

Three new books tackle thorny racial issues in jazz

By Ron Wynn

JULY 19, 1999:  Ever since a group of white New Orleans players billed themselves "The Original Dixieland Jazz Band" and supposedly stole a recording date from King Oliver's Creole Band, controversies have raged over the roles of black and white musicians in the development of jazz and blues. These flames have been fanned over the years by myths, half-truths, and specious charges against both sides--not to mention some ugly realities. As a result, today's jazz establishment is polarized between camps who believe that conditions are better than they've ever been--or worse than at any time since the 1960s.

Three authors attempt to navigate this racial minefield in new books. One stakes out territory firmly on the left, a second just as squarely on the right; the third occupies middle ground. Each grapples with bedrock issues of exploitation and cultural cross-pollination, though in two cases inaccuracies, debatable premises, old grudges, or flawed perspectives sometimes result in curious assessments. Even so, these efforts should generate fresh discussion of the questions and controversies that they tackle.

Craig Werner's A Change Is Gonna Come: Music, Race & The Soul of America (Plume/Penguin) doesn't merely cover jazz or blues. Werner, a professor of African American studies at the University of Wisconsin, incorporates folk, gospel, R&B, soul, rock, and hip-hop into his discussion. In the process, he expands his scope to include topics ranging from radio to presidential budgetary dealings.

Werner is an astute observer of pop-music trends, and he's one of the few critics willing to go beyond the surface when it comes to evaluating black popular music. He traces lyrical and production changes in African American trends from the swing- and jazz-influenced sounds of Louis Jordan to the sophisticated hip-hop efforts of Lauryn Hill. While he credits composers like Stevie Wonder and Curtis Mayfield with positively changing the image of black women in song, he also cites the often overlooked contributions of performers such as Mahalia Jackson and Nat "King" Cole to the civil-rights movement.

Most of all, Werner feels the political impact of African American music has been either minimized or ignored by conventional pop and rock historians. Even when writing love songs, he says, black artists remained aware of injustice and social stagnation. He argues that, given the more conservative political leanings of white America in the 1980s, the pessimism espoused by African American artists that reached its nadir with gangsta rap was inevitable. For that reason, he's critical of black leaders who, in his view, put so much emphasis on Affirmative Action programs that they undercut the self-help initiative espoused during the Black Power era.

Unfortunately when the discussion turns to jazz, Werner is deficient on information. He says that after the freedom of the '60s, jazz artists either became too commercial or retreated into parody and worship of past styles like hard bop. This analysis woefully downplays the efforts of such '70s institutions as the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) in Chicago, the Black Artists Group (BAG) in St. Louis, the Black Academy of Music (BAM) in Brooklyn, and many others who remained committed to both social justice and musical/cultural progress.

Strangely, Werner also omits from his discussion such pioneers as Sun Ra, who had his own record label and publishing firm in the late '50s, as well as black-owned and -operated companies like Strata-East, Black Jazz, and Debut. These labels sought to create an exploitation-free environment for African American artists, but were unable to survive distribution and income woes.

Still, A Change is Gonna Come makes as many solid points as it raises unresolved questions. Regardless of whether you agree with all his contentions, Craig Werner is an effective spokesman for African American and American popular music's connection to, and impact on, contemporary racial and political issues.

Trumpeter/author Richard M. Sudhalter, former jazz critic for the New York Post, takes a totally different position in his exhaustive work Lost Chords: White Musicians and Their Contribution to Jazz 1915-1945 (Oxford University Press). Sudhalter's core thesis--that jazz is neither a black nor white style, but a hybrid--generated enormous controversy when he first voiced it in earlier pieces.

This time, Sudhalter has been careful to avoid accusations of glossing over African American contributions to the music. Indeed, he goes out of his way to praise Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, and Duke Ellington repeatedly. Yet his view remains that writers, critics, and historians since the 1930s have tried either to eliminate or to savage the white contribution to pre-bop jazz.

He cuts right to the heart of the matter by starting off with the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. Though the group was dismissed by many as charlatans or hacks, Sudhalter maintains that the band was actually a fine unit thoroughly versed in the popular styles of the day, from marching-band sounds to rags and blues. He says the notion that they usurped a session designed for King Oliver is at best myth, and at worst a divisive lie. Sudhalter admits the band's case was not helped by volatile, racist remarks that drummer Nick Larocca made late in his life. Nevertheless, he claims these have been used by propagandists to smear the entire band.

Over 700-plus pages, Sudhalter makes a case for numerous other musicians he considers undervalued. However, many of these, like bass saxophonist Adrian Rollini, C-saxophonist Frankie Trumbauer, trombonist Jack Teagarden, trumpeters Bobby Hackett, Bix Beiderbecke, and Bunny Berigan, and icons Benny Goodman, Red Norvo, and Artie Shaw, aren't nearly as low-rated as he seems to think. Others, however, such as trumpeter Red Nichols or saxophonist Ben Pollack, are more problematic.

Sudhalter's real enemies, whom he outlines in his opening section, are the critics and musicians he feels have perverted the original intention and meaning of jazz. To Sudhalter, these conspirators have transformed pop-oriented, lighthearted dance fare into supercharged, coded, and incendiary elitist material designed chiefly to inflame. Some targets include the late John Hammond, whom he cites (though never exactly labels) as particularly anti-white, and essayist Albert Murray, who's attacked for claiming jazz is only a subset of blues. Ironically, Murray is as much a champion of integration as Sudhalter; he's even been savaged by Afrocentric critics for his claim that there's no link between African and African American music forms.

For Sudhalter, 1915 to 1945 was jazz's golden era, when whites worked alongside blacks in its creation. Lost Chords makes an eloquent, if not always convincing, plea on behalf of this thesis.

Wisely, Howard Mandel, the current president of the Jazz Journalists' Association, doesn't take a set position with his book Future Jazz (Oxford University Press). Instead, he lets his subjects make their case with regard to race, class, or whatever; he chooses them for their impact on the contemporary scene and their potential to influence developments in the next century.

Thus trumpeter/composer Wynton Marsalis is featured in three separate interviews, where he proves as adamant and unrelenting as ever. Mandel then moves from compelling talents such as jazz vocalist Cassandra Wilson to avant-garde composer John Zorn. None of these artists tries to pretend that he or she isn't a product of particular influences. Yet guitarist Vernon Reid, a founding member of the Black Rock Coalition and the acclaimed rock band Living Colour, sees no contradiction in espousing black cultural solidarity while enjoying Hank Williams or Mozart, while M-Base theorist and saxophonist Steve Coleman easily fuses jazz, funk, Asian, and Latin sounds into his work.

Mandel's subjects make the most memorable points to be found in any of these three books. They reaffirm that the best artists neither forget their heritage, nor let it limit their vision. That lesson, if applied throughout society, might someday get humans beyond outdated, simplistic, and negative ideas about race, color, class, gender, and sexuality. When that day comes, we'll hear some sweet music indeed.


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