“The Color of Jazz” — an essay by Bob Hecht

August 16th, 2018

 

_____

 

The Color of Jazz

by Bob Hecht

 

The late, great trumpeter Clark Terry once offered one of the most pointed, and humorous, comments about the perennial controversies in jazz over race and the perceived abilities of white versus black musicians…

He said, “My theory is that a note doesn’t give a fuck who plays it, as long as he plays it well.”

It’s not easy, or normally appropriate, to find humor in racial prejudice…but there is a little story from my life in the sixties that I do find pretty damn funny, even after all these years…

One night in the mid sixties my phone rings. It’s my friend Kinney.

“Come by tonight, if you can,” he says, “there’s someone I want you to meet. And bring some jazz records.”

Kinney and I have been friends since college, having graduated together from Seton Hall over in Jersey just a couple of years before. We both now live and work in New York; I live with my girlfriend on the Upper East Side, and he by himself down in Greenwich Village.

So before heading for the subway to go downtown, I select a few choice records to share with him: some Bud Powell, some Bird, and some Chet Baker. I have enthusiastically been turning Kinney on to some of the jazz greats I adore, and he has gradually been building a pretty good jazz collection of his own.

He opens the door to welcome me and my girlfriend, and as we enter his apartment he introduces us to a beautiful young black woman sitting on the couch.

“This is Yvonne,” he says proudly, and there’s definitely something about his tone that suggests he might just be bragging about a new sexual conquest.

It was not just Yvonne’s lovely appearance that was surprising to me. To be honest, I had not anticipated my white college friend having a black girlfriend. Interracial romances were not altogether uncommon in the Village in the mid 60’s, but still unusual enough to turn heads. And of course it was a time of ripe change in cultural and sexual mores in this country.

Kinney and Yvonne soon became a couple and moved in together. She seemed a shy and unsophisticated young woman at this point in her life, but over the next several years of their relationship she underwent a transformation. She gradually changed from a rather conventional-looking middle class girl with conventional middle class values, into a classic late 60’s hippie chick. Her tailored dresses became vintage clothes from second hand Village stores. She wore not only bellbottoms, but actual bells. Her straightened hair became an Afro, first a short one and then a huge one…

And gradually, too, her political attitudes changed. From a politically innocent and naive middle class girl, she became a strident black power advocate. And she took on some of the pretensions that often went with such transformations. She changed from a rather simple and meek young woman to a pretentious, self- absorbed and superior-sounding one—an “I have all the answers” kind of person. She became, honestly, very hard to take. Yet she seemed completely unaware of how her transformation could affect, and turn off, friends.

Meanwhile, Kinney’s growing love of jazz, fostered to a large degree by our friendship, also grew steadily during these years. Aside from Chet Baker, whom he said was now his most favorite player, he grew to love, and collect, records by Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Lester Young, John Coltrane, Miles Davis and other greats.

It never seemed that Yvonne was particularly appreciative of jazz, and in other ways as well the couple appeared mismatched. Kinney had strong intellectual leanings, and a keen desire for spiritual growth. While I turned him on to jazz, he in turn exposed me to Alan Watts, and the Zen teachings of Huang Po. I never sensed that Yvonne was on the same wavelength in that regard at all.

There came a time when their differences simply became too great. And one day, she just dumped him. While he was out at work, she unexpectedly packed her stuff and split. But not before cleaning out a good portion of his jazz record collection…and she did that in a most bizarre way, reflecting her newly found Afro-centric identity.

“She took all of my records featuring black musicians, every single one,” Kinney lamented to me later. “Now I have an exclusively all-white jazz collection.”

I didn’t say this aloud to my friend, but I guess it was kind of lucky that his most favorite musician was Chet Baker.

 

……

 

Such racial bias is, sadly, nothing new to jazz.

It’s always been ironic to me that jazz—which in many ways has a history of being one of the most egalitarian of the arts, in which how a musician is regarded usually has more to do, rightly, with the quality of his or her musicianship than the color of his or her skin—has at times been riddled with conflict over race. There have been many examples of prejudice against both black and white musicians; black musicians have often expressed frustration and anger about the music being at times co-opted by whites, and white musicians have often been frustrated and angered by claims that only blacks can ‘authentically’ play jazz.

So there is a long history of grievances, both legitimate and not, and such attitudes still do exist today, although they were much more acute back in the sixties. It was during those years, after all, that the term ‘Crow Jim’ was coined to signify the reverse racism against white musicians that was quite prevalent.

For example, back then Miles Davis often had to defend the presence of pianist Bill Evans in his band against criticism which was, as Miles characterized it, “that shit some black people put on him about being a white boy in our band. I have always just wanted the best players in my group, and I don’t care about whether they’re black, white, blue, red, or yellow. As long as they can play what I want, that’s it.”

But for the majority of jazz musicians, and its fans, the reality has been, as the great altoist Lee Konitz once commented in an interview, that “the spiritual part of this music far transcends all of those racial considerations…”

The truth is that racial integration came to jazz bandstands before it did to other, more mainstream, situations in our society. In the thirties, Benny Goodman hired Teddy Wilson, Charlie Christian and Lionel Hampton, and Artie Shaw hired Billie Holiday, years before Major League Baseball was integrated with the hiring of Jackie Robinson. And Charlie Barnet included many black musicians in his band during those years. These bandleaders did so because they valued musicianship above the prevailing discriminatory racial attitudes of the day, and often did so at considerable risk. When Barnett was warned about the impact that having blacks in his band might have on his popularity and on touring in the southern states, he reportedly replied: “Fuck the South!”

Even Charles Mingus, who was known as ‘Jazz’s Angry Man,’ and who often railed against the so-called white power structure and racism (as in his powerful, satiric piece, “Fables of Faubus”), did not hesitate to include in his various bands such great white musicians as trombonist Jimmy Knepper, saxophonists Bobby Jones and Lee Konitz, and pianist Bill Evans.

Charlie Parker hired trumpeter Chet Baker, pianist Al Haig, and trumpeter Red Rodney, and numerous other white musicians—although when Bird toured the south with the ginger-haired Rodney, he famously billed him as “Albino Red” in an attempt to circumvent segregation laws!

Parker once said about his hiring of Chet Baker, “He plays pure and simple, I like that. That little white cat reminds me of those Bix Beiderbecke records my mother used to play.”

Bix, of course, was white, but that didn’t stop Louis Armstrong from being a great admirer of his playing and a good friend.

Of course no one can honestly say they are truly color blind…to claim so can often be just another form of prejudice. It’s pretty clear that our awareness of racial differences affects our perceptions, no matter how we might try to transcend or overcome our biases.

And any idea that we might now, here in the 21st century be living in a post-racial world is patently absurd…just ask the many African Americans who are routinely harassed or jailed for driving while black, or simply for sitting in a Starbucks while black…or just ask the families of the countless young, unarmed black men gunned down by the cops sworn to protect them, or the many black or brown men and women jailed for the same crimes for which their white counterparts go free. Or the brown skinned children and parents separated at the border by the country’s current racist policies…

In the jazz world, regrettably, there are still those who take the strident position that jazz is strictly black music, and that white musicians are mere interlopers, just faux jazz artists and not the real deal…

For all of us, it’s good to remember that no less the real deal than Edward Kennedy ‘Duke’ Ellington said way back in the forties…”Jazz has become part of America. There are as many white musicians playing it as Negro…we are all working together along more or less the same lines. We learn from each other. Jazz is American now. American is the big word.”

From its beginnings jazz has been a gumbo of sorts, mixing its ingredients and flavors to form something greater than the sum of its parts…a uniquely American gumbo cooked up in the country’s melting pot.

Of course, there are always some who attempt to foul our American gumbo. As pianist Thelonious Monk once said, “They tried to get me to hate white people, but someone would always come along and spoil it.”

 

 

_____

 

 

 

 

Bob Hecht is an award-winning jazz disc jockey and fine art photographer whose photo work has been published in LensWork, Black & White, Zyzzyva and The Sun and exhibited internationally. His writing has previously appeared in LensWork and in the haiku journals Frogpond, Bottle Rockets and Modern Haiku. He and his wife live in Portland, Oregon. For twenty-five years they have been partners in On Point Productions, writing and producing marketing and training video programs. Visit his website by clicking here.

 

*

In an early example of black and white jazz musicians playing together, from the 1937 film Hollywood Hotel, Benny Goodman’s Quartet features pianist Teddy Wilson, vibraphonist Lionel Hampton and drummer Gene Krupa playing “I Got A Heartful Of Music”.

 

 

 

 

Share this:

Comment on this article:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

In this Issue

A Collection of Jazz Poetry – Spring, 2020 Edition There are many good and often powerful poems within this collection, one that has the potential for changing the shape of a reader’s universe during an impossibly trying time, particularly if the reader has a love of music. 33 poets from all over the globe contribute 47 poems. Expect to read of love, loss, memoir, worship, freedom, heartbreak and hope – all collected here, in the heart of this unsettling spring. (Featuring the art of Martel Chapman)

Interview

photo by Fred Price
Bob Hecht and Grover Sales host a previously unpublished 1985 interview with the late, great jazz saxophonist Lee Konitz, who talks about Miles, Kenton, Ornette, Tristano, and the art of improvisation...

Features

Red Meditation by James Brewer
Creative artists and citizens of note respond to the question, "During this time of social distancing and isolation at home, what are examples of the music you are listening to, the books you are reading, and/or the television or films you are viewing?”

Book Excerpt

In the introduction to Dave Brubeck: A Life in Time – the author Philip Clark writes about the origins of the book, and his interest in shining a light on how Brubeck, “thoughtful and sensitive as he was, had been changed as a musician and as a man by the troubled times through which he lived and during which he produced such optimistic, life-enhancing art.”

Interview

NBC Radio-photo by Ray Lee Jackson / Public domain
In a Jerry Jazz Musician interview, acclaimed biographer James Kaplan (Frank: The Voice and Sinatra: The Chairman) talks about his book, Irving Berlin: New York Genius, and Berlin's unparalleled musical career and business success, his intense sense of family and patriotism during a complex and evolving time, and the artist's permanent cultural significance.

Book Excerpt

In the introduction to Maria Golia’s Ornette Coleman: The Territory and the Adventure – excerpted here in its entirety – the author takes the reader through the four phases of the brilliant musician’s career her book focuses on.

Art

Art by Charles Ingham
Charles Ingham’s “Jazz Narratives” connect time, place, and subject in a way that ultimately allows the viewer a unique way of experiencing jazz history. Volume 7 of the narratives are “Torn from Its Moorings", "Watching the Sea" and "Plantations" (featuring west coast stories of Ornette Coleman and Billie Holiday)

Interview

Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Carl Van Vechten Collection
Richard Crawford’s Summertime: George Gershwin’s Life in Music is a rich, detailed and rewarding musical biography that describes Gershwin's work throughout every stage of his career. In a Jerry Jazz Musician interview, Crawford discusses his book and the man he has described as a “fresh voice of the Jazz Age” who “challenged Americans to rethink their assumptions about composition and performance, nationalism, cultural hierarchy, and the racial divide.”

Jazz History Quiz #138

photo by William Gottlieb/Library of Congress
Shortly following their famed 1938 Carnegie Hall performance, Benny Goodman’s drummer Gene Krupa left the band to start his own. Who replaced Krupa?

Interview

photo unattributed/ Public domain
In a Jerry Jazz Musician interview with The Letters of Cole Porter co-author Dominic McHugh, he explains that “several of the big biographical tropes that we associate with Porter are either modified or contested by the letters,” and that “when you put together these letters, and add our quite extensive commentary between the letters, it creates a different picture of him.” Mr. McHugh discusses his book, and what the letters reveal about the life – in-and-out of music – of Cole Porter.

Book Excerpt

The introduction to John Burnside's The Music of Time: Poetry in the Twentieth Century – excerpted here in its entirety with the gracious consent of Princeton University Press – is the author's fascinating observation concerning the idea of how poets respond to what the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam called “the noise of time,” weaving it into a kind of music.

Short Fiction

photo Creative Commons CC0
Short Fiction Contest-winning story #53 — “Market & Fifth, San Francisco, 1986,” by Paul Perilli

Photography

photo by Veryl Oakland
In this edition of photographs and stories from Veryl Oakland’s book Jazz in Available Light, Frank Morgan, Michel Petrucciani/Charles Lloyd, and Emily Remler are featured

Poetry

photo Bret Stewart/Wikimedia Commons
“Afterwards — For the Spring, 2020” — a poem by Alan Yount

Book Excerpt

A ten page excerpt from The Letters of Cole Porter by Cliff Eisen and Dominic McHugh that features correspondence in the time frame of June to August, 1953, including those Porter had with George Byron (the man who married Jerome Kern’s widow), fellow writer Abe Burrows, Noel Coward, his secretary Madeline P. Smith, close friend Sam Stark, and his lawyer John Wharton.

Interview

photo by William Gottlieb/Library of Congress
Con Chapman, author of Rabbit's Blues: The Life and Music of Johnny Hodges discusses the great Ellington saxophonist

Humor

photo by William Gottlieb/Library of Congress
"Louis Armstrong on the Moon," by Dig Wayne

Book Excerpt

This story, excerpted from Irving Berlin: New York Genius by James Kaplan, describes how Berlin came to write his first major hit song, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” and speaks to its historic musical and cultural significance.

Pressed for All Time

In this edition, producer Tom Dowd talks with Pressed for All Time: Producing the Great Jazz Albums author Michael Jarrett about the genesis of Herbie Mann’s 1969 recording, Memphis Underground, and the executives and musicians involved

Interview

photo by Bouna Ndaiye
Interview with Gerald Horne, author of Jazz and Justice: Racism and the Political Economy of the Music

Great Encounters

photo of Sidney Bechet by William Gottlieb/Library of Congress
In this edition of "Great Encounters," Con Chapman, author of Rabbit’s Blues: The Life and Music of Johnny Hodges, writes about Hodges’ early musical training, and the first meeting he had with Sidney Bechet, the influential and legendary reed player who Hodges called “tops in my book.”

Poetry

The winter collection of poetry offers readers a look at the culture of jazz music through the imaginative writings of its 32 contributors. Within these 41 poems, writers express their deep connection to the music – and those who play it – in their own inventive and often philosophical language that communicates much, but especially love, sentiment, struggle, loss, and joy.

“What are 4 or 5 of your all-time favorite Blue Note albums?”

"What are 4 or 5 of your all-time favorite Blue Note albums?"
Dianne Reeves, Nate Chinen, Gary Giddins, Michael Cuscuna, Eliane Elias and Ashley Kahn are among the 12 writers, musicians, and music executives who list and write about their favorite Blue Note albums

In the Previous Issue

Interviews with three outstanding, acclaimed writers and scholars who discuss their books on Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, and Cole Porter, and their subjects’ lives in and out of music. These interviews – which each include photos and several full-length songs – provide readers easy access to an entertaining and enlightening learning experience about these three giants of American popular music.

In an Earlier Issue

photo by Carol Friedman
“The Jazz Photography Issue” features an interview with today’s most eminent jazz portrait photographer Carol Friedman, news from Michael Cuscuna about newly released Francis Wolff photos, as well as archived interviews with William Gottlieb, Herman Leonard, Lee Tanner, a piece on Milt Hinton, a new edition of photos from Veryl Oakland, and much more…

Contributing writers

Site Archive