Rifftides reader Duncan Reid responds to our recent suggestion that trumpeter Jack Sheldon gets less recognition than his talents warrant.
A thought on Jack Sheldon’s lack of recognition. Like Cal Tjader, Vince Guaraldi, Shorty Rogers, Jim Hall, Conte Candoli, Paul Horn, Jimmy Giuffre and many others, he is white and based on the West Coast. Many critics, mostly on the East Coast and in Europe, have felt and still feel that white musicians do not play authentic jazz. The late French critic Hughes Panassie said just that. Moreover, I was told by the late Al Mckibbon that Leonard Feather’s assessment of Cal was as follows, “Sunny and Californian with no weight at all.”
Ken Burns and Wynton Marsalis are among those with that attitude. You’ll remember, as I assume you viewed the film Jazz, that aside from a brief segment on Brubeck and a few passing comments on Mulligan and a few others, Mr. Burns completely ignored West Coast jazz. In my opinion, much of what was said about white musicians was racist and derogatory. For instance, (historian) Gerald Early said that all the greatest jazz musicians are black because, “you got to have that feeling, you know, you got to have that feeling.” (Critic) Nat Hentoff said, “West Coast jazz is white and bland.” Of course, neither man was speaking the truth, just their perception. Wynton Marsalis just avoided talking about white musicians, save for Bix and a brief comment on Goodman. That is quite an accomplishment, considering the film lasted 18 1/2 hours. All of this lit a fire under me and is one reason I started writing a biography on Cal Tjader three years ago. Hopefully I can finish sometime next year.
I agree that, despite the continued availability of most of his best work, Tjader’s contributions are too little recognized. A thorough Tjader biography would be an important addition to the literature. Whatever animus toward Tjader Al McKibbon may have attributed to Leonard Feather, in the 1960 edition of The Encyclopedia of Jazz, Feather wrote,
Despite his increasing identification with Latin music, Tjader is still active in regular jazz and is a first-class performer with, as John S. Wilson has said, “a light touch and a propulsive approach.”
Certainly, Ken Burns’ Jazz series, for all of its virtures, had willful blind spots, too many to enumerate. To point out a few, Burns gave the slightest acknowledgement of the existence of Jack Teagarden and Bill Evans, white musicians of enormous importance. He was, however, an equal opportunity slighter; he also all but ignored Teddy Wilson and Benny Carter.
Jim Hall and Jimmy Giuffre have not been based on the West Coast in decades. They have both lived in the northeastern United States for more than thirty years. Paul Horn lives in Arizona and British Columbia. Shorty Rogers, Vince Guaraldi and Conte Candoli are no longer alive. But, as Robert Benchley said when he was informed of the death of George Gershwin, I don’t have to believe it if I don’t want to.
john shade says
In the Burns series, the omission of Carter was particularly egregious. They should have had him on for hours and hours. Artie Shaw too. Here are two guys who knew a huge amount and were capable of talking eloquently about it, but Burns passed them over in favor of Gerald Early?
Duncan Reid says
When I was referring to Guaraldi, Candoli, Hall..etc, I had the fifties era in mind. I am aware of their current circumstances. In fact, Paul Horn and I have become friends as a result of my Tjader biography. I referred to that era because it was such an amazingly creative time. In my opinion, it was the height of the modern jazz. But the West Coast was often unfairly maligned.
Secondly, I am also aware that some great black musicians were not given their proper due by Burns. But said musicians were small in number by comparison and were not evaluated properly because Mr. Burns either didn’t think highly enough of them or due to lack of time. But that was not the case with most of the white musicians he ignored. To illustrate, Ken Burns angrily responded to a letter I wrote by saying that it wasn’t that white musicians couldn’t play but that, with a few exceptions, they just didn’t figure in the jazz pantheon. He then arrogantly claimed, “…I find absolute agreement from all sides of the debate.”
Lastly, on Leonard Feather, that statement was from the fifties, I know Mr. Feather later changed his tune on Cal. He called him “the Latin Swede” and wrote the liners to Tjader’s last LP “Heat Wave,” which was posthumously released in mid-1982. I hope you print this response online. I don’t want readers to think that I am not fully aware of the circumstances of the musicians and critics that I referred to. And the Burns letter is important as well.
Charlton Price says
My view of Ken Burns’ JAZZ is not as charitable as Doug’s. The sad thing about that 18 ½ hour series was that it could have been so much better.
Ken Burns was on solid ground in contending that one cannot understand America without understanding the essences of and the interplay of the Civil War + jazz+ baseball in the American experience. A pervasive theme in those three aspects of America, of course, is negritude/black history/white racism. But by the time Ken got to JAZZ, the third series, that theme had become, IMO, the total message. Further, Burns seems to have allowed the form and content of the Jazz series to be dictated by Albert Murray, Wynton Marsalis, and Stanley Crouch –particularly Wynton, who apparently told Burns how to understand the music, what to include, what to exclude. Wynton also seemed to have given Ken Burns to understand that were it not for Wynton, the legacy of jazz (particularly reflecting its black genius and genesis) would not have been and won’t be preserved.
These commentators, and therefore Burns, were not, IMO, equal-opportunity excluders. Notable exclusions were most of the white big bands of the thirties through the seventies, most of so-called West Coast jazz, and the rich history in Richard Sudhalter’s book “Lost Chords.”
Duncan Reid says
I would like to further clarify that I was mistaken in using the present tense when discussing certain West Coast musicians in my response to Jack Sheldon’s lack of recognition. Having the fifties in mind was not enough in and of itself.
Secondly, Thank you, Charlton Price, for your eloquent post on Ken Burns “Jazz.” In his letter to me, Burns said he consulted writer Gary Giddins more than Marsalis. The finished film, “Jazz,” however, mainly reflects Marsalis’ point of view. Mr. Price you are right to point out the lack of attention given to white big bands other than Shaw and Goodman. Particularly glaring is the omission of the brilliant Stan Kenton. Not only was his music revolutionary but a list of his former sidemen reads like a who’s who in jazz. All in all, “Jazz” could have been a film about a music that was initially invented by black people, using both African and European influences. Then, over the years, was repeatedly reinvented by both black and white musicians. A truly multi-racial American music. Instead, it was about black people claiming sole ownership of jazz; whites were just along for the ride. It is sad indeed. Anyone interested in West Coast jazz can rent the DVD of Ken Koenig’s history of “The Lighthouse.” I highly recommend it.
Michael Owen says
Thanks to all for the West Coast jazz discussion. Yes, the reality is that the phrase “west coast jazz” has come to mean white guys playing their instruments on a beach (see the famous William Claxton photo of the Lighthouse All-Stars). But Contemporary & Pacific Jazz (the leading California record labels of the period) released any number of albums by black musicians, some just as gritty as their counterparts on the East Coast.
I find it interesting that Nat Hentoff was quite willing to take Lester Koenig’s money to write liner notes for Contemporary in the 1950s but has changed his perception over the years.
I hope no one still thinks that Ken Burns’ documentary was anything but useless. Get ahold of Ken Koenig’s film on the Lighthouse, the Stan Levey doc, or various bits and pieces from the tv shows Jazz Scene USA and Bobby Troup’s Stars of Jazz to get an idea of what the sound was like.
There’s an interesting exhibition currently at the Orange County Museum of Art (“Birth of the Cool”) which features some of the period’s best jazz musicians in the context of the modern movements in art, architecture and design. Check out www. ocma.net.
And it was the novelist John O’Hara, not Robert Benchley, who wrote that he didn’t have to believe George Gershwin was dead.
(Of course it was O’Hara. I trusted my faulty memory instead of looking it up. Thanks for the correction .
Mr. Owen is the archivist for the Ira and Leonore Gershwin Trusts in San Francisco– DR)
Duncan Reid says
At a tribute to Cal Tjader was held at the College of San Mateo. It was sponsored by local radio station KCSM. Former club owner and current deejay Sonny Buxton said in his monologue that West Coast jazz was “light, fluffy and didn’t swing hard.” I’d really like to know who first put that misconception of West Coast jazz out there. Even poster Michael Owen has to defend the West Coast by saying that California blacks were just as gritty as their East Coast counterparts. California white guys could swing hard and play gritty with the best of them. The difference is that they weren’t limited to swing or bop as it was played on the East Coast.
Leading lights of the post war era such as Kenton, Brubeck, Desmond, Cal Tjader, Jimmy Giuffre, Shelly Manne, Paul Horn, Vince Guaraldi and Shorty Rogers, were interested in expanding the boundaries of jazz. The music they made didn’t have an easy label so it was all called West Coast jazz. Just as anything Ellington, Miles or Monk did, it stands the test of time. Great jazz is not simply defined as music that swings hard. Experimenting with different time signatures, harmonies, rhythms and fusing jazz with other musical forms helped create the foundation of what we listen to now.
roger hunter says
This is vis a vis the black/white West Coast discussion. Many years ago when Mike Davis and I were compiling our Hampton Hawes Discography(self published and still around), iIhad several conversations with Red Mitchell. This is one story he told me. He had met the pianist Elmo Hope and got to know him well. Elmo had a Trio recording date in the offing for Hi Fi Records, I believe. They rehearsed for a couple of weeks prior to the date. Red said that Elmo’s songs were tricky. However, a couple days prior to the recording date he got a phone call from Elmo, telling him that he would have to replace him with a Black player because he was getting too much hassle from the community.
Red was, of course, Hamp Hawes’ bassist of choice.
(Hope’s only album for HI Fi, reissued on a Contemporary CD as “Elmo Hope Trio”, has Jimmy Bond on bass. — DR
Bill Crow says
I thought it was too bad that Ken Burns didn’t find room for Errol Garner in his film. I understand there was plenty of footage, but they just couldn’t find a spot for it. Errol was a unique voice, and was the first jazz performer to move exclusively to the concert arena, managed by Martha Glaser, presented by Sol Hurok.
I once heard Jack Sheldon say that the reason musicians (I think he was referring specifically to Chet Baker) started playing with a quiet, “cool” sound was so as not to compete with conversations in supper clubs. For what it’s worth.
Alan Broadbent says
Not to stir up the pot, but re: a recent article in Rifftides I began to think of some West Coast (born or residing-resided) jazz musicians. Beginning with….. Lester Young, Hamp Hawes, Ornette Coleman, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ray Brown, Horace Silver, JJ Johnson, Sweets Edison, Dexter Gordon….. you get the idea.
Duncan Reid says
Re: Alan Broadbent. I get the idea. They’re all black musicians past and present on the West Coast. Any jazz buff knows that there have always been black musicians in California and the whole Pacific Coast to be exact. But their numbers are not nearly as big as in midwestern cities like St. Louis or particularly New York City. What’s your point ?
Duncan Reid says
I am still writing Cal Tjader’s biography and will be for some time to come. Cal himself had something to say about racism in jazz. In “A Talk with Cal Tjader,” he discussed the subject with one Doug Ramsey in Jazz Monthly (November ’62). The following is an excerpt. “…It seems a handful of critics and coloured (sp ?) musicians in the East [Coast] who are hipped on racism, the Muslim movement, Negro superiority, are stirring everyone up to the point where it’s dangerous.”
And in September ’66, Cal told Down Beat’s Harvey Siders that he was upset about Charles Mingus’ decision not to hire white musicians. In addition, he was tired of hearing black musicians say: “He’s pretty good for a white guy.” Lastly, Cal’s daughter Elizabeth told me a story about Cal and a black female fan at the Apollo Theater in New York. The fan, who apparently could not believe that a white musician could play with such feeling, said to Cal, “You are the lightest skinned black man I’ve ever seen !”
The struggle of American black people for equality has been well documented and rightfully so. On the other side of the coin, black rage has resulted in a backlash that still exists today and the experiences of white musicians such as Red Mitchell (told by Roger Hunter in December ’07) and Tjader have not received the same attention.