The Color of Jazz
GRP records, which owns the catalogue of Decca, a prominent record label of the 30′s and 40′s, recently released a two-CD set of jazz performances originally recorded by the older company. The set contains classic recordings by Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Jelly Roll Morton, Sidney Bechet, Coleman Hawkins, Fletcher Henderson, Billie Holiday, and other artists. More significant than the album’s contents, however, is its title: Black Legends of Jazz.
As recently as a decade ago, it would have been inconceivable for a major label to release such an album. Not only would the title have been considered offensive, it would have been seen as untrue to the spirit of jazz. To be sure, black and white musicians did not perform together on stage until the mid-30′s, and even now, racially mixed bands, like racially mixed couples, are uncommon enough to catch the eye. But the cultural ethos of jazz was for the most part firmly free of race-consciousness. Louis Armstrong, the most important figure in jazz, spoke for most musicians when he said, “It’s no crime for cats of any color to get together and blow.”
About the Author
Terry Teachout is COMMENTARY’s critic-at-large and the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal. Satchmo at the Waldorf, his first play, runs through November 4 at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut.