Fighting history and myth re racial politics in jazz

I completely disagree with the point of Randall Sandke‘s bookWhere the Dark and the Light Folks Meet: Race and the Mythology, Politics, and Business of Jazz. sandke book cover.jpegRather than celebrate a century of inter-racial collaboration modeling society’s progress on civil rights, instead Sandke proposes that a cabal of journalists, scholars and left-leaning “activist” producers exaggerated black musicians’ centrality while downplaying white Americans’ contributions to jazz. He thinks white musicians deserve more attention and credit, if jazz is a true meritocracy; I think instead that the generally accepted shape of jazz’s narrative and its canon is representative of jazz’s meritocracy, and that white musicians for the most part have gotten plenty of notice, plus fame and fortune frequently disproportionate to their artistic achievements. Read my review at JJANews.org — and look for Sandke, a composer-trumpeteras well as author, to post a response, here or there.

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  1. says

    I don’t agree one hundred percent with everything in Randy Sandke’s book, but I consider it a serious and thoughtful effort that deserves attention from anyone with a serious interest in jazz.
    As for Howard’s assertion that “white musicians for the most part have gotten plenty of notice, plus fame and fortune frequently disproportionate to their artistic achievements.” Does this apply to Sandke, Marc Copland, Harold Danko, Michael Abene, Anita Gravine, Dick Oatts, Rich Perry, John McNeil, and dozens if not hundreds of other living white jazz musicians (including myself)? I don’t think so, Howard. Or at least in my case, my bank account doesn’t reflect it.
    HM: Bill, you’ve seriously misquoted me [SUBSEQUENTLY: Bill correctly quoted my hasty Facebook tease to read the review, but not the review itself] I wrote that “white popularizers from Paul Whiteman through Kenny G have been rewarded with promotion, acceptance and wealth disproportionate to the value of many other musicians’ creativity.”
    I don’t consider any of the musicians you list above “popularizers” — they strike me as genuine artists, struggling in the hardest of markets, and actually achieving a high degree of respect, continuing engagements, some following. You may feel that your honor roll comprises those white musicians who I say Randy insists “have consistently been denied appropriate status in the music” — but we all know that for each of those you name, there are popularizers of all human varieties hoeing similar plots who have made more money, as well as practitioners of jazz of every hue of skin who have much less cash or cachet.
    Yeah, it’s a struggle. International success, financial wealth and enduring fame have to do with a lot more than one’s complexion, ethnicity, talent, accomplishment, academic credentials, political beliefs, historical era, health, attitudes, geographic base, travel, suffering, productivity, or even the results of one’s inspired work — though those things may all play their parts. Great success is elusive for everybody. If an artist isn’t as successful as they desire and wants to do something about it, they usually take a big gamble and reinvest in or reinvent themselves. It’s strenuous, time consuming, mentally taxing, but what else can we do? It’s a gamble, because we’re never sure it will work, least of all in a materially advantageous way during our lifetimes.
    That’s just being real. As the late Andrew Hill said “No one owed me anything. It [life] was better than I expected.”
    As for giving Randy’s book serious, thoughtful attention: I read it three times, always taking notes, and spent days writing my review, weeks thinking it through. I did considerable supplementary reading and I’ve had 35 years of being personally and professionally immersed in these issues. I grew up not far from Randy, at around the same time, and was exposed to many of the same experiences (though true, not as a musician). I don’t cast doubts on Randy’s sincerity, his place in the music community, his talent as a musician or the energy and time he put into this book. I have no personal vendetta against him, indeed don’t think I’ve ever met him, though I’ve heard him in concert as well as on records. Good luck, Randy, sell a lot of books! But if anyone asks me, I’m going to tell them — your point in this book is mistaken. You’ve got things, by my lights, all wrong.

  2. Randy Sandke says

    My book does document over a century of inter-racial contact and collaboration in jazz, and much more thoroughly than any other. If you want to call that a “celebration” that’s fine with me. Howard’s characterization of my book is in fact a caricature. The way he describes it, I wouldn’t want to read it, either, much less spend ten years of research producing it. He accuses me of being a Johnny-one-note harping on reverse racism when in fact he book is concerned with a whole range of topics that are typically not addressed in other jazz books.
    I will post a more thorough rejoinder to Howard’s irresponsible and distorted review soon. In the meantime, perhaps someone should get him a more focused pair of reading glasses for Christmas.
    HM: I’m not surprised we have different perceptions of what we’ve each written, Randy. I look forward to your “rejoinder”, but take exception with you calling my review irresponsible. In fact, I got new glasses during the months I spent reading your book, so I could be sure I was seeing straight. Now I ask you to refrain from sarcasm in your comments here. I’m sure you believe what you wrote, though I do not.

  3. Michael J. West says

    “I want to see music judged on its own terms free of external considerations.”
    Frankly, Howard, I think you were being charitable in suggesting that this was a pollyannaish notion. I’d call it “insipid.” I don’t understand why it would be a desirable ideal to appreciate a work of art in a vacuum. Should I be evaluating the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel with no context of the biblical sources, the ecumenical politics of 15th century Europe, or the dominant principles of artistic rendering in the Italian Renaissance?
    I’m aware that outwardly, that Sandke would tell me that that’s not what he means — but it is. How am I supposed to talk about the white musicians who created Chicago Style jazz, for example, without connecting them to Armstrong and Oliver’s contemporary presence in Chicago? And how can I make THAT connection without factoring in the Great Migration, Jim Crow, etc.? Or how the Austin High Gang and their cohorts could go see Armstrong and Oliver play, but not vice versa? Or hell, the basic environmental differences between the Windy City and the Big Easy? But to tell me that I should “judge the music…free of external considerations” is to tell me that all of those details are irrelevant. Or should be.
    Look, racial issues are so inextricable from jazz that Sandke is devoting a whole book to them even as he tells us to get past them. Any serious student of the music (or of anything, really) would accept them as essential and tackle them head-on, not wish them away. I can’t see doing so as idealism — at best, it’s just plain intellectual dishonesty.

  4. says

    Howard, how could I be “misquoting” you? What I mentioned was a direct quote from your original posting (above).
    As for “popularizers,” whites have no monopoly in jazz on such things; consider Louis Jordan, Ramsey Lewis, Les McCann, the Crusaders, ’70s Donald Byrd, etc. And be they black, white, or whatever, there’s a place for such musicians, even the much-reviled Kenny G; not everyone has ears for “A Love Supreme”.
    And as for Paul Whiteman, a unique case, one would think that serious scholarly reconsideration from musician/historians Gunther Schuller and Richard Sudhalter would have put to rest the unfair barbs Whiteman received for decades from jazz “purists”.
    HM: As I noted above, Biill Kirchner first referred to my Facebook note, meant to get people to read my review. I’ve got nothing against popularizers either, of any color, but again, I believe that relatively speaking, white jazz popularizers make more hay than black innovators, and have had a notably easier time negotiating the American cultural, too. Compare Kenny G to Najee, or to Grover Washington Jr. Compare Louis Jordan — a rare example of early crossover, who I think of as an originator, a concretizer — to the cover bands who hat hits with his songs in whites-only radio shows and such formats. Say what you will about Les McCann, Ramsey Lewis and ’70s era Donald Byrd — they created their personal formulas, which in their cases depended upon their representations of black culture. I wonder what comparing their earnings and press coverage to Mose Allison, Jerry Lee Lewis and ’70s era Chuck Mangione would show.
    I make no case against Whiteman or G, just recognize that relative to their black counterparts, they have enjoyed certain advantages in the American entertainment marketplace. Whiteman was historically significant and opened the door onto better jazz, but we don’t listen to him today as we listen to Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Sevens, Jelly Roll Morton’s Hot Peppers, Duke’s Jungle Band, ’20s Fletcher Henderson, Fats Waller or James P. Johnson, except to hear the occasional hot soloist and period repertoire (and few listen raptly to Clarence Williams for an esthetic experience, either). Few listeners come into jazz listening to Coltrane, Coleman or Taylor — I’ve written about this in my book Miles Ornette Cecil — my early formative listening included Doris Day with Les Brown singing “Sentimental Journey” and Herbie Mann playing “Comin’ Home Baby.” I don’t now consider them on musical par with nor deserving of the reputation of Billie Holiday or James Moody, but I think Day and Mann did well for themselves during their careers and are better remembered today than Mildred Bailey or Wayman Carver. Maybe those are rough equivalents, but those are the breaks.
    In the marketplace of ideas, I have hope (if not unshakable faith) that the best will endure, the mediocre fade away, and the undiscovered especially in our day and age will eventually be brought to light if their work is documented and saved. We all put our efforts into getting by.

  5. says

    Honest, folks, I have other things to do in life besides defend Paul Whiteman, but since Howard has persistently brought him up (and sold him short, to an extent), let’s set the record straight. Whiteman was to the ’20s what the Beatles were to the ’60s–the most important and successful pop act of the day. Jazz (in the form of “hot” soloists like Bix Beiderbecke, Frank Trumbauer, Joe Venuti, Eddie Lang, Jack Teagarden, etc.) was an important part of his presentation, but only a part. He commissioned George Gershwin to write “Rhapsody in Blue” and debuted it in concert in 1924. He also introduced Bing Crosby (with the Rhythm Boys) and Mildred Bailey to the big time.
    Whiteman also hired some of the best and most innovative arrangers of the time, white *and* black, such as Bill Challis, Tom Satterfield, William Grant Still, Don Redman, and Lennie Hayton. He paid them well, as he did all his sidemen. Working for Whiteman was considered a prestige gig, and he was highly respected by his musicians (who called him “Pops”) and by other bandleaders, including Duke Ellington.
    After many years of put-downs by jazz “purists,” Whiteman has finally in recent decades gotten his due from the likes of musician/scholars Gunther Schuller and Richard Sudhalter, who said in effect that Whiteman may not have led a jazz band, but he nonetheless produced much memorable music that still holds up remarkably well. (I’ll vouch for that, having played some of it in the ’80s with repertory bands led by Sudhalter.) Likewise, no one puts the Beatles down for not being jazz, but few deny their importance in the music of the 20th century.
    HM: I didn’t say Paul Whiteman wasn’t important in 20th century music, I said “Whiteman was historically significant and opened the door onto better jazz.” And he was materially successful at a level unavailable to any black musicians of his day. By the way Whiteman was unlike the Beatles in two respects significant to this discussion: He did not write his own music, and he was promoted as “the King of Jazz.”

  6. Paul Lindemeyer says

    Hi again Bill…IMO, anyone speaking up for the quality of pre-WW2 pop music has their work cut out for them. Outside of the jazz and musical theater parts of it, it really has no community – it’s a thing of inarticulate “collector” subcultures. It shouldn’t be- it was an era when pop music had taste and craft to it, and even the unmemorable product often holds up well.
    HM: Boardwalk Empire, HBO’s series on Atlantic City in the ’20s, made an interesting attempt to include Jazz Age musical figures in its depiction of the period. Sophie Tucker and Eddie Cantor were represented doing signature numbers onscreen, “Livery Stable Blues” was among the pieces heard on the soundtrack as well as “Maple Leaf Rag” (played by Ehud Asherie). Much of the music was provided by Vince Giordano and his Nighthawks, and VG, who served as a musical consultant, was interviewed in the New York Times talking about it. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/05/arts/television/05bempire.html?_r=2
    According to the article, the producers look forward to including Paul Whiteman in an upcoming season.
    Note: No black entertainers of the era have been featured in the show yet (or did I miss someone in the brothel scenes?). Is it wrong to assume this is because black entertainers of the time were relegated to venues Atlantic City’s power brokers, Arnold Rothstein and his coterie and Chicago thugs like Al Capone wouldn’t frequent? Maybe later the program will get to the Harlem Renaissance and black Broadway, or Bessie Smith, Oliver and Armstrong, Fats Waller, Fletcher Henderson, et al.

  7. says

    Since, Chris, you haven’t read the book, you really don’t yet have a basis to participate in this discussion, regardless of your idea that critics do not understand musicians as human beings. That’s just nonsense. As a human being, I understand other human beings — or I don’t. And I didn’t criticize Sandke on the basis of his musical endeavors, but on his production of a work that presumes to be jazz criticism. According to you, as a jazz critic I understand jazz critics.
    Sandke’s book is surely understandable from his point of view but that doesn’t mean as social criticism it holds much water. It may be a cri de coeur, but that doesn’t make it right, reasoned or valid.
    There’s a lot of mediocre criticism and analysis of jazz in this world, and I don’t have to give a pass to it all. Sandke’s criticism of jazz scholars, journalists, producers and clubowners who promoted good music by black people, is galling, but it’s really his misapprehension (should I say revisionist view?) of American history that’s most problematic.
    Ok — here’s what Chris Kelsey wrote:
    KELSEY: First of all, I gotta read this book. Howard, your review basically dismisses it as sour grapes on Sandke’s part. Given that it was published in partnership with the folks at the Institute for Jazz Studies, I can hardly believe that’s the case. I should withhold judgment until I read it, but remembering similar criticisms of Richard Sudhalter’s book (which I read and loved) upon its publication, I must confess a predisposition to give Sandke the benefit of the doubt.
    I will say, Howard–based upon your review and the above exchange–you’re presenting an obsolete case that doesn’t hold up today. Indeed, maybe it never did. Whiteman was a pop musician, well ahead of his time in terms of commercial positioning. As he used them, “Jazz” and “The King of Jazz” were marketing devices designed to capitalize on a trend. Then as now, pop culture adopted certain superficial characteristics of that month’s flavor and moved on to the next thing, whilst jazz as a distinct genre developed independently and inexorably. Whiteman was a pop musician who hired jazz musicians and paid them well. So he called himself “The King of Jazz.” How was he to know that the term would one day become so fraught with racial baggage? Perhaps had he known, he would’ve called himself “Oliver Hardy” and been spared the future slings and arrows of affronted white critics, most of who were, at the time, in diapers or as yet unborn. At worst, he’s guilty of a misdemeanor. It only became a capital offense well after the fact.
    Still, while Whiteman didn’t delude himself that his music was state-of-the-jazz-art, the general public did, for many of the same reasons that latter generations understood Mantovani as high classical, Vanilla Ice as the quintessence of hip-hop, and The Knack as paragons of punk. In Whiteman’s case, some of those reasons surely owed to racial bias (ingrained and endemic in the culture at large). Yet there were surely a plethora of other factors, the most obvious being John Q. Public’s short attention span/lack of serious interest. Then as now, “real” jazz was a connoisseur’s music, played by musicians mostly for themselves and scattered aficionados. Even Louis Armstrong had to “sell-out,” as it were, even if the quality of his compromises were sublime on their own merit.
    As for comparing the relative success of white pop jazzers versus their black counterparts, you present only shaky suppositions. So you bid a “Feels So Good?” I’ll counter with a “Just the Two of Us” and raise you a “Breezin’.” As for Kenny G: His success relative to any other “jazz” musician is meaningless. You might as well use Michael Jackson’s success relative to the average pop/soul singer. Both are outliers; their ridiculous success proves little other than the unpredictability of mass taste.
    Critics may understand jazz history in a narrative sense–that is, the “story” imposed on the music by writers fulfilling the very human need to make sense out of chaos. They may bring to the table a breadth of cultural knowledge that can enhance our understanding of jazz’s place in the larger scheme. They may even (this, all too seldom) understand jazz’s mechanics and theoretical underpinnings. Certainly, the best critics bring to the table much love and commitment.
    But critics—that is, critics who are not themselves first and foremost musicians themselves—do not understand musicians as human beings. They do not understand our lives, our motivations, our struggles. They try, but they most often unintentionally misunderstand, distort, simplify, or misconstrue.
    The discussion of race and its impact on the music is a perfect example. Howard positions himself as a defender of the legacy of jazz as a primarily African-American aesthetic, not understanding that in most cases the black musicians themselves do not care nor do they feel the need to be defended. As someone who’s played on many an integrated bandstand in my 30 years of playing jazz (and believe me, my experiences are far from unique) it’s almost never an issue with them. The white/black thing is imposed from without, most often by writers who rely on the aforementioned narrative first imposed long ago by critics long forgotten, and perpetuated in the present by writers like Howard and Gary Giddins (the latter’s ‘77 essay on Art Pepper, “The Whiteness of the Wail”–which, by coincidence, I re-read only a few days ago–is a masterpiece of the sort of well-meaning but fanciful and ultimately irrelevant conjecture on the subject of race that’s long been the norm). Among white musicians, it only becomes an issue when they find themselves marginalized, not by black musicians—the great majority of whom care only about how you play—but by white critics.
    To my knowledge, Richard Sudhalter’s Lost Chords raised nary a hackle among black jazz musicians. It was the white critics who took the most serious offense. It looks as if the pattern is about to be repeated.
    Finally: My view is that a critic’s job is to write about the music, not to invent stories about it. I listen, and I write about what I hear. If I divert from this course, it’s usually to engage other critics for whom the social takes precedence over the aural. I understand that in writing this I will antagonize critics with whom I’ve been at least somewhat friendly, who might even think of me as a colleague. The same thing happened among my musician friends when I began writing record reviews, 15 years ago. I am in a way a man without a country. I can only say that my criticism is not meant to be personal. You are a being apart from what you write or play, and that my respect and affection for people as well-intentioned and passionate as those who care deeply for jazz is and will remain undiminished.
    (Wow, almost 1000 words! Imagine had I read the book!)

  8. Randy Sandke says

    I find it very disheartening that the president of the JJA is so blithe about dismissing the notion that music should or even can be judged on its own terms. Are you admitting that you listen differently to someone’s music based on race, gender, class, or whatever? Musicians know that they cannot achieve perfection but that doesn’t keep them from striving for it. A critic perhaps knows he or she can never be truly objective, but shouldn’t that still be their ultimate goal? I guess when we listen to Bach we’re supposed to be thinking about all the poor serfs toiling in the fields and not the way his brilliant manipulation of pitches and rhythms speaks to the soul. Thanks for the insight into why so much current jazz criticism is a meaningless waste of time (and I’m not being sarcastic here–just honest).
    HM: Randy, you’re just vamping. The issue isn’t how music *might* be judged, it’s how music is indeed “judged” in the real world — when that judgement folds into how it’s determined what music to sell, to present, to admire, what lasts. None of that is done in some ideal world where all sounds are abstract emanations of genius to be “judged” against some a priori Platonic ideal. If you think that’s how the world at large absorbs, disseminates and sustains music or any other art form, I can only conclude you’re not in the same plane as most people who are at work in the jazz industries or classical music spheres either. And this has nothing to do with thinking about slaves, serfs, jitterbuggers or beatniks.
    It doesn’t mean I look for any recipe regarding who makes the music before I decide what I like. My personal process is to listen first, decide if I like what I hear, try to understand what it is I like about the music or don’t, try to understand what it is about the music I don’t like if indeed I don’t like it, and whether that dislike is just not understanding or something I do understand but recognize as inherently unsatisfying. My listening is not “objective” in the sense that I have no likes or dislikes informed by my understanding of the world the music exists in; my criticism is honest, I hope, in that I try to articulate my tastes and preferences so that others can decide if they agree or disagree with me. I don’t bring pre-conceptions about what music ought to be — I try to take it on its own terms. But if I understand and don’t subscribe to those terms, I have no responsibility to say I like the music because the musician making it assures me that it is, in his or her experience, as good as they can do. That kind of subservience is for babies.
    None of this has anything to do with my criticism of your historical analysis regarding why the demographic of musicians you believe should be more highly appreciated haven’t been. In fact, as I look at the history of music in America, I don’t believe that there have been a large demographic of white musicians who have been denied opportunities to express themselves, to test their music in the open market. However, there were indeed many barriers for a long time to a large demographic of black musicians to do that, or even to be regarded as equal citizens of the U.S. And I think that for the most part — though there are a few exceptions — the people you identify as over-valuing other musicians at the expense of white musicians were trying to correct a societal imbalance, to draw attention to musicians who were disadvantaged in being able to get onstage, in newspapers, into record stores. But the bottom line is that those people, and I too, believe that music of merit could win over audiences if they were exposed to it. And that’s what happened. That’s why America came to love jazz — because the music was great, and Americans didn’t care much about the reputations, manners, social status or skin tones of the people playing what they heard and thought was great.
    Over the long haul, the listener decides what they want to keep listening to, paying for, reading about, studying. Musicians can have a lot to do with promulgating lesser-known music by keeping the good stuff alive, by tapping into the ideas that inspire them and trying to emulate or build upon those ideas. Critics, scholars, club owners, talent scouts all live in some part by their accuracy in identifying and promoting what they think less-involved people will like. Musicians and other artists (writers included) live by persuading people that what they create is valid and valuable to people beyond themselves.
    Personally I like to discover great music by lesser known musicians and turn people on to it. My musical curiosity is restless, my tastes and interests are fairly broad, but I certainly have blind spots and admit I’m ignorant about and also not particularly interested in some kinds of music. There’s jazz I don’t care for, but I don’t knock it because of that, I just don’t listen to it unless called upon to do so professionally, and then I try to take it on its own terms. But again, that has nothing to do with my criticism of your book. So if you have a response to specifics of my critique, please post that. Otherwise, let’s move on.

  9. says

    Perhaps you misunderstand, Howard, or perhaps I wasn’t clear. You do not understand what it is to be a musician–what motivates us, how we interact–in short: you are an outsider. That’s not a criticism, just a fact.
    And I think it’s clear that in the main I was responding to the posts, not the book. I look forward to reading it, and expressing my take in due time.
    HM: I have spent 35 years trying to understand musicians motivations and interactions by asking them questions, interviewing them, listening to them, observing them, befriending them, dating them, marrying one, producing recordings, studying music, playing instruments myself, jamming with other amateurs, teaching about music as an adjunct for 26 years (during which time I’ve had sufficient experience in reading students’ papers and understanding what they’re saying or how they fail to say something).
    I am not a professional musician and never claim to be. But I’m not an outsider to jazz, either. And I’m not writing to make the musicians feel good, I’m writing to make sense of music and its influences and contexts for readers who I assume are also listeners, though they may not be. Randy wrote a book that purports to be history, or at least a coherent analysis of such. I don’t think he did a good job. ‘
    I can understand that musicians want to be recognized for their accomplishments, and quite a lot of my work is involved in doing just that, moved by music to learn about it. I’m moved by music I like — not because somebody’s of a certain ethnic or national strain. So I can point to 35 yrs of writing about every kind of music and musician. My job has grown to include commenting on patterns and reviewing other peoples’ interpretations of what’s gone done, what’s going down. That’s why I reviewed Randy’s book, and particularly because he casts aspersions in it on the work of people who precede my in my profession. Who better than someone in the profession to consider what he has to say?
    If I was convinced by what he wrote — which actually would have been possible — I’d have said that too. To think that I have to be who the author is in order to comment accurately on his or her book is to mistake what criticism, critical thinking, abstract thinking and analysis is all about.

  10. says

    Sorry, I haven’t read the book – just stumbled upon this thread.
    As with most debates, the truth always lies somewhere in between, and there are so many topics covered in this one, I’ll only touch on a few.
    Howard: I didn’t know you played music, even at a non-professional level. Hence, I now know that you know something about how music works, unlike many critics in music (and the visual arts, for that matter). You don’t have to be a pro to understand what you’re hearing, but you DO need to know something about musical structure to write coherently about it.
    I think we all agree that we listen to the music first – in a vacuum – then afterwards we might be able to appreciate how even more amazing it is when put in historical context(i.e. Louis Armstrong’s vocabulary, which is even MORE amazing considering no one played like that before him…almost like he came from outer space — ditto for Bird).
    Louis Armstrong devotes many pages in the book, “Louis Armstrong: In His Own Words” to all the white musicians he knew and was checking out. Paul Whiteman would go and check out Duke’s band in 1925 and leave $100 tips – in 1925!!
    All the musicians were checking each other out and if you could play, you were on the bandstand, period (at least post-Benny Goodman’s integration of his band).
    Finally, all historical sub-chapters need to be diagnosed in the context of the larger historical environment. By that I mean, how black and white musicians were treated back in 1930 or 1940 was reflected by society at the time, just as they are now. It must have sucked to have been in Duke’s band and been forced to travel in your own train because you were treated as second-class citizens, right? On the other side of the spectrum, you can be a sub-par black jazz musician and move to Japan, say, or Scandinavia, and have a huge career, being treated like royalty. But how did Arthur Taylor and Johnny Griffin, and Philly Joe and all the rest who fled to Europe feel in the late ’60s because they couldn’t get work here? Another essential book to read about this time, AT’s “Note and Tones.”
    In any event, as a white jazz musician living and working in NYC for the past 20 years, I can certainly attest to the fact that segregation STILL exists in the community, not because of racism, but because of where you get set down culturally. It is undeniable, though, that there are black band leaders that will only hire black musicians solely to keep it in “the family.” But so what? Who cares? As society reflects those differences, so they get reflected in these sub-cultures: jazz, pop, visual art, dance, etc…
    ..just my two cents from someone who hasn’t read Randy’s book. Congrats on that, btw, Randy! Just writing a friggin’ book is a HUGE accomplishment…lol.
    Best,
    Vinson
    HM: Thanks for your comments Vinson.
    “As society reflects those differences, so they get reflected in these sub-cultures: jazz, pop, visual art, dance, etc…” I agree.
    ” if you could play, you were on the bandstand, period (at least post-Benny Goodman’s integration of his band).” — Not universally true. In Patrick Burke’s “Come In And Hear the Truth” he discusses racial exclusions, animosities, rivalries and ironies on 52nd Street in the ’30s. Billie Holiday is quoted, referring to 52nd St. in the late ’30s and early ’40s, “You can be up to your boobies in white satin, with gardenias in your hair and no sugar cane for miles, but you can still be working on a plantation.”
    “segregation STILL exists in the community, not because of racism, but because of where you get set down culturally.”
    From what I’ve observed, people tend to hire who they know and enjoy working with, and that can adhere to or reach across what seem to be demographic lines (“false karash,” is the term Vonnegut introduced), as per their personal attitudes and social/professional networks. This seems to apply about equally as far as I’ve seen among blacks and whites, Asian-Americans, “Latin” (Afro-Cuban), Brazilian, Dutch, Russian, south African, Australian jazzers, every one.
    Thanks. Happy holidays — Howard

  11. says

    A suggestion: don’t you think putting these comments in chronological rather than reverse chronological order would make this discussion a bit easier for readers to follow?

    Sandke’s contention is that a vast, powerful cadre of commentators spread the view that being black was essential to being a jazz musician. He’s right that this belief was often expressed, and I’d say right that it has often been exaggerated, perhaps even to the detriment of white musicians of merit. But he is severely mistaken to think the press or any other clique has had the power to force such a debatable notion on the greater public. The press and “activists” Sandke deplores have never been able to limit the success of white popularizers or genuinely artistic white musicians. Seldom have they tried.

    I found this to be an intersting passage because Sandke, it seems to me seems to be arguing that what you characterize as (more or less)a popular front conspiracy was curtailing the status of these white musicians, not their “success” as you seem to (I suspect conveniently) read him. These are two different things. What does Sandke actually argue? That the reputation of, say, Whiteman was curtailed or his financial or popular success? If not the latter, then it is rather disingenuous of you to argue against a point Sandke wasn’t making.
    And the conflation of these two criteria, status and “success,” seems to me to be persistent throughout your review, which would represent a rather serious problem if Sandke was not in fact arguing that the financial and popular success of white jazzmen was what was at stake in the “popular front” distortions of jazz history.
    HM: Oran, reverse chronological is a function of the blog. And I made a mistake in okaying Chris Kelsey’s last post prior to Randy’s that seems to follow from it — actually, Randy posted to me first, then Chris. And I should have let Chris have his say before commenting, rather than as a prelude.
    Chris has asked me if other commentators to this post have read Randy’s book. As far as I know, they haven’t.
    And you may be right that I’ve conflated financial success with reputation. Randy believes, it seems to me, that the reputations of musicians who are white have in general suffered from the jazz journalists and scholars, etc., over the years. Maybe he’s right, but it seems to me he’s saying their reputations have suffered because journalists and scholars were so intent on promoting black musicians. I think this is an untenable point of view. I think a musician’s reputation or status, which has as you rightly note is not a necessarily consistent with their historic reputation, is determined over a long period of time by the entire jazz community, in which listeners are the largest number of determiners. Listeners can be swayed by journalists and other influencers, it’s true. I continue to think that the reputations of many white musicians is high — deservedly so. But the reputation of many black musicians is even higher. I don’t think that’s because they’re black.
    This discussion seems to me just about over. Please read Sandke’s book and consider whether he makes his case. I don’t think he does. Richard Sudhalter’s Lost Chords provides a genuine history of white musicians in jazz, who they were, what they did. That’s a great contribution to jazz literature. To me, Sandke’s argument that the merits of certain white musicians and/or white musicians in general (who?) have been unappreciated, historically, just isn’t persuasive. I wasn’t there, I don’t know for sure, but it seems to me that the bulk of musicians of every color have been under-appreciated, white musicians in America no more than black musicians.
    ps. — “Popular front” is indeed the term Sandke uses to define the political leanings of the coterie of jazz “activists” he critiques.

  12. Michael J. West says

    Gotta give everybody this – my earlier comment notwithstanding, this discussion is certainly piquing my interest in reading Mr. Sandke’s book.

  13. says

    Thanks for the discussion, Howard. In your comments on the JJA site here http://news.jazzjournalists.org/2010/12/book-reviews/ you leave the question open whether Sandke’s book belongs on the “worthy bookshelf” of books dealing with the complicated realities regarding jazz and race, alongside Cats of Every Color by Gene Lees; Lost Chords by Richard Sudhalter, and several others. I would add to your excellent list A New History of Jazz by Alyn Shipton, which echoes and corroborates some of Sandke’s writing.
    It is a rare and joyous event when a musician of Randy Sandke’s stature puts his thoughts on paper. (Full disclosure: I’ve played with Sandke on a few of his albums and on live gigs everywhere from Eddie Condon’s to the Knitting Factory). I think Where the Dark and the Light Folks Meet: Race and the Mythology, Politics and Business of Jazz definitely belongs on the ‘worthy bookshelf.’ It is here that I will also mention that anyone who wants to comment on the book should actually read it first.
    Instead of a posting an overly long response on your blog, you can read my thoughts, if you’re interested, about Sandke’s book in my review here at Amazon:
    http://www.amazon.com/Where-Dark-Light-Folks-Meet/dp/0810866528
    I don’t find Sandke’s premise flawed, as you contend. He says jazz history can be inclusive or exclusive; either including players, composers, businesspeople, writers, and listeners who contributed to the development of the music, or excluding certain players or groups who do not fit a writer’s story. In your review, you write, “His argument is with history and myth – implacable adversaries — and his perspective nowhere near as comprehensive or unclouded by personal bias as he believes it to be.” Of course Sandke writes from his personal perspective — informed by over four decades on the bandstand, performing with everyone from Eddie Durham, Jay McShann and Benny Goodman to Michael Brecker and Chris Potter. That is one thing that makes it such a great book to read, whether you agree with all of his points or not: Sandke is a musician who can write.
    He’s not trying to ratchet up publicity for a list of under-appreciated white jazz players, which is the direction this discussion seems to be taking. Sandke merely presents a well-documented look at the development of jazz, politics, business, race relations and jazz criticism through the years, and how the search for good stories about the music, clever marketing, and murky business has often clouded historical facts.
    It seems though, Howard, that the tone of your review is unnecessarily combative. Maybe because Sandke often critiques the critics in his book, your gloves come off from the start. I would suggest that interested people (and if they’ve read this far, they must be interested) just sit down and read the book.
    HM: Thanks for your response, and civility, John. l’ll read your Amazon review. Nowhere do I suggest Sandke’s book be ignored. On the contrary, I think what I believe is its misinformed point of view should be identified as such, and carefully, decisively analyzed so that the misconception is demolished. I also like Shipton’s History and Sudhalter’s Lost Chords. But I hold to my points of disagreement with this book and also with what you say in defense it. In the reading, I found Where the Light and Dark Folks Meet offensive, condescending, self-serving, not illuminating but rather clouding the issues, fundamentally flawed and ultimately wrong.
    It should be noted that my review was written for the Jazz Journalists Association’s website, and I did focus on the matter that is of most importance to journalists — that Sandke finds us at the root of the problem he identifies. Yes, I’m sensitive because he attacks jazz journalism as well as most up-close scholarship of jazz’s first 100 years for a variety of sins, most of which he says resulted in a lack of due appreciation of the significance of white musicians in jazz. There are blind spots and flaws in much writing about jazz, starting with Panassie, however I believe Sandke uses his research very selectively, de-contextualizes many findings or does not appreciate their contexts, constructs arguments that do not lead to the points he wants to make (a couple of times he simply abandons his arguments mid-chapter). As far as his writing goes, I think he is a musician who has written a book free of grammatical errors, but he doesn’t inspire me with his words or use them to evoke the sound of the music he’s discussing. To do so is not his intention; he wants to create a persuasive argument. To do so, I think he turns a blind eye to whatever he doesn’t want to see or admit, and stops short of where we are now by a good 40 years, while persisting with the view that jazz criticism and scholarship today is as they were in the ’30s, demeaning “white” jazz.
    Sandke’s assertion that a left-leaning (“Popular Front” is his term) activist (another term of his, used backwards in the Orwellian way rightists of the Supreme Court use it) cabal, which happened to have undue influence in journalism, record companies, booking agencies, concert promotions, jazz clubs, squelched the employment opportunities and critical appreciation of white musicians continues to strike me as absurd. Sudhalter does not make this claim, and wrote a brilliant history of real people in a real world, with Dickensian vividness and detail. Lees takes an even-handed, tell-it-like-it-is approach, discussing anti-black racism as well as musicians’ collaborative efforts to transcend the societal problems — from my reading he resists making generalizations but rather individuates all the stories he tells. Sandke’s book celebrates some musicians’ collaborative efforts, but keeps returning to his point that the reputation of white musicians as a demographic should be higher than it is for the entire demographic’s contributions to jazz. In agreement with Sandke, I think musical quality (highly subjective as judgements of it must be) not skin color is what makes music worth hearing. In disagreement with him, perhaps — I’m not sure, because he keeps stating that the most innovative and many of the most accomplished musicians were black — I believe it was the inclusion of musical aspects coming from black America into the broader national soundtrack — which prior to the ’20s, long thereafter and STILL dominated by majority American “white” cultural preferences and Western European musical history — that turned the vernacular music into globally admired “jazz.” Without the influence of music from the black diaspora, we might still be dancing the businessman’s bounce and have never discovered swing; we might be singing like Scots-Irish balladeers and Italian gondoliers rather than scatting and mumbling and rapping the way urban Americans do, improvising like Germans in polka bands instead of with the daring to assert our individualities, to go anywhere, to use anything, as jazz musicians of all stripes are free from outmoded conventions to try.