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Jazz Is

By Sandy Asirvatham | Posted 9/12/2001

Grab a copy of the current issue of JazzTimes magazine or go online to and check out the feature titled "Black, White, & Beyond." It's a transcript of a fascinating panel discussion that took place last March in San Francisco, shortly after the airing of Ken Burns' much-discussed and, in certain circles, thoroughly loathed PBS documentary Jazz. The panelists (scholars Nat Hentoff, Angela Davis, and Harry Edwards; musicians Steve Coleman and Richard Sudhalter; and Bruce Lundvall, president of Blue Note Records) were asked to focus on a single, perennial question: "Is jazz black music?" Not surprisingly, that deceptively straightforward opening gambit touched off a thorny set of responses.

As the panelists agreed, one can answer that question in a face-value way: Yes, jazz is inextricably bound to the history of Africans' descendants in America. There's no reason to deny it. Without African call-and-response musical forms and polyrhythms, there'd have been no field hollers or slave work songs; without field hollers and slave work songs, there'd have been no blues, ragtime, gospel, or jazz. Certainly, you could argue (as Jazz and most other mainstream histories of the form imply) that there'd be no swing music without King Oliver and Louis Armstrong, no bebop without Charlie Parker and Bud Powell, no modal jazz without Miles Davis, no free jazz without Ornette Coleman, no fusion without Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. (It's often argued that all popular American music is deeply indebted to Africa on some level. Even the histories of country/western and bluegrass, often considered purely white musical genres by those who don't know better, are unthinkable without the banjo--invented in Africa and introduced here by slaves.)

Of course, "Is jazz black music?" is not a simple face-value question, but a loaded, ambiguous, and potentially circular one. Does answering "Yes" mean that jazz is somehow "essentially" black music? That you have to be black to play it, or play it well, or play it "authentically"? Or is the question a kind of tautological definition, meaning that only the music black jazz musicians tend to play (assuming you can define such a tendency) is rightfully called "jazz," and anything that sounds like it but is played by nonblacks is merely "jazzlike" or "jazz-influenced"? Does it mean that only black musicians contributed anything substantial to the music's initial development in the early part of this century?

Each panelist grappled with these and related issues, yet collectively they came nowhere near a definitive answer. Sudhalter, a white former jazz trumpeter who recently wrote a book about the underreported influence of various forgotten white musicians on the development of jazz, and Hentoff, a white jazz writer and critic since the 1950s, generally argued that this music, while arising out of the African-American experience, quickly became a universal, syncretic, democratic art form. Steve Coleman, an African-American alto saxophonist and leader of the band M-Base Collective, demurred somewhat from that cheery universalist view, arguing that there's an audible, identifiable difference in the way blacks and whites play jazz, due to a certain inherited African sensibility or "retention" that blacks share. At the same time, he maintained, jazz music retains the larger culture's institutional racial bias: Black jazz musicians still struggle for the same legitimacy, respect, and earning potential enjoyed by their white counterparts. Lundvall, the (white) Blue Note executive, whose paycheck depends on best-selling artists like Cassandra Wilson and Dianne Reeves (both black), naturally countered that assertion and claimed that jazzers tend to be "colorblind": Among the musicians themselves, he said, all that matters is whether or not you can play.

Reading this piece, I found myself simultaneously inside and outside the discussion--inside because I think of myself as a neophyte member of the jazz community, and outside because I'm neither black nor white. Broad questions of race, history, and cultural "authenticity" have haunted me for a long time, but now--as a music student at Towson University, a predominantly white institution--they take on greater resonance. That's why the panelist who most compelled me was perennial gadfly Angela Davis. For one thing, the African-American activist rightfully pointed out the fundamental problem of continuing to conceive jazz history--and American history in general--as a black-white dichotomy, as Ken Burns loves to do. The mainstream account of jazz's development, Davis noted, "has a hard time explaining the place of musicians who are neither black nor white," such as the many Latinos who've contributed to the music.

As the only woman on the panel, Davis was also compelled to remind her colleagues that discussions such as these assume "that jazz musicians are quintessentially male." Thank you, Angela--but if I were you, I wouldn't count on that assumption to die anytime soon. Fairly or not, stereotypes often have their roots in statistics. At the moment, I happen to be the only female jazz-performance major at Towson who's not a singer. As Morgan State doesn't offer a jazz program and the Peabody Conservatory just started one this year, I may be the only female instrumentalist in a jazz-performance program in Baltimore. Weird, huh? Charm City jazzwomen, please write and tell me I'm mistaken. Or just write and tell me you exist.

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