Commentary Magazine

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.”

But American culture has changed greatly since Armstrong died in 1971, and jazz has changed with it. Race-consciousness—on the part of individuals and institutions alike—is now a powerful force in the world of jazz, one whose effects have only just begun to come clear.



Last October, Representative John Conyers, Jr. (D-Mich.), learned that the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, an ensemble organized by the Smithsonian Institution to play the music of the big-band era, normally engages a half-dozen black musicians out of its total of sixteen members. In a letter sent to the Smithsonian and later published in the Washington Times, Conyers said he found this proportion “extremely disturbing,” adding that

I want people who experience the Orchestra in performance to hear and see jazz for what it has been and is—a product of the African-American cultural experience. While jazz has certainly inspired the participation and creativity of all Americans, as well as other people around the world, the lack of real racial, ethnic, and gender diversity among the Orchestra’s members presents an unrealistic image of who plays this music which I urge you to expeditiously correct. . . .

As it happens, Conyers’s letter was not only crudely threatening but historically ill-informed. So far as can be determined, jazz was “invented” around the turn of the 20th century by New Orleans blacks of widely varying musical education and ethnic background (many were Creoles, the mixed-blood descendants of French slaveholders and their female slaves). But whites were playing jazz within a decade of its initial appearance, and began making important contributions to its stylistic development shortly thereafter. Until fairly recently, most musicians and scholars agreed that jazz long ago ceased to be a uniquely black idiom and became “multicultural” in the truest, least politicized sense of the word. As the white guitarist Jim Hall said, “I’ve always felt that the music started out as black but that it’s as much mine now as anyone else’s.”

But Conyers is hardly alone today in dissenting from this consensus. (As for the Smithsonian, it responded to his threat, predictably, by ordering the orchestra’s musical directors to ensure that its “makeup . . . reflect racial balance”—that is, have more blacks and fewer whites.) Perhaps the first to do so was the black novelist and literary scholar Albert Murray in his 1976 book, Stomping the Blues. Murray is not a musician, and his book is an idiosyncratic interpretation of American popular music in which jazz is treated not as an independent musical form but as part of the blues, an older idiom that originated among Southern blacks at some point in the late 19th or early 20th century.

For Murray, the ability to play the blues is the defining trait of “authentic” jazz musicians. Those who do not play the blues are not authentic—and white musicians, Murray implies, cannot play the blues. In the caption to the only photo in Stomping the Blues in which white musicians are shown, Murray succinctly describes these whites—including Pee Wee Russell and Gerry Mulligan, two of the most admired players in jazz—as members of the “third line,” carefully explaining that in a New Orleans street parade, the “first line” consists of the musicians, while the “second line” is made up of “dancing-and-prancing fans and protégés . . . [who] are permitted to carry the instruments of their favorite musicians for several blocks while the band takes a breather before striking up again.” The “third line” is left undefined, but its meaning is clear.

Now, just as there have always been black and white players, there have always been “black” and “white” styles in jazz. But there has also been substantial racial overlap in every important jazz style since the 20’s, and it is impossible consistently to distinguish white players from black simply by listening. When the black trumpeter Roy Eldridge claimed to be able to do so, the jazz critic Leonard Feather gave him a “blindfold test” (subsequently described in the jazz magazine Down Beat) which Eldridge failed.

Feather also popularized the term “Crow Jim” to refer to the reverse-racist belief that white jazz musicians are by definition derivative and second-rate. Indeed, some were—and are. But three of the most influential players in the history of jazz, the cornetist Bix Beiderbecke, the clarinetist Benny Goodman, and the pianist Bill Evans, were white, and the list of white jazz instrumentalists universally acknowledged by their peers as artists of the first rank also includes Jack Teagarden, Bunny Berigan (whom Louis Armstrong cited as his own favorite trumpeter), Artie Shaw, Bobby Hackett, Dave Tough, Red Norvo, Buddy Rich, Jimmy Rowles, Art Pepper, Stan Getz, Paul Desmond, Jim Hall, and countless others. Moreover, as the songwriter and jazz journalist Gene Lees has amply documented in his book, Cats of Any Color: Jazz, Black and White,1 many noted black jazz musicians have readily acknowledged the influence of white players.

Murray deals with these awkward facts by ignoring them—just as, on the other side, he ignores the fact that such indisputably major jazz figures as Earl Hines, Coleman Hawkins, Fats Waller, Teddy Wilson, and Art Tatum, all of them black, were not blues players. With the sole exception of the drummer Gene Krupa, who is described as a “white drummer of the so-called Swing Era,” no white musician is mentioned in the main text of Stomping the Blues, favorably or otherwise. Murray does not say explicitly that whites cannot play jazz, but that is what he means: whites who try to play the blues are by definition derivative, and thus of no interest; whites who do not play the blues are by definition not playing jazz, and thus also of no interest.

Only Whitney Balliett of the New Yorker drew attention to the racist implications of Murray’s thesis when Stomping the Blues was published. The failure of other critics to do so, though inexcusable, is easily understood. By 1976, the audience for jazz was predominantly white, a fact of which black jazz musicians were intensely aware. Books like Stomping the Blues were seen by most jazz writers as part of the larger project of fostering “black pride,” and their ideological underpinnings were accordingly downplayed or ignored.



One critic who read Stomping the Blues closely was Stanley Crouch, who called it “the most eloquent book ever written about African-American music” and, even more interestingly, “the first real aesthetic theory of jazz.”

Crouch, an erstwhile drummer with little musical training, is best known for his provocative essays on American culture, many of which were collected in his 1990 book, Notes of a Hanging Judge. These essays have earned him a reputation as one of the few prominent black writers willing to challenge the prevailing Left-liberal orthodoxy on racial matters. Thus, Crouch has called the black filmmaker Spike Lee a “fascist”; described the black novelist Toni Morrison as a “literary conjure woman” who is “as American as P. T Barnum”; and suggested that “the sob squad of white liberals . . . spend some time talking to the victims of the third-world criminals they sympathize with so much.”

But in his jazz criticism, Crouch paradoxically adopts a Crow Jim line very nearly as rigid and ahistorical as that of Albert Murray. Unlike Murray, Crouch has on occasion expressed admiration for certain white players. But in his critical lexicon, “the Afro-American approach to sound and rhythm” is the only true way to play jazz, and even celebrated black players like Miles Davis are diminished in value to the degree that they succumb to “the academic temptation of Western music.” (Crouch here presumably means “classical” music, since jazz is self-evidently a form of Western music.)

In “The Duke, the King, and the City of Jazz,” a 1989 review of Gunther Schuller’s The Swing Era, Crouch comments on only one white musician, Benny Goodman, whose big band he calls “inferior” in quality to its black counterparts (an opinion that, while politically correct, is musically questionable). Given the fact that some 150 pages of The Swing Era are devoted to white bands and soloists of the 30’s and 40’s, one must conclude that, like Murray, Crouch considers their work to be of no interest.

When Crouch does deign to notice white musicians, his remarks are often scathing. He has publicly called Bill Evans, perhaps the most admired jazz pianist of the 60’s and 70’s, a “punk.” In a 1990 essay on Miles Davis, Crouch describes that trumpeter’s recorded collaborations with the white composer-arranger Gil Evans, one of the two or three most important arrangers in the history of jazz, in terms no less contemptuous of the white contribution to jazz:

[T]hose albums . . . reveal that Davis could be taken by pastel versions of European colors (they are given what value they have in these sessions by the Afro-American dimensions that were never far from Davis’s embouchure, breath, fingering); if Davis’s trumpet voice is removed, in fact, a good number of Evans’s arrangements sound like high-level television music.

Whether or not these remarks are “racist” is a matter of opinion. But that they are racialist—manifestations, that is, of an ideology in which race is a primary factor in the making of aesthetic judgments—is unquestionable. Moreover, through his connection with the black trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, Stanley Crouch is in a position to act on his convictions.



Crouch met Marsalis in the early 80’s, introduced him to Albert Murray, and, by his own account, undertook to teach him the history of jazz. Today, Crouch supplies obsequious liner notes for Marsalis’s recordings (“Marsalis brings his own heroic individuality to the expression of tenderness magnified and recalled by a stretch of trumpet tones and ensemble colors that are themselves contrasted by the celebratory swing of eroticism ascended to the diamond point of romantic precision . . .”) and, more important, under the title of artistic adviser, plays a key role in the programming of Jazz at Lincoln Center, the New York concert series led by Marsalis.

Under Marsalis and Crouch, Jazz at Lincoln Center presents only programs about black musicians; whites are allowed to play with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, but the historic contributions of earlier white players, composers, and arrangers are systematically ignored, and contemporary white composers are not commissioned to write original pieces for the full orchestra. This policy is so egregiously race-conscious that it has even been attacked by admirers of Wynton Marsalis, including Peter Watrous, jazz critic for the New York Times. As Watrous has been quoted, bluntly, in the magazine Jazz Times:

They say . . . they have to put on all the important figures before they get to the lesser-knowns, and that there happen to be more important figures who are black. That’s complete bullshit.

Marsalis is unapologetic about such matters, and apparently he can afford to be. At thirty-three, in addition to having performed and recorded much of the classical trumpet literature, he is the most famous jazz musician in America. He has appeared on the covers of Time and the New York Times Magazine; he has been under exclusive contract to Sony, one of the biggest record labels in the world, since 1981; and he has composed ballet scores for New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theater, and extended concert works presented by Jazz at Lincoln Center. Young musicians who have worked in his band subsequently find it easy to get lucrative recording contracts of their own. If there is a jazz counterpart to Leonard Bernstein, it is Wynton Marsalis.

Interestingly, not all of these achievements hold up equally well under scrutiny. Technically speaking, Marsalis is a virtuoso by any conceivable standard, and even so formidable a music critic as the late B.H. Haggin considered him a first-rate classical trumpeter. But his jazz playing is felt by many to be cold and, ironically enough, derivative. In a sense, it is derivative by design: Marsalis was one of a number of stylistically conservative players of the late 70’s and early 80’s who rejected the avant-garde techniques of the 60’s in favor of a “neoclassical” approach in which older jazz styles, rather than being rejected out of hand as outmoded, were revived and updated. He has deliberately sought to incorporate in his playing a wide variety of stylistic elements from great jazz trumpeters of the past. But the results, especially when he uses Louis Armstrong-derived techniques, have a generic quality that suggests an incomplete assimilation of his sources.

About his large-scale compositional efforts there is little disagreement, at least among musicians not connected with his various enterprises: they are unfinished, sometimes even frankly amateurish, and betray a lack of technique startling in an artist so generously equipped in other areas. The fact that he has been the frequent recipient of commissions from Jazz at Lincoln Center is little short of scandalous.



Marsalis takes seriously his job as unappointed spokesman for Albert Murray’s and Stanley Crouch’s version of the jazz tradition. Ever since he began giving interviews in the early 80’s, he has been quick to criticize other musicians, notably Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins, for “selling out” to commercial music. He is just as quick to attack his critics, especially those who accuse him of reverse racism. And he is adamant in defending his conduct as artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center. “I get no flak from the general public and I get no flak from musicians,” he told a reporter for Jazz Times earlier this year.

The latter is untrue. Indeed, whether or not Wynton Marsalis is a racist is a common topic of conversation among New York musicians. Although he uses white players both in the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and in his own groups, it is widely believed that he harbors a general disdain for white musicians, and the belief seems to be borne out by facts. As the jazz journalist W. Royal Stokes pointed out earlier this year, “the ratio on concert dates in [Jazz at Lincoln Center] . . . has consistently been in the neighborhood of ten black musicians to one white.”

In one strikingly unguarded moment on the black-oriented TV talk show, Tony Brown’s Journal, Marsalis went even farther, complaining that the music business is controlled by

people who read the Torah and stuff. . . . Every idiom of black music, be it jazz, rhythm-and-blues, or whatever, has declined in its negroidery and purpose. It became more whitified. It’s not the white people’s fault. The white people, they do what they do to support the misconceptions that they started when they brought the brothers and sisters over here as slaves. We are, in effect, in a state of war. . . .

Anyone seeking to understand the “aesthetic theory” behind Marsalis’s artistic leadership of Jazz at Lincoln Center should examine these remarks closely, side by side with the following passage in Stanley Crouch’s liner notes for the Marsalis album, The Majesty of the Blues:

But we must understand that the money-lenders of the marketplace have never EVER known the difference between an office or an auction block and a temple, they have never known that there was an identity to anything other than that of a hustle, a shuck, a scam, a game.2



The commercial success of Wynton Marsalis has led several major labels to start recording jazz again. Precisely because their interest is not artistic but commercial, however, they approach jazz in the same way Hollywood seeks to replicate successful movies: by looking for Marsalis clones. The Marsalis family itself has provided several candidates, starting with Bran-ford Marsalis, an accomplished tenor-saxophone player who started out as a sideman with his younger brother’s group and eventually became Doc Severinsen’s successor as bandleader on the Tonight Show.

An entire “school” of young jazz neoclassicists, many of whom have worked with Wynton Marsalis, has lately emerged, collectively known in the jazz press as the “Young Lions” and referred to by more skeptical colleagues as “young black men in suits.” (Many of them emulate Marsalis’s taste in clothing.) Most of these players are still too young and inexperienced to have developed individual styles, though a few, including the tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman and the bassist Christian McBride, have considerable talent.3 But virtually all have one thing in common: their race.

It is, by contrast, comparatively rare for a major record label to sign a young white player, and all but unheard-of for a middle-aged white player to be signed. A typical case is that of Phil Woods, a sixty-three-year-old white who is by common consent among the greatest living saxophonists in jazz, but who works only six months each year with his own band and has not had a major-label recording contract since 1978.

In the long run, market forces will restore some kind of balance to the present situation in recorded jazz. (It has not escaped the attention of music-business insiders that sales of Wynton Marsalis’s records have been declining for the last few years.) But jazz is also affected by noncommercial institutions funded in whole or part by public money, and thus subject not only to market forces but also to political pressures. The intimidation of the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra by Representative Conyers is an example of such pressure at work. Another, cited by Gene Lees, is the American Jazz Masters Fellowship awards. Between 1982 and 1994, 39 of these awards, worth $20,000 each, were made by the National Endowment for the Arts. Only two went to white musicians.

One can easily multiply such examples to show how reverse racism has become, if not universal, then powerfully legitimate in jazz, and indeed how it has insinuated itself throughout the jazz community. When an important historical study like Ted Gioia’s West Coast Jazz fails to be reviewed in major publications, is it because the book is thought unworthy of serious attention by book-review editors—or because West Coast jazz, dominated as it was by whites, is itself presumed unworthy of attention? When a white jazz critic like Tom Piazza complains that Bill Evans “doesn’t swing enough” and “can’t play the blues,” is he making a genuine critical judgment—or merely aping the Crouch-Murray white-boys-can’t-play-jazz party line? In a cultural environment where race has become an admissible criterion for aesthetic judgments, there is no way to answer these questions: the mere fact that they have to be asked is evidence of the corrosion wrought by racialist thinking.



The new reverse racism in jazz is not, of course, an isolated phenomenon. It has arisen at a time when such government policies as quota-based affirmative action have made race-consciousness a pervasive feature of American society. In the absence of those policies—and the underlying political beliefs that drive them—it is unlikely that public institutions like Lincoln Center and the Smithsonian Institution would lend the prestige of their names to artistic enterprises run on racialist lines, or submit meekly to the demands of cynical politicians playing the “race card.”

But that is just what makes the current epidemic in the world of jazz so disturbing, and its implications so far-reaching. Throughout much of its century-long history, jazz has been a relatively safe haven from the storms of ideology, a meritocracy of comrades in which, as musicians say, “every tub sits on its own bottom,” and artists are judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their choruses. No such society-within-a-society is perfect, and jazz is no exception; but those who have lived and worked in its environs know how close it has come to the ideal.

Albert Murray, Stanley Crouch, and Wynton Marsalis all claim as their musical heroes Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, both of whom knew the sting of racism their whole lives long. Yet Armstrong, a man of extraordinary generosity of spirit, never yielded to the temptation to treat white musicians as he had been treated by the white world. Instead, he accepted them as colleagues. “I’m a spade, and you’re an ofay,” he said to the trombonist Jack Teagarden, one of his closest musical associates. “We got the same soul—so let’s blow.”

As for Duke Ellington, the man who composed Black, Brown, and Beige also told an interviewer in 1945:

Twenty years ago when jazz was finding an audiences, it may have had more of a Negro character. The Negro element is still important. But jazz has become a part of America. There are as many white musicians playing it as Negro. . . . We are all working along more or less the same lines. We learn from each other. Jazz is American now. American is the big word.

Five decades later, this spirit is being undermined by cultural politicians for whom the word “American” has validity only when it lies on the far side of a hyphen. That jazz, the ultimate cultural melting pot and arguably America’s most important contribution to the fine arts, should have fallen victim to such divisive thinking is an especially telling index of the unhappy state of our culture at the end of the 20th century.


1 Oxford University Press, 246 pp., $25.00.

2 Both passages are cited by Gene Lees in Cats of Any Color.

3 In a “blindfold test” published in the August 1995 issue of Down Beat, the black drummer Marvin “Smitty” Smith made the following penetrating comments about a recording by some of the most prominent of the Young Lions: “Here, there's a high level of proficiency, but the spirit of really forging forward, striving to create a new direction of sound, I don't get. . . . I don't get a strong individual personality out of any of them.”

About the Author

Terry Teachout is COMMENTARY’s critic-at-large and the drama critic of the Wall Street JournalSatchmo at the Waldorf, his first play, runs through November 4 at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut.

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