A. Jazz and Race

As in many other areas of American life, many folks prefer not to discuss racial issues as they relate to jazz, or for that matter bring into the musical sphere any type of political topic. It gets people nervous and agitated, in part because music is (inaccurately) considered one of those places devoid of the kind of racial, gender and other tensions commonplace in 21st century America. But a pair of recent articles that I’ve seen have reaffirmed the fact jazz is NOT devoid of racial concerns or of political differences, no matter how much anyone wishes that to be the case,

The first article was written by Todd Stoll, the current President of the Jazz Education Network, who reprinted a letter he wrote at the beginning of his second term. His article is largely a positive one, as he is making the case for more integration within jazz bands. That’s a laudable goal, but the composition of jazz bands, particularly at high schools and colleges, is more a reflection of the segregated nature of both education and housing throughout the country, despite current desegregation and open housing laws. It’s hard to discuss diversity if your school’s student body is 85% Black and Latino, or 95% White.

Conversely, if young girls and women aren’t being encouraged to pursue instrumental training, then you’re not going to see more women in jazz bands. Thankfully, there are now more women instrumentalists as well as critics and jazz journalists, though certainly there remains a lot of work to be done in both areas.

I fully agree with Stoll’s overall contention that jazz functions best when it is being played by musicians from a variety of backgrounds, be they racial, gender, nationality, age, sexual orientation, whatever. But it would be wrong to pretend there aren’t some within the jazz world with less than enlightened attitudes, which brings me to the next article.

Wall Street Journal Weighs In

I am unfamiliar with Steven Cerra, whose article “What Would We Do Without Racism” originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal. But as a preface to it, there was a discourse on jazz. Both of these found their way onto a blog titled Jazz Profiles. Now the Journal is about as staunchly right-wing as it gets editorially, but their arts section has always had some fine writers, from Nat Hentoff to current day stalwarts Barry Mazor and Martin Johnson among others I know personally.

The political article was full of dubious, debatable and just plain wrong contentions. The basic notion is claims of racism currently are largely overblown and come mainly from two types of people. These groups are Black politicians and activists seeking sympathy. According to Cerra, there’s a handful of troublesome white supremacist groups, but most people (read most Whites) no longer have any racist feelings, and if Blacks (and by extension other people of color) stopped seeing themselves as victims so much, everything would be great.

That this tripe got published right after the events in El Paso and Dayton is a stunning tribute to how totally myopic the WSJ can be sometimes. However the preface was designed as a defense of Richard Sudhalter’s 870-page volume “Lost Chords,” penned 20 years ago. Sudhalter, who passed in 2009, was in some ways a decent guy, but he allowed bitterness and hostility towards certain areas of jazz he disliked (particularly the avant-garde) to warp his sensitivities to the point he became nearly unreadable by the end.

“Lost Chords” was devoted to, for lack of a better way to put it, the White jazz experience. Had Sudhalter truly been interested only in spotlighting a lot of artists normally overlooked he’d have been fine. But instead his book turned into a jeremiad against all the things he disliked about jazz, and in particular about Black artists whose perspective on it he hated.

For Sudhalter and now Cerra, the Afrocentric and avant-garde types brought into the music an anti-White mentality that White critics lacked the courage to expose. He also detested staunch traditionalists like Stanley Crouch and Albert Murray,
whom he felt degraded and devalued any and all White participation and involvement.

What Sudhalter, Cerra and numerous others who espouse a similar viewpoint never have understood is the difference between championing the importance of jazz as a principally Black creation, and claiming that no one EXCEPT Blacks can play it. The latter is patently false and absurd, and I’ve never heard or seen any Black musician, even those who hate the term jazz, make that claim.

But what Sudhalter and Cerra and crew want to claim is Whites and Blacks are equally important in the creation of the jazz canon. Now if you’re talking about participation, no question there’s always been mutual interaction and friendship across racial lines. You will never meet a more outspoken and proud Black man than Max Roach, who was still best friends with both Louie Bellson and Buddy Rich. But that doesn’t make Bellson and Rich equally as important as Roach, though all three are phenomenal musicians.

Somehow to folks who think like Sudhalter and Cerra, recognizing Blacks as jazz’s principal creators is taking something away from White musicians. That’s an amazingly shallow and silly argument to make, but that’s the essence of Cerra’s preface Jazz and Racism. It’s also why ultimately it adds nothing of value to the jazz and race discussion.

B. Jazz and Blues Conversation: Dick Waterman

Dick Waterman had led an extraordinary life, though he is one of those people who often must be coaxed into talking about their achievements. Among many other things he was among the folks who rediscovered and brought back into the public eye the legendary Son House. He later became his manager. Waterman founded Avalon Productions, the first management agency focused on representing blues musicians. That led him into a number of battles trying to make sure that blues musicians were fairly treated and rightly paid.┬áThe list of musicians he’s worked with includes B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Taj Mahal, Bonnie Raitt and Eric Clapton. He’s also equally known for his photography, something he says began more as a hobby than anything else.

Tammy L. Turner’s new book “Dick Waterman: A Life In Blues” will be reviewed in August. But in the meantime, Dick took a few minutes recently to answer some questions for our “Conversations” segment. Incidentally, Dick celebrated his 84th birthday last month.

(1) When did you get interested in blues and who was the first artist whose music really moved you?

“I saw Louis Armstrong when I was 12 (1947) with a great band that included Jack Teagarden on trombone and vocals. I loved Louis and saw him several times included a segregated audience in Georgia. I was/am a huge Teagarden fan and I love the way he ‘lags’ the singing a fraction behind the beat, much like Muddy Waters and Fred Neil.
I saw Mississippi John Hurt at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival and probably was my ‘entry level’ to traditional blues.”

(2) What triggered the decision to actually go out and try to find some of these legendary individuals?

“I was a free lance writer for “The National Observer” and they said they’d buy the story of the search for Son House if we actually found him. I knew very little about blues before that point.”

(3) How difficult was it to manage and interact with them on a regular basis, especially in terms of touring and setting up dates?

“Finding bookings in that 1964-1968 period was pure work, long hours in the night writing hundreds of letters on a manual typewriter. The artists simply trusted me to find the work. I guaranteed their bookings. If something went wrong, I paid them myself, so if I told them of a booking, they knew that it was going to happen.”

(4) Were you also always interested in photography and how did some of the greats you photographed initially react when they saw you with a camera taking shots?

“Because I was on the scene at the beginning of the Folk Blues era, my presence was casual and accepted. Muddy and Wolf and BB treated me as a friend and I was never ‘a fan’ who was awed. I had tremendous respect for their artistry, but I was not intimidated by their greatness.”

(5) What are some of your favorite experiences in regards to live concerts?

“I stood on the side of the stage for Dylan at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival appearance and the audience loved/hated his show. He was focused on what he was doing regardless of what the people thought. I traveled with the Stones for seven weeks in 1970, a great period for their music. I studied their professionalism for tips that would help me immensely when I was managing bands later.”

(6) Do you still follow today’s performers?

“Hardly at all. I’m curious about “Kingfish,” a Clarksdale area young musician who released his first CD and is just beginning to tour nationally.”

(7) What artist, if any, that you never either met or represented, did you regret not being affiliated with in some fashion?

“I knew Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan as friends and never had my cameras around them. Hendrix was immensely curious and listened to everyone. I envisioned him collaborating with Sun Ra or Miles Davis and especially Bob Marley.”

(8) Looking back, did you have a favorite or favorites among artists?

“I loved just being with John Hurt. He had a calm and a grace that just made anyone love him. A great musician and a beautiful human being.”

(9 If you had to characterize your life in a short statement what would you say?

“I tried to bring order and honesty where there had been only chaos and confusion.”

(10) How do you feel about the future of the blues?

“It seems to be a fringe music with occasional jumps in popularity when an artist is able to merge traditional music with pop on occasion. I doubt if there will be inroads in video consumption where commercial acceptance lies.”

C. Artistic Appreciation: Toni Morrison

Though Toni Morrison wasn’t a musician, she often talked about how she viewed her writing as coming from the same ability to improvise that makes a great jazz player. Morrison who died August 5 at 88, was an enormous literary talent and an influence on everyone in the cultural world, regardless of whether they were a painter, writer, or musician.

She won every conceivable award, including the Pulitzer Price for Fiction in 1988 for “Beloved,” a tale inspired by the true story of a runaway slave, and the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature for a distinguished host of achievements in the field. She was the first Black woman to win that honor.

She wrote 11 novels, including “Jazz” in 1992. That the second part in a riveting three-part trilogy of works steeped in Black history that began with “Beloved” in 1987 and concluded with “Paradise” in 1997. “Jazz” was set in Harlem during the 20s, but also included flashback segments to the South in the mid-19th century.

The novel featured various characters “improvising” solo compositions that fit together to create a whole work. The tone also continually shifts, mixing the blues with ragtime, while also utilizing a call-and-response style that allows various characters to explore the same events from different perspectives.

There were also “untrustworthy narrators” whose emotions and perspective affect the pace and overall tale. There were continual switches between narrators, mirroring the viewpoint of various characters, inanimate objects, and even concepts. The book’s final narrator was widely believed to be Morrison.

Toni Morrison was also a savvy talent scout and mentor to many other writers in her role with Random House as an editor. Her efforts led to volumes being published by Angela Davis, Gayl Jones, Toni Cade Bambara and even a sports book featuring Muhammad Ali, despite her often stated disdain for sports. She was also instrumental in working on “The Black Book,’ which was published in 1974. Morrison compiled a lavishly illustrated scrapbook spanning three centuries of African-American history, reproducing newspaper clippings, photographs, advertisements, handbills and the like.

She received the Medal of Freedom in 2012 from President Barack Obama, a fitting honor for one of this nation’s greatest writers and literary treasures. The Belcourt Theatre was one of the places that recently showed the documentary “Toni Morrison: The Pieces That I Am.” Her imprint will always loom large in arts and culture worldwide.