Published: February 16, 2008
Lewis Porter, Moderator; with Don Byron, Daniel Carter and Nat Hentoff
Jazz Talk: Is Jazz Black Music?
Irene Diamond Education Center
New York, New York
January 31, 2008
June 2008 By Nat Hentoff
Is Jazz Black Music? “Where does jazz come from, to whom does it belong and is this important?” The program, advertised as a “Jazz Talk” by Jazz at Lincoln Center (now on Columbus Circle), polarized some and infuriated many attendees. Moderator Lewis Porter, a professor of music and author, explained that he purposefully titled the topic to provoke inquiry and at the same time disavowed the title and byline as implying a personal opinion of his own.
Panelists were well chosen and rightfully represented their positions. On Mr. Porter’s right was Don Byron, a prolific musician/composer, artist-in-residence and educator, and Daniel Carter, a reed, flute, and trumpet player also well known as Danny for his work with “Other Dimensions in Music” and “Test.” On Mr. Porter’s left was the Village Voice’s productive and internationally recognized analyst Nat Hentoff, who in 2003 received the first NEA Jazz Masters Jazz Advocate Award as a critic.
Nat Hentoff as on that panel and he wrote in JazzTimes, “I was on a panel at Jazz at Lincoln Center. The subject, “Is Jazz Black Music?” is still a lively and even combative one in some quarters. When I was invited, what first came to mind was Duke Ellington telling me long ago that in the 1920s, he went to Fletcher Henderson and said, “Why don’t we drop the word ‘jazz’ and call what we’re doing ‘Negro music’? Then there won’t be any confusion.” Henderson took a pass. But years later, when Louie Bellson was in Ellington’s band, Duke said he was the most extraordinary drummer he’d ever heard.”
“We wouldn’t have been at Lincoln Center for that discussion had it not been for black field hollers, ring games, call-and-response church music and the blues. So it’s indisputable that jazz began as black music. On the panel, I proposed a line—obviously debatable—between the continuing originators of this music and those who were original musicians but hadn’t very deeply shaped the directions of jazz. Duke used to tell me it’s always been the individuals whom others followed, and he named Sidney Bechet as an example.”
“My partial list of originators—and I’m sure you have yours—includes Louis Armstrong, Mr. Ellington, Count Basie, Charlie Christian, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Lester Young. All were black, and some were influenced by non-blacks.”
Audio dialogue from a 1959 movie that included “Negro” in the scripted conversation and the question “Were they or were they not the creators of jazz?” established the tone for this evening’s presentation. Nat Hentoff answered first by relating what Duke Ellington told him. Duke went to Fletcher Henderson and suggested replacing “Jazz” with “Negro” so that their music would be identified as an ethnic music. Hentoff also stated that there is a difference between the “originators,” like Louis Armstrong, Lester Young, Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, and “originals” who became well known for their recordings. Daniel Carter interjected, “Anyone can get inspired.” Don Byron observed: “Blacks have a special relationship . . . that comes out of speech and the way we walk . . . a special kind of musicianship,” emphasizing “the idea to steal ownership is a nasty impulse. . . A lot of technology, such as film, borrowed from black culture to make and elevate white performers.” Fred Astaire was mentioned as an example. Mr. Hentoff corroborated by describing knowledge of white vs. black recording contracts. Don Byron attempted to close the issue by offering “ethnicity” as a substitute for “race.”
The nature of the discussion continued along historically familiar lines as panelists added well-intended, often educational information. Hentoff was first to state that many classical composers transcribed and performed jazz compositions and that Ellington listened to the sounds of European music during his international travels and put their influence into his music: “Charlie Parker loved country music,” Mr. Hentoff concluded. “It’s the individual.” Continuing the theme Mr. Byron stated that in today’s colleges “players are listening to Michael Brecker and are not looking back at all.”
Lewis Porter next posed the issue of whites writing about blacks. Nat Hentoff grabbed the subject and described his experience as New York’s Downbeat correspondent, citing that there were no blacks on the Chicago staff and that he was fired ostensibly for hiring a woman of color for his office. He reported feeling “liberated.” From that point on he would “write as a fan, not as a critic.”
The audience posed questions for the panel. The first, coming from this writer, addressed the words “jazz” and “black” by suggesting that indigenous Caribs from the Caribbean and Native American Indians must have contributed to the creation of the music in New Orleans before the Civil War and before 1917 when the word “jazz” was first used on a sound recording. Mr. Hentoff agreed about including indigenous people as did Mr. Porter, who added that his scholarly research revealed that “jazz” first appeared in print in reference to baseball.
Although the provocative title may have attracted a sold-out a house and many African-American attendees, the senior publicist Phoebe Jacobs suggested afterwards that its inclusion replaced many other worthwhile subjects.
Lester Young told me that Frank Trumbauer, mainly known for his association with Bix Beiderbecke, “was my idol. When I started to play, I bought all his records and I imagine I can still play those solos. I tried to get the sound of the C-melody saxophone on the tenor. That’s why I don’t sound like other people. Trumbauer always told a little story.” But Trumbauer, though an original, didn’t affect, as Prez did, the stories of countless jazz musicians around the world.
The moderator that night at Lincoln Center was historian and jazz professor Lewis Porter. He made the salient point that although the roots of the originators were black, they had big ears and were open to an infinite diversity of influences. As Charles Hersch notes in his important new book, Subversive Sounds: Race and the Birth of Jazz in New Orleans (University of Chicago Press), the jazz culture there “included [transmutations of] quadrilles, mazurkas and schottisches.”
Porter emphasized, “It’s typical of African-American music that jazz players are open to influences.” Eric Dolphy told me how hearing birds singing became part of his music. But again, the roots are black. Or, as Porter put it, being that open “doesn’t make it non-black.”
That’s true of both originators and originals. A necessarily partial list of the originals who are influential but didn’t profoundly change the course of jazz would encompass such non-black players as Bix Beiderbecke (at whom Louis Armstrong marveled during Chicago after-hours sessions), Pee Wee Russell, Jack Teagarden, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Bill Evans, Jim Hall, Phil Woods and bandleader Woody Herman.
The black roots of jazz of course quintessentially nourished all of these non-blacks, and many others. And the next unexpected originator, like Ornette Coleman swooping into New York, could come from any place in the world. Between sets one night, John Lewis and I were talking about who might become the new compelling shepherd—the individual others would follow, in Duke Ellington’s phrase.
“Right now,” John said, “in a club in Romania, it could be a bassist or a trumpet player in a combo there.”
He or she hasn’t broken through the jazz firmament yet. And it certainly could be a she. As of now, that female person isn’t in the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra because Wynton Marsalis hasn’t yet found a woman musician, of whatever nationality, color or age, who meets his standards for being a regular member. Since Wynton does have big ears, I remain puzzled at this omission. As a challenge (one I’ve issued the trumpeter before), why doesn’t he try a blind audition for once?
What I forgot to add about jazz and blackness at that Jazz at Lincoln Center panel was a scene I once witnessed at a club in New York where Charles Mingus was working. When a set was over, Mingus came off the stand and we started talking. A man strode over—a very black man—and pointing at Mingus, said accusingly, “You’re not black enough to play the blues!” Neither Mingus nor I had ever seen this guy before.
Mingus drew back his arm, clenched a fist, thought better of it, rushed back on the stand, got his bass, brought it down to where the accuser still stood, and played a blues that, as I felt it, shook the room.
The very black man, without a word, slunk away.
Mingus was one of the closest friends I’ve ever had, and he believed, as Bird said, “Anyone can play this music if they can feel it.” Or listen to it.
I suppose these probes of how black this music is now or in the future—or any of the people who play it—will continue. But I prefer Thelonious Monk’s approach to defining the essence of jazz. As the late Leslie Gourse reported in Straight No Chaser: The Life and Genius of Thelonious Monk (Schirmer Books), Monk told a New York Post columnist in 1960, “I never tried to think of a definition [of jazz]. You’re supposed to know jazz when you hear it. What do you do when someone gives you something? You feel glad about it.”
Article provided by All About Jazz and JazzTimes
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